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.


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