The Life and Times of Bruce Bramson


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September 5, 2009

It is nearly 41 years to the day that I found myself unable to make up my mind what to do in VietNam. I really did want to leave VN feeling I had accomplished something useful, either to my employer, the US Army, or the Vietnamese. Seven of my 18-months were gone, and I had nothing whatever to show for it. My health was deteriorating, and my wander-lust was increasing. I was all ready to go:

Ready to depart Saigon, September, 1968, on a Honda CB-160

All I needed was cooperation from PA&E!


Thursday PM, 22 AUG 1968

Dear everyone

Nearly two weeks has passed since my last letter: as far as my job is concerned, there has been no change to speak of. On Monday I met by chance the General Manager of the Company, who seemed to know of my situation, and who indicated that the matter would be cleared up. Later, arother person indicated they hoped to be able to work out a way to keep me satisfied in country, intimating that perhaps they want to revive the lab program. I have heard nothing since.

Since taking over my new “responsibilities”, I have been plagued by a malady which appears to be some strain of flu, but which has remarkably malaria-like symptoms: chills, fever, aches, etc. It is aggravated greatly by having to spend the day freezing (even with a coat on) in the air conditioned office. The temperature difference is usually at least 20 degrees, and my system is just not used to it. I spent today at home, popping pills, drinking liquids, etc, on advice of the company doctor.

You have doubtless already read that the VC rocketed downtown Saigon again, beginning about 4:30 this AM. It is a rude way to be awakened, I must say! The National Assembly Building, at the end of LeLoi Avenue, was hit by two rockets, causing a fair amount of damage to it, and collapsing many windows in the Caravelle. The room Robb’s friend stayed in at the Caravelle (Robb took a photo of me on its balcony) was showered with broken glass. Four large plate windows on the ground floor were blown in, but inasmuch as they had been extensively taped on the inside, surprisingly little glass was spread around.

At Bien Hoa, close by Long Binh, I understand an ammo dump was hit, causing a huge explosion which, among other things, broke nearly all the windows in the rather new USARV HQ complex at Long Binh. The Generals spent the day complaining that their offices were too warm, because without windows, their air conditioning was not very effective. Tough!

Naturally, rumors are rife that tonight will see the launching of the long awaited third offensive against Saigon. I don’t have access to any actual intelligence to support this: of course it is possible, but rumors are so plentiful here that one learns to ignore them.

The Soviet invasion of Czechoslavokia has dominated the news from all over the world today. I am inclined to think it presents us (and SVN) with a wonderful oportunity to launch a massive invasion of NVN with the excuse that Ho Chi Minh had invited us in to suppress a wave of revisionism there. With their present posture in Cz’a, how could Russia possibly refute this? And might it not give Russia pause to find us willing to pull the same sort of stunts they pull with the same flimsy excuses? Our reactions to any situation are so damned predictable that a cunning group can easily outsmart us. If we began acting irrationally for a change it would put the communists on the defensive. Most news commentaries are remarking that the latest developments will set back east-west relations: but consider how little effect the similar events in Hungary had. Despite all the wailing and moaning and gnashing of teeth at that time, the matter was quite quickly forgotten.

Appalling as it seems when I think about it, I find myself tempted to agree with some of the most unlikely people in the Presidential race this year. For instance, Mr. Reagan has a point when he points out that nuclear warheads and so forth really are NOT a deterrent to war if people are committed NOT to use them. And there is something to be said, I think, for Gov. Wallace’s harping on the matter of trade with the Soviet bloc, or with our so called allies who do the same. There is a fundamental inconsistency in our policies here that ought to be cleared up. I find myself tending to disagree more and more with Clean Gene and Hubert on the matter of a coalition government here: why should this be a satisfactory arrangement here, when we obviously would never consider it at home? Despite the alleged freedoms in the US, the communist party is essentially outlawed, its members are required to register in a way that members of no other party are, and the party and its members are under constant surveillance. So far as is known, no confessed communist has ever been elected to any important national office in the US. Yet we propose that a coalition is the answer in VN.

