No Walk In the Park With Charlie

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: War and Military  |  House: Booksie Classic

Serving in Vietnam was no Sunday walk in the park. However, my tour in IV Corps, or the Mekong Delta as a military journalist, afforded me the opportunity to travel throughout this expansive region of South Vietnam and glimpse the beauty and majesty of its valleys, its mountains and its rivers. One of the more impressive regions in the Mekong Delta was the U Minh Forest also known as the impenetrable “forest of darkness,” at the southern tip of the country. This was also one of the most menacing regions in South Vietnam. Menacing because the U Min Forest was a Vietcong stronghold during the Vietnam war, where U.S. troops seldom ventured. It was no Central Park.

NO WALK IN THE PARK WITH CHARLIE

By Al Garcia

Serving in Vietnam was no Sunday walk in the park.  However, my tour in IV Corps, or the Mekong Delta as a military journalist, afforded me the opportunity to travel throughout this expansive region of South Vietnam and glimpse the beauty and majesty of its valleys, its mountains and its rivers.  One of the more impressive regions in the Mekong Delta was the U Minh Forest also known as the impenetrable “forest of darkness,” at the southern tip of the country.  This was also one of the most menacing regions in South Vietnam.  Menacing because the U Min Forest was a Vietcong stronghold during the Vietnam war, where U.S. troops seldom ventured.  It was no Central Park.

The U Minh was immense and lush and thick with mangroves, water grass, reeds and vines of all types, not to mention its numerous waterways and swamps that nourished the life within.  It was also home to freshwater fish, pangolin (better known as scaly anteaters), wild boar, deer, monkeys, squirrels, lizards, pythons and turtles.  It was dark and foreboding.  It was a living, breathing ecosystem for life of all types, including the Vietcong.

At the time I visited the U Minh in 1969 for a story I was working on, it already had a notorious and renowned history.  Before America’s involvement in Vietnam, the French attempted to resolve the insurgency problem concentrated in this region of the country.  In 1952, in its ongoing crusade against the ever-elusive Vietcong, the French dropped 500 paratroops into the U Minh to clean up the area of insurgents.  All 500 paratroopers disappeared forever in the dense mangrove swamps of the U Minh. 

America took over from the French in assisting the South Vietnamese with their war against the North and the insurgents.  The U Minh Forest was considered such a major Vietcong fortress and refuge, that defoliants were constantly sprayed to help thin out this jungle-like area.  And of course, B-52 bomber strikes were an ongoing and constant occurrence in the area.  Sending in patrols, American or Vietnamese, was not a recommended course of action.  In the early 1960s three American Special Forces servicemen were captured by the Vietcong in the U Minh during a mission.  Two of them were eventually released at the end of the war.  Additionally, John Kerry, a one-time presidential candidate, sometimes operated a navy Swift boat PFC-44 hear the forest.  This was the history of the U Minh Forest.  Dark, desolate and impenetrable. 

I flew in by helicopter and was able to see the expanse and beauty of the forest from the air.  It was an impressive sight, seeing its different shades of green lush trees surrounded by a burned out and destroyed perimeter, like a no-man’s land, desolate and silent.  I was told that we couldn’t get any closer because the forest was considered a “hot zone.”We landed, and I walked around talking to U.S. Army, Marines and Airmen watching and waiting.  Today’s mission was to oversee a bombing raid on the peaceful scene before us – the tranquil beauty of a tapestry of nature’s splendor, a life-growing and life-nurturing forest. 

Like a Hollywood production, with extras standing around waiting for the action to begin.  That was the scene I was watching before me.  Like everything else I had seen during my tour, I felt somewhat detached and apart from all that was happening around me.  I was an observer, a spectator, an eyewitness to what was perceived as every day normal to the men standing around me.  It was chilling to acknowledge what was happening. 

It was unnerving and dispiriting to know that we were fighting an enemy that had been entrenched in the daily lives of the country we were attempting to defend and protect for over two decades at that time.  The enemy walked among us.  The enemy may have worked for us.  The enemy was everywhere around us.  The enemy blended in with the people.  In jungle settings like here in the U Minh, they were rarely seen.  They used hit-and-run ambush attacks and disappeared.  And for this reason, the overpowering might, wealth and capacity of the American presence was simply a displeasing irritation to the imbedded enemy determined to inflict casualties, and just wait us out.

Today would be no walk in the park for sure.  Today’s mission was just another normal day in the abyss of war, where the name of the game was casualties.  It was as simple as that.  And I stood there watching as the scene unfolded before me.  Miles away I heard bombs explode, and next to me I heard the awkward silence of uncertainty and acceptance. 

Another day at the office.  Another report to Saigon of missions and casualties.  And in the U Minh Forest, quiet now.  No more bombs bursting, no chemicals spraying, no sound of the animals, and no enemy in sight, at least until tomorrow, until it started all over again. 

Life along the Mekong was certainly no walk in the park . . .


Submitted: June 12, 2021

© Copyright 2021 A.Garcia. All rights reserved.

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