Planning an attack. Photo provided by George Burchett

For the next 14 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.

 

In Whose Territory?

 

A trim, smiling man with twinkling eyes and a thin line of moustache, dressed as if he had stepped straight out of his Saigon office, came into the peasant’s hut where my hammock had been slung for the night. I had slept late, and had been musing over the constant roar of planes and helicopters which neither seemed to grow nearer nor to recede into the distance. It had just been explained that they were warming up their motors at Saigon’s main airport.

 

“Welcome to Saigon,” said the smiling man in French of a Parisian quality, both hands stretched out in greeting. “Meet the members of our committee.” They were 12 altogether out of 16 members of the Executive Committee of the Liberation Front’s Saigon-Gia Dinh branch (Gia Dinh was Saigon’s province). Four of them had secretly slipped out of Saigon the previous night to attend our meeting.

 

The smiling man was Huynh Tan Phat, a well-known Saigon architect. Apart from heading the Saigon-Gia Dinh Committee, he was one of the outstanding national leaders of the Liberation Front, as the Secretary General of its Central Committee and head of the Democratic Party, one of the three political parties affiliated to the NFL. Like so many of the Front’s leaders, he had temporarily abandoned his profession and city comforts for the hard, dangerous life of the liberation struggle.

 

Among the Committee members, as Huynh Tan Phat presented them, were two journalists, a writer, a musician, two peasants, a factory worker, a representative of Saigon youth whose profession I did not note, a housewife, one student, one schoolteacher and of course the architect himself.

 

Huynh Tan Phat, secretary general and vice-president of NFL. Photo provided by George Burchett

 

One of my first questions was whether we were meeting in ‘liberated’ or ‘enemy-occupied’ territory. On numerous occasions while cycling, I had been warned to keep my head down and lower my hat — that splendid Vietnamese conical straw hat which keeps the face in shadow all the time and completely conceals it in an emergency — or to lay down flat in the bottom of a sampan because we were passing through enemy territory.

 

“We have to live very closely integrated with the enemy,’’ explained Huynh Tan Phat with a marvelously humourous twinkle that rarely leaves his eyes “They think, for instance, that this hamlet is theirs. In fact it is ours.

 

“Saigon,” he continued, “is not only the administrative capital, it is also the enemy’s military and political nerve centre. Here are also concentrated the main military installations, munitions depots, airfields, training centres, the US command — everything for running the war. Of late there have been two tendencies: one, the city spreads out into the countryside as new military installations encroach on the peasants’ land and hamlets are bulldozed out of existence to make way for new supply dumps and training areas, airfield extensions and so on; the other tendency is the more the US puppets are defeated in the countryside, the more they withdraw into Saigon. Gia Dinh itself, they consider, a sort of armoured belt to protect the capital.

 

“As you can see,” he said, as he turned to the map again, “this whole area is intersected by a big network of roads, strategic highways and ‘strategic hamlets’. Movement is difficult for our forces because of this and the barbed wire, ditches, enemy posts and other obstacles. But as you yourself have experienced, we do manage to move.” He dispatched someone to keep an eye on the planes that were buzzing around. Air-raid shelters were nearby and there would be time enough to jump into them between the ‘bombs away’ signal and the explosions.

 

In a Strategic Hamlet

 

Blossom and Lissom. Photo provided by George Burchett

 

“As part of their defenses, the enemy set up 282 ‘strategic hamlets’ in Gia Dinh Province,” Huynh Tan Phat continued, “to form a belt of human armour around the city and to eliminate any they considered as ‘Viet Cong.’ They formulated a policy of ‘letting the water out of the pond to catch the fish’ but the fish, as you see, were a little too agile to be caught that way. As this area is so close to the capital and the seat of their military-police power, they could concentrate very big forces and did succeed in setting up the hamlets.

 

“Could I visit a strategic hamlet still under enemy control?”

 

“If you don’t mind taking a bit of a risk, of course you can.”

 

“One fairly close to Saigon?” I asked. He produced the map again, and after consulting with his fellow committee members he underlined one village.

 

“That could be interesting to you,” he said, “because there is a liberated village right alongside. You’ll see what ‘living integrated’ means.”

