A little background material on an important character from the SYMBIOSIS series: "The Colonel" (aka Nguyen-Tran Loi) set down in story form - historical fiction actually. The events described actually took place. The Battle of Ap Bac was the first "stand up fight" between American led forces and the Viet Cong.
NOTE: Be sure to click the title of this post if you don't see a comment block below.
The stage manager pointed at the young man and woman huddled in the wings. “Okay number two, you’re up.”
Although the woman was nervous, the man was not. Asian and short, about five feet-four, his boyish good looks belied his twenty-five years, much as his shoulder length, jet-black hair belied his military past.
“Knock ‘em dead, Loi,” his companion said and squeezed his hand.
He nodded once, then strode to the center of the stage, executed a sharp left turn and approached the curtain. Watching as it began to rise, he took a deep breath. The master of ceremonies announced him. Show time.
The stage lights were brought up slowly, and the audience buzzed with excitement. He surveyed them with the calm detachment of a skilled performer. He’d done this at least half a dozen times before. It was second nature to him now. Closing his eyes, he took another deep breath. Before long he could hear the awful sound of the American helicopters, swooping low to deliver death from above.
“My name is Nguyen-Tran Loi,” he began. “I’m a private soldier assigned to the first company of the 514th Regular Battalion. You call us the Viet Cong. We call ourselves the resistance.”
He paused briefly, the terror of the battle already upon him. Quaking at the sound of the fifty caliber machine gun fire, he watched as it tore his best friend apart a mere twenty meters away and barely suppressed a sob.
“The government troops and their American advisors were attempting to capture Bac, a village I often visited as a boy. It is often called Ap Bac, but ‘Ap’ is just the Vietnamese word for village.
“It’s in the northern part of the Mekong Delta, forty miles south of Ho Chi Minh City. The people farm there—rice mainly. But on the morning of January 2, 1963, it wasn’t rice that the government troops wanted. It was our radio transmitter.”
A hush fell across the audience. He’d heard it before—the sound of anticipation—anticipation of visions sure to frighten them. Yet, still they listened. They wanted to hear.
He paused for dramatic effect. The audience stared back at him… waiting. He shook his head slowly and began again.
“We were used to fighting the government troops. They were the same lackeys of the French who had fought our fathers. But the French were gone, and the Americans had taken their place. They were rich and powerful, and our brothers in the north wanted no part of the struggle.
“So we fought alone, against the American helicopters and their armored vehicles, and we lost. They hunted us down like ants and slaughtered us in the rice paddies and marshes. But still, we fought. Many of my friends were shocked when I joined the resistance. They said I’d certainly be killed, but my father had fought the Japanese and the French, and I could do no less.” He shook his head with determination. The audience nodded in support.
“It was a hot day,” he continued. “Sweltering. But the rockets made it hotter still, and every time an American helicopter fired one into our lines, we ducked, waiting for the explosion and screams that were sure to follow. Afterwards, the hot dirt and other debris…" He paused, closed his eyes and massaged his temples. "Including the remains of our comrades," he yelled, "rained down on us.”
Some in the audience gasped, others lowered their heads, covering their ears. He took a grim satisfaction in their discomfort, but it was short lived. The sound of the fifty caliber machine guns atop the great metal beasts advancing towards them soon brought him back to the battlefield. He stood ramrod straight with great difficulty, fighting nausea and the urge to cringe as bullets passed all around him with a murderous crack and whine.
For a fleeting moment he thought of leaving the stage, angry at being forced to relive the nightmare, but it passed. He regained his composure and went on to describe the battle in detail. He described the weapons, the deployment of troops, the large-scale actions and the small, individual instances of heroism and cowardice he had personally witnessed. The audience remained spellbound.
Finally, he began to bring his apocalyptic vision to a conclusion. “After hours of fighting, we were nearly broken. At times it seemed that the entire 7th Division of the government’s army was upon us, and we were fewer than five hundred. Many wanted to flee. Only the persistent leadership of our commanders kept us at our posts.”
He was exhausted, just as he had been that day. His knees buckled, and the audience sighed at his obvious distress. Beginning as a low murmur it intensified until they all seemed to share in his misery and terror, transforming, if only in their minds, an American auditorium into an embattled Vietnamese village.
“In the afternoon, the government tried one more attack,” he said, struggling to control his emotions. “The armored personnel carriers got closer than they had all day. Their machine gun fire was deafening. Many of us wept, sure we were about to die. There was no way we could stop them. Our weapons were useless against the armor.”
His shoulders drooped, and he bowed his head. A gut wrenching fear seized him, as it had that day. The audience moaned in sympathy. Many wept.
“Finally, I could take no more,” he said. His tone was low and confidential—ashamed. “My will was broken, and I started to back away from my position, slithering like a snake." He shook his head sadly then froze, cocking it to one side as if heeding a distant call.
"That is when everything changed!" he shouted. "All around me, my comrades were cheering. I forced myself to raise my head. I had to see.”
He stood up straight once more. “It was Comrade Corporal Dung, a squad leader in the weapons platoon," he said proudly. "He and his men were charging the armored personnel carriers with grenades. It didn’t seem possible, but we all saw it with our own eyes. Most of these heroes were cut down at once, but the others continued their charge, screaming like mad men.
