A Different Face of War
Memories of a Medical Service Corps Officer in Vietnam
By James G. Van Straten
University of North Texas Press Copyright © 2015 James G. Van Straten
All rights reserved.
Very early on Sunday morning, 3 July 1966, while the rest of the country was celebrating a long Independence Day weekend, I had the sad task of saying goodbye to my wife and children.
After hugging each of our six little ones and telling them how much I loved them, I kissed my wife goodbye and held her tightly. I then threw my military duffel bag and one small suitcase into the trunk of the waiting taxi and got in for the short ride to San Antonio International Airport. I had hired the cab, despite our tight budget, not wanting to subject my wife to saying goodbye at the airport and then having to drive home with all the children.
As the cab pulled away from our home I waved a final goodbye. There stood my wife on the front steps with tears in her eyes holding our fragile, one-year-old baby, Michael. Clinging to one of her legs was our two-and-a-half-year-old son, Steven, while five-year-old Laurie clung to the other. And clustered around their mother and younger siblings were six-year-old Kathy, nine-year-old Susan, and ten-year-old Leslie.
I remember thinking at the time that my wife's responsibilities while I was away would be, in many respects, far more daunting and challenging than mine in Vietnam. I also thought of the countless military wives around the country who saw their husbands off to war under similar or far more difficult circumstances.
It was a sad ride to the airport.
After several lengthy delays in California, another in the Philippines because of concerns that Mount Pinatubo was about to experience a volcanic eruption, and losing essentially a day because of time zone changes, we finally approached Vietnam on the afternoon of 6 July. It looked so peaceful from the air, with long sandy beaches punctuated by hundreds of little inlets and coves off the South China Sea, then high hills and mountains rising rather sharply beyond the coastal lowlands.
As we started our descent, evidence of war became visible. Air activity was great. Helicopters, fighter jets, and reconnaissance planes were below us and to our sides. When we neared Saigon, on a crystal clear day, we saw puffs of smoke on the ground. An older non-commissioned officer seated across the aisle from me peered out the window and told me artillery fire was causing the puffs of smoke. We were too high to see the actual artillery pieces.
Upon reaching the Saigon area, we were forced to circle for about 55 minutes before being cleared by air traffic control to land. We circled deep into the Mekong River Delta. It seemed to me as if much of the delta landmass was covered with a shallow sheet of water.
From the air, Saigon was beautiful. It looked like a big, lazily sprawling city with a river running through it. The captain warned us that the landing would be unlike any we had ever experienced. He was right.
Because of the danger of anti-aircraft fire from the ground, there was no lengthy, slow descent. When the word to land came, the captain put the plane in a fairly steep dive and descended very rapidly. The object was to get the plane on the ground as quickly as possible.
When we disembarked onto the sweltering tarmac of Tan Son Nhut Airport, temperatures were beyond 110 degrees. Once inside the terminal, the sorting process began. Those being assigned to U.S. Army, Vietnam over here; those going to Military Assistance Command, Vietnam over there; Air Force over here; Navy over there. After what seemed an interminably long time, the sorting and personnel accounting processes were over. The MACV contingent, of which I was a part, was about to board a bus for the trip to a downtown Saigon hotel when, unexpectedly, an old friend, Major John Bullard, slapped me on the back and said, "Jim, welcome to Vietnam. You're about to get your first glimpse of Saigon, the Paris of the Orient." He then told me that he'd pick me up at the hotel MACV used for in-processing at 1830 hours and we'd go out to dinner. He also told me that in all likelihood I'd be going "up country" to Da Nang. This was my very first indication of where I was being assigned.
The bus had no air conditioning. All the functioning windows in the bus were wide open and covered with heavy-gage mesh wire welded to the side of the bus. A Military Policeman, armed with a rifle, stood in the entrance well of the bus. He explained that the mesh wire over the windows was precautionary. On several recent occasions, terrorists riding on motorized bicycles had thrown grenades into the open windows of buses carrying troops, taking a number of lives and severely injuring many.
As our bus passed through the city, I couldn't help but notice the mounds of rotting garbage coupled with the overwhelming smell of diesel fuel. The garbage piles were twenty to thirty feet high, and rats scavenged n abundance, scurrying all over the mounds. There seemed to be one mound on each downtown city block. The guard aboard the bus explained that there was an ongoing strike by the garbage collectors' union. My weariness from the long journey and the stifling heat and humidity, combined with the stench of downtown, exceedingly odiferous and nauseating, made for an uncomfortable ride into the heart of Saigon.
