Professor of Photography and Photographer Jeffrey A. Wolin is the Edge of Humanity Magazine contributor of this social documentary photography. From his projects ‘Inconvenient Stories: Vietnam War veterans‘ and ‘Vietnamese Veterans: Portraits of the Other Sides‘. To see Jeffrey’s body of work click on any photograph.
Quang Tri, 1967/1968
“Then they shot my mother in the head, killing her. Her name was Lan. The American soldiers killed 13 people that night, all women, children and old people. This was in August 1967. I was 9 years old.”
Nguyen Van Phuoc / Civilian near the DMZ in Quang Tri
“Walking point, life expectancy is very short; usually the first contact with the enemy you were killed or wounded. I was good and became a deadly killer and hunted for the enemy and did my job well. I was never scared. The only fear I had was the fear of being captured.”
Owen Mike / U.S. Marine Corps Lance Corporal
“The American defenses were very strong and the area near the base was just sand with nothing to conceal our troops. So we dug in under the sand at night. During the day the sunshine made the temperature very hot.”
Ngo Huy Phat / Vietnam People’s Army Major Colonel
Nguyen Van Phuoc / Civilian near the DMZ in Quang Tri
About midnight a helicopter landed and American soldiers entered our village, Xuan Khe. On that night when the soldiers moved into the village they took Mr. Tuyen, an old man, to the bank of the river and struck him on the head, killing him immediately. Then they killed Mr. Tuyen’s wife. They moved to another home, arrested Mr. To, Mr. Huong and Mrs. Thai. They beat the men, then shot all three. In another house they killed Mrs Loi and her three children. Next door they killed Mrs. Xu and her two children. Then they shot my mother in the head, killing her. Her name was Lan. The American soldiers killed 13 people that night, all women, children and old people. This was in August 1967. I was 9 years old.
Three days earlier an American force had entered the village and set fire to all our houses. They wanted to relocate us due to the presence of guerillas and local army forces in the area. They were clearing the area of civilians so we couldn’t provide support for them. We moved to another village but quickly returned home.
On the day of the killings an American patrol was attacked by guerillas on the mountain about 5 kilometers from here. We were in our bunkers in the village but we could hear the shooting. We were still in our underground bunkers that night when the helicopter landed. First the soldiers threw grenades in the bunkers. As the villagers came out they were arrested, then killed.
I was in a bunker when I heard all the noise. I came up and saw what was happening about 50 meters away. I hid with my younger brother in a large clay jar that my family used to store rice. I ran with my brother on my back—that’s when I saw the soldiers beating Mr. Tuyen by the river. It was the middle of the night but the moon was full.
My brother and I went to stay with our grandmother. When the Americans set fire to our village three days earlier, she went to stay at a village 10 kilometers away and on the night the Americans attacked, she was still at that village. From that night my grandmother raised my brother and me.
Owen Mike / U.S. Marine Corps Lance Corporal
Summer 1968-March 1970
I’m a Native American, Ho Chunk Nation, from Wisconsin. Above everything I accept my own death as a destiny. It’s a great honor to die as a warrior on the battlegrounds. Summer of 1968, I got in-country. I was assigned to the 3rd Marine Division, which was located by Quang Tri city up in the northern I Corps. My first assignment was with the H/S Company 3/9 in communication. I talked to my CO, told him, I’m an American Indian. I came here to fight a war. I want to be with an infantry company. I was then transferred to I Company, 3/9.
On or about Christmas time 1968, I experienced my very first firefight—it was terrifying. Before the Dewey Canyon operation in A Shau Valley, one of my closest friends was killed while walking point; I volunteered to take over his job. It’s nerve-racking and tiresome to walk alone far up in front of my platoon and my company. Walking point, life expectancy is very short; usually the first contact with the enemy you were killed or wounded. I was good and became a deadly killer and hunted for the enemy and did my job well. I was never scared. The only fear I had was the fear of being captured.
One time I was on guard duty when a blue flare exploded above us. Suddenly the enemy attacked us in waves. We held our positions and fought them off until the sun came up when it was over. We captured an enemy soldier. I wanted to kill him but I chose not to because he was not on equal terms with me. We went out on patrols to look for more. With my platoon I came upon an enemy soldier, shot a whole clip of rounds in him and killed him.
