A Twelve-year-old Boy Scout and Schoolboy in Saigon, 1955-57
My dad was recruited from the State of Michigan to join the public administration part of Michigan State University’s mission team to South Vietnam. It was early 1955 and I was only twelve years old, but off our family went on our two-year, great Southeast Asia adventure – my mother and father, my younger brother, my sister, and I. The second photo is a copy of our passport page when we re-entered the US in 1957. The State Department had asked the University to set up an Institute for Public and Police Administration in Saigon to help train the new South Vietnamese government, and my father went as part of that team.
The years 1954 and 1955 were tumultuous in South Vietnam. The French had been defeated at Dien Bien Phu, but that battle was way up north. They were leaving, the Geneva agreements had partitioned the country, and there were supposed to be national elections. Ho Chi Minh and his Viet Minh were consolidating their power in the north, while a half-dozen non-Communist leaders vied for power in the South. None of that made any difference to a twelve-year-old, nor did that turmoil show on the streets of Saigon, at least not at “bicycle level,” while I was there. The US government had not yet decided to replace the French, and we weren’t anyone’s enemy, not yet.
Our family arrived in April, 1955, and moved into a classic French colonial mansion on the outskirts of Saigon. It was close to the US Ambassador’s house – three-story, stucco exterior, surrounded by a high wall with barbed wire and broken glass on top. We slept on the top floor and there was a large steel grate that came down across the stairs that was locked at night. We had a cook, a maid, a driver, two garages, and a bomb shelter in the front yard. For a twelve-year-old kid from Mason, Michigan, it was really something.
Dad worked in a government building in downtown Saigon. Until we arrived, there hadn’t been enough American kids to set up an American school, but that quickly changed as the American mission expanded. The State Department hired some teachers and a school was set up in a Quonset hut downtown. There were eleven students in my 7th – 9th grade class. We had no guards around the school and there was little military presence in the city. The children of the project team members were chauffeur-driven to and from school each day.
As kids, we would ride our bikes into Saigon all the time. The club my family belonged to was across the street from the Presidential Palace. We would go to shows in Cholon, the Chinese neighborhood, and grab rides on “Cyclos.” They were three-wheeled rickshaw/ bicycles, with the driver pedaling in back. They cost almost nothing. The people were very friendly, and the only time I had any trouble with any Vietnamese was when I got punched by a Cyclo driver who thought I hadn’t tipped him enough for a ride. He ended up getting arrested. In the two years I spent there, I managed to pick up quite a bit of Street Vietnamese, including how to argue, barter, and use most of their cuss words.
One of our teachers organized a Boy Scout Troop sponsored by the Embassy. The South Vietnamese Army loaned us some tents and camping gear, and we went out camping all the time. We did a summer camp up in the Central Highlands. There’s a small river on the Cambodian border. We formed a chain and swam across, so we could touch the other side and say we were in Cambodia. We camped with a cook and a guard. He was someone’s gardener who brought along a .22-caliber rifle, not because of any enemy soldiers, but to scare away the tigers. We also camped in Loc Ninh, Pleiku, Dalat, on the beach at Nha Trang, and a lot of other places that became bloody battlefields ten and fifteen years later. As the war and the devastation got worse and worse, I could only wonder what Vietnam might’ve been like if things had come out differently.
Rather than order expensive Boy Scout uniforms from the States, we tore some pictures from the catalog and took them to a Chinese tailor shop in Cholon. We got hand-tailored, hand-embroidered uniforms at a fraction of the US price.
When our family came back home to the States in March, 1957, my dad joined the faculty of Michigan State University. I finished high school in 1961 and went on to graduate from Michigan State. After a career in senior data processing and IT positions with Roadway Express, Blue Cross, and several other companies in the healthcare field, I am now retired.
In 2001, my wife Judi and I went back to Vietnam and Cambodia on a two-week tour, which took us to Saigon, Hanoi, and many other places in between. The countryside was beautiful and the people friendly. While I didn’t have a chance to swim across to Cambodia, I was surprised at how much had changed and how much had not changed.
