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Gloria Emerson:
Copters Return from Laos with the Dead

Originally published in The New York Times, March 3, 1971

KHESANH, South Vietnam, Feb. 27 — The dead began to come into the emergency field hospital here today after 1 P.M.

The first South Vietnamese soldier, killed yesterday in Laos, was wrapped tightly in an American Army poncho held by bandage strips used as string. All that could be seen were his small, bare feet — dark with dust — hanging over the stretcher's edge.

He lay on the reddish earth while a Vietnamese officer of the hospital at the airborne division's forward command post looked at a large tag and wrote down one more name and unit.

Fifteen minutes later — raising a furious blizzard of dust that stings the eyes and whips the face — another United States medical evacuation helicopter landed. Two more dead, then 10 more dead.

By 3 P.M. there were 30 dead and over 200 wounded.

A small despairing scene, it is being repeated every day in the face of mounting Communist resistance to the South Vietnamese drive into Laos. This week the South Vietnamese command reported a total of 320 dead, 1,000 wounded and 99 missing in action since the operation began on Feb. 8. It is suspected that the figures are unrealistically small.

At this hospital, an emergency station with a few tents and an underground surgical bunker with only stretchers for the critically wounded, the Vietnamese orderlies stand in groups near a small helicopter pad.

They seemed uncertain of how to remove the dead and the wounded most quickly from the choppers, which are flown by American crews.

One young orderly kept rushing toward the craft holding a stretcher in front of him as a shield against the dirt, but then he dropped it as he came closer and did not seem to know what to do next.

Other orderlies did not bother with the stretchers. Some carried the wounded in a stumbling file of piggyback rides. Those Vietnamese who were wounded but could somehow walk made the few hundred yards by themselves, weaving a little in the scorching sun.

In one tent, where the day's wounded lie on American cots waiting for Vietnamese medics or Dr. Tran Qui Tram, who is 21 years old, to help them, there were more than a dozen men in the stifling heat. Some closed their eyes and were silent but others would not restrain their groans.

The most seriously wounded man, a North Vietnamese, Third Lieut. Mac Thang Nong, a member of the 35th North Vietnamese Commando Battalion, a demolition outfit, was on a wooden table as the medics dressed his wounds. They did not give him an anesthetic — no one had that.

"I was on a reconnaissance mission with three others," he said, whispering slowly in Vietnamese. "We were near Hill 30 when I was hit by fire from the hilltop. I considered myself as already dead. From now on I do not worry about anything."

He was captured by the South Vietnamese on the hill, where heavy fighting has been going on this week.

Lieutenant Nong, who said he left North Vietnam only a month ago, declined to talk about his family and closed his eyes.

The South Vietnamese wounded paid no attention to the enemy officer. They were too busy with their own thoughts and their own pain.

Pvt. Nguyen Huu Thanh, a combat engineer supporting South Vietnamese airborne troops in Laos, does not know the name of the place where he was hit by rocket fragments. The tears rolled down his face as he muttered in Vietnamese.

"Do you know whether they will amputate my arm?" he pleaded. "I am afraid they will cut off my arm here."

But he could not bring himself to put the question to the medics. When they bent his arm in a splint — no one knew if it was fractured or only full of steel splinters — he cried out. There was no one to soothe him and no one to give him water.

Pvt. Tran Van Gu, a Ranger with the 21st Battalion, which fought on Hill 30, was wounded by North Vietnamese recoilless-rifle fire. "The North Vietnamese are frightening," he said. It was hard to hear him because of the bandage around his face.

"The North Vietnamese were hit by three waves of B-52 bombers last night, but still they survived and they shelled us early this morning," he related.

"Many of the Rangers wish that they would be ordered to withdraw," he continued, "because all of us are surrounded and cannot figure out a way to fight back against the North Vietnamese. They don't fear air strikes or artillery. I am convinced that we cannot fight them in Laos."

An infantryman with the First Division fighting at Hotel 2, where the North Vietnamese have attacked ground forces 18 miles southwest of Laobao, told of the assault.

"They fired on us day and night with rockets, mortars and recoilless rifles," Pvt. Tran Van Ngo said, sighing. "At 4 P.M. yesterday I was wounded. So were seven others. The choppers couldn't land all day to get us out because of the enemy fire."

The soldier said he was 49 years old though his papers say he is 40. "A long long time ago my father changed the age on my papers from 28 to 19 to keep me from being drafted by the French to fight the Germans," he said. "I am far too old to be in the army now as a private, with all the hardship that comes to a man. I dodged one war only to be caught finally in another."

Copyright ©, 1971 by The New York Times Co. Reprinted with permission.

Gloria Emerson with a group of G.I.'s in Vietnam. Photo credit: Gloria Emerson collection Reporter's Notebook