M Y O B

The Life and Times of Bruce Bramson

Archive for the ‘Saigon 1968’ Category

UNSETTLING EVENTS

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June 17, 2009

Before continuing, I want to remind my readers (if any) of the name of this blog: “MYOB”, which stands for “Mind Your Own Business!”  Nowhere was this exhortation driven home to me more forcefully than in VietNam!

Saigon 1968 Street Scene

CONTINUING WITH LETTERS FROM VIETNAM

Looking back over these letters written 41 years ago, I am struck by my belief that we were safe in VietNam. In part, this was deliberate, trying to keep family from worrying about me. But it was also because I had CA’s council, and he knew far more about the country than I. For example, our compound on Phan-than-Gian street was large, and the hotel portion was behind a big old mansion: the hotel could not be seen from the street at all. The VC, CA said, weren’t looking for us in any case, and probably did not even know we were there.  Additionally, directly behind us was a garrison of Korean soldiers.

In addition to Americans, there were in VietNam soldiers from Korea, Australia, and New Zealand, and Filipinos who were non-combatants working mostly in hospitals. Of these, the Viet Cong  feared the Koreans most  because they had a policy of never taking prisoners: they ruthlessly shot anything that moved when on patrol. They rarely went on patrol, however, and spent most of their time running the bars and brothels in Saigon. They also controlled the PX, which meant they had first dibs on anything that came into the country destined for anyone who had access to the PX (which was almost everyone except the Vietnamese). CA explained that the VC would not even consider taking on the Koreans bivouacked behind us.

It is also worth noting that, having arrived on a Saturday, some of us got to our duty-stations on Sunday the 28th, others on Monday the 29th for initial briefing. I got to Long Binh on the 30th. But there were rumors that “something was up”, though no one had the faintest notion of the scale of of the offensive, which began officially on the 30th, the first day of the lunar new year. It was recognized that zillions of fire-crackers going off would make fine cover for gun-shots, so we were requested to stay put “until Tet was over”.

Another thing to mention by way of background is that folks at home probably had more up-to-date information on what was happening than we did — we who were right in the thick of it! Locally, all there was in english was Armed Forces Radio, and they told only what the brass and local government wanted told. Most of the time they played pop music, which seemed quite inappropriate. Once mail began to flow, I got clippings from my folks, weeks out of date, which described things I’d had no inkling of as they played out around me.

So, here goes with the next letter: unable to send it out, I simply continued it from day to day as events unfolded.

Tuesday, 30 January 1968
1st day, year of the monkey

Dear folks,

By the time you receive this letter, you’ll all have heard a lot of rumors about what is happening here in Saigon, Unfortunately, as of this writing, I can’t fill you in too much. We are under an unofficial curfew. Today in Saigon two american civilians were killed—under what circumstances we don’t know. Additionally, during a heavy attack on Qui Nhon, two PA&E employees were also killed, although they were—for unknown reasons—quite far from their installation.

As you know, the “truce” was officially ended this morning. For reasons known only to themselves, the VC launched numerous attacks on VN installations today; as I write I can hear distant heavy artillery, even above the incredibly numerous fire-crackers that are an integral part of the Tet celebration.

This Tet business makes our “safe and sane” fireworks into a laughing stock. So many fireworks have already been set off that the streets are literally deep in the red paper remains. I saw, for instance, whole packages of firecrackers strung together from the top of a three-story building down to the ground, waiting to be set off at the bottom. Each package is about 50 of the little crackers we’re accustomed to, and there must have been about 50 of these packages strung together!! There are also available fire-crackers about 3 inches long and an inch wide that pack quite a wallop—to say nothing of rockets, sparklers, etc. There may be a few evil people left after all this, but certainly no evil spirits!! Tet lasts until next Thursday night, so there are two more nights of this “siege” (which lasts far into the night) for us. Very few of the populace work during this period, so everything really slows down. We have no idea what other difficulties the next few days will hold . . .

I visited the site of my assignment today—Long Binh. PA&E installed some while back a “water laboratory” on the Long Binh post. Apparently, through mismanagement & other circumstances, it has been largely unable to perform any useful function. My job—presumably — will be to get it under way again. The “presumably” is in there because there are some political overtones in the situation that may come into play. This remains to be seen. . .

