Army Chaplain Paul N. Mitchell Recalls His Duties During the Vietnam War

6/12/2006 • Vietnam

Soon after noon chow on a June afternoon in 1967, a small convoy began forming outside the 41st Signal Battalion (Combat Area) headquarters in Qui Nhon, Vietnam. This voluntary civic action operation consisted of a few officers and 75 enlisted men riding in a couple of deuce-and-a-half trucks. The convoy moved out through Qui Nhon toward the isolated village of Phu Cat.

The plan was to visit the families of wounded and KIA members of the irregular South Vietnamese forces in Phu Cat. Irregulars were the fellows who wore black pajamas and carried weapons. They lived at home with their families, farmed during the day and fought the attacking VC at night.

When the convoy arrived, a number of widows and children were waiting. At first apprehensive, shy and unaccustomed to being around Americans, they soon welcomed the soldiers, delighted to receive such gifts as cooking oil, materials for new clothes, powdered milk, soap, toys, candy and chewing gum.

I rode at the tail of the convoy that evening, knowing that the next day I would leave Vietnam for a flight home. My year in Vietnam was completed. Just that morning I had conducted three general Protestant worship services. Through the year I had traveled many miles by land and air, led men in many worship services, visited, prayed and counseled with them. We had dealt with their fears, hurts and sorrows, trying to help them find answers to whatever questions and problems they had.

Those were my duties as a chaplain, but there was another side to my life in Vietnam just as there has always been another side to Vietnam — little of which has been told. The civic action trip that day was typical of the kind of activity that had consumed a goodly portion of my time and energy. The other side to my life in Vietnam cuts across many differences among people and proves again that most American GIs have hearts as big as the great outdoors.

Upon arriving in Saigon in July 1966, I had learned that my assignment was the 41st Signal Battalion with headquarters in Qui Nhon. My parish consisted of 4,000 men scattered all over the northern part of South Vietnam.

At Qui Nhon I found the chaplain’s office filled with boxes. My predecessor had already rotated to the States. During his year in Vietnam the men of the unit had become involved with a local orphanage and a leprosarium. The GIs had provided cash, labor and love. In addition, they made contact with individuals and groups in the United States who sent boxes of supplies, but delivery to the intended recipients had stopped with the chaplain’s departure.

On my first Sunday afternoon, my assistant, two other soldiers and I loaded the trailer of the chaplain’s vehicle with boxes for a trip to Vien Duc Anh Bae Ae orphanage in Qui Nhon. The unit had more or less adopted this Catholic-run orphanage. Each payday the men made voluntary donations to an orphanage fund. Some spent their free time playing with the children and doing odd jobs.

The nuns always welcomed visitors, and the children greeted us with smiles. Some were orphans, but others had been abandoned. Here, we were astonished to learn that some mothers gave up their children because they loved them. They simply could not provide for the physical needs of their children in the way the orphanage could.

The boxes on that day contained children’s clothing of all descriptions — used, but very clean and usable — as well as toys, dolls and different kinds of stuffed animals that made the young hearts glad. The soldiers got red in the face blowing up balloons. The most popular items were the candy and chewing gum.

During the following week, some of the GIs decided they would also like to deliver boxes to another Catholic orphanage in Qui Nhon. That next Sunday afternoon, we loaded the vehicle and visited the 176 children, ranging in age from 3 months to 17 years, who lived there. We heard stories of the VC torturing some of the children in their homes in order to get the parents’ cooperation. Several children had had toes removed to coerce the parents. One 2-year-old girl there was being adopted by a U.S. Army sergeant and was to leave with him the following month for the United States. On that day, though, all was forgotten except the excitement of the boxes from America brought by the soldiers.

