<< 10: Hatch Team Charlie || 12: NHA BE >>
I was sleepy as all get-out when we landed so I don’t have much recall of our arrival at Ton Son Nhut. All I remember is that it was early a.m. - dark as hell - and that some navy guy took us outside the terminal where a bus was waiting.
The bus was identical to the ones I’d ridden on in DaNang; there was wire mesh over the windows to keep the grenades out, and the windows were open so the air could circulate.
Once we boarded the bus, the driver took off like a bat-out-of-hell. I got the definite impression that he was going fast on purpose; that he didn’t want to be a slow target.
As soon as we’d exited the aircraft that putrid, acrid smell returned. As we drove through the streets of downtown Saigon the smell grew worse. By the time we pulled up in front of the Annapolis Hotel it was nauseating; it was worse than the odor had been in DaNang; four or five times worse!
The Annapolis Hotel was just a short drive from the airport. It was on a thoroughfare called Plantation Road and it was a simple looking, two-story structure. As the name implies, it was a hotel - one that had either been built by the French or the Vietnamese government - but at some point, probably in the mid-sixties, it had been taken over by the U.S. Navy for use as a transient facility for personal that were either just reporting to the Saigon area for duty or R&R, or who were about to rotate home.
Right off the bat I noticed something strange about the structure. Aside from the fact that the whole exterior of the building had been surrounded by a ten-to-twelve foot high cyclone fence, the exterior and interior walls were unfinished; they were made of poured concrete - no plaster, no wood, no wall covering of any kind - just plain, cold, unfinished concrete.
The five of us exited the bus and walked through a sand-bagged entrance bunker and into the building. There was a sentry standing watch at the entrance. He had an M-16 rifle that was locked and loaded; he was wearing a helmet and a flak jacket, and he had three fragmentation grenades attached - hanging by their spoons - to a cloth strap that he’d tied around the mid-section of the flak jacket. There was another sailor on duty there, too. He was probably just walking fire watch, but he was at the entrance when we got there and he walked us down a corridor and showed us where the receiving desk was.
As we made our way to the receiving desk we passed by several rooms. Each room was filled to capacity; every square foot of floor space was filled with navy men asleep on cots. The ambient temperature was probably in the low eighties, but as we passed the rooms where the men slept it seemed as though the temperature went up eight to ten degrees. The heat from their bodies was the obvious reason for the variance, and as we passed each room I noticed that none of the men had covered themselves with either a sheet or a blanket; they were just laying on their cots in their skivvies.
When we got to the receiving desk the sailor on duty asked us for our paperwork. We handed it over and he date and time-stamped several of the documents. I was sleepy and eager to find a rack, but there were none to be had.
“I’m sorry, gentlemen, but we’re maxed out. I don’t have any cots available. There may be a couch or two empty in the lounge area, but if there aren’t, you may have to just find a place on the floor somewhere. Hell, I can’t even promise that. Whatever you do, please don’t crash in a hallway. If there’s a red alert, you could get trampled in the rush.”
We were all a little shocked that there wasn’t any room. I wanted to know if there were other options, so I asked:
“You don’t have an overflow facility somewhere, like another hotel we could go to?”
“I’m not supposed to tell you this, but there’s nothing stopping you from checking into a real hotel somewhere in the city. Sometimes, guys who’ve been in-country for a while, who are here to check out for an R&R or something like that, they turn in their paperwork here and then go and get a room at the President hotel, it’s just a few blocks down and a block or two over on the right.”
“Is there any reason to believe that tomorrow might be better?”
“Oh yea. A lot of the guys that are here right now are going home tomorrow. They’ll be out of here by noon. You should be able to find a bunk then.”
“But if we wanted to, we could walk down the street to the President hotel tonight?”
“Oh, no! There’s a dusk-to-dawn curfew. Nobody’s supposed to be on the street after dark.”
“Well. That settles that. I guess we’ll go lookin’ for an empty couch.”
“Oh, one more thing. The chow hall we use is an Army facility a few blocks down the street; the Montana BEQ. Turn left when you go out the front door, walk three blocks and you’ll see a sign. Take a left there and you’ll see the place. If you don’t want to eat the regular fare - the Army chow, which is free - you can pay for a gedunk meal. They’ve got damn good hamburgers and French fries! It’s just like home!”
“Thanks. What about watches? Are we gonna be on a watchbill?”
“Check with the duty man in the morning. I don’t know how long it’ll take to get you newbies posted.”
“We ain’t newbies, hoss!”
“It don’t mean nothin’.”
We all responded at the same time:
“HELL IF IT DON’T!”
“OK, OK! Don’t tell anybody I told you, but if you ain’t around during the day, if you’re off seeing the city or whatever, they don’t make a big deal about it if you make like you didn’t know about the watchbill.”
“Thanks for the heads-up.”
“But if you go that route, don’t hang around here at all. If the master-at-arms runs into you, and you look like you ain’t doin’ nothin’, he’ll grab you and put you to work policin’ up a head or somethin’.”
“Don’t worry. We’ll make ourselves scarce.”
The five of us then split up and went looking for a place to rack out. There were no empty couches in the lounge so I found a place on the floor near the main entrance.
