What were you doing 50 years ago today? Here is what I was doing. This is a May 1969 excerpt from my memoirs of serving in the US Army that included letters to my parents.
Tom Butt and Al Tolbert in Saigon in front of Saigon City Hall
Country Boy Discovers Saigon
May 8, 1969, Long Binh
I guess you’re just getting back from Virginia now and probably going crazy if you are really serious about moving. It’s hard to believe you’re really leaving the old place, but when I saw the ad in the Times, I knew I wasn’t dreaming. Just don’t throw anything of mine away or let too much pass into the hands of my greedy brothers, as I am sure many fine things will be “liberated” on moving day.
I had a real busy week with some extra reports to prepare for a visitor from Washington, but I got to go along on a trip as the Group representative, which made it all worthwhile. We hit a bunch of projects in our area, most of which I’d already seen, but in the afternoon, we flew up near Cambodia to see some of the work by the 1st Infantry Division engineers.
You would have to see it to believe the vast amount of jungle clearing and road work that is going on out in these boonies. It really gave me a new perspective on the importance of the “engineer’s war.” The whole face of the land has been drastically changed – giant clearings 1,000 meters wide crisscross the landscape in every direction. All kinds of people are moving down out of the mountains and migrating from the cities to farm these new areas. For the first time since the early 1950’s, there are roads to the markets and increasing security against the VC. Land clearing and road building are probably doing more to insure the future security of Vietnam than any other factor.
I’ve come to the conclusion that the VC are idiots – right or wrong. As long as there is an acre of boondocks, they can crawl around at night and shoot at somebody, but they never win anything. Typical of the incidents in this area, a VC company force marched 4 ½ days from Cambodia and attacked a convoy on a deserted stretch of QL-13, north of Lai Khe. They ruined three or four vehicles, wounded a few G.I’s, but were totally wiped out in the process. I’ve yet got no emotional feelings about the “preservation of freedom” here or any other country “endangered” by “communist aggression,” but I do think this is a fine place with a potentially prosperous future, and I figure they might as well be our “buddies” as the other guy’s – and I think we’ve got an excellent chance of pulling it off.
The idealists are right in saying we’ve got no right or reason to be here, but then the idealists have always been in the minority and usually wrong because the other guys write the history books. I’ll elaborate on my philosophy of the war at a later date.
I bought a very fine movie camera last week and worked out with it over the weekend. If any of the footage comes out, I’ll send it home for an on the spot eyeball account of the situation. I’ve got everything from Saigon miniskirts to real live air strikes on the Cambodian border – groovy! The camera has all kinds of telephoto zoom lenses and electric motor controls – better than the eye itself.
Saigon is looking better and better. My buddy Al Tolbert shed his Sp-4 stripes for civvies last week and went to work for USAID Saigon Civil Assistance Group as a city planner. The government got a bargain on him – the other planner does the same as Al but is a civilian on an $18,000 salary. Al is still in the army and officially assigned as a “jeep driver” to the organization. Along with his new status comes an “in” in the multi-national social scene of Saigon, which promises great things for the future. Saigon is one of the most friendly, fun-loving and alive cities I’ve ever been in. It’s like a bunch of kids at the circus on weekends – all the young people come out to the parks and main streets and just stand around having a good time. Vietnamese women are generally quite pretty and all have tremendous figures; therefore, they are all beautiful from behind. Girl watching is probably the favorite Saigon sport for Americans and Vietnamese alike. The traditional ao dai is giving away to miniskirts, which is okay because I’ve never seen a Vietnamese girl with ugly legs – can’t say the same for the American variety.
I started a course in Vietnamese at the Education Center last night which will last 8 weeks and no doubt leave me speaking fluent Vietnamese. It’s really a simple language and shouldn’t be too difficult to obtain some proficiency in. There are no verb tenses, noun genders, etc. Instead of saying the equivalent of “I went,” you say “I go yesterday,” a very practical solution – don’t you agree?
I got all those books you sent some time back and recently the shorts – and I thank you. Eventually I’m going to hit up the old Hong Kong Tailor, but he’s third on my priority list after I get all my cameras and my complete stereo sound system. I’ll probably leave here broke – but I’ll have some fine goodies.
