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The Inside Story of the Guerrilla War - Chapter 10: Breaking the Grip


For the next six issues, Word is presenting excerpts from Wilfred Burchett’s seminal account of the American War. A close friend of Ho Chi Minh, Burchett was the only westerner to be embedded with the Viet Cong frontlines in the early 1960s. This work was written in 1964 


Action on the Plains


On the night of May 18, 1960, a group of army officers and their bodyguard entered a Chinese soup restaurant in Mo Duc on the coastal plains of Quang Ngai. They brushed past the diners and passed through to the apartment in the rear. After a few exchanges in low voices with an attendant and the production of a document, they were ushered into a spacious office that seemed to have little in common with the needs of a Chinese restaurant. Seated at a desk was a ponderous Vietnamese with a thin line of moustache that continued over his upper lip, down the sides of his mouth to the chin. Respectful salutes from the officers, a grunted greeting in reply.


In ten minutes, the group moved out by an elaborate rear entrance to the road leading out of the town. With them was the man behind the desk. After they had walked in silence for a while, one officer pulled out a revolver and pointed it at the ‘restaurant proprietor’.


“In the name of patriotic officers of the Government’s armed forces,” said the officer, in a voice tinged with steel, “you, Chan, have been sentenced to death for crimes against the people of Vietnam. Sentence will be executed immediately.” And before another word could be spoken, he fired a bullet into the fat man’s head. The body slumped to the road and was pulled away to the side, while someone affixed to it a slip of paper.


The officer and a small group hurried back to the restaurant, this time entering from the back entrance. With keys taken from the body, they opened a large, black safe, filled with documents, which they glanced at and stuffed into a nylon bag. There was a momentary gasp of horror when they pulled out one large drawer and found it full of human ears, in each case the left ear only, and stapled to each a paper with a name and a receipt for 5,000 piastres.


“They were the ears of 482 of our comrades,” said Sao Nam, the officer who conducted the operation. “Chan, the tyrant we executed, was Ngo Dinh Can’s special agent in charge of secret police in the provinces of Quang Ngai, Quang Nam and Binh Dinh. The restaurant was a blind for his activities. For each of our comrades killed, he received 5,000 piastres after forwarding the right ear as proof.


“We had a rich haul that night, all the names of those marked down for arrest and killing and the names of a whole network of agents working under Chan. We were able to warn all those on his lists and arrest his agents or frighten them into inactivity.”


Execution of agents like Chan had become policy after the decision was taken to support the tribespeople by starting resistance by ‘armed propaganda groups’ in the plains.


The form of ‘armed propaganda groups’ had been started in 1944 by Vo Nguyen Giap and Pham Van Dong, now prime minister of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (North Vietnam). The first unit of 84 men then grew into the powerful army that Giap used with such success 10 years later to defeat the French. It was this form that was adopted as the main weapon in the politico-military struggle to which Sao Nam and his group, and an increasing number of similar groups in other provinces, were now committed.


It was not easy to start armed resistance on the plains, where enemy control was almost complete. Only a handful of the resistance cadre had survived the Diem terror, by fleeing to the mountains. But as word spread on the plains of the extermination campaign against the tribespeople on the mountainsides, the people’s anger and hatred rose. Sao Nam told me of how the Vietnamese cadre in the province of Quang Ngai came to adopt the new policy of armed resistance. At first, in the latter part of 1959, they decided to launch a movement of ‘non-cooperation’ against the Diemist administration to take some heat off the tribespeople. Towards the end of the year, the Diemists planned a new, all-out campaign to crush the uprising of the mountain people once and for all, bringing in troops and militia from the neighbouring provinces; they could do this because Quang Ngai was the only place in Central Vietnam where there was any armed resistance.


“We had another meeting, a very serious one this time,” continued Sao Nam. “Due to the repression aimed primarily at crushing the Kor, other tribes and districts had taken to arms, all the mountain districts in fact. The policy of peaceful struggle had crumbled in Quang Ngai because the enemy had consistently applied non-provoked violence. We had done our best to keep to the line and many of us felt we should still stick to strictly legal struggle. But we could do nothing to halt what the people themselves had started spontaneously. If the Vietnamese in the plains did not come in with their support, the tribespeople might well be exterminated.


“We took the extremely serious decision to constitute ourselves as a ‘resistance committee’; to support the armed action already started by the tribes people to base ourselves in the mountains, but also to try and penetrate the plains from our mountain bases… If we did not support the tribespeople, who had helped us so magnificently in the first resistance, our prestige and that of the revolution would be lost forever.”


This decision of Sao Nam and his comrades was the starting point of the ‘two- sided war’. It was the first such decision taken at that sort of level, and it had widespread repercussions. The example of the Kor tribespeople and the support it finally received from Vietnamese cadres was later used as a decisive argument in generalizing armed resistance throughout South Vietnam.


Quang Ngai, home province of Pham Van Dong, has long revolutionary traditions; the people do not bow their heads easily, but the Vietnamese in the plains at least seemed to have been in black despair by the end of 1959. I heard of one incident, however, that illustrates their spirit.


