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The Battle for Hearts and Minds

By Don Alsbro
February 2019 • Vietnam Magazine

How one Army unit worked to keep the Viet Cong out of a village

In May 1966, the 1st Cavalry Division (Airmobile) moved two hamlets from inside Camp Radcliff in South Vietnam’s Central Highlands to locations outside the huge camp, which had a circumference of more than 25 miles and had engulfed hamlets that were there before the base was established in August 1965. The two hamlets, An Dan and Tan Tao, part of the village of An Khe, were moved so no Vietnamese homes would be inside the barbed wire-enclosed base. For many hamlet residents the move meant leaving behind deceased loved ones who had been buried next to their homes. The 1st Cavalry Division constructed roads in the village and assisted with the movement of furniture and transportation of building materials. The villagers were given money to purchase supplies for constructing new houses. Most upgraded their building materials from straw to bricks.

I served in An Khe as a captain leading a civic action team in the headquarters of the 1st Cavalry Division’s 11th Aviation Group from June 1966 to June 1967. For an entire year, we worked with the relocated hamlets in a variety of civic improvement programs and were committed to “winning the hearts and minds” of the Vietnamese people.

My team consisted of Staff Sgt. Leon Fletcher, a Huey door gunner and crew chief who had been shot down six times; Pfc. Dennis Heitman, a driver; Spc. 4 Henry Bonn, a medic; and Sgt. Rep, our  Vietnamese interpreter, a college graduate who spoke fluent English. If Rep said he could make something happen, it happened.

The village chief gave us a small unused building that we turned into a clinic. It was staffed six days a week by medic Bonn, who saw an average of 50 people a day. One day a week a military doctor came to the clinic to help patients with conditions the medic was unable to treat.

Many of the children had impetigo, a bacterial skin infection often affecting the scalp, so we constructed a shower out of a 55-gallon drum, heated by sunlight since there was no electricity in the village. Children who took a shower got a piece of candy. By the time I left Vietnam, there was not a child in the village with impetigo.

When kids came to the clinic to get an injury treated, we put iodine on the cut and gave them a Band-Aid. We also handed them a lollipop. Looking for more candy, some kids came in with cuts as minor as a skin prick. Once a month my team went house to house, passing out toothpaste and toothbrushes, and twice a month we distributed bars of soap.

I had replaced Capt. William Coley as the 11th Aviation Group civic action officer. Coley had worked with retired Navy officer John Wharton to set up a program called RSVP (Rally Support for Vietnamese People) in Columbia, South Carolina. Wharton sent us Conex containers—large rectangular steel shipping containers—filled with clothes, toothpaste, soap and other items.

To improve hygiene, the American soldiers distributed toothpaste, toothbrushes
and bars of soap. (Don Alsbro)

He even sent two industrial cement mixers to be used in construction of a local high school that the 1st Cav soldiers had donated $40,000 to build. An Khe had a grade school, but if children wanted to attend high school, they had to move to Qui Nhon, 50 miles away. In a letter, Wharton told me the mixers had been put on a Navy ship sailing to Da Nang and gave me the shipping numbers.

A few weeks later, I received a call from someone with the Camp Radcliff post engineers—contracted civilian engineers responsible for base construction and maintenance. He said a large cement mixer had been received and wondered if we could pick it up in Da Nang. What about the second mixer? He said there was only one. I got on a plane to find out what happened to the other mixer.

In Da Nang, I went to the supply yard where the Navy stored equipment received by sea. I approached the gate guard and asked if he had seen a large cement mixer. He remembered seeing two large mixers that a bunch of Marines were eyeing, and the next day one mixer was gone. I asked the guard where the Marines were. He pointed to a large hill adjacent to the supply yard. I believe the hill was Marble Mountain, but it could have been Monkey Mountain, the other prominent hill overlooking Da Nang—I get the two confused.

I managed to obtain a jeep and driver, and we went up a winding gravel road with many bends. At the top was a signal unit, which monitored enemy radio signals and communications. I got out of the jeep, and a Marine lieutenant ran up to me and asked, “Sir, can I help you?” I said a large cement mixer meant for the 1st Cavalry Division was missing and I was told it might be up here. He said, “No sir. I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“Mind if I look around?” I asked, and without waiting for a reply headed for a large metal storage building. As I was nearing the building the Marine lieutenant suddenly became more accommodating: “Sir, I think I  can help you.” We opened the door, and there sat my cement mixer. We hitched it to the jeep and proceeded very carefully down the hillside. The Navy agreed to ship the mixer ASAP, and the next day I watched it leave the Da Nang shipyard for the port at Qui Nhon, farther south.

