Author: Ken Ball
The Navy took me to Vietnam in 1955, long before the United States committed thousands of
servicemen to fight in that country.
It turned out to be a trip I am sure I’ll never forget. This was a time shortly after the Vietnamese, under Ho Chi Minh, had defeated the French forces in a key extended battle and siege of Dien Bein Phu. As a result of this defeat the French realized that they could no longer hold Vietnam. The Vietnamese, believing that the United States had an interest in intervening agreed to some compromises at Geneva in early summer of 1954. Among the agreements reached was a plan to allow people above and below the 17th parallel to migrate to where they felt safest. The people were allowed 300 days to do this.
This is where my ship, U.S.Horace A. Bass APD 124, played a small role. We sailed up the Red River to Haiphong where we relieved the U.S.S. Cook as a communication ship. Our job was to keep Saigon informed as
to how many transport ships would be needed and when they would be needed to carry the thousands of endangered Vietnamese from the North to the South. Some have estimated that over two million people went from the North to the South. Very few went the other way. The North wanted their people to stay in the South.
It was during this time that I met Dr. Thomas Dooley, a young Navy doctor who was in charge of setting up the refugee camps that contained the people awaiting transportation. He was quite a character and talker. Dr. Dooley would come out to our ship for a shower and a good meal from time to time. He was tired of the instant powdered coffee he and his two enlisted assistants had to drink. On one occasion we had some Vietnamese orphans out to the ship to give them a little ice cream and cake. They really enjoyed that.
I was with Dr. Dooley one day in Haiphong searching for some lime to line a softball field. We were to have a game with the officers and Chiefs playing against the enlisted crewmen. While walking along Dooley asked me, “Have you ever seen a leper”? I said, “No”. He pointed out that one was crossing the street to come our way to beg for money. Incidentally, the soft ball game drew a crowd of over 500 people. The Japanese had introduced baseball during WW II to the Vietnamese. We played volleyball and basketball with the French who were still there. We used the same ball for both games.
Dr. Dooley told us story after story of atrocities by the Vietnamese Communists against other Vietnamese, particularly the Roman Catholic ones. (The French missionaries had done their work well) It was these stories that convinced me at this time we had a “protector” role to play in that country. I really was not very astute in regard to international politics at that time, or even now for that matter.
I’ll retell a story that I am sure Dooley told hundreds of times:
He said that one day a young Communist guard brought a ten year-old boy to him with his hands bound behind his back. Dooley asked, “Why do you have this young boy tied up this way?” The guard replied, “He is tied because he is a traitor to the People’s Republic of Vietnam.” “How can a boy so young possibly be a traitor,” Dooley asked. “I’ll show you why he is a traitor,” the guard replied. Then he ordered the boy to recite the Lord’s Prayer.
The boy began with, “Our Father who art in Heaven”. The guard stopped him and said, “You see, that is treason.” “The People’s Republic knows there is no God in heaven” Dooley reported that the guard stopped him several times during the recitation of the prayer, each time pointing out that such belief were untrue and detrimental to the People’s Republic. The boy got to the part where he said, “Give us this day our daily bread”, and the guard stopped him for the last time to remind him that his daily bread was supplied not by God, but by the People’s Republic. Then the terribly shocking thing happened. Dooley said, “Quick as a wink the guard whipped out two chop sticks and thrust them into the boys ears, piercing his ear drums to deafen him. Then he said, “Never again will this boy have to hear such lies created by evil western capitalistic warmongers.”
That story, at that time, convinced me that we should be involved in stopping such atrocities. So when the U.S. involvement in Vietnam escalated in the 1960’s, I thought we were doing the right thing. I had been conditioned to be the kind of patriot that would say, “My country: Right or Wrong.” And I believed, at that point, that my country never did anything wrong. Since then I have learned this is a very naïve notion. Any, and all countries, look out for their own interests, and they do not always do the right things.
Both sides conducted brutal propaganda campaigns to win the allegiance of the Vietnamese people. One of the leaflets distributed by the Communist to dissuade the people from going South on the U.S. Navy transports showed two white-hatted sailors squatting on the deck with a Vietnamese baby being
roasted on a spit over a brazier. It was effective too. Many balked at the gangway when they saw the sailors standing on deck.
It takes a lot of research to get to the bottom of historical events, and during the time they are happening very few people have a clue as to why things are happening. Years later “evidence” is uncovered, such as the pentagon papers, and statements admitting mistakes in policy making. It is terrible that we lost over 53,000 service people in a war that was never crystal clear in its purposes. At that time we were in the midst of the “cold war” and the perceived threat of godless Communism spreading over the globe was unthinkable. It had to be stopped. The Domino theory held sway. It postulated that if one country would fall to communism its neighbor would soon follow until all the world was in jeopardy. Perhaps this was true, and all our resistance and spending finally broke the back of that movement. We outspent and out lasted them; that part is good, but what a price for both sides to pay.
The trip up the Red River to Haiphong was exciting, perhaps educational, and will always be one of my highlighted memories.
[Editor’s Note: I am grateful to Ken Bell for writing this post. It is an honor to read first person accounts from the front lines of history. John Malch, a truth-seeker and contributor to the Cold War Warrior, sent me this story through Bill Cotman. John writes:
My wife, Kim, evacuated North Vietnam, November 1954 during ‘Operation Passage to Freedom’ aboard U.S.Montague. She thought it strange that an American ship had a name of French origin. She remembered how kind and helpful the American sailors were, especially to young children.
She thanks you (Bill Cotman) for sending Ken’s story and said it brought back many bittersweet memories from nearly sixty years ago.
Finally, in order to understand what happened in Vietnam it is important to follow the timeline of the battle at Dien Bien Phu. ]