In 1968, when I had been serving with an infantry battalion in Vietnam for about eight months, I was reassigned to an artillery battery at a base some distance away. I knew that a fellow Marine lieutenant, a friend from Vietnamese language training, was running the Kit Carson Scout School in Quang Tri, a town I would pass through on a convoy of trucks. I arranged to stop and stay overnight with him there.
The government of South Vietnam and its American advisors had been running a psychological operation called the Chieu Hoi Program since 1963. “Chieu Hoi” was translated as “Open Arms;” actually it can’t be translated literally but means something like “Welcome Back” or “Welcome Home.” Chieu Hoi leaflets were dropped by thousands over Viet Cong and North Vietnamese Army areas. The leaflets played on the hardships and dangers the guerillas and soldiers endured and the unlikelihood of success in the war against the Americans and the South Vietnamese government. They promised defectors safety and welcome, plus money. Special premiums were offered for weapons. Most of the Chieu Hoi defectors were sent to reindoctrination camps. In the northern part of South Vietnam, the Marines created the Kit Carson Scout program and recruited many of the defectors to serve as scouts with Marine units. I don’t know what incentives were offered.
My interest in stopping to see Bill, the friend running the school, was not about the school; it was about seeing a friend and being out of the field and away from my former responsibilities. The infantry battalion had been on one operation or another for more than two months, eating C-rations and sleeping on the ground and digging foxholes every day. I was dirty and tired. Bill invited me to drop my clothes, shower—a great luxury—and put on a clean set of his while he had mine laundered.
Bill gave me the tour. The school’s compound was on the outskirts of Quang Tri, in a sparse neighborhood of small houses and shops, with goats and chickens and gardens in yards and vacant lots. The school was surrounded by a high fence with concertina wire at the top, and a sentry post at the gate. The only guards I saw were four South Vietnamese soldiers, two in the sentry post and two lounging nearby, their carbines leaning against a tree close at hand. Rolls of barbed wire stretched along the ground outside the fence were serving to dry laundry. The laundry picked up dust with each passing convoy of American trucks.
The facility had once been a Catholic school. It was basic—concrete block walls, open windows, tin roofs, classrooms, a dormitory, kitchen, dining hall, office, courtyard.
At lunchtime, Bill and I sat at a sort of head table at one end of the dining hall, with the trainees at two tables perpendicular to it. There were about 25 of them, young Vietnamese men—boys, really, teenagers. They seemed like anything but fighters. They were happy and enthusiastic. Several of them sang Beatles songs for us.
I tried to imagine their situation. These were North Vietnamese Army soldiers. They had walked the Ho Chi Minh Trail from North Vietnam, hundreds of miles through jungle-covered mountains. They had carried their own gear and food plus additional weapons, ammunition, and supplies for forces already in the south. They had been terrorized by B-52 strikes along the way, bombs dropped without warning from 20 or 30,000 feet. In South Vietnam they had been assigned to NVA units in the mountains, maneuvering to attack American and South Vietnamese installations, or to ambush them as they patrolled, or to resist them as they tried to drive NVA forces out. Even a successful action could only have had the objective of inflicting American casualties, and, successful or not, it would inevitably bring a terrible response down upon them. They would have traveled almost entirely at night in terrain that was difficult enough by day. As they moved, they were harassed by artillery and radar-guided air strikes, sometimes by B-52 strikes. If wounded, the best they could hope for would have been treatment in the field—no helicopter would come fly them to a safe hospital or ship. Organized in the traditional Communist three-man cells, under constant indoctrination, they would have had no freedom of thought or speech.
Their conditions had been very hard, and these boys had not been able to resist the offer of relative safety, relative comfort, money, and of joining the vastly more powerful side. Whether these particular men understood that they would soon be up front with Marine units fighting the NVA, I don’t know. Certainly they did not suspect they were joining the wrong side. Neither did I, and neither did my friend Bill. Somehow the extremity of their situation, combined with their youth, made them seem happy, excited, eager to please.
That afternoon, I accompanied Bill as he took two of the scouts to an American aid station in Quang Tri, where two American doctors and a few Marine medics operated a clinic for the local people. The visit was a gesture. One of the scouts had a small infected cut on his leg; the other had a fever. Bill asked the medics to clean the infected cut and put a band-aid on it and give the other scout some aspirin.
The street door of the building that had been adapted for the aid station opened into a small central room. Inside, interior doors led to office and storeroom on one side and an operating room on the other. No one was waiting that day, except the four of us. One of the swinging doors of the operating room opened as a medic passed through. On the operating table, I caught a glimpse of a smallish body on its back, draped in white sheeting. In the brief instants I watched, the thigh of one leg was lowered to the table, the lower leg gone, the stump raw. A few minutes later, I idly opened an ordinary kitchen trash can just outside the operating room, the kind you open by stepping on a pedal. Inside was a pair of a small child’s feet. I felt horror such as I had never felt from wounds I had seen before. The small sizes made the difference.
Bill and the scouts and I returned to the school. He and I had a dinner of stir-fried bits of chicken and onions, seated on the dirt floor, with a local family.
In the morning, after a comfortable night, wearing my clean utilities, I hitched a ride with a convoy to join my battery.
Note: In 1969, there were over two thousand Kit Carson Scouts with the Marines. They were considered very effective. A report in 1970 listed 230 scouts killed and 716 wounded. Those rates were higher than for the Marine units themselves, in most cases. When the war ended and Saigon and the South were suddenly in the power of North Vietnam and the Viet Cong, it must have gone badly for any scouts who had not been evacuated with the Americans.