A few days later, the GIs and I traveled about three miles down the coast from Qui Nhon to the Qui Hoa leprosarium — one of the cleanest places in Vietnam. There a person could relax and enjoy a swim in the South China Sea. More than 900 men and women who had been stricken with the dreaded disease of leprosy lived there. Many no longer had fingers or toes. One man had a hole for a nose. All seemed very content to be living at the leprosarium. Those who were able to work took part in ongoing projects on the grounds. The residents enjoyed games of checkers, chess and sometimes cards. A snack bar had been built for them by a military police unit. Many lived in dormitory-type facilities, but some families lived in beautiful small houses built with funds from American military units. More than 20 cottages had been constructed with donations from the GIs. The 41st Signal Battalion was already named on the dedication plaque of one house, and funds for the construction of another house were donated a couple of months later. U.S. military doctors and other medical personnel were giving a part of their free time to treat the leprosy-afflicted people.

Revenue for the civic action fund came from voluntary donations from men in the participating units, who were all encouraged to give regularly to the fund — however much or little they could afford — and to be on the lookout for worthy causes that the fund could help.The civic action fund council, made up of representatives from each participating unit, proposed to use the money to give assistance and undertake projects where the need was greatest and the most good could be accomplished. We distributed a newsletter on paydays to keep the men well informed.

Donations were also received from individuals and organizations back home. Various Girl Scout troops had sent checks. A crisp, new $20 bill came from a lady in Eau Claire, Wis. The Safety Patrol of Gates-Chili Junior High School in Rochester, N.Y., sent a check for $16. A group of young people in Pennsylvania had a fair and raised $17 to be used in helping some children in Vietnam. A check was received in memory of Chaplain Paul Pease, a former unit chaplain who had died suddenly of a heart attack about six months after leaving Vietnam. During his tour he had led a number of projects to help the children there.

As the money in the voluntary civic action fund increased, so did the number of boxes of goods. Between October 1, 1966, and January 31, 1967, we delivered more than 50 boxes of new and used clothing, toilet articles, toys, candy, food and many other items to the Vien Duc Anh Bae Ae orphanage alone. The needy Vietnamese children greatly enjoyed the toys and the enclosed big bag of candy suckers. The items of clothing were gladly worn by orphan children and the children of some impoverished Vietnamese families.

Many of the boxes came as a result of men writing to loved ones, friends and organizations in the States and telling of the needs of the people — especially the children. Those who had ended their tours in Vietnam told people at home what they had seen. We rarely knew how people learned of our program, but the boxes kept coming.

The Vien Duc Anh Bae Ae orphanage remained a priority for our assistance. The soldiers had helped this orphanage ever since the unit’s arrival in 1965. Our mess hall almost immediately began daily delivery of its garbage to feed the orphanage’s pigs, which would later provide meat for the children.

The civic action fund council wanted to establish a monthly amount of money in piasters to be given to the orphanage. Council members agreed upon 15,000 piasters ($130) and received permission to examine the orphanage books monthly.

The orphanage was a home away from home for many of the soldiers. What these men were doing was great, but there was an even greater need that none of us could fill. When we visited the home, we often found children ill and in need of medical attention. It was not unusual to find a severely ill baby who had been admitted, only to die quickly. All the children had health problems, and most suffered from severe malnutrition. One nun who understood and spoke some English did the best she could at being the children’s doctor and nurse, but the burden rested heavily upon her.

Located in our area was the 85th Evacuation Hospital. Wondering whether any of the medical personnel there might be willing to minister to these children in their spare time, we consulted the commander of the 85th. A son of missionaries to Rhodesia, he said he thought it would be good for a doctor, nurse and corpsman team to go to the home on a regular basis. Before that week passed, two doctors made a survey of the situation, checked several children, set up a volunteer medical team and thereafter made weekly visits to the orphanage.

The medical care was a blessing to the children, and a welcome relief to the nun who had been serving as doctor and nurse. On later visits, we would often find a doctor and a couple of nurses from the 85th Evac Hospital there examining and treating the children. Death still took a child now and then, but the odds for survival increased greatly. Soon the children were being given those dreaded shots, vaccinating them against some childhood diseases.

