One of the most difficult things to explain to those that were not in Vietnam during the war was our relationship with the Vietnamese. On the one hand, they were our allies in the war against their northern neighbors. This meant that our military worked with theirs at a high level. On a lower lever we had units of Marines that worked in villages to fight the NVA (North Vietnamese Army) and also the VC (Viet Cong). On a more personal level, we had Vietnamese women that worked in our camps to clean our clothes. We saw Vietnamese civilians in the countryside when we were on patrols. If we went from one place to another by roads we could be transported by military trucks and we would certainly see civilians along the way. If we had some personal time off, such as to go the PX (Post Exchange or Military store), it is also possible that we hitch hiked through rural or city areas that were populated by the Vietnamese. In almost all of these instances, we were discouraged from talking to or socializing with the locals even though we shared the same roads. There were no stores, bars or theaters where we commingled. But, we passed on the same streets.
When we saw Vietnamese on the roads they were usually traveling in old French or European cars and trucks or were often packed into some kind of old buses. They also got around on motor cycles and there were frequently many pedestrians walking on the streets.
As an enlisted man, I did not have the benefit of a vehicle to transport me so if I were lucky enough to have a half a day off and wanted to go to the PX to buy a personal item or a gift to send home, my only means of transport was to hitch hike. As many of the vehicles on the roads were US military, and they would always stop for you, hitch hiking was not usually a problem. We were not allowed to accept transport in Vietnamese vehicles even if they were military and we were also not allowed to talk to or socialize with locals along the way.
The dilemma came when the military vehicle that had picked you up as you were hitch hiking had to turn right to go back to their base and you had to go straight ahead to return to your base. This once happened to me and I found myself standing on a busy street corner. The streets were packed with local vehicles going in both directions and I found myself standing amongst a crowd of pedestrians. It was broad daylight so I probably did not have to worry about being shot by a local VC but that did not mitigate my uneasiness.
As I looked forward across the pedestrian sidewalk area I noticed that there were a bunch of young boys standing around. Their ages were between about seven and fifteen and when they saw me they came swarming towards me. As they approached, they began to talk to me and ask me many questions. “Did you have anything for sale? Would you like to buy some Thai sticks? Would you like to meet my sister?” As they approached they completely surrounded me. I became very nervous when I noticed that the smallest boy, perhaps no older than 7, was now standing behind me. I tried to back up but really had no where to go. The older boys, standing in front, continued to talk to me and I felt that they were trying to distract me.
Suddenly, from the periphery of my vision, I noticed that the child behind me had begun to run away from me across the street. At the same moment, I felt a tug as he had grabbed my wrist watch. The watch had a metal expansion band and he was ripping it off my wrist as he began to run across the street and as he evaded the cars and vehicles. I moved very quickly and as I spun around. I grabbed my watch and pulled it away from him. I retained my watch but the band had been broken.
I must say that at this point my military training got the best of me. I had retained my watch with my left hand, the one that had the watch band on it, and with my right hand I swung my M16 towards the seven year old that was now twelve feet in front of me and half way across the street. Without a thought I had flipped off the safety and leveled the gun at the fleeing youth. My right finger was on the trigger and was just a breath away from pulling. Somehow, I did not pull the trigger. I swung the M16 around towards the crowd of youths and found that they were quickly scattering and dispersing. I found that the whole neighborhood had taken on a quiet pallor.
I quickly found another military truck to take me back to my base and was very glad to leave the area. As I reflect back on this little experience that I had, I must say that the children were thieves and crooks and deserved to be punished. They were also tempting fate and were asking for trouble to accost and steal from an armed Marine. I also feel that, under the circumstances, it would be very easy to forgive one of our military for pulling the trigger. I am glad that I don’t have to justify my actions as the involuntary twitch of my finger did not win out on this day.
By: John Oscarson - Feb. 28, 2010