For the next nine 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
A Terrorist Squad
My journalist-interpreter friend excused himself for having awakened me. My watch showed 10.44pm; I had been dead to the world in my hammock for a good two hours. “Three compatriots have arrived with a very interesting story,” he said. “Can’t it wait till morning?” I asked, and he replied that it was really an “exceptionally interesting story”, and the three were only resting for an hour before they took off again.
So I swung out of the hammock and was guided to a little clearing where the tiny bottle lamps had been set up on tree stumps, the flickering flames lighting up the faces of three exhausted looking but triumphant men. Almost exactly three hours previously they had exploded a 25-pound bomb inside Saigon’s “U.S. Only” Capitol Cinema. According to the official account of the results, as I heard it over the Voice of America next morning, three U.S. servicemen were killed and 57 wounded.
Two of the three before me were former peasants from the Saigon outskirts, the third a former factory worker, and I shall refer to them as No. 1, 2 and 3. No. 1, the worker, was the master planner and also organised the escape:
“We had previously blown up the MAAG (Military Aid and Advisory Group) headquarters,” he said. “That was in July 1963. Another group had tried to blow up this cinema but failed because they tried to attack it from the rear. And still another group had exploded a bomb in a U.S. baseball stadium the week before.
Our task was to succeed where the others had failed at the Capitol. We had decided to do this after the Lunar New Year ceasefire period, but when American planes napalm-bombed a big meeting in Cu Chi District on New Year’s Day, we decided to teach them a lesson. Also we thought they should be punished for the coup they had just made in putting Nguyen Khanh in power. By that they wanted to show that they were the real masters in Saigon; we wanted to show that the people are still there too. So we decided to attack within the ceasefire period which they had violated.”
As they described it, while Nos. 1 and 2 created a diversion at the side entrance, No. 3, the second peasant with the rather exalted face of a poet, walked through the main entrance with the explosive. “Because of the shooting outside, the Americans inside were alerted,” No. 3 said. “Two jumped on me as I entered and started to strangle me. Because I had the explosive in my arms, I could not defend myself. But I managed to pull the detonator and as it spluttered the Americans were stupefied with fear, and ran up some stairs. There is just ten seconds after pulling the detonator before it explodes. I had time to put it down between the aisles and walk out, closing the grenade-proof steel doors after me just as the explosion took place.”
“You intended to blow yourself up with the two Americans?” I asked, and he eyed me calmly and said, “Of course.” Looking at him, I thought of the descriptions in 19th century Russian literature of the poets and intellectuals who sacrificed their energies and talents, and often enough their lives, in trying to blow up the tsars. No. 3 was of that category. What pushes people to such deeds, I wondered, scanning as much of their tense faces as the bottle lamps would permit, their profiles etched against the impenetrable black of jungle night on which a newly born moon made no impression at all. There was silence for a moment, except for the monotonous cry of an intensely boring night bird that never ceased its metallic two-note cry between dusk and dawn.
“There are thousands of militants like us in Saigon,” said No. 2, “ready to sacrifice ourselves at any moment, but we want to kill five or ten Americans for every one of us.”
“Were there women and children in the cinema?” I asked.
“We don’t make war against women and children,” blazed forth No. 2. “But what do they care for our women and children? In that cinema are only the pilots that go out day after day in their planes and blindly bomb and strafe our villages. Do they ask if there are women and children inside the houses they napalm? They bomb and fire on every living thing they see.”
No. 1 explained that a 12-year-old sister of the one who had planted the explosive had been killed with 15 other children in the strafing of a school in Cau Xe.
I was interested in knowing enough about their lives to understand what impelled people into such desperate ventures. No. 1 had spent five of the preceding nine years in Diemist prisons:
“In front of my eyes I saw my comrades, the finest men that ever lived, tortured to death for no other reason than that they had been patriots in the struggle for independence,” he said. The hamlet of No. 2 had been bulldozed out of existence to make way for airfield extensions north of the city. After that he had worked as a coolie on an American military base. “I will never forgive them for what they did to our women,” he said. “I saw things that no human being should see. As long as they remain on my soil while I live, I shall take my revenge. For my own sister and my own compatriots, our young women violated, comrades tortured and massacred.”
Hatred of the Invaders
Huynh Tan Phat had earlier explained to me that terrorist attacks against Americans were part of Front policy. “We have the spontaneous support of the population for such actions,” he said. “We attack only cabarets, cinemas, sports grounds, restaurants reserved exclusively for U.S. military personnel. They have to put up barbed wire and anti-grenade grilles, as the French did in their time. This helps to expose their real situation — that they live in mortal fear of the population. Of course it would be impossible to carry out such actions with a handful of isolated, individual terrorists, but it is possible with the support of the whole population who always find a means of sheltering them. It has happened several times when someone has been hurrying away after such an action, before the police got on his trail, that an unknown person has pushed him inside his house or shop and hidden him; or pressed money in his hand and said: ‘Take this for a taxi.’”
A couple of weeks after the Capitol Cinema incident, the Front broadcast a warning for Americans in Saigon not to take their wives and children to public places reserved for Americans. The terrorist attacks were for “men only”.
In the days when France was involved in her “dirty war” in Indochina, there was no lack of American leaders who saw things in a realistic light. The late President Kennedy’s remarks on April 6, 1954, when he was still the “Senator from Massachusetts”, were realistic enough:
“To pour money, material and men into the jungles of Indochina without at least a remote prospect of victory would be dangerously futile and destructive... No amount of American assistance in Indochina can conquer an enemy which is everywhere, and at the same time nowhere; an ‘enemy of the people’ which has the sympathy and support of the people.”
