M Y O B

The Life and Times of Bruce Bramson

SETTLING-IN IN SAIGON

without comments

July 18, 2009

As the late, great Anna Russell often said, “I’m not making this up, you know!” Shown below is a scan of one of the many pages of my letters from VietNam. My long-hand was better then than it is now, so I can actually read most of these as I transcribe them for your edification and entertainment.

One of the many pages of my letters from VietNam

Continuing my letters describing my first days in Saigon, during the Tet Offensive.

Saturday AM Feb 3, 1968

Still under curfew. The night was locally quiet, but the VC mortared the Cho-lon power sub-station but missed. Distant heavy artillery continued, and I understand this goes on at all times. The VC are slowly being cleaned up in town; there are still a few pockets of them left, and snipers are still around. The enclosed leaflets were dropped this morning: they tell the remaining VC how many of their comrades have bit the dust since the big push started. and what they can expect if they don’t turn themselves in.

The feeling of boredom setting in is strongly reinforced in some of us by helplessness. We are one block from the RC [Roman Catholic] hospital, where I’m sure we could do some useful work. But the oriental philosophy prevents this: the local people feel they have the situation under control, and do not want our assistance; in part this is because by accepting it they would be admitting the need for it. “Face” is all-important to orientals, and the ramifications this involves are hard for us to understand. Then too, there is a certain amount of anti-american feeling among the South Vietnamese, who reason that our presence is responsible for the current hardships, not to mention many civilian casualties. It is easy to overlook the hardships that they would almost certainly face if we were not here. While it is certainly true that our military presence is pretty obvious, the less obvious—but more important—impact on the local economy is quite easily observable. In many ways, the South Vietnamese never had it so good, despite  inflation, and despite the VC attacks. Many of the VC defections are prompted by the realization that they’re better off living off of us than fighting against us. Unquestionably, Ho Chi Minh is fighting an ideological war, for economically he would be far ahead to capitulate and let us spread our wealth throughout all Vietnam, rather than just in the south. I have not seen anything yet to alter my conviction that Vietnam should be united in accordance with the Geneva Convention of 1954, even if that means electing Ho as President, as it certainly would. But then, I really haven’t seen much of South VietNam, so this conviction could yet change. Well, more later…

7:30 PM

Things are returning to normal—whatever that is. The guards in the streets are more lax, and some small amount of traffic is beginning to flow. The big guns in the distance can be heard, but the occasional firing in the streets has very nearly stopped. Our hotel has run out of nearly everything, so many of us will doubtless try to get downtown tomorrow, and it seems almost certain we’ll be getting on with our work on Monday, when I will also be able to mail this letter. How soon you get it depends on various factors. Military aircraft and personnel flights are now operating from Tan Son Nhut, but commercial flights other than charter and freight aren’t yet back in operation. The mail should go out quickly—I do hope so, so you won’t be in suspense longer than necessary.

Well, more tomorrow, after (hopefully) a trip down-town to see what’s left.

Sunday PM, 4 February 1968

A group of us walked down-town today, but it was largely a futile effort. The curfew on the Vietnamese was lifted from 8 [am] to 2 pm, but it being Sunday nothing opened up anyhow. The BOQs were serving only stew—we suspect it was water-buffalo—and though the Brinks PX was open, the lines to get in were so long that we didn’t bother. Altogether a dull walk, but at least a change from the duller existence here. Another civilian (U.S.) curfew went into effect at 7:00 pm tonight, to last until 8 am tomorrow—this to continue indefinitely.

Tonight’s TV news reports 9 civilian U.S. killed in Saigon since 29 January. Rumors tonight have it that 3 PA&E people got it today; one of those allegedly killed was a man I met at Long Binh last Tuesday. But rumors are a dime a dozen here, and I won’t believe it until I hear it from a much more reliable source.

Sporadic incidents around town are still being reported. 2000 VC have been killed in Saigon since they infiltrated the night of the 29th Jan. Civilian (VN) casualties are heavy, but no count has been given. Estimates put the remaining VC in  Saigon at around 700; untold numbers surround the city as well. Refugees since 29 January coming into Saigon now number over 25,000; they are fleeing either from VC or from bombed out homes in the Delta. One of the popular tricks of the VC is to infiltrate a number of homes and slaughter the occupants; the remaining people surrounding, fearing their own safety, refuse to let the word out on the location of such an enclave. When the ARVN or police close in, the VC set fire to the area and when the local people flee, they [VC] go along unnoticed. The police can’t get them without killing numerous innocent people.

