My First Full Day? Come On!

     Sometime in January or February 1970, I started to get access to some real information regarding my impending assignment to be an English teacher in Viet Nam.  Since learning about the assignment on September 19, 1969, the fifth day of Air Force Basic Training, I’d been dreading it based on little or no information at all.  I was scared, big time!  Ignorance is a powerful force.

Then in early 1970 I was moved out of the Casual Control status where I and scores of my fellow Palace Dog English teachers were among about 1,500 young enlisted people waiting for vacancies in schools.  In Basic we were so focused on our tasks we didn’t have time or the opportunity to learn about what would happen in Viet Nam.  In Casual we had all the time in the world, but no one to tell us about our upcoming Viet Nam assignments.

All I knew about Viet Nam was what I’d been watching on television for six years:  jungles, rivers, rice paddies, mountains, killing and dying.  Once I got into the English language teacher training program we learned we’d be working in schools and living in hotels.  Hey, that wasn’t the Viet Nam I knew.  It was still Viet Nam though.

While home on a ten day leave after tech school before going to Viet Nam, I ended up being more concerned about my parents’ anxiety than my own.  By brother had also been assigned to the Viet Nam area aboard the aircraft carrier USS Shangri-La.  All I could do to help them was promise to be careful and not take chances.

My plan?  Keep my nose clean, go to work at the school, and stay in my room at the hotel the rest of the time.  Success a third of the time is not a great track record.

Things got off track my second day in Viet Nam.  Others who arrived with me and I had been bused to the Capitol/White/St George bachelor enlisted quarters (BEQ) complex in Cho Lon, the Chinatown of Saigon.  We disembarked the bus heading west, crossed the street dragging our gear (most of it in those green heavy canvas duffle bags), then walked down that dirt potholed alley east of the Capitol Hotel to the St George entrance.  The guys going to the White Hotel were taken around the corner to its entrance.

In the excitement, confusion and chaos of my arrival I didn’t notice the location of the elevators in that seven/eight story hotel.  As we started the climb humping our bags ever upward, it dawned on me there were no elevators.  The sixth floor was going to be a climb three to four times a day, every day, for a year.  Our room number was 618.  That was sick-a-teen according to the charming desk clerk who repeated it so many times over the year.  We dropped off our room key as we left and reentered the hotel just like in a number of hotels in those days.  We’d say our number and she’d repeat it back to us.  For all these years, that sick-a-teen echoes so clearly.  My Taiwanese wife is charmed by the pronunciation too.  She knows through experience that sound Vietnamese make when truncating the hard sound endings to syllables in English words.

I don’t recall Tom’s reaction, but I was not turned off by the looks of the place.  As a hotel, it wouldn’t have earned a five star rating; it wouldn’t have gotten any stars actually.  Maybe a black mark, but no stars.  I was so tired, so hot and so sticky all I thought was it looked pretty clean.  The ceiling was quite tall (maybe 10 or 12 feet) as with all hotels in Southeast Asia to keep the heat above our heads as much as possible.  That didn’t make it cool.  It just made it less hot than it would have been with a 7-8 foot ceiling.  The bathroom was small, but complete with a little sink stained from rust in the water despite efforts to keep it cleaned.  A toilet with a separate water closet (a WC) mounted up on a standpipe jutting up from the bowl just like one I’d had in the farmhouse I lived in during my senior year in college just a year earlier.  A shower in the corner (without a curtain) filled out the three part bathroom.  I checked the water in the sink:  a bit of a yellow-brown tint.  “Don’t drink the local water” was a verbal admonition we’d received many times over the last eight months.

The room had three single beds with mattresses.  They had wood frames with many slats to support the muslin-covered foam mattresses.  I don’t recall how we selected the beds, but Tom got the one along the wall under the window and I got the one parallel to his near the door.  The third one was perpendicular to ours, against the far wall and just outside the bathroom.  It may or may not have been occupied; I don’t recall the person who was our roommate initially.  Later we had a sailor in there and when he left Ralph joined us for the balance of our shared time in–country.  I got lucky with my roommates:  all good guys.

