Saturday, 10 February 2018
Reunion in a War torn Saigon
The next day I went to find PB. Our separation had not been entirely smooth. The letters from each other going rather to extremes. No telephoning possible. In fact in all the years I was in Vietnam I was never able to make or to receive an international call.
The fighting had died down although there was still some going on in Cholon. Of course in cities like Hue the issue would not be resolved for many more weeks. As nobody knew what the situation was and solid news was always unobtainable one had to use one's own judgment. The streets were mostly deserted. The only people about were those that had to go somewhere. I passed a destroyed house. I had to walk as there was no transport at all. It was a most strange feeling.
As I walked down her street and saw PB coming towards me a pair of South Vietnamese Air Force AIE Sky Raiders passed overhead at roof top level. Were they trying to support the morale of the local population or frighten the Viet Cong out of hiding ? I always felt there was something frightening about very low flying aircraft even if they were on your side.
Later I would go to Cholon where the fighting was still going on. There as one first entered the deserted streets one could hear hushed voices behind the closed shutters. Then silence as one went along roads that had been completely abandoned by their inhabitants. It was not the silence of a Sunday morning because such a thing did not exist in Saigon. Then one passed through an area where the buildings had been damaged by the fighting. The further one went the greater the destruction. As I had become completely lost at that time I just headed on towards what I don't know. I think I was very scared. There was something very vulnerable about being the only person about. The streets were at times very long and as a foreigner I did tend to stick out in a crowd. Not that by myself I made very much of one. I knew there were Viet Cong still entrenched, but not where. I could hear the sound of gunfire but it is often difficult to tell direction in built up areas, even if built up was no longer an appropriate word.
I was only driven on by my own curiosity. I had my camera and took photos and fell into my role of photographer. At that time I did not know that a jeep load of four journalists had driven round a corner and run into the Viet Cong. The journalists had called out 'Bao chi, bao chi', which means press reporter, but the Viet Cong had shot three dead anyway although one had managed to escape. They had fired on Boy Scouts working with the Red Cross to help the wounded. The fighting had been very bitter. There were few rules when the Vietnamese set about killing each other. Finally I came across a group of Field Police, very distinctive in their own shade of camouflage and old M1 Garands. I had always found them very pleasant people. I say that as there were some Vietnamese units that gave me the willies. I stayed with them the rest of the day before making my way back. Not a relaxed walk either but gradually improving as I took the right direction back to civilisation.
My reunion with PB is not the concern of this story, but there could not have been a more dramatic background than this Saigon of 1968.
Wednesday, 7 February 2018
Saigon at War
Tan Son Nhut airport was deserted. Not a soul. No immigration, no customs inspectors, no police, no visible military. No hope of recovering my luggage. I found a telephone, called the office and was sent an armed escort. I spent a rather uncomfortable night on the office floor and the next day moved down town to a house the company now kept for personnel in transit.
I had not been expected, nor exactly welcomed back. The whole atmosphere had changed. Perhaps this had to do with the ongoing Viet Cong offensive, or with the fact the military had more or less taken over. The 16th Signals Company of the US Army would appear to be running things now and we were in an advisory role. I would get to know and not like the new area manager.
Saigon itself was virtually deserted. A city that one had known to be full of hustle and bustle. It had always amazed me the amount of energy that there was in the east. People had always seemed to be on the move or sitting down in cafés. Talking, shouting, and laughing. Now nothing. We didn't have much to eat either. The Vietnamese, who had stocked up for the New Year festivities, were not too badly off for food but for us there was nothing as all the shops and restaurants were shut. A tin of spam doesn't go very far between four grown men. On the roof of a house opposite two Orang Outangs were kept in small cages. Looking up when I heard their pitiful cries I saw one of the biggest rats I had ever seen outside their cages. Why keep them in two cages? Why keep them caged at all? How could one be a neighbour and live with it? Their cries went on all the time I was in this house, or when I visited it later.
Nobody seemed to know what was going on or what would happen. It is probably often the case in war that those outside the theatre of operations know more of the overall picture than those on the scene. Conversely those not present can also get a false picture. A photo of a flattened street in Saigon can give the impression to a loved one at home ten thousand miles away that there is great danger. If you are on the scene you note in passing that it had happened two or three days before, or in any case it was the next street and not the one you were in. Danger is always relative. I remember being very alert, very sober but not unduly worried. I had recovered my sub-machine gun and pistol from the office without which I would have felt most vulnerable.
