Saturday, May 27, 1972

Viet Sgt. Escapes From Reds After 2 Weeks of Driving Bus

The Los Angeles Times

PLEIKU, South Vietnam
--A South Vietnamese soldier who escaped after spending two weeks as a bus driver for North Vietnamese troops gave a detailed account Thursday of life behind enemy lines.

Sgt. Van Chuyen, 21, was visiting his family April 24 when North Vietnamese forces overran his home town of Tan Canh, a district capital in South Vietnam's central highlands.

Chuyen and his family tried to flee to the provincial capital of Kontum 25 miles to the south. When that failed, Chuyen pretended to be a civilian and was pressed into service driving North Vietnamese supply buses.

Two weeks later he escaped. A week later he was recaptured. Then escaped again. On Thursday he reached Ben Het Fire Base, a South Vietnamese outpost surrounded by enemy troops and supply lines. From Ben Het, Chuyen was taken by helicopter to 22nd Div. Hqs here.

After intelligence officers had interrogated him, Chuyen was allowed to give an hour-long news interview. Then he was sent back to his unit.

Chuyen said that at 2 a.m. April 24 North Vietnamese began shelling Tan Canh, then sent two tanks into the town. "It seemed that all the South Vietnamese soldiers ran," Chuyen said. "Airplanes were dropping bombs on the city and houses. Many civilians were killed or injured. I wanted to leave but I had no gun."

Chuyen, his parents and his nine brothers and sisters huddled in their house until a bomb set it on fire.

"We ran outside," he said. "Like most people we carried religious flags so that airplane pilots could identify us as civilians. As we passed the center of town we saw many dead civilians and North Vietnamese soldiers. We kept running towards Kontum. Just south of the city, American planes had blown up a bridge and we could go no further. The communists wouldn't let civilians leave and shot rockets into the crowd of fleeing people. Some were killed. We all turned around and went back."

By April 26, Chuyen said, "There were North Vietnamese soldiers everywhere. They split up the civilians into family and neighborhood units and took us into the forest.

"Three days later Viet Cong administrative cadre arrived to take over the population. My family and I were moved to an abandoned but intact Montagnard Village. There we lived in a Montagnard long house." Montagnards are the central highlands tribal people who are ethnically separate from Vietnamese.

"During the first week all our property was taken. We were not issued receipts but the Viet Cong told us, after liberation in complete, your valuables will be returned."

Chuyen said all men between 17 and 35 were thoroughly questioned and taken for processing into the army. Women and older men were asked only to give their names and ages.

Chuyen knew how to drive a bus since his father owned two of them. "I was told to drive a bus to aid the liberation effort. I carried supplies and food from the north to Tan Canh. My orders were to pick up any soldiers I saw along the road. I wanted to drive the bus all the way to Kontum but I knew I couldn't get through."

When the South Vietnamese fled Tan Canh, they left behind many military vehicles, Chuyen said. Those damaged by bombs were repaired and all were used to help the North Vietnamese supply effort. He said he saw many Russian trucks and more than 20 tanks.

"My family was given food," Chuyen said. "We had enough to eat. Everyone seemed to be treated well. But we were afraid of the communists and the bombs. American airplanes were dropping bombs everywhere."

One precaution North Vietnamese took against bombing was never to gather in groups larger than 10,Chuyen said. "There were many tactical air strikes but I think they were not very effective. I saw many communist positions but the bombs were not hitting the mark.

"I never saw what B52 strikes did because I was running from them myself, but I do not think there were many soldiers in the areas they hit."

Chuyen said that while North Vietnamese soldiers "were very pleasant and liked to talk." The Viet Cong cadre "were very stern and business-like."

"I sat down along the road and talked to many North Vietnamese soldiers. One said 'We don't like the war but our duty is to fight to save the country.' I told him, 'Why don't you stay in the north and worry about building your country?' he said, 'American govern Vietnam. We must liberate the south. After liberation Vietnam will be one. Vietnamese will be able to return to their homes and go freely wherever they want.'"

Chuyen's father was taken to a "secret zone" for "study and practice" on May 7, and Chuyen and the rest of the family then decided to escape. "One night when the guards weren't looking we all ran into the forest. I took along a few cans of condensed milk. But it was very difficult for us. For nearly a week we tried to make our way to Ben Het, but finally we were discovered by a group of North Vietnamese soldiers.

"When the soldiers stopped me they pointed their guns at my head. I thought they were going to kill me, but they dropped their guns and we sat down to eat with them."

Chuyen's mother, brothers and sisters were then taken to a secret zone where he had heard 2,500 other civilians were gathered. Chuyen waited until night and then ran away again. Three days later he reached Ben Het.

So that he would not be mistaken for a North Vietnamese, "I came up the road to Ben Het shouting and [sic] saving my arms, yelling I am a national (South Vietnamese) soldier."

Chuyen's ordeal obviously battered him. As he talked on Thursday, flies gathered on apparently infected open sores on his ankles. He was barefoot, his shirt was dirty, and one of his pant legs was ripped from thigh to knee and held together by a safety pin.

Since April 24, most of his home town, Tan Canh, has been reduced to rubble by South Vietnamese and American bombing, and he no longer knows where anyone in his family is.

"Viet Sgt. Escapes From Reds After 2 Weeks of Driving Bus", by JACQUES LESLIE The Los Angeles Times - PLEIKU, South Vietnam, published in the Pacific Stars and Stripes on Saturday, May 27, 1972 and reprinted from European and Pacific Stars and Stripes, a Department of Defense publication copyright, 2002 European and Pacific Stars and Stripes.
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