Peace Corps Writers
War and Peace Corps — The Commander Wore Civies (page 3)
War and Peace Corps — The Commander Wore Civies
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     We lived in a truly spectacular setting, an old country estate 150 meters from the South China Sea. But to get to the house from the water one would have had to get through claymore mines, barbed wire, a 12 foot chain link fence with razor wire on top, searchlights and machine gun emplacements.
     I had three guises.As head of the civic action program I was assigned a white, closed-body pick-up truck. As deputy military commander I was assigned an olive drab “jeep.” Most ominously, as the Phoenix program advisor I was assigned a jet black “jeep.” The vehicle I was in would announce my role for the day — white for the good guy, black for the bad, and green for the soldier. I always let my Vietnamese assistant for each task start the relevant vehicle in the morning, a trick I learned from my uncle Vito.
     The Phoenix program was developed to locate and identify the clandestine Viet Cong, build a case against them, and then bring them to justice where they would be sent to reeducation camps, thus the name Phoenix for the mythical bird reborn from his own ashes. In actual fact most of those identified were simply removed from circulation.
     I did my job, brought water supplies to several villages, rebuilt destroyed homes, supervised local elections, provided material support for local government projects, participated in self defense organization and had the best record in the province for rooting out the clandestine Viet Cong.
     I also took part in the occasional military exercise. I spent one night with a four-man team from my unit in a village which was not accessible by land at night. I was flown in by helicopter. After dinner I was shown to my tent and bed that stood apart from the rest of the team. It took me a moment to understand why, but I saw that by wearing a powder blue shirt and white chino pants in contrast to my military colleagues dressed in combat uniforms and with faces painted black with grease, I was the most visible thing in the whole area and thus the likely target for any intruders.
     I was also in command the night we had our only attack during my stint in Thanh Hai. My superior, an Army major, was back in the USA leaving me in charge. For the first time in my life I was holding a slam hand in a bridge game when all hell broke loose. The radio was crackling with a report that the District Chief and the District Police Chief had been ambushed while returning after dark to Thanh Hai from a night of fun in Phan Rang City. I organized a unit to accompany the Vietnamese forces who went to rescue the victims while I stayed back at “headquarters.” We succeeded, but the District Chief was severely wounded, and spent several months recovering. After the action I realized that I had made a potentially lethal mistake. A favorite trick of the Viet Cong was to lure defense forces out to a location and then attack the base while they were away.Fortunately this was not the case that night but I never saw another slam hand while in Vietnam.

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