October 26, 1959, was celebrated by the Diemists as National Day. A military parade was organised, troops in their best spit-and-polish uniforms, tanks, artillery and planes overhead. The local military chief made a big speech comparing the splendidly equipped troops of President Ngo Dinh Diem to the ragged groups of Viet Cong guerillas. An old man walked up to the tribune, and in front of the beaming military chief said:


“The governor is quite right. I agree with him. The Viet Cong are miserably off compared with the Nationalists. They have nothing to eat, only potatoes and manioc; the Nationalists have plenty of rice, bread and meat. The Viet Cong are dressed in rags. Look at the splendid uniforms of the Nationalists. The Viet Cong don’t even have decent weapons. Look at the weapons here, all the splendid American guns, tanks and planes. The only thing in which the Nationalists are not better is that they serve in a foreign army, while the Viet Cong fight against the foreigners who invade our country. After a battle, the Viet Cong help the population, but the Nationalists only bum and steal.”


The military chief had shut him up at this stage, trying to laugh; and shouting, “The old man is mad,” pushed him off the tribune. Police shoved forward to arrest him but the crowd closed in and managed to smuggle him away.


Later he made his way to the mountains. “Why on earth did you do that?” asked one of the Vietnamese cadres. “I saw everyone was depressed, demoralized with all those tanks and guns,” the old fellow replied, “so I thought I’d put a few facts straight for them. I’m old now. If anything happens to me it is of no importance. But we should keep people’s spirits up.”


Sentence and Execution


People on the plains had been so terrorized that at first they trusted no one. “When we started, we lost some cadres,” Sao Nam told me, “and it was almost impossible to make contact with the population. While such a terrorist machine continued to control their daily activities it would be impossible to do anything. We decided it was necessary to break the grip of the enemy; to wipe out the worst of the Diemist agents and to make strong attacks against selected posts. Once we started doing this, a new light came into people’s eyes, confidence returned.”


To my question as to what was the actual form of sentence and execution, Sao Nam explained that the situation in every village was first carefully studied; the activities of the local agents, the extent of their crimes.


“You could be certain that the hand-picked chief agents were always responsible for multiple murders, but we did not mark them down for execution if there was the slightest chance they might mend their ways. The agents, chiefs of village, police and security chiefs usually all lived in the same building. We would send a group at night with loudspeakers to explain the policy of the new resistance movement, to expose the crimes of the Diemist regime and tell the people how to struggle against it. Finally we would give a stern warning to the local agents, our megaphones directed specifically at their homes. Usually we fired a few shots in the air to impress them.


“At first, the agents took little notice — they stepped up their terror. Our group would pay another visit, usually with two variants of hand-written leaflets. On one was written the biography and crimes of the local agents and the death sentence by the local organ of the People’s Self-Defense Force; the other was similar except it contained a pardon with a warning not to commit any more crimes. If we found the chief agent at home, we executed him, leaving the execution slip with the body and posting up a few copies. For the others, and for the chief agent in case he happened to be away, we posted up the pardon and warnings.

“Many of those ‘pardoned’ found ways of contacting us, thanking us on their knees for the pardon. Many offered to serve us while pretending to serve the enemy. In fact, we knew in most cases they would continue to serve the enemy as well. But we counted on the people exercising strict control over them in the future so we could accept this. Unrepentant sinners, after such a visit, would leave the village and operate from the nearest military post, visiting the village only in daytime. If we learned that several were in a specific post we would attack it. Our main motive in the beginning was to win the support of the population, raise their morale.


“Once we had dealt with a handful of agents in any one district we could go in and out of the villages as we wished and the old resistance type of relations were established again with the people.”


Sao Nam, by any standards, is a remarkable person. At the time I met him, he was a leading staff officer of the NFL forces in Quang Ngai, a former landless peasant, educated, as he expresses it, “by the revolution.” He is extraordinary, but also typical of many I met at that sort of level, from company and battalion commanders upwards. Everything about him reflects vigour, resource, confidence — a man in whom one would have unlimited confidence in the worst of situations. His face is deep chestnut, polished by years of wind and sun and open air. His wife, if still alive, is in prison.


“We had just one week of married life,” he said with a rare sigh. “That was during the last year of the war against the French. Then she was rounded up by the Diemists and tortured until she put her thumbprint on a divorce document. I don’t know whether she is still alive; practically I can’t remember her face, try as hard as I can.”


Sao Nam learnt to read and write in the Viet Minh forces where he had risen to the rank of company commander by the time of Dien Bien Phu. I doubt if he had ever studied anything about psychological warfare, like so many of his comrades-in-arms he applied it in a natural and supremely effective way in day-to-day activities. It was natural to them, because they are of the people among whom they work and fight, know profoundly their sentiments and what moves them to love, hate and fear; what will instill confidence or arouse suspicions.


