A Hazardous Job – A Short Story

(9104 words)

I had visited remote and isolated refugee camps and had made good progress setting up my control system in the camps. In one of the larger refugee camps, on the Nam Ngouang River, I met a highly intelligent girl. She was employed by a French NGO and was also a local employee of the UNHCR. The girl had superb accounting skills, and also spoke beside English, French, Cantonese, Laotian, Thai and Vietnamese. Since I lacked the local language skills, she offered to come along to visit camps with me. Her name was Adriana Su-Silosoth, and she was 27, traveling on a French Passport, but of French-Belgium-Chinese-Laotian origin. She had been educated in Hongkong, France and had studied Mathematics at University College, the University of London in Great Britain. She became an invaluable help in getting our control mechanisms working in the field. Ultimately, she moved to Saigon and much later worked for my companies and me with her husband in Singapore for the rest of her working life before retiring in Sydney.

The camps last visited were the two in the Burmese Border area. An area which even then, was partially controlled by the Pathet Lao on one side of the border and by Thais, Hmong and American mercenaries pushing drugs on the other side. I took Adriana along, and we flew first from Luang Prabang to a small airfield in the middle of the bush. Then a driver from the camp collected us, and we drove to the first camp in Monghpyak about 75 miles from the border. It had rained very hard. The dirt road was almost washed out, and the drive was an exhausting ten-hour journey where we several times had to dig the car out of the mud. The remote camp was run by an Australian, and he had a small British Save the Children Fund medical team with two British nurses there. He received regular medicines from us but bought all the food locally with funds that we provided. The camp was kept in good order, and there was hardly any waste. We promised him a two-way radio station so that he could call in requests for his supplies. At the time of our visit, this was done merely by a sort of internal mail where he gave his orders to the pilot who then handed it over to our people. We had only limited influence and limited help we could provide them since it was very remote and challenging to get to. It was also in Burma, where the government did not particularly like us even though at the time, the UN Secretary-General was the Burmese U Thant.

In the second camp, we visited by driving another one hundred miles into Burma, there were enough medicines and food, and the management was by a young Canadian, Malcolm Kovac from Manitoba. He was capable and spoke the local Burmese/Shan language. He had already received a radio from the UNHCR but could not make it work. It was a single side-band Hallicrafter, and luckily, I had, as a former Merchant Marine Officer learned how to set things like that up and use them correctly. With a little bit of instruction, Malcolm learned that too. Within hours, we had set up the aerial mast and now, he could talk directly to our radio station in Saigon and through that report and order supplies. Luckily, going back from Kengtung to Luang Prabang was easy, since we could jump on an Air America Plane.

Adriana Su remained in Luang Prabang to solve some local problem before she would come to Saigon. I was trying to get on the UN plane back to Saigon. While we were talking to the different local authorities and our camp managers, we were staying at the former Catholic Mission in Kengtung. The mission had been abandoned in 1954 when the French left Indochina. But a French doctor, Henri Castel, and his Thai-Laotian wife, Christina, also educated as a medical doctor in France, lived with some local staff and their 12-year-old daughter at the site. Henri Castel had been running their substantial local clinic from the old Mission complex since 1950 and had remained after the French, and the Catholics had left.

Their daughter. Louisa Castel had initially been educated locally and had then spent two years with Henry’s sister Helena at a school near Honfleur on the Normandy coast in France. Because Louisa’s relationship with her aunt Helena had not been perfect, Louisa came home until her father and mother could arrange a boarding school back in France. Much later, when we were in the jungle, Louisa told me all about her problems with her aunt Helena. Henry Castel had to find a way to get Louisa to Saigon and from there on to the Messagerie Maritime Packet boats to Marseille in France that sailed every twelve weeks via Capetown to Marseille. I offered to take her with me and see that Louisa would get on the boat in Saigon and Henry and Christina were pleased about that. Louisa Castel was a small slender tomboy of a girl. But she was funny, well-spoken and for a twelve-and-a-half-year-old, she was extremely well read, observant and intelligent. Louisa could speak and write Thai as well as Laotian, French, some Hmong dialect and English. She had been in school in the North of France, but her relationship with her overbearing aunt had made things difficult, and she had decided to come home for a time, to her parents.

Since there were no cars from our office available, we took a taxi to the airport to wait for our plane there. Our office staff in town had told us, there was an incoming UN plane from Hanoi. The UNHCR storage sheds were at one end of the runway, quite some way from the small central terminal building. One of the Air America planes, a DC-6 had just unloaded food and medical supplies and was preparing to fly somewhere to Burma before going back to Bangkok. Besides Louisa and I, a Dutch mechanic, Heiko Saunders who did the maintenance on our electricity generators and other mechanical or electrical items in the camps was joining us to fly back to Saigon.

