by Richard Dieterle
OCTOBER, 1967 — We descended by helicopter into the An Lão Valley, and walked some distance down the main road towards our objective. An Lão was once a frightening place to be. Many battles were fought there by the Cav in the two preceding years, and the level of frustration had reached a high point. It was decided to empty out most of the valley of its inhabitants and to put them in artificially constructed hamlets surrounded by barbed wire and protected by gun towers at their entrances. The hooches were constructed of aluminum corrugated panels, which must have been a nightmare in the tropical sun. The people had been simply rounded up with their belongings and shipped out to the new "secured area." Not all depopulation was orderly, however. As we progressed, we went through one village that had been, as we would say today, "trashed." It looked like Godzilla had trampled it under foot and smoked it for good measure. Someone told me that this was the work of Charlie Company, and that they had the nasty habit of capriciously torching everything in their path. The whole valley had been laid waste, and not a soul was to be seen anywhere. Nevertheless, as we progressed, we did encounter, much to our surprise, two older men walking down the road. It seemed clear to everyone that they were beyond military age, and otherwise harmless. They didn't speak English, so we had some trouble trying to find out what they were doing in this land of desolation. As near as we could tell, they were going back to their native village to see what they might salvage, so we trudged along on our separate ways.
|Members of the Fourth Platoon
Constructing a Bunker by the Mustang Bridge
Eventually, we came to the An Lão River, with which we had been walking in parallel. Now the river made a turn and crossed our path. The old dirt road reached to the river where it met a decrepit and dilapidated bridge. Just the same, the span's superstructure was intact, made of steel. The only problem was the road which it had once supported had completely disappeared. Now we found in its place two rows of planks extending the length of the bridge. These planks were not fastened down to the superstructure of the bridge, but simply rested on top of it. This led to some awkward moments as we crossed over on them. The point man often stepped on a board only to find that its opposite end shot up in the air as he nearly fell through the grating. It was beginning to look like old Vaudeville slapstick. As these dangerous points were discovered, the hazard was pointed out to those approaching it by the man in front of them. After weaving our way across the planks, we finally made it to the other shore. Not long afterwards, we reached our destination.
Here was an old and now nameless French fort, completely overgrown with grass. It was well designed to repel a human wave attack, since it was, in the finest French medieval tradition, completely surrounded by a moat. It was not clear whether this moat was ever filled with water. However, an empty moat is at least automatic high ground. As he entered the moat, an attacking enemy would suddenly move from level ground to the bottom of a hill while the defenders fired down on him as he struggled to climb the slops leading to their positions. He would also soon discover that it is far easier to throw a grenade downhill than up. As to the rest of it, I could see no remains of any interior buildings. After the French left, I imagine that the people stripped the place of every usable item, which means pretty much everything. The grass that grew over the moat was a rich green color, and not too tall. It was now up to us to build our sandbag bunkers around the prearranged perimeter so well defined by its luxuriant green moat. It was up to "A" Company to reconstruct this fort after our own style.1 So we set about the laborious business of digging up earth, filling sandbags, and slowly raising a bunker that would not only protect us from the enemy, but give us some degree shelter from the perpetual rain of the ubiquitous and oppressive monsoon.
The leadership decided that the waves of grass on the far side of the moat were a little too tall for their taste, so we were ordered to grab machetes and clear a field of fire. This meant that the grass would be cut down so that it could not offer concealment for an advancing hostile force. I was fresh out of Language School, and there was no one left in An Lão with which to practice my paltry language skills. I did have a very large dictionary, and I thought it might be of benefit to the company if I spent time trying to build up a vocabulary. However, my suggestion that I while away my time in the shade reading while everyone else spent long hours chopping grass was met with a measure of scorn. So I paired up with Arthur to cut our sector. He was one of the few people known by his first name. He might be best described as "mild mannered." He was cultured to some degree, although no where near the sophisticated level of Archuleta. He was good company nonetheless, and we kept ourselves lightly entertained by our unsophisticated philosophical discussions as the swinging machetes mowed down our botanical enemies. However, Top had the ears of a wolf, and on what I call the "prick-ter scale," had a rating of about 8. He found all evidence of intellectual acuity to be a certain sign of effeminacy, so he swooped down and told us to "quit talking all this bullshit!" He then looked at me as though I should know better, and said, "You and Arthur are two of a kind." It occurred to me that this was not intended as a compliment. If we wished to engage in the unmanly pursuit of epistemology, we had just better keep ours eyes peeled. However, it did feel strange to be under a regime where signs of education made your value as a soldier suspect. It kind of reminded me of some zealous form of hyper-egalitarian communism. The more down to earth grass mowing job continued for several days. It seemed like every day it rained, and rained all day long, sometimes a mere drizzle, other times a regular downpour.2 Yet that never affected anything we did. Even today it strikes me as strange that people try so hard to shelter themselves from the rain. When people ask me, "Where's your umbrella?" I tell them, "I'm waterproof," a fact I discovered in the ’Nam. Our jungle fatigues and even our jungle boots, were designed to cope with water. They were not by any means waterproof, they just dried quickly; and the boots had a special miniature grating that allowed water to drain out of the inside of the footwear. During the monsoon, the water was omnipresent, and during the hot season, our bodies supplied almost as much water in sweat as the monsoon did by soaking us from the sky.
