The words weren’t exactly welcome to me in early 1964 but were less ominous than they would become in following years to a large number of U. S. military personnel, many of whom were not, like me, in uniform voluntarily. When I got a call to inform me that my orders had come in, the man on the phone asked if I was sitting down. I told him to go ahead and say it, whatever it was. He said, “You’re going to Viet Nam.” I didn’t quite need to sit down but it did come as a surprise.
Most Americans had only been vaguely aware of the U. S. presence in Viet Nam until 1963. When the Viet Cong set off a bomb in the Capitol Kindo Theater in Saigon, killing and wounding some Americans, it was front page news across the U. S. The American presence in Viet Nam began modestly in 1957, during the Eisenhower administration, and expanded very slowly for a few years and then the pace quickened under President Kennedy as U. S. military aid was stepped up.
My orders didn’t make my wife very happy. She had assumed I’d go someplace where she and our infant son could accompany me. Actually, they could have accompanied me at that time but we didn’t seriously consider that. A tropical Asian country where communist guerillas were killing Americans did not seem to us to be a good place to take wives and children, although there were quite a few men who brought their families.
As it turned out, it was a lucky thing I opted for a one-year “unaccompanied” tour of duty, rather than a two-year “accompanied” tour. There was a presumed night attack by North Vietnamese gunboats on two American destroyers in international waters that spurred President Johnson to issue his “clear the decks for action” order, removing all American military dependents from Viet Nam and sending in U. S. combat units, up to division size. Much later it was concluded that the “Tonkin Gulf Incident” was a phantom attack that resulted from radar anomalies caused by weather conditions but it marked a turning point in U. S. involvement in Viet Nam. It was unfortunate for those who had brought their families that they still had to complete their two-year tours, even though they were no longer accompanied.
Before going on to Viet Nam I had to undergo two weeks of special training at the Naval Amphibious Base near Coronado, California, across the bay from San Diego. The first week involved weapons training and lectures on such things as cultural sensitivities (Never pat a Vietnamese child on the head, for example) and how not to be an attractive target for VC terrorists. The weapons training included firing the 45-caliber pistol, M1 infantry rifle, Browning Automatic Rifle (or BAR) and the 30-caliber machine gun. We also learned how to throw grenades without endangering our comrades more than the enemy. There was a reason for putting everyone enroute to Viet Nam through this training even if, as with me, their work didn’t involve a combat-related job. It was because in Viet Nam there really wasn’t a “front line” or “rear area.” The Viet Cong could strike anywhere at any time and a clerk or cook or computer technician could suddenly find it necessary to take up arms in self defense.
The second week of training was devoted to “escape and evasion” and prisoner of war (POW) exercises. Trainees were taken out into the desert, to Warner Hot Springs and placed in a POW compound where the “guards” wore uniforms resembling Communist Chinese army unforms. Trainees were subjected to interrogation and brain- washing, including both physical and mental/emotional pressures. The purpose of this week of abuse was to make trainees aware of what they might encounter if captured and how best to resist. One of the men who went through this the week before I was scheduled to go told me that by the third day he had trouble remembering that it wasn’t real. He said he spent the last day in the twilight zone.
We underwent physical exams to ensure that we didn’t have some medical condition that would make it risky for us to participate. The hospital corpsman taking my blood pressure just had me push up the sleeve of my jumper, rather than taking the jumper off. The sleeve was like a tourniquet on my arm and the blood pressure reading came out quite high. When a doctor subsequently reviewed my exam form, he saw the high blood pressure and exempted me from the training as a medical risk, although he cleared me for duty in Viet Nam. I thought about volunteering that the reading was artificially high but decided against it. If fate had dealt me a free pass, leave well enough alone. But I was disappointed that I’d never know how well I would have handled the training.
