The Life and Times of Bruce Bramson


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Dad’s tiny hen-scratch indicates this was my 17th letter.

24 March 1968

Dear Everyone~

I realised last night that it has been over a week since I wrote to anyone. Time flies along here, and each day is so much like the others that it is hard to keep track of them. The week was eventful, in a way—at least there were things to talk about, and occasionally, work to do.

There was a fellow that came over in our group who was also assigned to Long Binh, as an Entomologist.  Fred XXXXX was his name. He had a good thing going there, lived in Thu Duc, somewhat nearer [to Long Binh] than Saigon, was supposedly working “7 10s” (i.e., 7 ten hour days/wk), and so forth. For a couple of weeks he would occasionally talk about wanting to go home (Louisville, KY), but we all just figured he had a touch of homesickness, and kidded him along. Tuesday last, he told me he was going to drive his truck into Sgn and stay here at the Loc Bldg to get a good hot bath and quiet night’s airconditioned sleep: since I figured this was just what he needed, I went along for the ride (the truck is much more commodious than the bus!). When I woke up the next AM, there was a note under my door, and the truck was gone. He had taken off early and gone to Tan Son Nhut, somehow bought his own ticket home, and somehow gotten his exit visa, and, well, just took off! That left me to get out to TSN and pick up the truck and drive it back to the motor pool at LB, and it fell to me to break the news to Dandy Dan Smythe—he took it suxprisingly well, all considered!

I’ve been spending a good deal of time this past week working as a refrigeration mechanic. If CMO ever learns (and you can bet they will!) that their GS13 Chemist is grubbing around a bunch of beat-up worn-out reefers, ice-machines, and air-conditioners, there’s going to be a flap! But at least it gives me something to do besides sit around with my finger in my ear in the meanwhile.

You recall I was dickering, on an insurance policy before I left. They were supposed to write and let me know whether or not I could get the Double Indemnity without a war-clause, and some other details. Instead, they issued the policy for straight 21000 dollars, no DI (no war clause, tho) and no waiver of premium. The cost was nearly $500/yr (for some reason it is very expensive to convert from group to individual policy), which I consider to be much too high. So I politely sent it back and asked for a refund on the unused portion (two months) of the premium I’d paid. So, I have only the 10000 dollar Workmen’s Comp policy through the company in case anything happens—but that ought to be enough for now.

Just today, I got two checks from the IRS, both out of Ogden. One was for some adjustment on 1965 Income Tax, and the other was the 118 dollars they had “applied to outstanding tax bills”: obviously, Ogden has caught up with the fact I don’t HAVE any outstanding bills, even if San Francisco hasn’t. There has been absolutely no word whatever from SF—not even any acknowledgement of my four (so far) letters. So, directly I finish this, I’ve got to get out some asbestos paper and get another one off to SF. I’ve already undertaken to establish a bank account out of the country (probably Nassau)—and there will probably be some paperwork involved in that that will have to come through for your signature, as it should also be a joint account. I’ll keep the one in SF as the one to which PA&E can send my checks, and just transfer money by check to whatever account I open up elsewhere. In a way I hate to have to go through all this: but if the Government feels entitled to attach bank accounts at will, I will simply have to take the necessary steps to protect myself. I am advised by a PA&E lawyer, incidently, that since the account was a joint one, and they made no attempt to distinguish what money was there was mine or yours, that a Federal Court suit could slap their wrists quite hard. I’m sure it won’t come to that. Taking the money out of the US can be a bit risky, I suppose, but then, it’s risky to leave it there, too, when it can be taken away without so much as a howdydoo. As to my—as you put it—”annoyance” over this thing, it amounts to something more than that: the fact is I’m maddernell about it. And as for catching flies with honey, what’s the point of that when you’re dealing with WASPS?

Enclosed is a recent photo  one of the guys here at the hotel was fooling around with a Polaroid the other day—and the clipping is one possible answer to the recent Newsweek editorial—an editorial with which I agree in the main, except that it stopped short of the mark. More on that later when I get around to my first encyclical!

