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As we headed into the town of Chau Doc Jerry fired some final Salvos: JUSPAO Director Ed Nickel is a stupid son of a bitch whose only interest is to look out for Ed Nickel; the people in the Office of Field Operations don't do anything, they can't do anything, the whole organization might as well be abolished; my new chief, Paul Turner, doesn't know his ass about this kind of work and "I have no respect for him." Strong language. Lacking evidence either way, I'll just have to wait silently and see.
The trip in along the river was very pretty, and the people seemed extremely friendly. All the little kids yelled "OK" at us and were so smiling and sunny that I'm pretty sure we're fairly popular among the parents too; if the parents badmouthed us at home the kids wouldn't put on quite as good a performance would they? Jerry is great with them; he responds with smiles, waves, and yells, and the trip up the river seems a little like a Presidential parade.
Approaching the compound where some of the American advisors live (including Ed Donovan) we saw a paper sign stretched across the entrance: "Welcome Mrs. Hunter" She is the wife of the lieutenant colonel who is the deputy province senior advisor, in Chau Doc for her first visit. Novick says the sign has to be Donovan's work. It was. It was great to see Ed again after more than a year, and he was just delighted to see a familiar face, especially one from Brazil.
Jerry had been hoping to snag a helicopter for a flight up to the tip of a mountain being taken away from the VC after many years. This province abuts mountainous Cambodia, and some of those mountains sit in the flat rice paddies on the Vietnam side, guarding the favorite VC infiltration routes. There are three main ones, one of which was seized recently. The second is under attack and the VC have disappeared at least temporarily, perhaps into tunnels and caves which are known to exist on the sides of the mountain. Ed gave the bad news that due to a schedule change there will be no helicopter and [unintelligible] no chance to visit the mountain top. (It would have been business Jerry wants pictures for propaganda purposes.)
We decide that if we can't go to the big mountain, at least we'll drive out later to a little hill near town which we've held all along, containing communications installations, from which we can get a better look at how the land lies. In the meantime Ed will take us to the local headquarters of the Vietnamese Information Service, the outfit I'm supposed to advise.
I wasn't expecting much because i had heard a lot in Saigon about how bad this organization is in the field but, even so, it was a bit of a jolt, the building I would not have considered habitable; it was more of a ruin than an edifice. Yet, I noticed, work was being done. A couple of girls were typing in that odd Vietnamese way - that is, with the end of a pencil, one key at a time, to protect long fingernails - and a couple of men were busy with sheets of paper. In another room a sign painter was at work on some slogans to be nailed up in hamlets, and in a third room an M-85 office duplicator was whirring away turning out pamphlets. (Not long ago we gave several dozen of these M-85 machines to provincial VIS offices, and the impression exists among American in Saigon that few are now working because of Vietnamese mishandling and improper maintenance; not true in Chau Doc, at least.
Donovan and his staff have a little office at the front of the building. Ed feels strongly that since the bulk of his work is with the VIS chief, he should be within reach at all times, so he shares the hot weather and poor physical set-up with the Vietnamese.
It seems to pay off because Ed obviously has a very fine relationship with the VIS chief, an affable middle-aged man whom we interview through an interpreter. He has the answers to all questions at the tip of his tongue, sets relatively high standards for his cadres, and does a pretty good job of reaching his people with very limited resources. I think I'm beginning to get a glimmer of reality: in Saigon they are unhappy with VIS in the field, not because of what it is, but because of what it isn't and never can be. VIS is a distribution system, pure and simple, and as such it works pretty well. Material is delivered and slogans nailed up all the way down to the hamlet level. What doesn't work is someone's nutty idea that the kind of people they can hire for $20 a month will be capable of going into the hamlet and persuading the residents to go all out for the government. These people have no status - "clout," as they say here - and couldn't persuade anyone even if they were capable of making the arguments.
I'll have a chance to check that impression at a couple of other places because Jerry decided that OFO's idea of putting me in one spot for a whole week was a real crock. I go back to Can Tho for a weekend conference of all the PPA's, then to My Tho and finally to Vinh Long. In this instance, at least, i have to side with Jerry; a week here with Ed would be fun, but it would be a vacation for the last five days because there isn't much to see.
To point up Ed's relationship with the VIS chief: in Vietnam, men show friendship and support. There is nothing effeminate about it, hand-holding is a signal both to the person whose hand is held and to those who observe it that relations couldn't be better. One day the VIS chief took Ed by the hand and walked all through town with him, demonstrating to the other Vietnamese that this particular American is his trusted friend.
After the VIS visit we did go to the hill outside of town, reached by a road through the rice paddies. Just as you get to the hill you come to the largest cattle market in Vietnam; cattle were massed at this point, a few hundred yards from Cambodia, to be bought, sold, and shipped.
A little farther on is what may be the only rock quarry in the south end of the country, which is almost completely flat and rockless - the alluvial soil is said to be around 70 feet deep. The hill itself was once a preserve for the French, who had fancy homes there. The view from the top is interesting because one gets above the hypnotic flatness. A little further out the road is cut by a damaged bridge. An armored personnel carrier went over the side; they got it out but dropped in another vehicle in the process.
We attended Colonel Hunter's afternoon briefing - the PSA is on home leave - and he went into some detail for my benefit. That night the fellows threw a kind of party for Col. and Mrs. Hunter, with free drinks and buffet style food. Mrs hunter is a nice unassuming middle-aged lady, and the men enjoyed having her around. The colonel tells us that he has a helicopter coming in the morning and will be able to get us to the mountain top after all.
About 9pm or so, Novick, Donovan and Endsley cut out - the former to read himself to sleep, the other two to gab more than half the night, mostly about Brazil and the people we both knew there. I am looking forward to seeing John Burio who I hear sets the best table in the Delta.
- Daniel Endsley's Vietnam Journal