A Jungle Arms Factory
“We started up in 1960 and our only raw materials were bits of soap iron and some powder from unexploded bombs. At that time, we had only one department; now we have 10. Then we thought we were performing miracles to produce 15 grenades a month; now we produce 5,000.”
He was a tall, gaunt and balding Vietnamese; around me workers in aprons and with white masks over their faces were ramming powder into anti-personnel mines; working spiral presses that jammed wooden handles neatly into hand grenades; grinding in queer, canoe-shaped receptacles caked in gunpowder from bombs into a fine variety for grenades, mixing and sifting powder as if we were in a bakery instead of a jungle arsenal. A mademoiselle was buzzing around overhead. If she could only have seen what I was looking at! But the jungle is kind to its friends.
“At first we had no skilled workers,” continued my informant, the director of the arsenal. “But we trained peasants, some of whom can now be regarded as skilled workers. Gradually we developed and expanded until now we can to a certain extent meet the Front’s requirements in this region. In the process of production, we also trained cadres who now head the various departments. Imbued with the spirit of struggle against the enemy, the morale of workers and cadres is higher every day. Some specialised workers have come from Saigon to help us.”
He handed me a couple of aluminium beer mugs, inscribed with my name and that of my host organisation, the Quarter-master General’s Department of the Liberation Army. “They are made from rocket cylinders,” he said. “We have no primary raw materials, so we gather all the soap available from the enemy: plane parts, bits of bombs and rockets — the beer mug handles are from napalm bomb canisters — wrecked trucks, bridge railings, bits of railway track, any metal we can get hold of. The population do their best for us — look at these brass incense burners an old woman brought us the other day.”
I stopped to watch a welder in a masked, steel helmet, welding fins on to rifle grenades and followed the acetylene gas line to the parent machine. It was marked: ‘Portaweld-Onan, Minneapolis’, and also bore the clasped hands of American-Vietnamese ‘friendship’. “Yes,” the director said, “we cannot complain about the quality of US machinery. If they had come to our country only with machines like these instead of their planes and tanks, it would have been better for us all.”
Every worker had his own weapon alongside him at his workbench. They were keen, smiling young chaps, obviously and justifiably proud of their productions. It was pleasant again to hear the humming of machinery; to hear mechanical noises that were not from the adversary’s planes or gunboats. One of the impressive sights was a long line of Saigon watchmakers, lenses sewed into their eyes, heads bent low over delicate springs and coils of copper, and fine magnetised wire for various delayed action fuses. Later I was to hear a Voice of America transcript of a McNamara press conference in which the US Defense Secretary cited as “absolute proof” of intervention from North Vietnam, “the appearance in South Vietnam of more sophisticated types of mines, including some naval mines and others with delayed action fuses”. I saw these “more sophisticated” types of weapons in serial production in the jungle arsenal.
The laboratories and the building housing the chemical processes for explosives manufacture were spotlessly clean, the bamboo huts lined with US parachute nylon. In one such hut, girls with delicate balances were weighing the miniscule quantity of explosives necessary for various types of detonator caps and one 15-year-old lad was in charge of an improvised machine for fitting the detonator caps into the cartridges. The director assured me there had not been a single accident at the plant.
“The increase from 15 to 5,000 grenades a month since 1960 is typical of a very rapid increase in all departments, every year,” the director said, as I took my leave. “And we will continue to expand our activities at this tempo.”
The rapid expansion of arms production was typical of the rapid expansion in every field of the Front’s war effort. One of the most remarkable results was in the medical field.
A typical frontline hospital which I visited did not look very different from an ordinary hamlet at first — the same bamboo huts each consisting of barely more than a steep, overhanging palm roof supported by poles and a waist-high, pleated bamboo outer wall, designed to give maximum shade and air. In fact, each hut was a ‘ward’, and one slightly bigger and more enclosed than the others was the operating theatre. Ceilings of the wards, and ceilings and walls of the operating rooms, dispensary and outpatients’ clinic, were lined with white parachute nylon.
In the first ward I visited there were three patients. One was a rubber plantation worker who had been shot in the neck by Saigon troops while he was making his normal morning rounds collecting latex from the rubber trees. The bullet had been removed and he was “doing fine”.
Another was a middle-aged woman who had been wounded in the stomach with a grenade burst. Sections of intestine and part of her liver had to be removed and she was still very weak.
The third, a young guerilla lad, had lost one hand and part of another in a tragic accident with a grenade only two days previously. In a nightmare he had imagined his hamlet was under attack and reaching for his grenade pulled out the pin and was just about to throw it when he woke up. Realising he would probably kill his comrades if he threw it, he held on to it, plunging his hands under some bags of rice alongside his bed. By a miracle, only his hands suffered. One and part of the other had to be amputated. He was still suffering from shock.
This was a real frontline area; alongside each building were air-raid shelters, including those wide enough to take stretcher cases. It was an area subject to almost daily bombings, nightly shellings and frequent ‘mopping up’ raids.
“During 1963,” said Dr. Tran, the surgeon in charge, “we handled 247 surgical cases. They included stomach, head, chest and limb surgery; the results were 98 percent positive.” Apart from Dr. Tran there were four medical assistants, with two years’ medical college training, and nine nursing sisters. The hospital had been set up in late 1960.
