It was many weeks after the beginning of the Tet-offensive at the end of January 1968 and I was touring the country trying to visit one refugee camp after the other. I was traveling in the north of Vietnam, close to the demarcation line and intended to bring one of our cars, a small Renault 4L back to Saigon. I had some excellent maps which the Americans had given me because they showed the position of each of our camps. Driving around was not without danger since my knowledge of the country was limited. As a form of protection and also, because I thought they would know more about Vietnam than me, I tried to take American soldiers along, giving them a lift to a new assignment. Some of them needed to go to particular places and did not find any transport. I could not find anyone for this specific trip, but I started to drive to Quang Tri, where we had another large refugee camp. There had been a lot of fighting around Quang Tri during the previous weeks, and the number of refugees had increased substantially, as people were leaving their villages to get shelter and food. The camp had about 8,000 refugees and was run by a militant Church of God preacher. Most of its staff were American, volunteers from his Church back home. The Church of God are fundamentalists that have their base in Adventists, Pentecostals or parts of the low church Methodists.
When I arrived in the camp, I noticed there seemed to be a lot of praying and preaching against the scourge of communism and other evils, obviously all in English with a strong Southern twang. The camp manager was not keen on the UNHCR putting their nose into his affairs, even though, all the food he obtained and most of the camps infrastructure materials came from UNHCR sources. He maintained, that he brought in stuff directly from his Church in the USA and that he did not depend on us. I later found out, that most of the materials he was sent from his home church were old clothes and bible tracts. The old clothes were not even particularly useful, since they consisted mostly of bales of enormous bras, that the church bought cheaply at second-hand clothing fairs back home. I told him, our records showed, he had received regular supplies from our distribution center. We had sent the equivalent of daily rations for 20,000 refugees, for which he, or one of his staff, had signed. Where had the food gone? He did not like the UNO, that, as he called it “communist infiltrated organization.” I explained to him he had to keep to UNHCR rules, and that he was not allowed, to aggressively pursue his fundamentalist preaching and commanding people in the camp to attend his services. Religious services were permitted, but their attendance was voluntary.
Furthermore, he had to record his activities based on UNHCR rules and run the camp along the conditions prescribed by the UNHCR. He started to shout at me. He maintained that some low-level bureaucrat would not tell him how to do things. Especially not an unchristian “Lime” ( a nasty word for the British, the “Lime eaters”); he had experienced their socialist hypocrisy when he was a soldier in England. He knew what to do. He had declared his camp American territory and had the support of a nearby US Marine Unit and his Senator from back home for that.
We had an aggravated and intense discussion during early dinner with his staff since he would not let me have a look at the camp itself. The man’s name was Dr. Joseph Maynard Keith, from Tupelo, Mississippi, 55 years old, a former Marine and now a preacher. He had some doctorate from a doubtful university somewhere in the South of the USA, and he told me, he was here in Vietnam to save the world and fight the communists. He would not follow our rules and that the only law he recognized were God’s and those of his Colt 45, which he displayed on the dinner table. At the end of his speech, after he thundered: “Praise the Lord,” his staff shouted: “Amen” on the principle: “Like the mutton, so the sheep!”
When I left to go to a bedroom, I said to Dr. Keith, that if he did not change his tune, we had to close down the camp and stop all future supplies. He retorted: “We will see” and then disappeared. A girl brought me to the bedroom in a small building within the camp since I could not leave during the night because of the curfews. When we were outside hearing distance of the group, she said quietly, that Dr. Keith had a lucrative trade going with some people in town, by selling them the excess food from the stocks. “But,” she said, “don’t tell him I told you because he will kill me!” I asked her why she was not doing anything to him or why she did not report him. She said: “Back home, I am married to his son. He is like my husband, not a very nice man, and he would probably do something to me if I say anything to an outsider. Please help me!” Then she quickly disappeared. There was not very much, I could do, except wait for the morning and see what options I had.