No one could possibly want this war over here ended more than I. But I marvel at the obtuse way we have conducted it, and I marvel at how easily people can overlook the fact that once entrenched, communism simply does not under any circumstances allow any individual freedoms: Hungary proved that, and now Cz’a has once again underscored that proof. Thus, if we are SERIOUS about guaranteeing individual freedoms, we must back that up with the necessary force to keep communism OUT of VN. The ONLY way we can do that now, given the situation as we have allowed it to deteriorate thus far, is to declare that “the picnic is over” and get busy with the actual job of winning this thing permanently. I disagree with those who contend that a military victory here is impossible, though I agree that so long as we try to win it with one hand tied behind our backs, and our legs hobbled as well, there is no hope.

There have been obvious improvements in the Saigon government under PM Houng; there is still much to be accomplished, but he is getting the upper hand in the corruption bit, has improved the efficiency of the the governmental apparatus considerably, and is making his presence felt even among the lowliest peasants, both in the cities and in the provs. This has been accomplished in only twelve weeks.

As for my own situation, I am going to see if I can’t bring this matter to a head tomorrow. There is—no question about it—a certain risk in being here in this place at this time. While I’m not particularly worried or fearful, I do feel foolish remaining in an obviously dangerous situation when I am doing nothing worthwhile to warrant staying. If the company really wants to get behind the lab program and can give me some concrete evidence of its willingness to back it fully, then I’m happy enough to stay and help them accomplish it. But if they have anything else in mind I shall (assuming they won’t surplus me) have to resign at last and move on.

So that’s how matters stand at the moment—not really very different from when I wrote last. I’ve been living out of a suitcase for nearly a month again, since I was all ready packing when they said I would be going. Part of the urgency for me in getting my situation decided one way or the other is so I can (or can not) re-settle into the apartment before Sept 1—or as the case may be, can vacate it without having to pay another month’s rent and move to a hotel for whatever short time might remain. That’s a pretty confused sentence, but I guess you can figure out what I mean!

Luv to all~

Looking back 41 years later, I find it hard to believe I wrote as I did in the letter above! It must have driven my Dad to distraction: he was a staunch pacifist. I think the sentiments reflect my inability to bring anything useful to fruition, with nearly half my time in country used up.

Spare time was spent outfitting the cycle. I attached two saddle-bags in such a way that they could be removed fairly easily, buckled together, and tossed over the satchel. I could then pick up all my luggage with one hand, to carry it into hotels and so forth.


Here is the motorcycle, loaded, with the Continental Palace Hotel in the background (the CPH was across the street from the Rex). The former owner of the bike had outfitted it with a number-plate “X 04631″ which may have meant something to him, but only served as an identifying mark for me. Not that it was needed: I probably had the only CB160 in all VN at the time, and I saw very few others anywhere. It usually drew a crowd when parked.

Classy Little Moto

It was a pretty classy little machine!


Sunday, 25 August 1968

Dear everyone~

Well, the workings of PA&E are wondrous to behold, but there is still not a great deal to report. The man at CMO who represented the largest stumbling block to progress of the lab has been relieved, and as a result of my efforts to get the General Manager interested in the lab, I was shunted in to see the NEW manager of the Installations Department last Friday. It was not an entirely satisfactory meeting. The new man is brand new in country, and shares a degree of optimism both about the Army and the supply system here that is typical of new hires, but which belies his innocence. As I’d suspected, there is hope of reviving the lab, and (for the moment, in an unofficial capacity) they want me to help. I have agreement in principal that the functional control of the program should be transferred out from under Dan Smythe, but that is only a small part of the battle. I’m not convinced yet that the route this man proposes to use is best, principally because if he succeeds in getting the army’s concurrence, it will place the burden of actually bringing the lab to fruition on PA&E  and I have no illusions about this company’s ability to do this: the management and other abilities necessary to coordinate and breathe life into the program are simply in too short supply here, despite the large number of bodies on the payroll.