The next few days will be spent in final processing at the PA&E CMO [Contract Management Office] at Tan Son Nhut; following the completion of Tet, I’ll be able (on Sunday) to locate quarters which will be in Saigon, there being none on the base, which is OK because it is a pretty bleak place. It is, incidentally, an 85,000 acre installation, so you can imagine the size and complexity of it. The complexity of the administration of it staggers the mind, and the paperwork involved is overwhelming!! I’ve already filled out so much paperwork it would probably stretch from here to Long Binh (laid end to end), a distance of about 22km (12 miles, give or take).

Having re-read this epistle so far, I think I may have accidently given rise to some fear for my security. Please don’t be alarmed. The situation is very far from normal in any respect: the Tet celebration has no equivalent at home. During all this carrying-on the town is over-run by “white mice” (the local euphemism for Saigon local police; a very slightly derogatory allusion both to their diminutive stature and their “colorful” uniform). VC infiltrators generally are not aiming at us civilians, but the fire-crackers bit already described serves as excellent cover for sniping, in which innocent people may become involved if they place themselves in a position to become so: I shan’t do so.

Saigon is essentially regarded as a town under siege. The perimeter is lit with flares all night long, and everything is heavily patrolled, both by white mice as described, by VN security police, by US MPs, and others. Essentially, trouble comes only to those who go looking for it—and of course, there are some people so inclined.

Of course, some very well publicized incidents have occurred, and some more are bound to before all this comes to some sort of conclusion. From my present quarters I can see the burned out hulk of a hotel allegedly set afire by the VC; the ammo dump at Long Binh has been blown up twice (no injuries); the Brinks BOQ has been bombed; the town itself has been shelled from time to time. But still, the odds on my surviving for several years here are very excellent—especially as I am one given to the use of good common sense to a greater degree than many of the expatriates here. Furthermore, I’ve been very fortunate to be billeted so far with a gent who has spent a previous TD [Tour of Duty] of 4.5 years here—and I’ve been able to learn a great deal of the “ropes” through him. My personal safety on Saigon streets—when I do venture out—is virtually assured. Please don’t worry—I don’t!!

So, that’s the news from the “Paris of the Orient” right now —

Love to all,
Bruce

Note my reference to “surviving several years” in Saigon. American civilians working for PA&E (and other contractors) were generally on eighteen-month contracts, largely because in those days Americans who stayed out of the country for that length of time owed no income tax on their earnings. After my run-in with the IRS, the idea of avoiding taxes for several years was attractive, and at this point I was ready to re-up for a second stint if it became possible.

The letter continues:

Next day, Wednesday, 31 January 1968

Continued

Well—there’s nothing like being right in the middle of the action! The irony is that we know as little as anyone as to just what is actually going on. The first reports this morning on the storming of the [American] Embassy reported that it was taken by the VC and that it was re-taken by paratroopers landed on the roof who worked their way down floor by floor. Later reports conflict this, and say only that the VC held the compound for a while, but did not enter the building.

After completing last night’s letter I went to bed but slept only fitfully. I heard much of the distant action as well as some closer by. Tan Son Nhut AFB was temporarily entered by the VC, and sustained slight damage. Since PA&E’s CMO [Contract Management Office] is there, we might normally have been on hand. Today, we’ve been confined to quarters, however—there is no one at the CMO, and for all we know, there may not even be one left!!

Since we cannot venture out of our hotel, I couldn’t mail last night’s letter, & so decided to add to it instead.

Enemy positions about a mile from our hotel were strafed, rocketed and mortared this afternoon, setting off quite a fire. At least four other fires could be seen from here [by going up on the roof of the hotel]. The air is alive with US helicopters, keeping their eye on what little movement of the population has been allowed, and occasional gun-fire and mortar rounds can be heard from the general down-town Saigon area. Things are relatively quiet now, but I suspect tonight will be pretty active—and is likely to continue through Thursday night, when Tet ends. After that is anybody’s guess, but the feeling seems to be that things will quiet down again & the siege will lift. Just how soon we can return to our processing and assignments also remains to be seen.

9:30 PM

The above was written about 2:00 PM. Since then, our street has been completely cordoned off and all traffic has stopped. About an hour ago there were some shots fired, apparently because someone who moved failed to halt on demand.