When the DC3, 4U-VKL came to the parking space and the engines stopped, the young co-pilot a Swede who I knew, Herbert Lundstrom was the first one to come out of the plane. He was quickly followed by Captain Mark Taylor an older Rhodesian, then Frank White, the British mechanic and Geraldine Lafont, a French radio officer, who had learned her trade in the French Airforce. Herbert told me that they had a hydraulic leak on the left engine and that they had to repair it. To my amazement my Ambassador, His Excellency Paul-Henri Gutt also came out of the plane. He seemed to have been the only passenger. He had been in Hanoi to present his credentials to the North Vietnamese Government, and he was not very happy, complaining loudly to the crew and asking, how long we would stand around in this awful place. He was almost ignoring me and finally when he noticed me, he asked, what I was doing here. I explained to him what we were doing, but then in the middle of it, he noticed Louisa, and he asked me, what she was doing here. I tried to explain, but he cut me off and said that it was against UN rules to take private passengers along. According to him, she had to stay in Luang Prabang, he said. He was obviously correct, but the operations worked on “They help us, we help them,” something which was anathema to his thick skull. Louisa had heard that she could not come along and was a bit upset. I calmed her down, reassuring her that she would be on the plane. The Ambassador had meanwhile approached the Captain and told him Louisa would not be allowed to board the flight.

Why he felt the need to escalate that small issue, I really could not explain. Captain Mark Taylor, who had probably other things on his mind, turned abruptly around. Taylor thundered, “Listen, you blown up little office clerk, she comes with us, and if you don’t like it, you stay here. I am the Captain, and I make the decision who enters my plane! Is that clear?” Paul Henry Gutt was shocked and said: “That will have consequences!” but Taylor ignored him and looked for the mechanic who repaired the engine that leaked. Louisa, who had withdrawn closer to the building but had overheard the dispute, waved at me and smiled!

The day was scorching and humid, and we had been sitting around for about four hours while some mechanics from Air America and our mechanic had looked at the technical problem and replaced some parts. They had moved the plane partially into the shed so that they could work when it rained. The mechanics found the leak in a small rubber hose and together with some seals it had to be replaced. They found somewhere parts that fitted. After a further two hours, our technician came and said, they had to do a quick test flight, “touch and go” to see whether the repair held up. The engine started up fine, and they could do their test. Half an hour later the plane was back, and we could take out seats.

Paul Henry Gutt walked in front of me up to the small beaten up gangway and to his place. He had selected the second seat on the left-hand side so that he did not have to sit next to anyone. The plane had 12 seats, one behind the other on the left-hand side, and two seats next to each other on the right-hand side. There was a significant gap in front of the last seat row so that stretchers could be placed there. Behind the last seat rows was a door to a small toilette and to the cargo area. There was no cabin door to the cockpit. Apart from some small boxes, probably mail, which were secured with nets, we did not have any cargo aboard. But in the cargo area were three large boxes of C-Rations, the standard American soldier’s food packages in the field. The large boxes had been opened, and some of the packages were on the floor of the compartment. I brought one of the C-Rations to Louisa, suggesting that she could take one to France so she would remember what she missed! She had never seen them before, laughed and opened it. There were chocolate and some biscuits in it, and she was obviously hungry. There were also some coolers with drinks which were on the first row of seats on the right. Louisa and I took a coke from the coolers and then took the last row of seats on the right. The Dutch mechanic, Heiko Saunders, sat in front of the Ambassador on the left and fell almost immediately asleep.

In the cockpit, the mechanic and the Radio Operator/load-master sat sidewise behind the pilots and had banks of instruments in front of them. I asked the co-pilot, along which route we would be flying, and he showed me the flight plan on a sectional chart. We would naturally be flying by sight, or as it is known, VFR. The flight plan took us from Luang Prabang almost due South to Van Vieng then to Nam Ngum Lake, where we turned East until we would see the Mekong river on our left. Most of the time, we would be at around 7,000 or 8000 feet depending on what our heading was. We would then follow the river until it turned Southeasterly and then enter the Thai airspace.

Meanwhile, it was five in the afternoon, and in an hour it would be dark. The sky had some clouds but was generally clear. The afternoon summer rains had passed. I asked Herbert how they would see the Mekong in the dark, but he assured me, it could not be overlooked. I knew from the little night flying I had done during my training in Southend-On-Sea, in the UK, that once you were airborne, it took longer to become pitch dark on the ground. Large water areas such as the Mekong could almost always be seen well.

We had rolled to the end of the runway, and the pilots had run up the engines a few times testing the magnetos on the engines. Finally, we accelerated down the runway and became airborne. We saw the Mekong on our left and then turned left to fly southwards. The lights of Luang Prabang in the upcoming darkness looked a lot larger than they were. The one thing I remember most vividly in flying over Laos was the darkness. Apart from a few places and they were far apart, there were no lights from cities or villages to be seen. Once you had left Luang Prabang or Vientiane, there was just darkness. It was quite different from flying over Vietnam or Thailand, where there were always lights to be seen.

