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Viet Nam Generation Journal & Newsletter

V3, N3 (November 1991)

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The All Vietnamese Chinese Mercenary Basketball Tournament

By Paul Ohmart

During the six month period between August 1968 and February 1969, while serving with the US 4th Infantry Division in Vietnam, I was temporarily assigned to oversee two companies of Chinese mercenaries stationed in Nha Trang.

These companies had been created by a verbal arrangement between the commanders of the 5th Special Forces Group and the 1st Log Command, both headquartered in Nha Trang. It was felt that there needed to be some security forces available to protect the city, as well as the 1st Log compound, in case of an attack similar to the one experienced during the 1968 Tet Offensive.

While no US troops could be spared there were a large number of ethnic Chinese in the Cholon district of Saigon. Most had lived in Canton in southern China and, when the communists took over, a large number of ethnic people left China to go to North Vietnam. The French were in power at the time and they cut a deal whereby the Chinese were given control of an entire province along the Chinese-Vietnamese border in return for their support of French rule. When Vietnam was partitioned, people were allowed a period of time to move to the North or South before the borders were closed off. At this time about half of the Chinese population of the province left, en-masse, to again flee the communists and settled in Saigon.

When the arrived in South Vietnam the Chinese were feared by the current regime headed by the Diem family. It was believed that they would represent a political force which would not be sympathetic to the Diem's interests.

To keep the Chinese out of the political scene they were not allowed to become South Vietnamese citizens. This meant that they could not vote and that they could not enter the armed services. This latter situation also appears to have been desirable from the point of view of the Diem regime since a large racially cohesive group of people armed with military training and experience was not viewed any more favorably than the same group armed with the vote.

But times changed and, as the military situation in Vietnam deteriorated, there came a pressing need for more troops. The US was able to get the Vietnamese government to agree to allow Chinese troops to be recruited, trained, armed, and organized into mercenary companies. These companies were to be located away from the capital and run by the US Special Forces who would guarantee that they did not get involved in any political activity or palace coups.

The group I was assigned to in Nha Trang was one such company. It was paid out of a non-accountable Special Forces slush fund for which no financial records were kept. This was not to provide secrecy for some politically sensitive mission but simply to avoid having to get any approval to establish the companies. In fact, when the US forces left Nha Trang there was some kind of stink about some 500 Chinese who seemed to have been formed into an armed force operating in the city for several years and yet no one had any record of their existence.

The compound where they were headquartered was located in the southern part of the city and contained both administrative buildings and barracks. And a basketball court.

It seems that when the first concrete foundation was laid in the camp, for the main headquarters building, it was observed that the resulting area was just the right size to play basketball on. While somewhat smaller than a regulation court, it was still large enough to provide lots of room to play and so work began immediately on pouring the foundation for the headquarters building, a few yards away, with the leftover cement. Regulation backboards, nice ones like the pros used, were soon obtained and installed and the game was afoot.

One of the lesser publicized local institutions was that of the Tong. The Tong was the Chinese equivalent of the Mafia and it operated at all levels of Chinese society. And it was feared. As might be expected, the top members had a certain prestige in the community. They were wealthy and powerful and were often seen both on and off the compound. In fact, the head of the Tong was also the president of the local basketball association.

Now, as anyone knows, it is necessary for a team to have other teams to play with. The problem was that we didn't have all that many basketball teams in Nha Trang. There were, however, a number of units around the country that had teams, American, Australian, Vietnamese, Korean, and so on. The only problem was how to get them. This was resolved by someone who needed to make a trip to another part of the country, on strictly official business, who was told just to present a copy of his orders at the 5th Special Forces Headquarters air strip to get on the next flight they had going in that direction. It was pointed out that our clerks could type up orders that looked as good as those typed up by someone else's clerks, and that if the section specifying the mission was filled in with those magic words "Top Secret, Need to Know Only," that they would never be questioned.

Thus it came about that small teams of Chinese mercenary basketball players would show up at the 5th Group air strip dressed in fatigues, with weapons, packs, and official secretive orders, from some US high command or other, which were not to be questioned. They would quietly get aboard the next plane for their destination and, upon arriving, would form up, briskly trot off the field, and disappear, only to show up a couple of days later to reboard a plane for the return trip. Their packs contained basketballs, uniforms, and other supplies necessary to the successful accomplishment of their mission.

The all Vietnam basketball tournament was probably inevitable. For a period of two weeks our compound was turned into something roughly between the NIT and Chinese new year. Brightly colored banners flapped in the breeze, tables filled with trophies were admired, the tea shop (built along one side of the court with windows that opened on the entire length) did a bonanza business. Spectators were able to observe the games from bleachers and, for the opening ceremonies, three full colonels representing the local US commands were present at the invitation of the Tong, which had made arrangements with the local authorities and kept order. The members of the Tong really enjoyed their basketball.

Paul Ohmart, Berkeley, CA. "The All Chinese Mercenary Basketball Tournament: first appeared in Dennis Fritzinger's LZ Friendly, Vol. 3 No. 7 (August 1990).

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