Thursday, June 17, 2010

Vietnam 1964 - Part VI

Williams, a Navy Second-Class Electronics Technician and my roommate, talked constantly. Fortunately, I didn't have to spend all day with him and he was frequently gone in the evening, except when Jeffrey lived with us. Williams worked at the Headquarters Message Center and I believe he had a favorite girl in a favorite bar that kept him busy, and occasionally broke. He also shacked up with her for about two months, when I didn't see him at all, until, according to him, he was ordered to move back to the hotel because he was becoming a security risk. He had a high security clearance and he would lose it if he fraternized with Vietnamese women to the point of living with them. I thought she kicked him out because of his constant prattle, although I had no idea what he could possibly be talking to her constantly about since they spoke different languages. Except for that period, he seemed to be around the hotel more when he had no or very little money. I could barely tolerate being around him. I don't think I ever told him to "shut up," but I came close many times. And, Katie bar the doors if I said something he didn't agree with or that he thought he knew more about than I did. I would hear about it for hours. Sundan felt the same as I did, but he closed the door between our rooms so he didn't have to hear him talk. I couldn't do that.

One Sunday afternoon, Sundan and I decided to walk down Le Lai Boulevard to the Central Market. Williams invited himself to go along. I'm sure that I cringed, and Sundan probably did too, but neither of us were impolite enough to tell him that we didn't want him with us. So, we were trapped into spending what I thought would be no more than an hour with Williams. It turned out to be several hours on that day, and the start of a bigger problem, although not long lasting, with him. Going to the market with Williams was like going shopping with your mother, sister or wife. He spent long minutes at each stall, touching everything, looking at and haggling over prices for things he had no intention of buying. Sundan and I saw everything we needed to see in a glance and we were ready to move on, but not Williams. Sundan and I waited and waited.

The Central Market, the largest red-roofed building in this map, was more of an open air market back then. It  was a hodge-podge of stalls covered with canvas or tin along open-air isles. The first thing I noticed was the smell, that same overpowering smell that I noticed in my first few hours in Saigon. It overpowered the smell of the market's open drains and gutters that sometimes came wafting through. The smell was stronger around marinated meat, so on that day I learned that the strongest smell in Saigon was associated with the Vietnamese diet and their sweat. It didn't take me long to spot the marinade sauce in jars and learn its name, Nuac Mam, made with fermented fish oil. The jars were sealed with strips of bamboo tied tightly around the rim, not tin lids like we used in those days, so I could smell the sauce through the bamboo lid. I was surprised to learn that a sauce would cause an entire city to smell like it does. I experienced a similar phenomena when visiting South Korea where garlic is in everything they eat and sweat and garlic odor permeates the air. I eventually developed a taste for Asian food, including Nuac Mam, but it took awhile getting it passed my nose. I still prefer the more potent Vietnamese Nuac Mam to the Americanized Nuac Mam used in Vietnamese restaurants in the U.S. today. But, on that day, the market was packed with sweaty people and, frankly, they stank of it.

The food stands were pictures that I'd seen in National Geographic brought to life. Plucked chickens and ducks and other skinned animals the size of house cats and perhaps squirrels were hanging on strings, pigs' heads in a pans, slabs of beef and dried and smoked meat on trays and flies buzzing everywhere. Sea food stalls had squid, octopus, shark, and the ugliest fish I'd ever seen and a whole array of unappetizing sea urchins, snails and other sea creatures. There was a stall to buy snake meat, alive or already skinned, and snake skins. The guy pointed to me then to a live cobra in a cage and made an eating motion that I understood as him asking if I wanted to buy the cobra to eat. I'd have to kill it and skin it, of course. No thanks, I waved with my hands to show that I wasn't interested. There was a smoke shop that sold smoking pipes of all sizes and shapes, including water pipes with long rubber tubes for drawing the smoke, as well as Lucky Strikes, Camels and Marlboro cigarettes that were probably stolen from the Khanh Hoi Port. Williams had to touch the merchandise, of course, and picked up several pipes to look at and haggle prices over, but he didn't buy any. But, he did talk for what seemed like fifteen minutes on how to smoke hashish with water pipes. "How do you know?" I ask him. I don't recall that he answered my question. I never saw him use drugs in the hotel, but I suspected that he did outside of the hotel. He sometimes seemed to be under the influence of something other than beer or liquor. Ski, an Army Military Police Spec-Five and our fourth roommate and who was about as gung-ho as anyone I knew, would have turned him in or arrested him if he caught him.

Anything that fit in a stall and could be sold was sold in the Central Market and we didn't make it out without buying something. Williams took an interest in a shop that sold live monkeys and ferrets and, of course, he had to "hold one." So, the guy harnessed a monkey, similar to this one that are now rare and endangered, and let Williams hold him. Then he took a ferret out of its cage, snapped a leash on it and handed it to Williams. Then Williams picked up the monkey again. Back and forth for fifteen minutes or so, all the while talking about how to care for a monkey (there didn't seem to be anything Williams didn't know - just ask him), until I was growing more impatient than I already was. Thinking that I saw where Williams was headed, I complained first. Something along the lines of, "You're not going to buy a pet, are you?" He nodded. "Shouldn't you ask us, first? We live there too and I don't want to come in some night and find monkey shit on my bed." "He won't shit on your bed." "Wanna bet? It's a wild animal and they shit wherever they want to. It'll probably bite too."

