Hostetter's attitude and role in the Vietnam War

What happened when you came to Vietnam? What were your convictions, what your feelings were about the war?
Well, I grew up in a Mennonite community in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia, and I went to a Mennonite grade school, high school and college. So I didn't know a whole lot about what was going on in the outside world. But I did know that killing was wrong and that war was wrong.
Ah, the Mennonites have been a peace church for over 450 years, and so my impression on going to Vietnam was that the war was wrong, and I was going there simply to help people. I didn't know why America was there or what we were doing there, but I did know that people were being killed and there were many people suffering and that I was a conscientious objector, and I wanted to find a way to help the people that were suffering in Vietnam.

Community organizing in Tam Ky and Ky Phu

Describe how you, how you...
I had, I had been through an American high school and I generally believed that the American government was trying to do what was good around the world, although I was upset that they were involved in a war. I believed in America and I believed in democracy and what we were trying to do both in our country and, I assumed, in Vietnam. And I went to Vietnam, uhm, I thought I was going to he helping both America and the Vietnamese people in my work there. I went into the village and my first job was, was uh, I was supposed to be a social worker, or a community organizer. And a community organizer is to bring the needs of the people together with the um things that are available from the government.
And you bring the needs and the availability of resources from the government, and you bring them together. It wasn't long, and uh, my working in the village of Tam Ky, which is in Central Vietnam, about 150 miles below the DMZ and about 400 miles north of Saigon, before I realized that the local people uh, uh, were totally out of touch with the government, and the government was totally out of touch with the people. In Tam Ky, uh, the government officials were all uh Catholics, people from large cities. The local people were all Buddhists, or mostly Buddhists, and uh came from the rural uh farming communities around there.
The, the people who governed the town uh were not local people. They didn't respect the people, they didn't care about the people, and basically were not interested in helping a lot of the people. Oh, so as far as the relationship between the Vietnamese government that we were supporting as Americans and the Vietnamese people who I was there to, to serve and to work with, I soon realized that there was a real contradiction. Later on, uhm, I got to know some of the rural people very very well, especially some of the people from a fishing village, a village by the name of Ky Phu, which was only about uh six or seven kilometers from uh Tam Ky, where I was living.
One of the students that was teaching in the literacy program that I started was from that village, and he invited me out to visit with his family and to um get to know the village. I went out, spent a few weekends out there, and was eventually invited uh by uh Boo's father to go fishing with him and a number of uh other men from the village out in the South China Sea. That was probably my first experience to meet with a group of men uh in a totally candid kind of uh exchange of information discussion. There were five of us, we were in a fourteen foot boat and we were five kilometers out at sea.
Uh, there was, I knew very well two of the men in the boats, because both of them were related to people working in the literacy program, and they knew me through their children uh for several years already, and there was no chance of anyone else hearing. So we talked. And uh, I asked them, uh what it was like living in Ky Phu, and what it was like being pacified by the Americans, by the French, by the National Liberation Front. The village of Ky Phu was unique.
Let's stop right there.

