DB’s Mama San was in her early thirties when I met her but years of hard work and trauma had taken their toll. The muscles in her face had the set of one who had clenched her teeth and long squinted into the sun. She was a peasant refugee from the Iron Triangle area north of Saigon and a widow who spoke no English that I could understand. Her husband had been killed years earlier.
DB told me more than once that the peasants were the real victims of the war and he felt badly for being a part of their suffering. He chided me for my ignorance and callousness over their losses. But I had not seen the impact the war had on the villagers, only it’s impact on us GIs and as yet not much of that. I was only as close as a photo through a 200mm telephoto camera lens. DB insisted that the little people were moral and modest and not at all like the Saigon merchants and cops. And he cautioned me about my lustful glances at the young women in the neighborhood. There lay big trouble.
As DB’s friend, Mama San accepted me immediately and was gentle and friendly, more so than I deserved as I tended to ignore her as though she was part of the furniture. I wish I had gotten to know her better but the language barrier was considerable.
Mama san was an excellent cook though not a master of fancy french or even veitnamese delicacies. She made chicken with pork stuffed bau that she had learned from the Chinese as a Sunday dinner treat that fed the whole neighborhood. The men brought yellow, home-made whiskey and rolled their own cigars for the afternoon talk sessions. The women clustered in the communal outdoor kitchen, built on the edge of the cemetery that abutted the hooch’s yard. The men smoked and talked of defense strategies and prospects for an end to the war. The children played king-of-the-mountian. The men smiled and included me in their smoking and rounds of whiskey. They hammed it up posing for my pictures.
How DB came to live in this neighborhood with Mama San’s family down by the river I do not remember, if I ever knew. Perhaps she approached DB begging on the street. Perhaps she had some less attractive man who abused her or perhaps, more likely, she worked the bars selling Saigon Tea or had acquired a pimp who demanded more from her each week. I do not know. But what was clear was that DB was not about to let them fall back into destitution.
From DB’s narrative and his translation of Mama San’s halting telling, I gathered that the family had been among the farmers relocated during the Strategic Hamlet program that as I later learned, began about 1962. That program was supposed to limit contact between the peasants and the National Liberation Front that the Saigon Government derisively called Viet Cong. The NLF promises and programs they feared would lure the peasants, apparently with good reason. They had fared badly after 1954 Mama San said, though she didn’t know whom to blame; even worse than under the French apparently. She didn’t know or care who the president was. In any case the villagers had no more allegiance to the Saigon government under Diem or Thieu than they had to the French.
One Saturday afternoon, DB took me on an excursion on the back of his motorbike to see a destroyed Hamlet. It was perhaps an hour from Saigon, about double the distance to the 60 Signal Base and further than I had ever been from Saigon. The road had once been paved but now was only remnants of holed pavement covered in dirt. Motorbikes faster than DB’s 90cc model were totally unnecessary. We did not stay long. DB said we shouldn’t be outside the city after dark. I expected the Hamlet to be overgrown with jungle but there was only a ditch, some fence posts, the pier blocks that had been the foundations and little else. There was an intact building the size of a small warehouse nearby. Nothing grew. It began to rain. The area was punctuated with the ubiquitous skeletons of large trees that had once offered shade and refuge from the rain. We rode back to Saigon slower on the slippery mud covered road.
In DB and Mama San’s telling, when Toy, the older boy was about 5, the family was moved at gunpoint by South Vietnamese ARVN troops from their village to an area that had been designated a Strategic Hamlet. Building materials were brought in on American trucks for the new village. Then the old village was burned to the ground. The villagers had resisted and gunfire ensued. Some villagers were killed. Mama San said that they lived there for two harvests before the Viet Cong infiltrated the area and liberated their Strategic Hamlet. ARVN troops from their nearby barracks put us a tepid fight. It was then, she said, that her husband had been killed. After that, Mama San said, the villagers began dismantling the strategic hamlet for building materials to rebuild their original village. After all, their ancestors dwelled there, so they should return. The ARVN offered no resistance.
They stayed for a time helping to rebuild their village but a few months after the VC incursion the area was defoliated and after that no crops would grow. Having no husband and no prospects of rebuilding she and the boys made their way down the river, away from their ancestors to Saigon. When I knew him, the younger boy whose name I no longer remember, would recoil in alarm at the sight of anyone in a uniform, including me, until I stripped to my tee shirt.
Whether mama san’s husband was killed by Viet Cong or ARVN troops I never knew and perhaps neither did she but DB had a blood-stained VC flag he said Mama san had given him. DB had no love for the VC and even less for the ARVN. He viewed the South Vietnamese government as hopelessly corrupt.
As Mama San described it, via DB, the Strategic Hamlet was more a concentration camp than an agrarian village. She said it was surrounded by a ditch filled with water and pungi stakes. Whether this perimeter was to keep the VC out or the peasants in was unclear to me.
She said going to and from the fields involved passing through a guarded gate and showing ID. They hated it, she said. The ARVN were supposed to guard each strategic hamlet from VC attack and had a barracks nearby but guarding them was boring, tedious and in the event of a VC attack, dangerous. So they tended not to do it.