Love to all—



I was a trifle more complicit in Fred’s departure than I let on in this letter. Fred was a nice fellow, but very much out of his element. He wound up in Nam as an entomologist because he had worked with a pest-control company at home. He was newly divorced. Although he and I had nothing whatsoever in common, I saw a lot of him because he got his supplies from stocks at LB Post: he often stopped in to my office to “shoot the breeze”. However, it rapidly became apparent he was losing his mind, and I was quite sure if he did NOT get out of the country, he was gonna go nuts. He was deathly afraid of Dandy Dan, as were many guys there, so he didn’t dare approach him with the notion he wanted to break his contract and be sent home. I facilitated his departure by assisting him to get his exit visa: how he got a plane ticket I never found out!

I actually dropped him off at Tan Son Nhut and then drove the truck to LB and covered with the little fib about Fred’s abandoning the truck. Unfortunately, the last thing he handed me as we set off that morning was some sort of revolver with six shells chambered. He knew if he was found with it on the plane he’d be in “heap big trouble”, so handed the gun off to me, thereby instantly putting my job in peril. I cleared the damn thing and stashed it in the bottom of a suitcase, figuring I’d develop a plan to be rid of it somehow. I did manage to get rid of it, and at the appropriate time I’ll reveal how.

Mention of the refrigeration work requires explanation. In a new contract proposal, PA&E wanted to take over maintenance of all such equipment on the large number of 500-man mess-halls on Long Binh Post: these were scattered all over the place, and each one had ten to fifteen pieces of refrigeration devices. It became necessary to compile a list of these, so the company could have some idea of how big the job was, how to price it, and how many people might be needed. They went about his by ordering up a “density report”. That’s a bit of army jargon for just such a list of equipment. All hands were pressed into service, visiting each mess-hall, listing the equipment present, condition, serial numbers and so forth. I generally went along with a chap who had come over in our group named Bob; he’d had been a refrigerator repairman back home. Bob was one of the few truly competent people I met while in VN: he could listen to a machine and instantly diagnose whether it was operating correctly or not, and if not, tell you exactly what was wrong with it. He was also a very pleasant chap, laid back, entertaining. The job, and eventually Dandy Dan, got to him, though, and a few weeks on he broke contract and went home.

Meanwhile, letters from home were arriving fairly regularly, and these often contained clippings and questions. So, six days on, I wrote as follows:

30 March, 1968

Dear Everybody~

Dad’s last letter, mailed your-time Monday, reached me my-time Thursday, as he predicted. I hadn’t known anything about the trip to Portland in advance, but am certainly glad you are getting around OK after your set-back at Christmastime. I’ve started this letter this evening, but expect I may not finish it until sometime tomorrow.

I about dropped my teeth when your articles enclosed in the last letter fluttered to the floor, and, as I picked them up, W R  Hearst’s face popped out: I can recall the time when Hearst papers weren’t even allowed in the house, along with funnybooks and such. Ah, well, times do change.

Going back a few letters, you asked what the military situation here is, and after some sleuthing, I’ve uncovered most of it. Like all Gaul, the US involvement here is quartered into three halves. There is, in the first place, MACV (Military Assistance Command-Vietnam); this is the advisory group which has many men in the field with the various (and numerous) ARVN units, at all levels. Whether any real assistance takes place one cannot really tell. Then, there is USARV (United States Army-Vietnam), with all of its jillions of subdivisions and so forth. This, of course, is where the bulk of our fighting forces are to be found, along with lesser numbers of Navy, Marine, and Air Force units. Then there is (directly under USARV) the First Logistical Command, which directs all of the logistics of the entire operation, and for whom PA&E and the other US Companies here work. Then, there is USAID (United States Assistance for International Development), which I have mentioned in previous letters. And then there is the Free World Forces which have to be coordinated into the picture in various ways (most of them come more or less directly under the command of USARV). Now if this seems likely to be a confusing situation, consider the fact that in addition to the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN), there are at least six other local organisations of militiamen, more or less armed, who enter the picture at various levels from nationwide down to hamlet level. Consider the fact, too, (alluded to by Dad’s last letter) that ALL of these organisations are to various extents infiltrated by VC and by NLF sympathizers.