Impact of the various regimes on the villages

Roll #734.
Okay, pick up where you started.
The village of Ky Phu was unique in some ways, but not many, not very different...
Start again.
The village of Ky Phu was unique in some ways, but perhaps not different from many other villages in South Vietnam. It changed hands four times in the lifetime of the men of that village, in the lifetime of the men that I was fishing with. It had been uh with the Viet Minh struggling against the French until the end of the uh French-Viet Minh War in 1954. And then from 1954 until 1963 it had been under the Saigon government of Ngo Dinh Diem.
After Diem was assassinated, the National Liberation Front took over until about 1968. In 1968 it was pacified by the Americans and the Saigon Army again. And I asked them what it was like living under the various regimes of the National Liberation Front, the Viet Minh before them, uh the French and the Saigon government. They said there were enormous differences.
One of the differences was the way in which they were treated and respected as individuals. And this made a lot of difference to fishermen uh out in a rural village. They said that under the uh Saigon government you could never argue with a government official. They were uh big city people, they were Catholics, there was no appeal. If a government official said you were wrong or that you had to do something, you simply had to do it. There was absolutely no, no appeal. The only person who could talk to the military commander in the area was the Province Chief, uh or excuse me, the Village Chief. And the Village Chief...
Start it again.
The only person who could talk to the military commander of the area was the Village Chief, and the Village Chief had to be dressed in his finest in order to be able to go up and communicate with him on a very formal kind of exchange. Under the National Liberation Front, or the Viet Minh before them, anyone could speak to any military officer. If there was a dispute between a local cadre and a local villager, it was settled in a village council in which the opinions of the elders were taken uh with great weight and seriousness.
They also talked about the corruption. Under the National Liberation Front the people said there was no corruption. Uh, they had very little in the way of supplies, very little in the way of money. But they were always honest and they always gave you what uh what they had. Under the Saigon government uh it was always corrupt. The uh medicines were bought in Tam Ky, they were taken out to the village, they were sold for a higher price, uh there was added commission put on, and if you complained at all, you simply had no recourse.
Uh you simply could not get the medicines. If you wanted to get into a school, you had to pay a bribe. If you wanted to get into a uh, ah maternity room to ah deliver your baby, you had to pay a bribe. All these were were true under the Saigon regime. But perhaps the thing that impressed the villagers more than anything else was the way in which the village was pacified. They talked about how it was pacified by the National Liberation Front back in in 1963 when, uh, Diem had been assassinated.
They said after Diem's assassination a number of NLF cadre came into the village, they arrested uh about ten or fifteen of the top government officials that had been appointed by the Diem administration. None of these were local people. These people were held for several weeks and then were released, came back to the village and realized that they had no power uh.
The people no longer listened to them and they fled along with about ten or fifteen families from the village. Uh, no one was killed in the take over by the NLF in 1963. The Americans pacified Tam Ky back in 1968. The pacification at Tam Ky was done primarily by phantom jets from the Chu Lai Airbase using 500 pound bombs and by tanks, mortars and artillery. Uh, the NLF came to the people, told the people that they couldn't possibly hold the area.
It was on a uh, a uh sea coast area that was the sea was on one side and the Saigon government controlled area was on the other and they simply said they would have to leave. Uh, so the NLF with the soldiers and cadre left, and the villagers were allowed to stay if they wished or they could leave if they uh if they wanted. About half of the village left with the NLF when the NLF left and the other half remained. The village was bombarded for three days and finally the tanks came in. Forty people were killed during the pacification of uh of Ky Phu. Many, many others, scores of people were arrested. There was not a single NLF soldier...
Beep. Okay.
There had not been a single NLF soldier left in the village when the Americans finally entered with Saigon troops. And yet 40 people were killed. The entire village, every single home, was destroyed. The people were forced to flee, uh taking uh only with them what they could carry when they left. The area was declared a Free Fire Zone for the next year, and during the time that it was a Free Fire Zone the ARVN soldiers, the Saigon government soldiers, came in and looted everything that had been left behind.
This was the price of pacification of Ky Phu by the Americans. It left an indelible mark upon the people who lived in that village. As I was reflecting on it I realized that the Americans had all the fire power. And yet, because they so alienated the people, they couldn't win politically whereas it looked like they couldn't lose militarily. But the more they fought and the more they destroyed the more they alienated the local people.
Beep. Beep.
The fishermen said that with American strength and fire power it was impossible for the Americans to lose militarily. And yet, it was also impossible for the National Liberation Front to lose politically.