I fell pretty quickly asleep. At three in the morning, there was some loud banging on my door and someone shouting: “Open up Police!” I put some clothes on and opened the door. In came six military policemen from the US Marines and told me, I was arrested for being a communist spy. They put handcuffs on me and then bundled me and my travel bag into a small truck and drove me somewhere to their base. Since I had been traveling alone and had only talked to my main office in Saigon on the radio, two days ago, no one would know about me and what happened to me. I was a bit worried and quite scared. The soldiers brought me to some detention barracks, and one of them, a young Lieutenant with a Southern drawl said:’ You know what we do with the bastard Communists? We shoot them!” Kicked me hard and shoved me into a small cell.
There was nothing in the cell, except the smell of urine and excrement. I sat in a corner and nursed my calf, that had been kicked. The cell was open, secured with wire mesh on the front and the back with solid walls on the side. When it rained, you had to sit in a small place in the middle if you did not want to get wet. I heard someone speaking Vietnamese and would have given a lot to understand, what they said. But my Vietnamese was very limited. I could not sleep, probably because I was too scared. So, I watched giant rats coming quite close to me and smelling my shoes. There were also lots of sizeable cockroaches to watch. It passed the time, till the sun came up and reflected itself in the many water puddles the heavy nightly rain had left.
At around seven, some Vietnamese came with rice for the prisoners. But they by-passed me, and when I asked, they said, “Not You!”. I asked for some water but was ignored. Then shortly before nine, came a single soldier and told me to come with him. I took my travel bag with me and saw in the space in front of the detention cells, that they had brought my Renault 4L. I was led to a small building and into a room which had a guard in front of it. The soldier knocked on a door and then said to someone: ” I have brought the communist,” then he told me to enter. Behind a desk sat a relatively large man named Col. P.T. McAbry, as I could read the name sign on his uniform. “So,” he said with an undefined Midwestern accent, “you are a communist,” and laughed. “Well, my soldiers are sometimes a bit too enthusiastic! I have your papers, and you can leave. I heard you had a run-in with the reverend up the road. He is a pain in the ass, but last week his Mississippi Senator was here and turned all hell loose on me for not supporting his valuable effort. Valuable effort…… my ass……….. I know he sells UN food to someone in the market and I am going to stop that. But I cannot close the camp. Otherwise, the refugees will overwhelm me, and I have enough to do with the “Congs.” So, I can’t look after the refugees. I also have a lot of soldiers taking “hop,” and sometimes some of them are as „high as a kite.” Most of them come from the South, and they hate the communists!” I had not heard the expression “hop” and found out later, that it was the slang word for opium. I should come across that often later on. He asked me, where I was going, and I told him, I would drive to the four camps between Quang Tri, Hue and Da Nang. I also told him, that I would take hitchhiking soldiers with me from one camp to another since my knowledge of the country was not great. He said he would send a message to bases along the route and then laughed: “Most of these guys don’t even know the way around their state, let alone Nam!” Though he said, he had a female doctor who needed to go to Da Nang to do an operation and instruct some people and that she would be better than any other soldier. It did not matter if I took a week to get there. She had worked several weeks non-stop and was not up for a local RECE leave for Bangkok or Hongkong for some time. He had also just received two new surgeons, and they had to “pull the cart during her absence” as he put it. A few days of rest would do her good. Then he had her called in.
She came after a short time, fully packed. She was young, about 35, small and very attractive. Her name was Dr. Ruth Levine, and she was a captain. She came from Michigan, had studied at Columbia and had worked at the University of Wisconsin Hospital in Madison. The Army Medical Corps had paid for her education, and so she had joined the Army. She was a general surgeon and had been in Vietnam for almost a year.
We drove off from the base, and we hit it off almost immediately. It was the beginning of a lifelong friendship. The woman was smart, well educated, funny and knew quite a bit of Vietnamese. She had also worked at different bases all over the country and therefore knew her way around. Besides her surgical work, she was sometimes training young civilian surgeons who had been called up and worked in the Army Field Hospitals to deal with the war specific injuries. On our long drive, she told me a lot about Vietnam. She also enlightened me about American soldiers and, as she called it “the life of a grunt,” an ordinary infantry soldier, which she had observed.
She explained that Quang Tri had been almost overrun during the Tet offensive a few weeks earlier. She, two nurses and three orderlies had operated day and night in an underground bunker while artillery barrages were going on over her head.
(from Being a UNHCR Diplomat written in 1975)
©1975 and 2018 ajs Bert Berger – 1964-2019 – 1965 words
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