M Y O B

The Life and Times of Bruce Bramson

THE ROCKET’S RED GLARE…

without comments

. . . except the line here should be “the rockets big bang”. The VC got close enough to be able to lob mortars into the city center, and did so, beginning May 1. It became so routine, I did not even write home about it until it had been going on five days. I figured if a mortar hit my apartment, I was done-for, and only a direct hit was likely to carry me off. The closest one to land near me was about a city block away. These usually did so little damage, I often could not figure out where they had struck.

Monday, 6 May 1968

Dear Everyone again~

After writing my letter yesterday, I took a shower and a nap, then went to mail the letters and meet a friend I’d seen earlier and made plans for dinner with. (Sorry about that sentence!) It was about five to seven when I went out, and when I got across the street to the Rex I found a sign announcing new curfew hours of 1900 to 0700. That shot the dinner engagement, leaving only time to drop by the friend’s house (to find that he’d gotten the news on the radio) and get back to my apartment. So I ate out of cans here, twiddled my thumbs, wrote a few letters, etc, read, and finally turned in early. Of course, the change in curfew hours goofed up the Long Binh bus schedule. Apparently it arrived about its usual time, just before 7AM, although where it went I’m not sure, since Pasteur St. was at that time still blocked off. I went to the Rex for breakfast, meeting one other person from LB there, and together we investigated the Military Bus situation (there is usually one going to LB), but so far today only emergency runs by the Mil Buses have been observed, hence I didn’t get there.

Have stayed pretty close to home today. There have been three major engagements with VC in Saigon today, in sections of town known as Go Vap, another near Tan Son Nhut, and another in the general area of the Phu Tho race track. Late today there was a bombing-straffing raid there: it looks as though maybe it’s been decided to get the VC out of there for once and for all, as it has been a stronghold for them ever since Tet. Their HQ is a revered Pagoda they comandeered, and ARVN has been reluctant to destroy it. If my direction sense is correct, the action I saw there today would leave little of the Pagoda standing, but my vantage point here is much poorer than when I was living nearer to Cho Lon.

Shortly, I shall wander down Tu Do Street to the only newsstand that ever seems to have the Nat’l Geographic: they said it may be here today (the April issue). Then I shall take supper at the Rex and come back home for the evening. What tomorrow will bring in the way of transportation I don’t know. I DO know that Workmen’s Comp does not cover people who get injured or killed when out of quarters during a curfew period, hence I WILL not leave before seven, regardless of what time the bus leaves. There being absolutely no communication between Long Binh and the buses we ride, this sort of timing problem occurs frequently, so no one worries about it.   ////   I’ll write more later, or tomorrow.   ////   Later, after supper: Looks like I may be stuck here a while, though it’s hard to tell. As the enclosed clips show, an area that I normally pass through every day was the scene of considerable activity yesterday, and again today: that’s the area along Phan-thanh-Gian just short of the first bridge on the Xa Lo Bien Hoa. Traffic, I understand, is limited to military vehicles. I shall make an attempt to go to LB tomorrow, if only to get mail, but may not get through. Not much there for me to do anyhow, so I don’t really worry much about it. It is now past 7, curfew is on, and only mil vehicles are on the streets. There still is a fight going on near Phu Tho, and it is likely to go on all night. We can expect more rocket and mortar attacks, I suspect, but these usually don’t come until the small morning hours. Will add to this in the morning, before I mail it.   ////   Later: about 8:30, and all quiet. A storm, complete with electricity and rain has come and is about over. It seems so strange to sit in my front window with nothing on more than my shorts watching a driving rain: I’m so used to rain being accompanied by cold! It must be about 80° F now, and of course it is humid, but in no way really uncomfortable. One can get drenched by these rains, and be dry an hour later, without ever having been really uncomfortable. What a welcome change from the typical SF cold rains! Below me I hear the piano strains of Bach’s Invention No. 12 (if I recall correctly): the barber in the shop below is not a half-bad pianist, and though I have not made her acquaintance yet, I shall.

