The Life and Times of Bruce Bramson


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July 27, 2009
Before I continue my saga, there’s a couple of things to mention:


The response to this latest of my stories has been quite phenomenal: many have written to me about it, and all have urged me to continue it. So, I am doing so. It will be a while before it is ready to put up on Nifty, so keep your eyes open there.


Saturday, 10 February 68

Dear Folks,

Things are slowly (very slowly) getting back to normal. The general feeling is that another VC attack may come at any time, but so far it’s fairly quiet, and normal routines are being re-established. I’ve managed to get out to Long Binh twice this week, and tomorrow I and several others are moving out of this flea-bag flop-house to the Loc Building, where we were originally billeted and from which we were so summarily “evacuated” because of the stupidity of a minority of our group. Now that the group has been dispersed somewhat on assignments, we’re free to go where we choose. The Loc Building is as secure as any place in town—more-so in some ways. Until the curfews are entirely lifted and a normal way of life results, I expect I’ll stay at the Loc Building. My address, of course, for mailing purposes remains the same and will for some while.

I’ve even driven out to Long Binh twice in the vehicle assigned to me. I had the foresight before I left to pay $3.00 for an international drivers’ license, which many people do not have here. Driving is pretty hectic, what with the incredible traffic load, which is still not back to its usual levels because of curfews. Then, too, there are numerous ARVN & white mice check-points. Of course, if one is courteous and uses the usual hand signals, there’s no problem. The guys who drive here and get into trouble are inevitably the ones who drive as if they owned the place, which (naturally enough) displeases the Vietnamese. I’ve had no difficulty so far. The most important rule, of course, is to abandon any hope of getting anywhere by a specific time—one has to move at the traffic’s pace, whether that be dead stand-still (as it frequently is) or a snail’s-pace crawl, as is more usual. In town, it’s rare to get the truck into third gear!

I’ve only spent a couple of days at Long Binh, so haven’t been fully able to psych out  the situation. Everything has been so discombobulated by the VC attacks that normal routines (which are nearly always chaotic anyhow) still haven’t been pieced back together. Communication is a great problem, and there are still people unaccounted for. Because of the curfews, very few Vietnamese are available to work, so the lower echelon assistants just aren’t there. Curfews are being extended & ended & lifted in various precincts from time to time, but as there are still parts of town (notably Cho-lon & the Phu Tho rare-track) that are hot-beds of VC activity, the populace has to be restricted in its mobility The clippings enclosed will give you some idea of present situations here.

So—that’s the way it is. I hope all my letters have gotten through OK. The PT&T cable office is still not yet open to the public, & by now you should have had word from me, so I won’t cable.

Incidentally, the emergency connection to get through to me is through the LA office of PA&E. The telephone is [expunged] collect. Ask for [expunged]; he can radio messages; explain my location is Long Binh Post, and you could reach me within 12 hours, I suspect. Alas, under current circumstances I can’t work it the other way ’round!!

Love to all–

Letters down to every-other-day now, signifying things were calming down.

Monday, 12 February 68

Dear folks –

By now I hope you’ve had all my letters, and know I am OK. I was on the “missing” list for 3 days as it turned out, simply because no one had checked me in at the CMO—I’d transferred by then to LB. But that’s how it is here—utter chaos—and I’m not sure but what that’s how it will be all the time.

Got your February 4th letter today—it went to Saigon first, then to Long Binh, so took a little extra time. [Family trivia deleted. The letter included a $10 bill, illegal in Vietnam].

Already got a swell birthday present as previously mentioned. It may be a while before I find anything costing $10 that I’d want to buy here; but I’ve had so little chance to see shops and so forth open, I don’t have too clear an idea of what’s available.

A new group of PA&E recruits arrived today, and a few are billeted here at the Loc Building. From what they tell me, the radio/press/TV coverage of the Saigon situation was greatly exaggerated. Make no mistake: there was a lot of bitter fighting here, a great many people killed & wounded, and some areas largely destroyed. But don’t believe 600,000 homeless and that sort of bilge. This morning I saw a group of about 50 AP news photos, mostly taken in Cho-lon. where the worst of the fighting took place. Not very pretty. But a realistic figure on the people displaced in Saigon would be no more than 5-8000; the refugees into the city from much harder hit (but smaller) cities stands around 30,000. Not that these figures aren’t bad enough, but nothing like the reports apparently circulating in the U.S.