Night after night, we sat around a campfire, chewing at roasted manioc roots and slapping at mosquitoes, while he told stories to awaken my interest in the nobility, the courage and dignity of the tribal peoples whom he regarded as his closest brothers. My own contacts with them would have been impossible had it not been for their confidence in cadres like Sao Nam who had shared their lives for a dozen years and more.


By the end of 1960, word had gone out to overthrow Diemist rule wherever possible. Once his own district was rid of Diemist rule, Pho Nia went looking for enemy troops on the plains. By now, no matter who carried out military operations in Quang Ngai, even if orders and leaflets were signed by the NFL or local resistance organs, Diemist troops always credited them to Pho Nia. The Diemist reply, in late 1960, was to start hedging in all the villages in the plains, razing all bamboo clumps, fruit trees and patches of forest, to provide wood and bamboo ramparts for what were embryo “strategic hamlets,” and to deny any natural cover for the guerillas.


During 1960, the Diemists launched over 200 operations against Pho Nia’s area alone, but the more they tried to mop up, the wider the resistance spread. By 1961, the Diemists could no longer even try to launch raids into Son Ha, the home district of Pho Nia. Starting from his own village of Son Tinh, which he had moved back to the crest of a mountain and which the Diemists tried six times in vain to reach, Pho Nia gradually carved out a zone entirely free of Diemist rule and into which their armed forces could not penetrate. Diemist agents were cleaned out of village after village until Son Ha became a solidly liberated zone. This quickly expanded into neighbouring districts.


Armed Action Spreads


To the south of Quang Ngai lies Binh Dinh Province. It was the commander of the provincial troops of the Liberation Army, Nguyen Van Hao, a 46-year-old veteran of the first resistance war, who explained how the sparks kindled in Quang Ngai flew across the border.


The developments there until 1959 were similar to those of other Central Vietnam provinces.


“In early 1959, there was a slight change in the situation,” he said. “Till then the struggle had been passive, people trying to delay as long as possible summons to present themselves to the authorities for investigation. But early in 1959 the minority people in the mountains flatly refused to come down to the plains for the police ‘convocations’. Word had come that the Kor people over the border were in revolt. So the Bahnar and Hre, who are the main minorities in our province, said in effect: ‘Come up and get us. We’re not coming down to be beaten and tortured like the Vietnamese.’


“In the lowlands a certain number of Vietnamese had been press-ganged into military service; we understood they had no choice and this influenced our attitude when we met them with arms in our hands. But the minority peoples refused to present themselves for military service. By mid-1959, the Diemists were sending units of platoon strength, then company strength to enforce their orders, but with no success. They could never lay their hands on anyone of military age. They tried to round up whole communities and concentrate them in the plains, but this failed too; villages faded out into the jungle. Any whom the Diemists succeeded in capturing they tortured in a most bestial way and when word spread of this, people started sharpening their knives and looking to their crossbows.


“In September and October, there were some incidents. These were harvest months and the enemy came to Tao Lac and Tu Lec, villages of the Bahnar tribe in Vinh Thanh, to destroy the crops because the men had failed to report for military service. By then everyone knew of the successful uprising and resistance of the Kor people. The Bahnar tribespeople withdrew from the villages into the forest, killed three Diemist soldiers with poisoned arrows and wounded eight more with the traps they had left around their ray. The Diemists sent aircraft to bomb the village to cover the withdrawal of their troops. This was the first spark in Binh Dinh. It seemed to stop at that. But the example impressed on other villages what could be done and, although all seemed quiet, passions were seething underneath the surface. In the meantime, we former resistance cadres had received word from our comrades in Quang Ngai and this gave us plenty to think about. After long discussions we decided it was shameful to let the enemy concentrate all his forces in Quang Ngai because of inactivity in the neighbouring provinces.


“Just as the Diemists started their big action in Quang Ngai, we attacked one of their posts at Hoaui Ton in An Lao. We did not kill anyone, just tied up the troops while we relieved them of their weapons. We captured 26 rifles, 30 grenades and over 1,000 cartridges.”


There were similar actions in Quang Nam and Thua Thien provinces to the north, so before the big action against Quang Ngai could be completed, the Diemist command had to withdraw some of the troops and militia they had brought from outside. These were rushed back to their own bases to try and stamp out sparks that were already spluttering there.


The setting up of the National Front of Liberation on December 20, 1960, followed by five weeks an unsuccessful anti-Diemist officers’ coup in Saigon, were major events. Together they put the sporadic uprisings on an organized basis and provided the political framework within which the general military struggle was now waged.


Wilfred Burchett was an Australian reporter often described at the ‘rebel journalist’ for his stories about the American War ‘from the other side’. After years of being at odds with the Australian government, last year the Melbourne Press Club inducted him into their Hall of Fame. Burchett was also the journalist to break the scoop of the 20th century — the devastation caused by dropping nuclear bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.


Special thanks to George Burchett for allowing us to republish this work. Please note that some of the language in this piece has been changed to reflect its modern-day spelling 

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