We have no idea whether we’ll go to work or get on with our processing tomorrow or not. Commercial operations at Tan Son Nhut have been resumed. Assuming they have the necessary buses and can arrange an escort, we probably will go to CMO—after all, we’re all on salary & accomplishing nothing here. But if buses and escorts are not available—and they are in short supply—we might not get back to it for a while.

In any event, I shall try every possible way to get this letter off tomorrow, hoping you may get it by Wed or Thursday. If I fail, all I can do is hang on to it, as before!  For now, then, off to bed —

Love to all
Bruce

Nine days into my stay at VietNam, and I haven’t done anything of use to anyone! Little did I know that seven months on, I could report very nearly the same thing! Note my optimism that if I got a letter “off” Monday, the folks would get it 2 or 3 days later: in actuality, most letters took closer to two weeks to reach the States.

Here I began a second letter.

2:00 pm, 5 February 1968

Dear Everybody ~

Despite our hopes of getting out again today, it has not come about. A representative of PA&E did come by this morning to see if we are still OK; he confirmed the rumor that 3 PA&E Entomologists were killed yesterday, but the circumstances are not yet known. All in all, the word is that 22 PA&E people have been killed all over Vietnam since 29 January.

Today there is no movement of VN or U.S. civilian personnel without armed guard; there being a lack of the latter, only essential services are being maintained. Garbage has been piling up in the streets (shades of New York!). Sporadic fighting still rages, some of it quite close to us here.

(Later)

As I wrote that last sentence, a whole lot of shooting erupted nearby. A bevy of VC have apparently been flushed out by a fire about one long block westward, and they’re being fired upon as they flee. A number of grenades have been heard. We have orders to stay altogether in-doors now, so somebody is getting worried about our getting hit. More later . . .

6:00 pm

Well, well! The action got a bit thick around here for a while this afternoon, and may get thicker before the night is over. Electricity has been off since shortly after noon, which means we’ll soon be out of water, and rations are getting quite short. PA&E is trying to arrange to have us evacuated, but they have a great shortage of help, vehicles and security guards, who are military, of course, and are pretty busy.

The PA&E man who came by this am took  my last letter out—I hope it gets through. As soon as I can I will cable, but being restricted as we are makes this impossible. More later . . .

6:00 pm, Tuesday, 6 February 68

Well—now I know something about psychological warfare, at least. The action reported on page 1 of this letter, yesterday, got to within a block of us. About 2 hours after it had died down, 2 americans arrived at our compound alleging they’d been driven out by advancing VC. Their no doubt greatly exaggerated estimate of the number involved was “at least 100″—and at this point, 5 people in our group panicked. A flurry of phone calls to PA&E CMO resulted in nothing, and by 11:00 pm someone had us surrounded by 2000 VC, with two ARVN battalions trying to fight their way on to [rescue] us, etc., etc., etc., ad infinitum, ad nauseam! The fact that there was absolute calm for miles around, so far as a good ear could judge, and the fact there was less shooting in the streets (almost none) than the night before made no difference. One stupid b—–d brought out a .45 revolver and packed it around—cocked—all night, supposedly protecting us (it is strictly verboten for U.S. civilians to carry weapons, and this nut is surely going to be shipped home because of it—good riddance). I was a lot more worried about this guy and his pistol that I was about the VC. He sat out on the street side balcony all night, a perfect sniper target, and generally raised enough Hell to keep us all pretty well awake most of the night.

February 7, 1968

So: all the telephoning and bitching finally resulted in our being evacuated mid-afternoon today. We’re now staying at the “Tourist Hotel”, which, compared with the facilities we had at the Loc building, is a dump. Latest military intelligence (not the most reliable) has it that Phan-thanh-Gian street (where we were) will get “a lot of action” tonight—but the bamboo telegraph says otherwise. The only saving feature of this hole is that is is closer to down-town, but otherwise has no apparent virtue.

I can get mail out better, from here, so I’ll probably mail this when I finish it. Please send all clippings you can about what’s supposed to be going on down here: the news black-out is very bad.

