That doesn’t mean I was very close to anybody in Thanh Quit, but I knew most of them by sight and they all knew me. The men would nod and exchange greetings when we met on a footpath, while the women scolded, teased or ignored me as the occasion required.
I identified so much with our villagers that I did everything I could to protect them from harm. That could mean intercepting VC infiltrators, calling a medevac helicopter for a wounded child or stopping a Vietnamese soldier from beating a shopkeeper.
Protecting our villagers from the Viet Cong was one of the main reasons CAP 2-7-2 operated in Thanh Quit for nearly two years. But it was hard to know what the ordinary people thought of our presence.
The lack of a common language was a significant barrier between us Marines and the Regional Force soldiers in our unit. But necessity and long practice provided effective ways of communicating with our counterparts. With our villagers, the language barrier was much higher.
We were taught greetings and about 30 common phrases in Vietnamese during CAP School. Some Marines never learned any more. Others with a gift for languages picked up new words and phrases from the RFs or our unofficial interpreters. A few Marines in each company were sent to Language School located with CAP School in the My Khe compound on the beach at Danang.
A rare few — like Sgt. Whitmer — became fluent to the point that they could tell and understand jokes in Vietnamese. They were worth their weight in gold, but I doubt if they heard much from the villagers but cautious evasion.
An impossible position
The people of our ville were in an impossible position — caught powerless between two powerful forces. They did not dare show open loyalty to the government of South Vietnam or they would be tortured or murdered by the Viet Cong hidden in their midst. Expressing support for the VC would bring similar penalties from the South Vietnamese forces and their American backers. The main difference was — the South Vietnamese and Americans did not deliberately murder their opponents. Murder is one of the methods the VC used to control the villagers.
So most of our villagers steered a cautious middle course, neither actively helping nor harming either side, but trying to stay alive and feed themselves in the middle of a war. When push came to shove, I believe, they were more likely to favor the Viet Cong out of simple fear. They knew the VC would not hesitate to murder them on mere suspicion of aiding the government. If suspected of VC activity, government forces might harshly interrogate, beat or even jail them. But at least they would survive to be released sooner or later.
The state of affairs was different in some CAPs where Marines tell stories of being tipped off by villagers about enemy movements and supply caches. CAPs in refugee villes and predominantly Catholic areas sometimes got a great deal of help from civilians, but not in Thanh Quit.
Still, there was a tangible relationship between the Marines of CAP 2-7-2 and our villagers. When I first arrived at the CAP, I was surprised to learn that we billeted ourselves each day in a Vietnamese household. In practical terms that meant we barged into a house each morning just as the family was breakfasting. There we stayed throughout the day in what official reports called our “patrol base.” We used the family hearth to cook, slept in the family beds, played cards and ate at the family table, piled equipment everywhere and lounged where we chose.
We did not ask the householder’s permission to spend the day in their home. If we had given them the option to say ‘no’ then any family that said ‘yes’ would have been vulnerable to punishment by the Viet Cong.
The men of the household left as usual for their fields and could ignore our presence. But I’m sure we were a complete nuisance to the women, tracking in dirt, creating clutter and getting in the way. Most of them took our intrusion with surprising calm, not that they had any choice in the matter. You don’t say ‘no’ to a dozen heavily armed men who don’t even speak your language.
I don’t know of any formal system for compensating our reluctant hosts. But it was common for Marines to give the woman of the house various C-rations throughout the day, ranging from complete meals to individual cans. And we typically kept an empty C-ration case as a trash box in our day sites. In addition to empty ration cans and boxes Marines tossed unwanted items like a book of matches, a dented can of cheese spread or a slightly crushed cigarette into our trash box. As we prepared to leave at the end of the day, our hostess typically claimed the trash box, containing odds and ends worth $5-$10 at the local market. That’s pretty good compensation in a country where a rice farmer’s income was $150 a year.
The children of our ‘host’ families were always happy to see us. Our arrival meant their home would be a hive of unusual activity for the day. And they were also sure to be get rare treats like candy and chewing gum from the Marines.
Unburdened by the conventions of rural Vietnam, we shamelessly stared at the unmarried girls and boldly flirted with them in our rudimentary Vietnamese. They sometimes smiled, or blushed and turned away. Others ignored us or pursed their lips and hurried by. The bravest would reply in a challenging or angry way, delighting us in either case. We greeted, joked with and teased the older, married women and exchanged civil greetings with the men as taught in CAP School.
