If we brought in a helicopter to get the baby, the VC agreed not to shoot at us
The evening’s entertainment had come to an end. Muted lights from candles and oil lamps twinkled inside the grass huts, struggling to pierce the murky dark and rain that enshrouded the rural village whose residents were preparing for a night’s sleep. It was two days before Christmas 1966, and I was an adviser on a “county fair” operation, designed to improve relations between South Vietnamese villagers and the South Vietnamese government. The Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) infantry had established their positions to defend the village against a night attack and radio watches were set up in the battalion headquarters as quiet reigned. Then, as it had on so many nights before, the war began again. On this night, however, the combatants would experience a shared humanity in the face of killing and find some hope that, for the right reasons, a war, or at least a battle, really could be stopped.
During November and December 1966, the 3rd Battalion of the 51st ARVN Regiment was based at An Hoa, in Quang Nam Province in central I Corps, conducting numerous company-sized search and destroy counter-guerrilla operations. Typically, these were two-day missions, targeting one of the many small hamlets north of An Hoa village in the fertile valley along the Thu Bon River, about 20 miles southwest of Da Nang. As senior adviser to this Vietnamese infantry unit, I served primarily as a liaison with U.S. forces, the Marines and Air Force, which provided artillery and air support during our combat operations and medevac missions when able.
I was a 29-year-old career Army Infantry officer, a graduate of the U.S. Army Special Warfare School in unconventional warfare and counterinsurgency operations and a graduate of the Defense Language Institute. I was also a former U.S. Marine NCO and a veteran of a short combat tour in the Middle East in 1958. Arriving in Vietnam in January1966, I initially served as the deputy senior adviser to the ARVN combat units responsible for the security of Da Nang. In June I was transferred to become the senior battalion adviser to the 3rd Battalion of the 51st ARVN Infantry Regiment.
The 3rd Battalion was a light infantry mobile reaction force maneuvering throughout the southern part of Quang Nam Province in areas where the Viet Cong or North Vietnamese Army (NVA) were threatening. The 3rd Battalion was combat hardened. In mid-October, along with a sister battalion, we had been in an intense nine-day operation against a North Vietnamese regiment that had been especially recruited from a coal mining area on the China border. Its mission was to destroy the only operating coal mine in South Vietnam, which was on the Thu Bon River almost halfway between the South China Sea and the Laos border. Our 350-man battalion suffered 53 dead and 127 wounded. The NVA had not fared as well; their 1,200-man unit had 577 killed and about 600 wounded.
A few days before Christmas, the battalion commander, Major Doan T. Van, and the district chief planned a “county fair” operation for the small village of Phu Nhuan, about three miles northeast of An Hoa, which had become a regular Viet Cong stronghold. The district chief told Van that he had information on the identity of some VC leaders and members living in the village, and he wanted the battalion to escort his policemen there so they could locate and arrest them. By conducting a county fair operation, the battalion could enter the village and, under the auspices of providing humanitarian aid, screen its 150 residents.
Once the village was secured, the Government of Vietnam (GVN) officials, U.S. Naval medical personnel from the area Military Public Health Assistance Project medical clinic in the province capital of Hoi An and a Marine Civic Action team would arrive with their vehicles and equipment. The public health program was a joint U.S. military and GVN concept to create or expand public medical facilities throughout South Vietnam. While the U.S. military and GVN civilian personnel did their jobs within Phu Nhuan, the 3rd Battalion would set about searching the village and homes for weapons and munitions caches, tunnels or other evidence of the Viet Cong using the village. At the same time, the civilian police would screen all the villagers, and Viet Cong suspects would be segregated and detained.
It was one of the poorest places I had seen in Vietnam
It was typical winter monsoon weather, cold and rainy, when the operation kicked off on December 23. At daybreak, we left An Hoa and for the next two hours slogged through ankle-deep mud, first along old railroad tracks and then a dirt road. Just a few steps, lifting one’s feet out of the gooey muck, rapidly drained a walker’s energy reserves and slowed forward progress to a crawl.
Encountering no resistance on the way, the battalion reached the village by midmorning and split in half to surround it. One company went to the left, cutting the village off from the Thu Bon River. The other company moved to the right, forming a line separating the village from its rice fields. As the second company moved into position, a smattering of rifle shots rang out, quickly followed by a volley from several automatic weapons.