Sundan complained too, saying "keep the damn thing out of my room." Williams bought the monkey anyway and kept on talking as we started back to our hotel. It started raining, one of those drenching Vietnam monsoon downpours, before we got far and the monkey went crazy, screaming, curling its lips back, baring its teeth and jumping to the end of its leash and on Williams then to the sidewalk then back on Williams while Sundan and I walked far enough behind to be out of the monkey's reach. A dry monkey may be cute, but a wet monkey stinks of urine and looks like a miserable rat. We took cover under an awning and Williams finally got the monkey under control. It stopped raining after a few minutes and we made it back to our hotel with the monkey. He named it Jeffrey. Years later when I heard Bill Cosby's comedy routine about a screaming kid named Jeffrey on an airplane, I always thought of that monkey.

Ski, short for Jablonowski (I think - which is why we called him Ski), was there when we arrived. He was the opposite of Williams. He was spit and polish Army. He spent more time polishing his brass than I spent in the hotel. He rarely said a word. He already had a low opinion of us, and all Navy personnel in general, when word got around about Sundan and my escape from the restaurant, which had by then become a funny story at the Enlisted Club. Ski overheard Sundan tell the story, as only Sundan could do, at the club one night after a few drinks and Sundan had us rolling on the floor with laughter. Ski ask Sundan what he would have done if there was no balcony, no escape, from the second floor. Sundan shrugged, "Ah don' know. Shit, I guess," so innocently that we nearly split our sides laughing. Ski didn't think it was funny. All he said was, "Idiots," and he was serious. That made us laugh more. So, when he saw us walk in with that wet monkey, he looked at us and said, "You're crazy." I resented being lumped in with Williams, but I couldn't help but laugh. He thought a little better of Sundan and I when he learned that the monkey was Williams' idea, but only a little.

The first thing Williams did was let the monkey lose in the room. That was a big mistake. The monkey leaped from Williams to Sundan's bed, then to Ski's bed, climbed the drapes and stopped on top of Ski's closet, leaving muddy paw prints on everything it touched. It also had apparently grabbed one of Ski's newly polished brass collar devices from his night table on its way and it was rolling it over in its paws, inspecting it. I was dumbfounded, speechless. Ski was outraged. He said more in the next five minutes than I'd ever heard him say in an entire day, and none of it is printable. He was a big guy and one punch from him would have killed Williams. But he didn't hit Williams, although I thought he was going to. Williams chased the monkey until he caught it by cornering it in the bathroom.

Our next problem was the maid. She refused to come in the room after she discovered Jeffrey. So, we had to find her and convince her that Williams would make sure she could clean the rooms and take care of the laundry without being bothered by the monkey. It turned out that she could take care of Sundan's and Ski's room, but not Williams' and my room. Williams kept the monkey tied to his bed and that also put my bed within the monkey's reach, at least enough that the maid wouldn't change the sheets. So, I made my own bed for awhile and put my dirty sheets and clothes in Sundan's room for her to pick up. Jeffrey was becoming the nuisance that we knew he would.

Williams fed Jeffrey bananas. I asked him, "Don't monkeys eat more than bananas? Don't they eat nuts and other fruit?" feeling sorry for the monkey and to encourage Williams to feed it better. But, it didn't phase Williams. I began bringing dates and figs from breakfast for Jeffrey and, as far as I could tell, the monkey loved figs and preferred those over bananas. I became convinced that Jeffrey didn't like Williams. He let the monkey lose when Ski wasn't around and sometimes the monkey would jump to my bed and hide behind me and watch and bare his teeth at Williams the instant he turned him lose. He always had difficulty catching Jeffrey, but that never stopped him from turning him lose. He would pet it and brush it which seemed to only annoy the monkey more but Williams seemed to think that he was training Jeffrey to be more responsive, to bond with it better. He talked constantly about bonding with Jeffrey. One day it escaped through the door as Sundan came in. The monkey went up the center staircase to the top floor before Williams took two or three steps out the door. He tried to entice it to come to him with a banana, but that didn't work. Someone opened a door on the top floor, curious about Jeffrey's screaming, and the monkey went in the room and Williams caught it there. So, even our neighbors began complaining.

The last day we saw Jeffrey was the day that Williams forgot to check and close the balcony door next to my bed. We opened the balcony doors on days when the temperature was reasonable. As soon as Williams let Jeffrey lose, he jumped over me and was out that door like a flash. He had probably been eyeing that open door from the moment I opened it. By the time I could get to the balcony, only three feet from my bed, Jeffrey was on the roof, three floors above, looking down at me, his little head peaking over the edge of the building. I don't recall that he had anything to hold on to as he scaled the building other than mortar joints. It was an amazing climbing feat. Williams grabbed his banana bait and ran out to the sidewalk, but I could have told him not to bother. Jeffrey was gone and he wasn't coming back. Jeffrey was an interesting and amazing little animal. On the other hand, Williams hadn't learned a thing. He bought another monkey, but I think he kept it at his girlfriend's house. All of us threatened him with bodily harm if he ever, ever brought another animal to the hotel. Sundan, Ski and I were reaching the end of our rope, so we were glad Jeffrey escaped. I think he lived with us for three, maybe four weeks.


