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Work with Civilians


The following is an excerpt from the book Compass and a Camera.


            About this time, there was a renewed emphasis on pacification in our area.  We received the usual orders to visit a village and try to build good will with the children as well as the adults.  The platoon boarded trucks, and we headed out on our mission with several cartons of small notebooks.  The outside and inside covers featured a short comic-book version of Batman and Robin in Vietnamese that described a story of the masked duo capturing some evil person.  The rest of the notebook was filled with blank pages to be used to record lessons. 


            When we arrived at the village, we looked for any unusual signs of activity and proceeded to set up a perimeter around the village.  Some of the platoon headed for the primary school that had several classrooms.  The teachers, all women, had been notified in advance that we would be coming with books for the children.  The children were separated, boys on one side of the classroom and girls on the other.  The lieutenant, platoon sergeant, and our interpreter entered each class and spoke with the teacher.


            A couple of our guys started to pass out the books to the children.  This change in their routine unleashed a buzz of excitement in the room, and the teacher calmly reminded the children to quiet down.


            I noticed some interesting contrasts in the scene.  Our burly, gruff platoon sergeant with the thick mustache knelt next to the desk of a young boy and handed him one of the books.  The young boy thanked him for the book in Vietnamese, and they briefly smiled at each other.  The other incongruity was the sight of rifles hanging from the shoulders of each soldier as we moved from class to class.


            When most of the books had been distributed, we stepped into the courtyard of the school for a few minutes before leaving.  The platoon sergeant stopped to speak with a Vietnamese Catholic nun who was in charge of an orphanage next to the school.  He handed her the remainder of the notebooks.  She flashed a big bright smile and thanked him for the gift. 


            As we moved through the village heading to our pickup point, we passed a small shop where a tinsmith was working with aluminum and other metal items.  He had a mixed collection of US military items and other metal debris that had obviously been gathered from the sites of recent skirmishes.  There were pieces from large shell casings, large and small flares, and other items.  His primary source of income appeared to be from the sale of metal pots.  He displayed several pots of various sizes ranging from one quart to five gallons.


            He was working on a large pot, pounding the aluminum into shape with a ball peen hammer.  We clearly saw the words stamped on the piece of aluminum, “U.S. Navy, Flare, Aircraft”.  It was good to see some of our expended ordnance being put to good use, but we also wondered if pots and pans were his only business.  We realized his metalworking skills could also be used to produce enemy weapons such as mines and booby traps.  He also could be in the business of repairing weapons for Viet Cong forces in the area, but this was supposed to be a friendly village, and we were on a pacification mission, so we ignored the shop and moved on to the pickup area.



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