For the next 13 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

 

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.

 

Liberation Intelligence

 

 

One thing that constantly astonished me was the absolute precision with which the Liberation Front forces operated. The contact to steer us past enemy posts was always waiting behind the right tree at the right time; a tiny signal light would wink at us out of the jet black night at the very moment the second hand of the watch moved up towards rendezvous time, a winking point of light that could be taken for a firefly unless one knew it should be there at that precise time and place. The sampan was always where it should be to cross a stream in enemy-controlled territory; the barbed wire was always cut within yards of the rendezvous point to cross a strategic highway; the guide to the secret tunnels never failed to be when and where he should be.

 

A more important example was the precise information the Front military cadres had, not only about their adversary’s movements, but his intentions. At some point along the jungle track, or canal, or mountain trail, whoever happened to be chief of the group would suggest a rest. Within minutes, a partisan invariably appeared with one of those tiny envelopes already mentioned. I quickly developed a great affection for them because they brought us continuous news of what the adversary was up to.

 

Sometimes, especially in the Saigon area, these little notes caused us to change our travel plans abruptly. After studying such a note, the chief of the group would pull out what looked like a small pack of playing cards and in consultation with whoever happened to be the guide through that particular area — a guerilla who combined the duties of mail courier with that of guiding cadres past enemy posts — the group chief would thumb through the cards, checking them carefully with the news in the letter and selecting one with which the guide agreed.

 

The cards were covered with letters and numbers and one would think at first, by the intense, serious expressions, that some game for very high stakes was being played. In fact, the numbers and letters were coded symbols for every road and track, every stream and canal in the region through which we were passing. Each card represented a different combination, all the possible variants of moving from point A to point B. According to news of the adversary’s movements, the card was chosen and liaison established with the guerillas whose territory we would be traversing.

 

On one memorable occasion a tiny envelope arrived and faces were more serious than usual as the contents were perused. It was the evening before we were to leave the Saigon-Gia Dinh area and head off to the northeast. “In two days time,” explained the area military commander, “the enemy will start a big mopping-up operation, employing five battalions, about 4,000 men. This operation will take place in the very area you have to traverse; they will occupy the roads you have to travel or cross; their patrol boats will be active on the rivers you have to travel on. It will last four days. We propose that you stay here where we can protect you.”

 

Sure enough, two mornings later, there was great activity by planes and helicopters, mesdemoiselles buzzing around from the first streak of dawn, seeking out targets for the bombers. Whatever information they signaled back, I could never even guess. But by 8am two B-26 bombers came over and started a raid that lasted four hours. They stuck to a single flight circle, dropping a few bombs each time they came round.

 

My interpreter, an expert on the direction of shells, now proved his merits by estimating the flight of the bombs. As the planes came round, he watched them with an eagle eye, reporting when the bombs were leaving the bomb bays and whether they were coming close enough to jump into the shelter or not. The bombs were always whooshing down as we jumped and the fearsome crash of the explosions about us coincided with the thud of our feet into the shelter. We avoided going in as much as we could, because the earth ceiling was covered with long-legged spiders, the shock of the explosions invariably detaching some of them on to our necks.

 

The Tunnel System

 

 

In mid-afternoon, envelopes having poured in all day, one arrived with the information that Saigon troops had pushed down and occupied a road only a half mile distant, so I and a few members of our group were to be hidden in a secret tunnel.

 

The others had to get ready for ‘military affairs’. Five battalions were being employed, as the warning had predicted, and were accompanied by 23 M-113 tanks. Artillery and mortar shells were coming quite close and there was an alarmingly sharp rattle of machine gun fire, as we were guided through a patch of rubber trees to a square manhole through which we dropped — in my case squeezed — down into a tunnel.

 

Such tunnels are not built for my size; where others double up and walk I could only crawl and for a few moments I had a feeling of claustrophobia. I have always had a secret dread of being underground in a confined space and have marveled that anyone could choose mining as a life job. Breathing was difficult at first because our group was huddled together, all breathing heavily after the exertions of getting ourselves and our baggage into the tunnel.

 

Later, when the rest of the party moved off in the direction given by the guide, the air got better and I found, stretched out on the ground, that breathing became normal again.

 

There were moments, however, when I felt I must burst out of that manhole again at all costs... There were miniscule worms in the ground, no bigger than a speck of dust, which manage in a surprisingly short time to burrow into the skin, causing a prickly feeling when one touches the spot. This was explained to me when I started to scratch. Apart from the irritation, it seems, they do no harm. Someone brought me a nylon sheet to lie on and all but the early worms were frustrated, but those that did burrow in stayed with me for several weeks.

 

The noise of battle was somewhat muffled here but distinct enough for me to know that it was quite close and moving in our direction... While I was still squeezing myself down through the manhole, there had been another sharp burst of machine gun fire very close, I judged not more than 100 yards, immediately followed by several carbine shots within 20 or 30 yards. I thought the shots were aimed in our direction, that the Saigon troops had infiltrated and thus must have sighted the hideout.

