The Apprentice

Michael Do

Aspirant Lo Duc Tan grabbed my hand, and shouted as he pulled me down to the ground:

“Lie down. Dig in or run to that gravestone. They are shelling the mortars.”

The company was approaching Ap Nha Viet. We walked in two columns past a local cemetery and were detected by the enemy’s reconnaissance.

A fresh new graduate from the military school, I was like an apprentice who could not detect the sound of the departing mortar shells from a far distance. I even could not distinguish the sound of the mortar from that of a cannon. In great confusion, what I could do was react to what Tan said.

Boom, boom, boom…

A dozen mortar shells landed indiscriminately in the area we had just arrived. The fragments flew in the air and rained down around us. The shelling lasted about five minutes. When it was over, I  stood up, wiped off the soil on my clothes, and picked a mortar fragment as big as my forearm. It was sharp and was still hot as burning coal. Tan said:

“They are 82[1] millimeter shells. It can cut through your bone like you cut a banana.”

“How do we know it is 61 or 82?”

“You will learn by looking at its thickness and tail or listening to the sound when it departs and approaches. Remember, when you hear the sound like the whistle or a buzz, “Vi..u..u..” then it is flying over your head and will land far ahead of you; you may be safe or may get wounded if you lie on the ground. But when the sound is like “Pssst,” then your time is up. You do not have enough time to pray!”

He then pointed to the thatched house at the edge of the village in front of us and said:

“They must be in there. Don’t trust anybody in this village.”

“I can see there are men in the house!”

“Men, women, and children can also be our enemies. Think about it seriously, or you will be saying goodbye to your life.”

Lieutenant Loc gave the order to continue the move after he learned that nobody got hurt. Thank God! From our position, we could hear the noise of soldiers of another company moving in a column 50 meters from our left flank.

Ấp Nhà Việt was a small village northwest of Binh Duong Province. It was on the main road from Ben Cat to Phu Hoa and ran past the provincial border to Tay Ninh Province. In the daytime, convoys of buses and trucks transported passengers and commercial stuff as if it were a peaceful time. There were small tailors or retail shops along the road with pretty girls waving hands to passing cars.

But it was not as good as it looked!

When the sun was about to descend to the horizon, groups of people left the village on any possible means to go to the district compound. They were village officials, teachers, nurses, and even young men or middle-aged men who fled their homes and sought safety within the barbed wire fence of the district’s regional forces base.

The vast region that included Ap Nha Viet, during the 1st Indochina War and the first phase of the Vietnam War, had been part of the Communist’s War Zone C. Before 1963, President Diem enforced the Strategic Hamlet program to isolate the enemy guerillas from the villagers. After his tragic death, the successive administrations ended the program. It was a grave setback in the war policy and enabled the enemy to return to murder the local officials, collect taxes, and kidnap young men to fill their ranks. The RF[2] did not have enough strength to spread thin to cover all inhabitant centers in the district. The Popular Forces were short of manpower and were poorly equipped to defend the village. 

From the underground tunnels along the Thi Tinh river, teams of Viet Cong guerillas infiltrated the villages, threatening the people to do whatever they wanted. Terrorism has always been an effective means to keep people in obedience. People might hate communists. But when we could not provide them with safety, they had no other choice but to obey the enemies.

At night, they forced people to get involved in hostile actions against the government, such as destroying public structures, cutting the telephone line, and burying land mines along the road. People felt guilty about the activities and gradually and reluctantly became Viet Cong’s accomplices.

Ap Nha Viet was not far from Binh Duong, the province’s capital city of the same name. The battalion commander’s house was near the river bank in the city. Yesterday, after we dismounted the trucks and waited for the APCs to move on the operation. He asked the XO to take care of things and drove to the city to see his wife.

Both Captain Thieu and the XO, Captain Vang Ba Sen, graduated from Dalat Military Academy in December 1964. Thieu was promoted after the victorious battle at Phuoc Qua. His company pushed back many human waves of the enemy, killing almost one hundred. 

The Battalion moved deep into the forest, about 5 kilometers from the village, and stopped to set up a defense perimeter. When the sunlight disappeared from the sky above the tree canopy, the 1st Platoon was ordered to return to the village. Aspirant Tan turned to me and asked:

“You join us?”

“Sure! You still owe me a lot of things I need to learn.”

I was new to combat. Although I was appointed as the Company XO, I had yet to gain experience leading a platoon. Tan was considerably older than I was. He was of Nung[3] ethnicity who joined the 5th ID when it was just formed in North Vietnam in 1954. He moved up from a private to an aspirant and was the most experienced officer of the Battalion.  

We left heavy stuff at the spot, carried only weapons and ammunition, and quietly moved toward the village. When we reached the shallow creek that separated the village and the forest, Tan ordered the troops to stop and stretch thin along the bank.

We were directly facing the house that Tan had suspected earlier when the enemy greeted us with a barrage of mortar shells.

In the dim light of the kerosene lamp, we could see three men sitting and talking at the table; one must be a Buddhist monk with a brown robe and his head shaved. A woman walked back and forth, carrying a child in her arms.

It looked like a peaceful scene of normal family activity after dinner. I put down the binoculars and rubbed my eyes. The sky above was full of sparkling stars. The fresh breeze made me feel sleepy, which I could not resist. Then, I was shaken and heard Tan whisper in my ear:

“Wake up. They are making signs. Observe and tell me what you think.”

