Dalat was famous for its beautiful hilly landscape and mild climate throughout the year. Dalat was also well-known because it was home to the ARVN’s three most important military schools: The National Military Academy, the Polwar College, and the Staff and Command College.
The Polwar College was located on a low hill north of the city. On the other side of the narrow street Vo Tanh, on the other hill, there was a school for girls – the Bui Thi Xuan High School.
The first class of Polwar cadets arrived at Dalat in May 1967 after four months of basic training at Thu Duc Infantry School. Every Monday morning, two hundred young men of the Polwar cadet battalion in their dress uniforms fell into formation in front of the headquarters building to perform the flag-raising ceremony. At the same time, hundreds of young girls in purple Vietnamese dresses stood at attention to observe the same ritual.
The images of those pretty girls were so attractive that the young cadets could not focus on their training! After weekend days off to visit the city, some love birds found their mates! Some began to sneak out late afternoon to go to the rendezvous.
The daredevils mostly ended up with disciplinary actions. In the army, we used the slang “parachute, parachutist” for sneaking and sneakers (those absent without leave – AWOL). Thus, a dozen sneakers unofficially formed a parachutist squad without a leader, and nobody knew the other squad members. They employed different tactics and sneaked out at various locations.
Since the Polwar College inherited the compound from the former Gendarme School, its perimeter was several layers of barbed wires dotted with four or five sentry posts. There were no minefields or trenches, as were other military installations.
All the roads in my school have been unpaved, only dirt! In the first months at school, we reinforced them with crushed stones and dug drainage ditches on either side of the roads. It was dusty in summer and muddy in the rainy season. There was only one two-story big building which was used for the staff. Cadets lived in rows of tin-roofed wooden barracks.
The NCO families’ quarter was on the north side of the school perimeter, where we went to buy necessities and snacks. Also, from there, we sneaked out and walked a mile to Linh Son Temple and then to Tuoi Ngoc, a coffee shop that featured American rock-n-roll of French romantic music.
Tu Cong Can was the first cadet to sneak out in the first days after we arrived. He was caught by Aspirant Tran Dinh Than, whom we gave the nickname The Man in Iron Mask. Than was in charge of Alpha Company. Seeing Can run behind Than’s motorbike from downtown to the school was kind of funny. Then, a disciplinary punishment lasted about one hour until Can became exhausted. We took him to the bathroom, washed him, and put him on his bed, almost unconscious.
I was very lucky never to get caught during my two years at the college.
By learning Sun Tzu’s Art of War, I realized that the open-air spot was ironically the safest because nobody thought people would dare to sneak out. Best timing was another factor of success. When the afternoon classes ended, and the fellow cadets were having dinner, it was the perfect time to go. At 9 p.m., before the sleeping trumpet sounded, there was the last roll call of the day. Cadets fell in at the side of the barracks. In the faint light of the 60-watt bulb, the cadet in charge called the names but did not make a headcount. My friend Vy would cover for me if I could not return on time. It was simple! After a day of stress in the classroom or being so tired on the training field, nobody cared about who was missing from his bed.
When the defensive system had been improved with more blockhouses and the perimeter had been added with more concertina wires, we had to change our tactic. It was very dangerous to go through the fence since we might get stuck in the barbed wires and get a bullet from a fellow cadet in some bunker nearby. Fortunately, there was no reinforcement of concertina wires behind the Polwar office building not far from the cafeteria. I chose my departure point right at the back of the building, where I had cut a window in the barbed wire fence just big enough to slide out like a lizard.
I usually sneaked out after Friday’s weekly barrack inspection and dinner time. I wrapped the dress uniform, the visor cap, and dress shoes in a small bag, then donned the camouflage fatigue and a field jacket. I made believe that I was taking a promenade at the side green lawn of the facility. Then, when approaching the house of the Polwar Office, I looked around several times to make sure that nobody would see me, then slid out and rolled down the hill.
Walking a short distance, I could hitchhike on a tricycle to go to my girlfriend’s house in the Post Office complex near the Center Cathedral of Dalat.
Dalat was a little chilly at night, although in summer. It was a great pleasure to have a girl hand in hand, walking slowly on the paved road along part of the perimeter of Xuan Huong Lake or watching the blanket of mist that hovered over the lake’s surface. For decades, Dalat was named the city of fog, the capital of flowers, and also the city of dreamers.
