Marines and South Vietnamese Locals
by Mike McFerrin
As a grunt in 1968 and 1969, I reacted the same as any grunt to the situation of a Marine being blown apart by a booby trap close to a ville where the local population HAD to know of its existence and location. Even though I spoke Vietnamese, it was still very limited at the time I was with Mike Company. I did not understand all that I heard and in the horror of the moments after a booby trap incident I did not care. I held those people directly responsible. Even though I saw and witnessed things that should have modified my view of these circumstances, they could not get through my horror and need to focus my hatred on somebody. AND the villagers were there for me to do that.
Later when I was an advisor in the latter part of 1969 and first half of 1970, I actually lived in a village that had been subjected to the worst that ALL could offer. ALL being every armed force that had been in that village. American, South Vietnamese, Korean, VC, and NVA. All distinct and separate armed forces in South Vietnam even though, supposedly, they were under just two banners for us, Good Guys and Bad Guys.
These villes were made up of several families and extended families with characteristics no different from those of any small American town. The truth is that maybe 1 or 2 out of 100 people were sufficiently educated, politically aware enough, and just plain radical enough to be motivated to fight to the "death" for anybody. Their entire struggle was simply to survive. And this was no easy trick in their circumstance. Just fending off starvation required sunup to sundown effort and the cooperation of nature.
When you add in the average once a week visitation of armed troops who would take food from them, burn their houses, maybe rape the women and children, and simultaneously demand, at the point of a gun, that they give their cooperation and loyalty in efforts to kill somebody that they didn't even know, survival became a monumental task of steps and side steps and luck.
The truth of a teenage girl's motivations in not revealing the location of a booby trap close to her ville is most likely very simple and the same as any of US would have done in her circumstance. Yes, she knew where the booby traps were as did the others in the ville.
Did they plant them? Maybe, but I can guarantee you, not willingly. Who would subject themselves, their family and friends to the obvious result when an armed force came through and hit it? Nobody except a radical asshole who demanded that every person risk their life for this nebulous political goal that he had in mind.
Once planted, were they going to risk themselves, family, and friends to warn somebody or were they going to not say anything and risk the rage of those who hit it? This was also clearly easy to answer for them when it came to the American troops. They would risk the Americans' rage. The Americans were the least likely to actually kill any of them, even in a rage. And if it did happen, the persons or persons killed was almost always random. Chances were several would get beat near to death but not killed.
If they warned the Americans, the chances of the NVA or VC finding out was better than 99%. Somebody would give them up when the VC or NVA wanted to know how an American force moved through the area without hitting the booby traps or why there wasn't any blood soaked ground near one that had gone off. They would exact swift and terroristic revenge on the person responsible AND on at least one other member of their family. They would die a very horrible and public death.
If any of us were in that same position, who would take the step of warning the troops moving through the area that almost completely guaranteed their own and a family member's death?
And even all of the above is too simplistic to cover all of the human emotions that came into play. Suppose you witnessed a family member being beat or slaughtered by an armed force? Politics aside, what kind of hatred and actions might it evoke from you regarding whoever did it?
I lived in the midst of all of this in the village that was my "base camp" and had to bring my language skills up quickly and get to know many people to insure the survival of my unit. It was not black and white or anything close to it. All the colors of the spectrum could get us killed if we did not understand them and deal with their reality.
To sort of illustrate the South Vietnamese peoples' situation, the following incident that occurred in my village while I was there:
After a couple of months of providing rapid response and protection to locals who were targeted by VC for participating with me in successful raids on NVA troop movements, I began to gain ground in securing the trust of many villagers who had doubted that we would protect them from VC revenge.
One of the mileposts that marked this was when an NVA soldier that was wounded in one of my raids and got lost wandered into the southern section of my TAOR looking for a rendezvous site that he was supposed to go to in those circumstances. One of the villagers spotted him and sent word to me. We immediately sent a team out and captured the NVA.
We had several options on how to deal with the prisoner. I selected the one that I thought would further my efforts there. I contacted the nearest South Vietnamese unit to have the villagers turn him over to them. The South Vietnamese paid the villagers for this type of "service" to the government. They did not rely on political beliefs, nationalistic loyalties, or adoration of the President. They used money to motivate because they knew it worked better. I went this route as a "bonus" because the villagers were so poor.
But, in this particular case, the NVA had NOT been turned in for monetary gain. The NVA had been into this village a couple of months before I had arrived and publicly beheaded a couple of people because of some political statements they had made that were negative to the Communist viewpoint. In addition, they had "posted" the heads on poles in the village to drive their point home. It did drive the point home but the result was not necessarily what they hoped for. Almost the entire village was not only in abject terror of the NVA but also had abject hatred for the monsters that could do such a thing to people over words.
A couple of hours after the prisoner was turned over to the South Vietnamese I received a message from a village runner to come quickly to the portion of the village closest to the area where we had captured the NVA. A neighboring TAOR was Bravo, 1/7, and the entire company had crossed the river into my TAOR looking for a "suspected" NVA they had somehow heard about. They had cordoned off that particular high ground and were in the middle of beating the holy shit out of none other than the villager who had turned the prisoner in. There was one Marine who spoke Vietnamese but not at the level to handle this situation.
I entered their cordon through a section that they had failed to cover somehow. Nobody saw me. I popped up behind the Captain in the center of the cordon directing the beating of my villager and tapped him on the shoulder. As I tended to abuse my privilege to wear anything I wanted as an advisor, the sight of a person wearing a black derby, lots of beads and blue sunglasses with a 12 gauge shotgun pointed at his chest, sort of scared the shit out of him. He went pale and began sputtering.
I identified myself as a Sergeant and an advisor who controlled the TAOR he had crossed into without notification. As soon as he heard that I was a Sergeant, he immediately began trying to pull rank and order me around. I was in his face in an instant demanding that he release the villager and get the hell back across the river. I informed him that the NVA had been captured and that he was beating the one who had turned him in. He, of course, descended into threats of disrespect charges, etc.
I played my only card and got on the radio and explained my situation to the Southern Sector Defense Control Communications Center requesting that the Colonel in charge of my unit be brought on the net to deal with the situation.
The Captain backed off but continued threatening me until he was out of earshot. If he did try to bring charges, he got nowhere with them.
Now my villager that I had worked so hard and taken so many risks for had received another reward for his brave act of turning in the NVA. For this single act of turning in the wounded NVA, they now had some measure of revenge for the beheadings, praise and thanks from me, money from the South Vietnamese Government, and now he had the shit beat out of him by a Marine rifle company.
There were so many forces at work and playing against each other in the war and very few of them were the ones that we were expecting or reacting to. After learning about all of these things, I often thought back to my time in Mike Company and realized how the circumstances and my lack of understanding had caused me to contribute so many negative acts against these people that I was now beginning to feel shame for.
But to be truthful, I sort of compensated by continuing and intensifying those same acts but now I was better able to bring them to bear against those real assholes that were purposefully doing those monstrous acts against not only the locals but against us. And I went to town with this new found righteousness.