Chieu Hoi Gone Bad

In the spring of 1970, I became aware that the PS (Personnel Specialist) NCO’s tour was coming to an end, I approached the C Troop XO (Executive Officer), asking for transfer from infantry, pointing out that I could probably type faster and more accurately than any other soldier in Vietnam. He tested me and I started “training” the next day. After having participated in 72 CA’s (combat assaults) by helicopter insertion, I was finally freed from the “risk” of being a “grunt”. It didn’t take long when I began to miss the adrenaline rush of actually holding and firing an M-16. I started volunteering for patrols around the perimeter of LZ Sally.

One day, a LOH (light observation helicopter, pronounced “loach”) spotted 2 North Vietnamese soldiers out in the bush. I overheard the platoon leader asking for volunteers to go out and secure them. He understood they were intending to “chieu hoi”. The Chiêu Hồi Program (pronounced 'Choo Hoy') was an initiative by the South Vietnamese to encourage defection by the Viet Cong and their supporters. Those who surrendered were known as "Hoi Chanh", and were often integrated into allied units as Kit Carson Scouts, operating in the same area where they had been captured. The program was said to have removed over 100,000 combatants from the field.

I volunteered, and a squad of “blues” (infantry/grunts) was launched and set down in a flat area alongside a shallow river. At the edge of the flat area was a steep 4-foot embankment down to the water level. The airborne scouts directed us towards the two Vietnamese soldiers. However, either there was a communication problem or the Vietnamese soldiers had a change of heart because they had no intention of giving up. This was made clear when two AK-47s were held over the embankment and randomly fired towards our squad as we began to advance towards the river.

This became the day I told myself that I would no longer “volunteer” for anything, let alone missions where it was possible someone would be firing live ammunition. Why? Well, I not only heard the burst of AK-47 fire but I actually felt a bullet pass by my ear. I’m not sure I’m remembering it quite right, but it sounded like a quick “swish” and a light “snap” to my ear. Needless to say, we quickly exited our “chieu hoi” mode and entered a more offensive posture. The platoon leader ordered two of our guys to push towards the river bank to flush out the Vietnamese soldiers. One of the Vietnamese soldiers started to run across the shallow river and was gunned down. Observing the outcome, the other Vietnamese soldier promptly surrendered. He was bound and we were all extracted and returned to LZ Sally.

We were told a few days later that the two Vietnamese soldiers had been separated from their units and were returning to North Vietnam. The survivor was an officer and provided intelligence to our headquarters. Our squad was chastised for violating prisoner protocol of which we had little, if any, experience. We were told that we should not have tried to hold conversation with the enemy nor have provided a cigarette – neither of which seemed like much in the grand scheme of things. This ended my last “mission” as a grunt. The office never looked so good.