Mom Won’t Be Home Tonight

Michael Do

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My battalion had just finished the supplementary training at Huynh Van Luong Training Center. Then, it was ordered to get ready for a sudden operation at Dau Tieng, Tri Tam District. We were attached to the Armored Cavalry Regiment of the US 1st Infantry Division (the Big Red One). From the training center, we were transported to Ben Tranh village, next to the famous Michelin rubber plantation. The American regiment had been at the gate of the training center with dozens of heavy tanks and APCs[1].

As an XO[2] of the company, I had to go with the 3rd Platoon of Aspirant Phuong. We mounted on the APCs, one squad each. The M-113 APC was designed to carry infantrymen in its hull. However, the wall and floor made of aluminum alloy could not stand the explosion of the enemy’s B-41 RPG[3]. The heat caused by the first RPG explosion could melt the wall to make way for the warhead to penetrate, and boom! Nothing would survive!

Although the carrier’s floor had a layer of sandbags, no one wanted to sit inside to be BBQ’d[4]. Even the APC driver did not sit in his cabin. He connected two sticks cut from the tree branch to the steering sticks and raised his chair higher. We sat on the top of the vehicle with the gunner; one hand grabbed tight to any hook close by, and the other hand, the rifle.

We were close to the 13-bis hamlet. Small residential areas in the Michelin rubber plantation numbered 1 to 15, then jumped to 22, and others with names. Each might have dozens of small houses for the workers. The 13-bis was located right at the center of the plantation. 

In 1965, a 5th ID[5] unit was overrun by the communist 9th Infantry Division. The ARVN[6] 7th Regiment commander and his staff were killed along with hundreds of soldiers in a bloody night attack. The battle of Dau Tieng marked a major change in the enemy’s tactics and strategy. It was a shift from guerilla to conventional warfare. The enemy stopped playing the game “hit and run” and began to mobilize big units to launch surprise attacks on the ARVN at the battlefield they had carefully studied and chosen. The battle at Ap Bac in 1963 was the milestone when a communist force of two battalions stood and fought to challenge the outnumbered ARVN regular troops heavily supported by artillery and air power.

In the same year, 1965, another bloody battle occurred at Bau Bang, a village not far from the headquarters base of the Big Red One.

The landscape at the 13-bis hamlet seemed unchanged since the battle. Remains of the burned vehicles were scattered all around. The foxholes and trenches were partly covered with green grass, and we could see bullet casings and boxes half buried in the dirt. I felt the smell of blood wafting in the air. Although it was still summer, thinking of the close combat made me shiver. I could imagine the mortar shell fragments chopped off the arms, legs, or heads. I could imagine the horror when the sharp blade of the knife punched into the bodies of the soldiers. I could hear the war cries of the beats as they were drunk with human blood.

We were supporting the Phoenix operation executed by the sub-sector of Tri Tam (Dau Tieng). The territorial soldiers were busy with civic and psychological actions; the intelligence agents were collecting information and checking the identity of the hamlet residents.

The carriers have deployed a distance from the hamlet. They stopped, forming a defensive circle. After carefully searching the area for land mines or booby traps, we dismounted and set perimeters near the Cau Trac stream. I chose a shady corner of the front yard of a thatched house to set up my command post. The house was quiet. An old woman sat by the door, staring at the soldiers. Another young woman in her late 20s was feeding her two sons. There was no adult male in the house.

The radioman contacted the Battalion CP[7] every fifteen minutes for any information updates or new orders. Captain Vu Huy Thieu, the Battalion Commander, repeatedly reminded us to be very cautious since this had been the enemy territory for decades. Every household probably had at least one of its members in the Viet Cong ranks. The houses might have a secret underground shelter to hide the guerilla or communist cadres.

Here, we had to be careful, even with old women, children, or anyone who could throw a grenade. In the hamlet, there were only old men and children of all ages besides the women. Where were their men? It was not my job to find the answer! Let the intelligence officers investigate how the women got pregnant and gave birth almost every year.

I walked house by house to visit the families and keep an eye on my soldiers. I wanted to ensure the soldiers would not do anything wrong to the people and their properties.

At the house where the 3rd Platoon was stationed, I saw a young girl holding a baby in her arms. She was a pretty girl at about twenty-something. Her skin was as smooth and white as that of a city girl. Women who lived on plantations rarely contacted sunlight. They did not even have to do the farming work. I asked her:

“Why are you still here? Everybody is gathering at the village temple for a scanning session!”