Let me know how the Fort Lee Army treats generals and I’ll eat my heart out. However, if I couldn’t be a general, I think my next choice would be a lieutenant in the Engineers – this is a pretty good life!
I’m sending a check for $30.00 to pad my account – let me know what the status of my debts are – red or black and how much.
Send me a picture of my new home of record.
The standard Army work week in Vietnam was six and a half days a week. We typically had an eight or nine-hour day, starting at 8:00 a.m., with an hour off for lunch. If I didn’t go anywhere during the day, I reported for work in the S-3 office, a hot, dusty un-air conditioned, metal Quonset building.
On Monday of each week, we typically went to an intelligence briefing conducted by the group S-2 (Intelligence Officer) in the Group Strategic Operations Center (SAC). There was a big map on the wall, and the S-2 described where all the VC (Viet Cong) and NVA (North Vietnam Army) were operating and what they were thought to be planning. There was also a review of actions the previous week, including any casualties.
We also had a meeting of the S-3 (Operations) officers and non-coms (non-commissioned officers) to discuss projects and responsibilities or the coming week. Our job was mostly planning, assigning missions, inspecting, trouble-shooting, facilitating and reporting. I was supposed to check on the status of every job assigned by the 20th Engineer Brigade S-3 to the 159th Engineer group. Every Thursday morning, I went over to the 20th Brigade Headquarters at Bien Hoa (about five miles way) to report verbally and in writing on the week’s activities to the brigade commander, a brigadier general.
To come up to speed, I had to contact every person in charge of every job to get a report. There were hundreds of them. I kept a file on every job assigned to the Group, updated its status every week, and prepared a weekly written report. If a project was stalled, late in getting started or behind schedule, I had to find out why and often had to take the initiative to trouble shoot it. I had to go out and look at a lot of the projects so I could accurately describe them. I reported on the quantities of gravel and asphalt produced, the number of hours the plants were down for maintenance, exactly which parts were malfunctioning and when the new parts were expected to arrive and be installed. I also reported on manpower strengths and casualties.
The office work was tedious and generally boring, but also frequently interesting and challenging when some problem needed to be solved. I spent several days one week driving and flying around Vietnam looking for a special piece of equipment to grind down a concrete floor slab after a pour had gone bad for a PX building at Long Binh.
If I was at Long Binh during the middle of the day, I usually jogged for about a mile, jumped into the swimming pool at the 46th Engineer Battalion next door and ate a hamburger and fries for lunch.
In the evening, I believe dinner was about 6:00 p.m. in the Company mess hall.
The Company “Officer’s Club” was in the same building as the mess hall, with a different entrance. It didn’t amount to much. There was a bar along one wall, and a Vietnamese woman worked as bartender. There were a few chairs and tables in the room. Drinks were cheap, and I recall that it was air-conditioned. Sometimes, we went to one of the larger officer’s clubs on base or went to a movie, but mainly in the evening folks read books, listened to music or drank. Later, we completely remodeled the Officer’s Club into a showcase.
Sometimes, there was night duty of some kind. Every night, there had to be a “duty officer” for the headquarters company, and each officer’s time came up about once a month. That meant you had to stay up all night and respond to any incoming communications that required action.
Perimeter guard duty at Long Binh was allocated so that each organization had charge of a sector and was responsible for manning that sector each night. The responsibility was further delegated to and rotated among smaller units, so that our headquarters company might have the assignment once a month. For each sector, there was also an “officer of the guard,” who was responsible for constantly checking the sector all night long to make sure those on guard duty were awake.
I think I pulled guard duty only once when our company was tapped. I remember one of the spec 4s who was supposed to drive me around was checking his weapon, a .45 caliber pistol, when it went off and missed his foot by a hair. Along our perimeter sector were about a dozen guard bunkers, each with a fixed M-60 machine gun and a “starlight scope” (night vision device). Each bunker was manned by several soldiers. It was real spooky running the perimeter checks. The jeep light had to be turned off, and of course, there was no light in the bunkers. I usually found the guards asleep, and I was concerned that someone might wake up in confusion and start shooting. So, before entering each bunker, I would try to make enough noise, but very carefully, so as not to jolt anyone awake.
