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The Refugees of Duc Pho

6/12/2006 • Vietnam

Duc Pho District was the end of the line. By 1967 it had been cut off for years from its provincial capital, Quang Ngai, 60 kilometers to the north in what was then South Vietnam. The district had a reputation for resistance and had been the center of efforts against the Japanese in World War II. After the war it became a hard-core area of the Viet Minh rebellion against the reinstalled French. Pham Van Dong, Ho Chi Minh’s right-hand man, had been born there. This was well known to the Vietnamese, but to few Americans.

My boss at the time, a man named May, was the provincial representative of Civilian Operations Revolutionary Development Support (CORDS). (Ironic title that: Were we supporting a revolution?) May, dubbed ‘King Kamayamaya’ after the 18th-century ‘Hawaiian Napoleon’ Kamehameha because of his ego, had decided to reorganize his staff. Instead of specializing in one area of concern for the whole province, such as agriculture or refugees, a number of us were now selected to handle all civilian matters for a specific district. I got Duc Pho.

A short helicopter ride from Quang Ngai city left me in the dusty little district capital. It was a hot, sunny April morning. Just a few kilometers away, Task Force Oregon — later designated the 23rd Infantry (Americal) Division — was gearing up for a full-scale push.

Duc Pho lay astride Route 1, Vietnam’s only north-south highway. The road ran parallel and close to the coast. Outside the town, in either direction, the narrow two-lane road was mine-scarred, usable in sections and then only during the day. Duc Pho was one of those impassable spaces on the route that, in theory, connected Saigon with the rest of the country. Every bridge, a good baker’s dozen, had been blown many times over. As soon as one was repaired the VC destroyed it again. Repair efforts had long since been given up, and the only way in and out was by air.

TF Oregon was sent to change all this. A huge airstrip, called Montezuma, had been swiftly built near the coast, just over the rolling hills a few kilometers northeast of the town. When I arrived a cemetery was being dug up to extend the strip — not a good omen, as the Vietnamese have a profound reverence for ancestral graves.

The next several months would see an all-out effort to open Route 1 and keep it open. This meant massive search-and-destroy operations to eradicate the Viet Cong. It also meant the destruction of every home outside the town and the forcible removal of every family to the district capital.

To govern a dangerous district like Duc Pho, Saigon assigned a military officer, usually a captain who had no friends high up or whose wife hadn’t lost the requisite amount playing mah-jongg with his superior’s wife — the accepted way to gain a lucrative post. My counterpart, the district chief Captain Bai, was a diminutive, fit, energetic man in his early 30s. His MACV adviser, and my senior in the combined CORDS/MACV setup, was a Captain Carlton, a slight, bespectacled Midwesterner. Despite his nonmartial appearance, Carlton was one of the best officers I met in Vietnam.

Oddly enough, another of my duties (though Carlton was better qualified) was to be Bai’s liaison to the ‘Free World Forces,’ the euphemism for the predominantly American military presence with token contingents from other countries. Right away I hit a rut when Bai, wanting to welcome TF Oregon’s commander, was refused entry to Camp Montezuma and the Oregon base. Efforts by Captain Carlton and myself finally gained Bai access to the airfield provided that one of us accompanied him, but he was never permitted to enter the TF Oregon compound. The task force was not about to show anything to any Vietnamese regardless of his position — this despite the Vietnamese and U.S. flags flying side by side in front of the command post. Captain Bai did not forget that affront, and relations became strained.

Fortunately, Captain Carlton and I were allowed to attend TF Oregon briefings when operations would involve forced refugees. I always pleaded for trucks to accompany the operation to save and transport the refugees’ possessions. It was ludicrous to bring in empty-handed refugees and then struggle to replenish their supplies of the basics that had just been purposely destroyed.

The main idea behind population displacement was to counter Mao Tse-tung’s principle that likened guerrillas in the population to fish in water. According to Mao the water, or population, gave life to the fish – — in Vietnam’s case, the Viet Cong. An expert on the successful British campaign against the communist guerrillas in Malaya, Robert G. Thompson, advocated removing the water/people from the fish/guerrillas. This appealed to our strategists. No one thought it a dumb way to fish, especially in Vietnam.

Thus the spring and summer of 1967 saw TF Oregon uproot almost the entire rural population of Duc Pho. For weeks running, an average of 500 refugees a day were driven into town. They were trucked in, choppered in, or herded in on foot like cattle. Sometimes the daily total hit 1,500.

When we were able to get trucks from the task force, I rode with them and pushed for more time to allow the Vietnamese to save as much as they could, especially cooking implements, bedding and the large supporting bamboo poles that they’d need to rebuild their homes. Often, though, there were no trucks, and the people had no time to gather their belongings. Within minutes their homes, earthly possessions and rice stores were bulldozed under, doused with gasoline and set afire. Some were allowed to bring their livestock; others saw their animals shot and burned. Nothing was to be left for the Viet Cong.

