Category Archives: G: To Viet Nam and Home Again

Vung Tau

After three months at An Thoi, and five days of R & R in Bangkok, the ship moved to support PCF Division 103, and Coast Guard Division 13 located at Cat Lo. This brought us into the environs of Vung Tau, a former French resort city at the mouth of the Song Sài Gon (Saigon River) and the northern boundary of the Mekong Delta.

Perched on a headland, Vung Tau’s “back side” was the southern end of several hundred miles of what are among the most beautiful beaches in that part of the world. This is certainly one of the reasons why the French colonial masters chose Vung Tau – which they then called Cap Saint-Jacques – for a resort, and perhaps why MACV* chose the place as the location of the Army’s In-Country R & R facility.

It was here that we supported the swift boat and Coast Guard divisions at Cat Lo, and sometimes the B-Class Minesweepers stationed upriver at Nhà Bè, who were always busy keeping the channel clear for ship traffic from Saigon to the coast. We were also available to service any other vessels that came along requiring expert attention.

A principal focus of small boat activity, and that of the soon to arrive Ninth Infantry Division, centered on the nearby Rung Sat Swamp (or Special Zone), from which the Viet Cong would occasionally swarm, and which was an ideal place to hide and attack ship traffic on the river.

When the 2nd Brigade of the 9th Infantry was assigned to the Mobile Riverine Force, the Tutuila assumed a support role for those boats in the Vung Tau area, and aided in the preparation of their ASPB, or “Alpha” Boats, and other craft.

Seen objectively, Vung Tau was a beautiful city. But whatever else it was, it was at the time a city of bars, with some streets offering little else. But business was good. With the large numbers of temporary visitors (on R&R) and those of us who were stationed nearby, who could visit on a more regular basis, the bar business was booming. Despite the “exotic” environment, to attract attention most of these establishments had familiar sounding names. My favorite was the “Florida Bar”, where I would hang out – whenever the opportunity presented itself – and we could get a boat ride to the “front beach” landing.

When the time finally came, it was from Vung Tau’s small air strip that I began my journey home.

* Military Assistance Command – Viet Nam

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Bangkok Thailand – Tourists in Uniform

Aside from seeking out the nightlife for which Bangkok was, and is, rightly famous, we also, as you might expect, did a lot of touristy things as well.

We visited Wat Arun, or “Temple of Dawn,” a spectacular edifice on the west bank of the river, opposite downtown. The 282-foot porcelain-encrusted central tower dominates the landscape, and actually glows in the early morning sunlight.

The square, ornate, and gradually narrowing central tower is accessible to climbers almost all the way to the top via narrow stone steps built into the outer surfaces of each side. Getting up wasn’t too difficult, but upon reaching the summit, I had to face the reality of getting back down. At that moment, I was standing in the open air, high above the safety of the ground, on a stone step which was not quite as deep as the length of my feet, with a couple of hundred such steps to go. I’m not quite sure why I went up to begin with – beyond the fact that all of my friends did – as I’m not all that comfortable with unsecured heights. Obviously, I did eventually make it back down, but it was a harrowing effort.

We decided to forego the speedboats for once and took a tourist launch to, among other places, one of the floating markets for which the city was, even then, quite famous. These exist in the klongs (canals) on the western side of the river. Entering the west bank waterways, we passed through the residential neighborhoods lining the canals until suddenly, we were in the midst of a “business district.” With restaurants and shops on the banks, the canal itself was jammed with what seemed to be a hundred small boats, many riding low in the water, laden with goods for sale. Others, sometimes just large enough for a single person, carried customers. The merchandise available, sold from boat to boat, was mostly agricultural products grown locally, and tropical flowers of every imaginable type and color.

On another day, on the eastern side of the river, we visited the Temple of the Golden Buddha, a not so large, but grand and ornate structure housing an enormous statue of the Buddha, made of approximately five tons of brightly polished solid gold. The Buddha was “discovered” by westerners during the colonial period, and was at the time encased – for safekeeping – in a gold painted layer of concrete. One day, a piece of the concrete was broken away, exposing the secret hidden within. Science confirmed that it was, in fact, solid gold, through and through.

We stood in awe of the beauty, and the majesty of the glittering gold icon, but what seemed most amazing to me was the openness of it all. It may be different today, but at the time, anyone could simply walk in and step up to the low fence which was almost within reach of the statue itself. There, one could leave an offering, pray, or simply stand and (respectfully) gawk at the altogether remarkable visage.

