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By Pat Lisi

Southern Utah Vets Aid

In the United States a farmer’s tractor(s) is critically important to the success of the operation.  Plowing, planting and tilling are done by way of powerful vehicles that come in all sorts of sizes, brands, and models.  Without his or her tractor a farmer is pretty much dead in the water, so to speak.  When the tractor is down for repair most other chores cease until the machine is fixed.  The American farmer is lost without the tractor.

 

In Vietnam tractors are impractical.  This is mainly due to the fact that so much of the open land available for agricultural purposes is under water much of the year.  A tractor on a farm there would spend much of its life stuck in the stinking mud or sunk in the paddies where crops like rice are grown.

 

Being very resourceful people by the nature of a harsh territory dealt to them by simple geography, the Vietnamese farmer had to come up with a simple solution to “working the land”, and, tractors being worthless in their country and unaffordable anyway, they became proficient employers of the water buffalo.

The water buffalo or domestic Asian water buffalo (Bubalus bubalis) is a large buffalo found on the Indian subcontinent to Vietnam and Peninsular Malaysia.  They are large, bulky animals that possess brute strength just like the North American buffalo, or Bison, that one might find in a place like Yellowstone National Park.  Unlike the Bison, the Asian water buffalo does not have that distinctive weight-forward appearance of its cousin.  No, the water buffalo we saw in Vietnam were even-distributed weight-wise and it was not hard to imagine one of these two-ton beasts crushing and stomping even the toughest Marine, SEAL or Green Beret into the muck like nothing.  Most of us who were there to fight the NVA and Viet Cong had even a greater respect for a farmer’s water buffalo than we did the enemy!

 

With that sort of ‘respect by default’ came a serious caveat:  You had better not ever kill a man’s water buffalo unless it is, indeed, in the process of thrashing you in such a manner as to make you swear to God that nothing short of fighting back will save your life.  In other words, you needed to prove imminent danger of dying by way of Asian water buffalo if you killed one.

 

You have to understand that a Vietnamese farmer’s water buffalo is probably the most valuable thing he owns.  I don’t recall what the farmers were paying back in the day for their beasts of burden but I know it was a lot, and I can say with certainty that the guys in my outfit never maliciously shot a water buffalo despite stories you hear from other Nam vets.  First of all we respected the value of the animal to the farmer; second, we were afraid of standing tall in front of the company commander at a courts-martial for killing a water buffalo; and third you never really knew if your first bullet was going to be enough to bring the brute to the ground OR if it was only going to enrage it further, causing an even more severe punishment to yourself once the sucker stampeded you into oblivion.

 

I will relate one story, though, where I had occasion to use a water buffalo for my own protection.  We were patrolling through a ‘ville’ one hot and humid morning when gunfire broke out fifty yards to my right.  At that moment my fire team of 4 Marines was rummaging around the insides of the small, thatched adobes looking for holes where rice would be stored for the VC.  When the shooting started I rushed out of the shelter to see what was going on.  Then, grenades were exploding and there was an exchange of B40 rockets (from the enemy) and M79 grenades (being launched back at the enemy).  I knew it was time to find some cover before I ended up getting my butt shot off or ripped apart by shrapnel that was humming over my head.

 

Lucky for me there was this corral right outside the hut and in the middle of the corral stood this huge water buffalo.  There really wasn’t time to contemplate the fear that welled inside me at the thought of using the 4-legged giant for a shield, so I crouched and hurried over to the living wall avoiding eye contact so as not to piss him off.  The buffalo craned his thick neck back to watch me and I noticed how long and heavy his horns were.  Man, he looked like a creature out of some horror movie.  But he was my only chance at the moment, and I seized it.

 

Standing in mud and cow pie up to my ankles wasn’t pleasant, but I peaked up over the buffalo’s back to figure out my next move which was to slog my way to a hedgerow where my fire team and squad were gathering to move out in the direction of the enemy fire, to engage them.  My friend the water buffalo never moved an inch and, far as I could tell, had not been hit by anything.  He was remarkably calm throughout those few minutes of chaos and, in fact, pretty much chewed his ‘cud’ the whole time.  It was quite remarkable.  I guess when you live in a war-torn country that has seen two hundred years of strife like Vietnam, you get used to things – even if you are just an Asian water buffalo.

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