Several of the GIs who regularly visited the children decided that something needed to be done about the orphanage kitchen. The food was cooked on an earthen stove in blackened pots over a wood-burning fire. Smoke from the fire also blackened the ceiling and walls. The most serious problem, though, was a continuous swarm of flies in the kitchen. The windows and doors were never closed, and there were no screens. Outside the kitchen windows were pigpens and a chicken yard. Throughout the neighborhood were open sewers and no-flush outhouses. The soldiers decided that the windows and doors needed screens and finally found what they thought was enough screening material to do the job. They worked as their time permitted over three or four weeks to install them, joking that screens would probably keep the flies inside rather than outside. That fear was realized when we brought visitors to see this splendid project later and found all the screens propped open, with more flies inside than out.

In October 1966, the orphanage received its first three Vietnamese-American babies. As cute as babies could be, they appeared healthier than the others. Looking at them brought questions to my mind: Where were their fathers? Did their fathers ever give them a thought? Would they ever have a chance in life?

Boxes, monetary support and medical attention continued to arrive for the orphanage. We obtained cement to build a dining room, a children’s playroom and a chapel on the grounds. As other military units came into the area, they too wanted to help. Since our objective was to undertake projects where the need was greatest and where the most good could be done, the fund council began looking for other ways to assist the people.

During a fund council meeting in September 1966, we voted to donate 59,000 piasters ($500) to construct another family house at the Qui Hoa leprosarium. This would be the second house to bear the 41st Signal Battalion’s insignia. At another council meeting two months later, a suggestion was made to help children to attend school. The cost of education in Vietnam was low, but many children’s families could not pay the fee.

We knew there were American educational advisers in the country and thought they might lend their support to our efforts. Another council member and I were made a committee of two to look into the matter. This was to be one of the most rewarding of my experiences in Vietnam. We began to work with Earl Casper, the American education adviser to the Qui Nhon Normal School, a two-year teachers’ college for training elementary school teachers. It was one of only two schools of its kind in all of Vietnam.

Enrollment in the normal school exceeded 700. Only recently had it been opened to female students, all of whom lived on campus. Male students were not permitted to live on campus and had to find a place to sleep and eat. Admission to the school was based on competitive examinations. In many ways the students were the elite of the Vietnamese people. Academically they were above average, chosen on the basis of test scores from among 1,400 who had applied for admission in 1966. Graduating students were permitted to select their teaching assignments based on the order of their class standing. There was no tuition at the school, but students had to pay all their living expenses. Most had a difficult time meeting expenses, as they came from very poor families in rural hamlets.

The director of the Qui Nhon Normal School was Nguyen Truong Luong, a workaholic and a graduate of the University of Miami in Florida. He and Casper made a list of ways our civic action fund might help the students. Immediately, it became apparent that a scholarship program would be very appropriate. The director and adviser reported that a monthly scholarship of 2,000 piasters ($17) per month would be sufficient. To choose 10 scholarship students, they developed selection guidelines starting with the students’ needs and potential. If possible, students were to be selected from different sections of the country.

The school set up a committee consisting of staff, teachers and students to select those who would receive the scholarships. More than 200 applied. After reviewing the applications and screening the applicants, the committee selected three second-year students and seven first-year students — three women and seven men.

A date was set for awarding the scholarships, and Lt. Col. William F. McCormick Jr. made the presentations before an audience of students and GIs. Phan B’I, one of the scholarship recipients, spoke on behalf of the 10 students. ‘We will work to try to be worthy of your trust in us,’ he said. Each month the 10 students would receive their scholarships. American soldiers of the participating units took pride in the fact that their assistance would reach children in the schools of hamlets, villages, towns and cities as the graduates became teachers.

Some grumbling about the scholarship program did develop among a few men in one company. Reports reached the council that they resented helping male students through school because they felt those men ought to be in the South Vietnamese army. I was asked to explain to them that although male students were deferred for two years in order to finish their training at the normal school and for one year after graduation in order to do a year of teaching, they were subject to draft into the army for a period of four years — which often extended indefinitely. With their education and ability, most of them would become ARVN officers. One Vietnamese graduate told me that he had been a lieutenant in the army for nine years and could not get out for any cause other than death or disability. After my explanation, the American soldiers were reminded that contributing to the civic action fund was completely voluntary. There was no decrease in contributions.

