I am celebrating Reunification Day with my Vietnamese friends in Ho Chi Minh City this 30th of April. This event left me in sorrow that day 35 years ago -- not that I felt we had lost Việt Nam, but rather from a recognition that the wars of the 20th Century in Việt Nam left a country wasted and too many people suffering and dead on all sides. In my mind that day, I mourned the waste.
For my Vietnamese friends, it is no longer so much a celebration of a military victory, but a recognition of the most important event in their history, and that is where I have come, too. The Việt Nam I live in today is united because of this event, and Vietnamese to me are the same in the North or the South (although inconsequential differences are debated constantly). And after a rough period of economic collapse, continued war in Cambodia, difficulties in reunification, and recriminations, the Vietnamese together picked up the pieces and figured out how to grow the country and create opportunities for its people, in peace.
This month of April is also an anniversary of another important event in the Vietnamese-American war -- an event that particularly represented the waste for me. As part of the Easter Offensive of the North Vietnamese Army in April 1972, the NVA attempted to overrun the small town of An Lộc on National Highway 13 leading to Saigon. An Lộc was then the capital of Binh Long Province (now Bình Phước Province). The NVA approached from Cambodia with tanks, the border of which is only 16 km from An Lộc, 90 km northwest of Saigon. For 66 days under siege, the South Vietnamese Army division in An Lộc (6,350 soldiers) held off the NVA (three divisions -- 35,470 soldiers) with decisive assistance from the U.S. Air Force. But in the process, the town of An Lộc was destroyed. You can find excellent websites devoted to this battle here and here.
A Vietnamese construction contractor has had just completed a province supply and maintenance center in An Lộc under contract with the U.S. Navy Officer in Charge of Construction RVN, and I had the honor of managing that contract. The U.S. Agency for International Development was the funder and customer for this project. This became my favorite project in the year I managed construction in Việt Nam back in 1972, because I loved the small town of An Lộc. All of the photos shown in this story were taken in December 1971 though March 1972.
An Lộc is in the midst of the rubber plantation region of Việt Nam, and one of the Michelin rubber plantations were just down the road towards Saigon on Q.L. 13.
The Chief Construction Inspector and I would fly from Saigon to An Lộc regularly to review the construction and resolve any problems. We would call up Continental Airlines and schedule a charter flight in a two-engine four-passenger German-made Dornier aircraft that could take off and land within a city block’s length.
In the photo below, our on-site inspector, Anh Minh, discusses an issue with the Chief Inspector, Anh Thanh, with the construction contractor looking on.
An Lộc was a small quiet cross-roads town similar (except for the vegetation) to the small town in Montana where I grew up. Even though I am now definitely a city person, I still appreciate the country environment of these towns and surroundings.
Small villages in Việt Nam still look like this street in An Lộc 38 years ago.
And children still walk from school for lunch at home.
The supply center consisted of several of these warehouse buildings constructed of reinforced concrete frames, hollow clay brick infill, and plaster. The roofs were corrugated asbestos, a dusty sample of which I shuffled around on my desk for a few weeks.
Over 90% of the construction workers on this project as well as the others that I managed where women.
I especially liked the red soil from this area and other highlands areas of Việt Nam. Composed of decomposed iron and called laterite, this soil would hold its shape in the heavy rains, and as shown in the photo below, drainage ditches are very important.
Presumably, this center was destroyed along with everything else at An Lộc in April 1972. I have not been able to visit An Loc since I have returned to Việt Nam, but I am certainly looking forward to doing so someday. But I do not expect to find this project. I do wonder about the fate of the construction contractor, on the left in the photo below, and the center’s Vietnamese commander, on the right.