After stashing our stuff in wood wall lockers alongside the doorway hall, we joined a bunch of the other guys for a walk to the Cho Lon Post Exchange (PX).  It was just a few blocks away to the northeast, but along a route that gave me a great cultural awakening that day.  Recall that I was going to hunker down and lay low to survive my year in the war zone?  Yeah, right:  the first afternoon I was on the street in a gaggle of GIs.  The roundtrip walk was fun; hot, but fun.  Maybe this wasn’t going to be so bad after all.  I’d not been in-country more than a few hours and there I was with a bed, bathroom, good roommates, toiletries, and a gun, bullets, and helmet.  Hot damn!

It was time to get some rest.  I collapsed.  The next morning, maybe around seven o’clock, we were awakened by urgent shouting in English and other languages.  We couldn’t make it out at first, but American GIs and local civilians were scurrying through the halls, pounding on the doors of all the rooms and clearly – regardless of language – telling people to get out of the building fast.

A bomb.  No kidding. “Bomb” was being shouted!  My first full day in-country and a bomb is in our hotel.  Get me the hell outta there; the Viet Cong have planted a bomb just as I arrived!

I was in my newly issued green boxer underwear shorts and tee shirt.  No time to get dressed, there’s a damn bomb in the hotel.  I put on my still never-polished black leather/green mesh punji stick proof combat boots (no time to really lace ‘em up), popped my steel helmet on my head, grabbed my M-16 and bandolier, and then headed out the door of our room.

I was ready.  For what, I wasn’t sure, but I had all my combat gear just in case.  How I’d use those bullets and that rifle against a bomb I didn’t think about.  I just knew the alarm had gone out about a bomb, that meant war stuff, and so I got my war gear.

The first thing to do after I was “equipped“ was to get the hell out of the building.  We ran to the very wide stairwell near our room and charged down the many steps and landings from the sixth floor to the ground floor (seven floors if you‘re using the American standard of the ground floor being floor number one).  As people vacated their rooms and converged on the stairwells traffic got a bit heavy.  No one tripped and no one fell.  There wasn’t too much shouting either.  We were a herd in full stampede, but very disciplined.  How’d ya like to see that in a civilian setting, huh?

Though the hotel had three stairwells, everyone entered and exited though a single small lobby area with a double door to the alleyway outside.  What could have been a real logjam was quite orderly.  Much of that calm no doubt was due to the presence of Army military police (MPs) directing traffic.

Most of us new guys were ready to bolt for the street.  The MPs with their training and experience held us in the alleyway.  The last thing they wanted was a bomb flushing several hundred GIs onto Dong Khanh Street so a shooter or a bomber would have a rich pool of targets.  Someone was thinking; it wasn’t me.

So, there we were in varying states of dress and almost all fully armed milling around in the alley.  None of us knew what was going on, but we’d all heeded the alarm, followed directions and vacated the hotel quickly.  Then we stood in that bright sunlight and humid air for over an hour.  Most of us had brought our weapons, but I don’t recall one of us bringing our canteens, or even if we’d filled those canteens we’d been issued the day before.  At some point, our wearing of oversized, never washed boxer shorts with those huge flys also became an issue.  Dress right, dress left may be fine in formation, but it becomes a challenge when talkin’ ‘bout one’s physical attributes in baggy underwear in an alley.

After that hour or so outside, the word spread that it was a false alarm.  That was just fine by me.  Some sort of package that got things started was determined to be just some stuff outside the building that was of no consequence.  We all started to move back into the building.  Though we’d all come out over a period of ten minutes, we were all trying to get back in at the same time.  It was still orderly but it was slow and sweaty.  Then we had that climb to Room 618.

My first full day in-country.  I was at 362 and a wake-up.

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