The darkest nights of the month in Tân Ba

On October 31, 1964, I rode the helicopter up to Phuoc Vinh, the zone headquarters, to spend one night and pick up some supplies. That night, while I was sleeping at Phuoc Vinh, the Viet Cong launched a mortar attack on Biên Hòa airbase, across the river from Tân Ba, killing several Americans and wounding two dozen more. All undamaged aircraft then took off, just to get them off the ground, and for the rest of the night the sky was full of planes and helicopters shooting up the countryside more or less indiscriminately.

On the outskirts of Tân Ba someone fired a few rounds at a passing helicopter, which promptly circled back and returned fire with rockets and machine guns, wounding an ARVN soldier. The Americans in Tan Ba got no sleep that night, but spent hours walking around trying to get medical care or evacuation for the wounded soldier. Since I wasn’t there, one of the sergeants had to carry my radio around on his back.

The next morning, about the time I was getting up and taking a shower in Phuoc Vinh, the Viet Cong started firing their mortars at a place called Tân Yuên, just a few miles up the river from Tan Ba, killing an American major I knew and wounding an American captain who had only two weeks left before he was scheduled to leave Vietnam.

That same afternoon I got on the helicopter and returned to Tân Ba. The next night the Viet Cong blew up a narrow steel-girder highway bridge at the northern entrance to Tân Ba, just a short distance from our house. A company of ARVN soldiers was supposed to be guarding the bridge, but they were sleeping about a mile down the road and didn’t know anything had happened until the next morning. (GPS  10°59’0.48″ North; 106°46’5.31″ East)

Major Giam’s first priority in the next few weeks was to get the bridge re-built. Our Major C. was helpful in getting him the materials he needed, so the work went quickly, and before long the road was re-opened.

Fixing the bridge. Photo from an RVN propaganda leaflet.

Thirty years later I didn’t even notice when we drove across this same bridge on our way to Phước Vĩnh.  

Major Giam distributing radios

After a while Major Giam told us a few things about his life and career. Unlike most ARVN officers, he was a Buddhist and a native of South Vietnam, not a Catholic who had relocated from the North when the country was divided in 1954.

As a child he first went to a Chinese school, then to a French school. In 1931 he passed some French exams and worked first as a school teacher, then as a surveyor. But soon he volunteered for service as an enlisted man in the French Army and worked his way up through the ranks.

Major Giam

I don’t know what he did during the Second World War, when Vietnam was occupied by the Japanese, but after the collapse of the Japanese occupation forces in 1945 he became a district police chief for the only remaining power in the country, the Viet Minh.

He re-joined the French Army in 1946, when General LeClerc landed in Saigon for the purpose of re-claiming Indochina as a French colony. Around 1950 he was trained by the French as an officer. In 1954 was awarded a French “Legion of Honor” medal.

After the defeat of the French and the division of Vietnam in 1954, he served as an officer in the new ARVN (Army of the Republic of Vietnam), but retired in 1961 because he was no longer willing to serve under the dictatorial South Vietnamese president Ngo Dinh Diem. He returned to active service after the fall of Diem in 1963.

Major Giam often said that his ambition was to be a rice farmer, and he did in fact own a rice farm near Long Thành but had tenants on the land who farmed it in his absence.

This photo of me in the back yard, with the old man walking along the path beside the hedge, was taken in November 1964. Of course that’s the Dong Nai River in the background. 

Shortly thereafter our sergeants started stringing up trip flares around the edges of the back yard, so if anyone tried to sneak in at night a flare would go off. 

One night a trip flare did go off and we all shot at it — all except the half dozen “combat policemen” who were supposed to be stationed at the back of the house. We later found them huddled inside the house with blankets pulled up over their heads.

The Police Chief

This was the commander of those fearless “combat policemen” who always seemed to be somewhere else when any sort of attack was going on. Since the Police Chief also spoke French, I was asked to convince him that when a trip flare went off his men were supposed to shoot at it. But he was horrified at this idea: “What if we kill a pig?” 

All the Americans were infuriated at this answer (including me, I was so militarized by this time!) but in retrospect I have to admit that he had a point there. A pig was a valuable possession in this part of the world, and since we were supposed to be “winning the hearts and minds of the people” we should have been careful not to kill their pigs, or at least give them compensation if it happened. 

The old man whose house we were quartered in was also upset because we had shot up one of his grapefruit trees.  

The American ambassador, Maxwell D. Taylor (1901-1987), a retired army general, visited Tân Ba by helicopter on December 17, 1964. He and the reporters who were with him stayed for about an hour and were shown the new pigpens and wells that the government forces had built. Supposedly they were very impressed, but I can’t imagine why.

At the time it was a novel idea to help the local population in hopes that they would support the “government” and not the Viet Cong. Major Giam thought this was a good idea and worked very energetically to put it into practice, but he once told me they should have started ten years earlier. “It might be too late. The Viet Cong has a ten-year head-start on us.”

My comment on this one was: “If decibels could win a war, we would have won this one long ago.”

My next post: Tân Ba 1965

3 thoughts on “The darkest nights of the month in Tân Ba”

  1. I’ve been too long sitting here reading your Vietnam memoirs, so must away! But first I have to say how much I enjoyed these posts. Although I’m from the UK my interest in the Vienam conflict was sparked very early on in that war – I suppose you could say it was my war. Later, I taught The Prose and Poetry of War from the Boer War to Vietnam at a Further Education College and my Masters was gained through War Studies. I came to Vietnam poetry when on holiday in Hawaii – way back in the 70s I think, when I picked up an anthology called WHAM and found Basil T Paquet, Larry Rottman and others of that ilk. I was in heaven. Here were poets in a direct line from those of the 1st world war. Today my collection of books on the Vietnam conflict is pretty extensive, ranging from the Neil Sheehan opus to the works of Peter Arnett, Tim Page, Philip Caputo, Robert Mason, Peter Scholl Latour et al. So, add that to you being an Opera lover and I’m a fan and a follower.

  2. Great that you have recorded these memories. “Winning the hearts and minds of the people”…. I won’t comment but rather just wonder if this remains US foreign military policy and if it is meeting with any more success than it did in Viet Nam.

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