Once I got into the routine, and if I didn’t have to work too late or start too early the next morning, I would try to get down to Saigon as much as possible. I found that I could walk down to the main gate a block away and easily hitch a ride to Saigon in the early evening. I would get dropped off and catch a motorized cyclo to the apartment several of us rented and where Allen Tolbert and Eric Nelson lived.
Sometimes we partied at the apartment, but often as not, we went out on the town, eating at a restaurant or sidewalk cart, drinking in a bar, or just walking around enjoying the city. The first apartment was on a main street, Ham Nghi, near the center of town and Central market. It was in the second or third floor over a shop.
Later, and for most of the time that I was there, we rented an apartment in third story of a three-story building on Yen Do Street, which I believe was off of the main street, Cong Ly, leading to Tan Son Nhut airport. The building was concrete with a full roof patio having a pretty good view of the surrounding neighborhood. It was one room with a closet and bathroom. I think Allen Tolbert was the only one who actually lived there – the rest of us just crashed when we could. There were two single beds and a small refrigerator where we kept bottles of water filled by the mama san, supposedly after boiling, from the public water supply. It had high ceilings with high windows and a ceiling fan.
Flying in a Huey “Slick” near the Cambodian border
Tom Butt, George Coppage and Murray Green at Bien Hoa Airbase, 1969
Street scene in Saigon
Improvement of a secondary road north of QL 2A, 34th Engineer Battalion. December, 1969
1st Infantry Division camp at Lai Kai
Improvement of QL-20, 169th Engineer Battalion, March 1969
Nui Ba Den near Tay Ninh and the Cambodian border
9 May 1969, Long Binh
Looks like the start of a real busy week. The assistant S-3 went on R&R, so I’ve got two jobs this week – could mean an all-nighter or two. The work scene continues to be routinely boring, but the extra-curricular scene is shaping up.
About six other guys and myself are going together to rent a fantastic apartment in Saigon. Only one will actually live there. It’s mainly to be a weekend type thing. Although the girls living now (USAID) haven’t vacated yet, they consented to a party to celebrate the occasion. It was really terrific – just like a United Nations. There were French, Indians, Filipinos, Vietnamese, Chinese and Americans – and probably a few VC for all I know – but everyone had a ball.
I’ve been meeting more and more of the Saigon natives lately – a going to start work soon with a Buddhist group who is building a training school to teach basic skills to people handicapped by the war. One of the Buddhist leaders (known as “The Venerable”) has dedicated some of his estate to the school, and I am helping a Vietnamese to design the complex. I’m trying to help them with some materials and so forth through our Civic Action Program as well.
There are still a good number of the old pedal-type “cyclos” around (you would recognize these as a “rickshaw.”) The best sport going is to line up about ten of these with a participant aboard each vehicle – and race to a common destination. The first driver to arrive gets most of the total fares – while the others divide up the remainder proportionate to their finish. Last night one of our group was so far behind he made the driver sit as a passenger while he pedaled to cyclo to a more respectable finish.
As a necessary adjunct to any social occasion in a Vietnamese household one has to partake of the local food, which I have found to be rather bland and tasteless as compared with other Oriental food. However, one can change that to some degree with the universal “dip everything in it sauce” – nuoc mam – which doesn’t taste too bad – but strongly resembles in smell a 3 day old dead fish, which is pretty close to its chief ingredient. The only other thing that bothers me is the complete disregard the Vietnamese have for flies. A normal family has a spotless house, dresses in only the cleanest clothes, and lays out a spotless table – but a fly is just like oxygen, nitrogen and carbon dioxide – a part of the atmosphere! They don’t even see them.