Monday, June 14, 2010

Vietnam 1964 - Part V

My after-hours scheduled watch assignment was on the Khanh Hoi Port Security Patrol that in the first three months meant a once per week roving patrol in the port. Around Thanksgiving we began to see a lot more U. S. Army personnel, 1st Calvary and 1st Infantry advance ready teams stopping by to discuss logistics through the port, in their starched and ironed green fatigues, polished and neat - all squared away, and most were not carrying weapons. Before my year was over, I would see Army personnel straight from the battle fields in unkempt jungle camouflage uniforms, green t-shirts and flack jackets, and carrying their weapons in Saigon, even in the bars. I didn't blame them, but the difference was significant. The port began to receive a lot more army field equipment marked for specific Army Divisions, such as 2-1/2 and 5 ton trucks, armed troop carriers, tanks, jeeps, artillery, mobile office trailers, tons of c-rations and tents and a lot of lumber. The word that came down to me was that the port was becoming a more important target to the Vietcong and we needed to increase surveillance. So, junior enlisted like me went from one in seven days on watch to once every three days. Senior enlisted, E-5 and above (I was an E-3), and officers were on a different, less frequent rotation. We were to be particularly alert to any unusual activity on the Saigon River, such as sampan activity at night or swimmers that might be crossing it. I seem to remember that South Vietnamese Army guards were stationed along the river bank in the port as extra protection against any attack from across the river. But, as it turned out, we wouldn't have to worry about that until around May or June 1965. Until then, the big problem was theft. I remember hearing in my first month that the port was losing around $4 million a month to theft. I don't remember hearing that our increased patrols decreased our losses. The increase in cargo, especially c-rations and lumber that were hot items for thieves, may have had the opposite effect, increasing the losses.

So, every third day I would muster at the port armory, get my M-2 Carbine, a walkie-talkie and my assigned jeep and usually be paired up with a senior enlisted or, less frequently, the Watch Commander, an Ensign or Lieutenant Junior Grade junior officer or a Chief. I came to learn that one Ensign, only a few years older than I,  and one senior enlisted would make the night a long and miserable night if I were unlucky enough to be assigned with them. The officer, whose name I don't recall, seemed to think he needed to micromanage every little thing the patrols did, from securing the port to entering warehouses and compounds. If we met him on patrol, someone would likely say, "Oh shit. Get ready for John Wayne," which meant that we could bet on being ordered to take unnecessary risks, such as entering a compound or building in darkness without backup, playing like strike troops in the movies or moving stacks of pallets or conex boxes (predecessor of today's cargo containers) with a forklift at midnight, which, as you will see below, was a stupid idea and a duplication of work that had already been done.

The single senior enlisted that I dreaded to be assigned with was Army Spec-Five Siefert who worked with me at the Field Support Unit (FSU). He had been in the Army around twenty-five years and was a World War II vet of the Normandy invasion and in European campaigns and Korean War. His war experience had made him a personal wreck. He was an alcoholic and I don't believe he was completely sober for a single minute over the entire time I knew him, although he was better during the days than nights. He worked hard during the day. But, I remember a number of times in late evening or night when I or Seaman Harms, another FSU coworker, found him too drunk in some bar or staggering on the street to make it to his hotel and we helped him to his hotel where he either passed out or cried himself to sleep. Everyone felt sorry for him and LT Thomas sent him for evaluation a number of times hoping that he would be sent back to the U.S. for treatment or discharge, but he always returned. I think the idea of being sent to the States or being discharged from the Army terrified him. "What would I do?" he frequently asked when he was drunk. And, he was right. His behavior wouldn't have been tolerated in a regimented Army Unit in the States. 

On patrol, everyone knew the signs. Usually before dark, his hands began to tremble and he began rubbing them together. He would make an excuse to go "check something out," a warehouse or compound, and disappear around a corner. He would return a few minutes later saying "everything is okay," but his hands were not shaking anymore. Nobody was fooled. He could drink whiskey like water and everyone knew that he carried a large flask and he could empty it in one large gulp. I never knew how the night's patrol would go with him. He might doze in the seat nearly the entire night and I would have to do everything myself, or he may threaten to shoot every shadow or he may be the best, level headed partner I could ask for. It was a crap shoot. On his good days, he was better than any sailor on patrol because of his Army training and experience. He knew how to enter a dark warehouse with the least risk to us and I learned a lot from him on his good days.

Today, Google map shows that the city has grown across the river, but in 1964 the other side of the river was all jungle and trees lined that side of the river. It also shows a lot more warehouses in the port than there were in 1964. There were more open areas in the port in 1964-65. There was no creepier place at night in Saigon than the Khanh Hoi Port. An area where a night crew might be working unloading a ship was brightly lit using the ship's lights, gasoline powered generators and tall portable and powerful lights on thirty foot towers on trailers on the dock and, of course, the headlights of forklifts and dock mules. But the rest of the port was unlit or lit by a single dim light bulb on the side of an occasional building, which only seemed to darken the shadows around the lit area. What made the port even more creepier was that we drove the darkest parts at idle speed, behind and between the warehouses, walled compounds and stacked cargo containers and pallets with our lights off as much as possible. We were looking for anything moving in the darkness. We weren't going to find anything by making a lot of noise with our lights on, and lights caused night blindness. While that made sense, it didn't make it any less spooky. Our orders were to stop at random points and times along the route and sit quietly for ten or fifteen minutes and watch and listen for unusual activity. That extended the time to drive a route to around thirty minutes.

Our routes overlapped with other patrols. I remember a number of times we would suddenly catch movement or a lit cigarette or glint of something in the shadows some distance away, pause to watch a few minutes, call in a possible sighting and get ready to go investigate only to discover that we were watching another security patrol. It took a while to calm our nerves after all alerts, whether we had alerted on our own patrols or not. Just as many times I answered radio calls that indicated a patrol had alerted on my location. Alerts usually went something like, "This is patrol #1. We have movement on the north-west corner of the lumber yard. Over." And, if I'm sitting at that location, I'd respond, "This is patrol #3. We are at the north-west corner of the lumber yard. We see no movement. Respond." After my GQ radio experience, I was always happy and a little surprised when my radio worked, that I actually heard something over it, and I hoped that Patrol 1 got the message. We also hoped that Patrol 1 didn't include John Wayne Watch Commander and, if it did, that he had enough sense not to rush our position, scaring the crap out of us or worse, before he knew what he was getting into. We flashed our headlights if we didn't hear a response quick enough to sooth our nerves. The patrol was required to confirm, for example, "This is patrol #1. Movement confirmed. We need backup. Out." If we were close by and we heard a confirmed alert or we heard "all patrols backup" we drove to the location to backup the patrol calling in the alert. 

