We were guarding the large pontoon bridge that crosses the river north of Kontum. It was nice duty because we had the river for swimming and bathing. Being close to the city we also managed to buy some ice in quantity and were actually drinking cold beer and sodas. Due to the bridges importance, we were spared daily missions because the bridge had to remain guarded twenty-four hours a day.
One morning 22 squad was ordered to MEDCAP a village. This wasn't uncommon except when given the location the Montangnard village would be back toward Kontum. We had just come from there and nobody could remember passing anything like a village. We asked for the coordinates again and got the same location. We mounted the APC and took off in search of the "phantom" village.
The road was lined with a lot of house and when the Vietnamese kids heard the APC coming they would run along side the road and we would throw them assorted candy. They accepted the candy with great joy. However, if they happen to catch a chocolate bar they would try to throw it back. Nobody seemed to like chocolate that refused to melt without the aid of a blow torch.
We got to the coordinates and had to drive up and down the road until someone finally spotted an entrance to a fenced in village that was well off the highway. I drove to the entrance. Something seemed very out of place. The village had a tall bamboo fence around it. There was a rather large archway in front with a sign above it that none of us could read. There was a cinder block building that appeared empty to the left of the archway.
I shut down the APC and told Doc Ritchie not to enter the village until I checked out the cinder block building. Three of us cautiously checked out the building and found it to be totally empty. This whole set up made me very uneasy. The building was not of the typical construction for the area. It had a cement floor, looked relatively new, and had a watertight roof. Why was it abandoned? Given the state of the shacks the Vietnamese were living in less than 100 yards away, why hadn't they simply moved in the building?
We went back to the APC and I studied the village. This village made no sense. I had never seen a Montangnard village this close to a Vietnamese populated area. Also, I had never see a village with a 10-foot bamboo fence around it. Another strange fact was nobody came out to greet us. The Montangnard were the most hospitable and friendly people I met in Vietnam. I had never arrived at one of their villages without a whole flock of people immediately coming out to greet us.
I thought to myself "A phantom village full of phantom people". MEDCAP's were normally great fun. Treat the people, pass out candy to the kids, have a little rice wine with the village chief, ogle at the bare breasted women and enjoy doing something good for a change. But this MEDCAP had all the vibes of an ambush. We decided Doc and I would enter the village and three riflemen would follow us about five paces behind us. The rest of the squad would remain on the APC ready to crash through the gate in case things went bad.
Doc and I entered the gate and started walking toward a hut. The riflemen entered behind us and began to fan out. My eyes were going back and forth looking for an ambush and when we got about fifteen meters from the hut, someone behind me said "Jesus, lepers". I looked behind me and saw the riflemen hightailing it for the gate. Doc and I froze. We saw heads begin to peep out of the doorway of the hut and from their condition it was obvious that we were in a leper village. I looked at Doc and asked him if we should stay or de-de-mow. Doc told me that there was nothing to fear because leprosy wasn't highly contagious and although he could not treat leprosy, he would like to offer treatment for anything else they might need.
We took a couple steps and the people ducked back inside the hut. We stopped and Doc, who had lived in a Montangnard village for a couple months before joining us, tried to talk to them. My mind kept going back to the strange building outside the gate and finally a light went off in my head. I figured at one time missionaries probably occupied it. As Doc kept talking I pulled the cross from my shirt and held it up so they could see it. Slowly they started to come out of the hut.
I was not startled by their deformities but I was highly distressed by their eyes. Their eyes were full of fear. No matter what Doc said, they would not allow us to get close to them because they were afraid of us. My mid was racing and I could only come up with one thought about lepers and that was Jesus healed them. And I marveled at what a truly miraculous healing it must have been. Disease eradicated, body parts restored, and a terrible fear put to rest.
Doc kept talking to them but was getting no response. I told Doc to keep talking and I went back to the APC. I picked up two cases of C-rations and went back into the village. I put the rations on the ground and opened the case. I extracted the P38 (a can opener) and proceeded to show them how to use it. Doc tried to tell them that the food was theirs but they still would not approach us so Doc and I slowly started to back up. As we backed up they came forward. They picked up the C-rations and some of the faces showed a wisp of a smile as they went back in the hut. Doc and I turned around and went back to the APC.
I cranked up the APC and took a last look at the phantom village. I prayed, "Lord please let there be enough fingers there to operate a P38".
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