The young Vietnamese men were lined up on the beach looking nervous. It’s like they They were awaiting a machine gun to pop out of the sand and mow them down. We had to issue the command numerous times: strip to you skivvies and go play in the water. They lightened up after we tossed a few balls into the water and a boogie board or two. “Go on, you dip stick. Go play!”
Still looking paranoid, they moved into the water but kept a wary eye on the shoreline. It was a test though, we wanted to find out which ones could swim and therefore be sent to fill out a ranger-like company made up of all Vietnamese guys. We ended up with a few on the beach, choking up salt water from beautiful Nha Trang bay. We let them play for the rest of the afternoon, but loaded them onto the ‘special’ truck at the end of the day.
The remainder were loaded on the really cool bus and were hauled off to get training in Vietnam and Laos that would probably kill them. but they showed up and threw themselves into the training with failure not an option. The ranger guys we’d never seen again.
The thing is though, that some of them would really need water skills to sneak up on enemy locations at times, executing a fast movement attack on the enemy and having surprise effectively multiply their numbers by the quantity of enemy they caught off guard. After watching the Vietnamese soldiers in the water, I wondered how much of a surprise they’d be paddling across a river coughing up water and shouting in terror as their equipment loaded them down.
But many of the South Vietnamese soldiers were hard core fighters. Sure, some were not, having family and friendship ties to the north. Of special note were the Vietnamese Air Force; the men who supplied close air support to troops in contact with the enemy on the ground. Their wingtips cutting off the tops of trees, they were frighteningly accurate and seemed to have no fear. They flew when American policy grounded US fast movers. High explosive, white phospherous, and napalm would rain from their wings wherever the Forward Air Controllers told them to put it.
The infantry was almost as ferocious, digging in like ticks on the back of some NVA camp and literally fighting to the last man. Some of the things I saw were mesmerizingly awesome. I would think back to working with newly minted troops, embedded with us as a facet of their basic training and think of the names we called them, making fun of their ineptitude and inexperience. And now I was watching them fight with the tenacity of a psychotic pit bull and piling up enemy casualties like so much cordwood. Never judge a book by its cover, I concluded as my time at was finally expired.
I wonder how many of those dog paddlers made it through the war and what they might be doing now. I look around me at my fellow Vietnam vets and see how normal many of their lives turned out, and how it is for those in WWII and Korea. War always leaves its fighters changed in ways that aren’t particularly obvious, but war takes a toll even if it leaves no visible scars. I know that when the NVA swept into north Saigon and we beat feat out of the south, they stood up anyone in a South Vietnamese uniform and executed them. And executed many sympathizers who were proven (or not) to be sympathetic to democracy. So I have good reason to think about those people, and about the guys we sent swimming in Nha Trang Bay while we played Beach Boys on tape recorders, and where they might be now.