Archive for the ‘Vietnam’ Category

What is the difference between Communism and Capitalism?

Wednesday, March 3rd, 2010

You do not normally start a story with the punch line, but this time, we will. The answer is: In capitalism, as we all know, Man exploits Man. In Communism, it is the other way around. (AKA Man exploits Man.)

So, knowing how the joke ends, I want to explain the difference between a true believer and someone who found it the convenient path.

Whilst working on the POW/MIA investigations, I spent many hundreds of hours in circumstances where we had nothing to do but wait. Wait for a drive to be over, wait for this that or the other chairman or witness or guide to show up. Or, we spent many hours in dinners and parties or events involved with our work. For one who hates the sounds of silence, that means lots of talking. For a guy who loves to argue about politics, that means lots of arguing. Where better for an ardent capitalist to argue than in the Vietnam of the late 1980’s?

One of my favorite guys was Ngo Hoang. I have to tell you, I still have a lot of fondness for this old man who had lots and lots of history under his belt. At the time of this event, he would have been in his early sixties. We had worked together for about 18 months and knew each other well. We discussed this that and the other thing and were pretty free with each other in that few topics were off limits. After the fall of Dien Bien Phu in 1954, one of his jobs was to convert the captured French soldiers to the joys of communism. He was pretty successful from what I hear. As a Ministry of Foreign Affairs employee, his English was reasonably good and my marginal Vietnamese filled any holes he had.

We were enjoying a good-by, end of the investigation joint team meal in Saigon before returning to Thailand and he and I began a discussion on the differences between Capitalism and Communism. We discussed the stock market, the investment of the worker (time) vice the investment of the owner (time, money, capital) and the correctness of making a profit on the labor of others which he denied. We argued through the aperitif, the main course, and finally the desert. Finally, I posed the question above to him. At the point where I explained that capitalism involved Man exploiting Man, he said with conviction “YES, YES, YES!”

When I said in communism it is the other way around, he exploded “NO, NO, NO!!!” That was the only time I ever got him hot and he was hot! He took out a cigarette stuck it in his mouth and lit the filter. You see, Mr. Hoang was a believer. He understood the problems with the difference in the theory and the practice which we had discussed. Yet, he had spent his life promulgating this doctrine and struggled with the growing reality that it did not work.

Now we fast forward to another co-worker of this time frame. Mr. Dich. Mr. Dich had ridden the party as a convenience. He had served the party and the party had served him. I never saw the ideological love which I saw in Mr. Hoang. He HAD paid his dues. As a young man, he had participated in a brutal truly remarkable (from a soldier to a soldier) march from Hue to Dien Bien Phu to provide reinforcements to the Communists fighting the French leading up to the final fall of the outpost. He was wounded in this battle via grenade shrapnel in his leg. He showed me the damage from the wound which 40 plus years or so later was still ugly. He had participated as a party secretary at the Paris Peace Talks in 1972/1973 which resulted in the US withdrawal from Vietnam. My Friend Bill Bell indicates in his book that Mr. Dich may have been involved in assassinations at one point in his career. I do not find that hard to believe. Whereas Mr. Hoang was personable and debonair and a mixer, Mr. Dich was morose, and kept to himself far more. He was a bit grumpier than most of the people we worked with. Being a diplomat, I was able to get along with Mr. Dich fairly well.

On this particular trip, we were in the Ashau-Aloui valley. The north end of this valley was made famous by the movie Hamburger Hill. The terrain was brutal, the malaria which infested the area was a particularly vicious form of cerebreal Malari. The mountains were vertical. In short, the main benefit the area had was the multitude of fish ponds created by the B52 bombing of the area during the war. A couple memories of that trip were the horribly scarred face of the noseless man who was burned almost to death when he tried to open up an unexploded bomb to get the phospherous and to obtain the metal for recycling. He messed up and the bomb went off in a fizzling sort of way. I still can see his face.

