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Sunday, 24 October 2010

Memories of Vietnam 1965 1975 part 57, 58: Reunion in a war torn Saigon 1968


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.


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.

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