The more I get to know Saigon, the more I am impressed by the contrast. Everything seems to be a paradox. Parts of the town which were once inhabited by the French still have block after block of villas shaded by old, old trees and guarded by high walls. Other parts, especially those inhabited by refugees, now have the densest population of any city on earth. The incidents of “Terrorism” as reported in stateside newspapers are grossly exaggerated. Most of the incidents involve young kids who are put up to heir acts by somebody else and usually end up blowing themselves up rather than their targets. Saigon is ringed by a series of watchtowers and radar nets that can detect a rocket launching almost instantly – so these have been cut to a bare minimum. The place is crawling with so many cops plus all the off-duty GI’s, both American and ARVN that the city is virtually saturated. About the only thing you have to really watch for is if someone slips something onto or into a jeep while it is parked in an obscure place – like one of the best known tricks is to put a grenade in the gas tank. The gas eats through the rubber band – and bang! In spite of all this, I would rate Saigon as at least as safe as most American cities and more so than some – or at least parts of some.
A good part of the incidents just involve good old American type “mobsterism” in the Vietnamese community – only natural for a place with so much easy money and corruption. Every time some guy gets his due for fudging on the criminal’s code – the incident gets blamed on the VC – a handy out for everyone. I stopped taking a jeep to town because it is so easy to get it stolen, and the chance of running over a Vietnamese is quite prevalent and involves a lot of paperwork. I found that the taxi driver will take you anywhere in town for a couple of packs of cigarettes, which go for 30 cents at the PX, and he can sell on the BM [black market] for a couple of dollars. A prerequisite to any afternoon tour is a carton of cigarettes.
The traffic downtown is something else – mainly 50 cc Hondas, with the remainder being equally divided between Lambrettas (a 3-wheel cycle with bed and surrey in back carrying from 6-16 people), jeeps, Renault taxis and vintage Citroens – which are really classy. There is no such thing as a lane, a stop sign or a turn signal. Everyone just goes – and to change lanes you stick out one arm and wave it wildly at the vehicles behind.
Funeral procession in Saigon
Construction of a float bridge at Phu Long by the 100th Bridge Company, 159th Engineer Group, after the bridge was blown by VC sappers May 12, 1969
Load test on rebuilt Phu Cuong bridge
Phou Cuong float bridge. From left to right, Sgt. Hancock, 159th HHC Engineer Group, unidentified ARVN soldier and 1Lt Tom Butt. For a video, see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J3Ft623hls4.
20 May, 1969, Long Binh
Things are pretty quiet and routine around here these days in spite of what you read in the papers. We had a little soiree the other night to celebrate Ho Chi Minh’s birthday (any excuse for a party), but he didn’t show up.
How’s the moving game – I bet you wish it was either a dream or all over. I don’t envy you. Have you sold the house yet?
I got a letter from John Butt – primarily because he thinks he needs some jungle boots. Tell him there is no way to procure them legally except through supply and for that reason it would be indiscrete to mail them. I’ll bring him some next February.
Jack tells me he is leaving for Glacier shortly and that Martin & Nancy are going to the Tetons – how about filling me in on that. I thought it was all out the window. I probably won’t have time to write them before they leave.
I’ve been in phone contact with Backus. He is at the out processing center at Can Ranh today, and I was going to fly up there – but can’t work it into my schedule.
A financial footnote – put in a standing sell order at 71 for my Continental Can stock at the local broker. I have reason to think it is a good time to sell. I will relay some other plans for disposition of funds later – let me know if the sale is a go (I’ve got 54 shares). The Stars and Stripes runs a daily stock market page – so I’ve been keeping track.
I’m going to arrange some manipulations which involve an outstanding loan at Ft. Polk Credit Union, Soldier’s Deposits guaranteed 10% interest, my stock proceeds plus some other investing, which should be financially beneficial in the long run. I don’t plan any complex things that will involve any great amount of time. I just want to get some stuff straight – like foolishly paying interest on a loan when I can pay it off cash right now and collect interest on the money over here.
I’ve been making all kinds of movies but I can’t buy a projector to see them. I may have to order one, which tales two months. It’s all a matter of timing and luck to get anything good at the PX over here. Shipment of a thousand projectors might come in, and they’ll be gone in 10 minutes – if you’re not there, you miss out.
If you want to prepare another care package, I’d really like a dozen or so Pentel pens, mostly black with a couple of brown and red. They’re impossible to get over here. He army has a million of every useless thing on earth and very few of anything really necessary. I’m going to start doing some fine sketches down in Saigon and around – since my films apparently won’t ever be shown, I have to do something to record my presence.