All of this took place when I was supposed to be home in Kalamazoo, Michigan. My scheduled date to leave Vietnam was June 6, 1967, but I had postponed my departure so I could make sure the mixer arrived at An Khe. When I finally got home—10 days late—the delay was not viewed favorably by my wife, but she quickly forgave me, realizing how hard I had worked to get that mixer.

By the time I left Vietnam, the high school was 50 percent completed. The construction was entirely a project of the 11th Aviation Group. We transported sand, water and lumber to the building site, and every week I paid the local workers their wages.

During the construction, Fletcher had to get up at 3 a.m. to borrow a dump truck from the engineers to haul sand to the site. One time the sergeant and interpreter Rep drove on Highway 19 all the way to Kontum to pick up a load of lumber. They had intended to get the lumber 56 miles away in Pleiku. But when they found none there they had to continue on to Kontum, an additional 30 miles. As a consequence, they were a couple of days late returning to An Khe, and I spent a lot of time worrying because I knew they were traveling through territory swarming with Viet Cong. When they finally appeared, the pickup was so heavily loaded with lumber that the rear nearly dragged on the road.

We constructed a playground next to the village clinic, and the post engineers built a swingset and slide, which were in use from sunrise to sunset. We also set up a softball diamond, basketball court and volleyball court. The villagers had never seen those sports, but on Sundays the officers and enlisted men from the 11th Aviation played volleyball and basketball with the locals, who soon became very good.

We also taught the Vietnamese how to play tether ball. We planted a steel pipe, 8 feet high and 2 inches in diameter, into the ground and attached to the top a rope with a ball at the free end. Two kids with wooden paddles faced off, and each tried to hit the ball in the direction of the other. The one who completely wrapped the ball around the pole became the winner. All day long, children were gathered at the pole playing this game, which teaches eye-hand coordination.

We offered the elementary school students an English class on Monday evenings and a math class on Wednesday evenings. On Friday nights, we showed a film projected on the side of an abandoned building. Hundreds of villagers came to watch. We showed the TV Western Gunsmoke once, and even though the viewers didn’t understand English, they all clapped when Marshal Matt Dillon and the good guys won. Films such as ones about the American space program and Hawaii showed villagers scenes from a world they had never imagined.

Those of us who served in Vietnam know well the poor quality of the meat available to the ordinary Vietnamese people. To correct this, the locals decided to
establish a pig cooperative. It would provide better-quality, healthier meat and also be a source of income. The villagers who worked in the cooperative, taking turns mucking out the stalls and feeding the pigs, shared in the distribution of the meat for home consumption. Money generated by the sale of the meat was used for village improvements.

In November 1966, I went to Saigon to get 18 piglets donated by the U.S. Agency for International Development, or USAID. The piglets were loaded on a CV-2 Caribou twin-engine transport plane for the ride to An Khe. When I left the following June, the cooperative had more than 100 pigs (they multiply fast). The U.S. military also made its own contribution to this local economic development effort. Every night around 7 p.m., a truck filled with food waste accumulated during the day at the 11th Aviation mess hall was driven to the village to feed the pigs.

In his Santa suit, 1st. Lt. Harry Holloway brings cheer to boys and girls throughout the village. (Don Alsbro)

At Christmastime, we received a lot of presents from the RSVP program in South Carolina and flew “Santa Claus” (1st Lt. Harry Holloway inside the suit) on a Huey helicopter into the village. Santa went house to house, handing out clothing, dolls, jump ropes, marbles and games—an event the villagers remembered for a long time.

We had received so many gifts from RSVP that Rep suggested we take the excess to a leprosarium run by French Catholic nuns in Qui Nhon. On Sunday, Jan. 6, 1967, Rep, Fletcher and I loaded our pickup with gifts and proceeded to Qui Nhon. In Vietnam, if one person in the family had leprosy the entire family had to live in a leprosarium. The Qui Nhon facility was one of the cleanest places I’ve ever seen. Many of the buildings were constructed out of marble. We were greeted warmly by the sisters and after distributing the gifts were treated to a very nice dinner.