I didn’t get much sleep. There were strange noises that kept waking me up. They were city noises, but I don’t know what they were. Saigon city noises, especially at night, weren’t like typical city noises anywhere else. I didn’t know what the strange sounds were and I don’t know how to describe them. The best I can do is state that even the silence - on the rare occasion when it was quiet - was unlike any other silence I’ve ever experienced. It was intimidating.
In the few hours that were left till morning I got virtually no sleep at all. I got up at first light and went to find the head. It was my intention to find a toilet first, then shave and get a shower. But by the time I got to the head it was full. I had to stand in line for ten minutes just to use the toilet; getting a shave and a shower were totally out of the question. Ragged, smelly and disheveled, I found a place to stow my seabag. Then, I walked out the front door and headed down the street to the chow hall.
The action on the street was hectic. The sidewalks were covered with stands that had been set up by street vendors. At those stands, one could buy almost anything: cigarettes, shaving cream, candy bars, radios, televisions, clothing; the sight was unbelievable, and all of the items for sale were American-made. These vendors were obviously dealing in black market goods, but nobody seemed to care.
The main store fronts bore signs that indicated that they were owned by many different nationalities. There were Indian merchants, Chinese merchants and merchants from Bangladesh and Pakistan. Most of the merchants from India, Bangladesh and Pakistan wore turbans.
There were bars everywhere, bars that obviously catered to the American G.I. on the street. It was only 7 in the morning and already there were little Vietnamese guys dressed in polyester standing outside the bars trying to entice American servicemen to come inside.
The pedestrian traffic was unbelievable, too. There were people going and coming in all directions. When the sidewalks would clog up, the people traffic would spill over into the street. Subsequently, it was hard for any vehicular traffic to negotiate the street at all, and accordingly, there was a constant barrage of horn-blowing and insensitive language from both the drivers and the pedestrians.
When I eventually got to the chow hall I was pleasantly surprised. The facility had a homey feel; it was a lot like being in a restaurant back in the states. It had been so long since I’d had an honest-to-goodness hamburger that I ordered one for breakfast - fries, too - and the meal was delicious! Really delicious!
After breakfast, I decided to walk around Saigon. I couldn’t help it, I wanted to see the city, but the last words the boson had said before I left DaNang kept echoing in my ear: ‘Saigon ain’t like DaNang. You can get your shit blowed away just walkin’ down the street down there.’ My first impulse was to heed the boson’s words, and I almost went back to the Annapolis, but the impulse to find out about the place was just too strong. I knew there was danger involved; that anything could happen; at any moment; at any place, but I couldn’t help it. The city cast a spell on me; it was so different from any other city I’d ever been in before.
I roamed around for a while taking in the sites. There were beautiful, tree-lined streets with broad thoroughfares, and then, out of nowhere, there would be a jumble of side streets that were so crammed with market stalls that it was almost impossible to pass through them. I ventured a few steps down one of those streets but quickly realized that I was the only American there and left.
I finally came to a very broad thoroughfare, and there, right in the center of the roadway, there was a statue. It was the statue of an oriental man dressed in ancient oriental garb. I was curious as to who the man was, who this obvious hero was, so I crossed the roadway to see if the inscription on the base of the statue offered any clue. Lo-and-behold, it was a statue of Tran Hung Dao.
Sometime around noon I made it back to Plantation road. I wound up on the opposite side of the street from the Annapolis and decided to check out one of the bars. When I walked in there were sailors everywhere. There was an empty spot at a booth where another sailor was sitting and I asked if I could join him. He motioned for me to sit down and we made small talk for a few minutes.
I don’t recall the sailor’s first name, but his last name was Burton. He was temporarily being billeted at the Annapolis, too. He’d been transferred to Saigon from Dong Ha, a naval facility just north of DaNang. Burton had been in Saigon for almost a week when I met him, and he knew a lot more about the place than I did.
At some point, after introducing ourselves, Burton and I decided to hook up for the rest of the day. But first, we were hungry, so we left the bar and made our way to the Montana BEQ to eat lunch.
After lunch, we went back to the Annapolis to find me a cot. When we found one, I retrieved my seabag and placed it on the sucker to let any late-comer know that it was taken. Burton and I then made a hasty exit in an effort to get out of the building before we ran into the master-at-arms. For the rest of the afternoon, through another round of sightseeing, I listened intently as Burton imparted his knowledge of the city, the people and the IV Corps Brown Water Navy.
I had noticed early on that many of the sailors billeted at the Annapolis were wearing black berets. I assumed that these men were boat sailors. I asked Burton if that’s what the beret meant and he confirmed my assumption, then he went on to tell me about them.
“Powers. All these guys wearing black berets are boat crew members. Some are PBR sailors, but most are crew members assigned to boats in the Mobile Riverine Force.”
“What kind of boats?”
“Swifts, Tangos, Monitors, Alphas, Mikes, all are highly specialized craft, and these guys are specialists, too. They’re a breed apart. God only knows what stories any one of them could tell you about life on the rivers.”
“I bet. I’ve got a friend from Gunnersmate School, a guy by the name of Bohon; he’s over here somewhere. I sure would like to run into him.”
“Keep your eyes open. Stranger things have happened.”
“There are different emblems on the front of the berets, do they identify the unit they’re with?”
“Yea. The emblems will vary depending on what Task Force or River Division they’re with, but all the berets have one thing in common.”
“The next time we come up on a guy wearing a beret, take a close look at the back.”