 

Next day, I travelled by bicycle, sampan and on foot and about an hour before sunset, I was clambering down a moat and then over some earthen ramparts of the strategic hamlet of Tan Thanh Tay, in Hoc Mon District some six to seven miles from the Saigon outskirts. A small escort of troops had come with me and people rushed out to embrace them, thinking that liberation was at hand. It was not really a typical strategic hamlet because the people had successfully fought against being encircled by a palisade and barbed wire. But it looked like no other Vietnamese village I had seen till that time. Houses were hovels, huddled together with no trees or greenery — so typical of Vietnamese villages south or north of the 17th parallel — no gardens or fish ponds. A skinny old man, with a frame like an Auschwitz victim, acted as spokesman for a group that gathered around as soon as my guides assured them I was a ‘foreign friend’.

 

“This is no life at all,” he said. “Just when we should be going to the fields in the cool of the evening, we have to come back. We have to be inside the gates half an hour before sunset or we’ll be beaten up. No trees for shade, they cut everything down; just cleared the bamboo away with bulldozers. No chance of raising pigs or chickens, with houses on top of each other like this; not even a fish pond. They suck our blood dry with taxes and they invent new ones all the time. Taxes for everything. On top of that, the troops from the post come and say: ‘Give me that chicken. Give me this, give me that.’ If you refuse they say you are ‘Viet Cong’ and beat you up, then drag you off to the district jail. Your family will be lucky to hear from you again once that happens.”

 

A Fortified Hamlet

 

Nguyen Huu Tho, president of South Vietnam National Front of Liberation, with Wilfred Burchett. Photo provided by George Burchett

 

Among those I met the following day were two dimpled and demure girl guerillas, whose names in Vietnamese meant ‘Blossom’ and ‘Lissom’, respectively. They were both from the same village and the district guerilla leader had mentioned them as having helped, with five lads from their village, to repulse a company of enemy troops. They were in spotlessly clean black cotton shirts and trousers; hand grenades dangled from their US webbing belts and each had a US carbine. They looked 15 years old, but Blossom said she was 19 and Lissom assured me she was 22.

 

Blossom was the real heroine of the action and she made it sound quite simple. “When the enemy came very close, I rushed from one firing position to another firing my carbine and one of the puppets fell each time I fired. We all shifted our positions so they would think there were a lot of us. Actually most of our self-defense unit was away that day and we were only seven,” she explained in a light, babyish voice. “The enemy started to set up a machine gun to fire at one of our positions, so I ran there and threw a hand grenade. It killed the gunner and put the machine gun out of action. By then the enemy had nine killed and wounded and they withdrew. Later they fired some shells but they did no damage.”

 

That was all. It seemed incredible to me that a company, 80 to 100 men, would break off an engagement with nine casualties or that they would not have tried to take the positions by assault.

 

Then I was taken to have a look at the fortified village that the two girls had helped defend. The defenses consisted of a maze of tunnels, about 20 miles in this one hamlet, I was told, leading into spacious fire positions which cover every approach. They were big enough for some one of Vietnamese size to run doubled up from one fire position to another, as Blossom had described.

 

The fortified hamlet of Blossom and Lissom, was the first of such perfection I had visited. I was later to visit other tunnel systems that linked a whole group of hamlets and had over 500 firing positions and successive traps to block off sections in case flame-throwers or some sort of poison gas was used.

 

A hundred thousand work hours had been put into building the tunnel defenses of some of the hamlets. They were built almost entirely by the young people of the villages, the older ones keeping up supplies of rice, tea and fruit while they worked often from dusk to dawn.

 

“The enemy builds big posts with huge watchtowers to try and control the countryside,” said the military chief of Saigon-Gia Dinh. “We build our fire positions as close to the ground as possible and the rest underground, because our people are defending their own homes. They need to see the enemy — over their sights — only when he comes with evil intent to the gates of their hamlets. The enemy cannot move along the roads and paths near our villages without being continually in the sights of our guns. This is what we mean by people’s war.”

 

There were about 4,300 such fortified villages in South Vietnam at that time, mostly in the Mekong Delta region, but they were being added to every day in Central Vietnam. It seemed to me that those who devised them had pooled the experiences of General Vo Nguyen Giap and his creeping system of trenches used so effectively at Dien Bien Phu, the tunnel system used by the Chinese guerillas in Hopei Province during the anti-Japanese war in which whole counties were linked by underground defense and communications networks, and the system of defensive tunnels built by the Korean-Chinese forces across the waist of Korea near the 38th parallel. If one such hamlet could keep a company at bay — and I heard of plenty of cases where even battalions were repulsed — one only has to multiply by 4,500 the magnitude of the task of any regime or any military machine in trying to re-conquer them.

 

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 to 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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