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Bridge Inspection

Bridge Inspection


In April of 1970, while serving in Vietnam as an Intelligence Analyst with the US Army, I earned a promotion to E-5, Specialist 5th Class. This promotion removed me from several tedious work details and put me in the duty rotation of others. One of the new work details was a job that no soldier in my unit was fond of, bridge inspections. An officer and a NCO from the intelligence service went out at night with a Jeep and a driver to visit predetermined bridges. South Vietnamese staffed the guardhouses at these bridges, guarding them with either South Vietnamese Army personnel or a civilian defense group. Our mission was to make sure that the guardhouses at these small bridges stood fully staffed and that the personnel guarding them were awake. We checked that the spotlights were operational and that their beams covered the approaches on both land and water; we also verified that the electrical generators were fueled and in working order.

After a regular duty day, we had dinner at the mess with everyone else and then retired for a few hours to rest. At 10 o’clock that night, we met at the motor pool with our weapons to go over the maps and discuss our itinerary. On this night, I was with Captain Courtney and Red, our driver. Red was from Texas, and I think it is a regulation that every unit in the Army must have a driver named Red from Texas or Alabama. Tonight we would head north and east of Saigon above Bien Hoa to check on some important road crossings out in the surrounding waterways. We had with us a thermos of coffee and some water. We double-checked our weapons to make sure no rifle had a round in the chamber and then we were off, with Red and the Captain sitting up front, and me in the rear on one side of the narrow bench seat. A canvas top was stretched over the seats but the Jeep had no side doors or windows attached. The darkness felt cool and refreshing as we headed out.

The Jeep was equipped with night running lights to make it a less visible target in the darkness. The night-lights consisted of a soft yellowish low power beam that emanated from a housing fronted by a metal plate with a horizontal slit across the front; this slit let a limited amount of light shine down on the road. In the rear was a single dim red bulb. The problem was Red could not see much while he drove, we were less of a target, but we were constantly getting lost.

This detail gave everyone the creeps as no soldier wanted to be out driving around at night. “The Quiet American” was almost required reading among the intelligence corps, and the description painted by Graham Greene of the old guard houses at night did not instill much confidence in any of us who were tasked with inspecting these small outposts along the waterways. We worried about an enemy ambush as much as we worried about being shot by some spooked South Vietnamese soldier who might have just been startled awake.

That night was no different as we quickly found ourselves floundering about the darkness in our Jeep looking for our bridge. In an hour, we were talking with a South Vietnamese soldier who was trying to give us directions in a kind of broken English. He pointed to a location on the map that Captain Courtney held, the map illuminated by a red-beamed night-use flashlight. In another hour we were really lost, driving on rural dirt rutted lanes with vegetation curling over the road above us. We saw no sign of well-lit bridges in any direction, just a flat and all encompassing darkness. We stared intently out the windshield through the dim cone of light that softly lit the dirt in front of us as we slowly motored down the lane. We were nervous and no one spoke. Then a light appeared before us in the distance, indistinguishable at first, and this light seemed to hover in the air far down on the dark lane of the dirt road. As we grew close, we saw the light was a small oil lantern that someone was waving back and forth. I chambered a round and made sure the safety was on. At the sound of that, the Captain turned to me and said in a quiet but authoritative voice, “Be careful with that thing. Everyone be alert."

The Jeep slowed and stopped in front of the man with the lantern. He was dressed in the black of a simple farmer and he came around to the Captain and in Vietnamese, spoke quickly and with great agitation as he gestured down a path that was now visible in the light of the lantern. Through the vegetation, we saw another small lantern coming down the path and two figures approached the Jeep. One of them, a woman, was wailing loudly. The whole scene was strangely surreal.

The man with the lantern turned and a very pregnant woman stepped out onto the road, she had one hand on her crotch and the other under her belly as she walked up to us, another woman in peasant garb helping her. They all stood there yelling and gesturing wildly in the dim light of the lantern. The man was yelling at the Captain in Vietnamese and pointing down the road. I guess we all understood the human language of his need; Captain Courtney turned to me and told me to make room. The pregnant woman and the man with the lantern scrambled up into the back of the Jeep, and Red had us going down the dirt road again.

With the lantern shining in the back seat you could barely see anything through the windshield, I saw Red peering intently out into the darkness in front of the Jeep. The woman moaned, cried, and rolled her head from side to side. I saw she was not old, probably in her late teens. For a second our gazes locked and we looked intently into each other’s eyes. I saw the fear inside her as she looked at me. I was 20 years old with a loaded weapon at my feet, a pregnant woman crying out in a foreign language sitting on the seat next to me, and the man holding the lantern was talking softly to her and trying to run his hands through her hair. Captain Courtney turned and yelled at me over the din, “Do whatever it is that you need to do back there, whatever it is.” Now I really understood; I might have to help this woman give birth here on the back seat of this filthy Jeep.

The Vietnamese farmer put his hand out with the palm down and made several quick motions. Red slowed until the farmer yelled and moved his hand quickly. We stopped and he climbed out, then we all helped the woman out of the back of the Jeep. They started down a small path, walking together as he held the lantern out in front of them. We quickly got back into the Jeep.

“Let’s get out of here,” the Captain said softly. “We’re done for the night. Red, get us someplace familiar, and fast."

Eventually we found a Vietnamese Army position with some officers who could speak English. In an hour we were driving through familiar surroundings, but it was still night. No one said a word. Soon we were past our own guards and into the safety of the motor pool.

Later we sat and reviewed the night’s activities. That which seemed to us a lonely and foreboding road was the center of their village, and the man and woman had struggled to reach help, a mid-wife perhaps, or a grandmother, just as they had done for births over the centuries. We were the interlopers, the strangers who did not belong. I remembered how the young pregnant girl looked at me, the fear that shone in her eyes; I can see it clearly in my mind today. They spoke no English and we spoke no Vietnamese, yet we stopped and helped them under circumstances that, for us, were trying and stressful at the time. I think we all felt good about that.

That was the last time our unit went out on a bridge inspection. When our commanding general heard about our exploits, he decided that his people should not be driving around a strange countryside at night and the bridge inspection detail was soon delegated to units closer to the inspection sites and more familiar with the terrain. As for the three of us, we gained a small amount of notoriety and basked in the appreciation of those soldiers who would no longer perform inspections in the dark on strange roads.

The memories of that night have left a lasting impression upon my being. When friends and family members head for the clean and sterile hospital maternity rooms as they anxiously wait their turn to give birth, I remember that young peasant girl and the man with the lantern that I met on a dark jungle road so many years ago. When I think of them, it is always with the hope that she had had a healthy baby and that the three of them are alive together somewhere out there in the world.

I can see that small lantern disappearing down a jungle path, and I wonder where they were going and what assistance awaited them.



(This story appeared in the MilSpeak Memo in October of 2009)