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Three Bridges Too Far
Hearts, Minds and A Failure to Communicate

By John Troesser
The distance between Vietnam’s Highway One and the coastline of the South China Sea was just a few miles. It probably still is. In some places one could see the highway and the old colonial railroad tracks hugging a rocky coastline. In one particular spot, a small offshore island could be seen just a few hundred yards off the jagged coast – with a partially submerged iron ship which seems to have been seeking sanctuary when it was sunk. French? Japanese? One guess would be as good as another.

“Our” particular stretch of the coastline was flat. The mountains, which we were much more intimate with, were further inland. On these coastal plains, in the early morning hours, one could see fishermen heading to the village with the fish they had caught the previous night. Farmers merely had to intercept them to barter their produce for the fish that were so fresh a determined person could’ve probably resuscitated them.

Between fisherman and farmer, money only changed hands if there was a discrepancy that couldn’t be made up in either small fry or radishes. Bills, if used, were usually in small denominations – one, two or five piasters – one piaster (or Dong) equaled one American cent. A two dong note was green with a tractor on it. Memory doesn’t serve me well but it was either a one or two dong note that the Viet Cong used to identify each other. These notes were semi-rare – like two-dollar bills are here. Flashing this currency was a wordless form of communication. Not even a wink was needed and it could be done under the noses of Americans, most of whom were unaware of the practice.

One of the projects to make life easier for the South Vietnamese farmers (a project which also allowed for us to move our M60 tanks to the coast) was to build a short chain of bridges from Highway One to the water’s edge. Company “A” was, as always, unmotivated to participate with Headquarters Co. Headquarters Company did construction and the “Line” Companies saw construction as beneath them. Was this not 1966? Were we not “Airmobile?” We scoffed at construction projects.

The first bridge was built with heavy, black, creosoted timbers airlifted in by Chinook to our LZ and then driven to the site. They were like oversized Lincoln Logs but without the interlocking notches and with considerable more creosote. The actual construction was left to HQ company while several squads of A Company formed a protective perimeter. That arrangement was fine with us. It was unthinkable that the VC would be foolish enough to attack during the day – and the North Vietnamese Army liked the protection that the mountains provided.

So we’d spend the day sitting behind a machine gun with a PRC 25 radio – reading mail or sending the local kids off to buy Coca-Cola. The Cokes were kept submerged in the stream at a cool 104 degrees. On rare occasions (like birthdays) a collection was taken up and we’d buy a four-foot slab of ice weighing about 30 lbs. It cost 500 P – which was cheap for us – but more than a week’s pay for a Vietnamese.

The ice factory was in Qui Nhon and although the ice was heavily insulated with rice husks, it was transported about eighty miles by motor vehicle, then bicycle. By the time it reached us, the four foot slab was now a chunk about the size of a baby’s head. I think this is where the term “shrinkage” originated. Rather than risk chipping it into smaller pieces, we’d put the ice in a helmet and pour the Coke over it, passing the helmet around as the now-golf-ball sized ice melted into memory. There wasn’t much chance of getting a brain-freeze but it was a joy to have a few swallows of Coke brought down to a chilling 70 degrees.

The first bridge that was built stood about 16 feet above the creek – which was about three feet deep with some pools as deep as five or even six feet. Our officers – some of which actually held engineering degrees – knew that it was the dry season (in theory) and calculated accordingly. They had little books that told them what an M60 tank weighed (around 50 tons) and how deep pilings should be sunk into shifting creek beds.

Since this was a “hearts-and-minds” project, an ambulance was parked at the bridge site and the medics administered first aid to those villagers who came forward. They were giving the kids candy after an injection and it didn’t take long for word to spread. As I walked behind a tree “to see a man about a dog” what I actually saw was a grimacing six year old perforating his forearm with a broken bicycle spoke so he’d have a wound to show the medics. A hard way to “earn” a piece of candy.

I spotted another little boy who had a gaping wound on his calf – clearly (to me) an infected shrapnel wound. After taking him to the medics – the interpreter told us all – the wound had started as a simple mosquito bite that had become infected.

