On The Flight to South Vietnam
"No event in American history is more misunderstood than the Vietnam War. It was misreported then, and it is misremembered now."
~Richard Nixon, New York Times, March 28, 1985
March 8, 1967—Congress authorized $4.5 billion for the war in Vietnam. March 19–21, 1967—President Johnson met with South Vietnam's Prime Minister Ky in Guam and pressured Ky to hold national elections.
March 17, 1967
I got into Saigon yesterday at about 5:00 p.m., Saigon time. I lost track of how long it took us to get here from San Francisco because of all the time changes. One thing's for sure, I did enough flying to last me a long time. We left San Francisco at 12:30 a.m., and from there we went to Honolulu. We stayed there half an hour, and from there we went to Wake Island. Then we went on to Okinawa, stayed there an hour with the next stop at Saigon. That's where I am now. I'll be here for a day or so. I have to wait for a flight to Qui Nhon.
When I got off the plane, it was 93 degrees and real humid. I had a hard time trying to sleep last night because, all night long, jet fighters zoom by all over the place. Out in the distance, you keep hearing explosions like artillery. The food is different. I don't know just what it is either. The water tastes good, but it looks like apple juice. The bread is made from rice and is as hard as a brick.
Right now, I'm just lounging around waiting for a flight. They won't let us go into Saigon, so I guess I'll never really see it. I won't take R&R here, that's for sure. I can't wait to get to my base and get settled and unpack. I don't have both feet on the ground yet.
I never saw so many different kinds of uniforms in my life, with blue berets, black berets, red berets, all sorts of camouflaged uniforms, and all sorts of gadgets and knives. From what I've seen so far, I think I'm going to like it here. But I haven't been here long enough to know for sure.
So long, Blood & Guts Markson
P.S. As far as I know, this is my address:
A3Markson James J
37th Cmbt. Spt. Cp PACAF
APO San Francisco 96238
I received a flurry of letters from my brother and sister, who wrote back scolding me because of the way I signed my first letter home, letters filled with bravado, after General George "Blood & Guts" Patton. Once again I had upset my mother.
After reading my own letters 46 years later, I am astounded at the naivety of my youth. I hadn't even been there for 24 hours and could claim "I think I'm going to like it here."
Upon landing I experienced the first indication that things weren't quite right here. The United States Army Military Police escorted everyone from the plane to a bank teller inside the civilian air terminal. Once at the teller's window, under the scrutiny of the Military Police, we had to empty our pockets of all U.S. currency and change it into military payment certificates (MPC). They even had a paper bill for a nickel! The black market was an avenue for making money. The enemy needed U.S. currency to buy weapons. You could double your money in Vietnamese piastres, change it back to MPC, and deposit it in your bank account. If you got caught, you were in big trouble—and those who did get caught are probably still in Leavenworth (stateside military prison).
Qui Nhon Vietnam
March 19, 1967
I caught a flight out of Saigon yesterday heading up for Qui Nhon. We got to Qui Nhon about 11:00 p.m. They had no room for us to stay, so we spent the night on cots in the chow hall.
In the morning, I found out that I'm not going to be stationed at Qui Nhon, but at Phu Cat. I showed Mom where it is on the map. It's about 25 miles northwest of Qui Nhon, I think. I got in to Phu Cat yesterday. So far it looks like it's going to be a real nice base when it gets done, but right now they're still building it and things are a mess.
I still haven't done anything yet. I have to process in tomorrow. I can't wait to start work. Just laying around and all this boredom is killing me. There's nothing to do except eat, sleep, and drink. But I'm sure that within the next three weeks, this easy life will come to an abrupt end.
How's everything at home? Is Lucky still healthy as ever? Did Barbara have the other ya ya (baby) yet? I hope everybody is feeling good. I am, except for a small case of the runs that a bottle of kaopectate quickly took care of.
That's all for now.
So long, Jim
P.S. There's been a change on my APO number. It is now 96368.
The base was "a mess" all right. It was the dry season, and the only thing that was paved was the runway. The entire rest of the base was this reddish dust from the dirt that was everywhere, stirred up from the enormous activity of building a new airbase in Vietnam.
March 20, 1967
Well, I started processing in to the base today, and I'm almost done. I just have to go over to the air police squadron and let them know I'm here.
From what I've heard, I'll have three days training on the M-60 machine gun. Then, most likely, I'll go to work at my regular job once I get all set up. I'm in a hurry to start work, even though I know I'll be doing it for a year. I just can't stand doing nothing all day. At a briefing today, I found out that I can put in for R&R whenever I want. I don't have to wait six months before I'm eligible. Ask Sis if she knows when would be a good part of the year to go to either Hong kong or Bangkok. I don't know where I want to go for sure. They also told us that, since this base is new, the mail is fouled up. It should take about six or seven days for my mail to get to you. But I don't know how your mail will get to me. The base isn't organized yet.