In fall 1969 they started pulling some of the 3rd Marines Division out of Vietnam—my tour had ended. I left Vietnam and flew to Okinawa. I left there and landed at Travis Air Force Base in California. March of 1970 it was cold; the snow was flying when I finally made it home to Wisconsin where my journey had all started. I was discharged from the U. S. Marine Corps on September 1971. Memories still haunt me when I was a young Ho Chunk Marine that went to war and survived through many firefights on the battlegrounds from A Shau Valley, to Laos, the DMZ and the jungles of Vietnam.
Ngo Huy Phat / Vietnam People’s Army Major Colonel
During the Tet Offensive of 1968, I served as Chief of the Division to organize the plan for the Battle of Route Number 9 near the DMZ in Quang Tri province. The purpose was to stop the movements of the American soldiers so they could not cross Route 9, which ran from the coast to Laos.
We had sent in regiment after regiment until we had the whole division in the area. Finally we got closer and closer to Dong Ha. Our unit faced difficulties. The American defenses were very strong and the area near the base was just sand with nothing to conceal our troops. So we dug in under the sand at night. During the day the sunshine made the temperature very hot.
Everything was very difficult for the Vietnamese soldiers but we appeared suddenly and the Americans were surprised by our attack. The battle was Tien Tanh of Cua Viet—it means the surprise attack of the Cua Viet River. Our troops were buried in the sand the whole day and that night we came out and surprised the Americans.
We knew very well the organization of the American defenses in the Cua Viet area, which was protected by an electric fence. The water level in the river was not so deep. The American side had artillery and bombs all day and even at night so to avoid that we went where the water was deeper. We attacked where the American bombs and artillery had damaged the fence. We went through the wires.
We understood the schedule of the bombings and artillery and waited until they stopped. We took off all our clothes and crossed the river with everything carried on our heads. When we got across the bombing started again. Once we got to the other side of the fence we put our clothes on.
Our special forces that led the attack were naked and covered with mud from head to toe. They coordinated their movements to make no noise. During the artillery barrage if one of the soldiers was wounded or killed the one behind him would carry him back but always we were moving forward. We had to do everything we could to fulfill the mission.
Mark Scully / U.S. Army 1st Lieutenant (featured image)
June 1968-June 1969
I spent my entire year in Vietnam as the Assistant Battalion Advisor to the 4th Battalion, 48th Infantry regiment, 18th ARVN Division—Army of the Republic of Vietnam. The Vietnamese commander of the 18th ARVN Division was corrupt. He had a core cadre of cohorts who went back together since the mid-1950’s when they had all been in an elite airborne battalion together with him as commander. It was rumored that he ran a vast criminal enterprise.
Diew was evil incarnate. He did ghost payrolling, taking the pay of soldiers on the rolls who did not exist. He did double payrolling, having everyone paid twice, one of which he kept. He sold food, medical supplies and gasoline on the black market. Even ammunition would be siphoned off and sold before it got down to his soldiers. He would keep the bonus money that was supposed to go to the men for capturing weapons or killing enemy. And, as commander, he had total life and death dictatorial power and control over the entire battalion. We were all afraid of him.
After being in combat with them five months, I had an excellent relationship with the Vietnamese junior officers of the battalion, especially the 1st Company Commander. The Vietnamese soldiers knew I would risk my life for them. They trusted me with their lives. About three weeks after Diew took over, the 1st Company Commander came to me requesting our intercession. The effectiveness of the battalion as a fighting force had already deteriorated and he foresaw its only getting worse.
Right at that time, we had a new Senior Battalion Advisor, Captain William Stoner. I relayed the information I had received to him. Since he was so new to the battalion, whereas I was more familiar with the situation, he had me go to Xuan Loc, 18th Division headquarters and report to Col. Walter E. Coleman, Advisor Team 87 Commander and the counterpart to the Vietnamese Commanding General.
Col. Coleman listened to all I had to report then replied that it was US policy to not interfere with the internal affairs of the Vietnamese unless they proved themselves incompetent in the field. I asked him what ‘incompetent in the field’ meant. He replied that if the Vietnamese battalion commander were to have a platoon or company be ‘wiped out,’ that would constitute being ‘incompetent in the field.’ I asked him if that might mean a company or platoon I might be with. He said, ‘That’s right, Lieutenant.’ There was nothing more to say. I said, ‘Yes Sir,’ saluted him and left.
