Excerpts from Wisconsin Veterans Museum archivist Mark Van Ells interview of Steven Piotrowski, who served in Vietnam after Tet of 1969. He discusses not only his experience working in LBJ's Great Society programs before his service in Vietnam, but working with Montagnards and fighting against a Viet Cong women's brigade.
Piotrowski: In this particular area the villages, while they weren’t openly hostile, it wasobvious they were still primarily VC sympathizers. They would allow us in if wewere just coming through. They wouldn’t harass us. They were very deferentialto us and that sort of thing, I think because they knew we could blow them awayin seconds and probably had other American units do that. I will say this forbeing in the airborne unit, that part of the gung ho-ness is paying attention intraining. I think we tended to be less cruel than a lot of units.
Mark: Because you were better trained, do you think?
Piotrowski: I think so.
Mark: More disciplined?
Piotrowski: Yeah. While, when it came to the actual fighting, they were a pretty fearlessgroup, but at the same time weren’t as likely to just harass civilians forharassment’s sake. But, at the same time in the same area, one of the units wewere in contact with fairly regularly was a VC women’s unit. And that was realstrange because the first time we recognized that that’s in fact what it was, wewere going through a tea plantation and we could see these women working onthe other end of the field. It was probably a hundred meters away. And we couldsee them working and they got their little knives and they’re cutting tea leaves andworking on the plants. And, as we get past them so basically our backs are turnedto them, all of a sudden we start taking fire from them. And they had their rifleswith them and they started laying down fire on us, so we attacked back. And theywere this group of women. And this was, and after this intelligence confirmedthat it was whatever, the 532nd VC women’s brigade or whatever.
Mark: Thinking back to basic training, was there anything mentioned that you might runacross a women’s brigade? I mean, this is not what the typical American soldieris trained in.
Piotrowski: No. It was made clear that it was peasants, everybody was involved. Kids could be carrying grenades and all that sort of thing. But an actual—
Mark: You were taught this in training.
Piotrowski: Yeah. But an actual women’s unit, no. The idea that you couldn’t trust theVietnamese at all was very strongly put in. And we did have a Chu Hoiinterpreter with us most of the time. And, since I was with the command post asradio operator most of the time, I got to know him fairly well and he taught memore about some of those dichotomies within their society and how this has splitfamilies and all this sort of thing, just from talking with him over the time wewere there.
But, no, I didn’t expect to be fighting an actual women’s unit. It didn’t surpriseme, on the one hand, but I didn’t expect to be having them organized like awomen’s auxiliary or the legion except heavily armed. So that was kind of ashock. But eventually we did find their training ground and their base camp, afterthey wiped out or overran one of our sister company platoons. A couple dayslater we were following blood trails from that action and found trace of a bloodtrail in through what looked like dense jungle. We figured we’d just find a bodyburied a little ways off this trail and, as we got further off the trail, the more openit became. They had done this for a jungle base camp, but –
—But this wonderful job of theirs. There were actually roads into the teaplantations that were big enough to get carts and small vehicles in that formed abig triangle, probably a mile or so across. And they kept the edge of that triangleso thick, and they never entered on the same way, so there’s no trails looking likeit went in. And, once you got 50 meters inside that edge, the whole thing wasnothing but the top canopy was left. You couldn’t see it from the air, but it wasjust a well-built base camp that was permanently occupied until we found it anddestroyed that whole area. Nobody was in it when we found it, but there was ahospital room in it, the whole works.
Mark: That’s interesting.
Piotrowski: And that slowed them down for a long time because they no longer had a safeplace to gather. And that really did slow down the VC activity in that area forquite a while because they didn’t have a place where they could gather and planand bring their forces together and train. They, especially the VC, were verycareful not to attack unless they knew they had a distinct advantage and had itwell-planned out. And so that slowed them way down.
Mark: Now, in terms of the VC, this was after ’68, so that was a little unusual to befighting such a strong VC—
Piotrowski: Yeah. And I think that’s partially because of where BoLac was. There was nomajor city there and no major concentration of American forces, so they didn’twaste themselves like they did in most of the other areas. But, once we left thatarea, we hardly saw any real VC after them; a little bit when we were down atPhan Thiet. There was some in the—they had a name for the woods, but I can’tremember what it was, but there was some woods outside of Phan Thiet that stillhad VC farmers sort of set up, but was primarily NVA.
Mark: Now, the American combat soldier didn’t always have a very high opinion of theVC. What was your take on it as far as their combat prowess?
Piotrowski: I never thought anything but they really had their stuff together because they were so hard to find. And it may have had a lot to do with how—I got there the end ofFebruary, so I got to the company about mid-March. The 17th of April they wipedout a Bravo Company platoon and just overran them. And just because they did acouple little stupid things. It wasn’t major errors, but they did just enough stupidto give them an opening. And a couple weeks later they wiped out anotherplatoon from Bravo because of the same sort of thing. And so, my experiencewith them, they had their stuff together. The VC? No, I always thought quitehighly of them. The NVA were superb troops, but the VC, for what they were—now, most of the Vietnamese troops I worked with, which wasn’t that many, Iwouldn’t say as much.