War and Peace Corps

Christmas on the Mekong
by John Krauskopf (Iran 1965–67)

    I HADN’T PLANNED to go to Viet Nam. I was only trying to meet up with my former college roommate in Thailand. This was in December of 1969 and Tom — my college roommate and an RPCV from Tanzania — was now working as a civilian employee for USAID doing rural development work in Viet Nam. At the same time I was in Tehran, working as a Peace Corps Trainer.
         When I arrived several days late for our rendezvous in Bangkok, I was handed a note at the hotel saying Tom had flown back to Viet Nam that morning, unable to wait any longer. But Tom did say we could still get together if I just flew into Saigon. He told me to pick up a seven-day tourist visa at Ton Son Nhut Airport and give him a call when I arrived. He would then drive the 60 miles or so from My Tho, where he lived, and meet me at the Saigon airport. We could spend Christmas together, he suggested, on the banks of the Mekong River.
         The absurdity of these propositions was so appealing I went immediately to the Pan Am office and had my ticket rerouted, leaving myself a day to tour Bangkok.
         I then contacted Lee St. Laurence, a friend from my Peace Corps Iran days, who was working on a UN-backed development project in South East Asia. Lee made a call to the Peace Corps country office and arranged an invitation for me to a reception for some Bangkok area Volunteers that night. The guest of honor was a Peace Corps Advisory Board member, Neil Armstrong, who talked about his recent trip to the Moon, but nothing that he told us over dinner was as strange as my trip down the Rabbit Hole of Vietnam.

    ARRIVING IN SAIGON at Tan Son Nhut airport revealed my first surprise. The civilian airport was only a tiny corner of a mammoth U.S. army air base. By the end of 1969, the U.S. had begun to withdraw forces and push for a “Viet Namization” of the war effort, but our military still had close to 500,000 troops in the country, and our troops still were doing much of the fighting.
         But the battle line in Viet Nam was often more chronological than geographic. The Delta area, for example, was controlled by the GVN (South Vietnamese Government) with backing from the American Army during the day. At night, the same area belonged to the Viet Cong (South Vietnamese guerillas backed by the Communist Government in North Viet Nam).
         When Tom met me at the airport, it was after 5 pm, and he hesitated to drive across the Delta at twilight, so we stayed overnight in Saigon and went down to My Tho early the next day.
         The morning drive on a modern two-lane road in Tom’s Ford sedan crossed countryside that was lush and green, all carefully cultivated and highly productive. The orderliness of the rice paddies suggested a peaceful country, and it was only when we neared one of the many streams or canals that laced the Delta could I see that this was really a nation at war.
         At all of the waterways, the lanes were divided and crossed separate bridges 50 yards apart. The bridges themselves were steel-truss chosen by military engineers for portability and ease of construction. The split arrangement made it more difficult for VC saboteurs who had been in the habit of floating explosives down the waterways at night to knock out the bridges and close the highway.
         Reaching the outskirts of My Tho, however, we crossed a multilane bridge across a major canal, and I thought the wide bridge was symbolic of the GVN dominance of the area until Tom remarked that all of the military supplies for VC operations in the Delta moved down this canal in sampans.
         Why, I asked, if we had all this strategic intelligence and the overwhelming military strength, didn’t we stop the boat supply traffic?
         We have done that, Tom said, but every time the United States army sank the Viet Cong sampans, the VC blew up another bridge. The Army engineers had gotten tired of replacing the bridges so what had developed was a gentleman’s agreement: we didn’t sink their sampans and they didn’t blow up our bridges.
         We drove across the last bridge into the supposedly secure city of My Tho and stopped at Tom’s house for lunch.