Michael Rosensweig / U.S. Army Rangers Specialist E-4
January 1969- February 1971
After my first tour of duty in Vietnam I had orders for Fort Bragg. I got back to the states and at that time my family was in Baltimore. I was walking up Howard Street in downtown Baltimore—I was still in uniform. A truck backfired about two blocks behind me. I just yelled, ‘Incoming!’ and hit the pavement. It just freaked everybody out. I said, ‘To hell with this.’ Next morning I took the bus, went down to the Pentagon and had orders changed to go back to ‘Nam—just wasn’t ready to come back to what we like to call ‘civilization.’ I wasn’t done fighting my war—there was still a cause to be fought for.
I enjoyed the combat—the adrenalin. Don’t mistake that. Don’t mistake the love of combat for the lack of fear. We were all scared—just some of us got off on the adrenaline…
As far as getting orders changed, it was no problem. I just went down there, told them I wanted a change to go back to ‘Nam. Eighteen days later I was back in country. I went through Rangers school—we had our own school in Vietnam. It was ten days of sheer hell. Our training was geared to guerilla fighting. I was stationed in the same area as my first tour, Central Highlands. The company was based in An Khe.
I loved being with the Rangers. We were a six-man hunter-killer team. Our mission was to go out and kill. Go in, strike, get out—covert. Sometimes if there were too many NVA we had to call in air strikes. Sometimes we had to call them in a lot closer than was allowed by military regs. In some cases it was do that or die anyway.
“The first person I ever had to kill was an eight-year old boy. We were escorting the 101st Airborne in the A Shau Valley. A little boy ran out of the village with a grenade in his hand…”
War just leaves scars that will never heal up in your head because of the overall trauma. The first person I ever had to kill was an eight-year old boy. We were escorting the 101st Airborne in the A Shau Valley. A little boy ran out of the village with a grenade in his hand heading straight for a truckload of GI’s—kind of hard to balance that one out. The grenade was in his hand. We tried to get him to stop—‘Dong Lai!’ ‘Stop!’ He just kept running with that Chi Com in his hand—it’s a Chinese Communist grenade with a string fuse. We didn’t have a choice. If we hadn’t killed him he would have ended up throwing it in a truckload of GI’s. He was about 25 yards away. There are too many other instances like this to list and I say that in all sincerity. I just can’t talk about them.
You know, because of my background in Vietnam, we had to watch our tempers more than anyone else. Society did not give us the right to get angry and shout. If we did that we were considered lethal. I got fired more than once just for doing nothing more than anybody else would have done—got mad at somebody for doing something really stupid. Yelled at him. The reason I was given was because when I get mad, all people see in my eyes is death.
Thomas Sherman / U.S. Air Force Colonel
We bombed Hanoi with B-52’s for the first time in December 1972. It was called, Operation Linebacker II and it was eleven days of bombing. I led the third attack. A lot of people, me included, think that’s what basically ended the war because up until then the North Vietnamese and the South Vietnamese were dragging their feet. They had been arguing in Paris over the size of the table and all this kind of crap but a few days into the bombing of Hanoi, North Vietnam finally agreed to get together and talk.
We took off from Guam after the usual pre-takeoff briefings. We went northwest up through South Vietnam off into Laos until we were due west of Hanoi then we cut east and ran down Thud Ridge. From the time we took off from Guam until we were over Hanoi was about 5 hours. I started off from Guam with maybe thirty B-52’s and I picked up twenty more based in Thailand after refueling off the coast of Vietnam. So by the time we got up to Hanoi we had fifty-some birds, plus fighter support and such like. As Airborne Commander I was in charge of all that.
It was a night mission. It was black—all you could see were a few lights on the ground.
We came in at 35000 feet. There was a hell of a tail wind. We were going lickity-split down Thud Ridge into downtown Hanoi then releasing and making a hard right, turning southwest into Laos. We believed that Hanoi was the best-defended city in the world at that time.
Our targets were railroads, military installations like army bases, radar sites, airfields and so forth. The enemy was running out of SAM’s. By the last night of the eleven-night operation it was damn near a milk run.
After eleven days of this, the North Vietnamese told the U.S. they wanted to resume the peace negotiations. Linebacker II gave everybody a good excuse to restart the talks. It was obvious that Hanoi was on its knees militarily. After the third or fourth night things were looking pretty good for us. One of our guys called the B-52, “God’s avenging dump truck.” I think it’s a pretty good label.