News of the unit’s normal school scholarship program spread rapidly. Other units conducted civic action work, and the topic was always a subject of discussion at meetings of chaplains from various units. At regular meetings of military and civilian personnel, the normal school scholarship program was discussed as a community relations project. One Vietnamese faculty member said that it was one of the most helpful projects in furthering Vietnamese and American relations. Other units began giving scholarships through their civic action programs, and before long, 93 students at the normal school were on scholarships provided by the GIs.

Christmas Eve 1966 was one of the best days many of us had in Vietnam. Long before the day arrived, members of our civic action fund committee had been looking for a good children’s project for Christmas. Without question, we would have a party for the children at Vien Duc Anh Bae Ae orphanage.

It dawned on us that we had a perfect opportunity to give a Christmas party for children at the normal school as well. More than 300 children between the ages of 6 and 12 were being included in the teaching students’ demonstration classes. These children, the poorest of the poor, were getting the only formal education available to them by being involved in the practice-teaching effort. Luong and his staff approved the idea and worked with the GIs to put together one of the most thrilling parties any of us had ever attended, especially the children.

The party was held on a Saturday afternoon, Christmas Eve. The school staff and students were to bring the children, provide a part of the program, oversee and maintain order. We would decorate and provide toys, refreshments and Santa Claus himself.

All the children, students and staff of the school, along with many GIs, attended the party. The children were orderly even though very excited. Following the program, they were stunned by the entrance of Santa Claus — alias our Vietnamese-speaking S-3, or operations officer, wearing a Santa Claus suit borrowed from Special Services. Imagine the children’s surprise when old Santa started speaking to them in their own language. They sat on the edge of their chairs; their eyes, already big, got bigger, and their ears were all perked. They laughed and squealed with joy.

Next, to their amazement, Santa’s helpers — young Vietnamese men and women, along with smiling U.S. soldiers — began passing out brand-new toys taken from under a brightly lit Christmas tree. These toys, which our executive officer had bought with civic action funds on a trip to Hong Kong, were the first new ones any of the children had ever received.What did the American GIs get out of this party? Perhaps it was best expressed by one of the soldiers. As we walked back to the compound together, he said, ‘You know, I thought this was going to be the worst Christmas in my life, and it has been the best!’

The next day, Christmas, the 10 scholarship students joined the GIs for dinner in the mess halls of the units. The students wrote letters of appreciation to the men who had helped them through that school year.

The scholarship program also received special praise from the higher command, including Brig. Gen. Robert D. Terry, commanding general of the 1st Signal Brigade, and Colonel Hunter L. Sharp, commander of 21st Signal Group. Colonel Sharp commented that it was ‘an excellent example [of]…what can be accomplished by enthusiastic people who are interested in helping others to help themselves.’

Not long ago I flew over Vietnam on a commercial air flight. As I looked down, memories returned of the Vietnamese people whose lives were touched in 1966-67 by American GIs. Where were the adults now who had been children of Vien Duc Anh Bae Ae orphanage? Did the Amerasian children survive, and did any of them meet their fathers? Do people suffering from leprosy still live in the houses constructed for them by the American units?

And what about the people from the normal school? In a 1967 Christmas card from the American education adviser, I learned that two students had been killed by the VC, and two others were wounded while practice-teaching in the village school. Director Nguyen Truong Luong later went to the United States and studied at Cornell University for a doctorate, returning to his country long before the Americans pulled out. But what has happened to those scholarship students? Do the children who had such a good time at the 1966 Christmas party at the normal school ever think of that time? Do any of them ever remember the GIs and wish they would come back?

My bet would be yes.

The article was written by Chaplain Paul N. Mitchell and originally published in the June 2005 issue of Vietnam Magazine. While in Vietnam, Chaplain Mitchell’s primary duty was to minister to the troops in his assigned units. He retired from the U.S. Army as a lieutenant colonel.

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