I also remember coming down a stream bed where we scaled the walls at the edge of several 100 foot waterfalls. Mr. Dich followed me in the file and I put his feet in cracks and handed him vines all the way down. (Mr. Dich was about 60 at the time of that event and mountain climbing was not in his job description. He stayed in the hotel the next day and we went out without him.)

One evening, we were resting after the day’s work talking about the war–a discussion worth its own story–and I popped the Man VS Man story on him. I tried Vietnamese, I tried English. My team leader, Gary Smith, tried Spanish which they both spoke. He just did not get it. I think one of the team members spoke a bit of French which Mr. Dich spoke well. Still nothing. Later, as we moved towards Hanoi, we stopped for a lunch break. Mr. Dich was in a particularly grumpy mood and was sitting off by himself. I went over and sat down with him and tried to cheer him up. Finally I got out a paper and wrote out the joke. When I visually moved the front man to the back man place and vice versa, the lights came on! Mr. Dich, in his high pitched voice said in amazement, “The SAME, They’re the SAME!” He saw the light! He KNEW the truth! He reveled in it, he rolled in it and laughed out-loud.

For the next three days as we drove from central Vietnam to Hanoi, he sat in the back seat and every once in a while, he would start tapping his knee, smile and say, “The Same! They’re the Same!”

You see, Mr. Dich was pragmatic and moved with the flow. When communism was what worked, he was fine with it. As the country began moving to a more open economy, and these were the very early stages of that move, he could move with it. Mr. Hoang, on the other hand, was a true, orthodox believer and while I believe he saw the truth of the statement, found it brutally hard to bear.

In any case, both men were very interesting and I look back at my association with them with happiness. It was a good work and we as former enemies were able to work together to achieve some measure of success for our respective countries.

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Vietnam, June 1972

Friday, February 26th, 2010

In Nov 1969, I won the lottery!  It changed the course of my life.  I would have pursued a living in horticulture.  The lottery changed all of that.  Yes, I won that all expenses paid, thankfully, round trip airline ticket.  Which one, you might ask?  The one to Vietnam, I would answer.   Thirteen months later, I got down from the bus at Fort Puke, Diseaseville, if you don’t like the weather, wait a minute,  Louseyana.  (Fort Polk, Leesville, Louisiana.)  Basic training, interrogation school, a year of Vietnamese language class and it was on that plane to Vietnam.  July 1972, touchdown at Tan Son Nhut Air Base, Saigon, Vietnam.

In a sense, it was not all new.  It was, after all, Asia!  Hot! Humid! Dirty! Polluted! Busy! All that was typical with much of my life growing up in the Philippines.  On the other hand, the people were smaller and thinner.  The noise of war, a bit louder just outside the city limits but also constant in a muted way within the city,  made a background soundtrack. Not obtrusive, not overwhelming, but, there. In town, the three wheeled cyclos both motorized and peddle driven vied for space with the taxis, the ugly duckling citroynes, the bicycles, the people, the overloaded motorcycles and push tricycle goods transporters.  On top of it all the airhorns of a thousand duce and a half trucks blaring their right of way through the mass.  This was offset by the strangeness of this new life.  One of the earliest memories I had was my first shower at the Ton San Nhut airport repo depot where we were billeted until we received our assignment.  The shower was a big half open building with an open shower bay.  As I stood there washing off the grime and sweat of a long trip, I was shocked to see the laundry lady and her teen age daughter walk in, squat down two shower heads away and start to hand wash some clothes.   Thankfully, I was highly lathered.  I quickly finished my shower and got out of there.  This was new and strange.

For what reason, I do not know, I was sitting in an administrative room a day or two later and in walks this tall thin man in civilian clothes.  He asked the clerk if he had any 97 Deltas (An intelligence field clerk.) The clerk said, all he had was me.  The civilian asked what my field was. “Interrogator, 96C,” I said.  ”Can you type?” he asked.  “Yes Sir, 65 words per minute.”  “That’s close enough for me,” he said.

