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On the Other Side - 23 Days with the…

On the Other Side - 23 Days with the Vietcong

by Kate Webb

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Written by Bernie Weisz Historian/Vietnam War May 28, 2010 Pembroke Pines, Florida contact: BernWei1@aol.com Title of Review: "Twenty Three Days Of Pure Hell!" This book, "On The Other Side:23 Days With The Viet Cong" by Kate Webb, sharply contrasts another book called "The Massacre at Hue" by Alij Vennema. Webb's book shows a humanistic side of the Viet Cong that is hard to picture after Vennema's description the Viet Cong's "blood debt" they extracted from the citizens of the beleaguered citizens of Hue during and immediately following the January, 1968 Tet Offensive. In that scenario, the V.C. and North Vietnamese Army executed almost 1000 citizens of Hue, with their only crime being that they cooperated with the South Vietnamese Government in one form or another. School teachers, lawyers, tutors, social workers, religious clergy etc. with any connection to the "The-KY" South Vietnamese/American camp were executed and buried in unmarked, mass graves.
"On The Other Side" is the story of a UPI reporter named Kate Webb, a 28 year old woman originally from New Zealand. To understand this review, I would like to preface it with some background to the subject. Cambodia during the Vietnam War tried to stay neutral. It's ruler, Prince Norodom Sihanouk, tried to keep a balance between the U.S. on one side, and North Vietnam and China on the other. In fact, he detailed his ordeal in his memoir entitled: "My War With The CIA;: The Memoirs of Prince Norodom Sihanouk." Sihanouk allowed 50,000 North Vietnamese and Viet Cong to create base areas on the Cambodia-South Vietnamese border, but these troops were never to stray more than a few miles from it. Sihanouk warned the NVA not to play too rough in his country and at the same time warned South Vietnam and the U.S. to keep out when they tried to attack VC border sanctuaries in Cambodia. Trying to "play both sides of the fence," Sihanouk's act would fail. NVA and VC bases actually increased, and Sihanouk allowed U.S. B-52 bombing raids on the Communist base areas.
The Communists ignored his pleas to respect Cambodia's neutrality. His overthrow was being threatened by Cambodian right wingers that controlled the cabinet who wanted Communist expulsion. Ignoring Sihanouk's demands, the Communists did not pull out, riots (obviously plotted by the right) erupted. On March 18, 1970, Sihanouk was ousted. One week after this occurred, Cambodian army commanders called for U.S. support to rid it's country of Communists. On March 27, 1970, the first big South Vietnam incursion into Cambodia (of course, assisted by U.S. "advisors" and helicopter gunships) started. A sideshow in the S.E. Asia war had become a major battlefield. Vietnamese Communists in Cambodia reacted by arming Cambodian Communist guerrillas who called themselves "Khmer Rouge". Their methods were barbarous, murdering anyone associated with democracy, the old Sihanouk regime or the U.S. On May 4, 1970 the U.S. officially announced it received a specific request from Cambodia for arms and supplies. On May 15, 1970, V.C. troops closed off Highway 3, a major road between South Cambodian provinces and Tay Ninh Province in South Vietnam.
Prince Sihanouk's successor was Lon Nol. President Richard Nixon announced in a televised address that he ordered U.S. troops into Cambodia, not as an invasion, but to protect the remaining troops in South Vietnam from V.C. incursions originating in Cambodia and that U.S. "phased withdrawal" would continue. Nixon set limits on the Cambodian incursion: 8 weeks and 21.7 miles maximum. However, the South Vietnamese Vice President, Nguyen Cao Ky announced that South Vietnamese troops would never leave Cambodia. At the time this book was printed, this was still the case. On June 3, 1970, Nixon dubbed the Cambodian incursion "Operation Total Victory". However, as we know today, this was premature. Webb's story starts out by describing the death of Frank Frosch, the initial UPI bureau manager who was killed by the V.C. while covering a story. Webb replaced him and was sent to continue covering the fighting in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. On April 7th, 1971, Webb found out of an outburst of fighting between the V.C. and Cambodian troops loyal to the U.S. supported Lon Nol Government. Webb took her driver-interpreter, Chimmy Sarath to the site of the battle, 56 kilometers from Phnom Phen southwest along Highway 4 near the "Pich Nil Pass". The Pich Nil Pass had been Communist held until early 1971. Lon Nol and his troops had tried to recapture it, and was successful on Jan. 21, 1971.