    WHEN TOM WENT to work, I walked to the local outdoor market crowded with fish vendors, produce sellers and handcraft dealers. I noticed a number of artisans who had big inventories of hammered metal vases and trays. Looking closely at one vase, I saw that it had been crafted out of a 155mm howitzer shell casing, an esthetic example of the “swords to ploughshares” idea.
         Next to the market was a docking area for water taxis. I bargained over the price before boarding a motorized wooden canoe and setting out for Rach Dua Island, a neutral zone twenty-five-minutes across the muddy waters of the Mekong.
         The water taxi approached the downstream tip of the island, a triangular sand bar covered with bamboo scaffolding supporting a city-block-sized expanse of deck. A small crowded village occupied the deck and spread upstream to the place where the land rose well above the river level and the jungle began. The boat slipped in among dozens of others tied up at the main dock, and I disembarked.
         Climbing spidery bamboo stairs, I entered a busy plaza lined with teahouses, shops, and restaurants and sat down under a thatched pavilion that had a commanding view of the scene and ordered a cup of tea.
         At the next table two GVN soldiers in uniform, but without weapons, were talking earnestly with their girlfriends. In fact, at many of the nearby cafes there were small groups of soldiers drinking tea and playing cards. Tom had alerted me to look out for other men in black “pajamas” sure to be sitting at shops around the plaza. These were all Viet Cong, and in the plaza I saw a number of them, young men and women. This whole island, Tom had said, with the exception of the elevated plaza and village, was VC-controlled, and the Viet Cong soldiers simply walked into the village from the jungle whenever they wanted to relax.
         I had hardly had time to process the absurdity of mortal enemies and their dates casually drinking tea at adjacent tables when the boom of a large brass gong and the sound of drums captured everyone’s attention. A procession of chanting, orange-robed monks entered the plaza out of a passage emerging from a warren of thatched bungalows. The chanters congregated at the edge of the deck in front of a room-sized alcove. A green crescent and some Arabic writing hung on the five-meter high bamboo backdrop. The monks paused for a recitation and some rituals, not visible in detail from my angle. After a few minutes, the monks resumed the chanting and moved to the right to another alcove.
         Here, the backdrop included a cross and other Christian symbols. Arrayed around the plaza were four more alcoves, each with different set of religious symbols. The group proceeded noisily to the Buddhist shrine, the Hindu shrine, the Jewish shrine, and one more whose identity I could not decipher. After about fifteen minutes, the column of monks disappeared into the passageway of arrival. In the relative quiet after the monks’ departure, occasional civilians approached a preferred alcove and stood piously for a few minutes.
         Having difficulty absorbing the incongruity of the oddly ecumenical symbolism and ritual, I thought to myself that these young men didn’t really know what they believed, but given the chaos all around them, they were covering all bets. Because of their youth, most of the monks would have been in one army or the other if they hadn’t chosen this vocation. I couldn’t dismiss my idea that a sense of personal safety and sanctuary was the dominating reason for their piety, but clearly, the GVN and VC armies were more accepting of the sincerity of the monks’ spiritual motivation. Both sides respected the neutrality of this unique island monastery and the persons of the pious monks.
         Walking to the water-taxi dock, I considered crossing the plaza to offer up a prayer of my own but was confused as to which shrine promised the greatest efficacy. In the end, I simply descended the spindly stairs to the boat and headed back to My Tho.