TF Oregon dumped the involuntary refugees at the district compound, where they were signed for as if they were a load of lumber. Both Bai and the American military looked on them as VC families and gave them little consideration. If the refugees were not partial to the VC before being displaced and having their homes destroyed, they were afterward.

Most of the refugees were old men and women or mothers with young children. There were few men and women of fighting age. This was said to confirm the Viet Cong family appraisal. Bai’s men selected the adults they felt were even more closely connected to the VC and sent them to a guarded, barbed-wire enclosed detention camp southeast of town. Family members kept vigil along the narrow road that passed the camp, hoping for the detainees’ release and bringing what food they could.

From these detainees, those deemed VC were picked out. The selections seemed to be based more on settling old rivalries than on any hard evidence. A head nod from one of Bai’s cadre was enough to put someone in the town prison, a white, one-story, 30-by-50-foot building. It had one large cell with no running water and no ventilation. In the back there was one hole in the ground for a latrine. When I visited, it was packed like the Black Hole of Calcutta. Hundreds of men and women were jammed together with not enough room to sit, let alone lie down. The press of flesh kept them standing. A number appeared dead or near death. With no water or food for days in such suffocating conditions, it was a wonder any were alive. There was no crying or screaming, only a steady moan.

Outraged, I went to Bai. Unfazed, he said, ‘All VC, better dead.’

I said I would cut off supplies if he didn’t get the people out of there. He remained unmoved. When I visited the prison a few days later it was empty. ‘All gone to Saigon,’ Bai said.

I never found out what happened to them.

Besides the prisoners, now beyond saving, there was an immediate need for humane treatment for the refugees. They had no food, water, toilets, shelter or medical care, and they kept flooding into the city. Every day hundreds of exhausted, hungry, thirsty new refugees squatted or lay where they were left. Within the day they would be placed in crowded areas outside the district headquarters’ farthest defensive perimeter.

The Le Van Duyet Buddhist School, northeast of the town center, provided the newest camp with shelter as well as a name. After the surrounding ground was occupied, other sites had to be found. Every available building was used, followed by tree-shaded areas. After that any open space would do.

Many of the refugees wanted to return to tend their fields. To prevent this, harassment and interdiction (H&I) fire — the random shelling of an area — was used. I told the refugees not to try to slip back to their hamlets, and I explained how deadly H&I fire was. At least in the camps they’d be alive, I told them. I promised to get them food, water and shelter as fast as I could.

Immediately on hand we had only gallons of cooking oil and green paper blankets. The Army came through with leftover bread from its mess. Within days, 100-pound bags of bulgur (wheat) and corn were flown in. Eventually more than 90 percent of the food supplies would consist of oil, bulgur and corn. To the Vietnamese, corn was considered fit only for animals, and bulgur was unfamiliar and unpalatable. If they could, they would have traded a 100-pound sack for a pound of rice. To boot, most of the stuff was bug-infested, and much of the oil had been ingeniously siphoned off and replaced with water.

Officially, all refugees were to receive an initial settlement equivalent to $40. Additional amounts were to be paid out on a yearly basis. The reality, however, was that few refugees, voluntary or otherwise, received any money. If they did it was one-tenth of what they were supposed to get. It was a task just getting the Vietnamese Refugee Service to stop its schemes of giving money to accomplices posing as refugees. For the Duc Pho refugees, the cash payments would be long in coming. They were ‘involuntaries’ who had been dragged in. This put them last on the list and they would receive practically nothing.

To handle the increasing refugee numbers we established a distribution area at the small local airstrip. Conditions there, however, soon became chaotic. After a few days, we were physically unable to give out food fast enough. Order broke down, and refugees swarmed over the food, grabbing what they could. With effort the riot was quelled, but I didn’t hazard further distributions that day.

We built a flimsy tin warehouse to store the food alongside the airstrip and near the MACV compound. The night after it was filled, refugees tore it open and surged inside. Awakened by the hullabaloo, Carlton, his men, several of Bai’s and I mounted the compound rampart overlooking the besieged warehouse. Floodlights and shouts did not halt the crowd. We fired into the air. Stunned, the refugees froze. Then, realizing we had not shot at them, they resumed looting with more fervor. I lowered the barrel of my borrowed carbine and fired into the ground several yards in front of the refugees. Others on the rampart followed suit. This halted them a little longer. Then, as if saying, ‘We don’t give a damn, go ahead and shoot us,’ they drove on toward the warehouse.

The next logical step was to fire into them. The supplies were my responsibility. It also was possible the looters were not refugees but the town’s criminal element. Those thoughts zipped through my head, along with the absurdity of shooting starving people you were trying to feed. I took the carbine away from my shoulder, said, ‘Let them have the stuff,’ and climbed from the rampart.