Then too, most of the “homeless”, by any human standard, were “homeless” to begin with. The standard of living for at least 2.5 million people here is such as to make the worst of Harlem or Watts seem palatial. It is a wonder that any of the people in these areas survive—and of course, many don’t, even in “normal” times.

The American presence here is creating a fairly large upper class—land owners who lease various properties (such as this hotel) & buildings to the U.S. This situation accentuates the lack of any sizable middle class: Vietnamese tend to be either wealthy or very poor. The leading businesses, for the most part, are owned by Chinese, who have managed to move into the vacuum left by the French. Where the French moved in, created an economy and skimmed the cream off the top, we move in and simply destroy whatever economy is in place and substitute inflation—which makes the poor poorer.

(Later) Three of us just went next door to the Korean Officers Club & had a Korean dinner. Surprisingly good, which is quite a compliment, coming from a steak and potatoes fan like myself. Also, at Long BInh today I got the first decent meal I’ve had out there: it even included an unlimited supply of “filled milk”—reconstituted milk—which is the first I’ve had since leaving LA, and the only thing I’ve really missed since I left.

I’ve sort of become the unofficial chauffeur for the group of us who live more-or-less down town & work at Long Binh. This means driving the “turnpike” (the only 4-lane road in all Vietnam {except possibly the Ho Chi Minh Trail, which is mostly in Laos anyhow}), a distance of 20 miles or so. During these times when traffic is relatively light, it takes a half-hour; but when things get really moving again it will be more like an hour or more. But by then the buses (which are leased from Vietnamese firms and hence aren’t operating because of the curfews) will be running, & I can sleep the whole time as I understand most people do! The road is relatively safe—you can’t plant mines in a paved highway—and is only occasionally (and very temporally) cut by the VC.

It passes the outskirts of Bien Hoa (pronounced Bin Wa) where there was some bitter fighting over control of the highway, and a good many buildings were destroyed.

You can’t afford to go on Xeroxing my letters forever – but as soon as I get my first pay-check I’ll get a typewriter, which will enable me to carbon-copy everything to the family. I appreciate your doing it as long as necessary.

That’s about all for now. Unless the VC kick up more ruckus (some feel they are going to, some don’t), we should soon be settling down to a steady routine—about all that will mean is fewer letters, since there won’t be so much to wrote about!!

Love to all-

The driving mentioned in the letter above was all done on my International Drivers License. Later on, I got the local license shown above. Wonderfully impressive, with all those stamps and chops. Yet, no one ever asked to see it during the entire time I was in Vietnam!

Valentine’s Day. 14 February 68

Dear Folks –

Managed to get some larger paper—makes for shorter letters and more economical use of your Xerox facilities!  I’m wondering a bit about whether you ever got the long letter No. 2 that I finally managed to send out unexpectedly when we were confined here. The envelope was poorly sealed; I hope you didn’t get it empty! If you did, a carbon copy went to friends in SF and I expect I could get them to Xerox it & send it on if necessary. [It wasn’t necessary—BB]

Life is slowly returning to normal. The Vietnamese are still, for the most part, under curfew from 7:00 am to 2:00 pm daily—5:30 in a couple of precincts only, so that not too many are able to work, especially those who ride out to Long Binh or other spots outside Saigon proper. Each day, though, sees new streets opened to traffic and other signs of a semblance of normalcy.

U.S. civilians are also under strict curfew from 7 pm to 8:00 am. This means we don’t get to long Binh until 9 (instead of 7:30), and when we leave at 5, we don’t get to Saigon until 6 pm, which leaves no time for eating. Here at the Loc building we’re lucky, inasmuch as there’s a restaurant of sorts on the premises, and the Korean Club next door which serves good food (we ate there again tonight) How soon the curfew is lifted is anybody’s guess, but barring another siege by the VC, my own guess is Monday.

I’ve sort of become the unofficial chauffeur (it’s official now—I got a military license today!) for the group of us who live near or in Saigon.

