THE VILLAGE The True Story of 17 Months in the Life of Vietnamese Village, Where a Handful of American Volunteers and Vietnamese Militia Lived and Died Together Trying to Defend It

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9780060145439: THE VILLAGE The True Story of 17 Months in the Life of Vietnamese Village, Where a Handful of American Volunteers and Vietnamese Militia Lived and Died Together Trying to Defend It

Few American battles have been so extended, savage, and personal. A handful of Americans volunteered to live among six thousand Vietnamese, training farmers to defend their village. Such "Combined Action Platoons" (CAPs) are not a lost footnote about how the war could have been fought; only the villagers remain to bear witness. This is the story of fifteen resolute young Americans matched against two hundred Viet Cong; how a CAP lived, fought, and died; and why the villagers remember them to this day.

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About the Author:

Francis J. "Bing" West is a former assistant secretary of defense for International Security Affairs and the author of The Wrong War, No True Glory, and The Pepperdogs.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Chapter One

Ap Thanh Lam wanted to go home. In the last six years of fighting, he had stayed overnight in his home village only once. And that night he had hidden in the shadows of a thicket and left as soon as he had killed his man.

Lam was a policeman -- a professional who shunned politics and avoided discussions about ideology. He owed his training to the Viet Minh, in whose Security Service he had worked after World War II. He had broken with the Communists in 1954, and subsequently had fought against them. The Saigon government, though glad of his services, held him suspect, refused him promotions and transferred him frequently. But Lam was given what he valued most: freedom to operate as he chose. A middle-aged man with an unmistakable air of authority, Lam looked and acted like a cop. Even in friendly conversation he gave the impression that part of him was holding back, watching, listening, judging, respected by the villagers because he did not tax them and hated by the Viet Cong because he could trap them.

Lam rarely accompanied the Army into Viet Cong hamlets. Instead, he let the Viet Cong come to him. When he had a tip that a VC leader might be visiting a government-controlled hamlet, he told no one. That way, there was no chance of a leak. Even his squad of special police frequently did not know where or why he was taking them. The trapped Viet Cong rarely fought. The surprise was too great. A door would suddenly be kicked open and there would stand Lam, backed up by a dozen police with submachine guns.

In May of 1966, Lam was told that Truong My, an important VC cadre, would be sleeping with his wife on a certain night in the VC village of Binh Nghia (pronounced "Been Knee-ah"). Ordinarily, Lam would not have acted on that information. Trying to slip undetected into a VC hamlet was too dangerous. Most likely his police would be spotted by the hamlet sentries and end up in a firefight with the local guerrilla platoon while the VC leader escaped.

But Binh Nghia was different. It was Lam's home. He knew the back paths and hedgerows, the gates and the gaps in the fences, the backyard runs of the children and the houses of VC families.

The evening Truong My was due home, Lam put on the black pajamas and conical hat of a farmer and stuck a snub-nosed .38 revolver in his waistband. Unaccompanied, he left district headquarters and padded barefoot to the bank of a nearby river, where he climbed into a small sampan.

It was dusk when Lam reached the village. The VC sentries saw his sampan turn into the bank, but before they could walk to it, Lam had ducked into a nearby thicket. The sentries walked back to their outpost position without raising the alarm, having assumed Lam was a farmer returning late from the district market.

Lam stayed crouched in the thicket for several hours, patiently waiting for the families to finish their dinners, for the children to go to bed, for the dogs to curl up under the houses, for the women to wash the dishes, for the men to finish their strong moonshine wine, for the lights to go out. The Viet Cong did not mount strong patrols inside their hamlets at night; instead, they guarded its perimeters. By midnight Lam was walking slowly through the backyards with no worry about an ambush and with only mild concern that he might accidentally bump into some VC on the move.

The home of Truong My was near the house in which Lam had been born and where his mother still lived. Lam and Truong My knew each other, but not well, for Lam was ten or fifteen years older. Although since choosing sides neither man dared visit his home on a regular basis, their families were immune from the violence. The relatives and children of both sides were equally vulnerable to reprisals, so no man dared strike the family of another, lest his own family suffer ten times over.

