The Life and Times of Bruce Bramson


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From a fellow PA&E-er who was rotating out, I bought a larger motorcycle which I felt confident would be better for driving long distances. It was a Honda CB160 like the one shown below:

Honda CB160


Sunday PM, 28 July 1968

Dear everyone~

Once again, two weeks have passed since I wrote—largely because there just hasn’t been anything worthwhile to write about. There still isn’t, actually. . .

The sixteenth of July came and went without incident (for some reason rumor had it that that was the day the VC would launch their next “thing”). The twentieth (anniversary of the Geneva Accords) did likewise, as have all the days since. There have been a few incidents of terrorism, mostly in Cho Lon. The VC apparently had counted on the Chinese contingent in SVN swinging to their cause, but the violence of their Tet and May 5 offensives brought about just the opposite result; hence the VC terrorists are directing their efforts to the Chinese in retaliation for the latters’ lack of support.

There was a fire in the JUSPAO (Joint U S Public Affairs Office) Building yesterday AM; the JUSPAO Office is adjacent to and actually a part of the Rex BOQ. Apparently the fire was caused by faulty wiring, not VC. It was a stubborn, smokey sort of fire (no flames), and it took a lot of doing to put it out. Damage from the fire was light, but damage by the fire-fighters was heavy.

Having spent a good deal of time getting the new CB160 Honda I picked up (used) running its best, I took a sort of shakedown ride tonight, taking a long circle trip around the city. The bike performed very well (it will be far better for my trip to Cambodia) (than the 50cc bike I had before), but of course I got into a drenching downpour just before I got back here! Soaked to the skin—but no matter, everything is dry again now!

My status with PA&E has changed—slightly. Since my job was eliminated from the FY 1969 manning table, Dan Smythe “surplused” me. He could have initiated a transfer to some other open job at LB, but since we haven’t really gotten along well the past 6 months, he decided to let CMO do it—hoping I suppose that I’ll wind up in some other installation. Saturday afternoon I went to CM0 to see what the prospects were, but got a long runaround and really didn’t learn anything. Guess I’ll just have to wait and see what action they decide to take, and if I don’t like it, I may resign. CMO, on the other hand, could decide that I am truly surplus, and terminate me (which I would prefer). However, there is a possibility that I could go into Entomology, and of course I could wind up just about anywhere in the country. One thing that mitigates against a successful transfer though is my equivalent GS13 rating: there’s a scarcity of “13 slots” in the manning table, because the Army tried their best to downgrade everyone this year. All this could take weeks—meanwhile I shall be trotting off to LB every day, there to sit and do nothing, until CM0 takes SOME sort of action. Incredible! But true.

That really is all the news there is: I hate to send one-page letters but there is no reason whatever to start another. So, love to all  hope you’re all well, as I am.



Anticipating the need for sending letters by international mail (rather than via APO), I tested the “system” by sending some letters written on stationery I swiped from the Caravelle Hotel:

Caravelle Hotel Stationary

The part that’s hard to read is: “Shades of Wallace Wimple”, which refers to the salutation, “Hello, Folks”, which was WW’s jowly greeting to Fibber McGee and Molly: I’ve never forgotten it!


Monday Noon, 6 August 1968

Dear Everyone~

Well, the die seems cast now. My final processing out awaits only the affirmative decision of the “front office”—this may take a day or two, and the final processing is likely to take several more days. All going well, I should be on my way to Phnom Penh around the 15th of this month.

I mentioned that Mr. Smythe at LB had surplused me; CMO promptly lost the paperwork, and I spent a week in limbo, enjoying Saigon and getting my bike into good shape for the forthcoming trip. Then last week, new papers were made up which I hand-carried to CMO to be sure they got there. For a while there was talk of reassigning me somewhere, but I balked at this on the basis that I have already spent six months away from my profession, and another year would be damaging to my career. This morning, all set for a big battle, I went to CMO and found that Personnel had sent my papers forward with the recommendation that for the best interests of the company and myself I should be surplused forthwith.

My position was awkward, in that had they recommended otherwise I meant to resign, which puts a black mark on one’s record and means a considerable financial loss: no leave pay, no repatriation-fund refund, and the price of my fare home. But by being surplused, I get fully paid, a “completed contract”, release to work for other overseas firms, and (tee hee!) a letter of recommendation.

Consequently, I will be leaving Vietnam with $5000 in the bank (I’ve NEVER had a larger balance!) and a plane ticket in the event I should ever need it. My tangible assets will consist of some clothing and my Honda, along with an assortment of tools and spare parts that I’m taking along.

I shall fly (with Honda) to Phnom Penh. It is only about 180 miles away, and I’d given much consideration to riding there. But security conditions at the present time simply do not allow for this—too many VC along the way—and there is nothing to see anyhow, to make taking the risk worthwhile. People in times past have gotten through, but the VC buildup was not nearly so heavy. Additionally, I’m told the “hiway” (No. 1) as far as Cu Chi is in dreadful condition, making progress slow and hazardous.