“Look at the ribbon on the back. If it’s hanging in a loop, the way it came from the factory, the guy wearing it hasn’t been in combat yet. But if that loop has been cut, and the ribbon is hanging down in two pieces, the guy’s been under fire.”
“No shit! It’s a ritual among the boat crews. I don’t know when it started, but it’s pretty cool. It certainly separates the men from the boys.”
As we continued our afternoon sightseeing trip we came upon a group of teenaged Vietnamese boys on a street corner. They were all wearing western clothing and sitting on, or standing beside, small motorbikes. Burton pointed them out to me and clued me in.
“Aw ... cowboys.”
“Beg your pardon?”
“See that group of teenagers?”
“We call ‘em cowboys. All they do all day long is ride around town on those scooters. Seems to me like they ought to be in school, or in university, or in the Army, but they ain’t.”
“Yea. They seem to be draft age. How’d they beat the draft?”
“Their daddies are rich, I guess. It’s part of the game; the corrupt Saigon political game. If you’re Vietnamese, and you’ve got money, you can buy your kid out of the draft over here.”
“Now let’s be fair. It ain’t just over here. If you’ve got money, or the political connections, you can keep your kid out of the draft back in the states, too.”
“Yea. Either that, or finagle their way into an already full Guard or Reserve unit.”
“I heard that!”
“Hey, about the cowboys; you gotta watch these guys. They ain’t nothin’ but trouble. They roam around in gangs, and they’ll steal from you if they get the chance. Don’t wear any jewelry or anything on the street that hangs around your neck. They’ll wiz by on their mopeds, grab the chain or string holding whatever it is you’re wearin’ and yank it right off your body. Same thing with watches, the kind with the expandable bands. Whatever you do, don’t wear one of those. They’ll come zooming by and yank the damn thing right off your wrist.”
The ultimate irony occurred just a moment or so later. It seems that while Burton was still explaining the cowboy concept of moped thievery, specifically as it pertained to neck-worn jewelry and watches, a young American soldier - a newbie - was walking down the opposite side of Plantation Road toward the cowboys. He was wearing a gold wristwatch with an expandable band. The cowboys had seen him, and they’d seen the watch, and one of them cranked his moped. Burton instinctively knew what was happening - it was obvious - and he tapped me on the shoulder.
“See that guy?”
“Yea. See his watch?”
“Nope. Watch the cowboy on the moped.”
We watched the cowboy slowly begin to gain speed on his motorbike. We watched as he calmly made a beeline straight toward the soldier. We watched as he suddenly decreased speed just ten or twelve yards behind the soldier, almost coming to a stop. Then, we watched as he casually pointed his right index finger and hooked it onto the expandable watch band the solder was wearing. As soon as he knew he had the watch, as soon as he felt it come free from the soldier’s wrist, the cowboy gunned the motor and sped off.
For a moment, the soldier didn’t even realize what had happened.
As the cowboy sped away, he turned to look back. He had a particularly wicked grin on his face. He waved the watch in the air, still grinning that wicked grin, to taunt the soldier he’d taken it from.
The cowboy should never have turned around. He should have just taken his bounty and concentrated on making his escape. But he didn’t, and he paid dearly for the indiscretion.
Burton and I weren’t the only Americans who’d seen what had happened. A hundred yards or so up Plantation Road there was another American soldier. He had an M-14 rifle slung over his left shoulder. When he saw the cowboy take the watch, he unshouldered his weapon, turned it butt-skyward and held the barrel grip in his hands as one would hold a baseball bat.
As the cowboy continued to wave the watch in the air, taunting the soldier it had belonged to, the soldier with the M-14 walked out into the middle of the street, right in the path the moped was traveling. The soldier then took a practice swing, much like Mantle or Maris would do in the batter’s box at Yankee Stadium. A moment later, just as the cowboy was beginning to turn around, to look in the direction he was traveling in, the soldier’s second practice swing immediately transitioned into a home run swing! There was a loud, resounding ‘crack’! It wasn’t the sound of a baseball hitting a bat, though that’s exactly what it sounded like. It was the sound of a rifle butt hitting sternum.
On impact, the cowboy didn’t move another inch forward. The blow separated him from his bike and he hung in mid-air for what seemed like an eternity. Then, he collapsed in a heap on the ground. His moped crashed into a sidewalk stall about 25 yards down the street. Burton tapped me and motioned for both of us to run over to where the soldier with the weapon was standing. I followed his lead, and so did every other G.I. who’d seen what had happened. We didn’t know what the other cowboys would do, but we knew that if we gathered around the guy who’d delivered the blow - IN SUFFICIENT NUMBERS - there wouldn’t be much they could do!
I don’t know what became of the cowboy. It’s very possible that he died as a result of his injuries. I only saw him for a moment as he lay on the ground after being hit; and he didn’t look good. His eyes were open; there was blood coming from his nose and mouth; he didn’t appear to be breathing, and nobody came to his aid; not even the other cowboys.
What I do know is that the newbie soldier got his watch back, and that all of us, the newbie and all the American servicemen who’d gathered around the soldier with the gun, left the area immediately - in a tightly packed group - eager to get as far away from the other cowboys as we could; and as quickly as we could.
Burton and I went to one of the Vietnamese bars near the Annapolis and drank a few beers. All we could talk about was the cowboy and the watch. I’d never seen anything like that - a guy taking a swing with a weapon and caving another man’s chest in. We spent the rest of the afternoon talking about it, replaying the whole thing in conversation after conversation.