The wartime risks taken by the village fishermen of Ky Phu

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On another occasion I was fishing with some of the same men from the village of Ky Phu, and we were rowing out. You get up at uh four o'clock in the morning and you travel out while it is pitch dark out across the waves uh, with little kerosene lanterns in your boats. Uh, you're rowing across these waves and suddenly all of the lanterns went out in all of the boats as we were going out there. And people started rowing like mad, and I couldn't understand why people were rowing so furiously.
And they said, "Well, don't you hear that?" And I listened and said, "Yes, I hear the helicopter." To me a helicopter was, helicopters passed overhead dozens of times during the day in the village of Tam Ky where I lived. And they explained that the American's had a law or a rule that fishing boats were not allowed uh within three miles of shore uh any time from sundown in the evening until sunrise in the morning.
Uh, and that if they were found in, within I forget, probably within five miles of shore uh during the dark hours, they would be sunk. When I heard that I, of course, picked up an oar and started rowing as fast as I could. When I came back from that uh fishing expedition, fortunately the helicopter did not find us...
Could you please start from when you came back?
When I came back the uh, I went in to visit the uh military advisor for the province. And I explained to him that I was talking to some fishermen and they had explained to me that the American's had a law that you couldn't have your fishing boats within 5 miles of shore any time during the dark hours and that this made it very dangerous or the fishermen, because they had to go out very early in the morning uh to get their nets out. It was, it is, it's essential that you are out, that you
Please start again. "It is essential..."
It's essential that you get out five miles out at sea and have five kilometers of fishing nets strung out in the water before the sun rises. Because when the sun rises the fish come to the surface and you pull in your nets and you have your fish. The Major uh explained to me that uh the law was to prohibit uh any smuggling of arms and ammunition and that they would simply have to train the fish to eat at other hours.
Well of course, the fishermen realized that the fish only eat early in the morning, and so they had no other option. Their option was to stop fishing or to continue breaking the American law and every morning when they went out during the uh, at four o'clock while it was still dark, they risked their lives going out to fish. Because it was that or to rely to move into refugee camp and rely on American aid.