Unless I’m mistaken, it was Rudyard Kipling who wrote in one of his poems about what happens to he who “Hustles the East”.  His astuteness considerably pre-dates Eisenhower and others who warned of the dangers of an Asian land war!

It is now fairly clear at to what happened, here in Saigon, al least, in the current offensive. On the night of 29 January, about 2500 VC infiltrated the city in 2s & 3s from the surrounding delta areas. Their missions were well planned and generally involved taking and holding for 48 hours certain key points. This they managed fairly well to do. But their back-up teams were largely either cut off or were non-existent, and when food ran low, the VC began some skirmishes on their own to cover retreats. These still continue sporadically, so the curfews remain in effect and the lid is clamped on all movement from 1900 to 0800 every night. Apparently, the VC hoped they could spark a general uprising aimed at evicting the “Free World Forces” (i.e., U.S.) but their own atrocities largely thwarted their own attempt. The lowest figure for South Vietnamese dead in the fighting (not counting ARVN) is over 500, with 2-4000 wounded. This is probably a conservative figure.

It’s now anyone’s guess when the mop-up operations are sufficiently complete to allow of our complete processing and assignment. The CMO office, which was confused enough before all this began, is doubtless utter chaos now, so the last thing they want hanging around is a bunch of green processees. I’m inclined to doubt that anything significant will happen for most of us in the remainder of this week, and in my own case, it may be two weeks before the hiway to Long Binh is secure and buses re-established. C’est la guerre!

Love to all,
Bruce

The tourist Hotel was one of the most pestilential places I ever stayed in: I was amazed there were no bed-bugs. Once again CA and I were in the same room, but there was a 10KW generator-set right outside the window providing power for the building 24/7. It made a heck of a racket and smelled of diesel fuel. Even so, we were fortunate: most of our group wound up on the top floor which was just a barracks with rows of beds. The dude with the .45 undertook to clean it one afternoon, and forgot to unload it first, so managed to fire a ram-rod across the room, narrowly missing a fellow nearby. This chap was on the next plane out, contract torn up, assignment rescinded. The other unfortunate thing about the Tourist Hotel was  that it stood directly in the line of fire aimed at the Palace, and it was hit once or twice later on. But mainly, it was horribly run-down: about all that kept it alive was that infernal generator!

Pathetically, there was one older man there who was being sent home: according to gossip, he’d been on a bender for over two months, and I never saw him sober. A couple of days later two men were assigned to dry him out so he could fly, and one of them went with him to keep him from arriving home soused. We were told this failed, and he had to be poured off the plane back in Los Angeles.

I spent my 32nd birthday in this hell-hole, as mentioned in the next letter.

Just turned 32 Photo taken in the Loc Building, probably just after my birthday.

8 February 1968 (here!)

Dear Folks,

Well, today’s my 32nd birthday here—tomorrow at home—so I guess I’ll celebrate twice! We did get out to CMO today—it’s still there, but utter chaos—and managed to get letters off, buy stamps, change some money, and—miraculously—found my transfer papers to Long Binh!

Got the nicest possible birthday present from PA&E—a raise! And I haven’t done an hour’s useful work since I arrived. Somewhere along the way I was classified as GS-13 equivalent, which carries a base salary of $1100 per month instead of the $960 that I hired in at. The classification is retroactive to 25 January, so every day I’ve been here I’ve been on that salary. From what I’ve seen of the cost of living here in Saigon, I should be able to live comfortably on $350/month, and am going to do my best to sock away the remaining $1000 per month. (1100 + 250 living allowance = $1350/mo).

Things are slowly returning to “normal” but it’s obvious that it will take longer than anyone first thought. Latest G-2 (intelligence) places the number of VC in Saigon at about the same number as were here before the offensive began: this is normal, as there are generally thought to be about one battalion (1800) in Saigon at all times. Normally they are underground and indistinguishable from other LNs.

I must digress here to explain the ludicrous parlance the U.S. military has built up to describe the various peoples here:

1.  The native population is variously known as

First Country Nationals (FCN)

First State Nationals (FSN)

Local Nationals (LN)

or (least often) Vietnamese

2.  U. S. Civilians are

Second Country Nationals

Second State Nationals

or Civilians

3.  Koreans, Filipinos, Australians and so forth are

Third Country Nationals

etc.,

or (least often) Koreans, Filipinos, etc.

