I arrived in Tân Ba by helicopter on October 16, 1964, and was met at the helicopter pad by the other American members of the "advisory team".
They told me I had come at the safest time of the month, because tonight would be full moon, and the local Viet Cong preferred to operate under cover of darkness, not in bright moonlight.
They also told me that they hadn't accomplished much of anything since their arrival a few weeks before. They were supposed to be "advising" the District Chief, an ARVN major who spoke no English and had thus far shown little interest in their advice.
But we were all invited to the District Chief's house that evening for supper, and they were looking forward to that because he had a very good cook.
GPS 10°58'40.78" North; 106°45'57.88" East
Next: Working out my one sentence
Since I had nothing else to do until suppertime, I got out my Vietnamese dictionaries and started working out the one sentence that I wanted to say to the District Chief.
This took me about an hour because my knowledge of Vietnamese was minimal.
I had started learning a few words from the language cassettes at the base library back in Fort Knox, Kentucky. Later, when I was stationed at the zone headquarters at Phước Vĩnh, I traded lessons with one of the Vietnamese interpreters. For half an hour each day I helped him with his English, and in return he taught me the basics of Vietnamese.
He said the first and most important thing was to learn the tones. Vietnamese has six tones which change the meanings of the words completely, and the first hurdle for anyone trying to learn the language is to recognize the tones (I couldn't even hear the difference at first), and then learn to reproduce them. So he drilled me on the tones for several weeks, and as a result I could already understand a few words and could even make myself understood at a very basic level.
When I had my one sentence worked out I practiced saying it a few times, making a special effort to get the tones right, and soon it was time to go up to the District Chief's house for supper.
Next: Major Giam, the Tân Ba District Chief
The District Chief turned out to be a cocky little man with a beret on his head and several medals on his uniform shirt.
When I was introduced to him I took a deep breath and said the sentence I had been practicing in Vietnamese, which I hoped would mean: "Hello Mister Major, do you by any chance speak French?"
I must have produced the tones properly, because he grinned and replied in absolutely fluent French (much better than mine) that yes, he spoke French and had served in the French army for twenty-six years.
Next: Mealtimes at Major Giam's house
I didn't get much to eat that first evening because it was my first try at eating with chopsticks and because I spent the whole time interpreting French-English and English-French.
Major Giam was delighted that he could speak French again and was no longer dependant on the incompetent ARVN interpreters, so at the end of the meal he suggested that we all come and eat with him twice a day and we could conduct all our business at mealtimes, with me interpreting. And he expected to be left alone the rest of the time, because he had work to do.
He was evidently satisfied that my French was up to the task, but I was acutely aware that I didn't know the military terminology either in French or in English, so on my next visit to Saigon I bought a book called "The Military Interpreter, Lexique Militaire Français-Anglais", which really did come in handy though it also included some funny bits. There was a section on "Landing operations" that included not only the obvious phrases like "Nous débarquons : We disembark" but also the sentence "Tâchons d'avoir l'air intelligent pour le film d'actualités : Let us try to look good for the newsreel (US)."
With all this interpreting at mealtimes I soon became very proficient at eating with chopsticks, otherwise I would have starved.
GPS 10°58'40.01" North; 106°46'4.32" East
Next: Major C., the Tan Ba District Advisor
Actually he was only a Captain when I first met him, but he was quickly promoted to Major, which was why he had volunteered for this assignment in the first place.
Just about every American I knew was promoted within a few months of arriving in Vietnam. Even I was promoted ahead of schedule from Pfc to Spec 4 (Private First Class to Specialist Fourth Class). I think it was Major C. who got me promoted so quickly, and before he left Vietnam he even put me in for a Bronze Star -- not for bravery, of course, just meritorious service, but still.
(I had mixed feelings about that. On the one hand, I was glad to be appreciated. But on the other hand I had grown increasingly critical of the American involvement in Vietnam during my year there, so I wasn't terribly proud to have been a part of it.)
At Tân Ba I was very much aware that I was lucky to have Major C. as my commanding officer. He was a pleasant and rational man, almost like a civilian. Unlike some of the other American majors in our zone, he did not take his subordinates on unnecessary and dangerous treks through the jungle.