Sometime around 5 or 5:30 we went back to the Montana to eat supper. After supper, we went back to the Annapolis. When I went to my bunk, there was another sailor sitting on it, and my seabag was nowhere to be seen.
“Hey, fella. This is my bunk. Where’s my seabag?”
“I don’t know hoss. This is the bunk they assigned me. I don’t know what to tell ya’.”
“Let’s stop foolin’ around, man. Where’s my seabag?”
“I don’t know. Honest. This is the bunk they assigned me.”
“The master-at-arms guys.”
The sailor took a close look at the name tag on my uniform.
“Hey, you Powers?”
“I think you’re in a world-a-shit. They been callin’ your name out most of the day. You missed muster this mornin’ ... and this afternoon ... and at 1730. The MAA is definitely lookin’ for your ass.”
“Didn’t you read the ALL HANDS information? It’s posted on the walls all over the place.”
“Well. Go read the damn thing. It’ll tell you everything you need to know.”
I walked down the hall and found a copy of the Annapolis ALL HANDS brochure. I read it with great interest and realized that I’d totally screwed the pooch on my first day in Saigon. The brochure read:
ANNAPOLIS BOQ/BEQ ‘ALL HANDS’ BROCHURE
Welcome aboard the Annapolis BOQ/BEQ and to the Republic of Vietnam.
Depending upon which unit you are assigned to, you can expect to remain here approximately three days. During that time, with the exception of shipboard, HAL-3, VAL-4, RIVFLOT ONE, and TAD personnel, you will participate in an administrative briefing at which time you will complete your Travel Claims, Dislocation Allowance, Family Separation Allowance, Postal Locator forms, Ration Card and Currency Control Card applications.
Enlisted members will be counseled on their duty preferences for their next tour (VEY Interview).
One of the members of the Master-at-Arms force will conduct an in-country security briefing and marijuana lecture to be attended by all new arrivals. Later, depending upon your assignment, you will either draw a weapon or field gear, or both.
Finally, you are required to take part in the Personal Response Discussion conducted in Saigon.
While you are at the Annapolis, you are under the command of COMNAVSUPPACT, Saigon. In addition, there are a few rules which must be adhered to as well as some pertinent items important to you, namely:
All water is non-potable with the exception of that in the coolers.
A sewage problem exists. All the sewage, as well as the shower water and the water from the sinks, is pumped into a 5,000 gallon tank. This is pumped out at various times, so use water sparingly and adhere to the posted Head Regulations.
Lying on bunks during working hours is prohibited. The one exception is from 1100-1300, but one must be in underwear only.
Personnel utilizing lockers will attach a card to their locker showing their name and bunk number. This will be done on arrival and cards may be picked up in the Master-at-Arms office.
All lockers found untagged are subject to having locks cut and the contents placed in the lucky bag.
There are women in this billet. Be courteous to them and use your heads with regard to dress while utilizing the head facilities.
Before departing the Annapolis for any reason, you must log out with the Master-at-Arms. Upon returning you will log back in with the MAA.
E-6 and below who find it necessary to leave the Annapolis for any reason other than going to chow must have a signed chit authorizing the absence.
Before departing for your ultimate duty station, make certain you have cleaned your locker.
Musters are held at 0730, 1300 and 1700. Attendance is mandatory.
Officers and E-7 and above are required to attend the 0730 musters only in order to pass on necessary information.
Approximately 30 minutes after checking into the Annapolis you will be required to attend your first lecture, held in Bay 8. At this time all personnel will be given a security briefing and informed of their next lecture.
In order to defend the Annapolis in the event of enemy attack and to ensure your safety, various watches have been established and men in grades E-1 thru E-6 may expect to be placed on the watchbill.
WATCHBILL & FLIGHT LISTS
Be certain to check lists once the announcement has been made that they are posted.
You will be charged 25 piasters per day while at this billet. This fee is used for linen service and to pay the maids for services rendered. You are reminded that this fee is to be paid in piasters only.
Civilian clothing, mixed uniforms, and camouflaged greens are not authorized in the Saigon area.
Long hair, sideburns, and uncleanliness are not tolerated.
LOUNGE AREA (BAY 8)
This is a reading and TV viewing area only. Do not sleep there, nor put your feet on the furniture or the bulkheads.
Movies are shown five out of seven evenings from 1900-2000 in the Muster Bay.
LOBBY & QUARTERDECK
Pass quickly through this area. Do not congregate.
Tables, chairs and trash cans have been put there for your convenience. Keep this area clean by putting waste and cigarette butts in the cans provided.
ANNAPOLIS MASTER-AT-ARMS FORCE
The purpose of the MAA is to enforce rules and regulations and to maintain security throughout the building.
Strict discipline will be adhered to while you are onboard and rowdiness and unruly conduct will not be tolerated.
We solicit your cooperation in doing your part in order to make your stay more enjoyable.
(1) Willingly follow commands and regulations.
(2) Relate all problems such as lack of supplies, water pressure, uncleanliness, etc to the
(3) Conduct yourself in a courteous manner at all times.
SECURITY & THEFT
All gear adrift will be confiscated and placed in the lucky bag.
At no time should valuables such as watches, wallets, radios, etc., be left adrift.