Sunday, 4 February 2018
Visit to Bangkok
Bangkok airport was a hive of activity. Related to Vietnam or just normal tourist activity I can't remember. I tried to find out if there were any flights to Saigon. Nothing. All cancelled. The airport at Tan Son Nhut closed.
I went to the section that dealt with US personnel. There was nothing to Vietnam..... The last aircraft they had sent in had been fired upon and all further flights were postponed.
I then went down town and had a shower and some food. Feeling refreshed I returned to the airport and hung around for some time. Upon further enquiry I found out the Americans were going to attempt to send a plane into Tan Son Nhut. No places. Full up. I was as usual in a suit, tie, carrying my trilby hat and the inevitable furled umbrella. Maybe this helped. Always put the opposition in doubt as to who you are. The opposition of course being any kind of authority which stands in one's way. I also produced my very impressive travel orders obtained from the US Embassy in London earlier. As I had a grade of GS 12, the equivalent of major, I must have outranked a fair number of people on the flight. Whether the one I bounced off was happy about it I don't know but there wasn't one smiling face amongst the men who boarded that flight. A mixture of US army personnel and government civilians. It was a three engine Caravel. Belonging to what airline I have no idea. One of those that serviced the US government in any case.
The flight to Saigon was uneventful but there was no slow descent from the coast as usually happened. The pilot had one of those slow reassuring American drawls that I so love. Utterly relaxed. The kind of person one would give one's whole hearted support to. He announced that due to the events below and that any aircraft that attempted to land was being shot at he would do a corkscrew landing. The only thing he promised was that it would be quick.
We did land, the right way up, a few moments later. It had been quick. My heart took somewhat longer to descend from the 10,000 feet where I had left it moments before. I had arrived back in Saigon. A Saigon that was later to become my home.
Wednesday, 31 January 2018
In Paris I thought the best thing was to get to as near to Vietnam as I could so I took a flight bound for Thailand. I had no clear plan in mind. My own return had been rather upset by these developments. In Washington I had sent a telegram to the Saigon office asking them to reserve me a room at the Hôtel Majestique, and another to PB saying I was on my way back.
These had arrived well before the offensive, although I discovered later the office had done nothing about reserving a room. Our local secretary had been replaced by some utterly incompetent American woman who was there for whose pleasure I'm not sure but certainly not for the benefit of Decca employees.
On the plane to Bangkok I tried to analyse my thoughts, but I think they had become frozen. They should have been on PB, who was perhaps the real reason for my return, but I'm not sure that a desire to be part of the unfolding events wasn't uppermost in my mind. The job, although agreable, was not my priority. My initiative was perhaps stronger than that of most of our personnel, but the motivation behind it was entirely different. I stayed stone cold sober, not having even a beer, as I tended to do when faced with major developments.
As we approached Karachi the Captain came to see me and asked me if I had a visa for Thailand. I said no as I had no interest in visiting the country and was only stopping over at the airport to hitch a lift to Saigon. He seemed to take this lack of visa very seriously, whilst I couldn't give a damn. The result was he put me off the plane at Karachi. I spent a miserable few hours on some camp bed in a very depressing room, with only a glass of orange juice. I have mentioned earlier that I hadn't even had a beer on the flight, but it is always irritating to arrive at odd airports in the night and find everything closed. To name a few, it had happened in Hawaii, Midway and Wake Island before.
In the morning I went to the Thai Embassy and thankfully obtained a visa in an hour, went back to the airport and took a flight to Bangkok. I hadn't even had the desire to spend a day there, which is what I usually did when I found myself stuck in strange places.
Tuesday, 30 January 2018
A long and difficult journey
I spent the night in the Hilton, Washington. I have always believed that when in doubt first class hotels are always the best. Small family hotels are lovely when you have time to get to know the people. A curious thing happened whilst checking in though. When I had registered they asked me what credit card I would be using. I said I would be paying cash and immediately they asked for my passport as though cash was a dubious way to pay and made one a suspicious character.
I went to the office the following morning and by evening that day was on a plane on my way back to Vietnam. Not for me this time a month's wait for a flight.
