Saigon Checkpoint


Soon after arriving I was made night news manager, my shift starting at 5:30 to prepare for the 6:00 p.m. newscast and then doing five-minute newscasts every hour until the station signed off at midnight. Sometimes there would be “civil disturbances” (as we were instructed to call them) or other things going on that would keep us on the air overnight to be available for American officials to quickly communicate vital information to troops throughout the country. On those nights I wouldn’t get relieved until 5:30 a.m.

My other duty at AFRS was putting the station on the air at 6:00 a.m. Sunday mornings and then doing hourly newscasts while canned programming was airing, until it was time for my three-hour variety show, “Saigon Checkpoint.” It included music, featurettes, comedy recordings, short story and poetry recordings and whatever else I could come up with. The show had great theme music, a terrific jazz number titled “Tokyo Blues.” The AFRS parent organization in Washington, D.C. provided a lot of good programming materials to Armed Forces radio and TV stations around the world. I missed my wife and son a lot that year in Viet Nam but I enjoyed my job.

Among the more exciting times in Saigon was a Sunday morning coup attempt by a rebellious army general aimed at overthrowing the government of General Nguyen Kanh, who had overthrown the government of General “Big” Minh, who had overthrown the regime of Ngo Dinh Diem, who had replaced the puppet emperor Bao Dai. For the most part we had to ignore what was going on in our newscasts because the U. S. had to maintain at least the appearance of neutrality in such situations.

When I went off duty at the station about 3:00 p.m., I went to the home of my best friend in Viet Nam, an Army Sergeant computer technician from Rhode Island. He lived with a Vietnamese woman whom he later married. (Years later their son graduated from the U. S. Naval Academy at Annapolis.) Their rented house was across the street from the big railroad yard that tanks had occupied in support of the coup.

During the afternoon we heard the roar of airplanes nearby and hurried to the roof to see what was happening. Just as we stepped onto the roof the whole house was shaken by an A-1 Skyraider fighter-bomber of the Vietnamese Air Force flying directly over us at no more than 100 feet. The sound was deafening. We could feel the throbbing vibration of the plane’s big radial engine all through our bodies. The wings were hung with bombs and rockets. The plane flew very low over the rail yard, buzzing the tanks. A minute later a second A-1 passed over, followed by a third and a fourth. By that time the first A-1 had circled and made another pass, the others following as before.

Suddenly, there was a new roar filling the air, coming from the rail yard as the tank engines coughed to life and tanks began moving down the railroad tracks out of the rail yard. In about 20 minutes they were all gone and the A-1s had flown away. It was quiet and peaceful as if nothing had happened. We learned later that General Nguyen Cao Ky, the Vietnamese Air Force commander, had remained loyal to General Kanh and communicated to the rebels that if they did not leave Saigon forthwith they would be attacked by Ky’s A-1s. The coup attempt collapsed as unit commanders decided discretion was the better part of valor and got out of town.

We had another few days of excitement when open warfare broke out between Catholics and Buddhists. Catholicism had arrived in Viet Nam with the French colonialists about a hundred years earlier. It became the religion of most of the ruling class under the French and later under Ngo Dinh Diem, who had displaced the puppet emperor Bao Dai when the French were driven out. In the years of Diem’s rule the favoritism shown Catholics, to the detriment of the Buddhists, cultivated deep resentment and anger in the Buddhist majority. This conflict had been brought to the world’s attention when Buddhist monks began immolating themselves in public as a form of protest. The photos and films of burning monks received prominent exposure in the world’s media.

What began as a clash between street demonstrations rapidly escalated into a civil war between civilian combatants, mostly teenagers. The Vietnamese government and army refused to get involved at first, allowing the growing bands of Catholic and Buddhist fighters to have a free hand in the streets of Saigon. My barracks/hotel, the Dai Nam, was just a block from a huge traffic circle with vendor stalls all around the perimeter. This was known as Saigon Market and normally was crowded with shoppers and vendors selling everything from live ducks to haberdashery. The Market was taken over and occupied by a Buddhist mob, as were several other public squares and plazas. The Catholics had mostly taken over schools, including the one next door to the Dai Nam, and other buildings.

One day, as my roommate and I stood on our balcony watching activity in the Market, we heard loud cheering and saw a wide path open up around the traffic circle. We saw a motor scooter (of which there were thousands in Saigon) driving around the circle dragging a body along behind, probably an unlucky Catholic boy who’d been captured. People in the crowd beat and kicked the body.

After three days of rioting and virtual anarchy in the streets, the government decided enough steam had been let off and army units swept through the city, dispersing or rounding up the rioters. On that day we heard shooting outside the Dai Nam and some of us rushed to our balconies to see what was happening. We quickly ducked back inside when we saw several army vehicles parked in the street, directing gunfire at the school next door. Every now and then one or two rounds would hit the Dai Nam instead of the school. We suspected that some of those errant shots were not accidental. Many Vietnamese soldiers and sailors had no particular affection for the American military. The rioters in the school didn’t hold out long under the fusillade and soon the shooting stopped as the young occupiers were marched out and loaded into army trucks and driven away. Within a half hour it was all over, with only the pock-marked walls of the school, and a few bullet scars on the Dai Nam, to bear witness to what had happened.

From our vantage points on Dai Nam balconies we could also, from time to time, witness an execution by firing squad in Saigon Market.



 Posted by at 7:38 pm