DATELINE VIETNAM — Ta Thai Manh is a soldier. A member of the proud Recon. Co., 5th Vietnamese Ranger Group, Manh always travels with the lead platoon, armed with a belt full of grenades and an anti-tank rocket, and has been in so many firefights and killed so many communist soldiers he can't remember them all.
Recently, he was decorated with the Vietnamese Gallantry Cross with Bronze Star for turning a Red Chinese submachine gun on his own Viet Cong captors and escaping from an enemy battalion to rejoin his unit in the midst of the Saigon fighting.
Ta Thai Manh is 13 years old.
Thirteen years old. At an age when most American kids are in the Boy Scouts, tiny Ta is a combat infantryman. He never misses an operation, and counts himself lucky to have been wounded in action only once.
Two months ago, Ta had never seen the red beret of the Vietnamese Rangers, except when an occasional truckload of them passed his family's house in Xom Moi, a suburb of Saigon's Gia Dinh region, on the way to an operation. That was before the Tet fighting here, and Ta was just a schoolboy (seventh grade) and a street urchin who sneaked an occasional smoke when he could get away from his father, mother, three brothers and sister.
The closest he had ever come to the world of soldiering was when he visited the local Regional Popular Forces outpost. The militiamen there, in spare minutes, taught Ta to shoot and showed him how their hand grenades worked.
Born on Jan. 13, 1955, Ta looks more like a Boy Scout than a soldier as he sits, skinny little arms lost in the floppy sleeves of his Ranger fatigue shirt, and relates his military career.
As he tells a tale of fighting that would do credit to any grizzled combat veteran, he fingers the shiny cartridges on the pistol belt of a tough-looking Ranger sergeant sitting next to him. He is one of them, a half-man child of war in a land that counts not years but the ability to shoot straight and be quicker than the enemy.
On Jan. 31 at about 2 a.m., a battalion of Viet Cong regulars infiltrated Ta's neighborhood, near the Phu Tho race track. Ta, seeing the brown uniforms, thought they were government soldiers. After dawn, he knew better. A Ranger lieutenant led a squad into his street, and after machine-gunning a few Viet Cong, was driven out by the enemy's heavy fire.
But the Viet Cong never entered Ta's home, and after that the fighting died down.
The next day, Feb. 1, Ta's boyish curiosity got the better of him — slipping out a back door so his parents wouldn't see him, he wandered through the streets of Xom Moi, following the sound of firing.
Turning one corner, he found a company of Rangers barricaded in houses, waiting while a flank force tried to flush the VC toward them. They told him the entire city was under attack by Viet Cong battalions. Ta decided to move up even closer, to see what was going on. Apparently thinking Ta lived in the area, the Rangers let him go — but cautioned him the houses around were full of communist soldiers.
About 800 yards up the street, Ta passed the cemetery — scene of some of the heaviest fighting in the earlier days of the attack. As he passed a chipped yellow wall, two Viet Cong slipped up behind him and grabbed him. An arm around his neck, a hand over his mouth, they dragged him back behind the wall and asked him where the government troops were. Ta was scared.
The VC were both young. One was dressed in black pajamas, the other in civilian clothes. They carried an AK-47 and a B-40 rocket. Ta had never seen either man.
After questioning him, they told him he should join the Viet Cong in their efforts to "liberate" the city — they said they were about to win a "glorious victory". Ta said he wanted to go home. He turned and started to run away. The Viet Cong with the AK-47 lashed out with his rifle butt, hitting Ta in the back. Then he clubbed him once, brutally, in the back of the head.
The two men packed Ta off to another part of the cemetery, where a battalion of Viet Cong crouched in fox holes.
Ta was tossed in one of the holes, and then a Viet Cong questioned him again. Ta said he was afraid to join the VC — he had heard too many stories of communist terrorism, and he didn't want to kill his friends and neighbors. When the Viet Cong intimated they might kill him if he refused to join them, Ta began to let them think he was changing his mind.
