the deep eyes
During my year in Vietnam, I once witnessed a scene of torture. This is my recollection of the event.
I had been in Vietnam for about five months when my platoon leader got word that Bob Hope was going to have a Christmas show in Da Nang and that he should pick five people to go see the show. I was one of those picked. Even though I had only been in Vietnam for about five months I was already an “old guy” and had seniority over other people in the platoon and that was why I was one of those selected.
When the day before the Bob Hope show came around a helicopter came out to the jungle and picked up me and the other four guys and took us back to our company rear area in Chu Lai so we would already be there to be ready to leave in the morning. There was a selection of guys from all the companies and platoons in the division and we all went up to Da Nang the next morning in a convoy of trucks. Before we left we had to check in our weapons and many of us felt naked and vulnerable riding thru Vietnam with nothing to shoot with but fortunately nothing happened on the trip there.
When we got to Da Nang we were almost late and the Bob Hope show was getting ready to start just about as soon as we got off our trucks. We hurriedly found a place to sit. All the seats were taken up and we were so late we had to sit way in the back up on a hill but we had a good view from there even if we were somewhat far away.
The Hope show was pretty good. The Gold Digger girls group. Les Brown and his Band of Renown. Lola Falana. Plus a few more I don’t remember. I think a Miss America was there. He told a few jokes which were not funny. I remember he told a joke about us enjoying the geisha girls and nobody laughed because geisha girls are a Japanese thing and besides most of us were in the jungle most of the time and not around girls. He just kept going like a real trouper. If a joke didn’t hit he was ready with another one immediately. We were all grateful he had come to give us one of his shows.
After the show was over we loaded back up on our trucks and began the trip back to Chu Lai. I began to get somewhat worried as it was getting late in the day by that time and darkness began to fall before we got to Chu Lai. There were some helicopter gunships escorting us which made me feel somewhat better but I still didn’t like the idea of approaching darkness in Vietnam without a weapon. We got to Chu Lai just at dark and I was sure glad to get there without getting shot at.
We all got a good night’s sleep and the next morning got up not knowing when we were going to have to go back out to the jungle. We weren’t left in the dark very long however as the company first sergeant told us the captain had a special job for us. Instead of rejoining our platoon we were to be going to a place to join some Vietnamese soldiers. Our job was going to be to act as liaison between our company and the Vietnamese. Both sides were operating close together in the field and the captain wanted us with the Vietnamese so we could communicate our company’s positions to the Vietnamese commanders so neither side would be shooting at each other. Actually there was really only one of us who was to do the communicating. A guy training to be a sergeant. He operated a radio and talked to our company and conferred with Vietnamese commanders thru an interpreter they provided. The rest of us Americans were basically just along for support. And to guard our small camp which we had set up in the middle of the Vietnamese camp. Our gear had to be watched at all times or the Vietnamese soldiers would steal whatever they wanted.
During the week we were doing this duty basically the routine was three of us, including the guy with the radio, would accompany the Vietnamese soldiers in the morning as they set out on their patrols and our radio guy would radio our company and tell them where we were so the two sides would stay apart and not shoot at each other. The other two guys would stay at our camp and guard our stuff. We didn’t usually go very far though as the Vietnamese commander and his entourage would stay in a safe place and we would be with them so I really never worried the whole week we were with them. Worried about getting shot at, that is.
One afternoon when nothing was going on and I didn’t have any duties I happened to be walking thru the Vietnamese camp when I came upon a scene which disturbed me greatly. In a clearing a Vietnamese soldier whom I recognized to be a major, an older man, and the highest ranking officer of the camp, was swinging a Vietnamese woman around by her hair. He was using her hair, which was long like most women there wore it, as a handle to swing her body around in a circle. He would swing her around two or three times and at the end of each round of swinging would slam her head into the ground as hard as he could. I was astonished. I had not thought that I had gone to Vietnam to support slamming women’s heads into the ground. What I was witnessing went against everything I believed in, even if she was an enemy. I didn’t know if she was an enemy supporter but apparently the Vietnamese major thought so.
Every time the major slammed the woman’s head into the ground he would angrily shout questions at her. In Vietnamese, of course. I didn’t understand the language but I supposed he was trying to break her to admit what she knew, if anything. The woman appeared to be in her late twenties or perhaps early thirties.
At the end of one of the major’s cycles of hair-swinging and head-bouncing, the woman got up on her hands and knees and then noticed I was standing there. We locked eyes and she looked deep into mine and I into hers. I’m sure she could tell I was concerned by the expression on my face. She did not look fearful nor did she look angry. Instead, she looked more sad than anything. Her eyes said a lot to me. “Help me!” the eyes said. “Can’t you see he’s hurting me? Do something!” I could feel her deep probing into my soul. I could see in her eyes that she blamed us, the Americans, that is, for what was happening to her and her people. “See what you are doing to us?” the eyes accused.
I did not know what to do. I wanted to help the woman. If I had been really true to my feelings I would have gone over and wrapped my arms around the woman and dared the major to hit her thru me. I was a coward, though, and did nothing to intervene. At the end of another one of the major’s twirl and head-slam cycles the woman was again on her hands and knees looking at me. The major noticed she was looking at something and followed her gaze to where I was standing watching the whole thing. He spoke to me in Vietnamese and although I did not understand the words I understood the tone to mean “What are you looking at!?” and “Move along, nothing to see here!” I tore my eyes away from the woman’s and walked away with shame. Shame that I couldn’t get up the courage to do anything and shame that my own country’s presence was enabling such things to happen. And guilt. Lots of guilt.
I’ve often wondered what happened to the woman. Did she survive? Did he kill her? Should I have done something about it and intervened? I still see those eyes to this day. I’ll never forget them. What I saw was wrong. I didn’t agree with it. I probably should have done something but I was a young man and didn’t know how to respond. I’m sorry.