Da Nang, 1975
” I was near the airport at Da Nang when the city was liberated on March 29, 1975.”
Bui Thi Tron / Vietnam People’s Army Corporal
“Everywhere in Da Nang there were bombs going off including the airport.”
Hung Pho Do / ARVN Captain
Bui Thi Tron / Vietnam People’s Army Corporal
For three years I escorted the soldiers from the north to the south and the wounded from south to north. My unit was based in the jungle south of the DMZ, one day’s walk from Da Nang. We carried the wounded on litters from base to base in the jungle. It took the whole day. We left in the morning from our base and arrived at another in the late afternoon. A soldier went ahead to clear a trail for us with a machete. Ten of us carried five soldiers—two of us for each litter. They were seriously wounded—some were missing limbs.
It was hard for women. At first we marched south from Thi Binh province to the south, always on foot, through the jungle along the Ho Chi Minh Trail. We would rest every ten days and take a shower—every ten days. For women to go that long without a shower after walking in the jungle, you can imagine how hard that was. We had to carry everything—food, weapons—the same as the men. At that time I weighed 50 kgs.
Many women volunteered during the war. I thought everyone should defend our country. It was hard work and also dangerous but I felt happy to do it. Many times we were in the area where B-52’s were bombing and sometimes we were surrounded by American soldiers. Once, in 1972, our unit was carrying wounded soldiers through the jungle when B-52 bombers came in and we had to move fast, carrying wounded and our weapons. That night soldiers from our unit were wounded in the B-52 strike, some of them women, so they stayed behind until they could be retrieved.
I was near the airport at Da Nang when the city was liberated on March 29, 1975. I went into Da Nang to join in the celebration on April 1. Everyone was delighted—I can’t describe how happy we were. The people of Da Nang greeted us and were very happy. The women wore ao dai, traditional Vietnamese clothing. They waved flags and threw flowers. We knew the war would soon be over.
The jungle we operated in was sprayed often with Agent Orange. The trees lost their leaves and the people from that area told us it was because the water was contaminated by dioxin. Now my health is poor. My stomach is not so good and I have pain in my backside and up and down my legs. It started more than ten years ago.
The war has already passed and we try to rebuild our country. Still the war victims of Agent Orange have problems up to the third generation of the veterans: our children and grandchildren.
Hung Pho Do / ARVN Captain
I was the last one left in my army camp in Da Nang. I had the conscience to stay and fight so I remained when everyone else left. This night, the 28th of March, the guerrillas bombed Da Nang. They had infiltrated Da Nang and made a revolt. Everywhere in Da Nang there were bombs going off including the airport. So people got scared and fled.
When I saw my camp was empty, I left. I went to Tien Sa, the naval base at Da Nang to look for a boat. Along the shore I see many horrible things—I see a pregnant woman dead on the beach. The bombs killed many civilians.
There was an American boat off shore we could see but the communists had taken our ARVN boat and fired at the American boat to keep it away. I didn’t have any way to get to it.
I was wearing civilian clothes that I picked up—there were many clothes along the shore. I tore up my military papers and threw them in the sea. I was 30 years old and the communists knew that everyone around that age was in the military.
The guerrillas who had infiltrated Da Nang grabbed me. From 8 to 6 o’clock I had nothing to eat or drink. After 6 o’clock the tanks arrived—many, many NVA tanks. I was captured along with some naval officers and marines. There were hundreds of us.
They transferred us from camp to camp. We didn’t stay in any camp for very long. We had to walk. We had no shoes. My feet were bloody. Many camps, many camps, 7 years 3 months in the camps.
Medics On Opposing Sides
“It took until two years after the war before the malaria was completely gone from my body. I lost all my hair; my eyes turned yellow and my skin green. All of us caught the disease. We had to fight anyway.”
Nguyen Vin Luc / Vietnam People’s Army Medic
“We’re gonna pray to fucking Jesus.’ John says, ‘Jesus Christ, Doc. Gimme a fucking cigarette!’”