All for now,
Bruce

The National Assembly Building took a direct hit during the rocketing of Saigon. The sentry in his little box was not enough to ward off the rockets!

________________________

Tuesday, 7 May 1968


Dear folks~

About 9:30 PM last night, just as I was drifting off to sleep, there was a terrific bang nearby. I got up, but could see nothing, so went back to bed and slept well until about 4AM, when the noise of a considerable battle in the direction of Cho Lon woke me up. I’m still not sure what all was going on, but it was quite a battle, and was still going on as late as 8 AM. The explosion last night turned out to have been a rocket which landed precisely in the middle of Nguyen-Hue, about two long blocks (but around the corner) from me. I surveyed the scene this AM: three autos were totally demolished (one burned), about six others heavily damaged, and eight or ten others damaged somewhat. Several windows in buildings on the West side of the street were blown in as well. Apparently, no one was injured, but it made quite a mess. Since breakfast this morning, three similar rocket-blasts have been heard fairly near by, but I haven’t ventured out to see where. I did see the LB bus on its usual route, about 7:40, but they didn’t happen to see me, and I was in no particular mood to  go to LB anyhow. Looks as though I should be able to make it tomorrow, though, when I shall be able to get these letters off; at the moment I am out of stamps, which I cannot get here in town anywhere that I know of, and I’m also low on paper, though I can pick that up in the “Nguyen-Hue PX” (the local euphemism for the black market street vendors).

Radio reports of last night’s activities in Cho Lon are sketchy at best. I probably will never know what happened. My contact with the bamboo telegraph is temporarily broken as my number-one friend is out of town for three days. All I could learn yesterday was that there were boo coo VC in Cho Lon, which is hardly news; many of them were said to be women.

So, it is one more dull day here in Saigon with little to do. The chap I was to have had dinner with Sunday evening could not get out to CMO yesterday at all, and there was considerable question this AM when I saw him waiting for the bus, as to whether it would be able to get through today. I haven’t seen him since I finished breakfast, so maybe they were passed [through] after all. Will add to this if anything eventful happens today, otherwise will mail it tomorrow at LB.

Luv again~
Bruce

________________________

Long Binh, Wednesday AM, 8 May, 1968

Well, we got through on the bus this AM—all six of us who ventured out, that is.

The Phan-thanh-Gian bridge, while damaged as you see in accompanying picture, is still passable, using the left lane only. Traffic was very light, except for an in-bound convoy that was miles long.

Yesterday, a large area just across the Saigon Canal from Tran-Hung-Dao Blvd., about a mile and a half from where I am, was intensely fired-upon by US helicopter gun-ships and other aircraft. The area around Phu Tho race track was similarly worked over, as were scattered parts of Cho Lon. All afternoon I watched the action from the top of the Rex. Pockets of VG infiltrators were trapped in the area near me, and considering the beating the area received, I doubt if many got out alive.

The night was reasonably quiet; about 4 [AM] a few rockets landed in the general down-town area, though none as close to me as the previous night. Then about 5:30 (I was in the bathroom at the time) there was a TREMENDOUS explosion very close-by which really startled me because of its suddenness. After a few minutes I went out on the porch to find that we were amidst another electrical storm, and the explosion had only been a close lightning strike! Whew! (Or, as Snubs would have said, “Now, what do you know about that?”)

So it goes. The offensive is presumed to be over except for clean-up, though of course no one really knows for sure!

Luv to all,
Bruce

______________________

Here I wrote a lengthy letter and sent it to a long list of friends who had not been on the regular distribution list. So, this one may be a bit repetitious.

Wednesday, 8 May 1968 2000h


To all~

I have just finished watching, for more than an hour, one of the most spectacular electrical storms I’ve ever witnessed. Throughout that time—and indeed, still, as I write, the various flashes came more freouently than 1 per second! The display was fairly distant, so not much thunder was to be heard, but what beautiful pyrotechnics!

The arrival of the monsoons (mua mua) came much more rapidly than I expected. The first storm I actually got caught in was here in Saigon two weeks ago, when I went out to do a bit of shopping at the PX. Several inches of rain fell in the space of a couple of hours, resulting in much localised flooding and many stalled vehicles. Yet, it was over as suddenly as it began, and within an hour or so the streets were almost dry again.

