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By Paul J. Giannone
Excerpts from the Chapter: Betrayal on the Street Without Joy from the memoir A Life in Dark Places by Paul J. Giannone (Torchflame Books, 2019)
Mike O'Neal and I were helping move refugees from their camp back to their original homes in Quang Dien District. A continuous parade of five- and ten-ton military trucks rumbled by our vehicle, heading north, hauling refugees and whatever meager possessions they could carry.
War hates civilians, because civilians get in the way. We had tried to eliminate that problem in Vietnam by creating "free fire zones" in which any living thing was considered an enemy combatant. The "good" civilians living in these areas had to be moved in order to be "saved," and, more importantly, to allow the army to get at the enemy. In Quang Nam, the province to the south where I had previously served, this philosophy had created between 60,000 and 80,000 refugees.
I had seen the glossy reports on the positive impact of American aid, but I had also witnessed the reality behind these reports. The refugee camps were often horrific places of disease, starvation and death. I remembered counting five babies that died of malnutrition in one morning in a refugee camp outside of Da Nang.
Indeed, this was one of the great contradictions of the war—avoiding civilian death was America's rationale for free-fire zones and refugee camps, yet both actually killed civilians. In my work the thought kept rattling in my head, "weren't these the people we came to save?"
Of course, having large numbers of refugees in every province in Vietnam meant that the enemy controlled the land outside the major cities. One indicator of a war being lost is the inability to control territory, and by 1970 our government was fighting a deteriorating battle in Southeast Asia.
Yet the Pentagon was trying (and sometimes succeeding) to convince Congress and the American people that the US was actually winning the conflict. The huge number of refugees were rarely mentioned. In fact, the medical and food aid designated for these people was often sold on the black market by corrupt South Vietnamese officials. Often, this material then ended up in the hands of our enemy.
Music blared from one of the trucks, "People Are Strange" by the Doors, a song that described what a typical GI experienced in Vietnam on a daily basis. "People are strange, when you're a stranger. Faces look ugly when you're alone. Women seem wicked when you're unwanted. Streets are uneven when you're down." That song had become part of the soundtrack for the war, the lyrics reflecting our feelings. We were rocking to the Doors while the government was marching to John Philip Sousa.
It had all seemed so easy and logical at first. I was to assist Mike in relocating 8,000 refugees back to their homes using transportation support from Camp Evans, an artillery fire base about ten miles to the west. Taking people home looked good in print.
Nevertheless, this became a point of conflict between Mike and our Commanding Officer (CO). Mike wanted to keep the refugees where they were for safety reasons. The CO had orders from above to move them to their original home sites. I doubted whether the CO cared if we kept the refugees where they were or resettled them on quicksand. But he had his orders.
About two weeks into our assignment, I saw Mike and CO standing close together near the CO's jeep, engaged in a heated dispute. The CO was almost standing on his tiptoes, yelling in Mike's face. Veins were popping out on his shaved head. Spittle burst from his mouth. He was screaming, "Move them! Move these fucking bastards up that goddamned road! You're behind schedule and the PSA has been on my ass. I don't want any more arguments. And I don't want you going to province headquarters to try and go over my head! I can easily have you transferred to the infantry!"
In reality, the CO had the power on his side. The threat came from the PSA for this province, Colonel Chism.
The flawed, highly political logic behind the refugee movement in Quang Dien District was to show that people could live safely and return to their home villages, protected by the Thieu regime. At the tactical or field level, however, it was obvious that the South Vietnamese military was not truly in control of the relocation sites. The VC owned the land at night, and anyone there after dark who did not support Ho Chi Minh would pay an extreme price.
This was Mike's nightmare.
"Pablo," he told me, "We're killing these people, you know that, don't you? We may not be pulling the trigger but we are sure as hell killing these people."
Still, I replied "It don't mean nothing," which translated into "there's nothing you can do" in the standard GI jargon of the day.