In subsequent months, the pass had changed hands four times. However, with Webb watching the April 7 action, out of nowhere, and with no time to react she was caught in a crossfire. To escape the heavy artillery and gunfire, Webb and her small entourage burrowed into a shallow ditch unharmed and fled into the protective jungle cover behind V.C. lines. There were four others that fled with her:"Suzuki", a Japanese photographer, and 3 Cambodians (another photographer, a newspaper cartoonist and an interpreter that spoke Japanese, English, Cambodian and Vietnamese). After a day and a half crawling though mosquito and rat infested jungle scrub with no food or water combined with blazing heat, the inevitable happened. They were captured and held as V.C. prisoners. What happened the next 23 days of marching and confinement is recounted in this incredible book. That they even survived is a miracle especially after reading the Viet Cong's barbarous tactics at Hue in Vennema's book. Webb takes us on a journey of endless nights of walking, of U.S. airstrikes and the fear of being mistaken for the enemy and being bombed by American pilots, and of the life in the P.O.W. camp where they were finally taken, held, and ultimately released.
Webb Webb does a good job of describing her captors, the Viet Cong. We learn of their "impressive discipline", their "history/propaganda lessons", their (what Webb describes as) "think positive training" (one must know what to do if the U.S. comes, then there is nothing to be afraid of). Webb also writes of the V.C's jokes and their talk of victory. The climax of this book is the V.C. interrogations, where the V.C. realize that Webb and her associates have no military nor intelligence value as independent journalists. It is interesting to read how Webb describes to her captors why she was at Highway 4 during a pitched battle knowing she might be killed. Webb explained it to the V.C. as a burning "quest for the truth". Also, Webb relates her thoughts after a U.S. B-52 airstrike: "The guards with some amusement told us the bombing had stopped. We were so shaken we still lay there sheltering our heads with our hands-as if that would have done any good. I looked up into the bright moon towards the sound of retreating bombers. "Have a beer for me, when you get back," I thought wondering how many allied prisoners had died like that. Maybe the only goodbye they would have said would have been to the men that killed them."
There is a second quote that deserves mention. After a survived strafing from attacking U.S. Cobra gunships (the P.O.W's were dressed in black pajamas-the "uniform" of the V.C.) Webb related: "I envisioned what I had seen one hundred times from helicopters and observation planes-tiny black stick figures breaking into a run at the approach of the "machine in the sky". The chatter of 30, or sometimes 50 caliber machine gun or the whoosh of "willey peter" (white phosphorus rockets), and the black figures lay dead like ants. Up there you don't see their faces, unless you are really up on a close support mission. If someone shot me now, I'd be on a U.S. "body count". No one would investigate the black figures sprawled on the ground. The pilots and door gunners would be tense keeping high worrying about ground fire or fuel, their ears tuned to the tiny sounds in the pulsing engine roar that would signal danger. Their nerves would be strung around themselves, around the words "crashed and burned-all four crew members killed in action". Down here it was more like a W.W. II cartoon of London during the blitz, all ears stretched to the sky. I wished my clothes were blue or green or gray or brown, anything but black".
Incidentally, "On The Other Side" starts with Webb's obituary from the N.Y. times dated April 21, 1971 and ends with her release 23 days later. In between these pages are incredible anecdotes, most notably her remembrance of her coverage of a particular marine company in South Vietnam. Webb wrote: "I remembered an evening on the north coast of South Vietnam called Batangan Peninsula, where the marine company I was with lost 18 men in three days to mines. All 18 had one or two of their feet blown off. The whole company wore their dog tags on their boots in the vain hope that if it hit their foot it could be picked up, matched, and some surgeon could work a miracle". Another story she dealt with was the problem of menstruation in captivity, where she was given parachute silk by her captors to alleviate her problem. Webb recounted: "My attention was diverted from an unleashed flood of doubts and hopes that afternoon by the uncomfortable knowledge that I needed a tampax. I asked for the "pony tailed woman" in camp, only to be told by the guard that she'd gotten a fever and left. I was embarrassed and bemused. I'd never make a jungle heroine. Wonder what the women in Dachau did or the women in Japanese P.O.W. camps? I debated tearing up my jeans, but vetoed the idea. Too precious to sacrifice to embarrassment".
Finally, Webb remarked about a U.S. rescue "Enteebee Style": "A lightning helicopter assault on the P.O.W camp? Our guard would always be at the mouth of the bunker. If even some of us managed to run, we'd be shot down in these clothes as North Vietnamese. Anyway, who would try to rescue journalists?" In between the opening obituary and the final release of Webb and her companions, you will find a fascinating account of humanity, humor and compassion that is both moving and captivating. This book is a very rare document regarding the captive and the captor, as well as a riveting account of people caught in a recent but fading from memory tragedy of the early 1970's. Find this book! ( )
  BERNIE2260 | Jul 10, 2011 |
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