Needless to say, there has been much more to see than electrical storms here in Vietnam. Yesterday, for instance, I watched from the top of one of the taller buildings (6 stories!) as US helicopter gunships “worked-over” and area about a mile and a half away; the scene took me back, of course to the Tet offensive days, just after I arrived, for I had watched similar scenes then, too.

You will probably have read of the current offensive by the time this letter reaches you. It seems to be about over, but another 25000 people are homeless (not that “home” was much to start with). Ironically, there is a great tendency for the Vietnamese to blame this situation on us: the reasoning goes that if President Johnson had not limited the bombing, the North could not have re-infiltrated the South so quickly following their setbacks in the Tet offensive. The tragedy of our ever having gotten mixed up in this part of the world really is that we are damned if we do and damned if we don’t—and this frustrating position stems, I believe from a fundamental flaw in our approach.

There can be no doubt that the ideals we espouse and try to practice at times sound good, and may even impress some well-educated and thinking people. It is, for instance, very magnanimous of us not to bomb Hanoi, in the interests of “humanitarianism”. Yet, we are dealing with an enemy who has no qualms about using all its strength against Saigon, and has no compunctions whatever over murdering non-combatants (wives, children, reporters, foreign attaches, and even medical personnel: in this last drive, the third Field Hospital near Tan Son Nhut was attacked unsuccessfully). Whether humanitarianism is being served, in the long run, will only become clear when the fate of the thousands of infiltrators and tons of materiel that have moved into SVN since the change in bombing raids has been settled—and when the last of those who have to defend the South from this attack have been laid to rest.

I often wonder where these humanitarian drives of ours were back in the days of saturation-bombing raids during WWII: I’m not far off when I recall figures like 80,000 people killed in Dresden in one night, and far larger numbers in Hiroshima and Nagasaki somewhat later. In retrospect, the claim of humanitarianism has often been made for the latter, in that the war was essentially ended because of those staggering losses. The feeling is building up here that the same reasoning should apply in Vietnam, and that a quick, staggering blow to Hanoi-Haiphong complex might be just what is needed to place a new perspective on the “peace talks” presumably about to begin in Paris. It is pretty clear that Hanoi is using this same reasoning by showing its strength right now.

Our involvement in this war has consistently been viewed through lenses curiously tinted with a mixture of false optimism and sheer underestimation of the determination of the enemy. The origin of this tint can easily be traced directly back to the consistently violated (by both sides) Geneva Convention, 1954. Somehow, from this vantage point, I cannot see how we could have more consistently acted in ways calculated to drive Ho Chi Minh away from our way of thinking and directly into the hands of the Communists, who are, after all, the only others to whom he could possibly turn. In 1954, Ho was the rightful heir to control of all Vietnam, and most experts agree that he would have been elected unquestionably. Our paranoid fear of Communism can be the only reason for our refusal to allow this election to take place: without that paranoia blinding us, it seems to me that we might well have seen a united Vietnam long ago, acting together with its neighbors to resist any onslaughts the Chinese might take a notion to make: the Chinese are, after all, the traditional enemies of the entire “Indo-chinese complex of nations. Our initial mistake, long since compounded over and again, quite possibly irrevocably now, was in not uniting Vietnam under Ho and helping to guide it into alliance with Cambodia, Laos and Thailand into a bulwark against expansionism in China.

If one accepts this assessment of the current situation, the next question, of course, is: what do we do now? Do we dare to pronose in Paris to rectify the mistake, unify Vietnam, depose our puppet Saigon government in favor of the long-delayed general elections (which Ho Chi Minh could quite possibly still win) and show a genuine willingness to bolster the entire country against China? Or shall we content ourselves with another “solution” like Korea, where no real solution yet exists, and indeed, a state of war, technically, still hangs over that country? Or shall we show our brute strength by obliterating Hanoi and taking over the whole country by force, thereby fueling the “Yankee Imperialism” fire that already rages over much of the world?