Saigon via London. By some logic that escaped me I had to pass by the US Embassy in London to pick up my travel orders and various other documents. I wasn't even a resident of the UK any more. In London just before I was to get my flight the Viet Cong made massive attacks all over Vietnam in what was to become known as the Tet Offensive as it was during the New Year celebrations. All flights to Saigon were cancelled. I was still in my very gung ho period. Another Englishman who was meant to travel out to Saigon was held back by the London office and took six weeks to arrive. I was brought up in a different school.
I decided I had better have some more cash so went to the London office of my American bank and asked to withdraw some dollars. They said I wasn't allowed any dollars and it was against the law to have a foreign account anyway. I had to produce my United States Defense Department identity papers and explain my position before I could withdraw any money. Governments and I have never got on. I haven't got on with banks and head offices either.
I decided to take a flight to Paris.
Sunday, 28 January 2018
Adieu to the Bahamas
I was sitting on the beach of the Mantagu Beach Hotel. This was well known to Decca personnel. It had a swimming pool and below that a bar. In fact the wall behind the bar was a glass partition at the deep end of the swimming pool. An American honeymoon couple had found this out to their cost on entering the bar after coming down from the pool. They checked out of the hotel in five minutes.
I had in years gone by met a Canadian girl on this beach. She was part American Indian and had the most intriguing eyes I had ever seen. A deep brown, almost black, with flecks of green and gold. She wrote me the most beautiful letters in French when I had gone back to the out islands. We only received our mail once a month when the sea plane arrived with our food and beer. I had to wait to the following month to send the reply. It had been a very slow pace of life. Cut off from the world, no telephones and only the BBC foreign service. The most utterly lovely swimming where one would spend up to three hours in the water at a time scuba diving.
I saw my sister walking towards me down the beach. She was dressed for the office and had a purposeful stride to her and I immediately knew what she was going to say when she was ten yards away. I was to call Washington immediately. I went to the local office, called the head office and two days later was on a plane to Washington. The goodbyes were untroubled this time. No tears. Even Susan came along. She was to move to Paris later, but maybe she will enter another blog I'm writing.
Friday, 26 January 2018
Going Slowly Home
When I was in the army the regiment went off to the colonies or various wars by troopship. They also came home again by troopship. The French had used the 'Messagerie Maritime' to sail from Marseilles to Saigon and back again. It is the slowly going back home again that is important. I do not believe it is either good for the person concerned or indeed for his family to step straight off a plane from some distant war and suddenly appear on one's doorstep.
As a tourist ship from Bangkok was the last thing I wanted if indeed there had been one, I had flown from Saigon to Bangkok and then taken the train down to a small distant town on that narrow part of the country that is between Thailand, Burma and Malaya. I went to a place on the eastern coast that had a practically deserted hotel where I took a wooden hut on stilts for a week and drank whatever was bothering me out of my system.
I then made my way back to our office in Washington, stopping off here and there but not hurrying. Just slowly winding down. When about three weeks after leaving Saigon I reported into our office I was bright eyed and bushy tailed and feeling in fine form. I had an agreeable meeting with the powers that be and then flew down to the Bahamas via Miami.
The greetings at home went off perfectly and I settled in for a long leave.
Thursday, 25 January 2018
Wednesday, 24 January 2018
Goodbye Van Kiep
At about the time the new colonel arrived there were some US army engineers doing some construction work on the American compound. They were very undisciplined and amongst other things either didn't shave or tried to grow beards. The new US colonel blamed this on my beard giving a bad example. He banned me from the mess. I had been on the base for over two years and he only two weeks.
I was by this time rather tired. I had only had one proper weeks leave and needed a breath of fresh air. I could probably have carried on quite well without the messing facilities but we had always had very good relations with the army at the camp but were in no way subject to their dress code. I had always considered myself very correctly dressed, always in clean pressed khaki drills when I came on or off duty, plus my beret or bush hat. So I said good bye to Van Kiep never to set foot there again. When a year later I was ordered back I refused and went to Tay Ninh instead.
I went to Saigon and became one of those odd bods who hung around the office for some time before deciding to leave the country on long leave.
During this time the new colonel killed himself whilst driving down the road to Vung Tau at night without lights at high speed and slammed into a broken down lorry. Rather a waste to get killed that way when he could have been honourably killed in battle.