He had two problems, however, with his assignment as District Advisor. The first was that he knew practically nothing about jungle warfare and was supposed to be "advising" a local major with twenty-six years experience in exactly that. His second problem was that he was nearly as terrified about being in a combat zone as I was, but unlike me he couldn't admit it because he was a career officer who was supposed to be brave and fearless. (Being able to admit it is a big help, believe me.)
During his year in Vietnam he developed a stomach ulcer and his hair turned from jet black to completely white, though he was only in his thirties.
Next: Fixing the road
Though Major Giam did not want or need any advice from the likes of our Major C., he did want our help in getting supplies and equipment that he needed to fix the roads, build a dispensary and generally convince the local population that the South Vietnamese government was doing something for them.
Because of the rampant graft and corruption at the higher levels of the ARVN (Army of the Republic of Vietnam), hardly anything he ordered ever arrived down at the District level where it was needed. So what Major Giam wanted from our Major C. was for him to use the American chain of command to ensure that things like bulldozers and road rollers actually reached him and were not stolen on their way down the parallel ARVN chain of command.
Major C. accepted this role (better than having no function at all, I suppose) and in fact was quite successful in getting equipment and supplies delivered so that roads could be fixed and damaged buildings repaired.
Next: Quartering of soldiers
A day or two after my arrival, Major Giam informed us (through me as his interpreter) that he wanted us to move into a different house. It was located at the highest point in the village, just slightly higher than the rest, but one of the basics of military tactics was that one should try to occupy the highest point.
It was also the nicest house in the village and there was plenty of room for us, because only an elderly couple lived there.
We asked if these elderly people were willing to have us live in their house and he said no, they were totally opposed to the idea, but they would just have to accept it.
We were not too happy about this, because we knew that the quartering of soldiers in private homes was one of the grievances that led to the American Revolution of 1776. Quartering in peacetime was later prohibited by the third amendment to the US constitution, which is part of the Bill of Rights:
"No Soldier shall, in time of peace be quartered in any house, without the consent of the Owner, nor in time of war, but in a manner to be prescribed by law."
But the Bill of Rights applied only to America, not Vietnam, and in any case there was a war going on.
GPS 10°58'41.81" North; 106°46'7.66" East
1. The house where we were quartered, 1964/65
2. The house and potted trees in the front yard
3. Plants in front of the house
4. The front yard
5. More plants in the front yard
Next: The old man
So we moved in to the nicest house in the village, despite the protests of the old man who owned it. He was seventy-eight years old and was a marvelous gardener. His front yard was a cement patio surrounded by huge flower pots containing various carefully tended flowers and shrubs. His back yard was an orchard. The house was made of bricks covered with plaster and freshly painted white with green and yellow trim.
For the first several days he was furious because we wore our shoes in the house. The Vietnamese, those who wore anything on their feet at all, usually wore sandals that they could kick off and leave on the doorstep when they entered a house. But eventually we got through to him that we all wore combat boots which take five minutes to lace up, and so we couldn't keep taking them off and putting them on all day.
Major Giam told me the old man's name, but I never used it. I simply addressed him as "Ông", which means Mister or Grandfather and is the polite form of address that is customarily used when speaking to older men. After a while he suggested that I address him as "Bác", which means Uncle.
GPS 10°58'41.81" North; 106°46'7.66" East
1. The old man tending his garden
2. Resting on the bench at the front of the house
3. Standing in his garden
4. Posing at the side of the house
Next: The old lady
One reason the old man was so upset about us moving in to his house was that his wife was very ill. He was so sure she was dying that her open casket was already set up in her bedroom, right next to her hammock.
When he found out that one of our sergeants was a medic he asked him to have a look at his wife. The medic addressed the old lady cheerfully in English, which she didn't understand:
"Now ain't that handy, old lady, having your open coffin right there by your hammock, so when you croak they can just plop you right in, no problem. Since you're dying anyway it doesn't really matter what I give you, does it? So just take some of these white pills to make you feel better and some of these pretty yellow ones to make you sh!t, and we'll see what happens."
Whether because of these pills or in spite of them, the old lady soon recovered and was up and about, sweeping, cooking, washing dishes, clucking at the chickens and chewing her betel-nut. And that was what finally reconciled the old man to our presence in his house, because he was convinced our medic had saved his wife's life.
