Correspondents' Correspondence Precarious Phoenix



...Precarious Phoenix Ben Tre, South Vietnam was here that an American Army officer made the war's most memorable remark "It became necessary to destroy the city m order to save it" Following the Tet offensive of 1968, this place was a mass of blackened rums and rotting corpses, most of the damage done by U S firepower rather than the Vietcong who were driven out, and it seemed dubious that anything could ever grow from the ashes Yet, after the battle moved elsewhere and the world looked away, Ben Tre was reborn Its 70,000 inhabitants rebuilt homes, reopened stores, and renewed shattered lives Today, as fighting again rages to the north, the town is filled with bustling shoppers, hawkers, Hondas, and pretty girls, houses huddle under a forest of television antennas Indeed, few traces of the violent past are visible Soldiers still form a substantial segment of the population, but most are government troops, and they wander without weapons through streets that have sidewalks, pedestrian crossings and even an occasional traffic cop-things undreamed of here before 1968 A small and steadily diminishing group of U S advisers remains in this city, once occupied by a full battalion More than 100 GIs were killed or wounded m Ben Tre in the 1968 siege, 500 civilians and perhaps three times as many enemy troops also died Of the Americans here during Tet four years ago, the only one to stay on is Sergeant William (Doc) Chouinard, a 39-year-old medic who has served as a public health adviser in Ben Tre since 1965 This is his town, he knows hundreds of its residents and he thinks they are remarkable people "I wonder if an American town, hit as badly as this one was, would recover as well," he muses Recovery, however, was not magical The problem lay less in clearing the rubble than in reassuring the townspeople about their future They were naturally reluctant to stake their life savings on something that might be blown away again, and there was good cause for concern Situated about 50 miles southwest of Saigon, Ben Tie is the capital of Kien Hoa province, a rice-rich former Communist stronghold with a long history of rebellion Though under government control, it remains the Mekong Delta's most troublesome area "After Tet, it took us more than a year to complete relief efforts and start again on pacification," says Nguyen Manh Hung, 35, head of the province's civic action program since 1966 "Even then, townspeople were hesitant about rebuilding They knew that pacification projects do not guarantee anything They waited to see which way things would go " By mid-1970, they knew A combination of military muscle and civic efforts had secured most of the province and given Ben Tre a sense of Saigon's commitment Over $1 million in government funds went into constructing a new marketplace, roads, a sewage system, and power lines Thus reassured, the local populace began investing in their city's futuie Now, of course, a cloud of fear hangs over Ben Tre It began to form in mid-February at Tet, when old memories and new warnings of attacks abounded With the launching of the latest offensive from the North, the cloud has thickened As one storekeeper put it, "As long as the VC are out there, we will always worry "—Arnold Abrams...

Vol. 55 • May 1972 • No. 9

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