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.

Vietnam - Loas Border, Sep 1962 accompanying GEN Duong Van Minh     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 for pictures.

    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 and were
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.