The first thing we did before darkness was secure our areas by eliminating as many hiding places, dark shadows and trip hazards as possible. That usually meant cleaning up after the day shift by stacking any loose wooden pallets that could be both hiding places and trip hazards if we needed to run in the dark. We made sure warehouses and compound gates were locked. And we made sure all cargo containers were positioned so that the doors were not accessible by making sure they were butted up against other containers or a wall. That was the general rule for storing containers in the port's container yards; closely stacked, three or four high and doors inaccessible, whether they were empty or full. Every patrol, at one time or another, found a Vietnamese hiding in an unlatched container. They hadn't been hiding for long. The containers were usually too hot inside to hide in during the day.

Usually, we took care of the containers ourselves. We didn't trust Vietnamese laborers to secure them. If we found one unlatched or with a broken seal, we had to investigate it to make sure nobody was inside, report broken seals and move it if we could. I, as the junior guy, inspected the doors while my senior partner stood back watching, both with our weapons ready. If the doors were latched closed and could not be opened from the inside, I used a forklift to butt them against something to block entry. If the doors were not latched and could be opened from the inside, I would swing the doors open with one hand, my carbine pointed with the other and step to the side so I could see inside without standing directly in the door. Most of the time nobody was hiding in them. But, tension soared when there was. I would point my carbine in the general direction of the hideaway and shout, "Oi! Do-Mah! Dee-dee mou!" using my limited Vietnamese, which translated to "Hey! Whale Shit! Quickly!" Do-Mah is the abbreviated and more derogatory version of Do-Mammy (spelled phonetically), the only curse word in the Vietnamese language. It means everything from the lowest deposit on Earth, i.e., whale shit, to general frustration. I intended it to mean the worst. They came out slowly, usually blabbing and babbling and watching my rifle, and we forced them to the ground, spread eagle, and radioed Command to send the Vietnamese police. I don't recall hearing that a patrol shot a hideaway, but it was only because they gave up easily. On one occasion a Vietnamese had squeezed into a full container of c-rations through an eight to ten inch gap on top of the boxes and became trapped and couldn't get out. He probably intended to pass as many cases of rations as he could over the wall that night. We had to get warehouse workers to unload the container to get him out. Since nothing appeared to be missing and I gave no thought to that gap, I was latching the door when he started yelling. He's lucky he yelled. The Army may have found a skeleton by the time they needed the c-rations inside and there's no telling when that would be. He would have died the next day from the heat inside of that closed container. Word also got around that a patrol killed a Vietnamese that was hiding in a container when they didn't investigate or secure the doors before repositioning it. He attempted to escape as the container was being shoved up against another one and he was crushed between the two containers. I don't recall hearing of anyone finding a dead hideaway when a container was eventually opened, but I wouldn't doubt that it happened. It was important to follow procedures and always investigate containers.

There was nothing we could do to secure the Army vehicles, parked end-to-end in rows in the open areas. All we could do was to make a mental note on how many were there and how they were parked so, when we came by later, we may be able to tell if any were missing. I don't recall hearing that any were stolen, although all that was needed was a little gasoline and a battery (my memory could be wrong, but I think the batteries were stored in a warehouse close by) to drive them away. They did not need ignition keys. (I doubted my own memory about the keys, so I sent a message to Jerry asking him what he remembered. He in turn called his friend Skip. Skip's response was, "if they had keys, we'd never get anything done. Everyone would be losing them." That confirmed my memory, too.) Those vehicles were perfect hiding places in darkness. If we had a yard full of jeeps, we parked our jeep at the end of a short row as if it belonged there and watched and listened. There were several times when we were rewarded for doing that.

But, the lumber yard topped the list, it seemed to me, of the Watch Commander's special watch items. I don't remember a time when the Watch Commander didn't ask at the start of the watch, "who has the lumber yard?" Someone would say, "we do," and they would be briefed on the lumber yard no matter how many times they had already heard it; stop by more frequent, stay quiet longer, walk to the gate and look for movement in the yard. The lumber yard compound, perhaps one-half the size of a football field with concrete walls all around, had a common wall with the outside boulevard and I seemed to remember that street-side wall having razor wire along the top of it, as well as the embedded glass that most perimeter walls had in Saigon. But, it seemed to me that lumber always turned up missing in spite of everyone's efforts. One night we discovered one method used to steal it.

On that night the lumber yard was full of banded, bundles of lumber stacked four and sometimes five high in rows. There was enough room to drive a small portable crane or forklift between every two rows. We received a call to all patrols for backup because of a loud noise in the yard, reported as sounding like one or more bundles falling, a little after midnight and we met the other patrols at the yard's gate. One man was left to guard the gate and the rest of us, with a flashlight and rifle, started walking between the rows of lumber to the other end. It was spooky. I didn't know where too shine my light first or where whoever was there, if anyone, would come from; the top of the bundles above me, the gap in the row every few bundles about the width of a man, or behind me, thinking that I'd passed him. But, I made it to the end and found out what had caused the noise. About two rows from me, I saw a man's legs, from waist down, sticking out from the middle of a pile of lumber and the top bundles had fallen into the vehicle lane. He had been crushed by the weight of the lumber. A few others were there before me and one was sick, vomiting. As I got closer, I took one look and couldn't look again. It was a gruesome sight. We also found a good sized hole in the wall to the outside street, behind brush that had grown up along the wall, that was used to steal the lumber. The Watch Commander called for help and stayed with a few other men to supervise the clean up and we went back to our patrols.