Marc Levy / U. S. Army Specialist E-4
Nguyen Vin Luc / Vietnam People’s Army Medic
We walked the Ho Chi Minh Trail through Laos to get south of the DMZ. I was in Da Nang, Quang Ngai and Quang Tin. We lived in tunnels during periods of bombing. Otherwise our quarters were built half-below and half-above the ground and we stayed there when there was no bombing. It was in a thick forest. We weren’t worried about being attacked by ground troops.
During battles I would fight as a regular soldier—I had an AK-47. But when someone was wounded I was a medic. I would give them something for the pain, dress their wounds and help carry them back to the base for further treatment. Sometimes the American helicopters would fire rockets at our base but they never hit near the hospital. They never found our tunnels in that thick forest.
In that part of Vietnam during the monsoons we got heavy rain. One time two of us were carrying a wounded comrade on a litter and it was raining very hard. A helicopter shot at us. We hid my friend by the base of a tree and covered him with our bodies to protect him from the rockets. I was hit once in the head with shrapnel but it wasn’t serious.
If someone died we also carried them back four or five hundred meters from the battle zone where someone else took care of the body. The dead were buried in the south and a map was made of the graves so families could locate their loved ones later and give them a proper burial.
During the war we didn’t have enough food to eat so our bodies were not as strong as usual. We all got malaria but we didn’t have enough medicine to treat the disease. It took until two years after the war before the malaria was completely gone from my body. I lost all my hair; my eyes turned yellow and my skin green. All of us caught the disease. We had to fight anyway.
After the war I returned home to work as a farmer and rebuild my hometown—so many years of fighting but now the world is at peace.
Marc Levy / U. S. Army Specialist E-4
November 1969-November 1970
As a medic, the very first guy I patched up—it was a case of friendly fire. We had called in a Hunter/Killer team. Hunter’s a Loach, a small helicopter, he scouts out the area, then he calls in Killer, the Cobra gun ship who’s got rockets and mini-guns. Loach came in and we waved. We had a machine gun team up on a hill and Hunter opened up on the gun team from 30-40 yards—he was right above, like a giant bumble bee. Hit my guy with an M-60 then walks the rounds down because he sees us waving. He was trigger-happy—it was understandable, but we’d thrown smoke to mark our position.
They were walking the rounds down the hill. Just missed me and Steve, my Lieutenant; they missed all of us by ten or twenty feet. Steve said, ‘Get up there, Doc!’ This guy John, his leg was just blown open. I’m looking at his bones; I’m looking at his muscle; I’m looking at ligaments and there’s blood spurting from his shoulder like a geyser. I straddled the guy—I just sat on him. Then the gun ship comes in and starts laying down rockets and mini-guns right over us. Like Apocalypse Now—you got smoke; you got rockets; you got mini-guns. It was wild.
I’m patching him up. He’s writhing in pain. I don’t know where it comes from but this is the good part of the war story. From somewhere—bear in mind I’m Jewish—I say, ‘John, you believe in Jesus?’ And he’s screaming and I say, ‘We’re gonna pray, John. We’re gonna pray to fucking Jesus.’ John says, ‘Jesus Christ, Doc. Gimme a fucking cigarette!’ His hands are shaking. I turned to the squad leader and said, ‘Pete, give John a fucking cigarette!’
So John’s got his cigarette but he’s shaking like crazy. I said, ‘Pete, light the fucking cigarette!’ and while John’s smoking the cigarette I jab him with morphine. I don’t remember how we got him down to a bomb crater. When the medevac came in, I fucked up. We’re at the lip of the crater and the medevac crew throws down a litter. We put him in, they start to winch him up. His arm is fucked. I’m not thinking, just acting. And the helicopter’s winching him up. But before they get him up, I leaned over and put my hand to his ear. I said, ‘John, it’s Doc. You’re gonna be all right. Everyone loves you.’ So they start to hoist him up and once he’s perpendicular but not off the ground I said, ‘All right, John. You’re gonna be ok.’ And I slapped him right where he got shot. And he screamed bloody fucking murder. Then they hauled him in and the chopper was gone and all this dust and shit trickled back down. We gathered our gear and moved out.
George “Tom” Boone / U. S. Air Force Major
I was a pilot for Operation Ranch Hand, the 12th Air Commando Squadron, stationed at Bien Hoa. We did the defoliation work spraying Agent Orange with C-123’s. They were always saying that we were the most shot at, and hit, operation in the history of air war. Nobody ever got through an assignment without their plane taking hits, and at least half the guys had Purple Hearts and not from scratches. We couldn’t bail out because we were too low while the shooting was going on and the plane had spray booms across the back that you would hit if you did jump. As a result we didn’t even carry parachutes. You just had to fly whatever was left of the plane as long as it would fly. My plane got hit on 35 missions and a few of them were pretty bad.
