Monday, May 31, 2010

Vietnam 1964 - Part I

(Note: Open the links by right-clicking, and opening in a "New Window" or "New Tab.")

I left Owensville in the last days of July 1964 or early days of August to catch my flight on a twin-engine plane from Evansville. I recall leaving early, before my 30-day leave was over, to make sure I wasn't late. I always feared being late for assignments. That flight to Chicago was my second in my entire life at that point, but there would be many in my future. It didn't dawn on me that flying wasn't entirely safe. I caught a B-707 at O'Hare to San Francisco where I boarded a bus to Travis Air Force Base to catch the long flight to Vietnam. It was a wonder that I made it to Travis. I had no idea where I was. I recall a conversation in Rhode Island, a month earlier, with a guy I didn't know and who for all I knew didn't know how to get to Travis either, about how to get to Travis. I figured that if I made it to Travis, where my orders directed me to go, then I would make it to Vietnam. "Where is Travis Air Base?" In California. "Where, in California, exactly?" (I at least knew California was on the West Coast.) Between San Francisco and Sacramento. (Well, that narrowed it down! I doubt that I had a clue on where either of those cities were.) "So, do I get to Travis by going to San Francisco? Or to Sacramento? Just how, exactly, do I do that?" Fly to San Francisco and take a bus to Travis.

So, I arrived. It was a miracle. At check-in I was told that my flight would depart in four days. Man, was I early! It was my first lesson, the same lesson repeated a thousand times since, that in the military I would constantly hurry up and wait. There was no need for me to cut my leave short, but I did it repeatedly over my entire Navy career. I never learned the lesson.

Four days later I boarded a C-141 cargo jet bound for Saigon and learned another lesson; flying with the military did not include comfort. I and about 150 other men crammed ourselves into the plane and took our aluminum-framed seat that did not recline and was covered with pallet webbing riveted to the frame that faced backwards toward the rear of the plane and the two large cargo pallets that our duffel bags were stacked and tied on. I recall worrying about getting a "good" seat as we boarded the plane in the hot sun, I in my dress blue uniform, usually worn in winter but also for traveling, sweaty and near the end of the line. I was lucky. I took a seat in the last row facing the cargo pallets, the only row with leg room. We soon took off and began our fifteen hour flight without heat, no arm rests, no fuselage insulation and with plenty of cold air blowing through the plane; I shivered the entire flight. I wondered where, in the pile of duffel bags, was my P-Coat and if I could get it. I couldn't. I managed to get a thin wool blanket, but it helped very little. The flight crew wore heavily insulated green flight jackets, the same jacket that Durward brought home from the Navy and that he used to keep warm in the freezing zero-degree North Atlantic weather. It was that cold in that plane.

Somewhere over Guam we flew through severe weather and the plane hit a deep air pocket and plummeted about five thousand feet before recovering and regaining altitude. It was a jarring experience, to be on the fourth flight of my life and to suddenly learn that shit happens, almost literally, on aircraft. One crewman was hurt in the plunge because he wasn't strapped in a seat. Everyone else had buckled up when the rough ride started. I was so glad when that plane touched down at Tan Son Nhat Air Base, Saigon, and I couldn't wait to get off. Fifteen minutes later I walked through the door into a blast of hot and humid air and I was sweating before I walked twenty feet. From the freezer to the frying pan. Whew, was it hot in Vietnam. The crew had already tossed their jackets and had stripped down to their t-shirts and the cargo pallets were placed on the tarmac and we lined up in the stifling heat to find our duffel bags. It seemed an hour or more before we boarded a green, school bus-type bus to go to our next, and hopefully final, stop in Saigon. It wasn't a final stop, but on that day it was good enough. I was fed up with traveling.

First impressions are lasting and, thinking back, it was from that first hour that my impressions started the path to my later doubts about the war and formed into a question: What are we doing here? The first thing I noticed after we entered the city, about a mile from the air base in those days, was the smell, the constant noise of automobile horns and the complete lack of traffic rules. The air seemed to be filled with an acrid, vinegary smell and was especially strong around the Vietnamese bus driver but also seemed to flow through the open windows. I couldn't point out its source. And the traffic. We had arrived during the afternoon rush-hour. It seemed that vehicles, cars, trucks, motorcycles, bicycles, mopeds, and even oxen, kept generally to the right side of the road, but the path ahead was up for grabs and if there was a lane dividing line, it wasn't always observed and could barely be seen. You took the path that was available, and if it was suddenly filled by another vehicle or pedestrian, you blew the horn and swerved into on-coming or cross traffic to get through. Complete chaos. A few videos, here and here (I hear a policeman's whistle in this one) or here, show that it hasn't changed nor have the buildings and roadside trash changed.