I later learned that during the communists’ 1972 Easter offensive the Qui Nhon leprosarium was overrun by the Viet Cong, who destroyed the compound and murdered the sisters.

Once a week our team trucked to Qui Nhon via Highway 19 to pick up supplies. Those of us who took the 50-mile trek will always remember the An Khe Pass, 5 miles of road that featured several switchbacks and many places ideal for enemy ambushes. Before June 1966,  ambushes at the pass resulted in many American casualties. However, after South Korea’s “Tiger Division,” the nickname for the Korean Capital Mechanized Infantry Division, arrived that month, its soldiers secured the route, and to my knowledge no ambushes occurred during the June 1966-June 1967 period that I was there. Many times we didn’t even take our weapons on the drive because we felt so secure.

One day while we were walking through the village, I noticed everyone moving toward the area where we showed movies. I asked Rep, “What’s happening?’ He replied, “The Koreans want to show us something.”

What they were showing was the talent of the Korean taekwondo team. For half an hour the team performed taekwondo moves such as breaking boards and bricks with their hands, as the villagers stood in awe. Over the next few weeks kids came to the clinic with busted hands—the inevitable result of trying to duplicate the amazing feats the Koreans had demonstrated.

This team went to every village in its area of operation and repeated the taekwondo demonstration. It was great entertainment, but obviously the real purpose was to make sure the Vietnamese knew that Korean soldiers who could break boards and bricks with their bare hands would certainly have no trouble breaking the bones of Viet Cong sympathizers. It was the most effective display of  psychological warfare I’ve ever seen.

We normally were out in the village daily from 9 or 10 a.m. until sometimes 10 p.m., socializing with the villagers. We never saw any need to carry a weapon. There were evenings when a villager would invite me for dinner, an invitation I usually managed to gracefully decline. I had been warned by Coley, my predecessor, not to accept meals if I could avoid them because the American body was not equipped to process Vietnamese food.

But one time I really couldn’t avoid it. I was walking by the village chief’s house around 5 p.m., and he invited me in. Sitting on the floor were about 20 male villagers, 10 on each side of a rug. The only illumination was candlelight. I joined the men. The first dish was brought in, and I was given the first piece. In the dim light I couldn’t make out what it was. The others all motioned for me to eat first. I took a bite—and discovered that it was solid fat! I later learned that this fat was considered to be the best part of the meat. Everyone was looking at me to see my reaction. I forced a smile and extended my finger to form a No. 1, a Vietnamese sign that something is “the best.”

Near the end of my tour, a local government official, Mr. Vu, the district chief, presented our civic action team with a certificate of appreciation for all that we had done for his district.

Similar types of civic action programs were common throughout the rural areas of South Vietnam during the entire time that U.S. forces were there. They were implemented by a variety of American units, including Marine Combined Action Platoons, Navy Seabees, Army Mobile Advisory Teams and others. But they received sparse attention in the press.

One time, I believe it was April or May 1967, when I was taking a correspondent from a national magazine on a tour of our village, I pointed out the new homes, the clinic, playground, high school under construction, the place where we showed movies, our village pig cooperative. He kept saying, “This is fantastic,” and “I can’t believe what you’ve  done.”

I then asked him, “Why don’t you take pictures of what we’ve done?” He shook his head and said, “I can’t.” I asked, “Why not?” He said, “This is not what my editors want to see.” American print and broadcast media, however, did show multiple pictures of U.S. troops who were setting fire to village homes in areas with a heavy Viet Cong presence.

But our good works are still remembered by the Vietnamese people. In 2009, I returned to Vietnam on a 21-day tour that took us from Hanoi to the Mekong Delta. Everywhere we went, we were treated with respect and appreciation for the United States. I saw the school we built in An Khe. It had been taken over by the Vietnamese government and was still in use.

Don Alsbro served two tours as a captain in Vietnam, with the 1st Cavalry Division (Airmobile) 1966-67 and the 4th Infantry Division and the 23rd Infantry Division, 1970-71. He retired as a colonel. In 2006 he founded “Lest We Forget,” an organization that illuminates the past through re-enactments, veterans books and patriotic events.

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