Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Stories from the War in Laos

JT, of Finer Things in Vientiane, shared some of his father-in-law's stories as a guerrilla soldier during the Vietnam War, particularly during the CIA's secret bombing campaign during from 1964-1973. JT's wife, who was born in the caves in Vieng Xay during this time, busied herself about the store preparing tea while JT regaled us with these tales.

The Pathet Lao forces during these 9 years were hiding out in the caves in Vieng Xay, fighting the Royal Army as best they could while fending off the Americans' relentless bombing campaign. During this period, American planes dropped 2 million tons of bombs on the country, focusing on certain areas where the Pathet Lao were suspected to live. This was at a time when the entire population of the country was 2 million people - that's 2 tons of bombs per person, if your math skills are lacking.

The Pathet Lao weren't fools, though; they held off the dual attacking forces for 9 years, eventually taking over the government and control of the entire country.

The Americans were constantly bemused by the Pathet Lao's resistance and success against the odds. JT told us how his father's regiment worked for a time building (and re-building) the Ho Chi Minh trail. At times they would encounter a stretch of landscape that was unnavigable. Giant boulders, too big to move, would stand in their way. Rather than spend days, or explosives, tearing through it, they would simply build a few small huts around it. Within a day, American planes flying over, thinking the huts were part of a Pathet Lao hideout, would drop enough bombs on the "village" to incinerate a boulder of any size. The communist regiment could then continue with the trail construction.

Most of the time, however, the bombs weren't so helpful. They destroyed bridges and stretches of trail crucial to the movement of supplies. When bridges were eradicated, American forces were amazed to find that within 24 hours of being bombed they were back in operation again, having been rebuilt by 5,000 men, literally overnight. Given the scope of the bombing campaign, the US commanders were incredulous. They didn't believe it possible.

Sometimes, rather than rebuild oft-bombed bridges over and over, the Pathet Lao forces would simply camouflage the bridge by building it a few inches underwater. Planes flying overhead couldn't detect them, but bicycles and foot traffic could still walk across with ease, albeit wetly.

JT's father-in-law himself sounded like a rather fierce soldier, having been shot three times and surviving. He spoke of a time when he was almost captured by Royal Army forces, who, on a foot pursuit, had surrounded him in a field of tall grass. He lied down, but could hear the soldiers talking as they searched. He knew that if they burned down the field he would have nowhere to run. Luckily, dusk set in quickly, and the Royal Army forces disbanded their search as the sun set.

His stories all made the Americans look rather silly, as if the Pathet Lao forces could predict every move and were merely toying with them. They knew that the US didn't really understand Lao culture or the landscape, and that the pilots' orders were simply to bomb anything that looked like a village. They would build fake villages and roads not only to clear boulders, but also to lure pilots into low valleys, where the soldiers, hidden in the surrounding ridges, would "burn them" from above.

JT's father-in-law's stories were the stuff of legend, the kind of tale I expect small Lao children still hear around the kitchen fire. Surprisingly, though, the stories of Pathet bravery and Americans' incompetent brutality didn't turn many of the Lao people against Americans. JT, a native of Tennessee himself, said that his wife's aunt was the only family member who never quite warmed up to him. Even his wife's father, the Pathet Lao guerrilla soldier who fought against the Americans, accepted JT as his own son.

No comments :

Post a Comment

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...