We slowly climbed to our assigned height, and after about twenty-five minutes the plane leveled off, and the engine power was reduced to cruising speed. I went to the cockpit and asked the Captain how long we would be in the air to get to Saigon. He thought about 4 hours, provided we did not have to make a detour requested by the US Air Force. I went back to my seat, and Louisa told me about her life in Kengtung. She had travelled in France, England, and Italy but had spent most of her life at the medical station at the Catholic Mission in Burma. She told me that there were quite a lot of Catholics in the Shan States, but there were really no longer any missionaries. The medical station which her father and mother operated together with five local nurses was the only thing that remained. I asked whether she did not feel lonely since I had not seen any children of her age at the mission. She said she was happy with her books, her ham radio station, through which Louisa talked to lots of amateur radio operators across the world and her two horses which she was sad about leaving behind. I also found out that she was excellent at sending Morse code since many of her amateur radio friends used Morse code rather than voice radio transmission. I had to learn that in Marine Officer School, but I was quite slow, especially compared to her. She also wrote a lot, and she showed me some of the things she had written in her diary. During the afternoon, she had written quite a well-observed short chapter of her impressions of me, which I thought funny.

After a time, we were both tired and fell into a semi-sleep, a sort of dozing off. Suddenly, there was the most terrible explosion. I might have fallen asleep for five minutes when I awoke. There was a lot of wind in the cabin, and when I looked to the left, I could see the sky and a large hole in front of us on the left. Louisa had woken up as well and was holding me with both hands. There was a lot of noises, and the cabin light had gone off, except for the small emergency light, so it was difficult to see. One could also hear alarms going off in the cockpit and the co-pilot shouting very loudly. Louisa and I had both their seatbelts fastened, and I told her to remain seated while I tried to see what happened. I loosened my belt, stood slowly up and held myself on the seat row in front of us, ambling forward. The wind was blowing very hard through the enormous hole, where the seat with the ambassador Paul Henry Gutt had been. It was no longer there, and I could see there was a hole in the wing between the engine and the fuselage. Flames were coming out of the engines back, and there was the smell of petrol and burnt oil. I went slowly forward to the cockpit and saw Heiko with his head back on the seat with open eyes staring at me. He was obviously dead.

When I came into the cockpit, Herbert Lundstrom shouted to tell me, we had been hit by some kind of anti-aircraft fire. He also told me to help Geraldine to move the Captain from his seat. He was dead as well, and there was blood everywhere. Herbert tried to keep control of the aircraft, and we were at least flying level, but Herbert said we would have about ten minutes since the left engine was dead and wind-milling. We had lost most of the fuel. The mechanic, Frank Wright, who was sitting behind the Captain, had half his leg blown off and seemed to lose a lot of blood. He was alive, but he could not move. I gave him some bandages and rubber strips from the first aid box behind him. Then I undid the Captain’s seat belt harness and moved his seat back, trying to get him out of his seat. Finally, Geraldine and I managed to get him on the floor, and she moved into the Captains seat to help Herbert control the plane. I told Herbert about the situation in the Cabin and that Louisa and myself were okay. He said we should stay there, fasten the belts and batten down because he would try to put the plane down in a rice field somewhere. Geraldine had already sent out Mayday calls on the Air America network with our position which was near the village of Pakstan, almost on the Mekong about 50 miles from an airbase. I asked Herbert whether we would make it across the Mekong to Thailand, but he did not think so. Herbert said, “Go to your seat; we only have five or six minutes.” I quickly helped Frank put on the rubber to stop his bleeding and then went to the back. My shirt and shorts were full of blood, and Louisa asked whether there was still anyone alive. I told her about the situation quickly Louisa asked what happened and I told her, we would ditch in a few minutes. We both had a sort of back-backs; our luggage was in the back of the plane in the cargo hold. I asked Louisa to put the backpack on her legs, then tighten the seat belt very tightly, put her head down on the backpack and her arms around her head. I did the same. It was an endless wait until we hit the ground, apparently very flatly, but the abrupt deceleration wanted to pull you out of the seat.

