Saturday, 12 August 2017
Puff the Magic Dragon
I have a CD of Peter, Paul and Mary. I can't remember if they were the original group who sang the song, 'Puff the Magic Dragon'. It has always been one of my favourites. There was also another song by an Irishman about a Unicorn that I rather liked. Puff was also a Gun Ship. A DC3 armed with three Gatling type six barrelled machine guns each of which could fire six thousand rounds a minute making a total of eighteen thousand rounds. At night with their tracers it gave the impression of a dragon shooting tongues of fire. There was also a lesser known twin tailed C119 version.
It was in this war that the US first introduced the C130 Gunship, armed with a 105mm howitser. There was also a ten thousand pound bomb used to clear landing areas in the jungle and killing everything directly or indirectly in its path. The old Huey choppers were used with all sorts of combinations of armaments.
Napalm seemed to be accepted as a normal means of warfare, perhaps until a certain photograph of a young girl fleeing its destruction was taken. Flying over certain areas of Vietnam one could see a pocked marked country ravaged by the bombs of the B52's and the spoliation of Agent Orange. I have always felt that such photos, even the sights themselves, have much more of an effect on those outside the zone of conflict than those in it. A self protective mechanism has kicked in which switches one's emotions off to preserve one's sanity. Of course there is another slow insidious creep of fear, revulsion and disgust that slowly builds up in one's unconsciousness and takes its toll.
Friday, 4 August 2017
Scenes from Cholon, gthe Chinese city next to Saigon which suffered greatly during the Vietcong offensives in 1968.
Finding myself in Saigon after a number of very hectic months in Phan Thiet and Tay Ninh I spent some time taking stock of the situation in saigon and Cholon.
Walking alone through abandoned and destroyed streets never quite sure at times where the South Vietnamese troops were, nor the Viet Cong for that matter was a very spooky experience.
Thursday, 3 August 2017
Some of us went into private enterprise. I imagine it was against company policy and probably contravening local laws. A fellow I knew in the Bahamas on Green Station off Andros had run a rather successful craw fishing business until the boat sank and he lost all his investment and had problems with the local authorities.
I went into the theatre business. Perhaps wanting to know more about local culture. Quite what the Washington office would have thought of me driving our 3/4 ton back from Baria to Vung Tau in the dark after curfew with PB next to me and her rather attractive cousin next to her and some stage hands in the back I don't know.
The station head before John went into a car dealership. Another fellow in Vungtau was involved with a casino. A cartographer in Saigon who rented the house I would eventually stay in, had got involved in some black market deal also involving our secretary. She was saved by her powerful father who had probably got her the job in the first place, but the British Embassy got him out of the country just before the South Vietnamese police got hold of him.
The story I liked the best was at Green Station in Phan Thiet. Green always seemed to have problems. There was one fellow going around the airstrip one day, drunk, with a bottle of 'Mekong Whiskey' in his hand (local gut rot) trying to thumb a lift to Saigon. He had an advanced stomach cancer. Another couldn't go to work because of some social disease.
Anyway the local US commander in Phan Thiet had asked his Vietnamese counterpart to clear the town of brothels because they were having a bad effect on the morale or was it morality, of his troops. The Vietnamese officer duly did so and reported back that he had closed down all the brothels except that run by the US army. Furious the US commander investigated and found out that it was run by one of our Decca men.
I'm not stating it was Decca's fault the war was lost, but we did get some strange types there.
Monday, 24 July 2017
More from Van Kiep: part 2
Somewhere the decision had been taken to upgrade the system and to install another Decca chain. The new chain, consisting of the usual master and three slave stations would become the Central chain and we would become the Southern. Was there some vague hope somewhere that one day there would be a Northern chain around Hanoi? We would convert from the Mark 5 to the Mark 12 that I had used in the Bahamas. For technical details on all the different systems I again refer you to Jerry Proc's excellent site which you will find in my "Links".
All of this meant we had to do a fair amount of work. We might have had it easy for a couple of years but when the company said all work and no play everybody had to set to.
My own view is that it was a strategic mistake. Before, we had been a small project, lost in the mass of general accounting. Vietnam was full of projects. But when one became Big one got noticed and people asked how much you cost etc.
Once this new system had been installed and the Central chain set up the military would take over the running of everything and we would have more of an advisorial role. Whereas Decca ran the stations with three or four people (two or three in the Bahamas) the military would require ten. If you have ten per station you need a support company at base to supply them. If we could go a year or two without leave they were always off on R&R. We would often spend three or four years on a posting whereas the military rotated every year in Vietnam. Of course all of this needed transport and logistics.