I worked for this unit for the next nine months.  It was great! I shared a hotel room with two guys.  Leon C. who worked with me and some other guy I never saw in the nine months we lived together.  I guess he had a gal he actually lived with, but, he had to keep the room. I have to say, his part of the room was always neat!

Initially, we all worked in a large part of the ground floor of a hotel near our billet.  But, shortly after I got there, we moved our office to General Westmoreland’s old quarters.  It was a small house which was nice.  We cooked many of our meals there and our small group of five or six men worked long and hard at our assigned duties.

Here are some snapshots of my 9 months there:

The hotel I lived in was just down the street from another hotel the Viet Cong had bombed.  They had driven a vehicle packed with explosives up to the door and detonated it destroying the hotel and killing a number of people.  Because of that, the front of our hotel was heavily sandbagged.  I recall one 90 pound guard who would not let anyone stop including an American CIA operative who showed up on a motorcycle one night.  The guard locked and loaded his shotgun, fired into the air and the guy parked down the road and walked back.  He was pretty hot, identified himself and was able to move his motorcycle into the protected area.  I felt he was pretty arrogant and thought the guard had done a great thing.

The guy who hired me was known for his wild driving.  His nick name was Crash K—f. (I will protect the guilty).  One day, Gary B. (God rest his soul.) who looked and comported himself somewhite like a French Painter described a harrowing ride with Crash from the office to Tan Son Nhut Airport.  They left with about ten minutes to takeoff time.  The drive was at least an 18 minute drive for most people.  “Gary said, I couldn’t believe it! Sidewalks, ditches, the wrong side of the road, horn blaring all the way. Three chickens, two ducks and maybe a puppy dead.  I had my eyes closed when I wasn’t screaming.  I almost pooped my pants and am sure I peed them a bit.  BUT we made it with two minutes to spare!”  I bumped paths with Gary on and off for the next ten to twelve years  and recall him fondly.

Bob Hope and the Miss America crew came through along with Ann Margaret as I recall.  After about six months of seeing the relatively thin, short Vietnamese women, I walked out of a hotel as the retinue of American Beauties was walking into the hotel.  What Giants! I thought.  I went to the Bob Hope show, but, it did not do much for me. There was a huge, packed crowd there though and I appreciate his groups willingness to put themselves in harms way to provide a taste of home to us.

There are many more recollections, some vague, some fuzzy, some sharp, some painful and many happy.  As time permits, I will try to bring some of them to life for a few moments.

In the meantime, if you are a fisherman, woman or child or know a fisherman, woman or child, you can help support this blog by visiting the, www.MyCompactFishing.comsite (Same site, just different roads.) Check out the Emmrod Packer, The Emmrod Mountaineer, The Emmrod Stream Master Fly Rod and the many other great products there.  Thanks for stopping by. Dave Atherton

LTC Pham Teo, My Drinking Buddy

Saturday, February 20th, 2010

Growing up in a very conservative missionary family, alcoholic beverages were The Great Satan.  Drinking was not a good thing and I was encouraged from my youth to flee strong drink.  I am fortunate in that I was never tempted in that area.  Even in my most liberal periods, on this issue, I was ambivalent about what others did, yet, I myself virtually never imbibed.  I would guess my total, lifetime consumption of all fruits of the vine, grain, hops or trees which have had time to ferment would be less than two gallons.  Other than a beer shared with my friend Don at lunch on a very hot day in Tokyo, beer just tastes bad.  My occasional sips of wine were enjoyed, but, I have almost no tolerance and move from vertical to horizontal really fast.  So, as a policy, as I have travelled the world, I just beg off and have tea, soda, water, lemon juice or some similar non-intoxicating beverage.