Major Van called for his radioman to contact 2nd Company to find out what was happening. Just then, more rifle shots rattled, again followed by automatic weapons.
The 2nd Company reported that as its troops came into the open rice fields, they had seen several farmers working on the far side and had yelled for the men to come over to the company. When the farmers realized they were being approached by armed soldiers, they dropped their digging tools, picked up their hidden bolt-action repeating rifles and began firing on the advancing squad. The soldiers returned fire with .45-caliber Thompson submachine guns and .30-caliber M1 carbines. Three of the farmers dropped their rifles and raised their arms. The other two ran away, turning to fire again at the soldiers. The ARVN fired back, killing both farmers.
With the firing ceased, we had the village secured in about 40 minutes. No one could enter or exit without us knowing it. The battalion staff picked a large grass hut built on a concrete foundation—the only house that didn’t have a dirt floor—for its command post (CP). Inside, tables were cleared off, and soldiers arranged radios and paperwork. Then Major Van, myself, some of his staff and our radiomen began walking around the village. It was one of the poorest places I had seen in Vietnam. Most of the grass huts had only the barest furniture with few personal possessions. The villagers looked emaciated and weak. Few of the small children wore a complete set of clothing. Many were covered with threadbare rags stitched together, usually just a tattered shirt with no bottoms, eliminating the need for diapers.
Older children and adults, regardless of sex, dressed alike in black, lightweight cotton trousers worn with collarless shirts in a variety of colors. Some men wore shorts, like boxer-style underwear. Most had their heads covered with tightly woven, conical shaped straw hats, which provided a degree of protection from rain or sun. For raincoats, most adults wrapped pieces of clear plastic around themselves.
We chose another hut for the police screening and interrogation facility, where the villagers would be identified and processed. The bodies of the two dead farmers were stretched out in front of this hut, and the three captured farmers were tied to chairs and questioned by the battalion intelligence sergeants.
About noon, the rest of the county fair crew, consisting of about a dozen Vietnamese civilians that included some district and province officials, entertainers and a number of national policemen, pulled into Phu Nhuan in four-wheel-drive, three-quarter-ton trucks. The ARVN set up portable generators and strung electric wire throughout the central part of the village to loudspeakers mounted on poles. Posters proclaiming the benevolence of the government were tacked up. A large open hut was converted into a dispensary, where the medics would inoculate the small children first. Then they would treat the ever-present scalp infections most children had, and the upper respiratory tract ailments common in adults.
We soon realized that even the smaller children in the village understood death and disease. When they went through the inoculation line, not a single child winced or cried when getting an injection. The older kids even wanted more than one inoculation. By their reasoning, if one shot was good, two would be better, and three would be great. They would get their shots and then race to the end of the line for another. Through an interpreter, we tried to convince the kids that one shot was all they needed.
While we screened patients, dispensed medication, distributed clothing and food and even passed out propaganda comic books, the civilian police worked to find the suspected Viet Cong they were looking for, as well as searching for weapons and tunnels.
As the rainy day wore on, the giveaway operations were interspersed with political speeches meant to convert the villagers over to the side of the government. We were held up as an example of the government’s good intentions toward its citizens. The problem, though, was that the government representatives only occasionally visited these people.
On the other hand, the Viet Cong continually coexisted with the villagers, and thus their influence was much greater. Nevertheless, the peasants gave the government officials all the appropriate responses—bowing and murmuring approval when approached—but I knew as soon as we left, that same politeness would be accorded the local VC leaders.
As darkness descended on Phu Nhuan and the generators came to life, their muffled “putt-putt-putt” gave light to the entertainment phase of our county fair, which included singers and dancers performing government propaganda shows for the villagers.
Since the initial firefight that greeted us in the morning, the enemy had been quiet. However, just as the activities were winding down for the night, shots rang out from the side of the village facing the rice fields. A short firefight erupted, then faded away as some VC probed our lines around the village.
Thirty minutes later, more shots were fired. This time our Marine liaison team called in artillery fire on the tree line where the shots had come from. The shells crashed in, and the shooting stopped. But shortly after, the action heated up as more incoming rounds came pouring in from a different direction.
About this time, an old Vietnamese man who had somehow found his way through our defensive perimeter began pleading with some of the troopers. He wanted to talk to the battalion commander, saying that he lived outside the village in the area where the Viet Cong were shooting from.