“I cannot! I have to watch the cows. I do not want to let them loose.”

“You have cows and water buffaloes! Your family must be rich. Have you paid taxes to Viet Cong?”

“This area has been safe; there is no Viet Cong!”

“Tell me, where are the village men?”

“They went to work in Saigon.”

Soldiers of the Platoon were searching for a rather big house nearby. They checked on the soil that looked suspicious with long spikes. When a soldier and I approached the cow shed, using the rake to remove the thick layer of cow dung mixed with straw, the girl suddenly grabbed my arm and pulled me  toward the side door of the house, said:

“Please, stop for a while and go inside to have some tea.”

She said, but her eyes kept looking at the cow shed. I could see that she was very embarrassed.

“Please, go inside. I will pick and cut some papaya… Or do you want lemon juice? I’ll make it at once.” 

“You do not have to do that! We are not thirsty nor hungry.”

“I insist! Please!”

Sergeant Khiet pulled me afar and whispered in my ear:

“Papaya? She may have only grenades! She is trying to divert our attention. She may be hiding something. Let me interrogate this bitch!”

“I guess so! She is yours. However, be gentle, do not torture. Just ask her!

“I do not need to. This kind of girl cannot stand violence. I know how to make her spit out. Give me fifteen minutes.”

“OK, I promise you’ll get into trouble if you hurt her.”

The girl looked frightened; she shook my hand:

“Lieutenant, I have nothing to hide. My family is loyal to the government.”

“OK, then, tell me honestly if you know any secret hiding spots around here.” 

“No, Lieutenant, the hamlet has no Viet Cong.”

“Be aware. If I let this sergeant interrogate, he will hurt you! You’ll break in five minutes.”

“I beg you. Don’t, please, don’t.”

“So, tell me, is the hiding spot under this cow shed?”

“No, Sir! There is nothing. I swear!”

My soldiers just walked around the cows to avoid stepping on the dirty, smelly shed floor that was covered with a thick layer of dung, rotten leaves, and straw. The face of the girl turned to fade as the soldiers stepped further to the center of the shed. Bingo! Somewhere in here, we would find the spot.

After about half an hour of searching the shed inch by inch, the soldiers reported to me that they could not find anything at all.

I would not give up. I gave the girl to Khiet, who took her to a quiet place to work. It took only a short time since Khiet had some experience in interrogation. He used to be a security agent before joining the army.

Khiet and the girl came back. The freshness on her face disappeared; instead, it was a mess. Her blouse was wet, as if she was soaked in water. Her eyes were full of tears.

The girl had a rake with a long handle in her hand. She walked to the shed and removed the top layer of dung at one corner until an iron ring was exposed. A soldier pushed her aside. He took a grenade and pulled the safety pin as he lifted the ring. The girl shouted:

“Please, don’t throw the grenade. Let me call them to get out.”

She then turned to the shelter opening:

“Come out, or they kill you! Brother Bay!”

There was no answer. I ordered to open the hatch and sprayed half a magazine of M-16 bullets. The girl cried louder.

“I beg you, brother, come out now.”

“How many people down there?”

“I don’t know. Maybe two.”

There was a faint voice of a man from the shelter:

“I am climbing up. Don’t shoot.”

“Give your weapon first. Show the rifle butt up. I will shoot if you make a little move to trick us.”

I ordered my men to move far from the hatch to avoid the casualty if the men threw a grenade from his hiding. Then, slowly exposed the butt of an AK-47[8]. Next, the bony hand, the face of a man in his early 30s. We bounded his arms to his back and asked:

“Are there any other people?” 

“Yes, there is one more, brother Tư.”

Tư climbed up with another rifle. Each of them carried a 4-band transistor radio that was covered with cloth.

Tư glanced at the girl, making some sign of distress. The girl avoided his eyes, sobbing. I thought that they might be husband and wife or lovers.

“Anyone else?” I asked with a loud voice.

“No one.”

“Then, throw the grenade.”

Corporal Sang did it. The grenade exploded, making a terrible noise that shook our standing ground. When the smoke had dispersed into the air, Sang climbed down to check the shelter and collected anything the Viet Cong had left.