That night or the next, someone on the perimeter claimed to have spotted motion to his front. It was some ways distant, but close enough to cause concern. The mountains were known to be rife with NVA units, and we fully expected that they might try some kind of probe. So the Fourth Platoon, the mortar platoon, began setting up their tubes. One was established near our own bunker. Just before dusk, a full-blooded fire commenced. Everything seemed to be going fine, when the mortar nearby made an anemic sounding thud, and one of the mortar men screamed, "Short round!" Before anyone could react, the shell landed about 5 meters away, our side of the moat. Fortunately for people in the area, it did not explode. The short round is the great fear of mortar men, since it very nearly approaches self-bombardment. This time we were lucky.
Artillery Firing from LZ Mustang, 1967
Yet the uneasy feeling persisted that somebody was out there biding his time before launching the inevitable clash of arms. The next day, we had plenty of artillery ready, and they commenced their usual ferocious bombardment. They targeted an area upstream where our choppers reported seeing many bunkers. These oval bunkers were lined with semi-logs of coconut wood, whose fibrous, tough structure made them almost impenetrable. The hope was to saturate this area so thoroughly that nothing usable remained. The next day we went out to see what kind of damage had been done. Perhaps not surprisingly, there was only one bunker that had sustained a direct hit. The rest seemed in serviceable condition. However, it is impossible to know how old a bunker made out of baked mud really is. These bunkers were probably left over from the days when the NVA were not confined to the mountains, but dominated the valley itself. So nothing of any interest was found there, and there was no evidence of any enemy activity in the area.
Around Oct. 17, after we got the LZ built and all our barbed wire strung, the Lt. General in command of the whole Corps, accompanied by Cav. commander Gen. Tolson, paid us a visit.3 Despite the fact that we had not made any contact, it was clear that the higher Brass had decided that this project was of the greatest importance. It was about this time that we set out on a large platoon sized ambush. That was an event of interest, so I have written about in a separate story (The Great Ambush).
|In this photo by Lt. Church from late 1967, the terrain is almost identical to that we encountered in the vicinity LZ Mustang as we were moving towards the mountains, if it is not one and the same. Larry Nunn is pulling point here with a shotgun.|
After another week or so, having sent out daily patrols the whole time, our tour on this rest home finally came to an end. Our next mission was to ascend the An Lão Mountains and come down on the other side on the Bồng Sơn plain. LZ Mustang was now somebody else's problem. So around 1000 hours, we set out for the mountains on foot. The area between the LZ and the base of the mountains was a series of abandoned rice paddies. It was evident that quite a number of people had lived in this area before we had moved them out to save them from the Viet Cong, which is to say, to save them from themselves. They were about as grateful as you could expect. Now no one lived there at all. Not a "ghost town," but a "ghost valley." Even then I thought if bringing democracy meant emptying out the countryside, it wasn't worth it. Democracy is the only truly civilized form of government short of Plato's utopian Philosopher King, but in the end it is only government, and there is more to civilization than its apparatus of rule. That's what we had lost sight of, that in trying to institute the best form of government, we were in serious danger of destroying civilization itself. As Tacitus said of the Romans, "They created a desert, and called it peace." General Le May was found of saying, "We'll bomb them into the Stone Age," but what would be the point? Did he think that the cavemen survivors would naturally take to democracy?
So we trudged along the strangely neat, abandoned rice paddies until we reached the mountains not far distant. We knew someone was up there, and that they were keeping an eye on us. Lt. Church told us to keep ours eyes peeled for evidence of the same. Someone noticed fairly high up on a tree what in the days of the old pirates would be called a "crow's nest." It was a rather crudely constructed tree platform suitable for one person to keep an eye on our activities in the valley below. There were no doubt others. We were fortunate in not making contact up in the enemy's high country. It was decided that we would leave the unproductive solitude of the mountains for the Bồng Sơn valley where at least there were human beings about, however unhappy they might be to see us.
1 In a letter home written much later, probably late November, I said,
The LZ we built in the An Lhô was named LZ “Mustang” and the sign bears the inscription, “built by A 1/8” – it rather reminds me of the “Bridge over the River Kwai” – and the LZ will probably end up the same way.
2 In a letter home dated October 13, I said,
I finished school several days ago – I placed 5th in a class of 15, and first in the Battalion this cycle. I will send you my commendation when I get it.
I am no longer carrying machinegun ammo so I am in a line squad now. However I will probably be transferred to the CP.
Right now A 1/8 is building an LZ in the An Lô valley from scratch. Its quite an experience to see one of these modern day stockades arising in the boondocks where there was nothing before.
The monsoons have started in force and this morning has been exceptional in that it has not rained. I borrowed this paper since mine is all wet. It is almost impossible to write in this kind of weather since it rains all the time.
I’ll try to write again when it stops raining.
|Gen. John J. Tolson|
3 In a letter home dated October 18, I said,
There is really very little to write about presently as we are still engaged in building LZ “Mustang” in the An Lô Valley. We were visited by the Corps Commander (Lt. Gen.), Cav. commander, Gen. Tolman, and some other general, all in one day. This LZ is given top priority, since it is the only LZ in the entire An Lô. Nobody to speak of lives in this valley anymore since the Cav. sacked it in ’65.
An Lão Valley — see the following maps: Bồng Sơn, the An Lão Valley, and Tam Quan; LZ Mustang and the An Lão Valley, and LZ Sandra, LZ Mustang, and the An Lão Valley.
French fort — for the situation of this LZ, see the following maps: LZ Mustang and the An Lão Valley, and LZ Sandra, LZ Mustang, and the An Lão Valley.
monsoon — the monsoon season differed radically from one place to another inside Vietnam. See the map with graphed data: Indochina, Precipitation & Monsoon Air Flow.