When I arrived in Viet Nam in Spring 1964 there were about 15,000 Americans in-country, none in combat units except for a few helicopter units that supported ARVN operations. Some were attached to Vietnamese Army or Navy units in many different areas of the country as advisers or trainers and others were involved in providing American military equipment and supplies to Viet Nam. The number grew steadily during 1964 and more rapidly after President Johnson ordered U. S. combat units, some up to division strength, into the country. By the time I left in Spring 1965 the number was well above 100,000 and in the next couple of years grew to over half a million. Casualty numbers also increased.
A few of the casualties struck close to home for me. My first roommate at the Dai Nam was lost not long after I arrived – I don’t remember the details. My second roommate I knew for a much longer time. He worked at an Army Signal Corps communications facility just outside Saigon. One day he didn’t show up for work. Later in the day his jeep was found in the trees beside the road near the Signal Corps facility. His fate remained unknown. Another whose fate was never discovered was the husband of a woman in a language class with me at the Vietnamese American Association, learning Vietnamese. He was a member of the U. S. embassy staff. He was riding his motor scooter on a Saigon street in the middle of the day. Witnesses said he was led away by some Vietnamese men, undoubtedly Viet Cong. He was never seen or heard from again. Perhaps he had made it a habit to ride his scooter on that same street often, setting himself up as a target. As we had been warned in the training at Coronado — Don’t do the same thing in the same place at the same time day after day.
At some point during my year it was ordered that the enlisted residents of the billet hotels would have to stand guard duty on a rotating schedule. At each hotel entrance an area of sidewalk in front of the door was fenced off by a waist-high wooden fence. Inside the fence was a roll of concertina (barbed) wire, to discourage anyone from jumping over the wooden fence. Within that enclosure there was always either an ARVN MP or a regional forces soldier (similar to the National Guard in the U. S.) and a “white mouse” – a Saigon policeman. They were called white mice by Americans because of their white uniforms and timidity in the face of danger. They seemed to have a sixth sense about an impending VC attack and would disappear just before it. It was generally thought that they provided little security to any premises they guarded. If the soldier was a regional forces man, he might or might not be any help in an attack. Some were good soldiers, many were not. If the soldier was a Vietnamese MP (the Vietnamese initials were QC, painted in large letters on their helmets), then we had at least some security.
I don’t think we were ever told why we suddenly had to start providing an American third member of the security team. We wore a loaded .45 on the hip and stood around for four hours at a stretch, mostly unable to communicate with the two Vietnamese on guard with us, who probably resented our presence as reflecting a lack of confidence in, and respect for, themselves. The Vietnamese were, not surprisingly, quite sensitive to the all-too-common American attitude of superiority, and sometimes outright racism. After a few months the order was rescinded and we no longer had to stand guard watch.
One late evening as I was in the last hour of my 8:00 p.m. to midnight watch, there was a sudden tremendous boom about half a block up the street and smoke, glass and debris came flying out the front of a bar. There was immediate confusion and pandemonium in the street, some people running away and some running to see whatever there was to see. Such events were not uncommon so the response by both Vietnamese and American security and medical personnel was prompt. Ambulances of both authorities and squads of MPs and QCs were soon on the scene.
A crowd of several dozen gathered around our enclosure as many people stood watching the activity up the street while not wanting to get too close. The crowd made me nervous because it was great cover for a VC to use to get close and open fire or throw a grenade. Also, the VC had a favored tactic of setting off one explosion to draw a crowd and then, several minutes later, a second explosion. I only spoke a little Vietnamese so there was no way I could ask my fellow guards to chase the people away from our area. To make it worse, a number of dimbulb fellow residents of the Dai Nam came out and stood around, both inside and outside the enclosure, to gawk at the goings-on up the street. It was a made-to-order set-up for a Viet Cong gunner or bomber.
I was a little jumpy as I nervously scanned the crowd back and forth, looking for anything suspicious. The reality was that with so many people packed together I had very little chance of seeing an attack coming before it was too late. I was startled and actually jumped when there was a loud shout in Vietnamese just a few feet behind me. I whirled around and saw the white mouse pull out his pistol and point it at a young man who had just leaned his bicycle on our fence and was walking away. Bicycles were a favorite bomb package for the VC, innocently leaned against a wall or tree. The white mouse continued to shout at the young man and wave his pistol at him. I really think if the young man had continued moving away the white mouse would have shot him dead on the spot.
The man hurried back to get his bike and walked it away up the street toward the excitement. He was most likely not guilty of anything more than wanting to leave his bike where he thought it would be safe and not thinking how his action would look to us. I felt somewhat chagrined that I had failed to notice the bike when I thought I was being so vigilant. And my respect for the white mice went up a few notches. This guy was not at all timid in dealing with a potentially dangerous situation.
The incident appeared to cause the people in the crowd to wake up to the possible danger of standing around there. In a few minutes most of them had moved away. But not my stupid fellow Americans. I encouraged them to go back into the hotel — I had no authority to order them — but they just ignored me. As it turned out, nobody was killed in the bar up the street but there were several injuries, some serious. Some blood-spattered bar girls were taken away in the Vietnamese ambulances and American ambulances removed some bloody U. S. personnel. By midnight it was all over and I was happy when the guy with the next watch came to relieve me.
In January 1965 I was expecting to find out any day where I would be going when my year in Viet Nam ended in a few months. But week after week went by with no information forthcoming. The personnel office at the Naval Support Activity said to be patient and my orders would arrive soon. But they didn’t. Finally, the personnel office sent an inquiry to the Bureau of Naval Personnel (BUPERS) at Navy headquarters in D. C. Less than a month before my departure date my orders came in.
The officially-stated policy of the Navy at that time was to give special consideration for their next duty station to men completing a year in Viet Nam. I had to do another year either overseas or on sea duty. I hoped I would go someplace where my wife and son could join me, at least in the homeport of whatever ship I was on. The “special consideration” I got was orders to the aircraft carrier USS ORISKANY, homeported at North Island Naval Air Station at Coronado, near San Diego. That part was fine but ORISKANY was about to depart for a six- to eight-month deployment to WestPac (the Western Pacific, ie the Far East). At that time that could only mean South China Sea – Tonkin Gulf waters, flying air strikes over Viet Nam. So I was just trading IN Viet Nam for duty OFF Viet Nam. And I would continue to be separated from my wife and son for several months, although I did get a 30-day leave before I had to report aboard ORISKANY.