I'm sending you a couple of samples of the money they use here. The pink one is military money, and it's worth $1.00. The green one is Vietnamese money worth about 8 cents. They call it piastres. One thing for sure, I won't even need any money. I'll be making $80.00 a month, and there is nothing—I repeat, nothing—to spend it on except beer and cigarettes. Beer is 15 cents a can, and cigarettes are the same.
The town is off limits except for laundry and haircuts that cost 35 cents. I'm going to get a short haircut. It's too hot and too much bother to comb.
That's all for now.
So long, Jim
R&R means rest and recuperation. The military gave everyone 7 days out of Vietnam for a vacation, all expenses paid except for our spending money. I eventually took my R&R in Taipei, the capital of Taiwan. I went during Christmas. I didn't want to be in Vietnam for Christmas. Upon arriving in Taipei, people from the United Service Organization (USO) contacted me. There was a military family, a United States Marine Corps sergeant, who wanted to have a soldier from Vietnam spend Christmas Day dinner with his family at their home. I had other things I wanted to do on my mind, but I went. The warmth and affection I felt on that Christmas Day bring tears to my eyes even some 40 years later. They had little kids and a Christmas tree. They were from California, and for a brief moment I was "back in the world" (Vietnam jargon for being back in the US). We kept in touch. I was going to visit them in California, but it never happened. It's just one of those things.
Phu Cat Vietnam
March 24, 1967
Well, I finished processing in.
I got all of my equipment. I'm ready to go to work. Yesterday I got issued a brand new M-16 rifle and took it out to the firing range to test fire it and adjust the sights. It will be my rifle for the time I'm here.
I found out yesterday that I'm not staying at Phu Cat. I should be leaving here about the second week in April. They're sending 50 of us back to Tan Son Nhut, which is Saigon Airport and an air base combined. I'm glad I'm going there. That base is fairly old and has a lot more facilities, including a radio station, which they don't have up here. I'll be able to go into Saigon when I get the day off and maybe do some good shopping. In the town here, everything is off limits, except the laundry and the barbershops.
When I get to Tan Son Nhut, I'll send you my new address. That will be the third one so far. I guess it will be a month or so before your mail ever gets to me.
Guess what? The other day I met a guy stationed here in the air police from Garfield, New Jersey. I told him my grandmother lives there. It turned out that he had Uncle Peter as his English teacher. His name is Dominick Librera. He said he thinks he had him from 1962 to 1963. Ask Uncle Pete if he remembers him.
I still haven't been able to unpack my clothes yet. But I'm getting used to it. When I go to Tan Son Nhut, I'm going to try to see Jack Frasso and Richie Spera. They're stationed at Bien Hoa, which is only about 15 miles or so from Tan Son Nhut.
That's all for now.
I would indeed "see Jack Frasso and richie Spera," friends of mine from Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn, at Bien Hoa. We hung out at the pool hall. Richie played the bass guitar, and everybody was trying to be like the Beatles. Decades later, both of them would have a profound influence on the course of my life.
Phu Cat Vietnam
March 25, 1967
I went to work last night for the first time.
I work the same hours all the time. My hours are from 10 at night to 6 in the morning. I like these hours because there's no sun. It gets pretty cool, even a little cold, at night. I guess that's because I'm in the mountains. There are big mountains all around the base. It's really beautiful country. The only bad thing is all the scroungy towns and villages. They're just like the squatters I saw in Hong kong.
So far, I like working here. It's a lot better than Pease. I feel that I'm really doing something and that there's a chance something might happen, not like at Pease. Another thing, the people respect the air police for being out there all the time. Everybody helps each other out. There aren't any petty little things that they bother you about. I really think I could get to like it here. But I'll be leaving Phu Cat about April 15 and be sent to Tan Son Nhut in Saigon. I'm still not sure how long I'll stay there—maybe the rest of the year or maybe a couple of months. I really don't care where they send me. The main thing is that I'm used to the living conditions here. That was the hardest thing to adjust to.
Well, that's all for now. Jim
P.S. Was it a boy or a girl?
Vietnam really was and still is "beautiful country." Many years later, in 2010 and again in 2011, I returned to Vietnam. I specifically planned my trips to coincide with the Lunar New Year celebrations known as TET. I wanted to experience this centuries old event as it was meant to be, unlike the carnage that took place during the TET Offensive of 1968.
Pease was the name of the stateside Air Force base that I had been assigned to after basic training, a Strategic Air Command (SAC) base in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. The strictness of a SAC base, coupled with being a security policeman, guarding B-52's on 24-hour alert in below-freezing weather, was the motivation for me to volunteer for Vietnam, which I did. To this day, I don't regret it.