Now, depending on the location, there are two basic situations that can occur in the midst of all this. One is the sort of thing going on in the North, around Khe Sanh and Hue, where a more-or-less constant state of siege exists, which enables the local commanders to take some initiative in attempting to locate and eliminate the enemy. But in the south, the situation is very different. Even on the highly touted Search and Destroy missions, the American forces ARE NOT ALLOWED TO INITIATE any action, but must wait until “engaged” by the enemy (that is, the VC must fire the first shot). Once begun, the engagement will last as long as the enemy returns fire, or until he is wiped out. Now, the ARVN units also conduct S&D missions, and are under no restrictions, so that it has often happened that US and ARVN units, through a failure of communication of intentions, have engaged each other! It further happens, and quite frequently, that US reconnaissance locates, in one way or another, a group of VC: let’s say in a small hamlet they have taken over a pagoda and have intimidated the local people by a few well-placed bullets. Further suppose that recon learns positively that there are four emplaced mortars within the pagoda compound, poised for shots at some nearby target. This info can all be transmitted to ARVN if any are nearby and  they can go in and try to root out the enemy. On the other hand, if the US Army brass decides they can do the job better, the permission of the ARVN Commander, and a host of other people, often right down to the hamlet chief, must first be obtained, by which time the enemy has long since learned they have been detected, and has departed. All too frequently, when permission is at last received, we go in and blow up an empty pagoda, and half the rest of the town along with it: the dead may well be counted as VC—but where their politicil affiliations (if any) truly lay no one can say. Then, too, there are the snafus that seemingly occur in every stupid war, such as bombing our own units or known friendly villages and that sort of thing. You won’t often hear about these in the US, but these snafus occur quite regularly.

The Newsweek article “The Agony of Khe Sanh” was pretty badly received here: at least one reaction I have already sent home. The most frequent argument against it has not to do with the facts, but with the interweaving of fact and editorializing in such a way that the editors’ opinions seem to emerge as fact. We must face the fact that the article was, in the main, propaganda. But there were few errors of fact in what was reported as such, and the magazine freely admits the rest was a position it felt compelled to take. The letters to the editor in the front of the same issue were revealing—in that they were all from Vietnam and all were chastising the magazine. Newsweek is one of the few US magazines that has had one of its reporters kicked out by the Saigon Government, which may also cast some light on the matter. For myself, I can find little to argue with in the article, except their disregard of the Geneva Agreement (1954), and one other thing:

Among the most puzzling aspects of the feedback from the States that we get here is the Press’s canonization of General Giap. Disregarding the politics involved, I find it dismaying that he should be regarded as “brilliant”, masterful, etc  for he has used tactics over and over again that cannot be justified on any grounds that I can think of. His takeover in Hue was accompanied by bloodletting among the civilians there on a par with similar debacles in Cuba, Hungary, and even Germany at various times: at other times, these tactics have been decried and denounced on every front, yet here, General Giap emerges as some sort of a Master Tactician who has outsmarted the US at every turn and managed to keep the offensive throughout. It doesn’t add up, in my book…

What may not have been very clear before Tet, however, is certainly painfully apparent now in these days following it. Hearst’s article and others in the states have called attention to the fact that is now overwhelmingly clear, namely, that for all the billions we have poured down this rathole, we have little or nothing to show for it. The enemy’s forces and will have not been markedly reduced; the South VNese are not markedly better-off than previously; we have not created a solid middle-class citizenry; we have not raised to power a popular and strong government; we have not won the affection or support of the majority of the South VNese; and we certainly have not “won” the war.