I learned a few days later that the Vietnamese was an employee of the lumber yard and he had been removing the boards from the middle of the bundle, weakening the support for the top bundles, and passing them through the hole in the wall. Apparently he was prying another board lose when the bundles above caved in on him. I recall that all of us gave a collective "No shit, Sherlock!" when we heard the story. I guess the money he was making caused his brain to malfunction and greed to take over. A week or so later, our Vietnamese warehouse foreman, Mister Lau (he even introduced himself as "Mister" Lau - he was arrogant), didn't show up for work and never returned after that. I was told that the U. S. Army Criminal Investigation Division had investigated the lumber theft and they had arrested him and a number of Vietnamese port foremen and managers who were building new homes or adding on to their current homes or were involved in selling the lumber. I also heard that Mister Lau had a pretty nice home, but I never saw it.

A few months later, perhaps in March 1965, my watch rotation was relaxed, as I recall, to once a week again, partly because the Army was taking their equipment out faster for new Army camps north of Saigon, and because more personnel were arriving and there were more of us for the watch bill. America was getting into the war in a bigger way. I was eventually taken off the watch bill entirely in late April 1965 when I was assigned to the Beer and Pop Warehouse, just a ten minute walk up the river from the FSU. That was okay with me. There was never a dull moment on patrol, even when nothing happened, and frankly I'd lost interest in the excitement in the first few weeks.


Monday, June 7, 2010

Vietnam 1964 - Part IV

I had two other duties, one for city-wide military emergencies and threats, my General Quarters (GQ) assignment, and the other on a watch bill for security patrols in the Khanh Hoi Port. My GQ station took precedence over everything whenever an emergency alert was sounded. But, it was the strangest and most frustrating assignment I had during the entire year that I was in Vietnam. The gist of it was that I was to go to my GQ station, a small apartment building converted into officers' quarters in the western part of Saigon in a nicer neighborhood, and on the opposite side of the city from the Khanh Hoi Port, using any manner of transportation that I could arrange whenever the city went into emergency conditions, such as Vietcong attack, city-wide riots and unrest. It turned out that I could never figure out when a City Emergency Alert happened. There was no siren alert and never an Armed Forces Radio announcement as far as I could tell. I had a street address, but I had never been there before the first emergency even though I asked Operations whether someone should show me where the building was and what to do when I got there. "No. You'll know when you get there," was the answer. I didn't feel at all good about that answer. But, three months passed without an emergency, so I forgot about it.

On the first emergency, which I believe occurred in November 1964, Lieutenant Thomas told me that the city had gone to an emergency status because of riots. Actually, the city looked as calm as it did every day, the traffic normal, markets busy and people out as usual. But he dropped me off at my GQ station on his way to Headquarters and his GQ station. As I walked in the building, a Vietnamese, who I later learned was the cook, lead me to the second floor to a screened balcony overlooking the street, gave me a one-page typed list of instructions and he left the building, I presumed to go to his own home. The one-page of instructions instructed me to open the safe (the combination was clearly typed on the document - anyone could get it) to get the .45 caliber pistol and to locate the battery operated radio in a cabinet, tune the radio to the specified frequency, check in with Operations and watch and report anything unusual. That was the gist of it; about four or five lines of typed instructions. So, I began trying to contact Operations using the radio, but I didn't get an answer. I tried for over four hours and finally gave up. At around four that afternoon, having spent nearly the whole day there without food and not knowing if the emergency was over, I walked until I found a taxi and made it to a dining facility to eat and then to my hotel. The next day I reported to Operations and my boss, LT Thomas, that the radio didn't seem to work. Operations didn't seem to know what I was talking about, but LT Thomas said he'd look into it so I forgot about it.

But, the next time a month or so later it happened again the same as the first. Another riot, said LT Thomas, but this time I took a taxi that had to detour around the anti-war and anti-American demonstrators marching toward the traffic circle to reach my destination. The taxi driver drove a little faster. He was just as concerned as I was about being caught in the middle of anti-American demonstrators with an American in his cab. Once again, I tried to contact Operations but failed, spent the day on the balcony without food, left my post that afternoon without knowing the status of the emergency and once more reported the malfunctioning radio. Nothing came of it. I did, however, replace the radio battery a number of times over the year.

I missed the next emergency that occurred in February 1965, as I recall, on Vietnam's Election Day. I wasn't told that an alert had been called and it didn't dawn on me that an election day would be an emergency. There were explosions from the direction of Tanh Son Nhat Air Base, but that wasn't unusual. They had occurred before without an emergency alert. And, there were Vietnamese Air Force fighters flying around Saigon, but that too wasn't unusual. They'd done that before. But, while from all appearances Vietnam was holding national elections, what was really occurring was a government coup and Vietnamese Air Force General Nguyen Cao Ky and other pilots were dropping bombs on their own Presidential Palace grounds. He became Prime Minister a few days later. I, of course, wasn't aware of any of that until the Support Activity's XO explained it while he chewed me out for missing my assignment. I asked the XO how he knew I hadn't shown up since I had not reported to Operations. He said the Vietnamese cook reported that I had not arrived to an officer living there. He also told me that the cook wasn't able to leave since I hadn't showed up, which apparently meant that I had inconvenienced the cook. I recall that I couldn't control my frustration and my angry response to that was something like, "are you kidding me?" I recall that later LT Thomas, having heard from the XO, asked me what my duties were at my GQ assignment and I told him that, so far, it involved lying on a chase lounge on a balcony trying to get the radio to work. I also told him, in my frustration, that, ironically, reporting to the goddamned cook was just as effective as the radio for reporting in. He laughed. I recall that emergency alerts were called about three more times before I left Vietnam and LT Thomas made sure to tell me to "report to the cook," sarcastically. I knew what he meant.