Suddenly, we heard shots fired not far from the house. Khiet ran to check and returned with the news:

“Lieutenant, we have just killed two VCs who ran out from a tunnel to the forest’s edge. The tunnel runs from this shelter!

“Oh, yeah! Are they your comrades who had hidden in this shelter?”

Bay and Tu looked down to the ground, saying no word.

The Viet Cong who were killed must be high-ranking officers or political cadres. They might have very important information and did not want to be captured.

“Who are they? What are their ranks and positions? Are you fucking dumb?”

“They are Uncle Sau, Secretary of the village Party Committee, and Uncle Nam, councilman.”

“Bingo! We got the jackpot!”

I summoned Aspirant Phuong, the platoon leader while making a radio contact to report the incident to Lieutenant Nguyen Quang Loc, the Company commander.

I escorted the girl and two Viet Cong to the battalion command post. There, I handed them to the sub-sector S-2 officer for further interrogation. The squad that killed two high-ranking Viet Cong also submitted two handguns that were China-made K-54s.

I looked at the girl who now sat in a somber mood next to the Viet Cong. She was leaning toward a brick wall of an old house where the sub-sector staff worked. She cried and cried. I felt my heart touched when I saw that poor girl. I gave her all the money I had in my wallet. It was some hundred piastres.

“Take this. You will need to buy some stuff when in the custody of the Sector. If you are asked for information, please be honest. Just tell them the truth, and you will be released soon. Don’t be afraid.”

“Lieutenant, I have a baby. I’m still breastfeeding. She burst into tears.”

“Is the father among the captured?”

“No, Lieutenant. He is in Saigon, working in a carpenter shop.”

I did not believe her. The father might be Tu or Bay, whom we had flushed out from hiding.

“Where is the baby? Who is taking care of him?”

“My mother, Lieutenant. My mother is over there, at the screening area.”

“Do you want me to bring her here? What is her name?”

“I want to see my baby and have something to tell my mother. Her name is Mai.”

“You will be all right. I’ll get some powdered milk for your baby.”

Not wanting to see them in such a sad situation, I asked Sergeant Hung to take care of the business and went to the place where we killed the high-ranking Viet Cong cadres.

Aspirant Phuong had thoroughly searched the bodies. He was holding some stuff taken from the cadres’ pouches. Next to the bodies, there was a brown handbag made of canvas. It was full of money. A lieutenant from the Sector had just come. After writing notes, he picked up the bag. I took it back.

“Don’t touch anything here. They are our war trophies.”

 “It’s our responsibility. Your job is to secure the area.”

“OK, no problem! Bring your soldiers and fight! You will have whatever you gain. Hey! Listen, Your place is in there, not here!”

I gathered everything and handed it to Battalion S-2[9]. Walking past the intelligence section, I saw the girl following the prisoners of war and got on an APC to be transported to the sub-sector headquarters. Her arms were tightened to the back; she tried to turn her head to look at her mother, who was holding the baby. Both women were lamenting their uncertain future.

My eyes happened to contact hers. She silently expressed some resentment and hatred. It moved my heart. I had never faced a situation like this. I had never done a bad thing to anyone. Since we were fighting against a malicious enemy, we could not avoid doing something that might hurt the people. Our enemies blended and hid among the people. They fired at us using innocent people as their shield. We had to choose between life and death and act wisely to survive.

 I comforted myself when remembering the massacre of Hue when Communist troops barbarously killed seven thousand people during the Mau Thân General Offensive. We recalled the killing of more than three hundred Highlander women and children in Dak Son. Communists could do anything to meet their targets. To them, the ends justify the means.

Tonight, in the small house that had the cow shed, in the faint light of the candles, a poor old woman was replacing the young mom to feed the baby. Who knew how many more months he would be missing the loving caress of the mother? He would spend the cold winter nights without her warm embrace that nothing on earth could substitute.

[1] APC: Armoured Personnel Carrier is an armored military vehicle designed to transport personnel in combat zones.

[2]XO: Executive Officer, the second in charge of the unit.

[3] RPG: rocket-propelled grenade

[4] BBQ: Barbecue

[5] ID: Infantry Division.

[6] ARVN: Army of the Republic of Vietnam

[7] CP: Command Post

[8] AK 47: Avtomat Kalanikov, a Russian developed assault rifle.

[9] S-2: Intelligence Section in a military unit.