It was naturally all part of the grand scheme of might is right and therefore must prevail. The Tet offensive was waiting round the corner but was of course not an expected guest.
Sunday, 16 July 2017
More from Van Kiep: part 1
The build up of US forces was slowly catching up with us. I mentioned earlier that we had received a 3/4 ton but not our jeep. We also received our own GI. I'm not quite sure what he was there for. The only time he wore a uniform was when his major showed up to pay him. He lived somewhere in Vung Tau and more or less kept the same hours as we did.
Speaking of the major. A new one, not the one we first had who had kept a discreet distance. This one showed up one day unannounced and walked in to the op's room to find our station chief, John, relaxed in his chair, feet up on the desk, a cold beer in his hand. In other words what was understood to be a normal state of readiness. The major was evidently none too pleased. John though had a grade of GS13 which outranked the major. Another source for friction. There had been a station chief on Green Slave in the Bahamas who kept the fridge locked throughout the day and only unlocked it at six o'clock in the evening. Not that I was there at the time, so there was no mutiny. There was of course the station chief of Green Slave in Phan Thiet, who was found passed out amongst a pile of empty beer cans on the op's room floor. He was fired and later died of cirrhosis in Thailand. In Van Kiep we kept a sensible level.
Wednesday, 5 July 2017
I have talked little about the war. I had the BBC World Service, The US Armed Forces Radio. I had The Stars and Stripes and various English language local newspapers. These latter were most amusing but I will deal with them later. I can't say I was ill informed. The war jogged on slowly and I was really only concerned with my little corner of Vietnam.
My own personal relationships were far more important to me than the fate of the country. That might seem selfish but I certainly had never gone to Vietnam with any missionary zeal to save the people from communism. I certainly didn't like communism. At times I feared it. But then I've never liked nor believed in politicians or generals. I have never voted in my life. Partly because I've never lived in a country where I've been allowed to vote, but mostly an utter contempt for those I would have to vote for. The US military I was associated with were of the old beer drinking long service types who had a job to do and got on with it.
The people of the country had lived with war so long it was a part of their life. However with programs to clear large areas of the countryside of its population and the creation of shanty towns. With the disparity in living conditions between most of the people and a minority of well-off Vietnamese. With the poorest staying in the army until they were killed or invalided out. With the sons of the rich going off to study abroad and not returning. With the corruption of the régime. With the money available to the US military and foreigners. With all this and more there was a growing discontentment.
There was also a certain contempt I felt on the part of certain of the military for the value of life. The use of the so called body count! The free fire zones! The use of agent orange! The use of napalm! The massive use of B52's! I certainly was no pacifist. I would not have been there if I were. One did wonder though over a period of time who exactly the enemy was and what was the friendly régime one was defending. It seemed one was supporting a very corrupt dictatorship in the name of what?
Monday, 3 July 2017
Relations with the Vietnamese
In our work with Decca we had little or nothing to do officially or unofficially with the Vietnamese. If we had limited ourselves uniquely to doing our job and living mostly on base we could have spent a year or eighteen months making a lot of money and then gone home knowing little or nothing of the country. I do know of a few cases like that but they were fairly exceptional. I would say the Americans were far wilder than the British. I was with the Americans and we were under yearly contracts. The British under the London office worked for Decca and one imagines had a future with the company.
As we were mostly, if not all, bachelors the majority had local girlfriends, many got married. It is either one of the pitfalls or pleasures of sending single men to exotic corners of the world.
Also it was very difficult to live in Vietnam if one did not have a maid to take care of one's day to day needs. Then one needed someone to take care of the maid etc. I always believed Vietnam to be one country in a state of civil war. This was in contradiction to the official US view. They had always been one people throughout history and eventually would be so again.
There was a distinct difference in character though between the North and the South. In the South they were much more easy going, in fact had an easier life, the war apart. They were very quick to anger and the fury of their women was something to be avoided. This anger though would last an hour or a day, no grudge would be held, and everything would then return to a state of loving normality. Generally they were absolutely faithful.
The North Vietnamese had a much harder life and had never accepted French domination. They were generally very slow to anger. It was said that they would wait ten or twenty years if necessary before exacting their revenge. Easier to get on with, more practical, but one was never certain of what they actually thought.
Sunday, 25 June 2017
Scenes from everyday life in the fishing village of Long Hai
A lonely armoured car guarding the road between Long Hai and Baria.36
The Road to Long Hai part 2
I moved into this rather old fashioned French hotel in Long Hai. I was the only guest. I was also the only occidental in the whole village. As I have mentioned there were a few Chinese who came down for weekends and that was all. Perhaps the security situation would change later but at that time the utter peace, if that is the word, was most appealing.
