The Life and Times of Bruce Bramson


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I began my last page with comments about Xe/Blackwater.

PA&E and Blackwater had very different missions: in Vietnam, we were principally working in support of the military: maintenance of equipment and facilities was the biggest part of it. We worked closely with RMK-BRJ, whose mission was construction of facilities for the US Army. Many projects by RMK-BRJ, when completed, were turned over to the Army, then to PA&E for maintenance.

Blackwater’s mission in Iraq, however, was protection, mainly of US Embassy personnel and high-level visitors.

With that out of the way, here are two subsequent letters:

8:30 PM Sat. 02 March 1968

Dear Everyone~

Guess I’d better write a letter to all, although there is getting to be less about which to write. I fired off a short note directly to Todd [brother] inasmuch as his letter sounded so alarmed about the possibility of Saigon being wiped out. Your news is apparently being exaggerated grossly. I saw a clipping a fellow at work had the other day, from a Ventura paper. Some fellow, arriving about the same time as myself, had written a letter home. which had been passed on to the newspaper and liberally quoted. It contained such gems as “87 PA&E Americans killed”, “thousands of Vietnamese civilians killed in Saigon”, etc. ad nauseam. It will be accepted as gospel, alas, despite the fact it was, when written, untrue, and is still largely so.

The battle at Hue was, of course, much more severe and the loss of life and property staggering. Apparently, the VC slaughtered civilians there wholesale when they moved in—a favorite tactic to ensure “support” from the remaining population. The city is virtually wiped out now, and certainly will never be the same again. . .

Day before yesterday, very early in the AM the VC managed to somehow blow up three Equipment.Inc trucks at the Thu Duc intersection on Hiway 1. One truck was loaded with 55-gal drums of ammonia, while the other two were loaded with—of all things—G-rations. We understand two drivers were killed, but there has been no official report. When our bus arrived about a quarter to 8, the traffic jam was simply not to be believed. It was an hour and a half before we got through, and I’m sure traffic backed up all the way to Saigon. At one point, there were ten traffic “lanes” abreast, all outbound on the 4 lane highway + shoulders + ditches + fields beyond! Incredible—but typical of the sort of thing that happens from time to time. Hundreds of people were picking over the rubble of the burned tins, scavenging whatever they could, which added significantly to the confusion!

I spent this AM at the CMO office, where I picked up some very valuable information. I’ve decided to “go for broke” on setting up a functional laboratory. It will incur the everlasting enmity of Dan Smythe (because I plan to get the lab transferred out of his jurisdiction) and a few others—which bothers me not a bit. The plan hinges on getting the cooperation of the 20th Preventive Medicine Unit at Bien Hoa, which has the power to make an inspection and wrote an unfavorable report, which ought to shake PA&E up a bit. Of course, the result might be to abandon the whole thing—but at least that would get it out of the absurd state of limbo it now is in. This latter would mean I’d have to be reassigned to another job classification—pity!—so I may end up driving trucks or something.

