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.


1 comment:

Dan said...

You are too brave. I would have had a 'cut leg' AND 'soiled pants'.