But most remarkable of all was a visit to the royal palace, and within the palace grounds, the Temple of the Emerald Buddha. This was itself a large structure, but contained no community of monks. This was, in fact, the personal temple of the royal family, and contained, high on a secure platform, within an even more secure glass case, the 30-inch high Emerald Buddha.

Named for its color, the “image” of the Buddha was actually crafted in 43 BC from a single, flawless piece of Green Jasper. Discounting both the artistic and religious significance of the Golden Buddha, its worldly value (as gold) could be easily calculated. The value of the Emerald Buddha, on the other hand, is said to be beyond measure.

I would have liked to taken my Instamatic camera onto the palace grounds, and into the temple. I wish I had pictures of the Buddha, and the many, many other really beautiful things both inside and outside of the temple. Alas, this was not permitted – particularly for Americans.

The ban was explained to us as follows. The King of Thailand, a young man at the time who, given Siamese history, rightly took his position seriously. Although Thailand was, and is, a great friend of the United States, the king had recently viewed Yul Brenner playing the King of Siam in a Hollywood movie. The king was greatly offended by two things shown in that movie. One, Yul Brenner, as the King of Siam, sat on a cushion on the floor, thus allowing others’ heads to be higher than his own. This was not allowed in real life. And two, when the movie king ate, he ate with chopsticks. It was pointed out to us that the Siamese of that period were a civilized people who had used spoons. It was those primitive Chinese who did, and still do, use chopsticks.

Bangkok Thailand – R & R

After three months of hard work, and no small number of sleepless nights repairing, rebuilding, or installing engines to keep An Thoi’s Swift Boats online, the Tutuila was relieved and assigned to similar duty near Cat Lo, at the mouth of the Saigon River.

But first a short visit to Bangkok, Thailand. We were already in the Gulf of Thailand, so Bangkok was a logical choice for a bit of R & R. The Tutuila weighed anchor and set a northeast course for the Bay of Bangkok. At the appropriate longitude, she turned and steamed north through the bay. Without pause, we continued up the Chao Phraya River to the city, about 18 miles from the coast. Our actual inland travel distance was about twice that, however, as we followed the many twists and turns of the river.

Finally, with Bangkok all around us, we anchored midstream in the swiftly flowing river, which was crowded with both small boats and chunks of vegetation – from various branches to portions of whole trees – which had been dislodged somehow from the dense jungle upstream and were now making their rapid journey to the sea.

This ancient Siamese capital of perhaps five million people was divided nearly in half by the broad and raging river, but incredibly, there were no bridges connecting the exotic, but relatively modern city on the east bank to the more densely populated, more traditional – and swampier – western sectors.

Consequently, along with the vegetation the river teemed with boat traffic of all kinds. Whether they were water taxis transporting passengers, or the waterborne equivalent of trucks carrying goods across the river and through the numerous canals, boats were everywhere. Prominent among the watercraft were a type of boat I’ve seen nowhere else in the world. Long and narrow, these boats were the hotrods of Bangkok’s waterways. Used I’m sure for recreation, these speedboats were also employed as an inexpensive alternative for transporting passengers – tourist and locals – from one side of the river to the other.

The most curious feature of these vessels was the propulsion system. Just behind the raised driver’s platform at the aft end of the boat was a V-8 automobile engine, mounted on a swivel post with a long propeller shaft behind and a control/steering bar projecting forward. The driver would rev the engine and tilt the engine up, thus dipping the propeller into the water and off they would go, leaping forward into the waves. Controlling the propeller’s depth allowed the boats to sometimes access very shallow water in the areas around the city.

It was quickly determined that this was how we were going to get about. Almost anywhere on either side of the river, it was easy to find such a boat waiting for passengers at the bank. For 50 cents, up to six of us would climb aboard and be taken on a rather exciting journey to wherever we chose to go.

Not only cheap and convenient, but great fun!

Viet Nam: An Thoi, Part Two

Despite the grueling work schedule, there were occasional lulls, and despite the near-total isolation of An Thoi, we did find a few diversions and some entertainment, in addition to the almost nightly movie aboard the APL – which we sometimes had time to attend.