“At that time,” reminisced Dr. Tran, a short, energetic man with a thick stubble of hair and sensitive, square-tipped fingers, “there were only three nursing sisters in this whole district, no other medical worker. Now in the district we have 13 medical assistants, 105 nursing sisters, 120 nurses, 13 midwives and 52 assistant midwives. The Front tries to have at least one sister for each hamlet.” I visited a medical school attached to his hospital where 36 nurses and 15 midwife trainees were being given six-month accelerated training courses.
Later I was to visit a much larger unit, referred to by Dr. Ky, who was in charge, as a ‘regimental hospital’. The buildings were much larger, but still of pleated bamboo walls and palm leaf roofs. It had also been set up in 1960 but was enlarged and modernised in 1962, when Dr. Ky took over.
I asked about equipment and medical supplies: “Of course, we are short of some things,” he said. “But on the surgical side, things have improved a lot since our lads captured a portable X-Ray unit.” (I inspected it later, it was made by Picker of Cleveland, Ohio.)
“We use plenty of penicillin and streptomycin, despite the enemy’s blockade of medical supplies,” said Dr. Ky, “but we also use a lot of oriental medicine which we can produce from local products. Our snake-bite antidote, for instance, is more effective than any western one.”
— There is an especially deadly snake in many parts of South Vietnam, similar to the Australian death adder; not more than a foot long, it jumps at its victims. Within three minutes one is paralysed and in two hours dead. The Liberation Front chemists have developed an antidote in tablet form, and every guerilla carries two as part of standard equipment. I always slept with one of these in a handy position for immediate application and was warned never to stray far from my hammock at night and constantly to use a flashlight —
Among substitutes for western medicines, Dr. Ky cited hemoglobin serum in injectable form, obtained from buffalo and pigs; a substance from tiger bones which acted as a powerful stimulant in cases of prolonged weakness; an extract from the placenta of new-born buffalo calves, good for malaria and rheumatism.
I asked what was the average time in his area for medical treatment during a military operation. “Any casualty,” replied Dr. Ky, “can count on first-aid treatment at a company medical station within 30 minutes of being wounded; within one hour he receives first surgical attention at battalion level, and within two hours fundamental surgery at regimental level. Only exceptionally serious cases have to be sent back to the main hospital; normally the frontline hospitals can handle everything that comes their way. Dr. Ky estimated that once the wounded got into the hands of the medical staff, over 90 percent are saved.
He was especially proud of two brain surgery cases and insisted on my seeing them. Both had had bullets removed from the brain; both had been completely paralysed in half their body. Now, the first one operated on is walking around and talking normally, the other one is able to move and Dr. Ky was certain that he would also be walking soon.
Such results are obviously possible only with a very high standard of surgery and post-operational care, difficult to associate with the primitive appearance of the hospital buildings. The hospital had its own pharmaceutical section where various medicines were being prepared in liquid, pill and in edible forms. Dr. Ky explained that part of the medicines came from a central pharmaceutical department which was run by the Committee for Public Health.
Later, I was able to meet Dr. Ho Thu, a French-trained pharmaceutical chemist, who was a member of the Liberation Front’s Central Committee — a modest, greying scientist who, other Presidium members assured me, had “performed miracles” in producing medical supplies. He astonished me by saying that the Front now produces 70 percent of its own medical requirements.
“This had been possible,” he said, “because we made a careful study of traditional oriental medicine and based ourselves on the great wealth of our forest products. In some fields we have surprised ourselves. For instance, we have been able to solve the question of flesh and bone gangrene.” When I asked how, he smiled and said: “We are keeping this a secret, because we consider this a source of national wealth for the future. I can only say that it is based on a forest product. It was only when we made a proper inventory of local vegetable, animal and forest products and checked these off against ancient oriental medical manuals, that we realised how rich we were.”
Dr. Thu said they maintained big stocks of serums and vaccines and always had enough on hand to halt any ‘normal’ epidemics of typhus, smallpox, cholera, etc. Thanks to this, and speedy action, they had halted a recent cholera epidemic that had started in Saigon, and which the authorities there had confidently hoped would spread into the liberated zones.
“As for malaria,” continued Dr. Thu, “this has always been a major problem in the South Vietnam countryside. But we have waged a big campaign against it and the percentage is down enormously. It is down to five percent in even former seriously infested regions and we hope to reduce this still further — to eradicate it completely, in fact — by using our local resources and the full cooperation we get from the local population.”
Medical attention is free in the liberated zones and it was interesting to learn, and to confirm on several occasions, that many people come from the Saigon-controlled areas, including from Saigon itself, to have treatment in the liberated areas. This was especially striking during the 1964 cholera epidemic in Saigon when tens of thousands of people came to get their anti-cholera injections in the liberated zones.
“This is not just because our service is free,” Dr. Thu explained. “People appreciate the professionally responsible attitude and the devotion of our medical cadres who are trained to serve the people. The main line in the liberated zones, as far as public health is concerned, is to concentrate on social hygiene and preventive medicine, in raising living standards and introducing modem notions of hygiene to the peasantry.”
Considering the small lapse of time and great difficulties, concluded Dr. Ho Thu, “very rapid progress has been made in the development of the pharmaceutical industry, in the training of medical cadres and the setting up of hospital and public health facilities.”
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 year 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. Please note that some place names in this piece have been changed to reflect their modern-day spelling