Author’s Note – You can also read his wife Judi Higbee’s account of her time as a Red Cross “Donut Dolly” in Vietnam later in this book.
ERNIE BURZAMATO’S WAR
US Marines, Corporal and Advisor, US Military Assistance Advisory Group (MAAG), II Corps, 1956 and 1961
I grew up in Brooklyn, dropped out of high school at sixteen, and joined the Marine Corps, as my older brother Chuck had done. In September, 1955, I reported to Paris Island for Boot Camp and went on to Recon and Demo schools. I did so well, I was promoted to corporal and given an immediate foreign assignment to something called the US Military Assistance Advisory Group – MAAG, as it was called – in Vietnam. I was told I’d be helping organize the local militias and teaching basic weapons, defense, and tactics to the farmers and villagers. I was seventeen years old when I arrived and knew nothing about the country, its history, or its politics.
I was a member of the Advance Party of what would grow to be 350 US Advisors, most of whom were Army and Marine Corps. A quarter of the group worked in Saigon, and the rest of us went out to the villages, unarmed, and dressed in civilian clothes. For the next seven months, I worked the patchwork of rivers, swamps, rice paddies, and villages south of Danang. It was pretty country, but ten years later, we called it Dodge City, Hill 55, Go Noi Island, Operation Pipestone Peak, and Operation Meade River; and it kept two Marine Divisions busy. I didn’t know it then, but this was the beginning of my 33-year career in the Marines and Reserves.
In 1956, there was no fighting going on. We got along with the villagers, or we thought we did; but we were out in the field. We had no knowledge of the big picture, or what was going on in Saigon, Hanoi, or Washington. What I remember was thatch huts, old men and women, a lot of rain and heat, eating strange food, and meeting a lot of wonderful people.
I was only there seven months before they quietly rotated me back to the States. The next year, 1957, the VC began to attack the US advisors. In 1959, Bien Hoa itself was hit, and several US advisors were killed. By 1960, the number of US advisors had grown from 327 to 685, and the Military Assistance Advisory Group – Vietnam became the Military Assistance Command – Vietnam or MAC-V. Soon the number of advisors increased to 3,400.
In 1961, I was sent back to Vietnam for my second tour, to the same area. This time, I was in uniform, carrying an M-14, and part of Force Recon, protecting Danang. A lot of the equipment we were giving the South Vietnamese came in through Danang, and the Marines were running sweeps outside the base. By then, the same villages where I had sat down and eaten roast pig, you couldn’t go near. We were the bad guys, like the French, and it was all VC country. When we went through the villages, all we saw was old men and women, no young men. We all knew where they were.
One day I took a Force Recon patrol out south of Danang. I had two five-man teams and around dusk we were hit hard with mortars. I had two men killed, two men badly wounded, and a total of eight hurt, including myself, with shrapnel in my leg. We managed to get out of there, but back then we didn’t have the backup, the helicopters, or the artillery support we had a few years later.
One of the sad facts of life is that neither the Pentagon nor the VA recognize any service, the wounds, or the men who were killed in action in Vietnam prior to 1962, before it was an official “combat action,” even though we were in uniform, armed, and on orders. I always thought that was unfair to their families, not to at least get a Purple Heart.
After they took that piece of metal out of my leg, I could no longer run very well; and that got me bounced out of Force Recon. So, in 1963, after eight years on active duty with the Marine Corps, I knew it was time to get out. I tried to get in the Green Berets, but they didn’t like my leg either. That was the end of my active duty, although I stayed in the Reserves.
I got my high school diploma by GED and went on to college. My family had been in heavy construction, so when I got a degree in Structural Engineering, I found myself being recruited by the Seabees. In 1972, I switched from the Marine Reserves to the Navy Reserves and joined a Seabee unit, rising quickly from Builder 2nd Class to Senior Chief. I was commissioned Lieutenant JG in 1987 and retired as a Lieutenant Commander in 1995. I was frequently called up to Active Duty and became one of the Navy’s experts in unit and equipment mobilization and embarkation, working with the Marines in Vietnam, on the evacuation of US assets from the Suez Canal, and in Honduras, Lebanon, Somalia, Bosnia, Uganda, and in Desert Storm.