The buses leave only from Tan Son Nhut, and there’s no very practical way to get out there by the time appointed for it to leave. So every day I drive this bucking bronco of a Dodge 2-seater pickup out the Bien Hoa “Hiway” to Long Binh. It’s quite an experience, for traffic rules (if any) are only rarely observed by anyone, never enforced, apparently, and there are long convoys of heavy trucks, tanks and all that to thread one’s self in and out of! We picked up assorted people after working at LBI today en-route, and ended up with 15! Needless to say, many rode in the back—not a pleasant place to ride I guess; but it beats walking!

I used to have an occasional twinge of conscience when I worked only 7 hours per day at [former employer] but got paid for 8; I accomplished all the tasks I set for myself in that length of time, and everyone prospered, so nothing was ever said about it. But over here, the scale is something else again!! (Of course, nothing has been really “normal” since I got here.) I’ve put in, (exclusive of driving time which is some benefit I suppose) perhaps 20 actual hours of useful work since I arrived—and of that 20, about 18 has been filling out forms. If we never win this war, we ought to be able to bury the whole country in paper and start over! I even had an attack of “Federal Form-itis” last night: I was dreaming I was typing out a form justifying a personal visit to the loo!—and about the time I ripped it out of the typewriter as being just too ridiculous for words, I woke up! [and went to the bathroom—BB]

The army procurement system, after which PA&E is patterned of course, is too incredible; to imagine spending a lifetime in the system as a supply officer or some such would seem unbearable. And I’ve only just started. Compounded by the general ineptitude of the people using & running the procurement system, it is a marvel that anyone ever gets anything. Some way to run a war! And side-by-side with the shortage of staple items, like food, one has a glut of useless items, like staples!! The lab is equipped, for example, with literally hundreds of petri dishes (of an obsolete style) but lacks an analytical balance, the cornerstone of any quantitative lab operation. Oddly enough, two balances (not very clearly identified, but apparently good ones) are in the original “Schedule B” of items issued to PA&E under the contract, but no one has actually ever requisitioned either of them. That’s how it goes. I figure it’s optimistic to shoot for making the lab operational (for chemical analyses) by June 30. Through normal state-side channels, I could be in gear and going in two weeks!

Elsewise there’s not much to report. Haven’t had any chance, of course, to look for quarters—or much else. Having mailed myself a big box of sundry items (soap, etc.) which I finally picked up at Long Binh, and having a good supply of clothes along, I’m better off than many who got caught up in this mess. Will have to order a pair of shoes soon to be mailed down, but for the moment there’s no great rush.

Love to all—and please don’t worry about me. I’m pretty safe (as much as anyone here) and not given to looking for trouble, as I see many idiots doing. They find it. The self-appointed “protector” of our group (described in earlier letters) was sent home (thank goodness)!!

Love to all~

I was beginning to get my feet on the ground and learn my way around Saigon. I learned so much from CA, and remember particularly one event. He said he’d take me as his guest to the Five-Os BOQ for a nice dinner: he still had his SOOM [Saigon Open Officers Mess] card that would get us in. By this time there was a fair amount of traffic on Phan-thanh-Gian street, and we decided to take a taxi. At the street, there were several other “round-eyes” (as we were often) called seeking a cyclo or taxi: they stood, waving their thumbs in the air as traffic ignored them. CA simply extended his arm out from his body and gave a little  motion with his hand: six taxis immediately screeched to a halt! We stepped into one of them and were off, leaving the other guys wondering how we’d managed. The secret, of course, was to keep my eyes open and observe how CA had indicated he wanted a taxi (which was, of course, the way the Vietnamese did it as well) and thereafter use the correct action. It worked every time.

In 1968, Saigon Taxis were little Renaults left by the French, and they were usually pretty well worn out. They dated from the 1950s, and were painted in blue and yellow. It was not unusual to look through holes in the floor-boards at the street passing below, but they usually got where they were going.  Maintaining these relics was a local industry: the French refused to provide spare parts, so if one wandered a bit off the beaten track in Saigon, one could find tiny machine-shops manufacturing parts for those taxis.

Similarly, Saigon (and I suppose the whole country) was  a gold-mine of old motorcycles:

I snapped this venerable BMW single parked at a curb one day, and saw it driven around town often. Early Indians could be found, and I even saw an Ariel Square-4 once!

However, the ubiquitous cycle by 1968 was the Honda 55, of which there were an estimated 3 million in Saigon at the time. I’ll have more to say about these later.



Written by Bruce

December 14th, 2009 at 9:00 pm

Posted in Saigon 1968

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