A CAPER IN SAIGON
© MGW 2021 – All Rights Reserved
Saigon, whilst the capital of a nation facing a full-scale Communist insurgency in the countryside, was relatively peaceful. Notwithstanding there having been a number of bombings and shootings. In contrast to some other Asian cities, although there was a lot of traffic, both vehicular and pedestrian, it was much quieter, with its shaded, tree-lined streets, avenues, and boulevards, footpath cafes (although these would later disappear, as the insurgency progressed), and tiled roofed villas. Although there were signs that this was a city at war, they were not, at this time, obtrusive. Having said this, Saigon and Cholon were home to members of at least two Viet Cong sapper battalions. They were not all together though, but spread out, in squads of six or seven, in safe houses across the two cities, mostly in the slum areas.
Our team’s mission, on this occasion, was to neutralize a squad of seven sappers who resided in a safe house, amongst the slums, on the banks of the Thi Nghe Canal, not far from the Bong Bridge. Why neutralize, rather than arrest, you might ask. For a number of reasons, firstly, the sappers were the Viet Cong elite, they were, in most instances, highly trained and motivated, and many of them were trained to resist interrogation. Secondly, there were seven of them, so any attempt at an arrest would, in all probability, involve a major gunfight. Thirdly, we had no way of knowing how many more Viet Cong might be in the immediate vicinity. I don’t recall now, from which battalion they came, most likely it was from either the 9th Sapper Battalion or the C-10 Sapper Battalion. Surveillance had established that the three houses, on both sides of the sapper’s safe house, were vacant. Whether these houses’ previous occupants had vacated their residences voluntarily or had been forced out by the sappers, I do not know. Knowing that these sapper squads usually kept large quantities of explosives in their safe houses, we decided that we would blow the place up with them in it.
The houses along the Thi Nghe Canal, in the vicinity of the Bong Bridge, could only be described as slums, and even that is being polite. These areas had always been there, along the banks of the various canals, but were starting to build up in other areas of the city as the insurgency progressed. These particular houses were built on wooden stilts, out over the water, with a balcony on the side of the house facing the canal, and the other side of the house opening on to a narrow, muddy, lane which, eventually, gave access to more established roadways. On the opposite side of the narrow, muddy, lane, to the target premises, was a thick, solid, concrete and stone wall, part of the surrounds of what was, reportedly, an old French factory built in the late 1800s. Given the date of its alleged construction, and the solidity of its building, it was, possibly, built originally as a fortification of some kind.
The wooden walls of the houses were a faded grey color, the boards heavily weathered, with the occasional piece of rusted corrugated iron sheeting replacing missing boards. The window spaces had no glass, being covered by weather-beaten flaps of the canvas. The roofs were thatched with dusty palm fronds. Even in the condition, they were in, the occupants of these houses were better off than the even poorer people, who lived in ramshackle shanties made from cardboard and flattened oil or beer cans, or who lived in the large, concrete, drainage pipes, stacked up along some of the streets in the city, in preparation for an upgrade to the sewer system.
As with all the canals in, and around, Saigon the Thi Nghe Canal was tidal. The water, which was filthy and putrid-smelling, rose and fell; at the high-water mark being high enough to be just under the floorboards of the houses and, at other times, low enough that vast expanses of black, foul-smelling, viscous mud were exposed. This mud was thick, and of an indeterminate depth. There were frequently dead dogs, cats, and other wildlife, in evidence, including the occasional human body, including both adults and children. Strangely, despite living in such close proximity to water, very few of the people could swim. Given the putrid nature of the water, swimming in it would probably have been a health hazard anyway.
For the operation, we had acquired three small sampans, each about twelve feet in length. Two of the sampans, laden with Semtex plastique explosives, we intended to lodge under the target house, before detonating them. Where the Semtex came from, as it was manufactured in Czechoslovakia, then in the Soviet Bloc, I do not know. What I do know is that the unit had quite a supply of it. The third sampan we intended to use as our getaway craft. During the afternoon, preceding the night in question, we prepositioned the three sampans alongside a derelict wharf, about five hundred meters up from the Bong Bridge. It was to this wharf that we brought, using a two and one half-ton truck, what the Americans called a deuce and a half, the blocks of Semtex plastique which we intended to use.
As well as our six team members we had six of the Nung security detail from headquarters, including their commander, Mister Quang, with us. Mister Quang, who was born in China, was also a Nung, one of that hereditary tribe of Chinese mercenaries famed, in those days, throughout Asia for their military prowess. A graduate of the Whampoa Military Academy, in what was then the City of Canton, he had fought in the Nationalist Chinese Kuomintang (KMT) Army, before the Communist takeover in 1949, when he crossed into the then French Indochina. He had then fought for the French, prior to their withdrawal, and now fought for the Americans and the Republic of South Vietnam.
After the explosives had been off-loaded from the truck two of the Nungs departed with it, to secure our intended rendezvous point, located on the canal bank, about a kilometer downstream from the Bong Bridge. They would be joined there, by Mister Quang and the other Nungs, with our other two vehicles, after we left the wharf on our mission.