Suddenly, the front of the plane broke off right in front of our seats, and our part came to a halt. Louisa had still her head down, and I asked, whether she was okay. There was an eerie silence. She looked at me sideways and said smilingly, “We made it.” Right in front of our seats, there was a lot of jagged metal with wires hanging out of them. About a hundred yards in front of us we saw the flames from the wing, the cockpit and the right-hand engine in a small tree group which they must have hit. I had taken a flashlight and the small first aid box from the cockpit with me to my seat.. The part of the plane behind us appeared more or less intact, and we seemed to be in a rice-field with water. I told Louisa to stay in her seat while I found a way to get off the plane and into the water. I went to the side, where there was the one seat left and jumped into the water beside the plane. It was only about one foot deep, and there were no metal parts that could cut us. About forty yards to the side of the aircraft I could make out a small dam with a footpath. I told Louisa to give me our backpacks, which I carried to the dam, then went back to the plane and told her to jump, so that I could hold her. She jumped. Even though she was small, her weight surprised me, and I fell with her on top of me backwards into the water. My boots had filled with water and sludge, and I could not move back to catch her impact on my body. Unfortunately, her left arm was under my body, and she let out a small scream. I slowly rolled to the side and stood up, but Louisa was obviously in pain. As she moved the arm out of the water, I noticed that she had broken her forearm. “Oh damn, I survive the crash, and then I break the bloody arm,” she said under tears. I helped her to the dam and told her to lie down there. But she said she was all right, just in pain. I went back to the plane wreck, and a took quite few boxes of the C-rations out, which I intended to load into our backpacks. The surrounding water started to smell of petrol that had sipped from one of the tanks and I was afraid that it could catch fire or be ignited by something I did. I also took another first aid kit with a good knife in it with me. The kit had been hanging on the wall of the toilette. I brought all the things to the dam.

There I told Louisa to lie down because I did not want her to pass out from shock or from the pain. She put her head on her backpack, and I said I would try to go and see what happened to the rest of the crew. One could see that the dam led to the tree group and I followed it to get to the front end of the plane, which was still smoking, but there did not seem to be an open fire. It took me an awfully long time to get to the plane part, or so it felt because I had to fight my way through some bush-work. When I came to the wreck, I had to be careful with all the sharp and jagged ends of the metal that could injure me. Finally, I found a way into the plane and went up to the cockpit which was all smashed in. None of the crew had survived. Herbert had almost been decapitated, and Geraldine had her neck in such a strange way that I was sure she had a broken neck and was dead. Frank was also dead. I was looking for some bamboo sticks which I had seen Frank taking to the plane. He had told me that he would use them for his plants back in Saigon. I found some of them and took them with me together with another first aid kit and some duct tape that I had also seen earlier. With that, I returned to Louisa, who sat up and was filling with her uninjured arm the two backpacks with C-Rations and one of the first aid boxes. I told Louisa to lie down again because what I would do now would be painful. I would try to set her arm with the bamboo sticks and some duct tape. I had also seen that there was some gauze with plaster-of-Paris that I could use, in the first aid kit. Louisa put her teeth together, but I could see it hurt because her tears rolled down her cheeks. After I had set the sticks with the duct tape, I used the plaster of Paris to stiffen it. We had to wait for about half an hour so that the plaster would harden. Louisa smiled in pain. Then I started to look around for some area with trees or large bushes, where we would be protected. Along the Mekong, I knew that there were a lot of Pathet Lao, the Laotian communist insurgents, who smuggled supplies across the Mekong from Thailand. We had to be sure that only someone who would help us would find us and the Pathet Lao did not have a reputation for being generous. Prisoners were usually shot. Slowly, I put together all the bits which we did not use and put them into the C-ration box which I carried back to the plane wreck and deposited them in the cargo bay. I did not want that anyone would find evidence that there were survivors. I also removed all the addresses I could find from inside the luggage of Louisa. And then hid Louisa and my large bags under the nets and the boxes of mail that the plane carried back to Saigon. I had to make sure that anyone who visited the wreck thought there were no survivors of the crash. That took me some time, and I saw that it was getting light. The plaster on Louisa’s arm had hardened, and I asked Louisa whether she was able to walk. I had given her a quarter of a morphine tablet from the first aid kit to ease her pain. There were no instructions for the dosage, but I thought, a quarter was not doing too much damage. I guessed her weight at about 80 pounds. My thoughts were, if an adult could take one tablet, a quarter for a small adult would work. We should go to one of the trees and bush areas on the other side of the rice paddy and hide there.

The rice plants on the side of the dam where the plane had not landed and destroyed the paddies was looking about two feet out of the water and the water was about one foot deep. One could at least hide in the paddies from someone. Louisa went slowly into the water and disappeared into the rice growth. I stayed for the moment a bit behind her because I wanted to make sure that one could not see, where we had entered the field. Meanwhile, it had become daylight.

We were not even ten minutes hiding in the paddy-field when we heard men approaching. Louisa came very close to me and whispered quietly “Pathet Lao!” Was I happy I had someone with me who spoke Laotian! The people talked about the plane, and one of the guys shouted from some distance away that there was no one alive. Then another insurgent shot his AK-47 into the field not far from us. “It is a UN plane, not American,” said another guy.”I think they are all dead!” replied one woman.