Just south of An Thoi was a chain of several small islands. One of these, about a half-mile long, with two peaks and a low saddle in the middle provided two popular diversions. On the eastern side, at the low point, was a small but fantastic beach. It was to this perfect half-circle of white sand, bracketed by lush green jungle and crystal clear water that we would come, when circumstances allowed – and we could acquire a boat for a swimming party.

On the western side of the island, opposite the beach, was a tiny fishing village, so remote and insignificant, that it remained untouched by the war. A few hundred yards through the jungle, a somewhat overgrown path would take us to not only a different culture, but a different time. With the exception of a small boat with an ancient motor, in which the village leaders transported their cargos of dried fish to An Thoi, the village pretty much existed in an 18th-century environment. Here, we would entertain ourselves by watching the villagers work, and bartering for such novelties as the long, toothy, snouts removed from the sawfish that the villagers caught, and for strips of fish, sun-dried on bamboo frames, which were the principal product of the village.

By chance, I recently discovered on YouTube that same beach, which is now the focal point of a major resort, a popular vacation destination for people as far away as Australia. Although I almost certainly will not, I would like to visit that tiny island again and see how it is changed – but, in truth, I would really rather again see the pristine paradise that it was then.

 

Viet Nam: An Thoi, Part One

Not too much to say about Viet Nam actually. First, three months at An Thoi, home of PCF (Swift Boat) Division 101 and Coast Guard Division 11, located at the southern tip of Phu Quoc Island. The village of An Thoi was actually in Cambodian coastal water, but for some reason, the offshore border curved to the west, making all of Phu Quoc part of the Republic of Viet Nam. The patrol boat base at An Thoi was originally a US Coast Guard facility, with some South Vietnamese craft and a Thai gunboat for good measure. These were joined – almost a year prior to Tutuila’s arrival – by the boats of PCF 101.

The facility at An Thoi was officially designated as a “Coastal Surveillance Force Combat and Logistical Base” where, in addition to our shipboard duties, we occasionally supplemented the five-man Swift Boat crews. An Thoi’s boats – the 50-foot PCFs and the 82-foot Coast Guard Cutters, were responsible for stopping (or slowing) the water-born supply of men and materials to the Viet Cong from nearby Cambodia. Also for patrol and interdiction along Viet Nam’s Gulf (of Thailand) coast, from the Cambodian border, south past the city of Rach Gia and the U-Minh Forest, to Ca Mau Cape, the southernmost point of the country. In addition to the boat base, the area around An Thoi included a sizable community of civilian construction workers, a small airstrip, and a nearby prisoner of war camp. The island also included a surprising number of Viet Cong, given its separation from the mainland of Viet Nam.

Arriving at An Thoi to relieve the USS Krishna, the Tutuila anchored just offshore, rafting with an APL – Auxiliary-Personnel-Living, in Navy parlance – which served as both headquarters and barracks for the Swift Boat crews. There the “Toot” served as principal repair facility, not just for PCF 101, and Coast Guard Division 11, but potentially for all US naval craft on the gulf side of South Viet Nam.

Shortly after our arrival, some of us were briefly pressed into service as crew – coxswains, boat engineers, and bow hooks – as Tutuila participated in Operation Sea-Mount, an effort to clear enemy forces from the southern parts of the island, using our LCM (Landing Craft, Mechanized) landing craft to transport Army troops in four WWII-style beach assaults at various places on the Phu Quoc coast.

Of the activity at An Thoi itself, one of the things I remember most is an event which did not happen. A touring USO troupe, featuring Sue Thompson, a popular singer at the time with several hits including “Norman,” “Paper Tiger,” and the weepy “Sad Movies Always Make Me Cry,” was scheduled to perform for us (and the civilians) at the facility in An Thoi.

We were all very much looking forward to the diversion, the presence of the adorable Sue Thompson, and whatever additional girls might be part of the show. Alas, it was not to be, for around 3 am on the morning of their scheduled arrival, the airstrip took three Viet Cong mortar rounds, which caused no real damage other than to get the USO show canceled.

As to the war itself, there was an expression in the Army at the time, which may or may not have been true: “Nine out of ten times, it’s a walk in the woods.” Activities at An Thoi were something like that in the earlier days; though boats on patrol had occasional scary moments and the ship and the APL were always tempting targets for sappers, which required constant vigil.