I for one, am appalled by President Johnson’s fixation on plodding on with this whole affair. There are times when stubborness is an asset, and times when flexibility pays off: of the latter, I see no evidence in Johnson during the last few months. Determination is one thing, but fanaticism is something else again. Time and again, he has been assured by various people of position and note that this-or-that action would open up avenues to the negotiating table, and he has turned a deaf ear to them all. Indeed, every time a new approach is made, he has escalated not only the war, but his demands for conditions on the negotiations. All this is in line with his hope for bringing the enemy to his knees to cry “uncle” before he gives an inch: but if he cannot see that this policy is a complete and utter failure, then he is both blind and very ill advised, and not only he, but all of those surrounding him should be swept out of office at the first opportunity. Among the most sensible alternatives I’ve seen, but by no means the only one, is Rep. Clausen’s detailed by Hearst in the clipping Dad sent. At least this proposal takes cognizance of the fact that all of asia should be considered as a whole, not as a separate series of staging-areas for a succession of wars against communism; it also takes into account what Mr. Johnson and friends seem totally unable to grasp, which is that the world-wide rising tide is one of Nationalism, NOT Communism (this is even becoming evident now in the so-called Soviet-Bloc nations). If we had any sense at all we would climb on to the bandwagon (just as some nations did when WE were fighting for our own independence) instead of trying to scuttle it.

As to stateside politics, the situation is not a very happy one. Rocky’s decision not to run actively has been very quickly forgotten, and the possibility of his being “drafted” is not overlooked, though unless the Nixon campaign hits some deep sand-traps, it seems unlikely anyone would want to draft Rockefeller. Kennedy’s decision, on the other hand, came as a surprise to no one, but he has been quite roundly criticised for trying to pull the rug out from under McCarthy. It seems to me that K reckons he can count on McCarthy votes coming his way at the convention if he can split the first vote badly enough to keep McCarthy out. Personnaly, I hope McCarthy can pull a rabbit out of his sleeve and get the nomination—but it will be a tough thing to accomplish. McCarthy is getting some criticism here for his own devotion to the Vietnam question to the exclusion of everything else; on the other hand, many feel that if he can succeed in solving the Vietnam thing some way, the rest will more or less automatically come along. We’ll have to gamble on it, I think. The forthcoming summer, which is almost bound to be long and very hot, may, of course, change the political climate before November. I would not take any bet that Wallace won’t win!

Three pages of this sort of thing ought to do for now: I’m hungry, and dinner is about to be served upstairs—Vietnamese. I constantly surprise myself by ordering and enjoying the local concoctions. Needless to say, I have lost NO weight over here!

Love to all …


I just had the most interesting  and unlikely-sounding dinner. I understand there are several variations on it, but the essential combination of ingredients is cauliflower and shrimps! In this case, the shrimps were pounded in a mortar to make a paste, (seasoned, no doubt), and the paste was sort of wrapped around individual flowerettes of cauliflower, then rolled in breadcrumbs or meal, and the whole rapidly deep-fried. Delicious!

I understand it is also served simply as boiled cauliflower and shrimps prepared in more conventional fashion: one take a bite of each and combine them at the table.

Imagine eating like this—with my picky ways of savoring each item individually at home. The essence of Vietnamese cooking is precisely in the exotic combinations of ingredients, frequently 15-20 individual items in a single concoction. But it really comes out very good.

There is also a very interesting local fruit here, called a Vu Sua, which I am told is to be had in the states under the name of Paw-Paw, though I’ve never seen them there. The things are ugly round green things, with a peculiar milky white juice and what appears to be very stringy insides: but the entire interior (except for the black seeds) is very sweet, with a taste that combines the essence of strawberries and cantaloupe melon and comes up with something unique. Fine eating, but currently out of season and not too easy to get. Mangoes, of course, abound, but I’m not as fond of them as of the Vu Suas.

Cheers, & Bon Appetit!


All my life I’ve been one of the least adventuresome of eaters—of food, at any rate. I’ve always been a “meat and potatoes” guy, and prefer to consume all of each item on the plate before moving on to the next: I like to savor the flavor of each item individually, rather than mix them all up. Desiring to continue eating this way meant I took most meals in a BOQ or mess-hall. But I did break out now and then and eat things the Vietnamese ate, and generally found it palatable. On my subsequent motorcycle trip around the Gulf of Tonkin, the food problem became acute, but more on that as the narrative continues.

There will be more photos as my tale unfolds, though as mentioned elsewhere, I rarely carried a camera while working in Vietnam.

Stay tuned for more adventures.



Written by Bruce

December 14th, 2009 at 9:17 pm

Posted in Saigon 1968,VietNam

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