A Memorial Day Tribute: My South Vietnamese Comrades

Memorial Day.

“Happy” Memorial Day? Never.

Memorial Day, for me, is merely a culmination of the previous year’s thoughts and reflections that never seem to dim with the passing of years. One would think they gradually disappear as one ages, but they don’t. The images are just as real now as they were almost 40 years ago.  They are the perpetual sacrifice.

The sacrifice made by the living is one that does not end. It does not end with one’s departure from the battlefield. The sacrifice is contained within one’s memory.

It is important to note that the written word by one who lives is a poor attempt, at best, at comparing what survivors endure to the ultimate sacrifice others have made. There can be no comparison. There arises, then, a question of purpose for this writing.

Perhaps my purpose for writing is unique because of when I served and where I served. The generation of soldiers I served with was not encouraged to share experiences gained in an unpopular war. Therefore my purpose is for the reader to share the unpleasant burden of a survivor of an unpopular war. By sharing the burden one might gain appreciation for who and what is “memorialized” on Memorial Day.

Thieu and Loi were former Viet Cong fighters who rallied to the side of the Americans. At the time it was not for us to question the circumstances which caused them to change sides. All that was important was that they were serving as Kit Carson Scouts and were serving effectively. They were so trusted by our Commanding Officer that, whenever they advised not to set up a Night Defensive Position on a hill or near a place they felt was unsuitable, their advice was heeded.

Trust in Vietnam was earned.

Thieu was very quiet compared to Loi. Over the years I came to believe that Thieu’s inability to speak English may have contributed to the perception that he was bashful. Still he possessed a pleasing personality while being professional as a South Vietnamese soldier working with Americans.

Any doubts of Thieu’s loyalty or bravery vanished one day near the Tra Bong River.

Disbelief possessed me when a squad of North Vietnamese soldiers walked towards our perimeter without seeing us. After the initial fire from our side, several of us pursued the retreating NVA soldiers. Thieu led the way shaking his fist and screaming words in Vietnamese that I did not understand.

I ran to a spot in the high grass where I had seen an NVA soldier fall. He was still alive and I called for one of our medics to give him aid. I stopped to adjust one of my Ho Chi Minh sandals. In that short period of time, Thieu was shot and killed.

There are only images that remain.

The small battle was soon over and we placed Thieu’s body in a poncho and carried him to a medevac chopper. Loi came over to help place his friend’s body on the chopper. The sad image of Loi is one that I will never forget.

If Thieu was introverted during his life with the Americans, Loi was just the opposite. During happier times we aggravated each other with light hearted things. Loi was fairly well skilled in English. He’d laugh with delight when I’d respond to one of his jokes by shaking my fist at him. Naturally, he first learned the dirty words that were prevalent in the GI lexicon. He’d call me something unfit to print and I’d feign anger by shaking my fist. There were times when I’d initiate the same “confrontation” by calling him by the same names. These came to an end after Thieu’s death.

The story goes that Loi surrendered to the Americans in a way that demonstrated his prowess and knowledge as a Viet Cong soldier. One day he walked up the hill to LZ Stinson with a full field pack, carrying his AK 47. He climbed, unnoticed, through the wire near the chopper pad and proceeded to the 1/52 Tactical Operation Center (TOC), where he handed over his weapon to a host of startled officers and enlisted men. Many times I have reflected on just how he knew where the TOC was located, as there were no civilians working on Stinson.

Loi was known as a “Hoi Chanh” or more commonly a “Chieu Hoi”. In layman’s terms these described a VC or NVA soldier who rallied to our side in exchange for safe passage for him and his family, possible training as a Kit Carson Scout, and benefits such as a guarantee of building supplies for a house, etc.

It is safe to say that any hesitancy in Loi’s surrendering was dispelled by his knowledge that the Americans and  South Vietnamese Army (ARVN) would prevail against the Communists. Had he known, at the time of his surrender, that the United States would renege on its solemn word and abandon the South Vietnamese cause, it’s doubtful he would have rallied to us. Loi’s punishment, if a victory by the Communists occurred, would be certain death.

One does not have to be knowledgeable of history to know the Communists prevailed in Vietnam.

I don’t know  what happened to Loi. One can hope he was able to escape during the Communist’s initial onslaught.  One side of me says that only a very small percentage of Vietnamese were able to flee as the country was being overrun. Another side tells me that there was no place in the re-education camps for those who rallied to our side. Men like Loi were viewed by the Communists as deserters.

I flash back to a long ago day and the image of Loi helping to place the body of his friend on an American helicopter.

As we live we will never forget.