Just to make sure, Major Giam arranged for a government nurse to come around once a day to see that she was all right.
The betel-nut, by the way, is a mild narcotic that the older women often chew and spit. It makes them feel good, evidently, but also stains their teeth and eventually damages the teeth and soft tissue of the mouth if they chew too much of it.
Next: Our medic
Sergeant J., our medic, was a big jovial man with masses of combat experience and staunchly right-wing opinions. He and I got along very well, even though we disagreed about more or less everything.
When he was eighteen he joined the army and trained as an infantry medic. At nineteen he was sent to Korea and spent several months in combat during the humiliating retreat of the American forces back down the entire Korean peninsula under the pressure of wave after wave of Chinese soldiers, or "Red Chinese" in the Cold War parlance of that era.
The rest of us were still aghast, a dozen years later, at the Chinese tactic in Korea. Only the first wave of Chinese soldiers had weapons, and when they were dead the second wave advanced, picked up their weapons and continued to attack. Perhaps as many as six or seven waves would do this, until the Americans were finally forced to retreat.
Sergeant J. said he could well understand why the Chinese soldiers would do this. They were told: "There are bound to be casualties, so if you see a weapon on the ground, pick it up and use it so it doesn't fall into the hands of the enemy."
He was full of disdain for the Americans who drove around in tanks on the battlefield. "They were scared to even get out and take a pee. Me, I wouldn't get into one of those tanks, that's the most dangerous place to be." (This was no doubt intended as a dig at Major C., who was a former tank commander.)
Sergeant J. never forgave the US government for not using nuclear weapons in Korea. "Teddy Roosevelt said to speak softly and carry a big stick. But I say we've got to use the big stick."
And he summed up his views on foreign policy with the sentence: "There's only one way to deal with these countries, and that's to kick their m*****-******* a$$."
On domestic politics, his view was: "You get your gun and I'll get my gun and we'll all go down to city hall and tell those politicians what to do."
I asked what would happen if all those people with guns didn't agree among themselves about what should be done, but he couldn't imagine this possibility.
Occasionally Sergeant J. told us a bit about his past life. When he was fourteen he ran away from home and got a job stringing up telephone wires, until his father drove from Oklahoma to Illinois to pick him up and bring him home.
Once he said: "Two years ago my son died." And: "My daughter is twelve years old now. No, thirteen."
After Korea he also served in a combat zone in Laos, and this was his third tour of duty in Vietnam.
Sergeant J. said he kept volunteering for Vietnam because of his Chinese girlfriend who lived in Cholon, the Chinese section of Saigon. But there was also another reason, apparently, because a few months later, when I was no longer stationed in Tan Ba, the American officers told me that Sergeant J. had been arrested for smuggling opium. I can't vouch for that because I wasn't there, but they all insisted it was true.
Next: The Cao Dai Eye
In the center of the living room, where the television would be in an American home, the old man had a shrine with a picture of a big eye in the center.
This reminded me vaguely of the CBS television eye, but actually it was a depiction of the "One All-Encompassing Eye", a symbol of the Cao Dai religion.
Every evening the old man came to me and asked who exactly would be sleeping in the house that night. At first I thought he was spying on us for the Viet Cong, but it later turned out that he just wanted to light the correct number of incense sticks on his altar, one for each person in the house.
I'm not even sure he knew who the Viet Cong were. When there was an attack one night he came in yelling "Viet Minh! Viet Minh!" -- which we all thought was rather quaint since the Viet Minh were the ones who had defeated the French in 1954, but their role had long since been taken over by the National Liberation Front a.k.a. Viet Cong.
Next: The Cao Dai religion
In his house the old man had a poster showing the Three Saints of Cao Dai signing a covenant between God and humanity. I was happy to see that the poster was still there in 1995.
The French words on the poster mean: God and Humanity, Love and Justice. And I assume the Chinese characters mean the same.
The Three Saints are, from left to right: the Chinese revolutionary and political leader Sun Yat-sen (1866-1925), the French author Victor Hugo (1802-1885) and the Vietnamese poet Nguyễn Bỉnh Khiêm (1491–1585).