Personnel are reminded that it is unwise to carry or possess large sums of money.
MESSING & LIBERTY
Officers will mess at the Idaho BOQ, which is located directly behind the Annapolis
Enlisted personnel will mess at the Montana BEQ, which is located about three blocks down the street from the Annapolis.
There is no authorized liberty for transients in the Saigon/Cholon area; however, you are allowed to utilize the facilities (including bar) at the Idaho BOQ and the Montana BEQ.
RIVFLOT ONE/NAVAL ADVISORY PERSONNEL
RIVFLOT ONE personnel do not draw field gear or weapons from the Annapolis.
Naval Advisory personnel being assigned to DaNang will not draw a weapon from the Annapolis armory, but will draw field gear from the Annapolis.
At no time will anyone congregate around the entrance to the building and the front bunker. Standing outside the protected area and gathering in groups is extremely dangerous. Remember! Charlie is watching!
OFFICERS IN-PROCESSING INFORMATION
All NAVSUPPACT and other officers administratively supported by COMNAVSUPPACT, Saigon will report immediately upon arrival in-country to the Annapolis BOQ/BEQ in Saigon for in-processing.
All officers assigned to Naval Advisory Group, COMNAVFORV, MACV and other commands will proceed to their respective commands upon completion of in-processing at the Annapolis.
RIVPATFLOT FIVE officers designated as Squadron Commanders and Division Commanders will proceed to Binh Thuy for briefing when released by the Annapolis. All others will proceed to their respective units.
NAVSUPPACT officers will generally spend one night in the Annapolis and will attend a Personal Response briefing prior to going to Nha Be to check in with Headquarters.
All NAVSUPPACT Supply Corps Officers will report to NAVSUPPACT Saigon Supply Department where they will meet with the Assistant to the Supply & Fiscal Officer and the Supply & Fiscal Officer, at which time they will be informed of their ultimate assignment.
NSA and COMNAVFORV officers will draw greens and weapons while here at the Anna-polis. MACV officers will draw greens and weapons from MACV. NSA officers will take all gear with them to Nha Be, unless otherwise advised.
Upon arrival at Nha Be you will report to the Officer Personnel Office, Headquarters, Building C. You will turn in your records to the Officer Records Yeoman and then have your picture taken. From there you will meet the Admin Officer who will then set up an appointment for you to meet the Chief Staff Officer and the Commander. After meeting with the Chief Staff Officer and the Commander, you will be briefed by appropriate departments and transportation will be arranged to your ultimate duty station if located outside the Nha Be area.
DOs & DON'Ts
Do conduct yourself as gentlemen.
Do remain in a complete, clean and neat uniform.
Do pay all bills.
Do treat all persons with due respect.
Don't become intoxicated.
Don' t become involved in political discussions.
Don't "talk shop" or discuss classified matters ashore.
Don't make comparisons between conditions in Vietnam and the U.S.
After I read the ‘All Hands’ brochure, I realized that I had not attended the mandatory musters and meetings required of all newly arrived personnel on my first day in the facility. And I had not gone through the proper procedure to acquire a bunk and a locker. That being the case, when the guy who was in the bunk I’d chosen earlier had been assigned that bunk, it was no longer mine. In fact, it had never been mine to begin with.
I immediately began a search to locate my seabag. It took about 45 minutes, but I finally found it behind the master-at-arms check-in desk. I waited until the guy on duty had his mind on something else, then I snuck behind the counter and grabbed it. I was out of the area before he ever noticed that I’d been there.
I quickly determined that there was an all-points bulletin out for me. There was no doubt in my mind that when the master-at-arms or his underlings found me they were going to make an example of me.
At first, I was mad at the guy who’d checked me in the night before. He hadn’t said anything about musters and meetings, all he’d said was that if we made ourselves scarce, we wouldn’t have to worry about being on the watchbill. That’s what I’d tried to do all day, make myself scarce. Now, I was in big trouble.
I stayed mad at the night check-in guy until I found out he wasn’t a member of the master-at-arms team. He was just some poor lug who’d pulled duty the night before and he was doing the best he could. I guess he figured that since we weren’t new in-country, that we were transfers, that the meetings didn’t apply to us. BUT THEY DID.
After reading the ‘All Hands’ brochure, I got the impression that it would only take about three days to get my new orders. That being the case, I decided to assume a new identity and play hide-and-seek with the master-at-arms guys. I didn’t know what the punishment would be for missing the meetings and musters, but I didn’t want to pay the price whatever it was.
As I scoped around the Annapolis looking for a place to hide my seabag, I found an un-attended shirt lying on a bunk. I picked it up, rolled it under my arm and walked off with it like a thief in the night. I slipped into the head and checked the size. It was a perfect fit. I took my shirt off and slipped into the one I’d stolen. I looked in the mirror over the sink. WHAT LUCK! The name tag said ‘Jones’. Any other name and I’d probably have been screwed, but the odds of anybody thinking it strange that there might be more than one sailor named Jones in the Annapolis at any given time were minimal. Even the real Jones - the guy I’d stolen the shirt from - probably wouldn’t think anything about it if he ran into me and I was wearin’ the darn thing.
