A Vietnam Village: Buddha's Birthday
A True Story
Copyright © Henry J. Sage 2008
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 people each were located within a short distance of the battery’s position. The war had been quiet in that sector since the end of the Tet season, 1969, and most days were uneventful. As part of the First Marine Division's civic action programs, Marines from the battery spent many of their daytime hours out in the villages on various projects meant to help the local populations. The camp doctor, and 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 village needed from outside was carried in by women in baskets suspended from poles hung across their shoulders. One day the sergeant in charge of the battery working party reported that the village would appreciate it if the Marines could somehow build a road for them through the rice paddies surrounding their homes.
The battery heavy equipment operator, Corporal “Ski,” was so skillful with his Eimco bulldozer that they joked about him, saying, “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, the doctor, Sergeant Von (the camp’s Vietnamese translator) and half a dozen Marines went out to the village in response to the kind 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 executive officer. The village mayor, acting as host to the executive officer, corrected him, saying, “Captain, it's quite all right if the Marines want to smoke—this is a celebration.”
Soon the captain noticed that the monks were 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 the village 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 of sorts. The captain was seated in the center 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 a strong rice wine. The Vietnamese hosts were not served, in that 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 of that 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.
Quite suddenly, however, the mood of the villagers changed to one of agitation and anger. The captain immediately 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 the village. The installation in question 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, hand grenades and various other implements of war on their persons. From experience the captain knew that those stationed “in the rear with the gear” were often far more nervous about being out among the population than those who spent their tours in more remote locations. To those stationed at the big air bases and supply depots, all the areas outside their compound were “Indian country,” and every Vietnamese they encountered was a potential bad guy. These villagers were no different.
The captain had learned, for example, that it was one of these patrols from the supply depot that had dropped a grenade down the village well on the grounds that there might be a Vietcong agent hiding there, thus requiring that the captain's troops dig a new well. Suppose they had been right?—the captain wondered. One dead Vietcong soldier, 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 poking around in plain sight, thereby upsetting the local population.)
The staff sergeant in charge of the patrol noted that the captain (and his men) were “out of uniform,” in that the captain was not wearing a flak jacket or helmet. The captain replied that he and his Marines had been invited to lunch, not to a fire fight. The staff sergeant then indignantly asked of 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 firebase command center, they had been kept well-informed of such activity. 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 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, Communists or capitalists, Republicans, Democrats or Socialists; if they helped them, they were good guys—if they bothered them, they were bad. And 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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