 

In fact, as I discovered later, a patrol had come within a few hundred yards; the Front forces had given them a few bursts of a heavy machine gun, the carbine shots were fired as warnings to us by sentries who had also sighted the patrol.

 

I was then guided a few score more yards along the tunnel to a place where there was a tiny, horizontal air hole, leading from the tunnel into an abandoned spiked trap. I lay with my face close to a marvelous flow of air and dozed off to sleep; the rippling crashes of artillery seemed to have receded a bit.

 

I was awakened by the interpreter shaking my shoulder and bringing news that after suffering some casualties, the Saigon troops had pulled back a few miles. We could emerge into the fresh air for a while. Envelopes converged on us from all directions, confirming that about an hour before sunset the adversary was licking his wounds and had dug in about three miles distant. After much consultation, it was decided to shift our position to a point a bit further from the enemy and where there were “more comfortable tunnels and first-class air-raid shelters”.

 

So we set out for a brisk hour’s march. When we arrived at the spot, on the banks of a fairly big river, urgent discussions again took place. There was the disturbing noise of a motor of some sort of heavy river craft, not too far downstream from where we were. Within minutes an envelope had arrived with the news that an American landing craft was moored at a wharf about a mile downstream, with the motor running and only the crew aboard.

 

“There are two possibilities,” said the military chief after consultations were completed. “Either that landing craft is to ferry the troops back to their base, or it is waiting to take troops aboard for a raid into this area. I think the second is more likely as the operation should continue three more days according to original plans. So we must move you again.”

 

It was a splendid moonlight night and we were soon on our way, marching over rice fields, the short, dried stubble pricking at our feet through the open sandals. After we had marched quickly for half an hour, we could hear the landing craft’s motor revving up and it was clear it was under way, heading in the direction we had just left. Almost immediately salvos of shells started coming in our direction and we had to throw ourselves on the ground for the bursts, keeping on the move in between.

 

After a good three hours’ march, with the shelling providing the only rests, we slung our hammocks in a thick belt of forest, my “own” trees being on the edge of a crater from a 1,000-pound bomb. Half an hour after we arrived, there was one sharp burst of automatic fire in the distance. Later, an envelope arrived with the news that a cadre, following the path we had taken, was surprised by a patrol from the landing craft and was killed with a burst from a tommy gun.

 

Military Manhunt

 

 

Early next morning the operation was in full swing, the main body of Saigon troops having moved into the area. Mesdemoiselles were soaring overhead like wasps, trying to spot defense positions and direct artillery fire. It was easy to distinguish the attackers’ artillery, mortar and long bursts of machine gun and automatic fire from the lighter, shorter bursts from the defenders’ automatic weapons and single shots of rifle fire.
The guerillas never like to fire a single unnecessary shot — cartridges are too precious. It sounded like a terribly unequal combat with bombs and shells thundering down in between the exchanges of the lighter weapons. But the guerillas do not accept battle on the adversary’s terms. They slow them up, make them pay a little and then fade out. When they give battle, it is on their terms and not too close to populated areas.

And this was what was happening now.

 

“What about the artillery and mortar fire?” I asked. “What are they actually shooting at?”

 

“Sometimes they spot some of our defense positions,” the area commander replied, “but more often they just bomb and shell blindly at any patch of forest or bamboo, at anything they suspect might be sheltering people. And half the time I think they shell to try and inject some morale into their troops. They must have long given up any idea that the noise terrifies our people; they’ve had too many experiences that prove the contrary.”

 

As the artillery started up again after an hour’s relative peace, I listened to the 11am news from Radio Australia and heard a Reuter dispatch: “Senior US officers and high-ranking Saigon government officials are demanding that the war should be extended to Communist North Vietnam to offset Viet Cong pressure in South Vietnam.” The rest of the broadcast was blocked out by two dive-bombers roaring down in an attack about a half-mile away. They each made three dives, releasing two half-ton bombs each time. In a fourth dive, they released rockets and fired their machine guns.

 

 

Later in the day, when things got a bit quieter, some of us went to see the results. A delegation of US taxpayers would have been impressed! There were 12 craters spread over a strip of jungle about 300 yards long by 100 yards wide and some holes not more than three inches deep with remains of rockets around them. The target was a tiny patch of jungle track that showed through the trees, on which one bomb had squarely landed. Perhaps there had been a column of troops passing? I thought, but a check was made. Nobody had been in the area and troops in any case would have been well under the trees with planes about. It would take the guerillas five minutes with their knives to hack out a new bit of track around the water.

 

“It’s typical,” said the area commander when we reported back. “They’ll bomb and strafe for hours at any tiny bit of track they see. Every day there is this fantastic waste of shells and bombs.”

 

Wilfred Burchett was an Australian reporter often described at 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 month 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

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