Suong was in charge of the explosives. She, along with her working partner Minh, appeared to have an affinity for them. In fact, having watched her working with them, during our training program, I would say she was brilliant. She carefully supervised the rest of us packing the blocks of orange brick-colored explosive into the sampans. The way she had it organized was that, after we had the sampans in place, under the house, she could chain the two vessels’ explosive charges together and, using pencil detonators, with a fifteen-minute delay, give us time to get well clear. As these sappers were considered what is now called a high-value target, she intended doubling up on the number of detonators she used, to ensure the explosives exploded properly.
About fifteen minutes before the beginning of the curfew, which started at midnight, and by which time all Americans, both military and civilian, and all Vietnamese civilians, were required to be off the streets, we received a final update from our surveillance team. All seven sappers were in residence, plus four Vietnamese females who, they said, appeared to be Viet Cong rather than local hookers, judging by their mannerisms and dowdy manner of dress. The canal water level was also rising, which was what we had planned for, although the rise was not as fast as we had expected. We advised surveillance the mission was on and they advised that they were pulling out. As we pushed our sampans away from the wharf Mister Quang and the remaining Nungs departed for the rendezvous point.
Keeping close together, in the deep shadows, we half drifted-half paddled our vessels towards the Bong Bridge. We tried to keep the paddling to a minimum, as the paddles stirred up the water, and the putrid, rotten, smell, became almost unbreathable. As it was, the night air was very hot, very humid, and it was almost like breathing water vapor. Nga and I were in the lead, in the getaway sampan, followed by the explosive-laden sampan containing Suong and Khan, which was followed by the explosive-laden sampan containing Minh and Dung. Khan and Dung were our team’s watercraft experts. Both of Hakka descent, they had grown up on the junks, sampans, and other small watercraft, along the Cholon waterfront and on what the French had called the Chinese Arroyo. What they did not know about boats, and their handling of them was not worth knowing. How the Directing Staff, at our training course had teamed us all up, prior to our Vung Tau mission, I do not know. That all six of us had a capacity with English and French, to a greater or lesser degree, might have had something to do with it. We had Suong and Minh, who were our explosives specialists, Khan and Dung, who were our watercraft specialists, and Nga and I who, for want of a better expression, you could probably say we were the “snatch” and “despatch” specialists. We were all though when it came down to it, and when the need arose, shooters. All in all, as a team, we worked very well together.
We very carefully approached the Bong Bridge, still keeping to the deep shadows and letting the boats drift with the water flow. On occasion, there were checkpoints established on either end of the bridge, at nightfall, but, on this particular night, there were none. Usually, the checkpoints were manned by White Mice (Vietnamese Police), who were very trigger happy and shot at anything that moved, including shadows, and, sometimes, by low-level Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) units some of whom, like the White Mice, were very trigger happy and shot at anything and everything, and some of whom shot at nothing and slept the night away. Very occasionally, a highly competent ARVN unit was brought in, established the checkpoints, and very thoroughly checked everything and everybody. If it was an Airborne or Ranger unit, nothing got past them and, if you were up to no good on the night, or nights, they were there you, if you had a modicum of common sense, gave them a wide berth.
Having successfully negotiated our way along the canal, and under the Bong Bridge, we arrived at the target house. All was in darkness and night was quiet, save for the usual nocturnal sounds of a city asleep. Nga and I secured our sampan to one of the stilts and covered the premises with our suppressed weapons, mine a Sterling submachine gun, and hers, a Swedish K. The other team members had Swedish Ks too, but I did not like them as the magazine protruded from the bottom whereas, on the Sterling, it protruded from the side. Although all submachine guns are not easy to fire from the prone position, the downwards placement of the Swedish K’s magazine made this extremely difficult. Although both weapons fired from the open bolt position, leaving them open to ingesting debris, in my opinion and experience the Sterling was better designed to cope with this problem. Others, I know, including a very very good American friend of mine, a former United States Navy SEAL Lieutenant Commander, would choose to disagree.
Khan and Dung expertly slid their respective sampans between the stilts, and under the house with barely a sound, other than the slapping and murmuring of the water, and secured them to stilts by lengths of rope. Nga and I eased our sampan under the house, allowing Khan and Dung to board. After they did so, we held the sampan there whilst Suong and Minh completed their work. Whilst this was happening the water level in the canal was slowly rising. Very shortly thereafter, Suong and Minh also boarded our getaway sampan. Suong indicated we had some fifteen minutes, or thereabouts, to get ourselves clear. Very slowly Nga and I brought our sampan out from under the house and, still keeping close to the canal bank, and in the deep shadows, made our way down the canal towards the rendezvous point.
As we approached the rendezvous point we heard, behind us, the sound of an explosion, almost immediately followed by a very much larger explosion that lit up the night sky with an orange glow. When we turned to look back we could see flames leaping into the air. Signaling, with a red-lensed torch, towards the rendezvous point we received the correct answering signal from Mister Quang. Throwing caution to the winds we paddled hard, towards the steps leading up from the canal, to where a footpath ran along the canal bank. There we were met by Mister Quang and the Nungs, together with our vehicles. We then drove, with headlights blazing, through the deserted Saigon streets to our headquarters on the Saigon-Bien Hoa Highway. A number of White Mice patrols, in their Jeeps, were passed on the way but they, wisely, chose to ignore us. The Nungs were based at the headquarters and our team, because of the lateness of the hour, and the morning operational debriefing stayed there for the remainder of the night also.
The old adage says that, if you lay down with dogs, you get fleas. I guess the moral here is, if there is one, is that if you lay down with Viet Cong sappers, you get blown up with them.