For the next several hours you could hear the crowd tearing off the rest of the warehouse siding and having at the stores. In the morning nothing remained of the supplies and little of the warehouse.

By the end of a week, refugees had to be settled on the town’s soccer field. To shelter them, Captain Carlton and I got as many cargo tarpaulins from Montezuma airfield as we could and requisitioned every piece of canvas in the town. A tent city sprang up. When it was filled, we used a narrow stretch of defoliated land due west of the town, along the unused railroad tracks. That was the farthest anyone ever walked in daylight. Everything past that was considered VC territory. East of the tracks we drilled wells and built latrines.

Soon after the wells were finished I suspected the water was not good and rushed samples to Da Nang for analysis. The results were bad. The lab found traces of cholera, typhoid and typhus. Because the area’s water table was low, the new latrines had contaminated the water. The wells could not be used, and water trucks from the base had to supply the camps. Carlton and I realized an epidemic was possible. Preventive measures were needed, and through CORDS we requested a medical team with inoculations for 5,000. Getting wind of this, the VC spread a rumor that the injections were a plot to kill the refugees and take their land. To counter that, we had pamphlets made up saying the shots were painless and would protect the people from sickness. At the camps, megaphone in hand, I blared out the same message in my mangled Vietnamese.

Despite our efforts, the refugees believed the VC, and understandably so. TF Oregon’s operations had made them fearful of anything we requested of them. We were going to have difficulty getting them to take the shots, and the medical team was arriving soon.

Lately I had received a mixture of supplies from various U.S. Lions Clubs, school drives and other sources. I hit upon the idea of making up a gift packet for each refugee who got inoculated. There would be cigarettes, soap and some rations for the men; condensed milk, Pop-Tarts and sewing kits for the women; and books, school kits and toys for the kids. Within a few days I had several thousand packets made up. Captain Carlton, his medic and I toured the camps again. We offered medical care, had ourselves injected to show how safe and painless it was, and showed them the gifts they would get if they did the same. It had a positive effect.

A few days later the medical team arrived with two doctors, a couple of medics and five Vietnamese nurses. The site for the inoculations was a building near the railroad tracks. When we arrived to set things up, a large crowd was already there. I was overjoyed. With difficulty we got the refugees to form two lines, and the medical team began giving shots in assembly-line fashion. As people came in the front door, five to seven were inoculated simultaneously. Passing to the center of the building they picked up their gifts, and then they left by the rear door.

At first all went well, but the crowd soon blocked out all ventilation. Heat and humidity rose to an intolerable level. We tried to limit the number of people inside the building, but they were too eager for the gifts. Whenever I pushed my way out to get some air and look at the crowd, it was always larger. The doctors and I decided to hold up any more inoculations until we could get a security force to deal with the crowd. The leader of the PAT (Political Action Team) offered me eight men. With order restored, we plowed on with the injections.

The whole day was passing, and the lines were longer than ever. I began to look more closely at the people. Here and there a face seemed familiar. About that time the doctors reported they were almost out of vaccine. Then it hit me. The refugees were coming back for seconds, even thirds! They were getting as many as they could — the more shots the more gift packets. We immediately stopped the injections. My ploy had worked too well. We had convinced them the injections were harmless, so why not get more for more gifts?

By morning there was a slew of high fevers, people throwing up and collapsing. Luckily, none that I know of died from the excess injections, but the results of my idea appeared to validate the VC claim that we wanted to kill the refugees. I don’t remember much of the next few days. I had contracted a nasty cough and was feeling exhausted. The next thing I knew I was on a hospital ship in the South China Sea. I had passed out and was evacuated. I woke up in a ward filled with casualties. They had such terrible wounds I felt ashamed being there with what turned out to be bronchitis. After medication and another day’s rest, I was back in Duc Pho.

Around the time of my return, the Americal Division’s huge ammo dump exploded. For months ordnance had been arriving by plane and ship and had been stacked up on the beach near the airfield. Forklifts zigzagged among the aisles of stacked pallets, loading and unloading munitions. Then it all went up. The official cause allegedly was that a forklift blade had rammed a shell just right, setting off a chain reaction. Although the explosion happened during the day, it didn’t rule out the possibility of sappers swimming in at night with timed charges. With their bodies, shorts and explosives covered in grease, sand would adhere to their every surface as they came out of the water. That would make a figure crawling across the beach almost impossible to see even a few yards away. It had happened in Quang Tri, and it could well have happened at Montezuma.

The explosions went on day and night. Safely behind the hills that separated the town from the beach, we watched the fireworks and heard the pings, zips and whumps, but nobody ventured out for a closer look. Finally the explosions ended. We never found out how many were killed and wounded. Stunned, the military downplayed what had happened, but months’ worth of munitions supplies were lost, and TF Oregon’s freewheeling operations throughout the district came to a halt. Refugees stopped being brought in, and the task force hunkered down behind its wire and sandbags until its military machine was resupplied.