American refusal to compensate for damage by defoliants

In late '68 and early 1969 the uh American forces in Quang Tinh Province, where I was working, started increasingly to use defoliation as a weapon of war. It was used quite a bit in the western part of the uh province to destroy rice crops to encourage people to leave from the areas controlled by the National Liberation Front. Most of those areas I was never able to visit because of the extensive mining and artillery that was shot into those areas. I did get a chance to visit the village of uh Ky Truong.
Ky Truong was a village only about five miles from Tam Ky. It a village that uh one of the students who worked as a teacher in the literacy program, which I was operating, uh his family came from Ky Truong. And he told me one day that the village had been defoliated. It was a village which was controlled by the American forces and should not have been defoliated. But the Americans had tried to uh defoliate Ky Anh which was about five kilometers up the beach.
It had been a windy day. The wind had picked up the defoliation, carried it over the village of Ky Phu in the middle and landed it on Ky Truong on the other side. I was invited to go out and uh visit with the family of my friend and to visit some of the local farmers to see what had happened to ah their farms and to their livestock. I'll never forget that trip. When you went out to the area where the defoliation happened looked like there had been a forest tire. All of the ground was scorched, it was absolutely brown or black. Anything that had been green was simply withered away uh, as if there had been a major forest fire that had just swept the area and just scorched everything to death.
I went and visited with a farmer. He showed me his chickens. He picked one of them up and showed the legs and he said, "All of the chickens that have white scales on their legs will die." He said, "Those who don't have the white scales on their legs will probably live." It probably means that those were the chickens who wandered in the grass while it was still wet with the defoliation. The Vietnamese called it "tuk dap" which is poison. They said it was poison that came in like the fog of the night. It was the fog that came in early in the morning and just simply did not leave. It didn't burn off when the other fog usually burns off.
We went around and visited all of the farmers in the area. They showed me their livestock. I, I took a note pad and I recorded for each of the farmers how many pigs, cows and water buffalo they had lost uh from the defoliation. It affected mostly the pregnant animals and also the infants, and practically all of the ducks. Anything that swam in the water was uh, I don't think there was a duck that survived in that whole village. Chickens, some of them survived, some of the cows and some of the water buffaloes survived, but a lot of them didn't. I kept careful records because according to the AID manual, if the American forces killed uh either pigs, cows, water buffaloes, destroyed houses or even killed human beings, the American government was supposed to compensate the villagers for the loss.
I don't remember how much it was anymore, but something like five hundred dollars for a child, four hundred dollars for a water buffalo, uh three hundred dollars for a cow, uh one hundred dollars for a pig, and maybe y'know, five dollars for a chicken or something like this. And so I kept careful record, the name of the farmers and how much of their livestock they had lost. I had looked at the dead animals and made careful notes of all of this. I went back and I talked to the head of the Military Advisory Command, and AID. Uh...
Could you just say, don't use the acronym...
...Military Advisory Command, Vietnam. went back and spoke with the director...
Start again.
I went back and I spoke with the director of the Military Advisory Command Vietnam, and the director of American Aid for International Development Project, which was also working in Tam Ky and told them that I would like to help the farmers get compensation for their killed livestock. They informed me that according to Army Manual and they quoted me the exact manual, page number and paragraph number that uh Agent Orange, which was sprayed in this village, uh does not affect human beings or livestock.
It is only uh, uh, it kills the trees and anything that is green, but it does not affect any uh living or breathing thing. I uh begged to differ, disagree with them very strongly and invited them both to came out with me to Ky Truong. Ky Truong was a friendly village. It was controlled by the Saigon forces, and we could simply discuss with the farmers, we could look at their livestock and we could uh ask them whether or not they thought if they were dead. And uh both of these officials refused to accompany me to go out to uh visit the farmers in Ky Truong.
The head of the Military Advisory Command Vietnam in Tam Ky and also the head of the American Aid for International Development...
Start again, please.
The head of the American Military Command Unit Vietnam in Tam Ky, and also the head of...
I think it might be more comfortable just to say the American Military Advisor. It's sort of difficult to get that all down.
Right. The chief of the American military advisors for the province and also the chief of the AID, the Americans for International Development mission there, both reported to me that according to the Army Manuals, Agent Orange which was what was sprayed on this village was not harmful to human beings or animals. It was detrimental only to plants.
And so, therefore, the animals which died could not have died because of the Agent Orange being sprayed in the village. I invited the uh colonel and the head of the AID mission to travel with me out to Ky Truong, it was a Saigon controlled village, and explain to the farmers that their, their cattle, their water buffalo, their pigs, their chickens and their ducks simply did not die on the same night that the poison came down from the sky. Both of them declined to accompany me.

An anecdote of the identity of a villager

I went out to visit a group of refugees who had recently been brought in from the countryside at the Refugee Reception Center in Tam Ky one day. And I was talking to them, asking them what life had been like in the countryside, why they had come in, and all of the usual questions. There was an old man at the edge of the group of people that I was talking with that heard me speaking Vietnamese.
And he was very excited. He came over to me and he said, "Oh, I wish that the American's had people like you on their military operations." He said, "The American soldiers come up to me and they shake their gun at me and they say "you VC, you VC" And then he turned to me and he said, "Mr. American, what is a VC?"
One day in Tam Ky I went out to the Refugee Reception Center to meet with the latest group of Vietnamese refugees that had been brought in by the American military. I was asking them the usual questions. Where did you come from? Why did you leave? What were the circumstances in your village? And an old man at the edge of the crowd that I was talking to heard me speaking Vietnamese.
He came over very very excited and he said, "Oh, I wish the Americans that were on military operations had people like you who could speak Vietnamese." He said, "Oom may, oom me, VC la ka yi, VC la ka yi?" Which means, "Mr. American, what's the Viet Cong? What's the VC'?" That didn't...
Beep, beep, beep, beep. Just a second.
"The Americans come up and they shake their guns at me and they say, 'You VC, you VC' oom may, VC la kay yi, VC la kay yi?" Which means, "Mr. American, what's the VC? What's the VC?"
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The old man said to me, "The Americans come up to me and shake their guns at me and they say 'You VC, you VC, oom may, oom may, VC la kay yi? What is the VC?"