It was a bizarre assignment and frustrated me to no end. If anything dangerous had happened there, nobody would have known about it until one of the officers living there or the cook showed up for supper. Fortunately, nothing happened.


Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Vietnam 1964 - Part III

I was finally moved into Le Lai Hotel and finally able to unpack my duffel bag. I had packed it nine days before and lived out of it since. I was wearing my last pair of clean underwear and desperately needed to wash my uniforms. I was very thankful I had bought those six pair of briefs, which I much preferred over those miserable Navy issue boxers, while I was home on leave. I at least had enough underwear to last the nine days, even if I had to resort to wearing boxers, but I had no more than that. The first words spoken to my new roommates went something like this: "Does the hotel have a washing machine?" I asked. No. Pile your clothes over there and the maid will take care of it. "Maid? Are you kidding me? We have a maid?" Yea. It costs us $10 a month. "You're shittin' me. We have a maid and she washes our clothes for $10? Each?" No. Not each. She washes all of our clothes for $10. Now that you're here, $2.50 each. I was shocked. I piled my dirty clothes, nearly everything I owned except my P-Coat, where I was told to and happily put the rest away in the three drawer/closet combination that was all mine. I recall that I was just as excited that the closet had clothes hangers as having a closet of my own. This might turn out alright after all. Much to my surprise the maid cleaned my clothes overnight and I found them neatly ironed and stacked the next morning when I awoke around five-thirty, my second day in Le Lai. I never complained about service.

Our hotel room was two bedrooms and one bathroom on the third floor and we slept two to each room. It was air conditioned, another blessing. My bed was next to a small balcony overlooking Le Lai Boulevard. If I stepped onto the balcony, I could see to the left all the way to the Center Market and part of the center traffic circle (same map). That Sunday, the first of many Sundays that were usually but not always a day off, I would hear a pop-pause-pop-pause of weapons fire coming from the traffic circle and I looked out my balcony to see one or more rows of men, it varied, perhaps ten to a row, facing East and another man walking behind them, his back to the Center Market, shooting them in the back of the head. It was public executions conducted by the South Vietnamese Army. I don't recall what I thought about it then. Before the year was over, I would form an opinion about war brutality and even place blame, but the blame would change many times in the years to follow. But, on that Sunday I believe I thought that it was just one more extremely strange and unworldly sight that I'd never imagined that I would see. The executions were held nearly every Sunday, but after one or possibly two more, I didn't watch nor did I listen for the pop-pause-pop. It was just more background noise that I learned to ignore.

Our hotel had no dining facility nor snack vending machines. We had to go to other American-run hotels for meals. It did, however, furnish potable water in five-gallon bottles that were delivered to each room. That was the only water we could drink and use for brushing our teeth. If you accidentally got shower water in your mouth, you'd better have a spitting fit to make sure you didn't swallow it. It wasn't unusual to hear one of us frequently start spitting and hawking phlegm and blowing our nose in the shower to the point we thought whoever it was was choking to death. If you did accidentally drink water from a faucet, in only took a matter of a few minutes to become ill, from a mild case of diarrhea to severely sick enough to be hospitalized. Whatever was in the water was brutal and taken seriously.

On that second day in Le Lai, at around six in the morning, one of the Branch Field Support Unit's (FSU), my assigned unit, trucks, driven by a Vietnamese, picked me up for the trip to work. We went down Le Lai Blvd to the circle, turned right onto Tran Hung Dao for a quarter-mile, made a u-turn and stopped at another hotel to pick up PO2 (Petty Officer Second Class) Cabrillo, also assigned to the FSU, went back to the circle and turned right on Ham Nghi Blvd., and stopped at another American-run hotel/dining facility, the Ham Nghi, for breakfast. The Ham Nghi was located next to the American Embassy Annex, near where you may be able to see the VietinBank on the map (place your cursor over the icons on the map and click - the map should be in Satellite-show labels mode). We could have eaten at Cabrillo's hotel, but food at the Ham Nghi was better and the atmosphere was great. It wasn't unusual for us to sit close by or at the same table with the American Embassy Annex staff, and even the Ambassador occasionally. Conversation at the tables was always interesting, usually about the latest news and events. Around Christmas, Cabrillo and I sat near Jonathan Winters, who was there to entertain the troops at Tan Son Nhat Air Base. He acted up during the entire breakfast, making everyone around laugh, with his "fish catching" impressions and noises and wisecracks. He was hilarious. On another occasion around Christmas we were entering the hotel when Bob Hope and a large group of stars were leaving. As we stopped to watch Hope lead his group past us, I recall him making a wisecrack like, "okay, everyone. Grab the next bicycle," as if that was their mode of transportation. I recall that there were several Mercedes waiting for his group.

From the Ham Nghi we continued East on Ham Nghi Blvd to the Saigon River, made a right turn and made our way generally South on Cau Khanh Hoi that becomes Nguyen Tat Thanh to the Khanh Hoi Port. The FSU compound was located in the northern part of the port, approximately between the two large ships on the map, and the cross-streets of Doan Nhu Hai and Hoang Dieu. Hope everyone sees these streets if you are inclined to follow the map. You can also see the port where I worked in this picture, and in the lower center the intersection, right-turn we made off of Ham Nghi Blvd. In the lower left are two, brightly lit what I suspect are floating restaurants and, perhaps, hotels. The largest one is in the same location where a floating restaurant was bombed while I was there and which I had personal experience and that I'll write about later.