We used vehicles from a transport company at Camp Evans. Our day began at 7:00 A.M. when the trucks would rendezvous in front of our little district MAC/V compound. The refugees were to be dropped off along this road near their old home sites. The logistics of the move had been simplified by Mike. He had divided each of the refugee camps into sections. Each section was to amount to one day's work. At the end of each working day Mike informed the village elders and designated section chiefs as to which section would be focused on the next day. It was expected that the designated section would be ready to move when we arrived at 8:00 AM.
Meanwhile, the question of security was always on our minds. There were Viet Cong units operating in the area and there was always potential for ambush. The threat of hitting a land mine was also extremely high. Road 597 was a road in name only: most of its surface was rutted sand and thick mud. Yet this was the only route.
The only protection we had from mines was to sit on our flak jackets and pray that if we drove over one, the explosion would not remove our most precious organs. I had seen a ten-ton truck hit a landmine, and the rescue party was only able to find a piece of the driver's skull. We were driving a three-quarter-ton truck.
We did take the normal precautions against ambush and sniper fire. All of us carried weapons, bandoleers of extra ammunition and grenades. We wore flak jackets whenever we were not sitting on them.
The Viet Cong were cleverer than we imagined. The ambush was never sprung. Mines were never laid. We should have foreseen what that meant. There were clear signs of what was to come even on the very first day of resettling refugees. The Vietnamese officials from the provincial and district governments were conspicuously absent during the official opening ceremonies for the refugee move.
The villagers refused at first to start packing, or packed haphazardly. Cold, angry stares greeted us each morning. My main function was to provide medical support to the refugees, as well as to back up Mike in case of an ambush. I now had a new responsibility — guarding his back in case the refugees turned on him. We, not the Viet Cong, had become the enemy. Each day it took an increasing amount of coercion and force to get the people to pack up and move out.
For years, these people had cultivated the land near their refugee camps. The rice fields near these camps needed to be constantly tended and irrigated, and now we were moving them away from their food source. Who would feed them now? The South Vietnamese government? That would never happen. The Communists? Not a chance. We were moving these people into an area where they faced ether a quick death at the hands of the Viet Cong or a slow death from starvation.
To add salt to the wound, I heard rumors that the absentee landlords of the lands the refugees had fled expected seven years' back rent from them. The refugees also were still paying rent for the land they tilled at the refugee sites. The line between liberator and enemy became increasingly muddy.
About a week after we deposited the first refugees at the relocation site, the Viet Cong began skillfully applying the pressure. Every few evenings, sometimes late into the night, they dropped mortar rounds in or near the relocated villages. I heard of no deaths or wounded. But killing was not necessary. The crack of the mortar shells hitting the ground was enough. Like the howl of a beast breaking the silence of the deadly night, each explosion said to these people, "We are out here, waiting."
The villagers asked a local Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) unit for help. The ARVN did nothing. On his days off, Mike drove back to Hue City to try and stop this insanity. He discussed, pleaded and begged—all to no avail. CO wanted it. Colonel Chism wanted it. And President Nixon and our government wanted it. And so the move was completed.
On September 20, 1970 Stars and Stripes Pacific ran a two-page photo story on the refugee move in northern Thua Thien Province. The title was "New Security Brings Life to Street Without Joy." Conspicuously missing from this glowing, apocryphal article were the facts—the suffering, the terror, the likely cost in human lives.
This operation was a part of my informal education in US foreign policy. It reminded me that our government too often operates on lies. I continued to work with Mike until he was discharged from the service. He was never the same. That operation had taken some of the intensity from his blue eyes. He no longer walked with a bounce and urgency to his step.
Paul J. Giannone is a 40+ year career public health emergency responder, planner, director and author. His public health career began "under fire" as a two tour (1969–1971) Public Health Advisor with the 29th Civil Affairs Company in the Republic of Vietnam (Bronze Star, Army Commendation Medal, and the South Vietnamese Public Health Medal).