Here is an example of the kind of tom-foolery that goes on over here, though. A few days ago, our electricity went off [at Long Binh Post HQ]. Having nothing better to do, Mr. [redacted] and I went over to the generator shed to see what was wrong. The generator operator (who presumably has a perfectly good name but who is known by the all-too-pervasive appellation of “papa-san”—a corruption that grates on my nerves whenever I hear it) explained in poor but passable English that the generator brushes were worn out, hence no excitation, and so no output. Brushes are supposed to be replaced after 500 hrs operation, but these had logged 3000 hrs and hence were no longer long enough to reach the commutator. Well, this sounded reasonable to me. About this time, 4 or 5 fellows arrived to see what was wrong (all “TCNs”). They proceeded to start the unit and try every switch and control on it: still no output, so they shut it down. About this time the American Elect. Maint. Spvsr. showed up, and he went through the same rigamarole of starting it up, working all the switches, etc. Now, the “cycles” gauge was the only one that showed anything at all, and it would only go to 47, instead of 60. (When there is no excitation, though, this gauge is meaningless). Nonetheless, the Spvsr decided the engine wasn’t running at speed and that the fuel filter must be plugged up. So he set the fellows to removing and cleaning that. That operation complete, the unit ran exactly as before—no output. Next, the supervisor explained that there were no replacement brushes in stock, so it would be necessary to move to a standby generator and repair the faulty one later. So, a “deuce-and-a-half” (2½ ton truck) and crane were secured, a new unit was moved in, and work was begin on getting it set up. It was minus two fan-belts on the engine—none in stock— but a used one was found and the crew fell to getting it hooked up. The supervisor remarked to me that “papa-san” had spent 20 years in France as an electrical engineer. While all the other activities had been going on, he [Papa-san] had quietly chattered at someone else who went away, and who presently returned with a whole handful of brushes, exactly the right part-number and all. So, while the other crew was working on the stand-by unit, “papa-san” was quietly inserting the new brushes—about a 20 minute operation—and needless to say, both generators got running—perfectly—at the same moment. About an hour and a half was lost, needless labor was consumed, and so forth. What a waste—and what a waste of talent to have an electrical engineer as a generator operator!

So – situation remains status quo – for the moment. I’m going to write a couple of short notes to Todd & Rob [brothers] which you can send along with the copies of this epistle. Tomorrow is Sunday – I may try again to learn something about the organ in the Cathedral; so far I can’t find any priest in the place who speaks English!

Love to all—


Monday, 4 March 1968

Dear Everybody~

Once again today—no bus to Long Binh. Apparently the schedule has been moved up a half-hour, but I wasn’t informed (being at CMO Saturday), so I missed it. Pity!

In desperation, have been doing some reading of late. Here at the Hotel there’s a curious collection of pocket-books left by various itinerants. Among them I found “The Rothchilds”—a very entertaining account of that family’s past and current history. Also I found “The Heart of the Matter” by Grahame Greene, which has some remote parallels to my current situation, and which otherwise is a good yarn. Also found a book—title forgotten already—on the Sacco-Vinzetti business which is also interesting. There doesn’t seem to be much else of interest in the collection, but pocket books galore can be picked up downtown—and it looks as though I’ll be doing more reading than planned, since the 7 PM curfew appears likely to remain in effect for some while. After that goes, I hope to get active in the Vietnamese-American Association (VAA), a little-known (in the States) organization devoted to teaching the Vietnamese in a sort of adult-education night program. It is 4 nights a week, I understand, and pays a stipend (which I cannot legally accept, but can give to charity). It would give me a feeling of accomplishing something worthwhile to get involved in this. (Presently, of course, its activities are suspended. . . )

The enclosed articles (Saigon Sunday Post, 3 March 68) are just for general information.

Yesterday PM I went to the Rex BOQ “cookout”, where for $2.50 [MPC] one picks out his own choice of Filet Mignon or T-bone steak and cooks it on charcoal broilers set up on the “roof garden”—it was very good, and I got two large glasses of milk to go with it. Accidently dropped my dark glasses, though, & broke one lens cleanly into two pieces. I’ve repaired it with Epoxy today and ordered another from my optometrist in SF, which will take ten days or so.

All the news fit to scrawl for now!

Love to all,

the Rex BOQ (formerly the Rex Hotel) commandeered by the Army

This was the Rex BOQ (formerly the Rex Hotel) commandeered by the Army. The dark structure at street level is a generator shed. The greenish stuff at the top is the “roof garden”, an added structure (mainly made out of scaffolding and corrugated plastic). Note the jeeps on the street along with a the Peugeot taxi. The street is Le Loi Boulevard. The Rex billeted a lot of upper-level Army Brass: I’m sure that if “walls could talk” the place could tell some fascinating tales!

Later on I lived a block away from the Rex, and when the rainy season hit, the sound of monsoon rains falling on that plastic roof was deafening!

Stay tuned for more adventures in Vietnam, coming up soon.



Written by Bruce

December 14th, 2009 at 9:09 pm

Posted in Saigon 1968

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