Chapter 1: Down From the Highlands
For the next 15 issues, Word is proud to present 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

 

From the Author’s Forward

 

Apart from my general interest in the peoples of the former states of Indochina and my special sympathy for the South Vietnamese people in their heroic struggle, I had an important, added reason to visit the Liberated Areas and battlefronts of South Vietnam during late 1963 and the first three months of 1964.
The United States is experimenting with a new type of warfare in South Vietnam, so-called ‘special warfare’, the theoretical father of which is General Maxwell Taylor.

 

Maxwell Taylor’s thesis was that in this nuclear era, the United States must prepare to fight three types of war — global, nuclear war; limited or local wars; and ‘special’ wars. The special thing about the latter is that US combat troops are not involved.

 

I went there to find out on the spot what was really special in this new military concept and what were the special means the South Vietnamese people had in countering its strategies, tactics and techniques.

 

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In the Nam Bo

 

 

At first I held on to the barrel of the shouldered rifle of the guerilla ahead of me, but soon my eyes could distinguish the white triangle of his haversack and I was able to follow him closely enough to avoid taking a wrong turn on the narrow, winding track. We walked as fast and as noiselessly as the crackling, dried leaves under our rubber sandals would permit.

 

Finally we halted, haversacks were dumped on the ground. Now there were broad smiles, more handshakes and the word ‘Nam Bo’. Cigarettes were lit and everyone relaxed. We were again in friendly territory. For me it was an emotional moment because it meant that I was now in the real South, in Nam Bo (Cochinchina), and on my way to what I felt sure would be the highlight of my visit — the outskirts of Saigon where I hoped to touch the very essence of this war at the gates of the capital itself. Conversation now was limited only by language difficulties, my too few words of Vietnamese and their too few words of French.

 

While we were resting, I noticed two guerillas take out their knives and hack down a small sapling which they proceeded to trim and then attach the cords of my hammock to each end. A new way of slinging my hammock, I thought. Perhaps it is tiger country and they are putting me high up between the forks of two trees. When the cigarettes were finished the unit chief made signs that I should enter what was now transformed into a palanquin, suspended between the shoulders of two guerillas, each about half my size. With some indignation I invited them to test the steely quality of my leg muscles. There were some smiles and appreciative murmurs as a result of which the hammock was untied and the pole thrown away.

 

I learned next day, when an interpreter turned up, that the guerillas had been informed that I was “old and not used to walking”. This was a slander on my 52 years and previous months’ activities — and the only occasion on which I found the guerillas to be misinformed.

 

**********

 

 

Next morning I was introduced to a bicycle; despite a dubious start, in the weeks that followed I was to cover about 500 miles on bike, plus quite a few more on foot and in a sampan. My comprehensive training for the trip, incidentally, had not included bicycle riding and nothing could have simulated the reality in any case. A narrow, winding trail, never more than three or four yards straight, with roots and snags everywhere; tiny stumps where the undergrowth had been slashed close to — but not level with — the earth, jabbing at your pedals and angles; overhead creepers waiting to strangle you while you are looking down to avoid a stump; trellises of bamboo banging at your head no matter how low you bent over the handle bars; a multitude of spikes reaching out to rip your shirt and flesh to shreds; a combination of traps, snags, loops and spikes trying to trip you up and unseat you at every turn.

 

And in the beginning, the bike invariably insisted on taking the very direction one wanted to avoid. Worst of all, added to the previous terrors of the log bridges, was that the bike as well now had to be maneuvered across, usually on one’s shoulders.

 

But when we emerged after a few hours of snag-ridden, serpentine trail on to what still bore resemblance to a bard-topped highway, I began to appreciate being on wheels again. The old sense of balance soon returned and the miles began to whizz by. It was better than being in a jeep because with the silence of bike travel we always had plenty of warning of approaching planes and could pull into the under-growth.

 

Gifts of the USA

 

My first Nam Bo bike was a Mavic, and although it was French-made, the frame and both wheels were stamped with clasped US-Vietnamese hands under the Stars and Stripes and the legend that it was a “gift of the people of the USA”. Just like the bombs and napalm! The same with the haversacks of the guerillas and troops we passed on the road. Haversacks were almost invariably white flour sacks, stamped in big letters: THIS IS A GIFT OF THE PEOPLE OF THE USA. NOT TO BE SOLD OR EXCHANGED.

 

It was ironic, to say the least, to see long lines of troops moving along the road to attack a post or take part in a counter-mopping up action, each prominently displaying on his back: ‘GIFT OF THE PEOPLE OF THE USA’. In the Nam Bo, it seemed, the clasped hands of friendship were more in evidence in Liberation Front areas than their own yellow-starred red and blue flag. Apart from the captured US weapons themselves, almost every other bit of equipment I came across, from generators to spot-welding machines and X-ray equipment, bore the clasped hands and the standard legend.