From the immense golf course covered with a thick layer of green grass to the roads edged with various flowers, many interesting places were given beautiful names, such as Forest of Affection, Lake of Sorrow, and Valley of Love. Each of those places at least had one story, either of a couple who succeeded in happiness or the lovers who failed with broken hearts.
Legend has it that a man, Tu Thuc, got lost in an exotic forest. He wandered thousands of miles to reach the paradise “where the spring flowers would never wither, where spring butterflies would never die; where spring love would never fade.” (Song lyrics from “Which Way Leads to the Paradise” by Hoang Nguyen). There, Tu Thuc was greeted by a beautiful fairy maiden and lived happily with her for a dozen years before he returned to his village. He was surprised that he had left home more than a century ago. Finally, he learned that one year in paradise equals one hundred years on earth.
Today, young men of the National Military Academy or the Polwar College needed a little courage to dare to land in the real paradise where they could taste the sweetness of love offered by their charming dream girls.
Late at night, from a coffee shop or a restaurant, I returned home with my girl, tucked ourselves into a comforter, and let the ticking sound of the wall clock lull us into a sound sleep.
I woke up several times during the night and felt a little worried. Did anybody detect my absence and report it to the officer in charge? It was pretty easy to pass the roll call because the cadre did not make a headcount. If my name was called, my friend Vy would shout, “Yes.” Shaking in the night sweaters, I bet no one in the group of cadets would care. They only wished the call would end soon so they could return to the barracks to sleep after one day of working hard.
On weekends, half of the cadets usually get the leave to go to town on Saturday; the other half, alternately, would go on Sunday. Those who stayed at the camp had a whole day to rest or to do their stuff.
I sneaked out on Friday late afternoon. If my company got the leave on Saturday, I would then put on my dress uniform and go out like nothing had happened. If my company stayed in the camp, I would take my girlfriend to visit her parents, who lived in a suburb about five miles from Dalat downtown. At 5 a.m. on Monday, I had to go to the city market, where the soldiers who worked in the kitchen parked their trucks to load the foodstuffs for the daily meals of the cadets. I hopped on one of the trucks and hid behind the big baskets of vegetables. Upon arrival at the camp, I jumped out and ran fast to my barrack to change the proper uniform for the day.
Once, just one time, I came back to the camp while my fellow cadets were in combat uniforms and gear. It turned out the schedule had been changed. My peers already sat on the big trucks that would soon take them to the tactical training field. I hurried to my barrack, put my combat gear in the rucksack, got the rifle and ammo pouches, and rushed back to the truck just in time for it to move.
That time, I was so scared. If my AWOL was detected, I might be kicked out of the school and receive the rank of Sergeant! However, no matter how severe the punishment was, it passed my mind as lightly as a breeze. I was like the prince in the story “The Garden of Paradise” by Hans Christian Andersen, who was willing to trade a hundred years of his life for a moment of fairy happiness: “If it were to be an everlasting night to me, a moment like this were worth it.”
When the cadets of the 2nd class arrived in December 1968, we were about to graduate. That was when the Republic of Vietnam entered the four-side Paris Peace talk. The ARVN launched the Zien Hong Campaign in 45 military sectors. We were chosen to lead propaganda teams assigned to the Regional Forces in all sub-sectors throughout the country. We returned to our school in late March 1969. During the two months awaiting our graduation ceremony, we were treated feasibly in terms of discipline.
We sneaked out almost every night by walking through the front gate where the junior cadets stood guard, and the officers in charge would not cause any trouble to us. If they happened to see us downtown, they most likely turned their back and ignored us.
Two more weeks to the graduation, I was caught AWOL three days and nights in a row. It was serious! I was given 15 days in jail and was allowed to go out to join my classmates in rehearsal only. The jail was a tiny restroom in the kitchen, and my friends could secretly supply full hot meals instead of a bowl of rice dotted with salt as ordered. Since there was open space from the top of the wall to the roof, I could climb up and get out quickly.
On my graduation day, getting commissioned as a Second Lieutenant, I still owed the school three days of my jail term!
A significant number of Polwar cadets tied the knot with the schoolgirls of the Bui Thi Xuan High. Here in America, each time there was a reunion of either ex-Polwar cadets or ex-Bui Thi Xuan school girls, we had a good opportunity to retell our amazing love stories that had the power to transform young men into daredevils