In a sense, the limited commitment of the company to do something removes the grounds for surplusing me, although technically there still is no job “slot” in my field, and it will take some time for one to be created. This leaves only one way out—if I decide to abandon the ship—a resignation. This will, besides costing some money, leave something of a blot on my work record, though I don’t expect to ever again apply to anyone who would be particularly concerned about that. The money is not important either. If I stay to complete this contract (and because of some peculiarities of the new R&U contract PA&E has with the army, I will not be offered a second contract) it means another 11 months of shuffling papers like everybody else, accomplishing nothing constructive, with a certain risk of life and limb involved that is, at best, somewhat greater than some other parts of the world. At completion of my time, all I will have to show for the time spent is a good bank account, which counts for something, I suppose; but I wonder now whether I can survive the 11 months of inactivity?

Unquestionably, if I stick with it, I will be on the verge of resigning precipitately for the entire time. The urge is especially strong this day as I managed to pick up a copy of the August Playboy, and read the “Interview” with Wm Sloan Coffin.  I doubt it has been evident in recent letters, which I seem to recall have been preoccupied with this silly game of musical-jobs at PA&E, but my feelings about the entire question of american involvement here are becoming more firmly against it with time, after going through a period of some ambivalence while I got my bearings. The more I see of how miserably we have bungled the job, and how little is being done to correct all the blunders, the less I want to be associated with it, even as peripherally as I really am.

Mulling these matters over at dinner tonight, I was struck by the fact that some of the most articulate and reasoned objections I’ve heard voiced against this business here have come from men on active duty IN the military. I suppose this is to be expected, since by no means all of the mil pers here are here by choice (!), while most of the civilians are.

And I, of course, am in the latter category. In the largest sense, in trying to leave behind one milieu in which I was consistently uncomfortable, I have moved into another! This was not entirely unforeseen—and since there is a plainly discernable time when it will no longer be necessary to remain in this situation (the end of my contract), I suppose I, too, can start marking off the days like so many people do here. The only thing that wrangles is the fact that for the duration I will be a part of something that I and many others think is wrong and indefensible. The only thing that partially offsets this is the knowledge that the money I’m getting is being paid for next-to-nothing useful to the movement—which is, in a sense, subversion, even if I am powerless to prevent it.

As you can see, I am going through a period of some confusion about just what to do. I don’t look forward to vacillating thus for 11 months! I’ve got to resolve the matter soon one way or another. One thing that would help would be to have some way to do something directly for the people here (outside of work). But I’m now on a 6-day week, which leaves precious little time for such activity: Sunday has to be a pretty quiet day—a little shopping, washing, etc.

Well—enuf of this for the moment. I’ve had almost no letters in nearly a month—largely as a result of my request to the PO to send my mail to Robb.

Luv to all~

PS: Have you had any more word from Tai?


The answer to that last question was “no”: Tai was never seen or heard-from again.

Shortly before I departed, that awful statue of the VN soldier pointing his gun at the National Assembly Building was removed. It had been an eye-sore from day-one. Under it was a fountain!

A Fountain Underneath

My situation at PA&E was deteriorating. The office in which I sat eight hours per day was air-conditioned to a uniform 65º F, although the hallways between the offices remained above ambient due to sun beating down on the Quonset-hut. Ambient was generally above 100º. Despite wearing coats and sweaters, I realized one day I was on the verge of pneumonia due to the frequent temperature changes. Not only was my health impacted in this way, but the VC continued to rocket Saigon now and then, so one never knew when he might be “in the wrong place at the right time”.

I no longer recall what—if anything—happened to precipitate my decision. The long and short of it was, one day I turned to the gent there in the office with me (apparently, I was working under him, even though no one had made that clear) and said, “No offense meant, but you can take this job and shove it!” His reply was, “No offense taken, done!”

I filled out the necessary form later that day, and the rest, as they say, is history! Over the next few days, I made all the arrangements to depart on an Air Vietnam flight to Phnom Penh, with my Honda as excess baggage. The only thing I left to PA&E was to obtain my exit visa, and therein lies yet another tale, to be related soon.

Stay tuned!



Written by Bruce

December 14th, 2009 at 10:06 pm

Posted in Saigon 1968,VietNam

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