My itinerary for Cambodia is not firmly fixed. I have in mind several days in Phnom Penh, then go south to Sihanoukville, which is on the coast and is famed for beaches and food. Then back to Phnom Penh by a different route, and onward north and west eventually to Siem Reap, the only major city near Angor Wat. Depending on weather and other conditions, I hope to spend ten days or so in this vicinity: there are many other ruins in the general vicinity which might bear visiting, but roads are poor so will just have to play that part by ear. Then I hope to go on to Bangkok via the only hiway available. The Cambodian visa is good for three weeks, and I expect to use all of that; no visa at all is required for Americans entering Thailand. By the time I get there, I shall probably have a sore rump and will be ready to stay put for a while!

I have arranged to sell my typewriter and radio to a friend before I go. This means that for the most part we shall once again have to rely on the Xerox machine. I will be traveling light for obvious reasons and hope to be able to ship ahead only my single large bag as unaccompanied baggage to Bangkok, where it will be held at the airport until my arrival. This is risky, but there will be only clothes in the bag, so if it “gets lost” I won’t be out a great deal. (There are three suits in that bag that have remained unpacked since January!) Shipping the radio and typewriter would be expensive and foolish, though, and I can get both cheaply in Bangkok, or wherever I settle down.

I might mention that in the back of my mind is the possibility that I sha’nt find work in Thailand, and may decide to go to Djakarta—I could even ride that distance on the Honda, though there is a train route that sure looks fascinating. There is a lot going on in Malaysia in oil exploration/development, and there ought to be a demand for chemists there.

Naturally, if I don’t find a job anywhere and the money runs out, then I’ll come on home and see what I can dredge up through Overseas Craftsmen’s Association, which I have joined—its a sort of personnel clearing-house, working both with large companies which hire overseas and with personnel who want to go overseas to get jobs for the latter and employees for the former. Good outfit—they do not have anything to do with PA&E!

That about brings you up to date—I should be able to get one more letters off before I go (hope the VC hold off on their next offensive for another week or so!). Also hope to get some packages of trinkets for everybody on their way sometime this week—though just what these will be I can’t be sure right now. Native VN crafts are not awfully lovely, to my way of thinking, and so much of it is actually made in HK or Japan that one has to be most careful!

I am in no way sad about leaving PA&E—and am not really sad about leaving VN either. I feel that unless we change our approach and policies RADICALLY and soon, our “involvement” is doomed to an ignominious failure. I still feel the only candidate on the scene who just MIGHT be able to bring about some of these changes is McCarthy, but just where his star sits at the moment is pretty hard to guess. Meanwhile, there is nothing for me to do but turn my back on this “bleak plain, where … ignorant armies clash by night”.

Luv to all~

I outfitted the cycle with saddle-bags and a satchel I could easily strap to the luggage rack. I also fitted a left-hand throttle arrangement, expecting to need to relax my right (throttle) hand now and then. This device was a god-send, and a wonderful source of introductions to other cyclists who had never seen or thought of such a useful feature.

I tried to interest some other ex-pat cyclists I knew in going on the trip with me. They all said, “Oh, you’ll be robbed! You’ll be killed! It’s an idiotic thing to do!” I sent them all post-cards from Singapore nine weeks later. In retrospect, though, I’m glad I went alone: there were no arguments about where to go next, or when!


Sunday, 11 August 1968

Dear Everyone~

I forget who it was who said something about the best laid plans of mice and men. . . but in my case they have gone awry—at least for the moment.

My “die seems cast” letter was written Monday evening after I’d been told by “Out-Processing” that Personnel had sent a recommendation to the front office that I be surplused. They said to come back Tuesday afternoon to get the ball rolling.

But I underestimated the ability and willingness of the front office to make an already bad situation worse, and on Tuesday I was told that the front office had denied the surplus, allegedly on the grounds that the approximately $2500 involved might be disallowed (for reimbursement by the [US] govt), and that I would have to take another assignment. There followed three days of the most amazing “Micky Mouse” routine while Personnel tried to find an open slot that I could fill. For awhile it looked as though I might wind up as a Sanitation Supervisor, which with some stretching of the imagination is at least close to my field. But that failed because it would have meant a $35.00 cut in my salary: since the company is hanging me on the fine print in my contract (which allows them to assign me out of my classification), I hung them on some of the same fine print that bars them from reducing my salary under any circumstances. Hence, it became necessary to find a slot that carried the appropriate salary, and that turned out to be—of all things—a SUPPLY ADMINISTRATOR. This turns out to be nothing more than a dressed-up file clerk. When the Head of the Department asked me what I knew about Supply, I replied truthfully, “absolutely nothing”—to which he replied, “well, that never stopped PA&E from placing a person before.” His only other question to qualify me for the job was whether I could read and write English! Having set the standards THAT low, there was no basis on which I could refuse the position (giving the company thereby the right to fire me for cause). Although I had planned to resign at one time, I could not quite see why I should be forced to take the onus of that (and black mark on my record) just because I’d gotten caught in the cross-fire between CMO and Dan Smythe; and the more they shunted me around the less inclined I became to resign. So—for the moment—I am still on board, stuck in a freezing cold air-conditioned office all day at CMO, working 6 8-hr days/wk.

