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VIETNAM MEMORY     By Commander Ed Bookhardt, US Navy, Retired
Part 2  Mekong Memories

See the companion piece:    Part 1   Monsoon
Posting date: March 2009
Following the very soul wrenching mission to the Tan My LST port project in I Corps which I described in “Monsoon,” I returned to Headquarters in Saigon. After debriefing and a couple days’ recuperation, I was dispatched to Can Tho in the IV Corps Mekong Delta region to make contact with our resident engineer, Lieutenant Tom Spencer. We were to continue up the Hau River to the village of Nui Sap near Cambodia to obtain geo-rock samples from various out-croppings and do a cursory assessment of the area for a potential quarry site. Tom would make arrangements for a courtesy call on the Providence Chief and hire a local boatman to take us to our destination.

The courtesy call in Can Tho was cordial with the promise of local militia escorts on our arrival in Nui Sap. On reaching the waterfront, the boatman Tom had hired was waiting near his long boat. He was a small slender man barely five-feet in height with dark almond shaped eyes, missing brown teeth, a full shock of graying hair and wiry goatee. He was very polite, bowing repeatedly when we met. He wore the loose pajama type clothing common to the orient peasantry with a large weathered conical shaped hat tied under his chin. He understood a few words of English.

The boat typical of the Mekong was a long narrow homemade craft just wide enough to sit in. It was approximately eighteen feet in length with a low free-board. The power-plant was an old five-horse Briggs and Stratton engine crudely mounted on the stern with a long section of galvanized pipe for a shaft and hammered hand-made propeller. Though most river people used an eons old hand operated double-paddle or pole system to move about, this was typical of motorized versions.

As we got underway, I had Tom sit in the bow facing up river. I sat in the center of the skiff facing the boatman to keep an eye on him…my carbine across my lap. After my previous trip up north, I was leery of everyone of oriental lineage. Was he a Viet Cong sympathizer? Were there VC along the dense riverbanks awaiting a couple of expendable GIs? Would our little man take us into a trap, perhaps lose us in some jungle tributary? Or was he as he appeared, a simple river man? I pondered our fate as we moved up river against the swollen currents.

Hell, I sometimes wish I was the fearless cavalier type, but I’m a natural born coward and worrier! Its one thing to sit back in headquarters blowing smoke rings at the ceiling while simultaneously blowing smoke up subordinates asses…its entirely different when you are out in “never-never land,” your perspective is a hell of a lot different…staying puckered is routine…

I recalled the prior morning briefing standing in front of the OICC Operations Officer, “It should be an okay little jaunt for you Ed… [You know you’re going to get the weenie, when seniors use your first name!] Intelligence reports that sector is currently secure, so don’t worry about the VC. The Nui Sap villagers are friendly and pro-government. The Province Chief has approved your entry and will provide support… so there should be no problems.” Lax and detached, Captain Burton, affectionately known as “Captain “Q,” studied the ash on his cigar for a moment, then turned, his ivory cue-ball head glistening under the office lights as he reached for a cardboard box on the credenza behind him.

Still standing at parade-rest, I quickly scratched an urgent crotch itch [crabs? hygiene?] before he turned to face me. He leaned forward, pushed the open box across the desk, grunted, tapped the teetering ash in a stained coffee mug and stuck the chewed end back in his face, “That’s a kit from the contractor’s geologist. It’s all you need, study it on your way. Bring back some samples and your evaluation of the site’s accessibility to the river. We sorely need a rock source in the Delta if we are going to put the highway system in that Congress approved to further promote the pacification of the country. It is vitally important, that is the reason we are sending you. You have a reputation for getting the job done! The Admiral and I have total confidence you will succeed…good luck and give Lieutenant Spencer my regards and a pat on the back, he’s a good officer.”

