Interpreter

by Richard Dieterle

...

I remember on one occasion we had with us an NVA Chiêu Hồi up in I Corps who was suppose to show us where an NVA battalion was presently dug in. Instead, he took us on a wild goose chase over the countryside, and finally, more or less by chance, we stumbled onto a set of long abandoned bunkers. I was supposed to ask him all kinds of complex questions, but in fact all that we could communicate could be expressed in the vocabulary of a two year old. Finally, the 2d Platoon Lieutenant interrupted, having lost all patience: "You ... know ... where ... find ... En Vee Ay? You ... show ... Meri-can ... where ... at?" After the Lieutenant and I exchanged a few unpleasantries, the enterprise was abandoned. I suspect the Chiêu Hồi was just leading us on, I hardly think that he changed his sentiments regarding the war, and you could hardly blame anyone for that.

For all practical purposes, my tenure as an interpreter effectively ended when I made a rather radical error. A person dressed in NVA khakis came down from the An Lô Mountains and Chiêu Hồi’ed not long after the Great Ambush. I used my sharp perceptiveness to fill in the many blanks in understanding left me from my want of proper Vietnamese. I could see at once that this person — probably a nurse — was clearly pregnant and near to giving birth. After listening to her babble away in Vietnamese that I could not understand, I merely presented a summary of the obvious: she was a Chiêu Hồi who had to come in since she did not have enough food to ensure a safe pregnancy. Unfortunately, though everyone was satisfied at the time, it later came to light that the "nurse" was not even a woman, but a male soldier. He looked pregnant because he had kwashiorkor, a nutritional disease that causes bloating of the lower abdomen. He had surrendered because he could no longer endure the starvation to which he had been subjected.