saigon holiday, 1971 part 1

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i’m re-running this particular series once again. thankfully, they still gets some hits each week. this might make it a bit easier to fiind. thanks for reading.

jmh

long ago in another lifetime i got to spend some time in downtown saigon, south vietnam.  those fun trips were courtesy of uncle sam and you the american tax payer.  you folks and myself included are still paying for those excursions in many ways.  this is a true story about one of my trips into saigon.  there were other adventures in saigon as well but this one was sorta special in a number of ways.

over the years most of you have seen any number of films about the vietnam war.  with the exception of, ‘good morning vietnam’, they were all pretty much your typical war movie.  they were just set in a different time and place with a 60’s and early 70’s pop music soundtrack.  this story is different.  though the soundtrack would be the same.  very loud rock ‘n’ roll.

i think the tale is pretty self explanatory and straight forward.  it could be viewed as a sorta new version of stan and ollie.  though there is a serious side as well but mostly it’s just about two guys that can’t catch a break.  you may see it differently.  just remember this all happened to me in vietnam on one particular trip to saigon.

some of you have seen this story before.  yes, i’m still messing with it.  eventually i might get it right.  i hope you re-read it here.  this is its  first foray into general public viewing circles.  it will appear in several parts.  yes, it is untitled.  there is a title but i decided not to use it here.  plus, i’m not sure i like the title any way.

i suppose i ought to add there is a sorta mature subject matter involved in the story.  if you aren’t mature then don’t read it.  that being said, i’m not your parent.  nor do i want to be.

this story is registered with the writers guild of america, west.

saigon holiday, 1971 part 1

 

i was stationed with macv advisory team 48 in ham tan, south vietnam, from 1970 to 1971, in a signal unit attached to macv(military assistance command vietnam) in order to give them secure communications.  ham tan is 80 miles east southeast of saigon as the crow flies.  the macv compound was an old french mission that was taken over by the u.s. army.  it was and still is located about 3 or 4 klicks (kilometers) from the south china sea.  a fairly nice place relative to other places in vietnam at the time.  as attached signal we didn’t live in the french mission area but in regular vietnam style hooches.  the advisory team, including signal personnel, never numbered more than 50 or 60 soldiers at any time.

by the time i was in vietnam, saigon was off limits due to the usual serviceman’s lust for debauchery.  the military had had enough.  the only personnel allowed in saigon were macv people and military stationed there.  being attached to a macv unit gave us access to saigon.  once cleared with our sargent we just needed to go see the macv clerk or company sargent and they would cut some travel orders for us and off to saigon you went for some sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll.  all of this unknown to our signal company and signal battalion headquarters.  they would have frowned upon the very idea.  plus it was illegal for us to be there.  though macv advisory team 48 didn’t really care.

macv advisory teams were a diversified lot.  regular army folk, draftees like me, green berets, cia, and more cia.  the teams had a number of missions as well.  training south vietnamese troops and advising them, running phoenix programs, pru units, and chu hoi programs among other things.  you can google some of the stuff if you are interested.  it would be a good history lesson.  any ways, there were any number of things going on at any one time.

there were only three or four ways you could get to saigon from ham tan.  walk, a very bad idea.  drive, a bit better but not much.  though it was done by us signal personnel.  and that’s a whole other story in itself.  driving from the saigon/bien hoa area or vice versa was at least a four or five hour adventure.  helicopter, wasn’t generally done unless it was an emergency.  or you could take air america, the cia owned and operated air transport system for vietnam, laos, and thailand.  macv would book you a flight, no problem, both ways.  that was because air america flew out to ham tan every day with mail and passengers.  the planes were only 6 seaters with a single large propeller and a rolls royce engine to power it.  they were rated for only 10,000 feet but flew higher to avoid gun fire and artillery.  this made for some interesting flights due to air pockets and the plane being so small.

the air america plane.

a fellow signal mate, i’ll call him bill, and i decided we should go to saigon together.  never having done so as a team.  we would spend the usual three days of getting drunk, smoking dope, and having sex with the bar girls.  a flight was booked and travel orders cut.  a few days before we were scheduled to leave i changed some military script into vietnamese money.  bill said he would opt for doing a deal on the street so he could get a better exchange rate.  by this time military script was illegal tender for the vietnamese as most of it ended up going to north vietnam or so the story went. the day of departure we went out to ham tan’s so called airport early to await our flight to saigon.  ham tan international as we called it.  a piece of crap dirt runway with a wind sock for a control tower and an equally forlorn terminal.

ham tan international airport.

there were only three of us going to saigon that day.  bill, myself, and a macv captain, a black guy, who was going in for business not fun.  i was happy to see that our pilot was one i had flown with a few times before and i thought of him as one of the best.  there was however a co-pilot that day.  something you usually never saw on these particular air america flights.  with the co-pilot seat empty you could sit up front with the pilot.  i did it once and only once.  i’m not pilot material.  nor do i care for heights. we boarded, the wind sock checked and off we went.  at this point it becomes clear why there is a co-pilot.  he’s a new guy and the old vet is checking out his flying skills.