I didn’t have a bunk; I didn’t have a locker, and the damn BEQ was maxed out again come bedtime. I found a guy in the back corner of a room and offered him ten bucks MPC if he’d let me stow my seabag under his bunk. He agreed and I paid him. I opened my seabag and took the shaving kit out along with a change of skivvies, a clean pair of pants and some clean socks. I placed my dirty shirt in the seabag, closed it up and placed it under the guy’s bunk. I went to the head and shaved and showered. I came back to the bunk and pulled my seabag back out. I rolled up my dirty clothes and just stuffed them inside. I stowed my shaving kit again as well.
The rest of the night I just roamed around the Annapolis waiting for everyone to crash. When most of the guys were finally asleep, I found an empty couch in the lounge area and racked out there. When I dozed off I was the only person in the lounge, but a lot of newcomers arrived during the night. When I woke up the next morning the lounge floor was covered with sleeping sailors.
It didn’t take three days to get my orders. No. I wound up playing hide-and-seek with the master-at-arms crew for almost two weeks. Every day I’d get up at the crack of dawn and clear out of the hotel. I’d stay gone all day. Mostly, I just roamed around Saigon and checked out the city. But I learned very quickly when and where the new orders were posted, and I’d slide back into the Annapolis in the early afternoon - wearing my ‘Jones’ shirt - and scope out the bulletin board. Lucky for me, the guy I’d paid to baby sit my seabag didn’t get his orders before I did.
When my orders finally got posted I was one happy camper; I was glad to be getting out of the Annapolis, but I had no idea what my new assignment was, or where it was. The one-line notation on the board that referred to me simply read:
GMG-3 Robert Joseph Powers, Jr. PBR Mobile Base II Tan An
What-in-the-hell was a PBR Mobile Base? And where was Tan An? My mind immediately began to conjure up some dire images.
Any assignment with PBR in the title had to be bad news. A PBR was a river boat: Patrol Boat, River Class, that’s what PBR stood for! At first, the whole thing didn’t sound good; it sounded like a bad draw; bad luck. But the more I thought about it the more glamorous the assignment seemed to be. I began to understand the feelings that Henry Fonda had displayed in the movie ‘Mr. Roberts’.
In the movie, ‘Mr. Roberts’, Fonda played a supply officer on a cargo ship during World War II. Cargo operations were boring and tedious. Mr. Roberts wanted a transfer to the fighting fleet - and he wanted that transfer before the war was over.
Thinking about the movie I was reminded of one of the biggest snafus in American film writing. At the end of the movie, one of the crew on the cargo ship reads a letter from a friend on the same ship Mr. Roberts was on - the one he’d gotten his transfer to in the fleet. In the letter, the friend describes how Mr. Roberts died. According to the letter, Mr. Roberts was sitting in the officer’s mess drinking a cup of coffee when a Kamikaze suicide plane crashed into the mess. BULL-FUCKIN’-SHIT! Josh Logan, the writer, blew it on that one! No Kamikaze could have gotten within eye-shot of a ship back then without the ship being at general quarters. And if the ship had been at general quarters, nobody, including Mr. Roberts, would have been sippin’ a cup of java in the officer’s mess! Bad writing! Really bad writing!
Bad writing or not, Mr. Roberts and I did have something in common. I’d been a cargo handler unloading cargo at Deep Water Piers - not a far cry from Mr. Robert’s scenario as a cargo officer. Now, I was being assigned to a facility that had something to do with River Patrol Boats. And River Patrol Boats saw combat, so I was going to be in a combat area. WHEW! Even the thought brought on an adrenaline rush!
My orders were in and I was ready to go. But I had a problem. A big problem! I was still a wanted man; wanted by the Annapolis master-at-arms force. How could I report to the receiving desk, pick up my orders and check out without getting caught? That was the question. I checked my wallet. I had $110 in MPC. I decided to attempt to pay off the duty clerk. If it took all the money I had, it would be worth it. But if he didn’t go for it, if he wouldn’t accept the bribe, what-the-hell! They could just add bribery to the charges and throw me in the brig!
I hung around the receiving desk all day. The other guys who’d gotten their orders kept the clerk busy for most of the morning. Then, sometime around 1 or 2 in the afternoon, I was the only one there. I was still wearing my Jones shirt. I casually walked up to the counter and told the duty clerk that I was there to get my orders.
He looked up immediately. He had a strange look on his face.
“Gunnersmate 3rd. Powers?”
“Damn! Am I glad to see you! We’ve been worried sick! We thought Charlie’d got your ass! Where you been?”
“I didn’t report for muster and meetings on my first day here; didn’t know I was supposed to. When I got back in from evening chow I found out the MAA force was looking for me. I figured I was in big trouble and I’ve been layin’ low ever since.”
“You ain’t in trouble. We’ve just been worried about you, that’s why we wanted to see you. When we’ve got a guy checked in, but nobody sees him for over a week, when he don’t show for musters and shit like that, we start thinkin’ the worst.”
“Well, I’m fine. Can I get my orders and go?”
He rifled through the six or seven sets of orders he still had stacked on the counter and found mine.
“OK. Here we go. Powers, Robert J., GMG-3. PBR Mobile Base II, Tan An in Long An Province. Let me check the map here.”
He looked at a map on the desk behind the counter and located Tan An.
“OK, Powers. Here’s what you do. After you pay up your linen bill, turn in your linen and clean out your locker - and we check your locker to make sure it’s clean - you need to go down to the weapons room and check out a weapon. I doubt that they have any M-16s left, so you’ll probably end up with an M-14. But that ain’t as bad as it sounds. We have a limited supply of M-16 ammo. But we’ve got tons of 7.62. You can have as many M-14 clips as you want.”
