In Black Hawk Down, the fight went on for a day. In We Were Soldiers Once & Young, the fighting lasted three days. In The Village, one Marine squad fought for 495 days -- half of them died.
Few American battles have been so extended, savage and personal. A handful of Americans volunteered to live among six thousand Vietnamese, training farmers to defend their village. Such "Combined Action Platoons" (CAPs) are now a lost footnote about how the war could have been fought; only the villagers remain to bear witness. This is the story of fifteen resolute young Americans matched against two hundred Viet Cong; how a CAP lived, fought and died. And why the villagers remember them to this day.
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December 31, 2002
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Excerpt from The Village by Bing West
Ap Thanh Lam wanted to go home. In the last six years of fighting, he had stayed overnight in his home village only once. And that night he had hidden in the shadows of a thicket and left as soon as he had killed his man.
Lam was a policeman -- a professional who shunned politics and avoided discussions about ideology. He owed his training to the Viet Minh, in whose Security Service he had worked after World War II. He had broken with the Communists in 1954, and subsequently had fought against them. The Saigon government, though glad of his services, held him suspect, refused him promotions and transferred him frequently. But Lam was given what he valued most: freedom to operate as he chose. A middle-aged man with an unmistakable air of authority, Lam looked and acted like a cop. Even in friendly conversation he gave the impression that part of him was holding back, watching, listening, judging, respected by the villagers because he did not tax them and hated by the Viet Cong because he could trap them.
Lam rarely accompanied the Army into Viet Cong hamlets. Instead, he let the Viet Cong come to him. When he had a tip that a VC leader might be visiting a government-controlled hamlet, he told no one. That way, there was no chance of a leak. Even his squad of special police frequently did not know where or why he was taking them. The trapped Viet Cong rarely fought. The surprise was too great. A door would suddenly be kicked open and there would stand Lam, backed up by a dozen police with submachine guns.
In May of 1966, Lam was told that Truong My, an important VC cadre, would be sleeping with his wife on a certain night in the VC village of Binh Nghia (pronounced "Been Knee-ah"). Ordinarily, Lam would not have acted on that information. Trying to slip undetected into a VC hamlet was too dangerous. Most likely his police would be spotted by the hamlet sentries and end up in a firefight with the local guerrilla platoon while the VC leader escaped.
But Binh Nghia was different. It was Lam's home. He knew the back paths and hedgerows, the gates and the gaps in the fences, the backyard runs of the children and the houses of VC families.
The evening Truong My was due home, Lam put on the black pajamas and conical hat of a farmer and stuck a snub-nosed .38 revolver in his waistband. Unaccompanied, he left district headquarters and padded barefoot to the bank of a nearby river, where he climbed into a small sampan.
It was dusk when Lam reached the village. The VC sentries saw his sampan turn into the bank, but before they could walk to it, Lam had ducked into a nearby thicket. The sentries walked back to their outpost position without raising the alarm, having assumed Lam was a farmer returning late from the district market.