This quote has become rather famous today when it is truer than when it was uttered ten years ago. But there was an observation equally apt made a year earlier by Adlai Stevenson, published in Paris (L’Intransigeant, May 21, 1953) after his visit to Indochina. Following some correctly gloomy appraisals of the situation, Stevenson, now chief U.S. delegate at the United Nations, commented:
“One sees here in a startling way one of the major difficulties the French are up against. How to persuade the peasants in their rags that these Germans, these French, these Senegalese and these Moroccans are fighting for them against the Viet Minh, who after all are of their race and their country?”
It was a good question then and a good question for Adlai Stevenson, Dean Rusk and President Johnson to ponder over today. How to persuade the peasants in their rags that these Americans, these Kuomintang Chinese, these Filipinos and Australians and other troops are fighting for them against the Viet Cong, who after all are of their own race and country?
Quite another view of the situation, both as concerns morale and an appreciation of what the war is all about, came from four American war prisoners whom I met in what was doubtless the beginnings of the first camp for U.S. POWs to be established in Southeast Asia. They were all sergeants first class and were captured at the Hiep Hoa “Special Forces” training camp on the night of November 23, 1963, when guerillas overran the camp, destroyed all its installations and made off with enough arms to equip an oversized Liberation Front battalion.
Kenneth Roraback, a veteran of the Korean War with 15 years’ service in the U.S. army, was the only one of the four awake at the time of the attack, around midnight; he was writing a letter to his wife. “What actually happened?” I asked. “They called our place a training camp,” said Roraback, a dour-faced person with thinning hair and bushy eyebrows. “In reality, like a lot more, it was just a sitting target to be wiped out at any time. It was a well-planned, well-executed night attack, all over in about 15 minutes.” To my question as to what action he personally took, he replied: “I ran for the trenches.”
“Did you take a weapon?” I asked.
“There was no time.”
“Was any resistance organised?”
“It was impossible. Everything was burning, there were Viet Cong all over the place, streaming in over the ramparts, around all the buildings.”
The other three — Camacho, a swarthy Texan; McClure, a Negro specialist on demolition; and Smith, a medical assistant and radio operator — were all in bed and all gave about the same account as Roraback.
The four POWs had been on the move for months after capture, sometimes in sampans, mostly on foot, zig-zagging around, heading in all points of the compass until they had little idea where they were. They were now in a safe rear area.
Each of the four sergeants assured me, in separate conversations, that they had been well treated and each expressed surprise at this. “My captors were considerate from the moment I was taken,” said Roraback. “I expected to be shot right away and I guess this showed in my face. When it didn’t happen at once, nor on the second day, I figured they were taking us a bit further away to shoot us.”
“Why did you expect to be shot?” I asked, and Roraback looked a little confused.
“Well, I considered it normal,” he said after a pause. “Guerillas don’t have conditions to look after prisoners. But they saw I was afraid and did everything to calm my fears.”
“How were you able to communicate? Did you have a common language?”
“No, but they patted my back, waved their hands in a sort of friendly way in front of my face, stroked my arms and generally made signs that I shouldn’t worry.”
Liberation Front policy in the past had been to give captured Americans a few weeks of “explanations” as to what the struggle is about and then set them free. Judging by the way the little camp, where I met the four sergeants, is organised, it seems many more American POWs are to be catered for. Release in future may be a matter of negotiations.
Their surprise at seeing me coming out of the jungle could not have been greater than if I had dropped down from Mars. As they had been out of touch with the outside world for months, I asked each if they had any special questions. I was astonished at their lack of interest.
Camacho assumed a dead serious, almost tragic air when he asked if he could put one question. “Do you by any chance happen to know who won the world heavyweight boxing championship?” By chance I had heard the result over the radio: “Yes, Clay beat Sonny Liston in the 7th round with a technical knockout.” A smile spread over his face as he thanked me and marched off with an almost beatific expression.
I asked Roraback what he thought about the war, now that he had had several months to think about it. After explaining that as a military man he had no right to discuss “political” matters, he said: “It’s all a mystery to me. I’ve no idea what it’s all about. Of course, as a legally constituted government, Saigon has the right to put down the guerillas and ask us to help them. But there are two sides to every question and the guerillas also have the right to try and overthrow the government if they don’t like it. But as to who is right and who is wrong, who will win or lose or what the whole thing is about, I have no idea.”
The others replied similarly. They had “no idea” what the war was about or why they were really there. They all insisted on their purely “advisory” role.
The question arises. Why do people who have no ideological interest in, or knowledge of, what this war is about, volunteer for such dangerous, unpleasant duty? For that, one has to look at their pay. Roraback’s basic pay of US$335.00 per month jumped up to US$858.40 a month while he is in South Vietnam, and the other three each received from US$450 to US$500 per month extra for the South Vietnam service, which must make them about the highest paid mercenaries ever, in relation to their rank.
Their Liberation Front opposite numbers, from rank and file troops to regimental commander, get 40 piastres per month — a little over one dollar at the official rate and about US$0.40 at the real, black market rate. But the difference between patriots and mercenaries on the field of battle reminds one of the dog explaining why he had failed in a hard race to catch a hare. “That hare was running for its life, I only for my dinner.”
The Vietnamese are fighting for their lives, the Americans for their dinners, and that means the difference between victory and defeat in the type of struggle being waged in South Vietnam.
Wilfred Burchett was an Australian reporter often described as 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 who broke 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 place names in this piece have been changed to reflect their modern-day spelling
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- The Inside Story of the Guerrilla War - Chapter 4: Integrated with the Enemy
- The Inside Story of the Guerrilla War - Chapter 3: Hide and Seek
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