Surprisingly, some sections of the city seemed unaffected by the garbage collectors' strike. They were clean and attractive. Outdoor dining seemed popular, not only on the sidewalks in front of fine restaurants but also alongside the plethora of eateries mounted on pull carts.
I quickly noted a major difference in the way commercially available products were displayed and marketed. There were two or three city blocks where nothing but plumbing fixtures were displayed and sold. Head-to-head competition was the norm. If you wanted a new toilet or a sink or a bath tub, you knew precisely where to go. Another section of the city was reserved for flowers and growing plants, while another concentrated on clothing and shoes. Birds and birdcages even had their own section of the city.
Bicycle repair shops seemed not to have adopted this marketing plan. They were everywhere. Men and boys dressed in shorts, tank tops, and sandals made from old tires, squatting with their knees to their chests next to a bicycle with a flat tire or a broken chain, were everywhere. It was so different from anything I had experienced in the United States or Europe.
Another thing that caught my attention was the absolute absence of obesity among the Vietnamese people. I made a point of looking for an obese person, and had great difficulty finding even one.
And then there were the gorgeous young Vietnamese women wearing ao dais, the traditional dress for the affluent woman of Vietnam. The absolute elegance of the garment was stunning. The ao dai is a very tight-fitting, long tunic, which is split up the sides to the waist and worn over pantaloons.
When we arrived at our hotel at about 1400 hours, the first step in the in-country processing was to draw our equipment and weapons. After that, we had a series of briefings and watched films to orient us to the country, its people, and some of their customs, traditions, and taboos. At about 1745 hours, we knocked off for the day, and I headed to my assigned room, which I shared with eight others. I was ready for a shower and a shave, followed by dinner with my friend, John Bullard. Although I was dead tired, I knew that it was best to "tough it out" until about 2200 hours and then try to get a good night's sleep to minimize the inevitably negative and sometimes prolonged effects of jet lag.
Still in duty uniform, John picked me up promptly at 1800 hours, and we rode to his downtown Saigon hotel in his assigned jeep. He grabbed a quick shower and changed into civilian clothes while I enjoyed a cold bottle of Ba Moui Ba, the local beer.
When John was finished showering and changing clothes, we enjoyed another Ba Moui Ba while he told me what he knew about my upcoming assignment to Da Nang. He then said that he wanted to treat me to the best French onion soup "in the whole wide world" and that the fastest way to get to the French restaurant that served it was by pedicab. A pedicab has a single seat mounted on the front of a tricycle that has two wheels in front and one in the back. It required two pedicabs to transport us to the restaurant.
We exited the front door of John's hotel, walked about a block along an incredibly boisterous and busy street, and there were the pedicabs--dozens of them--each with an entrepreneur owner hoping for a fare. John immediately got into one of them, and I started to do likewise when I thought I heard John say something to me. I walked over to him as he sat in his pedicab, and he told me that what he wanted to tell me could wait until we got to the restaurant. I then apparently got into a different pedicab than the one I had originally started to get into. The first driver became very agitated and angry, yelling at the driver of the second pedicab. Then the two drivers started shouting and shaking their fists at each other.
The cyclist powering my pedicab was exerting maximum energy trying to get away from the scene of the altercation. He kept looking back over his shoulder as he pedaled down the busy Saigon street. Suddenly, I sensed the other pedicab about to overtake us. I turned around, and there was driver number one brandishing a tire iron and looking furious. He jumped off his pedicab and smashed the driver of my pedicab in the head with the tire iron. Bleeding profusely from a deep scalp wound, the driver lost consciousness in the street. Almost immediately, a Saigon policeman was on the scene signaling for me to get the hell out of there, perhaps fearing that the growing crowd surrounding the injured driver was about to get out of control. John jumped out of his pedicab and quickly paid his driver. I threw some money onto the seat of my pedicab, and John and I sprinted down the street toward the French restaurant.
When we got inside the restaurant, soaking wet from perspiration, John smiled at me and said, "Jim, again, welcome to Vietnam."
* * *
Despite my best efforts to avoid it, jet lag plagued me upon arrival. The morning after the pedicab incident, I woke at 0230 hours and couldn't get back to sleep, so I got up and, after showering, shaving and getting into a fresh uniform, went down to the hotel restaurant and had an early breakfast. There were several other officers in there, so I can only assume that they, too, were afflicted with jet lag. After finishing my breakfast, it was still only 0400, and the first briefing of the day was not scheduled until 0800 hours. I had four hours to kill, so I boarded one of the Navy buses that operated around the clock, shuttling troops throughout the city on a prescribed route. The bus was due to return to our hotel at 0735 hours, which accommodated my schedule very nicely.