sitting in the passenger section of those planes gave you an unobstructed view of the cockpit.  the new guy revs her up and begins the take off.  only thing is the plane is bouncing like a ball down the dirt runway.  the bounces kept getting bigger and bigger.  so much so it was obvious we were in big trouble.  the old hand grabs the controls of the plane moments before we run out of runway and careen into certain disaster.  he then miraculously gets us airborne while yelling all the time at the new guy.  the black captain, who was very black, was a nice shade of gray at this point.  i was ready to jump.  but it was only the beginning. the plane got off the ground and up into the clouds and air pockets, made even more hair raising with the new guy at the controls.  instead of the usual several hundred foot drops we were dropping several thousand feet with lots of yelling coming from the cockpit.

we finally made it in one piece to tan son nhut air base in saigon.  the new guy is bringing us in for the landing.  at about 30 feet or so off the ground the air traffic controller radios that a plane load of dead bodies is coming in and they have priority.  we were being waved off.  the old hand grabs the controls and makes this amazing left turn while he flips the plane over on it’s back.  yeah.  we flew upside down at 30 feet or so over most of the air base.  simply amazing.  bill and i about crapped our pants.  the black captain had turned white.

after the hair raising turn we go back for another try at landing.  the new guy back at the controls.  this time the guy can’t get the plane on the ground.  this is a huge runway due to jets, bombers, transports, etc.  however, he’s fast running out of runway and he can’t get the plane below 10 feet.  there’s only a few yards of runway left when the old vet grabs the controls, yet again, and dumps us on the ground like a stone.  i suppose it was either that or another left with a flip over deal again.  i don’t think he was up for another one of those.  his passengers sure as hell weren’t.

we were a long way from the air america terminal.  during the entire taxi ride to the place its more yelling up in the cockpit.  we get to air america and what’s waiting for us are the dead bodies in their body bags nicely lined up on the tarmac.  the perfect ending to a memorable flight.  the old vet pilot felt sorry for bill and i so he gave us a ride in his personal car to our hotel.  it was out of the guy’s way but he figured he owed us.  a very nice gesture indeed.

tan son nhut air base from the air.

story registered with the writers guild of america, west.

jmh

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12 thoughts on “saigon holiday, 1971 part 1

    Gator said:
    January 12, 2010 at 6:52 pm

    I was with Team 48 Ham Tan in 1970 – 71 also… SSG Carey Bateman. Please respond who this is…

    johnhauge responded:
    January 13, 2010 at 3:14 am

    hi, gator. we’ve emailed before. you commented on another of my ham tan blogs. perhaps you forgot. i hope you aren’t upset. the story is true. and i think it’s a damn good one.

    RavenRenee said:
    March 16, 2010 at 3:39 am

    hey…my sisters and i were air america brats we went to the international school down near tu do street in saigon. the air america people were really close. alot of us lived in the same neighborhood in the old french part of town.

    johnhauge responded:
    March 16, 2010 at 12:31 pm

    very interesting. thanks for dropping by and commenting.

    Jim Krause said:
    June 23, 2010 at 6:34 pm

    enjoyed your recollection of the Ham Tan signal MACV 48 compound. I was Company A-44 which after being hit by friendly fire in Feb 1970 changed its name to 269th signal company. Was in Ham Tan working the RTT rig on the compound from 10/1969 to 7/1970. Odd how 40 years alters the memories. Thanks for sharing.

    johnhauge responded:
    June 23, 2010 at 8:35 pm

    thanks, jim. i know the story of A-44. sad indeed. you’ll be hearing from me.

    johnhauge responded:
    February 12, 2011 at 10:53 am

    i have no recollection you, sir. i stand by my story as factual. you can believe whatever you want. the story is true.

    johnhauge responded:
    February 12, 2011 at 12:45 pm

    upon further thought i doubt you were even a team member. the first sergeant collected the money for the maids every month. as for the ladies who worked behind the bar they were paid for out of the bar fund, which made a ton of money. not sure how the mess hall help was paid but i seriously doubt anyone went to saigon to score money for them. they may have been paid out of the bar fund as well. as for the black captain he was there during your supposed time with the unit. i wish i could remember his name. as for you, go bother someone else. you aren’t welcome here.

    Jim Krause said:
    February 12, 2011 at 12:50 pm

    Great story John and great turn of phrase. I was in radio tt with MACV 48
    Ham Tann 69-70 and don’t know Duffy either. That was another time and I would never discount any story. Looking forward to the next installment. Reminds me of my “escapes” to saigon and when lucky – Vung Tau.

    johnhauge responded:
    February 12, 2011 at 1:33 pm

    thanks for the response, jim. i appreciate it. might be some guy who’s just upset he didn’t get to screw around like we did. haha. never made it to vung tau. you should write those trips up.

    Bill Bondurant said:
    May 26, 2011 at 4:01 pm

    Hey John,

    Great surprise finding your posts.

    Hope this finds you well.

    Bill Bondurant
    Ham Tan, 1970-71

    johnhauge responded:
    May 27, 2011 at 3:57 am

    bill, an even bigger surprise hearing from you after all these years. doing well here and i hope you are too. you’ll be hearing from me soon.

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