In VN I encountered a stew of interesting personalities, both American and Vietanamese. Here I am going to reflect a bit and record my impressions of a few.
Lt.Col B: Upon arrival at Song Mao, location of the Regimental Headquarters (44th ARVN Regt. containing 4 battalions) I dropped my duffel at the helipad and walked over to the single story building containing the MACV advisory offices. (MACV = Military Assistance Command Vietnam) I walked into the office and met the current senior advisor of the regiment, Lt.Col. B.
Col. B's normal, everyday mood was one of anger, abrasivenes, and frequently generated insults towards those around him. I pitied the Major who was B's chief staff officer and general gopher. The poor man lived in a state of steady apprehension. He was hypertension made visible. He was active; he got things done; he had decent judgement. But I believed it unlikely he would ever be promoted given his constant almost fearful state.
My first 3 or 4 weeks, Col. B had me learn the intelligence business: maintaining the maps showing the estimated locations of the enemy battalions in II Corps; observing interrogations of captured prisoners. The ARVN intelligence chief was very good, a Cpt. The only time I saw him slap someone was, not a prisoner, but one of his own men. The soldier brought in a freshly caught NVA. The Cpt asked his ARVN soldier if he had searched the prisoner thoroughly to which the reply was yes, he was searched thoroughly. Suddenly the Cpt. lunged towards the prisoner and, popping its buttons, tore open his uniform shirt, reached inside and pulled out a grenade. So the ARVN soldier was slapped hard across the face. I concurred.
What made some ARVN officers good was sheer experience. They had been fighting their entire lives; their fathers and grandfathers before them: against the French, then the Japanese, then the French again, then the Viet Minh communists, then the Viet Cong, then the NVA (North Vietnamese Army).
Then I got sent to the major coastal city of Phan Tiet. This was the location of a task force of the 101st Airborne Division. These of course were Americans. And there was no parachuting, all was done by Huey (helicopters). I spent a couple of days with their Intelligence people, observing interrogation of prisoners and various tricks of the trade. I never saw any physical abuse much less torture. The old "good cop, bad cop" routine worked unfailingly. Most of the enemy soldiers were simple farm kids or a little less simple city kids. So a big 6' 4" American enters the cage and shouting, raging, threatening all kinds of terrible things including castration, scaring the NVA soldier to the point of terror. Then enters the "good cop" who asks bad cop to leave. Good cop squats down near the prisoner:soft voice, friendly, offers cigarettes, water. "Much better you talk to me than that big ugly s.o.b." And they do talk. Everytime. Fluently, with whatever details are required. They believe and are advised that "big ugly" will come back if they lie.
Flew back to Song Mao. An award ceremony was being set up for some of the ARVN soldiers. Col. B decided I would be master of ceremonies. Thus I found myself in front of a microphone to read all the awards. Well, there I was in front of an audience including a few senior American and ARVN officer visitors. An audience? A microphone? Heaven sent. I deepened my voice a notch and performed with panache even introducing a few moments of levity at the start. A furtive glance confirmed that the brass was laughing. Col B. looked nervous, glancing at the visiting brass. The only time I ever saw him show that.
The nicest part of Vietnamese awards was the moment when the typically lovely school girls would walk down the line of awardees placing flower leis around their necks. Wish we had something similar in the U.S. Army.
Afterwards I knew B was pleased. Not because he complimented me, but because he said nothing negative. Silence was complimentary coming from him. Further, after that ceremony, I was no longer included in the guff he freely handed out to others. Making your boss look good tends to foster good relations.
The next day I met the Battalion CO I would be working with. This was Cpt. Diep. His English was just fair, not as good as some of his staff officers. But much more importantly he was skilled and tough. He would have been a first class officer in anyone's army. His unit (1st Bn.) was the best in the regiment. He had good officers as COs of the companies and good staff officers. If an advisor has any brains at all he doesn't start telling a man like Diep what to do. The important thing was obviously to establish rapport and mutual respect. This all went well. We got on fine, freely sharing our thoughts with each other.
I recall an incident a few months later when we were up in the central highlands. He taught me a Vietnamese type of chess game. We played one game and I won. I laughed; he smiled faintly.
It was the last game we played and I was glad the incident had not occurred early on in our relationship. ["Face" is critically important in the Orient.] I regret I was not smart enough to let him win.
Whenever we came out of the field Diep was preoccupied with courting the daughter of the ARVN Regimental CO, a Lt. Col T. The reasons for his pursuit were not unmixed. She was a pretty girl of appropriate age. However, the marriage to his bosses daughter would undoubtedly enhance his career prospects. The politics in the RVN army, or any other Asian army for that matter (e.g. the Philippines)makes American army politics look amateurish.
Lt. Col .T, the ARVN Regimental Commander, had little talent and after hours hit the bottle pretty hard. He himself no doubt got his rank due to connections. He was a friendly guy, liked all the advisors. And why not? MACV kept him supplied with Johnny Walker, usually red label but sometimes even black label. In Asia Johnny Walker is currency, just amazingly popular.
To be continued....
"Life is good if you don't weaken." AG Russell