They See What We Do

Ben H. Swett
Colonel, USAF (retired)

21 June 1970 -- I and a few enlisted men accompanied members of the 35th USAF Dispensary on one of their weekly medical Civic Action visits to hamlets in Ninh Thuan Province. They often treated 100 people a day on these visits. The GI's came along to provide security in case there was trouble; they carried weapons and also brought a case of Phisohex soap. Washing the children twice with that soap, a week apart, cured over 95 percent of their skin diseases -- it was like a miracle. As the senior officer present, my job was to drink tea with the old men of the hamlet.

When our team arrived in Phuoc Thien hamlet, an energetic young Vietnamese man pointed at my revolver and asked, "Why you got gun? You afraid of us?"

I said, "No. We were told there are VC out here."

He said, "No VC!"

I said, "OK, good. But anyway, it's regulations."

He said, "Oh ... regulations. Hokay!" and walked away.

While I sat drinking tea with the oldest man of the hamlet, I nodded toward the energetic young man and asked, "He says, there are no VC here. Does he know?"

"Yes. He is police chief."

"Maybe-so police chief daytime, VC night-time?"

"No ... VC, they have price on him."

I thought, "With a price on his head, he has to know if there are any VC in the area," and changed the subject. Not far away, two women were lifting water from a lower ditch to a higher ditch, using a bucket on ropes, to irrigate a higher set of fields. I pointed toward them with my thumb (it isn't polite to point at a person with your finger in Vietnam) and said, "Too much work."

The old man nodded and agreed, "Too much work."

I said, "Maybe-so, windmills?"

He said, "We have windmills. You like to see our windmills?"

I looked around and didn't see any windmills, but I said "Yes" and he led me to an area of trees not far from the hamlet. There, lying in the brush, were the twisted and rusted remains of three or four windmills.

He said, "The French, they bring windmills, I think it is 1932. Very good. Long time. Bye-and-bye the windmills, they break. There are no pieces, so we put them here."

I thought, "No repair parts. No maintenance training or support. There is a lesson here for us."

I said, "Too bad. It seemed like a good idea." We went back to the hamlet.

After another cup of tea, I renewed the conversation. I pointed toward the women with my thumb again, and repeated, "Too much work."

He agreed, "Too much work."

Then I simply asked him, "Pappa-san, what should be done?"

He said, "Oh, I think maybe-so Honda pump. Number two-oh-two in catalogue."

I said that seemed like a good idea, so he went to his house and brought back a page torn from a catalogue. It was in Vietnamese, but it had a picture of the little pump and I copied the model number. I noted that it was the same little Honda motor that powered motorbikes all over Vietnam, so they would know how to fix it and could get parts for it. Another lesson for us.

I said I would see if I could get a pump for the hamlet, and he thanked me. Then he went on, "Why are you here?"

I said, "We don't want you to be conquered by Communists. We want you to be our friends."

He nodded rather emphatically and said, "We see what you do."

I asked, "What do you see, Pappa-san?"

He said, "I think the American is the only soldier ever to come to Assam and bring his own food."

I said, "Yes, we bring our own food." I didn't bother to mention that Americans are not particularly fond of fish sauce and rice.

Then it was time for him to go look at the work of the doctor and dentist, and smile at the children laughing as they were being washed by the GI's using helmet liners for basins. It was a fine day.

As we were leaving, the old man smiled at me, and his eyes said, "We see what you do." I put the tips of my fingers together in front of my chest and bowed to him, and he returned the respect.

The next day, I bought the pump at a Vietnamese store near the base. I couldn't go with the medical team on their follow-up visit a week later, because I was involved in a series of airdrop planning meetings, but I arranged for them to deliver it.

I visited Phuoc Thien hamlet again several months later. The old man wasn't there, because he was visiting relatives in another hamlet, but the little Honda pump "Number two-oh-two in catalogue" was working where the women had been, lifting water from one ditch to another.

1970 Log