Now small VC mortar teams of three to four men with several rounds could easily pass through the undefended refugee areas. That allowed them to get close to Montezuma. Over a period of weeks they would fire a few rounds from different positions every couple of nights. The attacks were fast — four rounds in 20 seconds. Before the last round hit, the VC had dismantled the mortar and its base plate and fled.

The initial VC attacks did little damage and caused no casualties. The Americans knew the enemy fire came from areas on the edges of the town, near or within the new refugee camps, where any retaliatory fire would hit a populated area. TF Oregon normally double-checked its firing coordinates with CORDS/MACV and the Vietnamese district chief. With Captain Bai we would plot the firing coordinates to see if they fell within the town or a refugee site. If so, we advised no fire be returned unless American troops had visual contact with the enemy.

On June 24, 1967, the VC launched a longer and deadlier attack. One round hit a tent housing soldiers of the 409th Transportation Battalion. Within seconds two Americans were dead and 35 were wounded. Minutes later, TF Oregon called us and reported that the coordinates of the enemy firing point put the target right on top of the Le Van Duyet Refugee Camp.

After a hurried talk with Captain Bai, we radioed back that the coordinates were in a refugee area and we asked them to recheck their readings. We recommended not shelling the area. TF Oregon’s answer was to insist that we give them permission to fire. They were still receiving rounds, they said. They had heavy casualties and didn’t want more. They were sure of the coordinates. The continued enemy fire enabled their counterbattery radars to plot precisely the VC position, they reported, adding that a response force had already been sent from the base to engage the enemy. They pressed for our consent.

With those factors in mind, we provisionally concurred, if and when their response force had visual contact with the VC. But visual contact was never made — the response force never saw the enemy. TF Oregon opened up with 155mm howitzers anyway, and the effect on the refugees was devastating. By morning Duc Pho was in a state of chaos. I went to assess the damage.

The barrage had fallen on a 200-square-yard area east of Route 1, with the school in the center. I walked among the survivors. Here and there the dead, many of them children, lay burned beyond recognition on woven mats spread on the ground. Smoldering fires and the smoke from piles of belongings and food supplies clouded the air. A wet, burnt odor pervaded. Some of the bodies were on army cots, some with their faces covered to hide disfiguring wounds. Kneeling beside them, their kin mourned. All those who had been killed had been between the road and the school, which was hit but still standing. The greatest number of casualties had occurred among those who had had only the sky to shelter them.

The wounded had already gone in search of whatever aid they could find. Here and there half-naked children stood crying, too frightened to move. Women carrying baskets resolutely searched the debris for anything to salvage. Behind the school, water buffaloes with shrapnel wounds and large burns on their hides bellowed in pain.

When a TF Oregon artillery officer arrived to investigate, he said the Army would pay the going rate of indemnification for ‘act of war’ deaths — $40 for an adult, $20 for a child. (And Americans say the East values life less.) Before the officer left, he pointed to a depression in the ground, saying that it had been made by a VC mortar base plate. It was behind the school and far enough away so that the refugees easily might not have been aware of the mortar’s presence.

I headed back to the MACV compound to radio May and make the strongest protest against the shelling. By a fluke, May was there with a group of Washington dignitaries. They had landed minutes before at the small airstrip for a surprise visit. He gave me a cheery smile and suggested I take them for a spin to point out the successes CORDS had wrought. Maybe it was his optimism or the VIPs’ pressed safari jackets that made me do it. Without warning, I took them to the blackened, burning, wailing refugee camp.

The charred corpses of children, lying like burnt logs, sickened them. May was furious. He said nothing but gave me a killing look. He got the upset VIPs out of there and onto their plane in record time. Over the roar of its engine he then cut loose. He told me I was crazy and was through. I was to get out of his province as fast as possible. Without hesitation I grabbed a military flight to Da Nang. Arriving there before May reached Quang Ngai, I was able to tell my side first to our superior. He reassigned me to Hue.

While I was back in Quang Ngai to pick up my gear, May called me in for a last short, but not at all sweet, meeting. He ended by saying, ‘Well, you got the knife in first this time.’

Although it was true that somebody had gotten the knife, it wasn’t him or me. It was the refugees of Duc Pho.

Robert E. O’Melia was a USAID officer with the CORDS program in Quang Tri, Quang Ngai, Thua Thien and Bien Hoa provinces in 1966-67. He resigned to protest the war. Currently O’Melia teaches high school in New York City. For additional reading, see: A Bright Shining Lie: John Paul Vann and America in Vietnam, by Neil Sheehan; and The Best and the Brightest, by David Halberstam.

This article was originally published in the October 2003 issue of Vietnam magazine.

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