A Vietnam Village: Buddha's Birthday
A True Story
Copyright © Henry J. Sage 2008, 2017

The artillery battery was located at a fire base a few miles northwest of Da Nang. Several small villages with populations of a few hundred each were located within a short distance of the battery position. The war had been quiet in that sector since the end of Tet 1969, and most days were uneventful. As part of the First Marine Division’s civic action program, Marines from the battery often spent their daytime hours in the villages doing projects to help the inhabitants. The camp doctor, a Navy lieutenant who spoke Vietnamese, spent most of his time in the villages treating the Vietnamese, assisting at childbirths and otherwise ministering to the needs of people who rarely saw a doctor.

One village, perhaps a thousand yards from the camp, was inaccessible by road. Everything the people needed from outside was carried on a path by women with baskets suspended from poles across their shoulders. One day the sergeant in charge of a battery working party reported to the XO that the village would appreciate it if the Marines could build a road through the rice paddies surrounding the village.

Battery equipment operator, Corporal “Ski,” was so skillful with his Eimco bulldozer that they joked that “If you ask Ski to slice a loaf of bread with his tractor blade, he’ll ask if you want it thick or thin sliced.” So the Marines loaded Ski’s tractor onto a flatbed trailer and took it out to the village, where he built the road.

For that and other projects, including re-digging a well which was the village’s only source of fresh water, the battery commander was invited to send some Marines to participate in the village Buddha’s birthday celebration, May 30, 1969. The battery executive officer, a captain, and the doctor, Sergeant Von (the camp’s Vietnamese translator) and half a dozen Marines went to the village in response to the invitation. The villagers welcomed the Marines with smiles and asked their guests to accompany them to an outdoor temple where a service was being conducted.

The temple was a simple rectangle with a stone altar at one end and a stone wall perhaps two feet high outlining the temple area itself, which measured perhaps 15 by 40 feet. Near the front of the temple facing the altar several Buddhist monks in their orange robes were chanting prayers as the villagers and the Marines stood around the edge of the wall. One of the Marines took out a cigarette and began to smoke, but was admonished by the XO. The village mayor, host to the executive officer, corrected him, saying, “Captain, it’s quite all right if your Marines want to smoke—this is a celebration.”
The captain soon saw the monks lighting cigarettes and placing them in recesses in the altar, and village women carried plates of food and handed them to the monks, who placed them in the recesses as well, presumably for the enjoyment of the ancestors of the village spiritually present at the ceremony. While the captain reflected that this communion with their ancestors might appear quaint to the uninitiated, it occurred to him that for people unfamiliar with Christian traditions, an explanation of what went on during a communion service in a Sunday Mass might seem equally quaint.

Following the service at the shrine, the Marines were escorted to the center of the village where a large U-shaped table had been set up. The Marines were seated around the outside of the table, each with a village host seated next to him as a guide. The captain was next to his host, the village mayor. Within a few minutes women began bringing food and placing it in front of the Marines. From somewhere several bottles of French wine were produced, along with cups of strong rice wine. The Vietnamese hosts were not served. Following their tradition, they would only partake once the guests had completed their meal. Most of the rest of the villagers stood in the center space observing the ritual.

The prepared food included pork, vegetables, a thin rice bread so delicate that it could almost be seen through, and very hot peppers. The hosts pointed out the peppers to the Marines, and as the men bit into them, their faces grew red and their eyes began to water as the Vietnamese hosts laughed delightedly. As the meal progressed, the doctor and Sergeant Von provided translation, but little was necessary as the exchange of feelings was easily understood. The captain, who spoke a little French, exchanged pleasant comments with the mayor in French about their families. All were relaxed and comfortable.

Suddenly, however, the mood of the villagers changed to one of agitation and anger. The captain feared that one of his Marines had somehow insulted the people, perhaps by spitting out one of those over-hot peppers or committing some other social faux pas. But the real reason soon became clear.

A Marine patrol from another installation about two miles away was approaching. Their base was a large supply depot surrounded by barbed-wire fences and towers with spotlights and machine guns. The Marines were fully armed, with bandoleers of ammunition, flak jackets, grenades and various other implements of war hanging from their belts. From experience the captain knew that those stationed “in the rear with the gear” were often far more nervous about being out with the people than those stationed in more remote locations. To soldiers and Marines at air bases and supply depots, all areas outside their compound were “Indian country,” and all Vietnamese they encountered were potential bad guys. These villagers were no exception.

The captain learned, for example, that a patrol from the supply depot had dropped a grenade down the village well on the grounds that there might be a Vietcong agent hiding there, thus requiring the captain’s troops to dig a new well. Suppose they had been right?—the captain thought. One dead Vietcong agent and a village with no water: Who wins that one? He had also learned from the doctor that there had been some poking around in the village graveyard by those patrols on the grounds that weapons might be buried there. (The Viet Cong were clever in that regard, as they often buried weapons in or near graveyards unobserved, knowing that Americans would go digging around in plain sight, thereby disturbing the ancestors and upsetting the villagers.)

The staff sergeant patrol leader noted that the captain and his men were “out of uniform.” They were not wearing flak jackets or helmets. The captain replied that he and his men had been invited to lunch, not to a fire fight. The staff sergeant then indignantly asked the captain whether he knew that there had been reports of Viet Cong agents in that village. The captain replied that since his men had installed a telephone wire between the mayor’s hut and the battery command center, they had been kept well-informed. The captain then suggested firmly that the sergeant take his patrol and move on elsewhere, since the situation in this village was well under control.

As the heavily armed patrol moved off, the mayor, who had been standing next to the captain during the encounter, pointed in the direction of the battery fire base and said, “Good Marines.” Then he pointed in the direction of the logistics base from which the patrol had come and said, “Bad Marines.”

Later the captain concluded that for those villagers, it made no difference whether the outsiders they encountered were Americans, Vietnamese or Chinese, communist or capitalist, Democrats, Republicans, or Socialists; if they helped them, they were good guys—if they bothered them, they were bad guys. It further occurred to the captain that the people in Washington running the war had so little idea of such things as the lives of the villagers in remote corners of Vietnam, that it was no wonder that the war was going so badly.

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