 

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A Most Famous Person

During the time the Tutuila was visiting Pearl Harbor, there occurred a major local holiday. I had not previously known of Kamehameha Day; which honors Kamehameha I, the former unifier (in 1810) and King of the Hawaiian Islands; a revered figure in Hawaiian culture, past and present.

All of Honolulu, it seemed, had shut down for Kamehameha Day, and huge crowds gathered along King Street and beyond for the annual parade. There were floats, from all parts of the island group, — all made of local flowers, sort of like a Polynesian Rose Bowl parade. Along with the floats were open cars with local celebrities riding high and waving, marchers from local societies, high school marching bands, and others (in other words, all of the elements of a major holiday parade anywhere). The parade elements mustered and marched, seemingly endlessly, from the starting point, past the Iolani Palace; former royal residence of Hawaii’s historical rulers, and off into the distance. It was directly in front of the palace that our guide Diane had recommended as the best place to view the festivities, and so here, at the edge of the roadway, we stood.

We soon discovered that behind us in the palace, on the Governor’s balcony — along with the governor, and other VIPs — was a national celebrity. Visiting (and actually living on the island for a brief time), was Jacqueline Kennedy, and her children, eight-year-old Caroline and five-year-old “John John”.

I will admit, it was a thrill to actually see them in person, viewing the events from their vantage, two stories up and perhaps 50 yards behind where we stood in the crush at curbside.

The parade, eventually, came to an end, and as my friends Robert and Jake, and I were starting to move on, a ripple of excitement passed through the crowd. The rumor was that Mrs. Kennedy and the children would be leaving the palace grounds in a limo; passing through a gate located on the cross street just ahead of us. We didn’t know of this was true, but we were going in that direction anyway, so we joined the gathering throng outside the gate.

By the time we actually got there we were well back from the gate, and tall as I am not, I couldn’t see over most of those in front of me. But I got an idea. Disregarding how far back I was, I positioned myself in the center of the drive, and waited. When the time came, the first persons out of the gate were, of course, swarms of security, pushing people off of the drive itself and out of the limo’s intended path. As the crowds parted, or were pushed back, I held my ground as others backed up.  Finally, when directly confronted by an officer, I backed up until he was satisfied with my position – at the edge of the drive, front row.

As the limo slowly moved past I was close enough (although I did not) to touch the car as I bent and peered through the window at who, at the time, was perhaps the most famous woman and certainly the most sympathetic and revered person in the country.

In that moment, my previous thrill at actually seeing them was repeated and multiplied as I gaped and gawked like everyone else, secretly proud of the maneuver which had provided me with such an extraordinary view. My two friends, who had moved at the first instruction to do so, barely got a look at the car.

Honolulu and Waikiki

On liberty from the Tutuila, my friends and I mostly passed on the questionable pleasures of Honolulu’s traditional Navy haunts — Chinatown and the infamous Hotel Street. Rather, we spent most of our time in the Hawaii most known at the time to tourists; Waikiki Beach and its surroundings.

A portion of land, between Kalakaua Avenue and the ocean — within the parameters of Waikiki Beach — was owned by the U.S. Army. And so the Fort Derussey portion of Waikiki was limited to military personnel and guests. This was good for everyone, as beach and recreational facilities at Fort Derussey were more than adequate, and well located on the famous expanse of beach, with Diamond Head looming in the background.

We were welcome there, and could settle in to a prime spot without having to impose on the minimal hospitality of the big hotels. And the hotels, in turn, didn’t have to put up with us tromping through and trying to take up space intended for paying guests. At the water’s edge however, the sandy strip of beach itself was public land, so we weren’t restricted from walking the beach to the hotels, where girls might be.

Not surprisingly, we had a pretty good time. When not on the beach we walked Waikiki’s main street, Kalakaua Avenue, which parallels the ocean. On one side were the famous beachfront hotels, and on the other were many tourist attractions. We visited the International Marketplace; really just a mall — but an exotic one, and in a prime location. We even entered the famous nightclub Duke Kahanamoku’s, and actually saw Don Ho (Tiny Bubbles) on stage before we were turned around, shown the door, and encouraged to use it.

We weren’t misbehaving; we were just a small group of enlisted sailors, in uniform. And in Waikiki’s upper social strata, and tourist environment, we were considered somewhat déclassé. So we moved on. That was OK; there was plenty of fun to be had, and we didn’t really want to spend our time sitting in a fancy nightclub anyway.