The matter is by no means concluded. A friend of mine in Contract Administration is close to the man who allegedly refused to approve the surplus, and the former has suggested a way by which it can be done and be fully allowed; he says he will talk to Mr. [redacted] and see if he can swing him around. If not, I may eventually resign under protest and hand the matter over to the NLRB and others to adjudicate. The most absurd part of it all is that not only is there a good case for the Army to disallow what I’ve already earned here—since it got absolutely no good whatever from my being here—; there is also an even better chance that my salary from this point forward also might be disallowed because I am working so FAR out of classification (on which the Army and the president of PA&E both frown)—a fact that seems to have escaped the attention  of Personnel entirely.

Then, too, there is the matter of these new “work agreements” coming up, and no one really knows what’s going to happen in that regard. PA&E has several thousand employees under contract identical to mine, yet, in negotiating the 1969FY R&U contract with the govt, they agreed to a number of limitations on their employees that are in conflict with the existing agreements. Thus, while my contract says I earn 3 days per month of annual leave, which can be accrued, and which can either be taken or worked at my option, the company has already promulgated a new regulation by which we are getting only 2 days per month, with the stipulation that a portion of it must be actually taken. Those who sign the new work agreements (which will be retroactive to the date they signed their current ones) will in effect be signing away a number of benefits, thus in effect voluntarily reducing their income.

One of the knottiest problems involved in the new work agreement hinges on the subject of Vietnamese income or other taxes. Our current contracts obligate the Company to pay any of these that might be levied (and of course the company recovers the funds from the [US] govt.). The new work agreements say nothing at all on the subject. Now, it is true that there are NO such taxes—at the present time, but the [VN] government could decide tomorrow that a tax such as the VN pay (about 37%) on the AMERICANS would be another marvelous way to wangle a whole lot of money out of the US—and without the protection of our own contracts, we would be obligated to pay this out of our own pockets, or quit. Needless to say, most people would do the latter!

So, it appears unlikely that many people (certainly not me) are going to go along with this new agreement deal. What the company is holding over our heads is that if we DON’T sign, they won’t offer us another contract when our current ones expire. Well, since most people are fed up with this outfit, they don’t intend to stay past their current tour anyhow, so no matter. There are already suits being filed about this thing, and many more can be expected: I hope it doesn’t come to my having to do the same. But some of the shenanigans that get pulled here are simply not to be believed—and a company operated like this one at home would fold up overnight!

You may have read about a couple of terrorist acts in Saigon a day or two ago—one of them a grenade tossed into a Cafe on Dr. Yersin Street. This is just past the circle at the end of Le Loi, not far from me. Such is the way of things here, though, that I knew nothing about it till I read the papers!

Luv to all~

The upshot of this re-assignment was that I went each day to a frigid office in a Quonset-hut at Tan Son Nhut. The office contained three desks, one of them mine, another occupied by a fellow whose job I could never determine, and one for a lovely Vietnamese Secretary. There was a telephone on my desk: I was supposed to answer it, but it never rang. Once each month a stack of papers arrived mysteriously: my job was to arrange them in a certain order and hand them to the gent at the other desk. I have no idea what he did with them!

Speaking of the Caravelle Hotel, I found this article from the LA Times:

Caravelle Hotel

“In early May, Saigon’s historic Caravelle Hotel launches celebrations of its 50th anniversary with an appearance by Pulitzer Prize-winning foreign correspondent Peter Arnett. Though best known as a CNN reporter in Baghdad during the Persian Gulf War, Arnett covered the Vietnam conflict before that, filing some 3,000 dispatches from the Caravelle from 1962 to 1975 for the Associated Press.

He was not alone. During and after the war, the Caravelle was ground zero for the foreign press corps, including David Halberstam, Walter Cronkite and Morley Safer. VIPs like Richard Nixon, Bob Hope and Pierre Cardin also stayed there and drank in its fabled rooftop Saigon Saigon Bar, as did the cast and crew of the 2002 film “The Quiet American,” starring Michael Caine.

The hotel opened in 1959. After the fall of Saigon in 1975 it was renamed the Doc Lap (or Independence) Hotel. In 1998 a 24-story tower was added, bringing modern conveniences like a landscaped pool and fitness center to the historic site.”

That’s the National Assembly Building well-lit in the foreground: when I last saw it there was rocket damage! It is difficult to see whether any part of the original Caravelle was saved.

National Assembly Building, Saigon 1968

My situation with PA&E was tenuous at best. The saga continues on the next page.



Written by Bruce

December 14th, 2009 at 10:04 pm