I’m now 79. During my thirty-three years of Active and Reserve Service in the Navy and Marine Corps, I received a Meritorious Service Medal, four Navy Commendation Medals, and five Navy Achievement Medals.
BOB CARELS’S WAR
US Army Special Forces A Team, C Company, 5th Special Forces Group in Gia Vuc, I Corps, 1963
In early 1963, I was a member of the 7th Special Forces Group at Fort Bragg and told to pack, because I was replacing a guy in an A Team at Gia Vuc in the mountains of Vietnam. An A Team has twelve members: a captain, a lieutenant, two operations sergeants, two radiomen, two medics, two engineers, and two demolition men. I was a radioman. I grew up in an Air Force family, had traveled around the world. After high school in Falls Church, Virginia, I worked for a year and then drove around Europe on a Vespa before I enlisted in the Army and qualified for Special Forces, back when that meant the Green Berets. I had a smattering of high school French, but I knew no Vietnamese.
The Gia Vuc Special Forces Camp was an old French Army base in the mountains of I Corps. It opened in early 1962 and was the most successful one we ran. It was in the Song Re River valley: beautiful, green, with terraced rice paddies and water buffalo, and home to 1500 Montagnards of the Hre tribe and 300 Vietnamese. By 1969, there were 6,400 Montagnards and Vietnamese living there. The “Yards” were a distinct ethnic minority in Vietnam. They had dark skin and straight, short noses. The Vietnamese considered them to be a primitive, foreign people. The adults had their front teeth filed down or broken off, a tribal custom, and neither the North nor South Vietnamese liked them. We did. We lived with them, ate their food, and fought side by side with them. They were very loyal to the Americans throughout the war. Some Hre had fought with the French in the last war and some fought with the Viet Minh. That was history. Now they were fighting for themselves.
The fortified camp was in the valley and blocked a main infiltration route from Laos to Danang. It had several barracks and storage buildings made of bamboo, with thatched roofs, woven mats for walls, and dirt floors. Our Special Forces team and an ARVN (Army of the Republic of Vietnam) Special Forces team each had our own building. There was also an old stone building we used as a medical clinic. We were there to train the local militia and the ARVN Special Forces, so that they could stop the infiltration from the north through Laos and defend their camp. This was all before the major escalation of the war in 1965. After that, they weren’t just infiltrating; regular NVA regiments came marching down the Ho Chi Minh Trail.
While there weren’t very many VC around in 1963, we were regularly probed and hit by mortar attacks, and they always disappeared before dawn. We had a “Mike Force,” or reaction force, which we trained, took out on patrols. When we weren’t patrolling, we were building, and I remember taking the truck and the water trailer down to the river to bring back loads of water and sand for construction projects many times.
There was an outpost on a nearby hill which we used as an observation post. One of the guys shot a deer from up there and we had fresh venison for a few days. One night when I was up there, I heard a tiger coughing and snorting in the jungle below, but he went away. Another night, we saw a line of flashlights coming down a trail on the other side of the river. To us, that was enemy country, so we fired off a few mortar rounds. After a few minutes, we heard a panicked call in English on the radio. It was an American advisor to an ARVN unit. They were moving through the jungle in the dark and got lost. Fortunately, no one was hurt.
We had a small airstrip near the camp. Sometimes, we’d get a Huey to fly over from the Special Forces Group at Nha Trang with parachutes. We’d use it as our “elevator,” so everyone could get in a couple of jumps and we could keep our airborne status and pay.
Before I got there, it was the Special Forces who trained the ARVN troops and militias. Then, the Military Assistance Advisory Group – MAAG, took that over and the Special Forces were given the mountain tribes to work with. I rotated home in 1964, but by 1965, with the help of the Australian SAS and the ARVN Special Forces, we had set up fifty Special Forces camps, half in VC-controlled areas. The hope was, if we could convert the local tribes to our side, we could beat the VC at the grassroots. The camps were isolated and had little conventional artillery or air support, but a Montagnard with a crossbow was a man to be feared. Giving him a modern rifle was even better. They were very effective soldiers.
