Open Bay Barracks

Viet Nam Year Two was very different from Year One in many ways. My housing was a huge example. That first year I lived in a commercial hotel leased to the U.S. Army as Bachelor Enlisted Quarters: the St. George Hotel (part of a three hotel complex, which included the White and Capital). We were in Room 618, or as the charming girl at the check-in desk would say it, sick-a-teen. We had three guys in the room: Tom, Ralph, and I. Now, don’t get great images of an exotic Asian tourist hotel floating through your mind.

Our room was about 150 square feet for the three of us, total, but you’d have to add a 25-foot bathroom to the total. Though we shared the sink-toilet-shower bathroom, it was ours and it was en suite. One screened double window (that I don’t ever recall us closing). A narrow entry hallway where we each had a two-door wood wardrobe that stowed our clothes, personal items, and all our military gear (M-16 rifle, ammunition, and load bearing equipment). Each of us had our own desk with a drawer. Toss in a three and a half cubic foot fridge and the fans, and the three of us – like all the other guys – were cozy, but comfortable. Really it was quite remarkable.

Year Two was a different ball game. I think the by-then smaller group of us occupied two or three barracks close to one another on the Tan Son Nhut Annex. This was in the Gia Dinh area north of TSN Air Base with the city golf course and Military Assistance Command Viet Nam (MACV) Headquarters compound between the base and annex. Initially it was a turn off: on base vs. off base, barracks vs. hotel, 20 people to a floor vs. 3 to a room, and 1 latrine for the 40 in the barracks vs. 1 bathroom for 3 in the room. Despite all those up front negatives, it really was pretty nice to live on the TSN Annex.

First of all, I got to know more guys and know them better. The privacy of the hotel was also isolating. The barracks were none of that. At least not so much. The upstairs and downstairs areas were somewhat that way, but we all still saw each other as we passed the outside stairways, at the latrines, and just sorta wandering around.

The on-the-economy lifestyle a few of us lived in Year One brought with it some anxiety. Well, we were in a war zone. What the hell were we doing running around the local streets night and day in these targets called American military uniforms? Why were we out to curfew (and beyond), sometimes with and sometimes without rifles and ammo? Really, we were so stupid. Yet, we had a great, once-in-a-lifetime experience that ended up being positive for everyone I knew who was involved.
Still, I (we?) lived and played under a cloud of anxiety being caught by the good authorities (the U.S. Army military police or our chain of command) or the bad guys (Viet Cong or hoodlums (“cowboys”)). Of course, much of this concern would not have existed had we just stayed on the BEQs the Army had leased, maintained, staffed, and guarded for us. Believe me, the “dumb kid” expression is not limited to junior and senior high school people.

In part, though, during my second year I was relieved of much of the over-the-shoulder, did you hear that?, constant look out for good guys trying to protect us and bad guys looking to score. I still had an apartment in Cho Lon, but I spend most of my nights on post. Ya know what? I don’t know which I really preferred! I sure wouldn’t have made that statement four decades ago, but events over time can create judgment and experience tends to take precedence.

I was assigned to a barracks to live near the middle on the west side on the second floor rather than the BEQ hotel and the north side on the sixth (seventh using U.S. numbering system) floor. We all had two-level bunks, most of which must have been full during the 1969-71 period. However, in 1971-72 as U.S. forces were drawing down, the demand for racks was much less so each of us had that double bunk to ourselves. Some guys slept on top, some on the bottom (which was my choice), and some took off the top and slept in a “single” bed. We had a lot of discretion in how we’d arrange our personal areas. I don’t recall we had desks in each space, but we did have a wood footlocker and a metal double wall locker. Each of us had a space about 8 by 10 feet in that bay of, probably, 25 feet by 50 feet. They were pretty good sized buildings. The second floor where I lived was all sleeping area, where as the ground floor also had the latrines and office space. As a result, more people lived upstairs than downstairs.