He stayed overnight and all the next day in the foxhole, without food or water. On nightfall of Feb. 2, a VC soldier of about 18 pulled Ta from the hole and shoved his AK-47 in his arms. Thinking Ta had converted to the Viet Cong cause, he told the boy to keep watch for planes and helicopters while the VC slept.
At about 8 p.m., flares began to blossom all around, and Ta heard an aircraft roar overhead. It unleashed a stream of fire that ripped the cemetery about 300 yards away. The young Viet Cong, awakened, jumped out of the foxhole, but stepped when Ta swung his own AK on the man. "Now I will kill you," he said quietly. The VC, fear on his face, spoke tremulously "Why are you betraying me?" "I can't be a VC," Ta answered in an equally unsteady voice, "— don't come any closer. I'll be killed if I join you. You'll all be killed."
"My friends will kill you if you shoot me," the Viet Cong warned. Another group of guards, 30 feet distant, were temporarily distracted by the plane firing overhead. "I don't care ... I don't care! I'll kill you first! " And Ta pulled the trigger. Two slugs ripped into the chest and belly of the Viet Cong youth. He toppled. Ta ran forward and bent over him. He was still alive, moaning. There was an American grenade clipped to his belt.
A shout behind Ta warned him the other guards had heard the shots. Without thinking, Ta pulled the frag grenade off the VC's body, and remembering the days in the RF/PF outpost, found the ring clip and pulled it. He could see two armed men running toward him, silhouetted in the nightmare light of the flares. They opened fire. He threw the grenade and ran the other way.
He heard a loud "Boom!" behind him as he dodged through the darkness. No one followed him.
About 500 yards from the cemetery, he heard someone yelling "VC! VC! " from a house. The whole neighborhood was criss-crossed with a spiderweb of glowing tracers. Someone was shooting at him.
Lifting the weapon above his head, he yelled at the top of his weak voice "I'm not VC! Don't shoot!" The platoon of Rangers heard him, and let him come into the house. After telling his story, he curled up on the litter and shell-strewn floor of the house and slept, oblivious of the fighting raging around him.
When he awoke, the platoon was still in the house, and the VC had completely encircled them. For five days, the fighting raged unevenly, and every man in the platoon was wounded. Four were killed. Ta crawled from man to man, carrying water and binding wounds as best he could.
On the fifth day, the Vietnamese Airborne managed to break the encirclement and free the platoon's survivors. The battle was over — but not before a man was born in the small body of Ta Thai Manh.
They took him to the hospital, although he wasn't wounded, and fed and gave him fresh clothes. They sent him home, where, to his surprise, his family and his house were untouched. His father had stern words for him, but Ta was just happy to be home.
But something had happened out there in those seven days. Ta could not stay home, could not concentrate on his schoolwork. His mind kept drifting back to the ragged, wounded Rangers and the brave stand they had all made, men and boy together. He knew he belonged with them. He wanted to go back.
"Impossible!" his father stormed. His mother tried to reason with Ta: "You're not old enough to join. You'll be killed. We won't even have money to pay for your burial. You have to finish school." But Ta wasn't buying it — and said so. He was going back.
Mother had different ideas. She bought a lock and chain, and locked him in the house. When she was gone shopping, he found a chisel and cut his way out. He headed to the Phu Tho race track, and found the command post of his buddies.
The commander didn't know what to do about him — but the men did. They gave him a set of Ranger fatigues and red beret — and then they took him to a tailor shop. He was a full-fledged Ranger.
Ta has no rank, and earns no pay — he cannot legally join the Rangers until he is 17. "He'll have a whole chest full of medals by that time." says one American. He depends on the officers and men of the Recon Co. for his meals and a place to sleep. But he's just as much one of them as the first sergeant.
After trying twice to get him to come back home, his parents finally gave up and gave their consent. "They want me to go back to school." he says, "but we've got to finish off the VC first — then there'll be time for school," Ta says. "My place is here."
If Ta lives long enough to fulfill it, there's just one goal in his mind — to join the Vietnamese Rangers on his 17th birthday. And as tough a fighter as he is, he'll probably make it — and be a commander himself some day.
After all, not many men — or boys — have the head start Ta Thai Manh has.