The hotel had no windows. They had all been blown out when the B52's bombed the nearby hills. The first time I had felt the tremors caused by their bombing I wondered whether the country didn't suffer from earthquakes. Around the headland at the end of the village there was meant to be a very beautiful rocky area, but as it was said deserters and renegades were holed up there I never went.
It was a very strange feeling being the only outsider in this small community. They must have been under a constant threat from the nearby Viet Cong. I rather hoped the hotel owners had some arrangement whereby their guests were not taken away. PB used to join me for weekends and they were some of the most pleasant we ever had.
Once though I was teaching her how to drive on a deserted airstrip outside the village when a pair of Grumman Mohawks decided to practice dive-bombing on us. I did not really think they would do more than practice but it rather upset the driving lesson and I was a little irritated they were not polite enough to give a wiggle of their wings on leaving.
Long Hai was a fishing village and when I went to Van Kiep early in the morning I would follow behind a lorry in the hope that if the road were mined it would set them off.
Sunday, 11 June 2017
The Road to Long Hai: part 1
It was about two o'clock on a Sunday afternoon. I was coming off duty at Van Kiep having had our usual Sunday lunch of barbecued T-bone steak and beer. It was always a relaxed time. The replacement arrived about 10 o'clock in the morning and if there was any maintenance to be done that required two people it was carried out between 10 and 12.
Suddenly there was a flap, a really big one and when the military get in a flap it’s hard to know what's going on. I walked out the gates down to the road and saw what looked like activity to my left. This was the road to Long Hai which was about 10 miles away and was a fishing village. It also had a few hotels that had known better times under the French but were now empty except for a few Chinese from Cholon on the weekends. Between Baria and it there was nothing. Mangrove swamps leading to the sea on one side forming a large bay with Vung Tau on the opposing end. On the other side of the road was uncultivated ground that led to a range of hills controlled by the Viet Cong.
As this was not my business I continued on my way to Vung Tau. I saw aircraft arriving at the scene, but ambushes in broad daylight this close to a US airbase (Vung Tau) were short, sharp and deadly.
When I returned to Van Kiep later I was able to piece together what had happened. A force of Regional Soldiers, about two hundred strong with three American advisers had been moving down the road to Baria from Long Hai where they were stationed when they had been ambushed. There had also been some confusion over a message from them asking if the road were clear or not. It was over in a few minutes. The US advisers were killed and the South Vietnamese force either killed, taken prisoner or scattered. This force was not replaced in Long Hai whose defence was left in the hands of some Popular Defence Force personnel. These were a sort of part time home guard.
Having tired of Vung Tau it was to Long Hai that I decided to move.
Wednesday, 7 June 2017
Interlude in Hong Kong
I decided I needed to see a specialist about my haemorrhoids. I arranged for some leave and went to Hong Kong. There it was decided an operation was necessary so a week later I would check into a private clinic on Hong Kong Island.
I had arrived in Hong Kong wearing a light tropical suit to find the weather bitterly cold, it was in February, and everybody wearing dark clothes. I took advantage of my stay to have a few suits made up. The hotel I had checked into was I think very respectable but I somewhat naively wondered what all those rather lovely Chinese ladies were doing sitting round the hotel lounge.
I spent a somewhat energetic and rather wild week. The colony at that time was confronted with the Cultural Revolution in China and was very lively and full of energy. I went to Macao on one of those boats that zoomed along on some kind of skis. Boarding the boat there were two Portuguese peasant women in front of me who had a most horrendous odour. I don't know how someone could consciously live with it. I can still remember it after forty years. The Portuguese colony seemed to have known better times. The hotel room was cold and the casinos rather dull. The food in Hong Kong though was delicious. The only sour note was that when changing my military scrip for some US dollars at Tan Son Nhut at the US military exchange somebody had given me a counterfeit $20 bill which led to my being interviewed by the police. I didn't give a damn but they seemed to take it seriously.
I won't go into the various other delights of Hong Kong in this article.
I naturally had a private room in the clinic which had a wonderful view over Hong Kong harbour, the sisters were hard bitten catholic missionaries, but the nurses were very sweet Chinese. Everything went well so I won't go into that either. I must say though if one has no life threatening problem it is very nice to be spoilt. Probably very expensive but I was covered by my blue cross and blue shield etc. Also for those who suffer from income tax and social security deductions from their pay cheques we had none of that and the per diem was reasonable. Mind you there never was an excess of volunteers for Vietnam. I remember telephoning home to the Bahamas. It was impossible to telephone internationally from Vietnam; difficult to telephone internally. They also had two systems, one US military and one Vietnamese.
I sent a telegram to my bank asking them to send a case of champaign to my sister for her birthday; those really were the days.