Each floor had its benefits and drawbacks. Both floors had wood lapstrake siding on their lower four feet and screens from there up to the rafters. Those of us on the top floor thought we had the advantage during hot weather to get more of a breeze. The guys on the ground floor thought they had the advantage were we to be attacked. Since we were never attacked, I guess we on the top got the better deal because it was almost always hot.

Not always though! We had a spell of three or four nights in the winter of 1971 when it got cold. Real cold. I wore one set of underwear, two undershirts, two complete uniforms, my socks and boots, and slept under my single sheet, single blanket, and poncho liner. I still shivered. That temperature must have dropped into the low 60s or upper 50s! Yeah, I was from Spokane, but I’d gotten accustomed to warm: seven months in San Antonio, a year in South Viet Nam, three months in San Bernardino, and another five months in South Viet Nam. White Christmas to me had become just a song and a memory. Those warmed my heart, but not my bones!
The 25 to 30 of us who used that barracks all partook of a single latrine area in the south end of the building on the ground floor. It probably had toilets in stalls (I can’t recall, but think I’d remember if they were all out in the open like my first open bay barracks in Casual Control at Lackland Air Force Base in October-November 1969), a long row of sinks with mirrors, a long trough urinal (maybe individual ones; I can’t recall that either), and a large shower area with privacy walls. Not bad, really.

The only thing I clearly recall about the barracks bathroom was one guy who spent a lot – a whole lot – of time there. Tom was fastidiously hygienic when it came to showers. Honestly, no kidding, Tom took a shower each morning, when he finished his teaching shift, and again at night before going to bed. He wasn’t carousing around and wasn’t playing basketball, volleyball, or tennis all the time. He either enjoyed showers or hated sweat. I can still envision him coming around the corner out of the shower area, wearing a white terry cloth robe, and drying his hair with a U.S. Army-issued green terry cloth towel.

Maybe the best part of living in the barracks as well as the hotels was the availability of maids – always called by the Japanese term mamasans – to wash and iron (starch if we wanted it) every piece of clothing we had six days a week, clean our personal areas, and clean all the common area. The U.S. Army paid for these services, but I think we individually chipped in a bit more ($5?) each month. Yup, we were spoiled rotten!

It was generally a comfortable life for all of us due to the work of these do-anything-for-ya maids, but for George, the maid taking care of his and a couple of other guys’ area was also great entertainment. George would often wait until the lady arrived in his area to get up. He’d take great delight in ripping off his white top sheet with great flourish, standing up, and greeting her with a rousing “chao ba (good morning)!” He’d just startle the hell outta her with the flamboyancy of his awakening – and, that he slept au natural! George wasn’t any small dude either; must have been at least two or three inches over six feet.

Our barracks were just a five to ten-minute bus ride to our worksite at the TSN School. This little hop was a far cry from the normally 45-minute commute we’d had in Year One to get to the same school through the streets of Saigon from the St. George Hotel in Cho Lon. We actually gained almost an hour of sleep or play time. It actually was a lot safer taking this short, close ride, which was generally well patrolled/protected by U.S. and Vietnamese military police.

Once in a while (monthly?) we had Commander’s Calls in the common street area among the two or three teachers’ barracks. Guys would crowd around the Commander and First Sergeant there on the ground and more would perch on the stairway landings at the ends of the barracks. Commander’s Calls in the round! I still have photos of one or more of them as our leaders passed the word, fielded questions, comments, and complaints, and generally tried to retain some sense of Airmanship and military bearing among our gaggle of junior enlisted , college gradate, USAF English teachers at an Army-run Defense Department school in the Republic of South Viet Nam.
Those guy had their hands full. As I’ve often commented, it must have been like herdin’ cats!

Those housing facilities in Saigon in 1972 were the last of my experiences being in open bay barracks. From then on, as a noncommissioned officer and officer, I’d be in semi-private or private quarters, on base family house, government leased apartments, or off base private housing. It would be nice to have the privacy, but, looking back, I’ve never again had that sense of comradery one gained through living in the TSN Annex open bay barracks in Saigon.

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