The troopers escorted the old man to Major Van, and since I spoke Vietnamese fluently, I sidled up and listened closely. He excitedly explained that during the firefight, a small baby girl had had both of her feet badly shot up and was in desperate need of immediate medical treatment.
Incredibly, he told Van that if the American advisers could radio for a helicopter to take the baby to a hospital, the Viet Cong would agree not to shoot at it.
Major Van turned to me and asked, “Do you understand what this man wants?”
“Yes,” I replied, “it sounds like the VC would stop the shooting if we could medevac the baby out of here.”
Concerned that this was some sort of a trick to lure an American helicopter into a trap, we asked that the mother and baby be brought to us so that our medics could examine the baby to determine if immediate medical care was required. Finally, after prolonged inquiries back and forth, the man agreed to bring the baby and its mother to us.
After he left, I instructed the Marine liaison team to relay the information to its higher headquarters and tell them that we didn’t know enough yet to make an official request for a helicopter. They said they would see what they could do.
About 45 minutes later, around 8 p.m., the old man arrived back at our CP, accompanied by a young woman carrying a basket with something wrapped up inside. Moving aside the cloth, I saw a small baby girl, about a year old. Both of her tiny feet had been torn up by shrapnel. The young mother was visibly distressed about her child, but she readily relinquished her to the American medics, knowing these men could help take care of her baby.
Facing a man across a gun barrel who is trying to kill you is one thing. But facing a small child whose only contribution to her condition was the fact that she was born here, really got to me. As I looked at the baby’s dreadful wounds and then at the mother, I couldn’t help but think of my own wife and our two young daughters.
The medics examined the child and removed most of the shrapnel fragments and stopped the bleeding in her feet. But, they told me, the damage to the muscle and tendons required immediate surgery. Without it, she would probably never walk. I vowed to get the helicopter in that night.
I told the Marines to make an official request for a medevac immediately and explained to Major Van that we would have to set up a landing zone for the helicopter and position a couple of squads to secure it.
I asked the old man and the child’s mother how we could trust that the Viet Cong wouldn’t shoot down the medevac. They both promised that no one would shoot if a helicopter came. I told the old man to go back and tell the Viet Cong that I had requested a medevac for the baby and her mother.
One of the Marines using the radio called me over. “The pilots want to know,” he asked, “how we can guarantee the Viet Cong won’t shoot at them when they come in,”
“I can’t guarantee anything,” I replied, “except that I will personally be out there on the LZ to guide the medevac in. I don’t believe we’ll have any trouble.”
The pilots answered that they “would see what could be done.”
While I awaited a response on the medevac, I went out to check the landing zone, a small open area next to the village. I didn’t venture beyond our defensive perimeter, but looked out through the trees into the misty rain.
It appeared that the enemy sniping had stopped, and the ARVN soldiers had the landing area adequately protected. I checked and rechecked the LZ position against the map. There was no wind, so the helicopter could land from virtually any direction.
Tiger 3…Are you sure the Victor Charlie won’t shoot at us? Over.
Thirty minutes later, back at the CP, I heard over the radio that the medevac was on its way and expected to arrive in about 25 minutes. I gave the Marine radioman the coordinates of the landing zone to give to the medevac. Grabbing my web gear and pistol, flak jacket, helmet and flashlight, I prepared to move out to the LZ and wait.
I told Major Van to have his soldiers bring the woman and her child to the landing zone when the helicopter arrived. As soon as the chopper landed, I wanted her on board immediately.
We would have to move fast; we didn’t want the helicopter to linger on the ground where it would be a sitting duck if the operation went south. I explained my plan to the Navy medics, who were still in the battalion command post.
As soon as the medics heard the chopper inbound, they were to get the baby ready to go and give it to the ARVN soldiers, who would escort the mother to the chopper.
I picked up my PRC-10 radio and went out to the LZ. Squatting in the bushes next to the squad leader, we strained to hear the noise of the incoming medevac. Before long I heard the Marine radioman back in our CP talking to the chopper pilot.
Approaching from the northeast, they were about five minutes out.
“Tiger 3. This is Charlie Seven-seven. Over,” the pilot called.
“Charlie Seven-seven, this is Tiger 3,” I whispered. “As soon as I see you, I’ll guide you to our Lima Zulu. Over.”