“I don’t have any linen. And I don’t have a locker.”
“Where you been sleepin’?”
“On a couch in the lounge.”
“I still gotta charge you the linen charge.”
He figured up the linen charge and I paid him.
“OK. Here are your orders. Go get your weapon and you’re good to go.”
“Tan An. That’s where Mobile Base II is located.”
“What’s a Mobile Base? Do you know?”
“Saw an article on this baby in the Navy Times a few months back. It’s just a big barge in the river. It’s a floating home base for PBR crews.”
“A big barge in the river?”
“Yea. Maybe two or three barges, I don’t know. But basically, that’s what it is. A barge or two.”
“How do I get there? Is there a bus or something?”
He smiled and looked me straight in the face.
“No. You’re on your own regarding transportation.”
“What do you mean ‘on my own’?”
“Hitch-hike. All Navsuppact personnel are to get to their assigned locations by whatever means are available. It could be a boat, a chopper, military or civilian transport. But don’t worry, it ain’t as bad as it sounds.”
“How far is it?”
“Thirty or forty miles best I can tell. Maybe a little farther, maybe a little less.”
“Wait a minute. I just walk out of here with my seabag and a weapon and hitch-hike forty miles to my next duty station? Is that what you’re saying?”
“You got it.”
“Bullshit! This is a god-damn war zone, man! This is Saigon! Your ‘All Hands’ brochure says I’m not even supposed to leave the building without a chit. I’m not even supposed to be walkin’ around Saigon without a chit. Now, you’re just gon’ turn my ass loose and send me out on my own for a forty mile trip? A forty mile trip to a place I don’t even know how to find?”
He smiled again and winked at me when he answered.
“Ain’t life in the navy grand?”
Thirty or forty seconds passed while I let what he’d said sink in, then I asked him if I could look at the map.
“Yea. Look ... see ... here we are. That’s the highway. And that’s Tan An, that’s where you’re going.”
I looked over his shoulder as he pointed out the route to Tan An.
“Looks like to me all you gotta do is walk down Plantation Road to the left - and that highway - the highway that Plantation Road runs into - it should take you straight to Tan An. Now I may be wrong, so when you catch a ride, be sure they know where you’re goin’.”
“Who am I supposed to catch a ride with?”
“Anybody, really. But most of the traffic on the highways in and out of Saigon are military vehicles. All of the drivers have been instructed to pick up any military hitchhikers they see. You’ll get a ride in no time, I promise.”
“Can I ride with a civilian?”
“Yea. Some guys do.”
“I don’t have to worry about whether they’re Vietcong or not?”
“Even if you did get a ride with a cong, I don’t think he’d bother you. But he’d probably charge you an arm-and-a-leg.”
“Whadda’ you mean? Why wouldn’t he bother me?”
“The V.C. in the Delta are all rice farmers. They’re too busy workin’ their crops and goin’ about their other business during the daytime. The only time you really have to worry is at night. Now you don’t want to be out on the highway at night. If you get stuck out there and the sun starts goin’ down, and you’re still near Saigon, you need to get your ass back here for the night. Understand?”
“OK, then. Here’s you weapons authorization. You’re good to go.”
The receiving clerk was right. There were no more M-16s. I checked out an M-14 and talked the guy in charge out of a whole canvas bandoleer full of clipped ammo. He wrote down the serial number when he checked the weapon out to me and told me that I’d be responsible for returning that weapon - back to the Annapolis weapons room - before I left country. He was quite matter-of-fact about the procedure:
“If you don’t turn this weapon in when you check out, you ain’t goin’ home. I’m not talkin’ about another M-14, now. It’s gotta be this weapon. You come waltzin’ in here with another guy’s weapon and try to pawn it off as yours, you’re screwed. You ain’t leavin’ country. You understand?”
“Beg your pardon?”
“Good. Well, you’re good to go. Oh, I’d leave it on safety if I were you.”
The weapons clerk wasn’t even a gunnersmate and he was lecturing me on how to handle the weapon. I decided to toy with him a bit.
“Why! Damn, man! It might go off accidentally! You could kill somebody!”
He realized immediately that I was baiting him and he gave me an ugly look.
I was eager to get on my way. I hung the bandoleer of ammo over my left shoulder and around my neck and adjusted the strap on the weapon. When I had it sized like I wanted it, I slipped the strap over my right shoulder - with the weapon hanging in the rear - and went and retrieved my seabag. I opened the bag and stuffed my service record and travel orders inside. Then I closed it back up, shouldered it and headed out the front door.
I didn’t know how long it would take to get to Tan An, but I knew I was almost out of cigarettes so I stopped at the first ‘black market’ stall I came to on my walk to the outskirts of town.
The vendor had all manner of small articles for sale: soap, perfume, cologne, jewelry, trinkets, and a whole shit-load of cigarettes. He not only had American made smokes, he had Russian, Chinese, Indian and French brands as well.
“Hey, man. I need two packs of Winstons. How much?”
The vendor had a big smile on his face when he answered me.
“You no want Lucky Strike?”
“No. I’m a filter man.”
“No Lucky Strike? No Pall Mall?”
“No. Like I said. I smoke filters. Winstons.”