You After my deployment ended, I went back to Fort Bragg and was assigned to the Service Club, where I slept in a buddy’s van, instead of the stuffy, coal-fired barracks. When my enlistment ended, I took night courses in computers, and was lucky enough to be hired at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Lab in Howard County, Maryland. I was an assistant computer programmer, from which I finally retired in 2002 after thirty-seven years. I’m now 78 years old, and live in Concord, New Hampshire.
MIKE SANNES’S WAR
US Army E-4 and Radio Intercept Specialist, the 8th Radio Research Unit, Army Security Agency, Phu Bai and parts north, 1964-65
I spent fourteen months in the hills and jungle of Vietnam very early in the war, before there was much of a war, in northern I Corps. I was assigned to the “8th Radio Research Unit” of the Army Security Agency. A Radio Research Unit? Whenever you work for something with a name like that, you gotta figure the CIA and NSA have their fingers deep in the pie.
I came from a military family in Oregon, where you weren’t a real man until you’d been in combat. I tried college for a few months, and finally joined the Army. In Basic at Fort Ord, California, I did well on the signals and Morse code tests, and was selected for the ASA at Fort Devens, Massachusetts for cryptography and radio intercept training. I figured I’d go to an advanced communications center in Europe, listening to the Russians, not to the jungle playing infantry; but field intelligence is always one of the first units in, and the first casualty in Vietnam was an ASA guy named Davis.
After several stateside assignments, I spent six months on a spy ship off Havana, Cuba. When Kennedy was assassinated, the Russians and the Cubans sent missile boats out to chase us away. ASA then sent me to a small, secret communications center outside DC on a winding road with no sign and no name. That’s when I volunteered for Vietnam.
When I arrived in-country in March, 1964, I was initially assigned to the 3rd RRU at Tan Son Nhut outside Saigon. That was fairly civilized, but two months later I was sent up to Phu Bai in I Corps and then to a series of remote firebases just below the DMZ, where I spent the rest of my fifteen months and twenty-six days in country. We monitored VC and NVA radio signals. At the company and regimental level, they used Chinese radios with small, hand-cranked generators. That was why we had to get close. And they used Morse code, usually encrypted, but they also used plain voice radio when they thought no one was listening. Very often when the VC and NVA got in a battle, their radio operators would get excited, their communication security would fall apart, and they would start broadcasting in the clear. That was when the good stuff came through, and we would earn our paychecks.
I remember a lot of things that happened in Vietnam, but my memory has holes in it. It’s like watching an old black-and-white movie when part of the film is missing, like that old restored version of Lost Horizon. Scenes will pop up, but I can’t remember what led up to them or what happened afterward.
Our firebase was on a hilltop surrounded by jungle. It was in I Corps, but there would be no Marines up there for almost a year. I was dropped off by helicopter and left standing in a dusty field by myself until two guys finally drove over in a Jeep. They looked me over, sneered, and then drove me to one of the tents in the compound. I went inside, put my gear on an empty cot, turned around, and some guy punched me in the face. I didn’t understand it at the time, but this was a test to see how tough you were, to see if you’d fight back; because there was no place there for guys who couldn’t hold their own on the perimeter. We had about one hundred men in the unit. Once they trusted you, you were admitted to the clique.
We operated two types of radio equipment. Some were inside a hut and some were on racks bolted inside an Armored Personnel Carrier, which had six antennas and three men working inside on twelve-hour shifts. In both the buildings and the APCs, there was a thermite grenade on top of each receiver to destroy everything in case we were overrun. One thing I picked up on as soon as I arrived, was that none of us signals guys were supposed to be captured alive. The guards were there as much to shoot us as protect us, if it came to that.
