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
“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
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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
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