Sĩ quan, Trẻ mồ côi, Kem, Bánh: Officer, Orphan, Ice Cream, Cake

Following Samuel Freeman’s piece about his war nightmares Medic is pleased to publish his  war time account of  helping Vietnamese orphans.

I went through ROTC in college. I had requested assignment to the Infantry, and Airborne and Ranger schools. After completing Ranger school, I was assigned to the 82nd Airborne at Ft. Bragg, North Carolina to get some experience as a platoon leader before my tour in Viet Nam. In Viet Nam, I had the great fortune and honor of being assigned to the ARVN (Army of the Republic of Viet Nam) Airborne Advisory Team as an advisor to an ARVN Airborne Rifle Company.

At the time I was there, we were on a joint operation with the First Cavalry Division, operating northwest of Sai Gon near the Cambodian border, seeking out NVA units crossing into South Viet Nam through Cambodia.

The Viet Namese Airborne Division, along with the ARVN Marines and Rangers, were considered the three best units in the South Viet Namese army. I believe ARVN Airborne was on par with any American division in the Nam. In combat, the soldiers I advised were superb. In fire fights, Charlie, as we called the enemy, always paid a high price in dead and wounded, usually higher than ours.

Aside from the pounding heat and constant thirst, most days on patrol in triple canopy jungle were uneventful. However, when we found Charlie, or he found us, the firefights usually were furious; but most often ended quickly.

My job as advisor was to coordinate with First Cav choppers for combat assaults, medevacs, resupply and extractions. During firefights I directed First Cav Cobra gunships, and if needed, American artillery. That was rare. Most of the time we had excellent ARVN Airborne arty support.

Division headquarters were at Ton Son Nhut Airbase in Sai Gon. Whenever ARVN Airborne companies came in from the field, that’s where we went. I wasn’t in Sai Gon much, but I did make a few HQ friends.

Every Sunday, members of the Sai Gon headquarters cadre, and some of the advisors in from the field, went to a nearby orphanage. We spent time with the children, and helped the orphanage staff with things they needed. We jokingly referred to these trips as military operations, first raiding mess halls for two or three pans of cake, and at least one 5 gallon tub of ice cream. The mess sergeants were happy to help out.

On the previous Friday or Saturday we’d go to a PX for baby powder, baby oil, anything the children needed that we could buy. (I say we, though I was able to go only twice.) Occasionally, when the orphanage needed repairs we’d scrounge materials from construction sites at Ton Son Nhut, or buy them in Sai Gon.

Every Sunday the kids knew we were coming, and there they were, clamoring, huddled close to the entrance, and cheering when we arrived. Always, several children would rush toward us, and we knelt with open arms to hug two or three at a time. Our anticipation of seeing them, if only briefly, was as great as theirs. These were wonderful moments, and for my brother advisors who had kids back home, the visits were especially poignant. If they could not hold their own children, they could hug these kids, whom we loved as much as they loved us.

But these children were casualties of war. They had lost their mothers and fathers, their homes, all family members. The infants could not comprehend what they had endured, but the older children knew; and a deep sorrow lay on some of their faces.

We visited the orphanage for many reasons, but mostly to improve lives rather than take them as we did in the field. The irony of joyful afternoons, compared to jungle patrols and sudden death was not lost on us. Most of the kids had been orphaned by U.S. air and artillery strikes on their village—they were collateral damage, the Army’s polite term for innocent civilians caught in the slaughter.

There were many sad stories about the orphanage children. Some were blinded, or had lost arms or legs. Or both. A few were scarred by napalm. Yes, our visits on those few Sundays were joyful, but seeing children with hideous scars from napalm ripped my heart out. I am not sure which was worse: the sight of children burned by American napalm, or those who’d lost limbs to American artillery and aerial bombs.

Located in the orphanage was a long narrow room — “the limb room” we called it — about 35 x 12 feet, with windows looking into the orphanage along the front wall. To the left of the door, placed end to end, were two cafeteria tables. Down the center were two rows of three tables, with three tables along the back wall, and two tables at the far end. These thirteen tables were covered with child-sized artificial arms and legs. Peg boards were mounted across the wall opposite the windows, and also the wall at the far end. A vast array of artificial arms and legs, as if plucked from an army of life-like dolls, hung lifeless from those peg boards. As children out grew an arm or leg, that arm or leg would be placed in the limb room and a prosthetic of the appropriate size would be fitted to the child.

I have no idea how many child-sized body parts it held, but it was well over one hundred. From one orphanage, of the many throughout Viet Nam.

On the brighter side, after our joyous greetings, the children made a bee line to the cafeteria for their ice cream and cake. A beautiful little girl, about seven or eight years old—unfortunately, I do not have a picture of her—acted as the guardian of a small boy about five. He had lost both legs and was blind from a bombing attack that killed both his parents. The little girl would sit with this boy and help him eat. When he had finished his ice cream and cake, she would feed him hers. You knew she wanted it for herself; but always, she gave it to him. Her selflessness was astounding. Even now, thinking about her, this little angel, brings me to tears.

There was another little girl, four or five years old. Like most of the children, she was orphaned by a U.S. bombing run that had destroyed her village. Miraculously, she had survived unscathed. She was quite beautiful, and very shy; but loved to have her picture taken. The first time I went to the orphanage she hung back while the gleeful children rushed toward us. I wanted to hold her, and tried to coax her to come to me; but nothing doing. Then a warrant officer who brought me took my camera and motioned to her to have her picture taken. Suddenly she smiled, ran to me, jumped into my arms, turned and posed for the camera. As soon as the photo was taken she wanted to be let down. She had gotten what she wanted and kicked me to the curb.

It was so funny, so childishly sweet. I cannot express how badly I wanted to bring this child home with me. I sent the picture to my wife, who agreed, yes, if possible, we’ll be her new parents. But it was not her fate.

I have a mug, made by a friend, with the photo of the girl and I on it. I use it and think of her every day.

Samuel Freeman served as an advisor to an ARVN airborne infantry company in 1969-1970. Once home he earned a PhD in political science and became one of the first professors in the nation to teach a course on the American war in Vietnam, which he taught for thirty-five years.