THIS IS THE FIRST time in recorded history," a senior American official in Vietnam recently said, "that an effort is being made to rebuild a country while a war is still going on."

Strange? The savage, no-quarter struggle in Vietnam is a strange war — a war that often takes unpredictable turns and rewrites the rules as it goes along. It is a war in which a worn and tired phrase — "the hearts and minds of the people" — still defines an objective as critically important as the strongpoints and supply routes of the enemy.

Thus there is pacification — the building of a school, the construction of a reservoir, the opening of a hospital, the slow and patient teaching-of modern agricultural methods to tall, mahogany-hard mountaineers who can barely scratch a furrow with a stone plow.

Electric light might suddenly flood a small village once illuminated only by the flaring light of candles. Clean water, flowing through concrete pipes, will do away with the necessity of walking long miles to a contaminated well or a slime-filled pond — to carry back polluted water that can kill a sick child or a newborn infant.

All of these things can equal a more rewarding existence and a longer life. Most of all, it can give a villager faith and confidence in his government — demonstrate that it is a compassionate and helpful presence, not a remote and indifferent shadow that lives in faraway Saigon and thrusts out a hand to collect taxes.

The villager himself might be a lone being with a loyalty in limbo — a man who can be swayed by armed strangers who come to his village with blandishments or threats. If pacification works the way American and Vietnamese government officials hope it will, the villager will be given something of value — something he will grasp tightly and fight for ...

It was a day of celebration in Cheo Reo, the rustic little capital of Phu Bon Province in the Central Vietnam Highlands. A parade of teen-aged schoolgirls, dressed in spotless, flowing blue-and-white ao dai, walked onto the spacious grounds of an $80,000 hospital — built with American money and Vietnamese hands. Light and power would come from two 150 kilowatt generators run on fuel from the Vietnamese government, which would also pay the salaries of a well-trained hospital staff.

The hospital had 60 beds in large, clean wards. One had only to look at the town's old hospital, a dingy little flytrap with stained walls and cots made of hard, dirty planks, to see a giant-step difference.

Now there was a hospital worthy of the name and definition — a foundation for a solid and progressive public health program.

One American spoke eloquently before the townspeople and a gathering of U.S. and Vietnamese officials; Willard E. Chambers, deputy assistant director for CORDS (Civil Operations Revolutionary Development Support), told of how crippling diseases would be conquered in the hospital, and of the generations of children who would be born there,

The ceremony was over quickly. The hospital opened. The staff, headed by a seven-member Korean medical team that would stay in Cheo Reo for a year, met an onrush of lame, halt and blind. There were infants and children malformed by malnutrition. The first baby was delivered. The first patient was rushed into the surgical ward — a Vietnamese woman, wounded during a Viet Cong attack an her village, had limped three days on a leg stained with the flush of infection. Surgeons gingerly plucked out a bullet.

The opening of the hospital, the first baby born, the first injury treated — all of these, to Chambers, were the first shots fired in another war.

"There are those who wonder, 'why do you build schools and hospitals, why don't you just get on with the war,'" Chambers told a newsman at the dedication ceremony. "That's very inadequate thinking. You must remember that insurgency results from real or imagined grievances of the people. There are three things you must understand and do.

"First, you must develop a government that deserves the support of the people — and demonstrate the capability of that government (to function) with reasonable honesty and efficiency.

"If you can't do that, you won't be able to do the number two thing — assure the support of the people to that government. The government must have a dialog with the people.

"If you can't do either of those things, there's no point in trying the third thing — to enhance the enforcement of the government to where it can deal with insurgents. Those who would suggest 'get on with the fighting' don't understand the nature of the insurgency problem."

Chambers said that the "deadwood" that plagued previous Vietnamese governments has been weeded out and that this has helped push the "stow process" of pacification into slightly higher gear. One other hospital had been opened a week before in an area where the VC grasp had been broken — where a hospital or any other solidly-rooted government presence would have been impossible two years before.

