Escape from the Highlands

I’ve written before in this blog about my trip to the highlands with my counterpart, a South Vietnamese general, in March 1975, as the highland monsoons were winding down. At the end of the trip, we landed on a hill near the town of Ban Me Thuot. The North Vietnamese attack had started before we arrived. While my counterpart was addressing the troops, we came under fire. Here’s the description of what happened, taken from Last of the Annamese:

Small arms fire erupted far below in the valley to their west. Chuck could see tiny flashes and puffs of smoke followed by a chattering of muzzle reports. The soldiers stood stock still, their backs to the valley, seeing nothing.

Thanh continued his speech. He moved among the troops, his hands behind his back. Tension in the ranks stiffened the soldiers. Still Thanh spoke on. Strain darkened the lined young faces as the sound of battle grew louder. At last Thanh became silent. He walked the full length of the rows, reading the faces. Now close to the plane, he called out a single short sentence three times. His voice gone soft and tired, he said something low. The sergeant screamed them to attention and issued an order. They scattered on the run.

The rain pounded. The C-47 started its engines. Thanh, Chuck, and the junior officers dashed to it. All around them, soldiers hurried to their battle stations. They saluted and waved at Thanh as they ran by.

A pepper of small arms fire shot plumes of mud at their feet. The airstrip was under attack. They scrambled aboard the plane which rushed down the runway before the door was closed. Once aloft, it strained into a steep ascent. Chuck held on. He hoped the bellowing engines wouldn’t fly apart. Finally, the plane righted itself above the clouds, and the engines purred as if in relief.

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