At around five or five-thirty in the afternoon, Cabrillo and I reversed the route back to the hotels, except I usually stopped at his hotel for supper and he and I usually had a drink or a soda at the Enlisted Club in his hotel before I went on to my hotel by taxi or by catching a ride with another American. That was our daily routine until around February or March 1965 when Cabrillo was killed in the Embassy Annex bombing. After that, I made the trip alone.

Cabrillo was my immediate supervisor in warehouse operations, but we really didn't do the hard work. The hard work, the lifting and stacking boxes of food and packing "cold-packs" of frozen and chilled foods, and loading delivery trucks, was done by about thirty Vietnamese laborers, who everyone called "coolies" including the Vietnamese themselves. I had a high regard for Cabrillo and so did everyone else. He never got excited and he was never harsh or critical. He seemed to know how to manage people without those traits and he always seemed to know what to do. He laughed easily and listened carefully and he had a lot of interesting stories that he told, mostly about Washington D. C. and his family. He became my best friend. He was a devout Catholic and he attended church every Sunday he could. He never drank more than one or two drinks when he did drink and never enough to get drunk and he never bar-hopped like most of us did. He was simply a good man and I enjoyed his stories and his company many evenings while we passed the off-duty time.

Cabrillo was a Filipino who entered the Navy under a Navy program that allowed Filipinos to join to become Stewards, the occupation that served officers' staterooms, dining facilities, laundry services and provided anything else, within reason, an officer wanted on ship and shore stations and sometimes as personal servants. Navy Stewards also served in the White House and other Washington D. C. military and dignitary facilities. Cabrillo served his first four years in the Navy in Washington D. C. and he was chosen on several occasions to assist at State White House dignitary events under President Eisenhower. After four years, Cabrillo switched his rating to Storekeeper, which allowed him to finally advance through the ranks in a field of his choice. He was in his eighth year of service. His wife and two children were waiting in San Diego while he served his year in Vietnam that would end in a little over a month.

The day Cabrillo died, he took our boss', Lieutenant Thomas', jeep to the Embassy Annex to get resident alien tax forms that he needed to file his taxes. As the worst luck would have it, he was in the Annex when it exploded. The story from those who survived was that, even though hurt badly, he pulled, dragged, pushed and prodded about fifteen people from the fire, saving their lives, and he had entered the building again when the roof collapsed. He was one of the few Navy enlisted to receive the Navy Cross of Gallantry for Bravery under Extreme War Conditions in Vietnam and he is buried in the Arlington Cemetery. Near the end of that day, Lieutenant Thomas asked me to go with him to retrieve his jeep that Cabrillo parked near the Annex. The Annex was completely burned to the ground by then and they had not yet found his body and would not for several days. The Ham Nghi Hotel, next door, was also badly damaged and would be closed for several weeks for repair. Among all the mess and destruction, which was bad enough, the hardest thing for me was driving that jeep away without my friend.

About six or seven years later, in 1970 or 71, while I was attached to the USS Beacon in San Diego, I was selected to represent the West Coast Fleet, the fleet covering the West Coast Naval operations, on one of Admiral Zumwalt's Navy Study Groups on improving the Navy. Admiral Zumwalt was Chief of Naval Operations at the time. Fifteen or so enlisted personnel met in Washington D. C. for three weeks to conduct the study and decide on our recommendations and present them to Admiral Zumwalt. One of our recommendations was for the Navy to stop its discriminatory policies on Filipino enlistments, the policy that required them to be Stewards for a minimum of four years before they were allowed to advance in a field of their choice. Soon after, the Navy policy was changed and Filipinos were allowed to join the Navy, within the limits of the Immigration quotas at the time, into any occupational field they chose and could pass the qualification tests for. While in Washington D. C., I went to Arlington and the cemetery office helped me find his grave. It was a tough day to take.

If I ever go to the Vietnam Memorial Wall in Washington, it is his name that I will look for.

This one was a tough one to write. I hope you find it interesting, even if you find it as sad as I did in remembering. I hadn't intended to write about Cabrillo so soon. In fact, I was trying to delay and perhaps avoid entirely having to tell his story. But, the story took that turn and seemed to flow toward it, so I thought I would get it over with and, in fact, couldn't seem to avoid it at all. I'm glad the telling of it is over.


Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Vietnam 1964 - Part II

The hotel-barracks in that first week in Saigon was only a holding barracks for new arrivals. We would all be reassigned to new lodging, and I didn't yet know what that might be, by the end of the week after Indoctrination was over. Meanwhile, we would attend Indoctrination at the Headquarters compound to learn the rules to live by until we departed Vietnam a year later. I recall only a few things about Indoc, primarily the things all of us, approximately thirty new arrivals, had on our minds and that we questioned and took more interest in. In those days there were not many U. S. Military in Vietnam, probably not more than five thousand. Most were advisors to the South Vietnamese Army in the "field," where the war was fought by the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) troops. In Saigon, there were less than three hundred assigned support personnel, me included. The United States was not yet fighting the war. I, as a Seaman, probably the lowest rank in Saigon equivalent to a Private, was a rare commodity. There were only about twenty of us in the entire city. Most of the military in Saigon were Military Police, MPs, and they seemed to be always within sight or passing by often. There were several times that I was very thankful for that.