At one in the morning, Lam passed by his mother's house. Its lights were out, but lanterns were still flickering in a few other houses and it was toward one of them that Lam carefully walked. When near the hedge which surrounded the house, he stopped and stood for several minutes in the darkness, listening to the low drone of conversation from within the house and watching for any movement outside in case Truong My had brought a bodyguard home with him.

Once satisfied that Truong My and his wife were alone, Lam moved rapidly. Revolver in hand, he walked up to the gate in the hedge and felt along its hinges for any booby traps. Finding no trip wires, he untied the rope latch, opened the gate and entered the front yard. Without pausing, he proceeded across the porch and kicked open the front door.

Truong My was sitting at a table in the center of the room, a small cup of tea in front of him. His wife was off in a corner, tending the hearth. The wife was startled. Truong My was not. In the second during which the door had come banging open, the Viet Cong leader knew what would be next. It took Lam only an instant to cross the threshold and level his pistol. But in that same time Truong My had come to his feet, kicking his stool behind him and thrusting the table toward Lam.

Then the first bullet hit him, but it didn't stop him, and he had momentum, and he was close to the doorway leading to the back of the house. But Lam was firing again, and again, and Truong My never reached the doorway. He died in his home while his wife watched.

Lam was not through. He ran to the house next door. There he found a farmer and his wife, who had heard the shooting, shepherding their sleepy children toward the family bomb shelter. At gunpoint, he led the parents back to Truong My's house, where he forced them to pick up the body and follow him at a fast shuffle to the river bank. With his dead enemy draped over the bow, he was paddling downriver toward the district town before the Viet Cong guerrillas in the village of Binh Nghia could organize a search for him.

The corpse lay on display in the district market all day, an object lesson intended to lessen the prestige of the Viet Cong and to demonstrate the power of the government forces. For a week afterward, the district buzzed with the news of Lam's exploit. The Viet Cong district committee swore they would revenge the killing of Truong My, their fury adding to Lam's reputation.

In June, Lam again moved in a spectacular way. He had been closely watching one of the leaders of a local political party. The man had been busy haranguing crowds and organizing support for a Buddhist struggle movement against the Saigon government. Acting on an informer's advice, Lam had the man seized at his home, where a quick search revealed correspondence which identified the prisoner as a member of the Viet Cong Current Affairs Committee. Yet the prisoner spent less than a day in jail before his political friends convinced the district chief it would be unwise to press charges.

There the matter did not end. To teach Lam not to act so independently, the political party started a whispering campaign against him, alleging that he was in the secret employ of Premier Ky and the Saigon clique. These were serious charges, for the Saigon government was never popular in Lam's province, and if Lam was considered a spy for the Ky regime, many of his sources of information would dry up.

Lam's temper was quick, and when he heard what the local political party was rumoring about him, he barged into the district chief's office and laid down an ultimatum.

"Do you know what is being said about me?" he yelled. "That I work for Ky -- that I am not loyal to my province. Those idiots out there would rather see the Viet Cong take this province than work together. They won't believe what their eyes tell them. Well, I'm not going to put up with it. Either you get them to shut up or I'm going to arrest the next politician who hints that I'm getting paid to spy for Saigon. And if the arrest won't stick, I'll cut his tongue out before I let him go."

"You can't," the district chief replied. "And I can't. Neither of us is powerful enough. Let it die down. It might be better if you worked somewhere else for a while."

"Like where?"

"How would you like to go home to Binh Nghia? Your mother would be glad to see you. I gather you didn't stop by to say hello when you went in after Truong My."

"What are you driving at?" Lam asked. "You know I wouldn't last half an hour in the village without troops. And you don't have troops good enough to clear that village."

"I may have," the district chief replied. "Younger Brother thinks he can get some American Marines. The Americans don't like Viet Cong in the village right at the end of their...

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