“You think we should report it?” motioned another. No one answered. We could not see any of the individuals of the patrol because Louisa and myself were flat on our belly in the water, holding our packs out of the water and with only our heads looking out, but well hidden in the paddies between the rice plants. When the patrol moved on, we sat up in the water. Louisa had about ten leeches on her arm and her legs. I must have looked the same because Louisa laughed silently and whispered, “You look awful!” she said softly. We stayed for a time in the paddy, but when the sun came up, it was boiling hot and humid. We had found some water-purification tablets in the C-Rations, and Louisa had a small water flask in her pack so we could get some drinking water. It smelled foul and was brownish full of sediment. But it was enough for the moment. A little later we moved towards the trees and came out of the rice paddy walking about two hundred yards into the brushes. We hid behind some trees and thick low-level brush and bushes, where one could not see us from the dam. We made sure that no one could find the place where we had entered the undergrowth. Then we took off our shorts to remove the leeches. A small tube with some solution from the first aid kit helped with that. We also found a gauze that had an instruction for water filtration in the C-ration pack. My clothes were still full of blood, but when I took my shorts off, I saw a hole in my leg, a small flesh wound with some blood trickling out. It was nothing serious, but it would get infected quickly, so I took a tetanus tablet and gave one to Louisa as well, since she had scratched herself when we walked through the brushwood. She looked at the wound with the flashlight and said, “There is something in it!” It was strange because it did not hurt at all. “We’ll better get that out. Otherwise, it will become septic, and you will have blood poisoning very quickly. I have seen it happen!” she warned. “I will try to take it out with tweezers, but it will hurt,” she said. There were some alcohol, peroxide and large tweezers in the first aid kit. “Don’t scream. Otherwise, the Pathet Lao will hear us,” she reminded me and poured some peroxide on the wound and the tweezers. Then she took the flashlight and entered the wound with the tweezers. It burned like hell and tears came up. After about two minutes of prodding, she pulled very hard, and out came a small metal part, barely half an inch long, but sharp like a razor blade. She showed it to me and then put some antiseptic cream from a tube in the kit into the wound and a waterproof Band-Aid on it. I had almost passed out.”So, now we are even!” she said with her impish smile, reminding me that I had broken her arm!

I decided that we would stay in the tree lot until later that day and Louisa agreed because she said that people are not likely to go out of their village at the end of the day. But we had to be careful about Pathet Lao search parties who would no doubt come back and look at the plane when the petrol had evaporated. It was therefore crucial that we moved from the vicinity of the crash site as soon as possible. We whispered when we talked with each other. We tried to avoid talking when we walked, to make as little noise as possible. So that anyone searching for us could not hear us. I had a small compass in my backpack and some emergency gear like fishing tackle, snares, etc. It was a standard American survival package. At that moment I thought, “Thank God for America and all their equipment garbage which they always give you.” Europeans would never be so well equipped. We were not short of food either because we had C-Rations and I calculated that we had probably enough food for ten days. We had to be careful not to leave any rubbish lying around because someone else could find it and they could find us. I asked Louisa what she had heard when the people talked and made her go over every detail. I wanted to be sure that the Pathet Lao did not know that there were survivors from the crash. She understood very well that our life depended on that and on how we could move around unseen. Louisa thought, from what she had heard, that there was a village nearby, but that the Pathet Lao was from a place further up a small stream, which they said they had to cross. There was also an airfield some distance from us because we could see transport planes from Air America, flying maybe at about 5000 feet and climbing. I did not see any aircraft descending, so they must come from another direction to land. We did not see any Sikorsky or Bell helicopters hovering around. Our crash had not yet been noted because there did not seem to be any search effort with low flying helicopters.

We did not see or hear anyone near us, so when we thought it was time, we cleaned up the place and moved slowly on. We walked back to the dam along the rice fields so that we could get into the rice paddies and hide in them if we saw or heard someone. There had been no rain today, and the sky was cloudless. We could go on walking because the moon gave us sufficient light.

We stopped at around two in the morning in an area with quite a lot of trees and low-level bushes walking some distance into the forest. When we found a flat area, we cleared some of the bushes and put one of the plastic sheets down on the ground, using another plastic sheet to cover us. During our walk, we had not seen anyone, but I had noted, that we had walked in the right direction towards the airfield. Some of the planes were also flying lower. We had only walked about ten or fifteen miles in six hours. The countryside was made up of some softly rolling hills with a lot of rice fields, but there did not seem to be any villages. At least we did not see them. They were probably hidden in the surrounding forest. Shortly after we stopped and hid in the undergrowth, there was a tremendous rain, and we had to take cover under two of the small plastic sheets which we had unpacked from one of the emergency kits. We huddled close together and started to eat C-ration chocolate, cold baked beans and biscuits. We were both rather hungry. At around four in the morning, we were still awake because we could not get comfortable, we heard and saw about twenty people only seventy yards away on the small dam. They were quite loud and had flashlights.