I looked at my watch. The short, luminous hand pointed to the number 1. It was past midnight. Everybody in the house must have a sound sleep in a bed. But from the house window, we saw the dim light flashing two short and one long as if somebody was sending a message in Morse code. The light then was off. The house was totally in the darkness. Only a few minutes later, we heard the faint noise of footsteps about 20 meters from our position. Thanks to the light of the stars, we saw two people walking toward the said house. Tan whispered to Corporal Nghia:

“Be ready. Pass the order to others.”

I radioed the CP.

“61, this is 11, over.”

“11[4], 61. I hear you 5/5. Over.”

“61, we detected 2 Charlies[5] moving toward the target, over.”

“11, be cautious. They might be forward recon. Do you need the lantern[6]? Over.”

“61, not now. We’ll call when needed, over.”

I grabbed my gun and got ready. When they were in the range, Tan ordered them to open fire. The sound of M-16 bullets was sharp, cutting through the night. There were shots fired from the house pointing to us. It was the sound of an AK-47. I rolled to a big tree and dug in between the giant roots.

I stopped Tan as he wanted to shoot an M-79 grenade at the house.

“There are a woman and a child in the house. Don’t shoot, Tan. And the monk!”

“Fake monk! He is a Viet Cong disguised as a monk. Let him go visit his uncle Ho in hell!”

Tan reported to the CP, then ordered Sergeant Tri to lead his squad to the left side of the house to ambush if the Viet Cong ran away.

We moved past the creek and slowly crawled in the rice paddy a short distance. The sky was lit up with flares as we approached the house. It was now empty with a suspicious silence. In the garden at the back of the house, we saw two dead Vietcong bodies lying about 2 meters apart: one holding an AK-47, the other with the K-54 handgun in the holster.

They were no doubt a high official and his bodyguard who came to a meeting with the local spies.

Before entering the house, a soldier fires rounds of the submachine gun at the thatch roof as a preventive measure to scare off anyone still in the house. I could hear the woman’s desperate voice mixed with the child’s scream.       

“Government soldiers shoot at innocent people. You are killing us!”

“Shut up! You hosted the guerrillas. You are no fucking innocent!”

“No, no guerrillas. We were celebrating the death of my father. We invited the monk to perform the ritual!”

“Where is the monk?”

“Who knows where he goes! He was scared, too. You sprayed bullets in my house!”

“Oh yeah! Whose AK-47 bullet casings on the floor if not the guerrillas?”

The radioman handed Tan the combination handset to talk with the Battalion Commander.

“74[7], this is 61 over.”

“61, this is 74. Keep searching around. Did you let some VC escape? Over.”

“74, 61. If there were no women and children, we would kill all of them right at the beginning. Over.”

Suddenly, there were dozens of gunshots in the direction of the 14th company.

“74, this is 41. We killed 3 VCs with sticks[8]. Over.”

“ 41, this is 74. Those SOBs[9] ran from the 61 targets. Over.

“ 74, this is 41. There is a monk among the dead. We are searching the bodies. Over.

The radiomen were busy with the conversation between the units. The static noises stirred up the silence of the night. Tan breathed out a sigh of relief. So did I as I sat down in a corner of the house to relax.

A soldier was guarding the woman, who was now handcuffed with her head bowed. The child was put on a cradle wrapped in a blanket. He was still crying loudly.

It was 3:00 a.m. I did not feel sleepy any longer. Muon, my helper, asked :

“ Are you hungry, Lieutenant? I’ll fetch you a bowl of instant noodles, OK?

“ Where do you get the noodles?

“ In the kitchen, War trophies, Sir!

“ No, no, no. Don’t touch anything. There are rules.

“ They fired at us from this fucking house, Sir. Anything in this house is our war trophies.

“ Who taught you that idea? Respecting the properties of the people is the 6th of seven soldiers’ cardinal rules.”

“ You talk like a polwar[10] cadre! Oh yeah, I forgot that you are a real polwar officer! The people in this area are Viet Cong sympathizers, if not Viet Cong themselves. They would kill you if given a chance!

I did not argue with him; I was in no mood to discuss. They knew more than I did; they had reasons to justify their acts. I lit a cigarette and felt much better. As I watched the cloud of fumes linger in the air, Muon brought me a bowl of noodles he just cooked.

“ Lieutenant, eat when it is still hot.

“ Don’t you mind cooking a bowl for Aspirant Tan?

“ OK. Now you are OK’d with the food taken from this house kitchen! Ha! Ha! Ha!

[1] The US Army and ARVN used 60 mm and 81 mm mortars. The Communists had 61mm and 82 mm, so they could use shells to fire their mortars.

[2]Regional Forces

[3]Nung is one of the largest groups of minorities in North Vietnam

[4]11 and 61 were the radio codenames of the 1st Platoon leader and the 16th Company Commander, respectively.

[5] Victor Charlie: Slang for Viet Cong.

[6] Lantern: Slang for flare.

[7] 74 and 41 were the codenames of the 4th Battalion and the 14th Company Commanders, respectively.

[8] Stick: Army slang for rifle.

[9] Son of a bitch.

[10] Political Warfare.