The activity level in the city, even at that early hour, can best be described as frenetic. Saigon showed only fleeting evidence of the once beautiful city that, by most accounts, it once was. Once again I encountered the mounds of decaying garbage populated by huge hungry rats with voracious appetites and bold dispositions. I concluded that rats must be nocturnal animals, for there were far more of them at night than there had been the previous day.
Never before had I seen such masses of people use such diverse means of transportation. At about 0630 the sidewalks and streets were full. Bicycles, cyclos, motorized bicycles, pedicabs, motor scooters, pushcarts, diesel fuel-spewing buses and trucks, taxis, military vehicles, armored personnel carriers, several tanks, a few privately owned passenger vehicles — the city was teaming with people and vehicles of all types. Refugees from the countryside had swelled Saigon's population to almost two million, over twice the population of the pre-war days. Children were everywhere. Many of the younger ones wore only shirts or tee shirts and flip-flops. Some of the street urchins were totally naked. I saw countless numbers of people sleeping on the street. Many homeless refugee families spent the night huddled in the entryways of stores.
Craftsmen, mechanics, and artisans were everywhere, all looking for a way to earn a few piastres, the South Vietnamese currency.
All military buildings were fortified and guarded. Sandbagged defensive positions had been erected at all strategic locations: key intersections, important bridges, government buildings, train stations, etc. Saigon stood in stark contrast to cities I had seen throughout the United States and Europe. The early morning bus ride boggled my senses.
* * *
During my in-country processing and orientation, I lived in the Koepler Hotel, a facility in great need of maintenance. There were major plumbing problems that made occupancy interesting, to say the least. There was one small bathroom consisting of one small sink, one toilet, and one shower stall for each eight-to-ten-person room. Shaving and showering in the morning was a challenge. I was one of nine officers in the dormitory-style room to which I was assigned.
There was no potable water in the entire hotel except for bottled water that could be purchased in the hotel restaurant. To accommodate the absence of potable running water, two whiskey bottles, still with the Jim Beam and Seagram's labels attached, were placed in each bathroom. These bottles had been filled with potable water to be used exclusively for tooth brushing. Taped to the wall over the sink were instructions for brushing our teeth. We were instructed to take a small sip of water from one of the whiskey bottles, swish it around in our mouth, then spit it out and brush our teeth. After finishing the brushing process we were to take another small sip of water, swish it around in our mouth, and spit it out in order to rinse the toothpaste residue from our teeth and mouths. All nine occupants of our room used the same two bottles of water for this process. The bottles were re-filled once a day.
Showering was even more adventurous. Water seemed to be in very short supply. During my stay in the hotel, I never had the luxury of hot water. Frequently, the water simply stopped running right in the middle of a shower. Consequently, there was yet another sign taped to the wall near the shower, instructing us how to take a shower: Fill the nearby sink with water, get under the shower, wet down one's body, turn off the shower to conserve water, and then soap up and scrub one's entire body. We were then to turn on the shower once again. If there was water, we were able to rinse the soap off under the shower. If not, we had a sink full of water and a washcloth to complete the process.
The first morning I was a guest in the Koepler Hotel, I arose at 0230 because of jet lag. I tried to do everything according to the rules. I brushed my teeth without incident, and then got into the cold shower, wetted myself down, turned off the water, soaped and scrubbed my entire body, and then turned on the shower to rinse off. You guessed it: not only was there no running water, but I had forgotten to fill the sink. I rinsed off using a washcloth and a whiskey bottle full of potable water, thereby probably depriving others of the opportunity to brush their teeth.
I remember thinking as Spartan as this room in the Koepler Hotel was, it would probably be considered luxurious by the soldiers, marines, and navy corpsmen slogging around in the rice paddies and jungles.
* * *
The briefings presented during the two and a half days of in-country processing and orientation were excellent. I was surprised to learn that the U.S. troop strength had risen to 285,000 and even more surprised to learn that an anticipated 100,000 would be added during the coming year. Clearly a rapid buildup of U.S. forces was underway. President Lyndon Johnson had made a clear and seemingly unequivocal commitment to take the war to the enemy. (Continues...)
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