Cao Dai is a religion that was founded in 1926 in Tay Ninh, Vietnam, as "a universal faith with the principle that all religions have one same divine origin, which is God, or Allah, or the Tao, or the Nothingness, one same ethic based on LOVE and JUSTICE, and are just different manifestations of one same TRUTH."
In 1964 the old man lent me a book about Cao Dai in French and Vietnamese, so by reading the French side I learned a bit about his religion.
My impression was that most of the people in Tan Ba were Buddhists and only a minority were Cao Dai, but I never found out for sure.
In 1995 my son Nick and I visited Tay Ninh on a day trip from Saigon and toured the Cao Dai cathedral or Holy See, which has now become quite a tourist attraction.
1. Cao Dai poster in the house (photo 1995)
2. Inside the house in Tan Ba (photo 1995)
Next: The darkest nights of the month
On October 31, 1964, I rode the helicopter up to Phước Vĩnh, the zone headquarters, to spend one night and pick up some supplies. That night, while I was sleeping safe and sound at Phước Vĩnh, the Viet Cong launched a mortar attack on Biên Hòa airbase, across the river from Tân Ba, killing several Americans and wounding two dozen more. All undamaged aircraft then took off, just to get them off the ground, and for the rest of the night the sky was full of planes and helicopters shooting up the countryside more or less indiscriminately.
On the outskirts of Tân Ba someone fired a few rounds at a passing helicopter, which promptly circled back and returned fire with rockets and machine guns, wounding an ARVN soldier. The Americans in Tân Ba got no sleep that night, but spent hours walking around trying to get medical care or evacuation for the wounded soldier. Since I wasn't there, one of the sergeants had to carry my radio around on his back.
The next morning, about the time I was getting up and taking a shower in Phước Vĩnh, the Viet Cong started firing their mortars at a place called Tân Yuên, just a few miles up the river from Tân Ba, killing an American major I knew and wounding an American captain who had only two weeks left before he was scheduled to leave Vietnam.
That same afternoon I got on the helicopter and returned to Tân Ba.
The next night the Viet Cong blew up a steel girder highway bridge at the northern entrance to Tân Ba, just a short distance from our house. A company of ARVN soldiers was supposed to be guarding the bridge, but they were sleeping about a mile down the road and didn't know anything had happened until the next morning.
Next: Fixing the bridge
Major Giam's first priority in the next few weeks was to get the bridge re-built. Our Major C. was helpful in getting him the materials he needed, so the work went quickly, and before long the road was re-opened.
GPS 10°59'0.48" North; 106°46'5.31" East
Thirty years later I didn't even notice when we drove across this same bridge on our way to Phước Vĩnh.
Next: Major Giam in action
After we got to know him a bit, Major Giam told us a few things about his life and career. Unlike most ARVN officers, he was a Buddhist and a native of South Vietnam, not a Catholic who had relocated from the North when the country was divided in 1954.
As a child he first went to a Chinese school, then to a French school. In 1931 he passed some French exams and worked first as a school teacher, then as a surveyor. But soon he volunteered for service as an enlisted man in the French Army and worked his way up through the ranks.
I don't know what he did during the Second World War, when Vietnam was occupied by the Japanese, but after the collapse of the Japanese occupation forces in 1945 he became a district police chief for the only remaining power in the country, the Viet Minh.
He re-joined the French Army in 1946, when General LeClerc landed in Saigon for the purpose of re-claiming Indochina as a French colony. Around 1950 he was trained by the French as an officer. In 1954 was awarded a French "Legion of Honor" medal.
After the defeat of the French and the division of Vietnam in 1954, he served as an officer in the new ARVN (Army of the Republic of Vietnam), but retired in 1961 because he was no longer willing to serve under the dictatorial South Vietnamese president Ngo Dinh Diem. He returned to active service after the fall of Diem in 1963.
Major Giam often said that his ambition was to be a rice farmer, and he did in fact own a rice farm near Long Thành but had tenants on the land who farmed it in his absence.
Long Thành, by the way, is a town in Dong Nai Province, about forty kilometers east of Ho Chi Minh City, where the Vietnamese government is planning to build a new international airport starting in 2010:
Photos from RVN propaganda leaflets:
1. Major Giam giving radios to the village elders
2. Giving out more presents to the population
Next: The back yard