In September 1988, I began working on POW/MIA teams in Vietnam with the US Government organization charged with that mission–The JCRC (Joint Casualty Resolution Center.) with the goal of answering the question, “Are there any Live Americans Missing from the Vietnam War in Captivity in South East Asia?”  This story really has nothing to do with the POW/MIA issue itself.  It is just one of those little narratives that swirl around the edges of big issues that give a bit of spice to life.

Initially, the teams were small.  An American Team Leader, Analyst and “Grave Digger” from the Central Identification Laboratory, Hawaii (CILHI). The Vietnamese side was comprised of three representatives, one each from Ministry of Defence, Foreign Affairs and the Interior Ministry (Their FBI/CIA rolled into one.)  Additionally, we had a driver or two per team who were either Defense or Interior and had alternate duties in the security realm. One of the men who was frequently on my team was LTC Pham Teo.

Ong Teo (Mr. Teo) was a friendly man and we got along well.  He always sought some sort of accommodation.  I am sure he was trained well in matters beyond normal Army LTC duties.  He was a true professional. Over the three years we worked together we developed a very good working relationship.

One of the areas that frequently came up, especially early on was the issue of drinking alcoholic beverages.  After the first few trips, Mr. Teo accepted I just did not drink and it was not an issue.  However, one day, we ended up on the Cambodian border in an area which had been subjected to intensive US bombing, invasions by the North Vietnamese, abuses by the Viet Cong and ravages by the Cambodians.  In short there was nothing left. The people were destitute.  Poverty stood out like a sore thumb.  The did have one area to hang their hats.  They made great moonshine (Quoc Luoi).  Totally illegal.  Zero taxes paid. Ubiquitously consumed by low born and senior official alike.  As we sat down to a dinner with the officials from Hanoi, Song Be Province and the district and the village in a small hut with a grass roof and woven bamboo walls out came the moonshine.

This fine beverage was the toast of the town.  It was smooth.  It was rice rendered into a fine,crystal clear, potent drink guaranteed to shrivel the hair on a grown man’s chest.  I began my routine which kept me from imbibing in normal circumstances.

“Thanks so much, but, my wife has not given me permission to drink!”  “Are you afraid of your wife?”  No self respecting Vietnamese would ever acknowledge the deep level of fear they have for their brides so my expression of fear normally freed me from alcoholic requirements, so I said “I am not afraid of the tiger in the jungle, I am afraid of the tiger in the house.”  Being as my wife was in Hawaii, that did not buy me any  traction.  Step two.  “I can not drink because I am responsible for my team’s security, the rest of the guys will but I can not.”  They retorted “The guy at the end of the table with the double sized glass is chief of security for three provinces.  If he can drink, you can too.”  So, the toasting began.  Seven glasses later, pain no longer existed.  The number of people present was seemingly doubled.

Mr Teo then leans across the table and says “You never drink with me but, today you are drinking.  You have to toast me as well!”  He slid the glass of clear fire over to me.  It was full to the brim.  I said “Here’s to you,” grimaced and shot it down my throat.  Crystal Clear plain water!  Mr. Teo played the game but respected my beliefs.  I have always appreciated him for that.

A sad note is Mr. Teo had a massive stroke about 1993 or 1994 and has been pretty much incapacitated since.  Never-the-less, I have a soft spot in my heart for him to this day.  So, let’s keep in mind, even when we have competing goals, hugely divergent   idiologies, and were on opposites sides in a long and bitter war, there is still room for basic humanity and respect.

As an aside, the case we were working on in the village where this took place involved a young soldier who went missing during an Army Operation in I believe 1968.  Another investigation team of forensic scientists were examining remains people had turned in to the Government of Vietnam.  They had alleged these were remains of American Soldiers missing from the war. They hoped by turning in American remains, they would get a green card to the US.  In fact, this was a huge hoax remains traders played on desperate people. I would estimate, 99.99 percent of all the remains turned in were of Vietnamese.  In this case, the young man we were seeking was one of two or possibly three Americans whose remains were recovered from the many hundreds of remains examined in Saigon while we were looking for him in the jungle.

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