Louisa listened intently, “Pathet Lao,” she said, “and they were talking about the crashed plane. I think they also found the Ambassador because they mentioned a man in an aircraft-seat they had found some 20 miles further up. One of them said that the Laotian radio had mentioned the missing plane and that the Americans would be searching for it tomorrow.” The column disappeared in the distance, and we fell asleep under the plastic. It rained several times again, but we stayed more or less dry. When I woke up, the sun was already high, it was nine in the morning. Louisa’s arm was very swollen and hurt, and so did my leg. Towards ten, a group of women came and started working in a rice field not far from where we hid.

“Local women,” Louisa said, “but one of them was mentioning that their men worked for the Pathet Lao. We cannot approach them !” Louisa reminded me. When I was in the plane, I had looked at the sectional charts with Herbert who explained the flight route to me.. He showed me the alternative airfields we could use in an emergency. From the little, I knew and could remember, the field near us, was one of them. We just had to get to it. I mentioned that to Louisa, and she agreed. We thought it was about 40 or 50 miles away. It would take us four to five days to walk there since we had to be careful not to be seen and detected by local people of the Pathet Lao.

The women working in the field stayed until about five, an hour before sundown, and then left to walk back to their village. Louisa and I followed them with our eyes, to see where they would disappear. It seemed that there was a village about two miles away, behind another lot of trees. We could not see the village, but Louisa said she smelled the smoke from their cooking fires. I could not smell anything.

When we were sure the women and some of the teenage girls with them had disappeared, we went on the dam and walked in the opposite direction to another group of trees and then continued along a small path through the trees. We had to be careful because it was likely one of the supply paths the Pathet Lao or the Vietcong used.

On this day, the planes must have been taking off in another direction because we could not hear any of them flying overhead.

We repeatedly stopped on the path listening that no one was around. After about three hours walk up the small hill, we came to another terraced rice field. We made sure that there was no one on the dams before we continued. We had climbed quite a bit, and we could see in the moonlight in the distance a village where the rice farmers who owned this terrace probably came from. Now I could smell the smoke from the cooking fires as well.

We walked for another four hours, partially on the dams and sometimes on the small paths through the bush. When we stopped for a rest, my leg really hurt. Louisa pulled up the large and now very dirty Band-Aid. My leg was swollen and gangrenous. She cleaned it with some alcohol, put some more peroxide on it and some of the antiseptic cream and then put another large Band-Aid on the leg. The swelling on her arm had gone down, and she did not feel any pain. I had given her another quarter part of a morphine pill. Louisa said she felt fine and did not have much pain. After a time, we collected all the debris and put it back into our packs. We decided to walk for another two hours so that we would have done about fifteen miles or slightly more. In the moonlight, we had seen that there was another valley in front of us and then a more significant hill. There were rice paddy-field terraces everywhere on the side of the mountain, so we had to be careful not to be seen by villagers or Pathet Lao patrols. At about five in the morning, we decided to stop and hide again in the bush. We were walking along a dam when we suddenly heard a group coming towards us. Louisa and I disappeared into the paddy field; luckily the rice plants in the paddy-field were quite high. Staying in the water, about twenty yards from the dam, we held our packs and our heads out of the water. The group was quite noisy. It was large, and some of them seemed to push bikes.

“Pathet Lao, but some of them are Vietnamese!” Louisa whispered into my ear. It was the largest group we had seen; maybe two hundred people walking one behind the other. All were heavily loaded with supplies. Some of them pushed bicycles, and some had small two-wheel trailers on their bicycles. No far from where we were hidden a bicycle and its trailer slipped off the dam and fell into the paddy field. The soldiers who helped to recover it were Vietnamese and they came close to our hiding place. We had to be very quiet and I was even afraid to breath.

It appeared that amongst the group quite a few were women. Louisa and I watched them looking through the gaps in the rice plants. I was surprised that the Vietnamese were that far from their border. Later Louisa told me that they Vietnamese were all from the North. We were after all only a few miles from the Thai border and the Mekong. When they disappeared, I asked Louisa whether she had seen the Vietcong as far away from the North-Vietnamese border. She said, “Yes, some of them even come across the Chinese border in our area and walk through Burmese territory. My father says they are avoiding the American bombing of their trails closer inland!” After a time, when we were sure that there were no other groups following, we moved out of the water, across the dam and into the bush. We had to move a few hundred yards, and some of the forest was full of a sort of brambles with spikes on them. It was important to hide well, just in case there were other groups following along the path during the day. When we found a well-hidden place, we put our plastic sheet on the ground and then took off our wet and stinking clothes. Our bodies were full of leeches, and we both had infected scratches from the brambles and bushes we had to remove, to find a hiding place. We tried to clean them up with some alcohol and antibiotic or antiseptic cream.