Since I wasn’t going to Warner Hot Springs I was put on fast track to depart for Viet Nam. It was arranged for me to fly to Travis Air Force Base, near San Francisco, the next day for the daily transport flight to Saigon. Then it was discovered I had not had the many inoculations required for duty in Southeast Asia. These shots were normally administered a few at a time over several days. But since I didn’t have several days, I got all 13 in one sitting, six in one arm and seven in the other. By the next morning it was agony to pull on my jumper and carry my seabag because both arms were fevered and aching like bad teeth. A great sendoff on a trip I already wasn’t very thrilled about taking.
The chartered 707 carried all military personnel except for a few military dependents and civilian employees of the military. I was seated next to a Laotian army lieutenant who had been in the U. S. for some special training. He specialized in counter-guerilla warfare and had several kills to his credit and some interesting stories to tell. He made reference to his kills neither with pride nor shame, just as matters of fact.
The 707 made brief stops in Hawaii, Guam and the Philippines, finally arriving over Tan Son Nhut airfield outside Saigon some 17 hours after departing Travis. As we approached Tan Son Nhut the pilot made an announcement that we would be making an unusual approach and landing. Because the jungle around the airfield was infested with Viet Cong, who would shoot at low-flying planes, the normal low, slow glide to a landing was not used. Instead, the plane arrived near the runway still with some altitude. Then the pilot tipped up on one wing and side-slipped down to a lower altitude, leveled out and then touched down. We were well down the runway before he applied reverse thrust and then the brakes. It would have been exciting in a small plane. It was doubly so in a 707.
As the plane rolled down the runway we could see along the margins a lot of wrecked planes and helicopters. These had been lifted from their crash sites by large helicopters and flown to Tan Son Nhut to be cannibalized for parts. It was our first visual confirmation that we were in a combat zone. When the plane finally stopped and the doors opened, the hot, fetid smell of the jungle quickly filled the plane. We were loaded onto buses with heavy screens on all the windows to prevent hand grenades from being thrown in, additional evidence of our new environment.
For some of us the first stop was a hotel-converted-to-barracks in Cholon, a suburb that was Saigon’s Chinatown. We would live here until assigned permanent quarters in two or three weeks. Several hotels in Saigon had been bought or leased by the U. S. and made into billets for American military personnel. My permanent home was the Dai Nam Hotel, above a movie theater. That structural configuration would become significant a few months later to those of us living there.
When I reported in the next day at the Naval Support Activity compound, I learned I would be assigned to the Armed Forces Radio Station (AFRS) in Saigon. This was the first good news I had received in a while.
While I was stationed at Military Sea Transport Service, Atlantic Area, headquarters at the Brooklyn Army Terminal in the late 1950s,I completed a night school course in broadcasting (at my own expense) at the School of Radio Technique in Manhattan. The lead instructor was a man named Pat Kelly who, for over 20 years, had been the Chief of Announcers at the NBC network. Based on this credential I applied for and received a secondary occupational specialty designation as a qualified broadcaster. (My primary designation was journalist/public information specialist.) The time and expense invested in that training was finally paying a dividend.
With the buildup of U. S. forces, AFRS later became a television and radio network (AFVN) with several facilities across Viet Nam, but in 1964/65 there was just the one radio station in Saigon, with repeater stations to carry our signal up-country and down into the Mekong delta.
AFRS (the name was later changed from Armed Forces Radio to American Forces Radio) was, many years later, featured in the Robin Williams movie, Good Morning, Viet Nam. In that movie the name of the morning radio show Robin Williams hosted was “The Dawnbuster Show.” That name originated with the man doing that show when I arrived at AFRS, Army Sergeant Don Busser. (The man Williams portrayed in the movie arrived at AFRS the year after I was there.) The show name was a play on Busser’s name. Busser was also a very funny guy and popular morning DJ with U. S. troops and had a sizable Vietnamese audience as well. After I’d been at AFRS a while I was teamed with Busser for the 6:00 p.m. newscast in a Huntley-Brinkley format. He was a good newscaster as well as DJ.