23 May 1969, Long Binh
I just got the letter from Dad – and all the junk along with it. These bills are getting to be a chore for you I’m sure, but I guess eventually they’ll all be paid up. I wrote the Master Charge people and asked them to send me a statement so I could verify my bill and get them off my back. I’ll let you know what the deal is so you can mail them a check.
I’m sending along some camera info for Jack if this catches him on the way though. If not, just forward it. I just bought the Pentax camera for $126.0. as you can see, it would cost $290.00 in the states. I can get him one like it – or anything cheaper if he will let me know how much he can afford. Generally, I can get a camera for about 2/5 of what it would retail for at home. I finally found an incoming shipment at the PX after much daily checking and went on a binge with the camera I mentioned as well as a fabulous movie projector. I’ll send some films home after I get a few more back and edit out the sloppy parts – I’m still learning.
I took a good trip yesterday to a little town on the coast about due east of Saigon (Ham Tan). It was just a slow and sleepy as another world and sure would make a fabulous resort. We checked some construction at a MACV facility and toured around the village centered around a lagoon at the mouth of a river. They had a fantastic fish market, and I couldn’t resist eating a big gob of raw snails (oc in Vietnamese – escargots in French). They were dipped in a kind of salt-red pepper mix and delicious – maybe even better than Louisiana crayfish – and washed down with the local Ba Muoi Ba (33) beer.
We flew along the southern coast to Vung Tau and then back up to Long Binh. The more I see of this place, the more deserted I realize it is. You can fly a hundred miles and never see a house, road or cultivated plot of ground. It reminds me of some of the areas in Arkansas in the Ozarks National Forest or the piney woods of south Arkansas. Nobody lives there or even wants to. It’s no wonder that an entire army of VC can live out there and come into town any time they want to – and it makes sense to hear that the VC could have free run of 2/3 of the country and yet not even be a strong influence on the lives of people over much of the country.
My current predictions are as follows: (1) The only thing the North Vietnamese understand is force and determination. (2) The ARVN need at least 4 more years to achieve a status of strength equal to the combined forces here now. (3) The only way to achieve even the least of the U.S.’s stated goals is to decide to stay here indefinitely and let the world know it. The war is not going badly for the South Vietnamese nor are they losing it. The North and the VC are definitely permanently in the losers’ column, but with every passing day their potential victory seems to come closer. ½ million GI’s brought home are just as much gone as if they had been wiped out in a gigantic battle. (5) The best hindsight summation might be that we should have either stayed out or committed ourselves for the duration. I would say we have already “won,” – but we must stay to consolidate our gains. I may sound like an ach-hawk warmonger, but I’m not –I ‘m just trying to be objective. The U.S. has either got to stay here or leave and lose everything – probably both courses have merit!
On the lighter side, I am consolidating my gains down Saigon way – going to have supper with a family of a lovely Vietnamese girl I’ve been seeing some lately. Her father is an ARVN colonel and teaches at the Vietnamese “West Point.” Should be an interesting evening. She works at the main military and embassy switchboard in Saigon along with about 100 other young ladies – a great source of cultural exchange and intellectual stimulation that I happened to fall into one day in my wanderings.
I’ve got staff duty Saturday night, so I’ll probably get all day Sunday off – probably go back to the Saigon Zoo – tremendous place in a large park with lagoons and all that stuff. Everybody in Saigon either heads for the boonies or the zoo on Sunday – just like Golden Gate Park in S.F. Even a few hippies around. It’ really hard to determine the sex of a Viet hippie because of no beard, which is the standard distinguishing trait elsewhere. Saigon even has its own “Hell’s Angels” – commonly known as “Saigon Cowboys.” They ride about on their Hondas (top speed 30 mph) looting and pillaging, frightening women & children, etc.
How’s my stock sale progressing? I think the bottom will fall out of the market this summer due to the fact that everybody will find out that we’ve either got to stay here indefinitely or lose our shirt. I hope I don’t have to leave on the first plane – having too good a time.