Meanwhile, Tan Son Nhut AFB has been receiving heavy mortar fire from enemy emplacements in the Delta, and the New Port facilities, which were afire most of the afternoon, have been re-kindled. Long Binh is under siege, I’m told, but I cannot confirm this.

11:00 PM

Things are a little quieter; the heavy offensive against Tan Son Nhut appears to have been repulsed, but since no planes are going in or out, we assume the runway has been damaged heavily. Except for a helicopter that crashed on top of a nearby building earlier (no apparent casualties) we’ve observed no loss of planes.

Going to bed now with hopes of sleeping – more tomorrow.

Love,

Bruce

All 16 of us were holed up in the Loc Building, two to a room. I was bunked with CA, whose familiarity with the country I found most useful, even comforting. I was ready to “go with the flow”, as he recommended. Others in our group, despite receiving the same council from CA (we all ate dinner together) had different reactions, running the gamut from “ho hum” to “what the fuck is going on?” to “get us outa here!” I was the youngest of the group, there were several in their mid thirties, several approaching mid forties, and CA was the oldest, well past 55. Several chaps were attempting to phone the CMO almost every half hour, but there was no response. It was clear that some of the guys were afraid, but unwilling to show it.

Throughout these days, the hotel staff managed to feed us well and bring in a constant supply of Ba-mui-Ba beer. Beer “33″. It was horrible stuff, and I could not stomach it (not being much a beer drinker anyway). But regular drinkers managed to swill it down, with predictable results. Most of  our group, except CA and myself, were regular drinkers.

We discovered before too long that our group had been extremely lucky to have been billeted in the Loc Building: ordinarily, PA&E used the Tourist Hotel, right down town, which was a pretty awful place by then. It seems every war we start involves taking over at least one local hotel for purposes of housing Americans coming and going, for whatever reason. Travelers housed in-coming and out-going PA&E personnel, foreign correspondents and many others. More about the Travelers as my tale unfolds.

Again, unable to get mail out, I continued the letter begun on the 30th:

Next AM, Thursday 1 February, 1100 hrs

Remainder of the night was relatively quiet. This AM Pres. Thieu had declared Martial Law, and we are still confined to quarters. Some traffic was allowed past our hotel for a while, & much of it was carrying D & W (dead and wounded) from the area to the west [Cho-Lon] where we observed heavy strafing and rocket attacks. We will never know the extent of the casualties, but they obviously had to be heavy.

The 11:00 am news carried the first reports of last night’s heavy action we observed on the outskirts of town, but only sketchy descriptions. Tet ends officially at midnight tonight, and we hope things will calm don thereafter—there’s no guarantee of this, of course.

There’s a lot of wild speculation about the meaning behind the widespread coordinated attacks by the VC at this particular time. For one thing, it is almost a tradition that a lot of terrorist activity takes place during Tet, because it affords such excellent cover for it. Privately, I’m inclined to feel that the intensity of this year’s offensive is Ho’s [Ho Chi Minh] answer to our refusal to halt bombing raids in the North. The truth may never be known.

So here we sit, awaiting orders from the PA&E management on what happens next. The second-in-command side-kick to the Contract Manager lives here in the same building, so we’ll doubtless get the word as soon as anyone. Although there is no official reason why we can’t leave, there are at least a couple of dozen trigger-happy guards in the street—we still hear occasional weapons fire there (mostly warning shots)—who are a very strong deterrent, so far as I am concerned!! More later . . .

4:00 PM

You may—or may not—hear it referred to as “The siege of Saigon”, but that’s just what it is. An estimated 2000 VC are within the city, and no one knows how many outside it. Streets have been completely cleared all day except for mil. personnel & ambulances. From our particular vantage point (not a very good one) we can hear—but never see—street skirmishes in all directions. Several major fires erupted, one of which may have been the main PX—as of now we really don’t know. Six BOQs [Bachelor Officers Quarters] have been assaulted in one way or another; 2 VN police precinct stations last night were attacked.

Strangely, today has been quieter, though, than yesterday. The ARVN has been active today, with the “Free World Forces” (i.e., U.S.) very lightly deployed. This is certain to change with nightfall, as our more sophisticated equipment will take over, and I rather imagine tonight will be quite a show.   More later . . .