Most of the fire was from small arms; we wore body armor and our seats were armored to protect us. When the enemy would open up with the .50 caliber and other big stuff, it would get real serious. The heavy caliber bullets would go right through anything. They would even shoot rocket-propelled grenades, and one guy came back with a Montagnard arrow out of a crossbow stuck in his airplane. We might be the last military outfit that took hits from a crossbow. You took a lot of hits—that’s all there was to it. I took my first hit on my first mission, and got my last hit on my last mission.
When the shooting started you would really get low because they would have less time to fire at you. I’m sure I was frequently only 25 feet off the treetops. Some of the airplanes had marks where guys hit the top of trees. I was always surprised that no one ever crashed because of getting too low. We were low enough that you could get a real good look at the enemy and see if they were shooting at you or someone else—you would even see kids and women shooting. All of them seemed to be pretty bad shots. We would drop smoke grenades when we took fire and then the fighter escorts would hose down the area with some really bad stuff. It would sometimes look like the Fourth of July with everything going off. You could sometimes see the concussion when the ordnance would go off. If the women and kids were shooting they usually got it too. That bothered me at first. Should you shoot at kids? No. If the kids are shooting at you, should you shoot at them? Yeah, I think so.
I don’t know of anybody that was having a great time over there. We would all have rather been somewhere else. I didn’t want to go to Vietnam, didn’t like it when I got there and was happy to leave. But I was a career officer and it was our job and our duty, so I went and I made the best of it.
David Cline / U.S. Army Specialist E-3
I was sitting cross-legged with my rifle pointed up at the entrance to the hole. We always put a sand bag cover on our foxholes so if we got mortared we’d have some protection from the shrapnel. All of a sudden this guy came up behind my hole and he stuck in his rifle. I saw the front side of an AK-47 and then a muzzle flash and I pulled my trigger. The bullet hit me in the knee and I blacked out from the impact. When I came to a few minutes later my weapon was jammed and my knee was shattered. Walker—who we used to call “Thump” because he had the M-79 grenade launcher and that’s the sound it made—started shooting and Jameson pulled me out of the hole and lifted me on his back. We pulled back to the platoon Command Post which was a hole even further back and they stuck me in the foxhole with a bottle of Darvans and I lay there eating them Darvans all night to kill the pain.
That night the NVA overran a lot of our positions. It was the only night in Vietnam I thought I was dead for sure because the Vietnamese were all over the place charging and at night you couldn’t tell who was who. The fight went on all night. They were not able to kill us all and take over our positions so they withdrew before the sun came up. We took a lot of casualties. I’m sure they took a lot of casualties too.
In the morning they took me out of the foxhole and put me on a stretcher to medevac me out. They carried me over to my position and the guy who had shot me was dead. He was sitting up against a tree stump and he had his AK-47 across his lap and a couple of bullet holes up his chest. The sergeant started patting me on the shoulder. “Here’s this gook you killed. You did a good job.”
“Here’s the gook you killed.” I looked at this guy; he was about my age and I started thinking, “Why is he dead and I’m alive?”
They used to have a big thing; first off it was a racial thing: they weren’t people; they were “gooks”. How you get people to kill people, you dehumanize them—make them less than human. So this sergeant is telling me, “Here’s the gook you killed.” I looked at this guy; he was about my age and I started thinking, “Why is he dead and I’m alive?” It was pure luck that I had my rifle aimed at his chest while his was aimed at my knee—not anything to do with being a better soldier or fighting for a better cause.
“What I didn’t realize at the time, but did later, was that I was refusing to give up on his humanity.”
Then I started thinking, “I wonder if he had a girlfriend? How will his mother find out her son is dead?” What I didn’t realize at the time, but did later, was that I was refusing to give up on his humanity. And that’s what a lot of war is about: denying your enemy’s humanity. The senselessness of the whole thing was right in front of me.