With nothing to do but guard the perimeter, we’d leave one man at the gun and go watch the bridge work progress. Where the work wasn’t being done, little Vietnamese boys were diving from the bridge. For all they knew, we were building them a diving platform. They were trying to make it to one of the deeper pools but the best hole was a good ten feet from the bridge.

I don’t know who started it – but one soldier took one boy’s arm and leg and launched the tyke toward the pool. The boy screamed with joy at his brief flight and was delighted to find it had ended in total submersion and not bone-jarring contact with the creek bed.

The villagers came at the initial screams, but when they saw the happy boy emerge intact and laughing, they got comfortable and squatted down to watch. Without a word being spoken, a line of boys instantly formed. All of them waited their turn offering a wrist and ankle when their turn came. The usual method was to swing a boy twice – releasing him on the third swing. The crowd would roar their approval at a particularly artistic launch or a midair cartwheel.

At one point there were perhaps forty spectators and everyone was either laughing or smiling – even the little girls – who, because of modesty (or the lack of bathing attire), were left out of the festivities.

The boys had conveniently left their clothes at home, so there was no time lost changing into suits. The original soldier did his best, but was soon winded. Another replaced him – but no matter how often the soldiers took turns – the line of boys never diminished. It was a Sisyphean task, but so much more fun than pushing a rock. I soon found myself taking a position on the bridge and was amazed at how far one can throw 40 pounds of screaming boy.

I could touch both of my middle fingers to my thumbs as I griped broomstick-sized wrists and ankles. Today, if anyone asks how many little boys I could throw ten feet – I can say that in my prime – I was good for about thirty. After that, my biceps felt like over-stretched rubber bands.

Toward late afternoon we’d go back to our LZ – leaving our handiwork for the villagers to admire. From what little I saw of our officers talking (through an interpreter) to the village elders, I would rate the enthusiasm of the villagers (on a scale of 1-10 with 10 being the highest) at about .65.

After hearing how their lives would be changed forever by this generous gift of infrastructure, the response of the villagers was loosely translated as: “Okay. Whatever you say.” But whatever the response was, it was always made with a smile. After all, they could see how much work went into the project and 12 X 12 X 16 timbers weren’t cheap. They, like millions of human beings, find physical labor mesmerizing – especially when the observer isn’t directly involved.

We used the first bridge to get to the second site about a mile further. The second one went up faster than the first. Then we had the joy of driving over two (count them, two!) bridges to reach the third bridge site. This happened twice the same day. How could it be twice on the same day? Because it was the first time we would drive over two bridges and also the last time.

The next morning when we reached the first bridge there was nothing to drive over. There was nothing but glowing posts at the water line. The villagers were going about their business – just like they had for the last several thousand years. But they were curious about what creosote was. They had never seen timber burn with such ferocity. They had been worried that embers from the burning bridge might ignite their thatched roofs. When asked who burned the bridge, their response was predicable. “You’re asking us who burned the bridge? Don’t you know?”

While bridge number one was being rebuilt, the supports for bridge number three were burned the next night. As the second version of bridge number one was going up, the village chief casually mentioned that since we were determined to build a bridge here, we might want to make this one a little higher since the first one would’ve been underwater when the Monsoons arrived. I remember one of the officers getting red-faced at hearing this and telling the interpreter to ask why we hadn’t been told this before. I saw the elder reply with a shrug and you didn’t need an interpreter to understand the Vietnamese equivalent of “You didn’t ask.”

Shortly thereafter, we were pulled off the job and went back to clearing landing zones in the jungle for / with the infantry. A few months later I ran into a headquarters company soldier I recognized and asked him if they ever finished the three bridges. I can’t remember his words – but I remember vividly his head thrown back in laughter. “Oh, yeah, those bridges – nah, we gave up on them. But were you in on those “swimming lessons” we gave? Man, my arms ached for days afterwards.” So did mine – but it was delightful ache – one I now feel in my heart.



© John Troesser
November 2, 2014 Column
More Columns by John Troesser
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