Glancing in the box, I saw a weird looking hammer-hatchet thingy atop a folded cloth sack with an accompanying paperback manual. An amusing thought popped in my head, “Daddy, what did you do in the war? Son, your old man bagged a big sack of rocks!” Oh well, the Captain gave a comforting and reassuring pep talk but again, he’s not going to be “somewhere out there” with his privates hanging-out! I vividly remember MACV’s intelligence blunder during the Tet lunar holidays…I damn near got killed! Those Army spooks could be wrong again! But duty first! I said “Aye-aye,” did an about-face and left with the box under my arm to catch our morning hop to Can Tho… “Little jaunt,” he called it!

The boat suddenly swerved to miss floating debris…water splashed over the shallow sides of the skiff wetting us. Papa-san noting my concern bowed his head in apology. I nodded, wishing he would quit grinning at me with that toothless smile! The two-cycle engine banged and smoked but surprisingly moved the long boat along quite nicely. Looking over my shoulder, my partner was lazed back looking at the sky and dragging his fingers in the water. “Goddamn Tom, quit playing in the water, check the map and the river banks this ain’t the party boat to Catalina…remember, it is not California…it’s like Cambodia! I’ve got fifty-three days and a wake-up, so pardon me if I’m a little tense and tight assed. I want to be on Braniff’s big bird with that beautiful “Golden Tail,” come July!”

As the boat rounded a bend in the river it was as if we had entered “The Twilight Zone” or stepped through the magic looking glass. All the sights, sounds and filth of war absorbed over the previous months dissolved into a serene oriental paradise. There before us was a group of neatly thatched huts overhanging the river. A lovely young woman was standing in the river nude above the waist. Her long wet ebon hair glistened in the sun as she gently bent forward washing in the flowing water. She stood erect and waved, the mounds of her wet rounded breasts reflecting the morning sun. Several children playing nearby laughed and giggled as they splashed each other. Above, in the open hut an elderly woman, a pipe clinched in the corner of her mouth watched over her brood, while eyeing the approaching intruders with concerned suspicion.

A distance backdrop of neatly terraced rice paddies formed geometric designs across the emerald green landscape. A farmer laboring behind a yoked water buffalo gave accent to the otherwise tranquil scene. Flocks of snow-white egrets seeking morsels turned up by the plow, floated effortlessly in trailing picturesque patterns…

Until that moment I had thought of nothing but doing my duty for the gallant cause. Here removed from the tempo of war I began to have second thoughts; these were the real Vietnamese. For generation upon generation these gentle souls had toiled in the same traditional manner. Earthy, proud people of the soil made up the majority of the population. Do they know what communism is? Do they have any real concern with who rules over their ancient lands?

My somber thoughts were interrupted by the children’s excited shrieks as they spotted us. Laughing and waving they ran along the riverbank trying to keep up. Smiling, we clapped and urged them on in their race with the boat and then waved goodbye as they fell behind.

As I gazed over the unspoiled panoramic vista I felt in my heart that I was in fact an intruder. Again, the noble cause on which we had embarked was to me questionable. My shining armor was showing signs of chinks and tarnish. I should not be here participating in changing another’s way of life, nor desecrate the land on which they had dwelled for centuries. What right did we have to interfere? Could my simple act of gathering some igneous stones bring an onslaught of men and equipment that would devastate their lives and deface the land forever? I was poignant and filled with regret.

Our mission successful and accomplished without incident, we returned at dusk to the Can Tho waterfront. The boatman, an excellent river man had fulfilled his duties to the letter. He continued his respectful demeanor, bowing in a gesture of farewell. Being ashamed of my earlier shallow thoughts, I too bowed, shook his hand and gave him the small amount of scrip I had, along with our remaining rations.

On impulse, as he boarded for his trip home, I pulled the watch from my wrist and presented it to this unassuming comrade. A gentle earthy man whose path I would never cross again, but whom I remember to this day. Beaming, he quizzically pulled the expanding band back and forth and then put it on his wrist. He sat for several moments admiring and touching the dial, and then turned away, pointed the craft up river and disappeared in the evening mist...

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