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.



Dan said...

DC is one of Cindy & my favorite cities. We have been to 'the wall' numerous times, finding friends or friends' family members names there. Were you ever in contact with Cabrillo's family? I'm guessing his wife and 2 children would love to know you. Thanks for telling a story that was so personal to you. I weep with you. Love,Dan

Trudy said...

You are very brave for including the hard parts. Thanks.