Although we flirted aggressively with the young women of our ville, I never knew of a Marine who credibly claimed any real romantic success. Most of us had our favorites, but flirting was as far as it went. The gulf of language and culture was too wide. And the mores of Thanh Quit were like those of small farming communities anywhere in the world where family and religion are mainstays.
Paul Jungel tells the story of a Marine before my time at CAP 2-7-2 who had a girlfriend in the ville. He was said to slip out of the CAP’s night positions to visit her, slipping back before the CAP moved out again. I was amazed when I heard that story. Although crazy dangerous, I have no reason not to believe it. Young men are known to do stupid things and exceptions prove the rule.
Bathing in public
I remember many times bathing at a well or the river while nearby groups of middle-aged women doing laundry pointed at us, commented and laughed with great glee. Most of us bathed while wearing thin cotton shorts or Marine-issue green boxers, but a few guys went bare.
I imagine the village women discussed our relative size, variety of skin colors and physical endowments (or lack of same). We sometimes responded with invitations to join us for a bath and less savory activities, which were greeted with bawdy remarks and gales of laughter. I once jokingly tried to help a woman with her laundry and she threw a pan of soapy water on me, which had her friends rolling on the ground.
I also recall several instances of village women loudly scolding Marines and RF troops with great moral authority for offenses such as breaking a gate, tramping through a vegetable garden or using up all the firewood. There are few things less pleasant than being on the receiving end of totally justified anger, and offering compensation did not always bring peace. Even the RFs — able to argue in their own defense — quickly retreated on those occasions.
Women and children
I estimate about 500 people lived in the hamlets of Thanh Quit (1) and An Tu within the CAP 2-7-2 Tactical Area of Responsibility (TAOR). At least a third of that number were children below the age of 16. Most of the rest were women of all ages and elderly men.
Elderly is a relative concept in a country where neverending hard labor is the rule. Rice farming with hand tools and draft animals is not for the weak. Both women and men looked wizened, battered and arthritic by age 50. Vietnamese villagers in their 60s could have passed for 20 years older in America. I checked hundreds of civilian identity cards during dozens of patrols, and rarely found anyone in their 70s.
Men between the ages of 16 and 50 were almost never found in our ville. They were away fighting in the South Vietnamese army or the Viet Cong, or they were killed during 30 years of warfare. In the absence of young men, we sometimes wondered where all the children came from!
Probably 90 percent of our villagers were farmers growing rice, tobacco, vegetables and a starchy root plant called (I believe) sang. The rest were shopkeepers, seamstresses, millers, carters and laborers. I don’t know how many farmed their own land and how many were tenants. But I had the impression that many owned at least part of their land.
The village school
Many — but not all — children below age 10 went to a primitive school where the curriculum leaned heavily on loud recitation in unison. The four-room, tile-roofed school built by the government stood empty. Instead the children packed onto benches in a thatch-roofed pavilion with no walls. Villagers feared VC punishment for using the school or the government-built clinic near the marketplace.
Some children did not attend school, but worked alongside their mothers and fathers. Aged villagers did not retire, but were put to lighter work such as caring for infants and poultry, or weaving baskets and mats.
There seemed to be a separate class of little boys who spent their whole day tending the water buffalo used for plowing and cultivating the rice paddies. When the animals were not in use, we saw them loitering in groups of three or four … one boy to each buffalo. The boys rode astride the powerful beasts, steering them with a rope through their nose and urging them on with sticks. It was common to see a 50-pound kid freely beating and screaming at an 800-pound water buffalo that was completely cowed. These boys were noticeably more dirty and ragged than other kids in the ville, and did not go to school.
Judging by the area the farmers worked, landholdings were small. But it was hard for me to tell who owned which plot because neighbors often worked together, especially during busy periods of rice planting and harvest.
In the end … the more I got to know the people of Thanh Quit, the more they reminded me of people of the small town where I grew up, and members of my family. One time I was relaxing on the front steps of a house where we were staying. The 15- or 16-year-old daughter of the house had washed her waist-length black hair and come outside to dry it in the sun. She stood a few feet away, bent over from the waist and combing her wet hair as it hung almost straight down. I had seen my sister do the same thing a hundred times with her waist-length blonde hair.
Posted on Jan. 18, 2002