PICNIC IN LAOS
By: Jack Serig, Sr.
General Duong Van “BIG” MINH was an imposing figure.
A four-star general, he had retired from the South Vietnamese Army and was
active in his country’s politics. He was taller than six feet, large
boned, crew cut and a wide, easy grin that exposed a missing tooth in the
upper row. Several gold crowns also drew your attention to his mouth
when you first met him. He reportedly refused to have his missing tooth
replaced. He wanted to remind himself, and especially others who met
him, that his tooth was lost to the Viet Minh when he was in their capture.
It was, apparently, his personal “Badge of Courage.” He had survived
the Viet Minh’s torture.
It was mid-1962 when we met on the Da Nang tarmac. The general, and
his entourage, needed an aircraft to accompany a helicopter to take the general’s
party to Lao Bao, so they could visit Laos, of all places. I didn’t
think I had signed up for Laos! Lao Boa was the closest South Viet
field to the Laos destination. My 18th Aviation Company’s U-1A (Low-Slow-Reliable)
Otter flight detachment was given the mission.
It was not easy to comprehend the picnic-like atmosphere
at Da Nang where we boarded our passengers. Just days before I had
flown a young U.S. Army sergeant to Lao Bao to rejoin his MAAG (Military
Assistance Advisory Group) unit. He had been one of the very first
prisoners of war ever captured by the Vietcong . But the Cong
had returned him to a friendly unit, unexplainably. His capture and
release had made international news. I had read about him in the Pacific
Stars and Stripes before meeting him and taking him back to Lao Bao, allowing
him the privilege of the co-pilot’s seat. He had arrived back
at Da Nang from a 30-day R&R and insisted, to his superiors, that he
be returned to his former MAAG unit at Lao Bao which was supporting a Vietnamese
village just northeast of the Lao Bao strip. His superiors relented.
And now, here we were, a few days later on the Da Nang
tarmac expected to accompany this picnic-like gathering to visit Laos, via
Lao Bao, near where the sergeant had been captured.
The general was in civvies accompanied by two American’s in golf-club togs
who said they were lieutenant colonels from the embassy in Saigon.
They had all brought their wives who were dressed similarly with blouses,
slacks and high heels. Lots of jewelry. The only thing lacking
was a holiday picnic lunch basket, with French wine, of course. Our
crew was concerned, especially for the safety of the ladies because of our
knowledge of active Vietcong operations in the area. Surely,
our embassy staff knew of the return of the captured sergeant in the same
locale. Some picnic!
The general mounted the helicopter with his small party
and the embassy-types with wives boarded our Otter. It was a beautiful
VFR (Visual Flight Rules) morning. The flight was pleasant landing
at the 1,300 foot Lao Bao strip about mid-morning. We had alerted the
MAAG unit of our impending time of arrival while in flight and they were
waiting for us with several jeeps.
We loaded into the jeeps leaving behind security for the aircraft.
After a few kilometers along the South Viet side of the border we reached
a concrete marker which advised we were crossing into Laos. We stopped
After a few minutes into Laos the general halted the convoy,
had the vehicles park and proceeded toward the “unknown” via a footpath.
He seemed to know exactly where he was going, as though he’d been there before.
Over a small rise in the path was a broken down palm-thatched shelter serving,
we would learn, as a guardhouse. A young, bronzed man, streaked with
dirt, in a dilapidated, battered, dirty uniform of khaki shorts and black
shirt raised his relic of a rifle as in salute. The general engaged
the young man in conversation and obtained permission to enter Laos, or the
village, perhaps both.
The village was as pitiful as the guard, about twenty
shacks built on stilts four to five feet above the ground. A few pigs
and chickens searching and picking. There were only women and children
in the village, except for the guard. They wore dilapidated clothes
streaked with dirt in a slum-like way. I assumed there was little
water as all other villagers, in other villages I had met up to this time,
were very clean.
Even with villagers present it seemed deserted.
There was an aura about the place---an eerie feeling that you sensed but
could not pinpoint. That you should be alert---on guard! As if
someone was watching that you couldn’t see. Perhaps it was the fact
that no males were present and one wondered whether they were hiding, planning
an attack on us or running away, scared.
The few U.S. military personnel in uniform with weapons, automatically flowed
toward the flanks of the general’s party to allow for clearer fields of fire
and whatever protection they could provide the party, it that became necessary.
We stayed in the village less than thirty minutes.
It wasn’t a detailed inspection tour. The general was doing the questioning
and consulting with a few of the village women. The officer’s ladies
in the party remained jovial and paid special attention to the tatter-clothed
kids. Others in our party were making polite but strained conversation
around the periphery of the VIP’s, on alert!
An unseen danger? Kept expecting something
to happen. It didn’t! We went back to our jeeps, much more somber
than when we arrived, and returned to Lao Bao and flew the Saigon-Laos picnic-party
back to Da Nang.
General “BIG” MINH was the president of South Vietnam when Saigon fell and the war ended.
This article was published in the LOGBOOK, a tri-annual publication of the Army Otter-Caribou Association, March, 1995 edition.