And then there was the bizarre, black-red-teethed smiling old woman who, at the center of the city, here (you should see a traffic circle joining five or six streets), apparently walking from the Center Market (the large red-roofed building) and not three feet from my bus window, looked up at me directly in the eye and smiled. I was so shocked by her appearance that I didn't respond. Her black-red stained teeth were so dark that she seemed to have a black hole in the center of her face. I learned later that her teeth were stained with beetle nut, a mild stimulant.

At no more than ten or fifteen miles from the air base, we finally arrived at our hotel-barracks nearly an hour later. I recall that the room they lead us to contained around fifteen cots, a blanket that we wouldn't need and a pillow. We kept our duffel bags on the floor at the foot of the cots. There was no air conditioning. I immediately took a shower and lay down. I woke up about nine hours later around three in the morning, hungry, but no place to eat and not knowing where to eat anyway. I waited for the morning.

Vietnam was about as alien to me as anyplace I could have gone. It was 180 degrees from anything I imagined and anything I knew. I wasn't sad or afraid to be there. In fact, I was excited and had I been a tourist it would have been the most interesting experience I could have hoped for. But, there was the war. And, where was that war? It turned out, unexpectedly to me at the time, that battles were not fought in Saigon, at least not in 1964. Saigon was a relatively safe place in a country at war. That's not to say that it was completely safe, however. There were bombings, mostly of bars, restaurants, government buildings, market places and an occasional bombing of a U.S. facility. But all of those would come later. In my first week in Saigon, it seemed like a peaceful place.

There was also the shock of the bars and the bar girls who, putting it delicately, were really, really forward. And, I mean really forward! You get the picture. My naive and inexperienced mind could barely take it in. I'm sure that on that first night when I first walked into that bar that the face of every bar girl in the place lit up and said, "there is two or three hundred American dollars walking in," as they rushed and pushed each other aside to get my attention. Well, the winner had my attention quickly, because I was overwhelmed with attention unlike anything I'd seen or experienced back home around the girls I knew there. I didn't have to search for a bar, either. There was one directly across the street from the barracks, the shortest distance from A to B, so that's where I went.

I think I was very lucky in learning my next lessons before payday, probably after that very first two or three hour bar night after getting back to the barracks. Had I learned it following payday, I wouldn't have made it to the next one. The first lesson was that I would need self control on buying those drinks for those girls, which was a shot-glass of black tea that cost the price of scotch or bourbon. It was expensive and after that night I had about five dollars in my wallet and no idea when payday was. I was paid a few days later and I did go back to the bar, with better resolve to control myself, to see the same girl I sat with the first night and who I'd taken a liking to. But, the second lesson about bar girls on the second time is that they are butterflies, fluttering from one flower to the next. She was sitting with another sailor. In these cases, the lessons were learned early and quickly. It was a game of survival - to the next payday. From that point forward I began learning how to fight that other war, well beyond the borders of Vietnam, in battles of wit on how to occasionally go to an Asian bar without leaving with an empty wallet while the enemy bar girl was trying to empty it. The best offense seemed to be, "want to sit by me? That's okay. I'm more than happy for your company. But, and no disrespect, don't expect anything." Funny thing. When accompanied with a smile, I made more friends with bar girls and bartenders by that approach than any other. They would stop by between other customers just to talk more often than not. I won. I used the same approach nearly everywhere and I got to know more people in other countries than I ever imagined. I hope they won, too.



Delia Ann Kennedy said...

Hi Dave. It would be interesting to hear from you how the leather bomber jacket in the US military changed during the years you were actively engaged in the service. The various service arms have altered the standard issue jackets so often since WWI, it would be interesting to hear how you experienced it.

Dan said...

Wonderful story...I know there's more...and can't wait. As always...thanks for sharing.