Next AM – February 2, Friday

The show I expected (locally) didn’t come off. The night was fairly quiet, with a heavy curfew enforced. We had ARVN soldiers in the building, watching for snipers from the roof-tops. A few mortar rounds fell fairly close (a couple of miles) and occasional street skirmishes were heard all night. The curfew applying to us is still in effect; it might be lifted at noon, but we doubt it.

I hope you aren’t too worried about me—except for boredom, there are no real threats here. I can’t get any mail out, so there’s no way to reassure you except to chronicle these events—dull as they are, really—and get this to a PO as soon as the curfew is lifted. The package I mailed ahead is waiting for me, along with any letters that may have gotten through—assuming that CMO HQ is still there!! We simply have NO news.

The local radio station—AFVN—is heavily censored by the local government. As soon as I can, I will get a short-wave set which will pick up VOA [Voice of America] from Manila, which gives much better coverage. But no one in the building has an all-wave set, so we sit here right in the thick of it with practically no idea of what is actually happening. By now, you at home probably know more about it than we do! Well—the orient has its own way of doing things!! More later…

10:30 AM

A “banana chopper” came by this AM to take away the helicopter that crashed day-before-yesterday on the building a few blocks away. It was a typical “ooops!” operation however. Instead of making a direct lift-off upwards, they dragged it off a bit sideways. Unfortunately, a broken-off  tail section was attached by a secondary sling, and that caught on the railing of the building that had fouled up the ‘copter in the first place; the result was they lost the whole thing down on to whatever was below. This may have been a street, but was probably low buildings. All we saw was a cloud of dust . . .

Not a half-hour later, two VC snipers were captured in the street in front of us after quite a bit of gun-play. There are now ARVN soldiers and white mice stationed atop our building and many others nearby. “How about that?” as Snubs would say. More later . . .

6:30 PM

A major pitched-battle 2 long blocks westward of us routed & killed quite a number of VC this afternoon, & touched off a fire that consumed a number of houses. Air action has been very limited, and sniper activity since this morning in our area is essentially non existent.

We have been entirely confined since Tuesday afternoon. Prior to that time, I’d made only two or three trips away from here—and hence have seen very little. Went to the McCarthy BOQ twice for meals—it’s right down town and is one which has since been attacked by VC.

Got over to the 5 Oceans BOQ [with CA] once for an excellent steak dinner; it has also seen some action since then. When I was out, before the 24 hr curfew was clamped on, there was less of an “armed camp” atmosphere than there is now. But all the streets are littered with concertina-wire now, and heavily armed ARVN and white mice are literally everywhere.

Amidst all this, Bougainvillea blooms in profusion, and in a variety of shades I’ve never seen: many are orange, rather than the brilliant magenta we usually see at home. Some sort of tropical tree with very lovely 5-petaled flowers is also to be found everywhere, and potted “mums” in all shades line every drive and walkway in the more prosperous sections of town.

I’ve had to stay indoors more today than yesterday because of a bit of facial sunburn I got then, which gets uncomfortable whenever sun befalls it again. But the weather has really been fine, and such a welcome change. Well, more tomorrow unless we can get to a PO tomorrow, which seems unlikely.

This letter was continued over several more days, and it will appear here on future pages. In the meantime, here are a few snapshots taken in Saigon soon after we managed to get “out and about”: I have no pictures taken during the Tet Offensive, since we were confined to barracks as it were.

Police confiscate a seller’s cart for some infraction (probably selling black-market items)

Saigon Police Load Confiscated Street Vendor's Cart

A typical scene at the Saigon port. No deep-water vessels could get near, so everything came ashore in lighters.

Pandemonium at the Port. No doubt the folks there knew what was going on, but the general appearance was one of confusion.

Saigon Vegetable Market

Vegetable Sellers on the Street in Saigon.

More of the Tet Offensive and the part I played in it (which was nothing) will follow.

PeeYes: Anyone wondering about this line: “How about that?” as Snubs would say” in my letter can write me at MYOB@brucebramson.com for an explanation.

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Written by Bruce

December 14th, 2009 at 8:43 pm