So, that being the case, how, exactly, did we get around in the city? A question on our minds. The answer was that we were essentially on our own. If we needed to be someplace, then we got there the best way we could. The Headquarters ran a military bus service along a route that stopped at each American run facility, from the Headquarters to the Saigon port, Khanh Hoi Port on the Saigon River where I worked, to the Tan Son Nhat Air Base, and all stops in between. The problem was that the buses ran once every hour and, if you missed one, you would wait another hour for the next one, sometimes only to travel a mile or so. And, if your destination was the bus' last stop before you boarded it, you had to ride the entire route to your destination, adding another hour to getting from A to B. It was easier to pay for a taxi or hopping a ride with someone who had a military vehicle. Usually I took a taxi except when going to and from work. Getting around in Saigon turned out to be a hassle.

We were also advised to go in "groups," at least two or more, for security in numbers. Not only did we have to worry about the Vietcong, Saigon had its disputes between Vietnamese and Chinese and Buddhists and Police that sometimes became violent in the form of riots and it had its gangs and criminal elements that were nearly always violent. Saigon had a curfew from 11:00 P.M. to 4:00 A.M. If we couldn't make it back to our quarters before curfew, they advised, then we stayed wherever we were at - as quietly and as alert as possible if we were caught in a non-military facility. That usually meant a very restless night without sleep. So, going in pairs was another hassle. Not many were going in the same direction at the same time. My quarters, which turned out to be a small hotel on Le Lai Boulevard about a quarter-mile southwest from the center traffic circle (map), housed about thirty Americans. U. S. Military were spread out all over the city in similar quarters. I hardly ever found one of the thirty going in my direction. So, if I was determine to go out into the city, it usually meant that I would go alone. Otherwise, I wouldn't go out at all.

As it turned out, within only a few weeks of my arrival, I began to get around the city by one method or another without too much trouble. It became routine, a second nature, to be alert to the general situation around me. Any Vietnamese paying a little too much attention to me, whether I was alone or in a group, was enough to hurry me along by grabbing a taxi, flagging down an MP, ducking into the closest American run hotel or other facility, or simply flat-out running to a spot where I could do any of those things. There was always a lot of talk about being alert to anyone wearing "black pajamas," the Vietcong's usual dress. Why anyone would want to broadcast their sympathies or intent by wearing a particular clothing was beyond me. Why not wear something more indistinguishable instead? To blend in with the normal population? But, it was apparently a matter of pride with communists just like it was a matter of pride with us to wear our uniforms. If we encountered a person wearing black traditional Vietnamese clothing, we were doubly alert and moved out of the area as quickly as possible. Most of us carried no weapons in the normal course of a day but we couldn't confine ourselves to our quarters all of the time just to be safe. In addition to having a duty that usually required us to move around in the general public, we had our own stir-crazy sanity to worry about. So, we generally moved around the city whenever we wanted to, albeit with an extra sense for danger.

It was after a month or so in Vietnam and developing that second nature alertness that Sundan, one of my four roommates at the Le Lai Hotel, and I thought we could safely find a better after-hours place to pass the time that we went searching in a part of Saigon that was outside of the area of our normal hangouts. We were looking for a place we could relax our guard not only from our surroundings, but from the constant hassle of fighting off the "buy me drink" con-job. Unfortunately, that kind of place, we learned, apparently didn't exist in Saigon. Our last stop that night was nearer Tan Son Nhat Air Base than it was to the center of the city and it was less bright with fewer military, including MPs, around. Frankly, I was getting nervous. We were way too far outside my sensible area of safety and the hairs on the back of my neck were tingling.

We came across a Vietnamese restaurant that served Bhammy-Bah (33 in Vietnamese) Beer, a Vietnamese beer. Sundan, who had more to drink than I had at that point, wanted to stop, but the restaurant was surrounded by a compound wall with a small area in front of the restaurant entrance, it was dark inside, and it was outside of the MP's normal patrol area, and all of that bothered me and made me even more nervous and I thought we shouldn't stop. I was ready to return to the hotel. But, he convinced me to stop. The first fifteen or so minutes seemed fine, but my beer didn't taste good so I didn't drink but a swallow or two, and my head was clearing up quickly from the two or three beers I had earlier. I wanted to leave. About that time we heard the compound corrugated iron gate close with a clang and the owner told us, "You stay." My immediate response was a loud and angry, "NO!" And I stood up and pulled Sundan to his feet and shoved him toward the door but the owner moved between it and us. I guess Sundan suddenly woke up to what was going on and he turned to the only other exit, a stairway to the second floor, and shoved me and we both made a beeline for that, both in a panic. In the room upstairs was another man, and a woman, and he jumped up, probably surprised more than angry, so we turned to the next only way out, a small balcony, and we jumped out of the second floor and over the compound wall into an alley. Sundan slipped, however, and cut a gash in his leg on the glass shards embedded in the top of the wall.

We were lucky, at least, that the same taxi that took us there was still waiting in the street, probably waiting for us since we were a sure fare back to the city center, and we jumped in before he realized that Sudan was bleeding like a stuck pig. When he did realize that Sundan was bleeding in his cab, we had to threaten him to get him to move. We shouted angrily, in his face, "dee-dee mou!" "dee-dee mou!", "move it" or "faster!" in Vietnamese, to get him moving. I looked back to see if they were chasing us, and they weren't. Both of us spent the night at the Army Dispensary, where Sundan needed a number of stitches to close the gash, because we missed curfew. We vowed never to try exploring beyond reason again. We did buy six-inch knives, however, to carry in case we needed them.

I'm not sure, to this day, whether we panicked and hurt ourselves more than they intended to harm us. I'm not sure his, "you stay," meant that it was getting late and he knew the curfew rules as well as we did and staying was a better choice. But, I'm sure glad we got the hell out of there. It was a much better night's sleep in the Dispensary than no sleep at all in some god-forsaken restaurant I knew not where.