Well, it is a dilemma we have got ourselves into, and I for one would like to see us get out of it in the first way I’ve suggested above; yet the history of this conflict would hardly let one dare hope for a solution that is basically honorable and certainly within the realm of possibility. To succeed at this would require a degree of diplomatic sophistication hardly evidenced in prior diplomacy; it would require a certain amount of “eating crow” that our Ministers of State are unaccustomed to in their diet. And, most importantly, I think, it would require that we—at last—should begin guiding our foreign policy by some of the same ideals we espouse, instead of by very shortsighted expediency.

On the personal side: I am well. The warm weather agrees with me. I have succeeded in making some good friends among the Vietnamese people, whom I find, for the most part, delightful, humorous, and unfailingly polite and respectful, a group of oualities notably lacking among the American civilians here. While I work at Long Binh, 10km out of town on the Bien Hoa Hiway (1A), and could arrange billeting there, I prefer to commute and live in Saigon primarily to be able to leave behind the boobs I have to work with all day. For the most part, they are a group I would not ordinarily associate with under the worst of circumstances, so I feel better leaving them to their drinking and wenching while I try to get some ideas of what it is like to be Vietnamese in Vietnam. This tends to be a slow process, of course, complicated by the unfamiliar language. Yet there is a reciprocal interest in getting to know an American in circumstances other than horizontal. I’m picking up the language little by little, and vice versa. What with curfews and the uncertainties of day to day living, the process is painfully interrupted regularly!

Saigon itself, though it shows evidence of having once been a beautiful city, is now a pretty bleak place: colorful at times, but not always pleasant. Many of the so-called essential services (water, garbage collection, sanitation, beautification) are consistently neglected mostly because of a sheer lack of manpower and money. The economy is badly inflated, though there are signs that this trend is slowing down and may soon reverse itself. And of course, the city is hopelessly overcrowded—even without the roughly 1/8 of a million refugees from the Tet and current offensives. It is this overcrowding, that enables the VC to infiltrate the city so easily, and to move tons of weapons and explosives into the city with comparative ease. The standard of living for many thousands is piteously low, yet outright starvation is quite possibly less prevalent than in america—in part because of our huge giveaways, in part because of our incredible stupidity in allowing thievery on a grand scale to go unnoticed, and partly because SVN is rich in agricultural potential.

For those of you who may have been in Saigon, the stately trees lining Dai Lo Le-Loi, Duong Cong-Ly, Duong Pasteur and Dai Lo Tu-Do have all been removed in order to allow for re-allignment and widening of these boulevards and streets. Although Tu-Do is often referred to in the US press as a honky-tonk street, it has far less the appearance of same than many real honky-tonk streets in nearly any US city of comparable size (over 3 million, now!). Native crafts are abundant and oriental, of course, though, Americanization can be seen creeping in here and there (mass production techniques, for instance; so-called carvings that are really molded composition, and so forth). Imports from Japan are numerous, as well as from Hong Kong: surprisingly little from Thailand or Cambodia is available here. The inevitable street-vendors (indigenous in the orient) are everywhere, though the wares tend to be US goods which find their way by devious routes from the PXs. There is excellent Vietnamese (and some French) food available, although the curious concoctions available at the numerous street-stand operations are unwholesome in the extreme, no matter how tempting some are in appearance!

This letter, soon to be concluded, constitutes the first (belated) of the occasional reports I offered to send in my farewell letter of January 23rd. To chronicle all the events since then would be dull end unrewarding: I hope that I have managed to sum up the high points, and give you my version of how it is here. I hope this letter finds you all well, as am I, and in good spirits, as am I, generally, if not actually optimistic. I appreciate the notes you sent responding to my farewell, and promise to keep in touch frequently: let ine hear from you from time to time as well!

Fondly~
Bruce

I have to apologize for the lack of photos in the blog so far: I did not carry a camera when working in Saigon, so I have very few images. Once I departed for Cambodia, I took more pictures.

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Written by Bruce

December 14th, 2009 at 9:56 pm

Posted in Saigon 1968,VietNam

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