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GUEST COLUMN: Children in Vietnam

GUEST COLUMN: Children in Vietnam

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As we all grow older, we realize early that life’s greatest blessings are children.

They remind us of life’s simple pleasures, and we experience vicariously through them their lessons of growing in adulthood.

War changes everything that it touches. The war in Vietnam was no exception. I was mostly confined to a fire support base and was never around children much except when I went out on the road, and then I saw them. Their parents appeared to keep them within the confines of the villages.

Once in a while, you would pass by a villager working in a rice paddy and sitting on top of a passive water buffalo in the rice paddy would be a little girl. She would wave to you as you passed by. Nothing could have been much cuter.

War could be very destructive to children. Once when our battery was moving to another location, I was at the head of the firing battery leading the self-propelled howitzers from the old battery location to the new one. Somewhere in the rear of the column a little girl ran out from the village and was crushed to death by a track vehicle. I was always thankful that I was nowhere around where it happened.

The battery commander told me that the battalion commander later showed up and gave the family $3,000 in American dollars as compensation for their loss. This was in 1969.

Three years later, when I was about to graduate from law school, the whole world was horror-struck by the photo by Associated Press photographer Nick Ut of 9-year-old Kim Phuc running naked down the road screaming in pain after she had been burned by napalm, which had been dropped by the South Vietnamese Army on the village of Trang Bang near Saigon. The village had been formerly occupied by the North Vietnamese.

My most memorable experience with children in Vietnam was a very positive one. B Battery had moved south from DMZ to Camp Eagle near Hue. But before we arrived at our station at Camp Eagle, we were stationed for a month or so at a remote fire support base to the west of Hue. It was primitive, but there was a good road leading from the fire support base back to civilization. You weren’t afraid to travel on the road because there was some traffic on it.

I was assigned to a brand-new M151A1 jeep. It ran like a sewing machine. If I got a chance to go into Camp Eagle for something, my driver, Specialist Fourth Class Strom, and I would take off in that jeep. You always rode with the top folded back. On the way into Camp Eagle, there was a stone structure located maybe 50 yards off the road. There was a foot trail to it. I felt like it had to be some type of religious structure.

I had learned that the majority of Vietnamese did not follow any organized religion. They sometimes worshiped their ancestors. The structure wasn’t tiered like a pagoda. It looked like a huge stone gazebo, but it wasn’t open like a gazebo. It only had an opening in the front. Strom and I had talked about stopping one day and seeing what this structure looked like on the inside. Naturally, we didn’t want to get ambushed by the Viet Cong or worse, carted off to spend the rest of our days in some underground chicken coop.

Early one afternoon, we were returning to our fire support base from Camp Eagle, and we decided that the time was ripe to inspect that building. Strom pulled the jeep off the road. I smoked at the time, and I put my new pack of Marlboro cigarettes in the small compartment between the two front seats. We grabbed our trusty M-16s, swung the bandoliers of extra ammunition clips over our shoulders and headed down the path to the edifice.

It only took us a couple of minutes to arrive at the building, and soon we were inside. It was obviously some type of religious structure. There were two good-size statues of Vietnamese carved out of stone. I presumed that they were probably ancestors of the nearby villagers. There were two small rows of stone benches. The place was neat and clean. No one else was around.

“A long way from John the Baptist,” I thought.

We did not stay long, and then we headed back to the jeep. As we drew near the vehicle, we came upon a sight that I shall never forget. There were four small Vietnamese children in the jeep. I would estimate their ages between 6 and 8. Two boys were in the front driver and passenger seats, and two little girls were sitting on the rear bench seat. Each of them had an unlit Marlboro cigarette between their lips. When they saw us, they broke out in big smiles and gave us the iconic thumbs up (“G.I. No. 1”) salute. Strom and I laughed and returned their salute.

I gently chided them for getting into my cigarettes. They laughed, slid out of the jeep and ran up the narrow trail toward their village with Marlboros in hand. I’ve always hoped that those little kids got to grow up and have good lives.

I have wished a thousand times that I had had a camera that day. It would have been a photograph for the ages. To alter slightly Art Linkletter’s famous line, “Kid’s (do) the darndest things.”

Happy Veterans Day, everyone.

Gary Crawford is a Florence attorney.


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