This is a work of semi-fiction pieced together from conversations that I have had with former VC and NVA. It is the story of one woman and her family and her life living in a crucible of war. This account can not begin to explain or describe the deprivations, pain and loses suffered by “ordinary people” trapped in the meat grinder.
This is not an attempt to chronicle the War; that has been done. Nor is it an attempt to make moral judgment. Rather, this is an attempt to tell another side of what it means to be at war. What it meant to the people living in small villages in the path of the juggernaut. What cost… I know Tu. She is my wife’s mother. And therein lies the tale…
I am Salvatore John Di Sciascio. I grew up in a white-bread, middle-class town in Bergen County, NJ called Dumont. If you’re a working stiff and raising kids, Dumont ain’t a bad choice. I finished High School in 1962, with most of the traditional rites of passage to manhood checked off the list.
College wasn’t for me but in 1966 I decided that I needed a change and joined the US Army in August of 1966. “Viet Nam” was getting hotter and it was pretty much assumed that we would all get our turn in the barrel. At Ft Dix, they tried to teach us about jungle warfare… in the snow. Still, I fired my M-14 on the ranges, impressively, scoring 60/62 on Qualification Day. It was good enough to come in second in the training Brigade. I have been shooting since I was 8 years old at Palisades Amusement Park where a cousin of my mother’s ran a .22 shooting gallery concession.
“Cyclone Charlie”, “C” Company, 3rd Basic Combat Training Brigade was staffed with a few recent Viet Nam returnees and Korean Vets. I can still remember their names , Truman, Saur, Armstrong, Kane, Cole, and faces and voices as they screamed in my ear. One in particular, a PSG Saur, ran my ass ragged but in the end he turned out to be my best friend.
On February 11, 1967, I boarded a Braniff 707 at Oakland Army Terminal in California for the long flight to Viet Nam, along with about 180 other “Nubes” and a smattering of vets going back. Conversation en route was centered on ones MOS (Military Occupational Speciality) and the chances of survival, Many had tales from friends or relatives who had been there. The vets seemed to take particular delight in relating horror stories of booby trapped bunks and poisonous insects in boots. They were not happy stories.
We landed at Bien Hoa Airbase near Saigon, Viet Nam,. There was a mortar attack in progress and I recall the 19 year old Sergeant screaming for us to move our @#&^%$ asses. As soon as we hit the door of the plane a blast of hot, humid and “fragrant” air hit us and we were immediately coated with a red dust… and sweat.
The fragrance, I would later learn, came from a daily ritual that every Viet Nam Vet remembers, “Shit Burning Detail”… The latrines were built with doors under the seats and half of a 55 gallon drum was placed in each station. Once a day, some poor schlub was detailed to pull them out, mix the contents with diesel fuel and light it. Then he had to stir it so it burned sufficiently to satisfy the Officer of the Day or the First Sergeant.
I never got that detail and I pulled KP exactly once… I was one of the best “Shithouse Lawyers” I ever met. Three times choosing Courts Martial over an Article 15 and never losing a days pay or a stripe but that’s another story. I will not go into detail but 6 months later, I was an NCO. I extended my tour in Viet Nam, the first time, to go farther into the Delta and saw service with the Mobile Riverene Force which was a combined Army, 2nd Brigade, 9th Infantry Division, and Navy Patrol Boat River or PBR’s and other ancillary support units. Then one day, my buddy, Sgt Ken Mullinax, said “Hey, Sal, let’s go join the LRRPs.” “Wow, join the LRRPs. Cool… What’s a LRRP.” The rest, as they say, is history.
I worked myself up to Staff Sergeant, Team Leader and I had the honor of working with some of the finest, bravest, toughest soldiers in the world. And that includes my Vietnamese Special Operators, Scouts, interpreters, body guards and friends. A LRRP had a significant price on his head of over $2,500 in 1968 dollars for the VC or NVA who could garner one. They had special LRRP Killer Teams to hunt us even as we hunted them.
But this story is not about us. I only mention this so the reader can appreciate how much the relationship between Tu and me changed over time before we even met.
Chapter 1 – Early On
Tu was born sometime between 1940 and 1946. Years don’t mean much in the Highlands. When to plant, when to harvest, when to expect a new calf, or baby, when to move the cattle to fresh pasture… that is important. Some of Tu’s family had fought the Japanese in WWII. Vietnamese have been fighting one invader or another for centuries. But they still speak Vietnamese, so you figure it out.
The village is small, nestled in what might be an extinct volcanic caldera. Mountains surround a lush, green valley dotted with 1 or 2 room wooden shacks or “hooches”. Natural aquifers feed streams of crystal clear, icy cold waters that run down the mountains. There are no paved roads. The nearest “town” is 23 KM over brutal trails suited only for cattle, ox carts and hardy walkers. There are no machines to turn the rice paddies or the farm plots. Hand forged, steel blades on plows of wood and black water buffalo and hoes on bamboo shafts and back-breaking hours of repetitive motion inevitably, inexorably make the fields and paddies suitable for planting. Whole families, from grand parents to 7 and 8 year olds pitch in.
