National Geographic : 1965 Jun
from the city's center-encompasses the Province of Gia Dinh. It includes Tan Son Nhut Airport, the Vietnamese high command, an American communications center, and a fuel dump-all highly tempting to the mortar men of the VC. "When I was first in Viet Nam in 1962," said Major Petrenko, "Gia Dinh Province was just a big suburb. You could take a cab out there and not worry about it." But things had changed; now his detachment was advis ing Vietnamese Captain Binh, chief of the Go Vap District, on security. Captain Binh's villa was our first stop. We sang happy birthday to the captain's wife, and I skipped rope with his children in the garden. It took a brave man to be a district chief. The VC killed them by the score, and sometimes their families as well. "My district is the smallest in Viet Nam but the most populous-284,000 people in seven villages," said Captain Binh. "Five are quite urban. Two are quite rural." He joined our little convoy, and we drove through busy streets, then quiet ones, into the silent country side. We turned off our headlights, and my eyes got used to seeing by moonlight. With me sat Cpl. L. R. Gallino of Major Petrenko's unit. "Over there they built a ma ternity clinic with USOM money," he said, pointing with his shotgun. "Two days before it was supposed to open, the VC blew it up." We drove as far as the big steel bridge across the Saigon River at Phu Long, an im portant gateway to the city. Guards sat in a tower and in sandbagged emplacements. "We need a company to defend the bridge and patrol the area," said Major Petrenko. "We have only a squad." The bridge defenses had been overrun once. And just across the river, Major Petrenko's counterpart-another U. S. Army major- had been assassinated. "Somebody threw a grenade into his Land-Rover. The man got away. He may still be living over there." Ambushes Work Both Ways In the village of Thanh Loc we met our patrol, 24 men with carbines and grenades, in dark clothes, barefoot. "The VC go bare foot, and we mustn't leave tracks different from theirs," said Captain Binh. He addressed the men: "You are the defenders of Thanh Loc. You must live up to that honor...." We walked out of the village in two col umns, one along each side of the road. After a while Corporal Gallino said, "They ambushed the patrol here not long ago and killed the squad leader. They hid in the sugar cane and opened up from 20 yards." We passed 15 yards from a cane field and halted. The men fanned out (pages 860-61). This was an ambush patrol, and all lay low. Except Major Petrenko; there he went, 6 feet 2 inches tall, with his carbine and his German P-38 pistol, checking each man's position. Two weeks earlier in a similar am bush, his men had killed five VC, with no casualties themselves. Crouching silently in one spot made the time pass slowly, and it made me think. Of the fine dinner a couple of hours ago on the roof of the Majestic, ten miles away. Of Ma jor Petrenko saying, "So far we've run into nothing larger than a platoon." Most often I thought of Corporal Gallino near me some where, with his fine medical kit.... A little before dawn we returned to Thanh Loc and flopped down in the market, under a roof paid for by United States aid funds. Around village headquarters stood guards in sentry boxes, and every 15 minutes they banged on pieces of pipe, in turn, to assure each other that they were still alive. The pipes, of varying lengths, sounded like chimes. To their music I fell asleep.