    ON CHRISTMAS MORNING, Tom asked if I wanted to take a helicopter ride, since the holiday was a truce day. The truce was something more formal than a gentleman’s agreement, and it meant that for one day neither side would shoot at the other. Also, an informal codicil to this agreement was that neither side would take tactical advantage of the truce to do things that they would not be able to do when the combatants were shooting at each other.
         I accepted Tom’s invitation and he took me over to the helipad, where I met the crew of the Huey — a pilot, a co-pilot and a pair of gunners. The guns were dismounted because this was a truce day, but the gunners went along for the ride.
         The curiously named Major Justice, the youthful officer in charge, had the task of visiting the soldiers in a couple of outposts 20 miles northwest of My Tho. These small towns were war zones and the soldiers lived in bunkers landscaped with sandbags. During the day, life for the soldiers and villagers went on more or less normally, but at night the battle resumed.
         We lifted off from My Tho and ascended to a couple thousand feet. The scene immediately below was untouched by the war: dikes were well tended, the rice paddies unmarked by shell craters. And the farmhouses nestled in the tree-lined edges of the fields, protected from the harsh tropical sun..
         Farther away from My Tho we came closer to the war. I could see pockmarks of artillery shell craters in the fields, and the farmhouses in this area were out on the dikes, suffering the full force of the sun, but safe from the artillery gunners who fired at the Viet Cong suspected of hiding in the trees.
         As we continued north, the conditions on the ground deteriorated. Shell holes were everywhere, dikes were broken, and the fields left uncultivated. We flew over a ruined farmhouse that stood sentinel over a damaged dike. After the fighting, the land was without farmers or village life.
         We flew away from this scene to a forested area cut through by a lazily curving waterway that emptied into one of the main channels of the Mekong River. Soldiers referred to this area as “Snoopy’s Nose,” a major Viet Cong base and staging area. The American and GVN gunners considered it a “free fire” zone, and we could see lots of downed and splintered trees.
         It was hard to talk over the noise of the Huey, but there was a certain amount of light-hearted banter punctuated by gestures. Tom, the crew, the Major, and the pilot of the Swamp Fox that was accompanying us were all enjoying their Christmas Day excursion. A Swamp Fox is a light, fixed-wing, propeller aircraft loaded with rockets. These craft act as escorts and spotters for chopper flights such as the one we were taking. This pilot had his armaments turned off for the truce day, but he still carried a highly lethal load.
         As we came over the river that gave Snoopy’s Nose its name, the banter stopped. I looked at Major Justice who had turned pale. Tom had fallen silent, and there was much agitation among the crew. The tone of the radio chatter with the Swamp Fox became tense. They were all reacting to the sight of a hundred or more sampans in the river below. This seemed to be a breech of the unspoken codicil to the gentleman’s agreement about the Christmas truce, and my companions were simultaneously appalled, frightened and indignant. They all interpreted what they were seeing as the Viet Cong flipping a giant finger at them.
         After a very brief consultation among the crew, the chopper began a rapid descent. The fastest way to lose altitude in a helicopter while still keeping control is to spiral in imitation of the path of a locust seed as it swirls downward. The occupants of the chopper experience a sensation that no thrill ride at Great America has yet been able to duplicate. We leveled off at less than 50 feet, and I found myself gazing dizzily out the open side of the chopper at the polemen and oarsmen on the sampans. I had been unprepared for this maneuver, and only later did I discover that we had been trying to draw fire from the presumed VC on the boats. Had someone foolishly discharged a rifle in the direction of our aircraft, that would have been a clear breech of the truce. We would have been justified in firing back, and the Swamp Fox, armaments now fully on-line, was prepared to retaliate by sinking all the sampans and killing all of the people I had been staring at.
         Despite our deliberate exposure, nothing happened. The pilot climbed a bit and proceeded to our original destination where a jeep was waiting for us at the helipad. Tom and I climbed in the back, and Major Justice directed the driver to the Vietnamese District Governor’s house.
         We found the Governor in his tennis whites resting after a doubles match. Still convinced that the VC were violating the truce, the Major had to obtain the civilian District Governor’s approval to attack without the provocation of live fire from the enemy. To the Major’s frustration, the Governor refused blanket authorization to attack but asked to be taken out to the river area in the chopper. Tom and I were now in the way, so we were driven to one of the bunker outposts and deposited with the bored GIs there for safekeeping.
         Ensconced in the bunker, Tom and I popped a couple of cold Buds and watched the Arkansas vs. Texas football game on TV. The soldiers showed some interest in the game but little in us. They talked about the return of the chopper later in the day when it was supposed to bring them hot turkey dinners. Their lethargy and focus on the trivial was perhaps caused by the realization that the next day people would be shooting at them again.
         A few hours later, the Jeep returned and we drove back to the helipad to board the chopper. The Governor and the Major had returned to Snoopy’s Nose and repeated the maneuver we had made earlier and still drew no fire, only friendly waves. The helicopter dropped so low that the Governor was able to talk to the people on the boats and even recognize some of them. He discovered that most of them were originally from the area but had been resettled in a fortified hamlet on an island in the Mekong River because of the war. They had returned on the truce day to honor their ancestors’ graves and to gather firewood, a commodity readily available in a forested “free fire” zone. There were probably some VC sampans mixed in with the locals, but it was clearly not the massive truce violation first suspected, nor did it represent the level of danger that everyone had originally perceived. A system of checks built into the command structure and the integrity of the individuals involved had prevented a disaster — this time.
         Tom talked the pilot into proceeding farther north before reversing course and heading back to My Tho. This took us over an area controlled by the Cao Dai, a religious sect that could call forth loyalty and disciplined behavior on the part of its members. Once again, we saw verdant pristine fields untouched by even a hint of the conflict raging on all sides. Since only members of the sect could live in the area, they needed only small arms to protect themselves. All in the brotherhood knew each other, and any infiltrating VC were shot. With no VC in the sect’s territory to worry about, the GVN and American gunners left the Cao Dai alone. Not surprisingly, the sect’s leadership routinely sold rice, vegetables and other agricultural products to both sides.
         While flying back over the contested area, Tom nudged me and pointed out of the open side of the chopper at a small grove of trees not too far below.
         “See those trees?”
         I nodded.
         “VC.” He moved his finger slightly and pointed to another grove of trees several hundred yards away, but well within the sight of the first grove. “GVN.”
         The loyalties of the people who controlled those two small pieces of real estate had been established early in the conflict and had not wavered for more than five years. The machines of war, the legions of soldiers, the money, the will and the political maneuvers had failed to produce a change of control in this tiny area. It seemed to simulate, on a small scale, the stalemate playing out at that time in the whole country.

    As a Peace Corps Volunteer John Krauskopf taught English in the boys’ secondary schools in Ahwaz, the provincial capital of Khuzistan Province in Iran. In 1969, he returned to Iran for the in-country portion of that year’s Peace Corps training where he supervised a teacher-training summer school. After ten years of involvement in international student exchange with Experiment for International Living, he spent more than two decades as the foreign student adviser and director of the English as a Second Language Institute in Millbrae, California before retiring. He is now writing a book about his international experiences.