Tu started working in the fields when she was 7. She was not as prized by her family as much as a son would be. Her family would invest in her then she would go to marry some man while a son would marry and bring another pair of hands to the family and even children who, would in time, add more hands. Being a young girl in such an environment was hard. But Tu learned. She learned when to plant and all manner of farming practices based on the conventional wisdom of generations of scraping out a living from the lush surroundings. Her mother, also, taught her native medicine. Her mother was admired and just a little feared among the villagers because she possessed knowledge and knowledge is power. There is a feeling that it was not just the poultice or the salve that she prepared and applied that healed. In the back of their minds it was partly her inherent power or magic, if you will. What plant when pulverized and mixed with a bit of cow’s urine would relieve itchy rashes and which herbs, blended just so, would calm a pregnant woman’s stomach in the morning… so she could work the fields. Tu learned to treat cuts, which abounded during harvest as the long , curves knives that the farmers used flashed and slashed, not always exactly on target. These skills would later translate to dressing bullet and shrapnel wounds… and stumps of severed limbs.
She was a bright, young woman as far as the limited environment allowed but she dispensed advice and common sense as well as healing and was considered wise. She walked tall with a proud and firm step, barefoot over the hills and fields of her village.
A young man took notice of Tu. He was from another clutch of small huts just over a hill but the whole valley was one village. His father had come from Da Nang, fleeing to the mountains to the South from the French for some crime or political stance now lost in time and he had stayed to fight with the villagers against the Japanese. His son, Que was taller than most of the villagers and had features obviously different from the Kor Tribesman among who he lived. Viet Nam is home to 53 ethnic groups. Mountains tend to make for more isolation and geographic isolation leads to populations developing unique features over time. But Que and his family were of the village.
They married. In time and the village tradition, Tu went to her mother’s house to birth her first child, a girl. Her mother was angry that Tu had left the family and had returned to bring forth a girl and Tu was forced to go to the fields the next day while her grandmother cared for the little girl. But lest we judge too harshly, such attitudes were not and are not unusual in many poor regions.
Then things started to happen at a dizzying pace. The people of the village had heard of the political struggles between Ho Chi Minh’s Communist Party and the Saigon Government but, truth be told, it really didn’t effect them one way or the other…
Then things spun out of control. Tu and her sister had taken jobs at a military base as laborers and maids. One day, while cleaning a barrack, 2 men in Vietnamese uniforms came in and told the women to come with them. They were taken to a building where 5 more men waited. In all there were 5 Vietnamese and 2 American “advisers”. One man asked them why their village was Communist and how many men went to fight with Ho Chi Minh and where they cached their weapons. The two terrified women had no answers. Tu had a hose stuck in her throat and water pumped in until her belly was distended, then she was beaten. Her sister was given the same treatment. Then they were stripped and violated, repeatedly. Tu was struck on the head with a rifle butt and carries the wide, gray scar across her scalp and there is a very noticeable dent in her skull. She received no medical treatment. She has not been the same since…
Shortly thereafter, some men came to the village and informed them that they would join the fight and they would fight for Ho Chi Minh. The Americans, they were told, were mercenaries for the French and wished to bring French control back to Viet Nam. Only Ho Chi Minh wanted Viet Nam for the Vietnamese. And they implied, rather strongly, that failure to do so would be fatal to all in the village. And the local regiment was formed. They would be a “Home Guard” and only deployed within the local region. Que was given rank and would lead some of the raids. Que was not a Communist, nor were most Viet Cong, but he would fight the French and the Americans and the oppressive Saigon Government. The recent ordeal of his young wife sealed the deal. An ox cart showed up and under the straw were a hundred of so of the American Black Rifles. They received a crash course in basic M-16 and were left on their own, awaiting an operational order.
By this time, Tu’s little girl was around 4 and had been joined by three others, two boys and another girl. After the villagers began to operate for the VC, Military Intelligence soon figured out the origins of the unit. Tu and a few other women were working in the fields one day while the men were “away”. They first heard the sound of an airplane approaching them. It was a flight of old Douglas A-1 Skyraiders, but they had no idea. Two of the aircraft peeled off and made a run on the village. A few bombs were dropped that mostly landed in the rice paddies. Mostly… Tu ran over the small hill toward her hooch, her home and her children… but there was nothing there but a burning hole in the ground. There was nothing to bury. Her four children, aged 4, 3, 2 and 6 months were obliterated as if they had never existed.
There is a place in the village. A small bridge that runs over a stream and one side of the bridge rail faces a hill. It is on this hill that very young children and lost loved ones are said to reside. To this day, you will see funeral offerings placed there as villagers pray for their lost children or for grandfathers, fathers , brothers and uncles who went out to fight and never returned. Tu visits there often. She doesn’t cry… anymore.