4.  U. S. Military are

US Military or MilPers

5.  Vietnamese soldiers are

ARVN (Army of the Republic of VietNam)

6.  All other Military are “Free World Forces”.

The FWF, of course, includes the US military in fact, but the  distinction is generally made  as above.

All this is purely ridiculous, of course, but that’s how it’s done and there is certainly nothing I can do about it!!

Presumably, I will go out to Long Binh tomorrow to begin work in earnest. We’ll see about that! I’m not yet certain whether they actually want to get the lab functioning, or whether they just want to dress it up a little and make it look like it’s functioning. I’m told they’ve hired—or at least requisitioned—a bacteriologist to work with me (I’m a Chemist, remember) but it’s anybody’s guess when he will arrive. The lab lacks the basic equipment to do either quantitative chemistry or bacteriology, so until we can solve the supply problem I’ll probably be sitting on my hands anyhow! As I’ve said before, c’est la guerre!!

Cheers to all,
Bruce

Worth mentioning here by way of background: PA&E was begun by one Thomas E. Spicknell, Retired Military, who had a lot of friends in the right places. Basically, he had a contract with the US Army to supply bodies (called personnel, of course) to do whatever the US Army wanted done that it didn’t want to bother doing itself. The contract was a “Cost +” contract: every expense that the Company could document was reimbursed with ten percent added. [I believe PA&E has “gone straight”, and now operates in many countries as a fairly legitimate engineering firm. But in VietNam, it was just a money-making scheme, and it made a lot of people quite rich. It is probably the model for the likes of Haliburton which operates in Iraq today.]

Essentially, every warm body PA&E could get into the country made money for the company on salary alone, and whatever items they needed to do their jobs—or for that matter, to exist—were imported and marked up as well. The system was rife with corruption, and many of the men (relatively few women) who came over were retired milpers just there to augment their retirement pay: it was understood they were not expected to do much useful work, and many did none at all.

Naturally, all these people lived off base, and most of them had Vietnamese girl-friends: a few married their women, but most did not. However, children were produced in some numbers. CA used to quip that for the next war, “we’d only have to send the uniforms.” The truth is that most of the half-breeds were later shunned by the Viets themselves: many were eventually re-patriated to the U.S. Only a very few were sent-for by their biological fathers.

Also by way of background, some discussion about money! Our salaries were paid directly to banks of our choice back in the States; our per-diem was paid locally in MPCs (Military Pay Certificates) or Local Currency (Vietnamese Dong). The Viets were not supposed to accept MPCs (although they did, since they had back-channel methods of redeeming them for Dong or for US Dollars). MPCs were really only useful at Military installations and the PX. Dong, of course, were universally accepted by the local populace for anything. US dollars, (referred to as “YouEss Green) though, were strictly forbidden, although of course there was a huge black market in them. Indeed, the black market was probably larger than the local economy! There was nothing that could not be had for a price, and anyone willing to pay in dollars was afforded the best rates. Many U.S. civilians would have dollars sent in by mail, which they would sell for MPCs, with which they would buy hooch and other items at the PX, then sell these items on the BM for Dong which they used to augment their fairly lavish off-base life-style. It was a mess, and now and then the Government would suddenly change the design of the MPCs in the hopes of catching-out speculators in them: but leaks always allowed the speculators to dump the old designs before they became worthless. It was a cat and mouse game the mouse always won!

Military Pay Certificates (MPCS

No MPCs were issued in denominations larger than one dollar: there were two reasons, one being that items at the PX and elsewhere were usually priced far below true value. The other reason was that the Vietnamese were not supposed to have these, so if they did, they would have to accumulate large piles of them to have any real value. It was not unusual to see someone carrying huge bundles of these!

All the costs of printing these and Dong were borne by the US Treasury, of course.

Dong were colorful: it was rare to find them in decent condition, however. Many of those I saved are still filthy dirty and look quite bad.

Vietnamese Dong

The per-diem we got was to be used for two purposes: to procure housing off-base, and to get money into the local economy. When I eventually took quarters in Saigon proper, the rent far exceeded my per-diem, so I was not able to save the $1000 per month I had hoped for, but I got close. Occasionally, I used Dong to entice the local boys, but usually they were sufficiently interested in me as a foreigner that money was not required.

I will continue my narrative on the next page, coming up soon.

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Written by Bruce

December 14th, 2009 at 8:58 pm

Posted in Saigon 1968,VietNam

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