~Jim MarksonCHAPTER 2
Taking Care of Business
"The Vietnam War was arguably the most traumatic experience for the United States in the twentieth century. That is indeed a grim distinction in a span that included two world wars, the assassinations of two presidents and the resignation of another, the Great Depression, the Cold War, racial unrest, and the drug and crime waves."
~Donald M. Goldstein, Introduction, The Vietnam War
April 6, 1967—Quang Tri City was attacked by 2,500 Viet Cong and NVA.
April 14, 1967—richard M. Nixon visited Saigon and stated that anti-war protests back in the U.S. are "prolonging the war."
April 15, 1967—Anti-war demonstrations took place in New York and San Francisco involving nearly 200,000 people. rev. Martin Luther king declared that the war was undermining President Johnson's Great Society social reform programs: "the pursuit of this widened war has narrowed the promised dimensions of the domestic welfare programs, making the poor white and Negro bear the heaviest burdens both at the front and at home."
April 20, 1967—U.S. bombers targeted Haiphong harbor in North Vietnam for the first time.
April 24–May 11—Hill fights raged at khe Sanh between U.S. 3rd Marines and the North Vietnamese army, resulting in 940 NVA being killed. American losses included 155 killed and 425 wounded. The isolated air base was located in mountainous terrain, less than 10 miles from North Vietnam near the border of Laos.
April 24, 1967—General Westmoreland condemned antiwar demonstrators, saying they gave the North Vietnamese soldier "hope that he can win politically that which he cannot accomplish militarily." Privately, he had already warned President Johnson that "the war could go on indefinitely."
May 1, 1967—Ellsworth Bunker replaced Henry Cabot Lodge as the U.S. ambassador to South Vietnam.
May 2, 1967—The U.S. was condemned during a mock war crimes tribunal held in Stockholm, organized by British philosopher Bertrand Russell.
Phu Cat Vietnam
March 31, 1967
I got Sis's letter about three days ago, on the 28th.
Mom, I got your letter today. Tell John and Barbara congratulations! But it's bad news if both of the kids look like the Bissmaiers. I guess Johnny will just have to try again for a Markson.
Sis told me in her letter that you are going to send me the funnies—don't. Instead, when I get settled at Tan Son Nhut, send me the news daily. You can send for a subscription, and they will mail it to me. I should leave for Tan Son Nhut on the 15th of April. Then my mail and everything should start to be straight. right now, everything is a mess. I still haven't been able to unpack.
I took some clothes to the local laundry. The white underwear and socks came back dirtier than when I brought them in. I'm sure they will have better laundry facilities there. I got paid today. Boy what a nice feeling. We get paid once a month here instead of twice a month like in the States.
Tonight our flight is taking up a collection for a flight party for about 20 or 30 cases of beer and real American hamburgers and barbecued chicken. They need cooks, so I'm going to volunteer my expert barbecuing skills. I'll get relieved off post early to start cooking. The other day, during mail call, we had an alert. A few mortar shells hit right outside the northeast part of the base. They found out in a couple of minutes that the Army—the American Army—shot them by mistake. It's typical. I don't think anybody really knows what's going on here.
That's all for now.
"I don't think anybody really knows what's going on here."
reading this sentence 46 years later, I am amazed at the perception skills of a 19-year-old boy who had been "in country" less than a month! It was, to say the least, a very confusing place to be for 19-year-olds, the average age of the American soldier in Vietnam.
Phu Cat Vietnam
April 10, 1967
I got your letter today. It took eight days to get here. I'll be leaving Phu Cat on April 15. Where that will take me, I don't know. I've been hearing all kinds of rumors. I won't know where I'm going to stay until I get off the plane. That will mean another address, so the mail still won't be straight for a while.
I've heard that I might go to either Tan Son Nhut or to Pleiku. I don't want to go to Pleiku. It's out in the sticks, just like this base is, so that means the town near it will be just as scroungy as the one here. Tan Son Nhut is right in Saigon. As you know—or if you didn't, you know now—Saigon is an R&R center, so it should be pretty nice. One thing nice about Qui Nhon is that they have a nice beach for military personnel only. Guess what? They have two 16-foot runabouts with 80 horsepower Johnsons on the back of them. They're reserved for officers only. But if I'm lucky, I might just get some water-skiing in before I go to wherever I'm going. I've been taking some pictures, but like I said, this place is scroungy and there's no place to get them developed. Send me to Saigon. I've had enough of this place. In four more days, I'll have been here technically one month. The time seems to be going pretty fast, especially since I'm working from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. One thing I'm afraid of is that, since I've been here, I just can't get up an appetite. It's so hot and the chow hall has a distinct smell about it that sometimes I don't eat all day. I sure would like to get on the scales. I wouldn't be surprised if I've lost 20 pounds already. I'm sure I'll gain it all back when I go on R&R in Hong Kong. I still remember the steak I had there.