We lived in six-man tents, like the ones you see in M*A*S*H, but they weren’t that nice. It was hot all the time and we had big fans, not that they accomplished very much. The tents had wooden floors. As soon as it was dark, there would be big rats all over the place. Someone brought in a dog to keep them away, but the rats ended up attacking the dog. One guy got a big python, which he put under the floorboards. That worked.
Like everyone else, I had to pull guard duty in a perimeter bunker. They were damp, smelled, had rats like everywhere else, and it was very loud inside when there was shooting going on. One night I heard movement out in front of my position. I yelled a warning three times, as we were supposed to do, and then opened up. In the morning, we discovered I had shot the hell out of a water buffalo.
There was a crude airstrip there, but we were always fogged in. The Army supply flights had trouble making it up there from Danang, but the Air America pilots in their black DC-3 never seemed to. Even when they made it in, we were the farthest north of any US base, and they were always out of whatever it was we wanted by the time they got to us. We always got ammo, more than we needed, and C-rations, old World War II stuff, which we would trade with the Special Forces guys when they came through.
The VC would hit us with mortars fairly often, always at night. We had burned and cleared a wide perimeter around the base for security, so it was hard for them to get close. But after you were there long enough, even when you were asleep in your tent, you could hear the mortar rounds when they came out of the tube with that distinct “Thunk! Thunk! Thunk!” as they walked the mortar rounds in on us. To this day, I can still hear that sound.
I remember one time when we were surrounded by the VC and cut off for three days. We had run out of food, were ordered to abandon the base, and had to fight our way east to a beach on the coast. We found a small lagoon that had a lot of crabs in it. We were so hungry that we caught them, ripped them open, and ate them raw.
When my year was up in 1965, I was more than ready to leave, until they told me I’d been extended indefinitely because of the big troop buildup. Things had gotten so bad that I never expected to return alive anyway, but this was the worst. I stopped counting the days. Three months later, the Sergeant called me over and said, “Grab your bag. There’s a plane waiting for you.” I was flown down to Tan Son Nhut, but rather than stay at the Repo Depot I took a cab into Saigon and checked into a hotel. Now that I was really on my way home, I was so paranoid that I locked the door and sat with my back against the wall with a pistol, convinced that the NVA would be coming through the door and window to get me any minute. The next day, I flew home, was discharged, and found myself standing on a street in San Francisco, cold turkey, with no transition. It was one of the cruelest things anyone could do to another person.
I had lived like an animal in the jungle for almost sixteen months. I wasn’t a hero, just a kid trying to survive, and I had serious problems for a long time after Vietnam. I drank, got into drugs, and had problems with the law. I got rid of most of my things and traveled all over the US, Europe, South America, the Philippines, Japan, and Thailand. I even lived for a few years in Tokyo. Once, I went into a bar with a loaded gun. I had both survivor’s guilt and a death wish, and you can’t get much worse than that. There were other times when I couldn’t leave the house. I had two 100-pound guard dogs and woke up screaming every night, convinced they were coming through the windows for me again.
Finally, I went to a Vet Center in San Diego and got some help. I had come home to a less than friendly reception in California in 1965, and I’d never talked about Vietnam to anyone. It was too painful. I don’t think anyone can understand the savagery and horrors of war like that and what it did to guys, if you hadn’t been there. I have been clean and sober for thirty-five years now, but it took me that long to feel comfortable in my own country.
Finally, in 1968, I went back to school for computer programming and got a job with the Navy Weapons Program at the University of Rhode Island doing computer programming. That was the perfect job for me. I could sit alone in the dark in front of a computer screen and work with a machine, not people. Eventually, I became Vice President of a public software corporation with forty-two software engineers working for me, if you can believe that.
I’m retired and live in Southern California now. I have a 100% disability, and am being treated at Cedars-Sinai Hospital for a rare blood disease that I believe I acquired from Agent Orange, which was all over the place in I Corps. I’ve been on chemotherapy for over a year now, and have had a stem cell transplant that Cedars-Sinai arranged for me.
In 1995, I went back to Vietnam as part of a project doing relief work for disabled VC and NVA soldiers. Agent Orange messed us up, they’ve had it much worse.
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