Sunday, 27 May 2018
The Ammunition Dump. Part 2
I was now aware that objects were falling out of the sky and every time the ammo dump exploded I ducked back down into the bunker. Then up again. My earlier calm had been replaced by a state of high alertness. There are times when I have really loved Americans. When those first helicopter gunships appeared was one. I remember asking them to zap hell out of the Viet Cong. After a while the camp was protected by dozens of them circling around in the sky. I was joined from time to time by one of the more adventurous of our soldiers with his M14. The others, including the machine gunner, remained in the bottom of the bunker.
The sergeant was still off somewhere doing what I don't know. This went on until perhaps 2.30 or 3 o'clock in the morning when things calmed down. The US army habit of suddenly laying down massive bursts of machine gun and automatic rifle fire at nothing in particular from time to time kept one's nerves on edge. I was able to get an hour or two's sleep where I lay and in the morning looked around at the debris scattered everywhere. It really was a wonder nothing had hit me on the head. The airfield was a complete mess with damaged or destroyed buildings everywhere. About a dozen aircraft had been put out of action and after this none stayed on the base over night. Our water storage shed was destroyed and as the town’s water supply had been contaminated earlier the only thing left to drink was beer.
Our major flew up from Saigon and we all got new flak jackets and helmets. We also had a proper new bunker built just outside our door controlling also the access from the cliffs. The previous bunker we had spent most of the night had been a miserable affair. This one was really first class
Friday, 25 May 2018
Sunday, 11 March 2018
The Ammunition Dump. Part 1
It was about 9 o'clock in the evening when the mortar rounds started coming in. Everybody rushed to their positions. I found myself, alone, behind a low wall. We had no helmets or flak jackets. I had my trusty sub-machine gun. The Viet Cong sometimes sent teams of saboteurs in under cover of these attacks. One of their points of entry was up the cliff at our back.
Suddenly there was a massive explosion and a sheet of flame shot hundreds of feet into the air. I thought to myself what a marvellous firework display. I knew the ammunition dump, situated about 150 yards away, had been hit but my mind refused to register the fact. It was a retreat into one of my shades of fear I have talked about. I took out my pipe and started to calmly smoke it. It was always most comforting under such circumstances. The night accentuated the repeated explosions, but luckily hid from me the mass of unexploded shells and shrapnel that were falling back down to earth. In the morning I would find the base littered with them. At the time I was mercifully ignorant.
Our sergeant however decided it was time to withdraw to a bunker so I rejoined the others. As we made our way there was another almighty explosion and everybody dived for cover. It is strange that a few minutes before, alone, I had not thought of cover, but now the herd instinct was beginning to take over. A 155 shell landed close by but did not explode. I was trying to crawl under a flimsy building; there was a six inch space between the floor and the ground, all fear of cobra's dispelled by a greater one. The corporal next to me was wounded by shrapnel, but not too badly.
We made it to the bunker. The sergeant took off somewhere. The military were in theory responsible for our security but I preferred to remember my Black Watch training. The others kept inside the bunker which was below ground. I stayed half out of the entrance. Somebody had to keep an eye open for Viet Cong. The thought of huddling in the dark not knowing what was going on didn't appeal to me either.
Sunday, 4 March 2018
Odds & Ends from Phan Thiet
Phan Thiet had been hit during the recent offensive. The camp barber had been found amongst the dead, evidently leading them as a guide. Our sergeant had shot up one of our own buildings with his machine gun. We went for a ride down town out as far as the hospital. This had a team of Chinese doctors and nurses. When the Viet Cong offensive was renewed they would be cut off. The South Vietnamese and Americans refused to rescue them and a mixed bunch of civilian contractors went in. They were ambushed and one killed. I don't know what the fate of the Chinese was. The town's water supply had a bloated dead pig floating in it. This part of town was absolutely deserted and rather creepy.
At night I remember sitting on a bunker with a cold beer watching a duel between a Viet Cong machine gun and one our Puff the Magic Dragons. The fire power was most impressive with their three six barrelled machine guns firing up to eighteen thousand rounds a minute.
There frankly wasn't enough work for ten men on a station. Two could have handled it perfectly well. We spent a lot of time on the firing range. I never did get to like the M60 machine gun but loved the M79 grenade launcher. A very dangerous weapon though. I remember reading of a GI who accidently fired one in the air in a crowded market. What goes up must come down and it killed and injured many people.
One of our GI's shot a cobra on the path between our living quarters and ops room. I can remember driving slowly down some isolated road in Phuc Thuy province when an enormous cobra suddenly reared up in front of me. Like some idiot I found myself slowing down not to run it over. I can understand the expression to be paralysed with fear. That was to happen to me once when shooting erupted at some Viet Cong. It can happen once. Twice is not wise. It’s funny how one can spend hours on a rifle range and when the moment one has to squeeze a trigger for real one can't. As I said I believe once is allowed.
We didn't have very good relations with the local people nor any chance to develop them. The town had not yet felt the full force of being liberated by the US army, but that was to come. It was at Ben Tre in the Delta that an American general had said the town had had to be destroyed to save it.
Phan Thiet being liberated by the US airforce
Tuesday, 27 February 2018
Decca, Phan Thiet
Decca, Phan Thiet, was known as Green South since the development of the central chain. It was one of the three slave stations. It’s personnel had originally been housed on station but at one time in the past considering themselves the subject of Viet Cong sniper fire had moved down town. By the time I arrived there was only one Decca technician left and due to the deteriorating situation in town he had moved back on station. We now had a detachment of eight members of the 16th Signals Company who more or less ran the station. I feel our role now was purely advisory although we did shifts along with them. The isolation we had known, and perhaps were jealous of had gone. I once heard a story of a Decca technician, who, left alone too long on an island in the Persian Gulf, had opened fire on a relief ship.
US army jeeps in front of damaged building.
We had no problems in any case with them, and their sergeant was a very keen fellow. Messing was difficult for me. My fellow American Decca technician used to wear US army green fatigues and just walked in to the mess on base and was never questioned. With my beard and khaki drills I was not admitted. Officially Decca was attached to the Provincial Advisory Team which was based down town. Actually this pleased me as it gave me an excuse to drive down town three times a day to eat and get about. I had had enough of living on army bases when I was a soldier. Van Kiep had been different as it was largely a Vietnamese base.
Sunday, 25 February 2018
I was posted to Phan Thiet a few days later. I caught an Australian piloted Caribou. Always pleasant fellows to fly with. As I suffered from some form of vertigo their habit of flying just above the trees was most comforting as the fear engendered completely drove the vertigo away.
Phan Thiet was on the coast in 2 Corps, in the southern part of Central Vietnam. It was known for it's 'Nuoc Mam', that pungent fish sauce that accompanied almost all Vietnamese cooking. 'Nuoc' is a Vietnamese word that means liquid, the 'mam' is the fermented fish paste that is the base of the sauce. The best is said to come from the island of Phu Quoc. I would agree. I'm quite sure though that the smell of the fermenting fish is of the same quality in both towns. I like it, the sauce that is, and those that do not should not venture to Vietnam.
The Decca station was at the airfield which was on high ground to the south of the town, with a high cliff on one side dropping down to the sea. Between the airfield and the town was an unkempt cemetery with a raised road going down through it. The town itself was cut in two by a river.
The airfield was a base of the 101st Airborne Division when I was there. A very small company sized camp with a battery of South Vietnamese 155s, a field hospital in an old French building covered with lovely tiles, all of which would be blown off during my stay.
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.