"Life expectancy here is some 40 years," Chambers said, "which means you have to replace every generation with new leaders — plus the fact that tens of thousands have been assassinated by the VC. That's why hospitals and public health programs are so necessary — to save what you have created so they can train a second generation of leaders."

Phu Bon, a keystone in the critically-contested highlands, is under the control of a military province chief — Lt. Col. Kha Van Huy. Chambers said that Huy and his senior American adviser, 41-year-old Lt. Col. George F, Palmer, are among "the two or three best" he has worked with during his three years in Vietnam.

An hour after a fire swept the isolated mountain village of Bon Broai, Huy and Palmer alighted from a helicopter to assure the villagers that they would get relief supplies and help in rebuilding their village — and backed it up by sending in a small fleet of supply-laden helicopters a few hours later.

The presence of both men, particularly the Vietnamese officer, was significant. Like most of the inhabitants of Phu Bon, the villagers were Montagnards — dark, wiry mountaineers who for years have been despised and neglected by the Vietnamese. Of the 66,000 people who live along highway 7B, which runs through the province's three main districts and is an artery to vital Highway 14 to Pleiku, some 90 per cent are Montagnard. Both their welfare and their loyalty are important.

More can be done for them, Palmer emphasizes — more can be done to help them help themselves. He takes a visitor to a 44,000-gallon reservoir — the source of Cheo Reo's first municipal water system. It came about through a "felt need" of the citizens. The townspeople were either walking long miles to the Song 13a River to draw their unclean water, or were buying it at inflated rates from local merchants who came in every day in ungainly tank trucks — one of which was dubbed the "yellow whale" by an American onlooker. Prices shot up during a long dry season; there were flareups between the merchants and the townspeople.

"We decided, with Col. Huy, that a water system was needed," relates Russell L. Meerdink, a CURDS employe who is Palmer's deputy. "First, U.S. Army engineers drilled two wells ... We took materials and cement from Revolutionary Development and went out with Vietnamese troops. Montagnard labor mixed the cement and put in a reservoir of American design."

The Ministry of Public Works in Saigon became interested in the project and promised to supply pipe for a distribution system. Hamlet chiefs were called in and told of the benefits of the system — pure water, healthy children. Any townsman who wanted it would dig his own portion o£ a long ditch that ran through the town and outlying hamlets. No money; strictly self-help and better living,

"They had heard this song and dance before and weren't sure," recalls Meerdink, who is 28 and comes from Sheboygan, Wisc. The townspeople stood a doubtful distance until an American plane came in with the pipe. Within a week's time, 90 per cent of the water system was laid in.

They had old men, women, everyone out working all hours of the night," Meerdink said. At the reservoir, Palmer pridefully shows off a successful project in which the Americans had only an advisory hand.

"They came out for this one, too," Palmer says. "It was handmade by 700 workers — at least 150 people a day for three months. It's all theirs — they did it themselves." The reservoir sits on a knoll, bare and prominent, and looks like an inviting target for a Viet Cong attack.

"I doubt if they could or would," Palmer says. He says the huge concrete tank has walls eight feet thick, four supporting pillars inside and a steel hatch secured by a strong lock. It would take a truckload of explosive to destroy it — and this would be effectively discouraged by a 100-man Regional Force company that sits just beside the reservoir, which itself resembles a sturdy blockhouse. The well-armed garrison could drop a thunderstorm of firepower on any attacker.

"They have something good," Palmer said. "And if a man has something good, he'll fight for it. That's the whole idea. ..."

Huy, pushing durable, permanent-type homes in the community, has promised both electricity and water to townspeople who have concrete block structures — with blocks cheaply provided, through a contractor, from an outdoor factory run by CORDS.

"Our role is not to do, but to advise," Meerdink emphasizes. "To make the Vietnamese government function and work — to make the Vietnamese government respond to the felt needs of the people and convert those needs to action."

Sign Up for Daily Headlines

Sign up to receive a daily email of today's top military news stories from Stars and Stripes and top news outlets from around the world.

Sign Up Now