 

“You Are in Saigon Now”

 

 

The following day the track led through lots of open country and in and out of rubber plantations. Lots of plane activity. One mademoiselle started very early in the morning, at first in big circles, then tighter and tighter ones with our little group always in the centre, in a patch of small trees and bushes in which we had taken cover when she seemed too inquisitive. The main concern of my companions was that someone may have reported back about a “European with the Viet Cong” and the Americans may conclude I am one of their POWs being transferred.

 

We had to play ‘hide and seek’, pushing on when the plane’s tail was turned to us, hoping she was blind in that position, hiding in whatever skimpy cover was available when we were clearly under observation. But she called up a sister plane to have us constantly in view. The two of them buzzed around like blowflies, flying in ever tighter circles and then cutting diagonals through the circles, zooming down lower and lower while we sped along, taking chances, by now trying to reach the comparative shelter of a rubber plantation.

 

Our security chief feared helicopter troops might be moved into the various clearings and the escort troops were very much at the ready again. By the time the planes had zoomed down to near treetop level we had reached Olympic standards in a final burst of speed that took us into the shade of a rubber plantation — not the same perfect camouflage roof as the jungle gives, but enough to cover our nakedness, of which I had been acutely conscious for the previous hour or so.

 

The ‘hide and seek’ had gone on for three hours by now; the sun was well up and the sweat pouring down. Our guide kept up a high speed, however, until we reached what was pronounced to be a ‘safe area’. Within three minutes the planes dived down and to my surprise — I did not suspect that reconnaissance planes carried weapons — they dropped napalm bombs on a tiny cluster of huts they had sighted in the plantation, a few hundred yards from where we had slung our hammocks. One of the huts was hit and a nine-year-old girl was killed — which depressed me greatly because the planes were undoubtedly led to those huts by following our trail.

 

In the afternoon we moved on again, passing within 1,500 yards of a post, some green twigs fortunately indicating which tracks we should not follow. Lots of plane activity, but nothing so specifically in our direction. There were plenty of explosions from high-level and dive bombers, but as the sun dropped low on the horizon this slackened off. I was cautioned to follow the bicycle ahead very precisely because the road was ‘mined’ by the guerillas with spiked traps and some explosive ones.

 

We entered a village where everything was gay and lively, decorated with banners of the Front and slogans on red cloth hailing the Lunar New Year; there were cosy scenes in the huts as we passed, families taking their evening meal out-of-doors, children playing under the trees, dogs barking at our arrival — the atmosphere of normal, peaceful village life. There was even a rare, friendly mechanical noise — electric-powered irrigation pumps for the local-market gardens.

 

I was astonished on being escorted into a hut to see a bottle of John Haig whisky on the table. My host, a wispy-bearded old man whose face was a myriad of wrinkles and who was introduced as a “veteran revolutionary from the November 1940 uprising”, asked whether I drank it neat or with soda. Within seconds he produced a bottle of soda and a basin of ice. The reply to my wonderment as to where the ice came from was: “But you are in Saigon now!” In fact, we were about six miles from the outskirts.

 

After a full day’s rest and talks with the villagers and local guerillas, we set out on a zigzag course which was to bring us still closer to the capital. And about the time the Year of the Cat was transforming itself into the Year of the Dragon — that is about midnight on February 12, 1964 — I was gliding down a small canal towards the golden halo of Saigon. The outboard motor puttered away gently; some escort troops, carbines across their knees and fingers on the triggers, peered earnestly into the darkness; the guide scanned every tree and cross canal.

 

The motor was cut. We were either very close to the rendezvous point or we had missed it. A minute or two in the wrong direction now would be fatal. The striking of even a match could bring a shattering artillery barrage in reply. As we rounded one bend however, a tiny point of light flashed twice from within the depths of a bamboo grove, and as we veered towards the feathery profile from which the flashes had come. There were some whispered exchanges between shore and boat, as a result of which we entered a tunnel in the bamboo and within seconds, hands clasped my arms to guide me out of the boat and on to a path.

 

Without a word spoken apart from those hurried whispers, the escort troops fanned out each side and ahead of me and we were hastening along a path through a pineapple garden towards the next rendezvous point, a grove of trees for our hammocks. We were then about five miles from the southwest tip of Saigon. It was comforting to be assured that the sharp explosions in the immediate vicinity, some of them like rippling bursts of machine gun fire, came from the petards of New Year revelers, ignoring the strict ban that General Nguyen Khanh had ordered on any use of fireworks in welcoming the New Year of the Dragon.

 

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Special thanks to George Burchett for allowing us to republish the work of his father

 


 

Who was Wilfred Burchett?

 

There have been many intrepid journalists, but Wilfred Burchett (1911 — 1983) was one of the most unique. His moment came on Sep. 5, 1945, when London’s Daily Express printed his Morse code dispatch on the horrors of Hiroshima — the first public report detailing the post-atomic effects on the city.
Although his report was one of the scoops of the century, there was much more to Burchett’s intrepidness. Starting in 1936, when he left his native Australia to help Jewish refugees escape Hitler’s Germany, he began a career of championing the underdog. Despite turning 60 during the American War he
still travelled hundreds of kilometres to cover it, often sheltering in tunnels with NVA and Viet Cong soldiers against attacks by US forces.

 

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