After we had removed the leeches and put our clothes over some bushes to dry, we ate some of the baked beans and a sort of dried bread. It tasted good because we were both hungry. Then we took some t-shirts out of my pack and put them on. Despite the tropical climate, it could get quite cold at night. We huddled together under the plastic sheet and fell asleep.

I woke up when I heard some noise. A group of women were going to the nearby rice-field. They had some small children with them. That was a bit of a problem since the children would wander off in the surrounding bush and they could easily detect us. Louisa moved from under the plastic to gather the shorts and shirt we had left on the bushes to dry. Our plastics were camouflaged on one side and orange on the other. We always made sure to have the camouflages side on the outside so that it could not easily be detected. We could not move with all the people near us. So, we stayed hidden under the plastic sheets.

At around seven in the evening I woke up. The rice farmers had gone home a long time ago, but we had both fallen asleep. Louisa and I were just starting to put our things together and clean up the place when a group of men stopped at the fireplace on the side of the dam. The women had used it to prepare some food earlier in the day. The Pathet Lao group were talking about the crashed plane, and some of them said that it was not right that they had not buried the bodies. One guy – Louisa thought, he was the commander of the group – said it was better to leave the bodies there. The Americans would find them and take them away. If the Pathet Lao removed them, the Americans would be angry and drop defoliants which would kill all the rice, said the apparent commander.

After an hour the group moved on. We waited another hour so that we would not cross their path again. Then we packed everything together and made our way on the dam, and after a few hundred yards we walked through a small path in the bush. We walked for four hours, and it was about two in the morning when we stopped. Our long hike was all uphill, and we climbed from one set of terraces to another. We did not see or hear anyone, but we were always aware that we could come across a patrol. Finally, we arrived on top of the hill, and we could see maybe five to seven miles in front of us the lights of an airfield and planes taking off away from us. There appeared to be a lot of air traffic. We could also see in the distance behind the airfield the Mekong, which was the border to Thailand. Louisa kissed me saying, “We have almost made it! Just another day or two!” “Yes, but without you, I wouldn’t have survived more than a day. Your language and surgical skills have saved mine and our life!”

I was not sure whether we should go down to the valley or stay on top of the hill. There seem to be fewer rice fields on the top and, therefore, there would be fewer people who could see us. But at the same time, I was quite sure that the Pathet Lao had its look-out posts on the hill. Though, if we went to the valley, they would see us as well from the hill. I told Louisa my concerns, and we decided to stay in the small woods on top of the mountain. It started to rain again, and we huddled under the plastic, eating C-rations. We both agreed that the cold baked beans really tasted well when one was hungry. While going through the C-Rations, I noticed a small box. It contained some matches, some Magnesium strips, a lighter, a small square box which could be made into a stove and some tablets that contained a dried tablet form of petrol. We could actually heat the baked beans but decided not to do that, because of the smell which would give us away. After eating, we fell asleep quite quickly. The rain had stopped shortly before four, and I heard some noise. I tapped Louisa on the shoulder, but she had heard it as well. A group of people came up the hill and passed very close to us. There were literally only a few yards from our hideout behind some bushes. Louisa said, “Pathet Lao!” when one guy stopped right in front of us and started to pee in our direction. It was so close that we could smell the hot piss. When he had finished, he continued to run after his troops, but it gave us some real fright. After they had disappeared, Louisa told me that they were talking about their base, probably an underground cave about one mile from us; quite a bit below the top of the hill. That sounded promising for us because they were not likely to see us if we stayed here.

About an hour later, there was a firefight somewhere on the outskirts of the air base. We heard the exploding shells, saw the tracer bullets and the magnesium flares. It was quite an eerie sight. Twenty minutes later the “battle” was over, and it was quiet again. We moved our camp a little bit deeper into the woods and fell quickly asleep.

Early in the morning at around six thirty, with first light, we heard the helicopters go out over us. They were very low, maybe only three hundred feet above us. We had missed the first squadron, but we saw another one just preparing to take off from the airfield. We put our things together and placed the plastic with its orange side up on the ground, putting branches onto the edges to keep the plastic down. We had gone out into a small open field to do that. I used the little mirror from my survival kit to shine sunlight into the pilot’s eyes as they came closer. Two of the Sikorsky’s had seen us, and one came down quite near us while the other remained in the air hovering to the side of us. Five camouflaged soldiers jumped out of the helicopter and run towards us. Louisa shouted at one of them: “You took your time!” smiled and ran towards the helicopter. I followed behind, while two soldiers took our backpacks into the helicopter, which took off and turned towards the base with us. We had been saved. Within minutes, we were on the base.