“Tiger 3,” the pilot replied. “We should be there in zero two. Are you sure the Victor Charlie won’t shoot at us? Over.”
“Charlie Seven-seven. That’s what they tell us,” I said. “Guess you and I will just have to wait and see.”
While I had faith that the Viet Cong wanted to save the baby and would not shoot at us, I still held my breath, ready to react immediately if something went wrong.
A minute later, I detected the muted “whup-whup” of the chopper, forced by the rain and clouds to fly low. The squad leader tapped me on the shoulder and pointed to the chopper.
“Charlie Seven-seven. I have you in sight,” I radioed.
“Roger, Tiger 3. Which is the best way to land?”
“There’s no wind,” I said. “Turn around and come in from the south. You’ll parallel the trees on the edge of the village.”
I told the squad leader to have his men stay sharp, be alert and “watch the rice fields, not the chopper.” I moved to the center of the small clearing, instinctively crouching down low to the ground for fear of being shot. The next few seconds seemed like hours as I stood out in the open, an easy target waiting for the helicopter to maneuver around for the landing.
As I slowly moved my flashlight in a small arc, I started talking the chopper down, giving the pilots directions left and right as well as calling their height above the ground. The chopper moved over the tree line next to the village, hovering beside me. Both the pilots and I were well versed in doing this, so together we brought the helicopter to a smooth and easy landing.
Like clockwork, as soon as the skids hit the ground, the squad leader ran over with the mother and child and handed the basket with its precious cargo to the crew chief. I hoisted the mother into the chopper, and the crew chief buckled her in. I raced to the side and radioed to the pilot: “Charlie Seven-seven. Rotate to your left and lift off to the south.”
The large, dark Huey rose waist high, pivoting around. Building to full power, the Lycoming gas turbine engine whined as the big bird nosed over, tail up, and began its forward movement. Skids almost touching the ground, it picked up speed and altitude, simultaneously.
Climbing, it banked over the village and struck a northeasterly course back to Da Nang and to a hospital where I hoped the baby’s feet could be saved. The whole operation had taken less than a minute and not one shot had been fired.
Calling the squad back in, we returned to the village. Grateful that the enemy had kept their word, I took off my helmet, raised my face to the sky and let the soft rain wash away the sweat that was running off my forehead, into my eyes and down my cheeks.
With that mission accomplished, Major Van and I began planning the next morning’s foot movement out of the village, back to our base camp. In about an hour, the enemy resumed firing into the village from across the rice fields, but through the rest of the night it was more of a nuisance than a serious problem.
The next day, we closed our county fair. We had apprehended 23 Viet Cong suspects. Most were middle-aged males, but there were also some young females in the group. Pretending to be innocent peasant girls visiting relatives, they could move freely about, carrying messages or documents for the Viet Cong. Even under detention, the women that we captured on this operation seemed far removed from the battle zone as they coyly flirted with the South Vietnamese soldiers.
Returning home was a slow, muddy walk—a repeat of the previous day, except this time we had our prisoners, arms tied behind their backs and roped together in a chain. They would be interrogated again at district headquarters before being sent to the province capital at Hoi An for more processing.
At the end of our two-hour trek, we could look forward to relaxing and enjoying a quiet Christmas Eve and then the next day, a Christmas cease-fire.
We celebrated Christmas in our bunker, but kept our radios on to monitor the advisory net and the local Marine nets. About midmorning, a Marine rifle company reported standing down in position in the boonies, not far from our camp, waiting out the cease-fire. A short while later, the company suddenly came under attack, and we listened helplessly as its commander repeatedly requested artillery fire on the attackers, only to be denied because of the mutually agreed-upon holiday truce. Eventually, after the enemy had fired more than 1,000 rifle shots and more than 20 mortar rounds on the company, artillery support was finally approved and the war continued in earnest, cease-fire be damned.
In an Associated Press story, it was reported that this attack was not considered a “major cease-fire violation,” even though several U.S. Marines were killed and wounded.
Such are the vagaries of war, when on one day the enemy may decide to violate a cease-fire to gain a tactical advantage and kill an unsuspecting foe, while on another day they will keep their word and stop the war, if just for awhile, to save a wounded child.
After 15 years serving in the infantry and special operations, Bob Worthington earned a Ph.D. in psychology from the University of Utah and became U.S. Army psychology consultant for the Army’s Health Services Command. He retired in 1981 as a lieutenant colonel.