Ho Phuc Ngon / Vietnam People’s Army Lieutenant Colonel
The first battle I fought in was in 1954 in Quang Nam, just outside Da Nang. Our forces defeated the French at the Battle of Bo Bo. I served on a suicide team of three men—we were sure we would die. We wore red scarves over our shoulders to signify that we were Cam Tu, suicide fighters. We carried explosives onto the French base. When we arrived at the base that night I was spotted by a French soldier. We fought hand-to-hand but I was young and trained in martial arts and I prevailed.
Before the battle, our suicide team had high spirits; we were determined to carry out our mission. We were fortunate that our troops killed all the French soldiers and we did not have to detonate the explosives we carried. That is why I am still alive today.
I remained in the army after the French War. When the American War began, my job was to penetrate the American bases. I was Dac Cong, Special Forces. I was leader of a four-man team. We would quietly approach the bases at night, crawl in slowly and cut the fences—there could be three or four layers of barbed wire. We disabled the flares and mines surrounding the bases so our main force could attack.
In March 1966, American reinforcements arrived in Da Nang and about 25 artillery pieces were sent to build up a base at the village at Thanh Vinh. They were 105 mm and 155 mm artillery.
At midnight on June 17, 1966, we attacked the base at Thanh Vinh, 5 kilometers from Da Nang. I led a group of about 60 Dac Cong. We broke into the base from three directions and destroyed seven artillery pieces. The battle was short—it was over in 25 minutes. I fought in many battles in both the French and American Wars.
Le Nam Phong & Nguyen Van Thai / Vietnam People’s Army Senior Lieutenant Colonels
Phong: At Dien Bien Phu in 1954 we used new tactics to defeat the French. We attacked Him Lam and Doc Lap hills and cut the airport off. The airport was like the stomach of the French. By cutting it off we cut off their means of resupply. Then we squeezed the French into one part of the base. My main responsibility was to organize our troops to dig trenches from the surrounding hills into the airport. We captured many French soldiers in the hills in the first round of the battle. The French fired artillery at our positions and injured and killed many of our soldiers. The French brought in paratroopers. They had better weapons, planes and tanks but we were determined to defeat them.
Thai: I was involved in the plans for the first attack at Dien Bien Phu. We drove the French out and years later in July 1965, I moved south of the DMZ as the American forces began to arrive in large numbers. We were stationed along Road Number 9. I was responsible for analyzing our battle plans and keeping up the morale of the troops. We surrounded the American base at Khe Sanh and attacked Tacon Airport at the start of Tet ’68. We hoped to draw many American forces from all around the south to Khe Sanh. That was our plan so Vietnamese inside cities in the south would rise up against the Saigon regime.
In April 1968, our unit broke off the siege of Khe Sanh and went to Kon Tum in the Central Highlands. We were reinforced by fresh troops from the north who remained in the area around Khe Sanh. Our goal had been to tie up American troops and resources defending the base even as we attacked cities all over the south. It was the biggest battle of the war. We used large artillery every day against the Americans. At the same time American B-52’s bombed us and American artillery shelled our positions. At first the B-52’s struck a few hours a day but by the end of the battle they were bombing around the clock. Many men died on both sides.
Phong: In March ’75, we liberated Phuoc Long province and drew closer to Saigon, 100 kilometers away. I was a Senior Lieutenant Colonel and my division was to seize the Presidential Palace and raise the Vietnamese flag on the roof but we were held up at a bridge outside the city and arrived at noon, half an hour after another unit had already captured the palace.
Thai: I was in the same division as Phong. We arrived at the Presidential Palace 30 minutes after it had been captured. We went through Bien Hoa but our tanks were too large to cross the bridge there so we had to go around a different way. Our forces approached Saigon from five directions. Our division had been given the honor of entering Saigon first, capturing the Presidential Palace and raising the flag because our unit was distinguished in the French War—we captured the French general at Dien Bien Phu and raised the flag over his bunker.
Phong was in charge of the fighting while my main role was developing strategy and encouraging the troops. We lived and fought together during the war so we developed a close friendship.
Phong: In my life as a soldier I had two major accomplishments: in 1954 at Dien Bien Phu in the decisive battle against the French and in 1975 when we liberated Saigon. Many citizens waved flags and cheered as we entered the city. The Saigon regime soldiers fled. It was the second time in my life as a soldier that I was happy. I was glad that Thai was with me to share our victory.
Book By Jeffrey A. Wolin