Immediately after we landed, some orderlies came, put us on stretchers and carried us to the medical station. “Are you from the UN plane?” they asked us. “Yes, we are!” A young female doctor and some male nurses came and asked what happened. I told her about the broken arm and my small wound and what I had done. Louisa was on the stretcher next to me and held my hand which she did not want to let go. “You know,” she said with tears in her eyes, “we made it, we actually made it!”

“Lady,” said the orderly to her, “you have to have a bath! You smell terrible!” Louisa cried and smiled at the same time. They had Louisa in one corner of the treatment room, cut the plaster open and had a look at it. I think they must have given her an injection to calm her down because they seem to wash her arm and reset it and she did not make a sound.

Another two doctors looked at my leg, gave me a local anesthetic, then made a cut and took out another small piece of metal. I had been sitting up and watched what they did. “Well,” she botched the job!” I said jokingly and pointed at Louisa. “She did that?” asked the doctor. “Yes, she took out the first piece of metal with some tweezers,” I answered. “She can join us anytime!” said the young doctor and was sewing up the hole in my leg. “It will be sore for a few days, but you will survive,” he motioned and then went on to something else.

Louisa was all right, just knocked out from whatever they gave her. She now had a proper cast on her left arm. A Colonel came in with a map and asked me, where I thought we had crashed. We had not walked that far, maybe sixty-five miles from the crash site. As we looked at the map, a Sergeant rushed in and said: ” We have found the plane and the bodies. They are on the way back here.” I asked the colonel whether he could get me a radio connection to the Castel’s because they would surely be worried about what happened to their daughter. I gave him their call sign, and he promised he would send them a message. He would also send a message to my office in Saigon, telling them that I was alive.

The next day they had brought in the bodies, all except the Ambassadors. They had washed the bodies, and I went to the morgue to identify them. Louisa wanted to come along, even though I did not think this was such a good idea. But she maintained they had been with us in life, so we should be with them in death. Louisa went to the body of each of them and said a small prayer. I thought she said a Buddhist prayer rather than a Catholic one, which she later confirmed. She kissed each of the bodies on their forehead.

Three days later, Louisa and I were on a plane to Saigon. I had talked to Louisa’s parents on the radio and told them she could stay with me since the boat to Marseille had already left. I would arrange that she could go to the local French lycée which was only down the road from us and then she would go on the next boat in about three months to Marseille. The parents were very pleased. They had not even heard about the crash. After talking to Louisa, who was very excited, they wanted to speak with me again because they were worried about the financial side of things. There was no problem from my side, we would just go and buy Louisa new clothes and school material. I had a lovely young Vietnamese maid, found by courtesy of my apartment neighbor and friend, General “Fred,” the head of the South-Vietnamese military planning, and there was more than enough space in my large five-room apartment for Louisa to have her own bedroom and a school workroom.

After our arrival in Saigon, my boss William got us at the airport and drove us home. He had no problem with Louisa staying with us. William,s apartment was a floor below mine. I arranged everything with her French school in Saigon, her ships ticket, her school in France and all the other things necessary. She also had to get an identity card from us and from the South-Vietnamese Security services. “Fred,” my neighbor was a great help in that. Without these necessary bureaucratic aids, she could be arrested. We also had to buy clothes for her. Luckily, her French passport had survived, but the first Secretary of the French Embassy came to our house and asked whether we needed any help. His rather young wife, who taught at the French school would also help in getting clothes and all the other necessary things for Louisa.

Fifteen weeks later Louisa went on the SS Cambodia via Capetown to Marseille. She cried terribly when we brought her to the ship because she had a lovely time with us all and everyone looked after her. We had all chipped in and upgraded her to a better single cabin from which she wrote long and beautiful letters to everyone.

Louisa and I stayed in touch ever since. In 1979, when I started to worked in La Defense and Neuilly, living in Paris at the Carrefour de l’Odeon in St. Germain de Pres where I still live, we often met and went out, having a very close relationship. She finished her lycée and then studied at Science Po. We remain friends and are still rather close though we do not see each other often. I also became a friend of her father’s sister Helena and visited her often with a sometimes-reluctant Louisa. Louisa never married. When Helena died, Louisa inherited Helena’s château and her farm near Honfleur. Louisa is now close to retirement and has worked as an economist and a Director of Regional Research for the OECD in Paris. Besides Honfleur which she uses for weekends, she lives on the Ile St Louis in the 4th arrondissement not very far from my apartment.

Her parents had a rather sad end. Both, her father, and her mother disappeared in 1975 when the Pathet Lao took over power in Laos. They were never seen again. I saw them the last time in 1972, when they came to France, to Helena’s place when Louisa was nineteen and had completed the lycée and the course préparatoires for entering the Science Pol.

In 1994, I went with Louisa for a month to Laos to see whether we could find out anything but had no luck. We also went to the site of our crash. The wreck of our plane was still there, though it was totally overgrown. But it brought lots of memories back to us.

©2015-2019ajs bertberger – 9104 words


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