“But Lucky Strike make sailor feel good. Here, you see.”
He handed me a pack of Lucky Strike. The first thing I noticed about the pack was that it had been opened.
“Hey. This pack’s already open. Won’t that make ‘em stale?”
“You new, right?”
“Yea. You new. You no know about Lucky Strike!”
“No biet, man. I just wanna know why the pack’s been opened.”
“It no really Lucky Strike. It Mary Jane!”
“Yea, yea. Same-same. Make G.I. feel good.”
“Is that why it’s been opened? You guys take the real tobacco out and repack it with marijuana?”
“Mix old ‘bacco with Mary Jane. Put back in paper. Look like real Lucky Strike. You walk down street and smoke Mary Jane, but nobody know. Make G.I. feel good, too.”
“No thanks, hot shot. All I want is two packs of Winstons.”
“You buy Pall Mall, it same-same Lucky Strike, but longer, and mix with opium.”
“Yea. You want Pall Mall?”
“Two packs of Winstons, hoss. Unopened.”
“OK. But G.I. be sorry. Maybe no can buy where you go.”
“I’ll take my chances.”
He came up with two unopened packs of Winstons and charged me $1.00 apiece MPC. The price seemed high, cigarettes only cost 25 cents a pack at the PX. But he was my only option at the time, so I paid him the two bucks.
It seemed like it took forever for me to reach the outskirts of Saigon. I followed the route the receiving clerk had told me about, but there wasn’t that much military traffic moving through the main Saigon area at that time of day. One or two Vietnamese driving Lambrettas offered me a ride, but I wasn’t interested. I’m not the luckiest guy in the world. The way I had it figured, if there was only a one-in-a-hundred chance of getting picked up by a V.C., I’d be that one-in-a-hundred. When I finally reached the outskirts of the city it was getting late and I began to get concerned that I wouldn’t catch a ride before nightfall.
I finally reached the road junction; the one the clerk had pointed out on the map. I dropped my seabag on the side of the road and sat down on it. Almost as soon as I sat down a navy truck pulled to a stop and the driver leaned out the passenger window.
“Where you headed, man?”
“I’m goin’ to Nha Be. I can get you that far.”
“Is that on the way to Tan An?”
“Kinda. Hop on the back.”
“If that’s as far as I can get tonight, do they have a place I can bunk?”
“Yea. They got a TDY barge.”
I threw my seabag into the cargo area and climbed, carefully, rifle-in-hand, up and over the side-rail. Before the driver moved out, he leaned out the window and yelled at me.
“You might want to take your hat off, man. I’m gon’ be makin’ some good time, so it might blow off if you’re wearin’ it.”
I took off my hat and stuffed it inside the front of my shirt. Almost immediately he took off and in no time at all we were doin’ 60 miles-an-hour down a pothole-filled, bumpy-as-hell, hard-ridin’ highway.
We’d only been underway for ten or fifteen minutes when the driver pulled to a stop. There was another G.I. on the highway, a soldier - way out in the middle of nowhere - and the driver stopped to pick him up.
“Hey, man. Where you headed?”
“My Tho, man. Can I hop a ride?”
“I’m goin’ as far as Nha Be. Hop on.”
The soldier didn’t have a duffle bag; he didn’t even have a weapon. When he got onboard, and sat down on the deck, I introduced myself just as the driver pulled out.
“I’m Bob Powers. Navy.”
“Hey, man. I’m Army. Last name’s Faulkner, but folks just call me Shotgun.”
In no time at all we had to scream at each other to be understood, the wind that was being generated by the truck traveling at 60-miles-an-hour was incredible.
“Shotgun? Why do they call you that? You don’t carry a shotgun in the field, do you?”
“No. I ain’t ever even fired a shotgun. Now think. Why else would they call me that?”
He grinned at me while he waited for an answer. It was a big, stupid-lookin’ grin.
“I have no idea. Go ahead. Tell me. Why do they call you Shotgun?”
“Bong, man! Shotgun! Bong! Biet?”
“Bong? You mean like the thing hippies use to smoke marijuana?”
“Yea, man. Only we use a shotgun. I can get you higher than a B-52 on an arc-light raid with a shotgun and a bag of refer.”
“Don’t tell me you ain’t ever been shot gunned, man!”
“Oh, man! You don’t know what you’re missin’. Hey, I got some mean stuff. Maybe we can get together tonight, and maybe I can get my hands on a shotgun?
His grin disappeared and he gave me a disappointed look.
“You don’t do weed?”
Neither one of us spoke again for the next four or five miles. Then, out of nowhere, the guy took a pack of Lucky Strikes out of his shirt pocket. He took out one of the cigarettes and lit it. It looked just like a real, rolled cigarette. It looked just like a Lucky Strike. I didn’t say anything. I just sat there while the guy took draw after draw just like I’d seen Scooter’s friends do when they’d smoked those joints in Oxnard the previous summer.
I can’t remember how long it took to get to Nha Be, but it was really late in the afternoon when we arrived. Shotgun was feeling no pain. It took him forever to get down off the truck, and the driver looked at him funny when he walked away - at a stagger - without even saying ‘thanks for the ride’.
“Is he stoned?”
“He blew refer on my truck?”
I thanked the guy for the ride and shouldered my seabag and weapon. He pointed me toward an office and I went to check in.
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