“Then they started to throw their grenades, and a miracle happened. The enemy machine gunners abandoned their guns and retreated into the armored vehicles, closing the hatches behind them. The survivors of Corporal Dung's squad threw more grenades, and the vehicles came to a stop, and then they began to retreat. At the very moment when victory was in their grasp they lost their nerve.
“The attack fell apart. Without the armored vehicles for support the infantry units approaching us stopped and hid in the paddies while we regained our nerve and fired into them.” Raising his arms in triumph, he shouted, “We had won! We had saved Bac.”
Some in the audience clapped, but others cheered loudly, shouting in affirmation. It was as if they too had been delivered from the awful fate that very nearly claimed the 514th Regular Battalion. He nodded and smiled.
“It was a glorious day. The taste of victory was sweet. But it was also a sad day. My best friend was killed, and so was Comrade Corporal Dung.” He lowered his head. His eyes filled with tears—real tears, not part of any act.
“After that day, the glorious struggle was no longer glorious. It became a fight to the death, one we would have to see through to the end; one that would claim many more lives. But on that day, we were victorious. We stood our ground, held the line and stopped the ferocious American war machine.”
He scanned the audience slowly, his head moving from side to side. Gradually the cheering subsided, and the audience stared back at him. He came to attention, snapping his heels together. “Thank-you, ladies and gentlemen,” he said. “Thank-you for your courteous attention.”
Once again the audience began to applaud, timidly at first and then with ever increasing intensity. A man in the front row stood. Others quickly followed his lead, and soon they were all on their feet, many with tears in their eyes.
Loi bowed. The stage lights dimmed, and he took several steps backward. The curtain fell slowly until he could only hear them, their applause reverberating throughout the auditorium.
His young companion emerged from the wings and kissed his cheek. “Fantastic, Loi! Your best performance yet.”
He smiled at her, knowing she would never understand that it wasn’t a performance to him. He had been there. It was real. “Thanks, Angie. I appreciate that.”
They watched from the wings while other contestants made their presentations. Some were quite good. None came close to Angie’s in originality. The idea was so novel, no one had thought of it before, and her execution was flawless.
After ninety minutes the decision was in the hand of the judges. The contestants chatted with one another amicably, but they all knew who the winner would be. How did she ever think of it, they asked? She smiled, shrugged and held Loi’s hand throughout.
Finally the announcement was at hand. The master of ceremonies emerged from the opposite wing and without ever looking in their direction walked briskly to the lowered curtain. It started to rise, and he adjusted his bow tie.
When the stage lights were re-illuminated the orchestra struck a dramatic flourish, and he stepped forward. “Ladies and gentlemen,” he began. “Thank you for your patience. This has certainly been a night filled with the very finest historical scholarship.” The audience applauded politely. “But as always,” he continued. “We must choose a winner. And tonight, that winner is none other than the young woman whose original presentation has stunned the historical community.”
The audience went wild. He held up his hands and said, “Without further ado, I give you the winner of the National History Society’s Research Excellence Award for 2149: Ms. Angela Tran of Bryn Mawr for her groundbreaking study of the Battle of Ap Bac.”
Beaming, Angie gripped Loi’s hand, pulling him to center stage once more. They bowed together. The audience continued to roar its approval. Angie waved.
“Miss Tran is accompanied of course by her great-great-great uncle, Nguyen-Tran Loi, who actually took part in the epic struggle he so poignantly described for us this evening.”
Loi cringed, certain the master of ceremonies had omitted a ‘great’ or two. He didn’t know for sure. He always lost track after the second or third.
She nudged him forward, and he took another bow. The audience rose as one, applauding and whistling. He returned to an upright position, waved and suddenly found himself back in the wings, leaving Angie alone on stage with the master of ceremonies.
He smiled at the loud gasps and excited chatter of the audience. They had known all along that he was only an artificial, a sentient hologram, but were still surprised by his sudden disappearance. It was all part of the act, and it always thrilled the crowd.
He was quickly replaced on stage by a life size still hologram of the real Nguyen-Tran Loi, a reproduction of an ancient photograph from the family archives. It had been taken three years after the battle; the last his family would have of him. He posed with his AK-47 in hand: smiling, proud and brave—doomed. He would not survive the war, falling during the great Tet Offensive.
He watched as Angie accepted her accolades. Her professors congratulated her, as did the contest officials and any number of hangers on. She deserved it all.
She read countless books about the war and studied family archives on both sides of the Pacific. She’d even visited Bac itself and the People’s Museum of The Great American War in Ho Chi Minh City. While there, she had even talked to the descendents of his childhood friend who had not survived the fighting at Bac.
She left no stone unturned and as a consequence, she’d won the prize for historical research: the big kahuna of all academic history prizes. Certainly, acceptance at a prestigious grad school was soon to follow. Nothing but blue skies were on her horizon.
He wiped a persistent tear from his eye and remembered the many times he tried to tell her, tried to explain what she had really done. It didn’t do any good. She couldn’t or wouldn’t understand.
He was only a hologram, an artificial person: sentient perhaps, but artificial all the same. At inception he became exactly who she wanted him to be, and she had the awards and glory to prove it. The awful memories and the pain—they were all his.