93. Children Shouldn’t Play With Hand Grenades

In bewildering fascination, Saigon, formerly the capital of French Indochina, held me captive for about a week.  The rich blend of people, some in fancy western threads and others staying true to their native attire, were walking about in a fairly normal city scene.  

Some were shuttled around in decent cars and yes, there were clunkers to be seen as well.  Others took cyclos without a second thought and there were quite a few people going about on bicycles.  Then of course there were the troops going from here to there on foot and in military transport.

The smells coming from restaurants, fresh food vendors and street-food stalls were definitely interesting and I found some delicious too.

While sitting in a local bar on yet another sweltering hot evening, engaged in the usual sipping of ice cold beer, I was startled by what I was certain to be the sound of an explosion.  A little shaken to be sure but more so curious, I walked over to the open doorway and peered out.  A couple of more distant bangs followed.

The scene outside was that of the city’s people going about their daily routines, intermixed with our G.I.s and some foreign visitors … and children playing around the streets.  I then heard a siren in the distance.

Seeing nothing out of the ordinary I returned to my table, not really sure what to think or how to react.  I say this because most everyone else in the bar seemed relatively calm about the boom and bangs.   

Timing such as it was, these bangs became the discussion at our table.  My friends and I were told by a couple of Marines standing at the bar, to be aware of the children and youthful people here; perhaps an occasional grandparent too.  They must’ve sensed my concern.  

There have been occasions wherein children pretending to play ball outside, were actually culprits of (most likely forced) no good actions.  They were usually near an establishment where a good number of G.I.s were to be found.  A ‘ball’ would roll inside.  

Now either someone will pick it up and roll it back outside or it was ignored but sometimes, before one could realize it, kaboom!  Not only the visually dense population of American and Allied troops but the average citizen of South Việt Nam, all were targets in this damned war.  

And as was the wartime usual, you couldn’t really trust anyone.  Decidedly we were unable to distinguish the difference between North and South Vietnamese citizens; who had the grenade … or worse?

As if on cue, a ball rolled in through the open doorway and right then and there, my heart stopped beating.  I was sure of it because I don’t remember taking another single breath!

After what seemed like forever but only a moment or two later, a youthful lad came in after it and took it back out straight away.  Clearly I’m still here to say, that wasn’t a hand-grenade, or for that matter any other exploding device that evening.

Towards the end of our Việt Nam stopover I wanted to stay back in the city for an overnight.  Though I knew I’d have to rise before the morning sun to get back to the ship via the 5a boat at shore, I will admit I chose to engage a female companion and so retained a hotel room.  

It was after only a few minutes of being in this room (probably for the best) when the moment about to be, was disturbed.  There was sudden (again with the heart-stopping) and loud non-stop banging.  I instantly opened the door to see guns staring me down.  

There were 4 that I could see and two of them were pushing their way into my room; these gunslingers didn’t wait for an invitation to enter.  They briefly looked around.  I definitely wasn’t going to argue or question these 2 Vietnamese (n or s? don’t know) soldiers with -credit to my imagination- itchy trigger-fingers on those cold & scary (what looked like) AK-47s, surely loaded and ready to shoot!

No English was spoken and they left shortly after arrival, taking the girl with them.  The only conclusion I arrived at was the girl must’ve been North Vietnamese, posing as a South Vietnamese family girl.  Or was it the other way around?

Okay I’d finally had enough of my own shenanigans; no more shore time for this boy, I would stay in the ship for our remainder of this Việt Nam stopover.

 

 

 

 

91. “We’re Americans, Don’t Shoot!”

Day 5:  Sài Gòn.  Two of us, my cabin-mate (I’ll call him Phil) and I are busy sucking down a few ice cold beers in one of the bars and as was becoming the norm, flanked by local femme fatales.  Before we realized how late it was, already we had broken the curfew missing our boat back to the Trans Western.  

Desperate to get outta there we made quick inquiry for a way to return to our ship, to anyone who’d listen.  We needed someone with a boat who’d take us out to the anchored ships, for pay of course.  One Vietnamese man with very little English stepped up to the job.  We three made haste to his boat.  

So now we’re putt-putting through the dark waters under black velvet skies, studded with stars brilliant as diamonds.  I see little twinkling lights of the ships anchored all around the harbor.  

In my mind I’m thinking, how on earth are we gonna find our ship in all of this?  They seem so close to each other from a distance but as we get nearer, they’re all really far apart from one another.

Marines on constant patrol are no doubt hearing the putt-putt of the small gasoline engine of this little man’s smallish boat.  Suddenly there were two spotlights splashing us in harsh white light and our boatman quickly shuts off his motor; he definitely doesn’t want to get his ass shot off in any language, of that I’m sure!

Feeling the panic, Phil thinks quick and takes off his tee shirt.  He stood up and began to wave his white shirt, “Don’t shoot, we’re Americans!” he yelled out in fright.  I didn’t think twice and removing my shirt, I too stood up and did the same. ‘Don’t shoot, Americans, we’re also American!’  

We’re waving our shirts and they’re getting closer; upon reaching us, I’m guessing they relaxed only a small bit, assessing we are most likely harmless.  

They cuss us out. “What the hell are you guys doing out here after curfew …(then pointing the barrel of their guns at the boatman)… with him!?”  ‘We missed our boat outta town and … and we made a desperate decision’, I nervously explained.  

They talked amongst themselves for a moment and then ordered us to climb aboard their boat.  The Vietnamese man was also brought on board.  His little boat was tied up to theirs and after identifying us with our ID cards, we were transported to the Trans Western.  

Boy did we get an ass-chewing and that was just by the Marines who picked us up!  The Skipper had yet to have his go on us.  Upon arrival we had to of course, be re-identified to the guard soldiers on board our ship; up the rope we went.  

The patrolling Marines left with the little man still in their custody; I’m thinking most likely they escorted him back to shore.  This type of scene may have happened to others before us and most probably would occur again in the years to come.  

Phil and I made tracks for the mess hall.  All this excitement made for a great appetite.  A few of the Marine soldiers were down in the galley enjoying some grub.  

We made fresh coffee, tuna fish sandwiches with some crunchy pickles and proceeded to eat as though that would fix anything.  I tell ya, what a night!  To our immediate relief, the Skipper’s ass-chewing was not on tonight’s menu.  

Retiring to our cabin I was on autopilot until my head finally hit my pillow and I was able to think for a moment.  I was filled with gratitude that my butt was not blown to bits by the US Marines!  Or anyone else for that matter.

|||


 

90. Next Stop, Sài Gòn

After pulling up anchor, the Trans Western skirts Vietnamese coastline along the route towards Sài Gòn harbor and as before, we stayed away from the actual shoreline. Remember our cargo was not allowing us a near-to-the-shore ‘parking’ spot.

That first night we all stayed on board, no one left our boat.  However, the next day most of us were more than ready to get off the ship and explore this new frontier.  

Sài Gòn was a city larger than Quy Nhơn.  Streets, buildings, shops and hotels were bigger.  Some of the bars and cafés were of equal stature for the most part, perhaps with a little more flair and variety.

And hard to miss were the tanks and jeeps everywhere; a constant reminder that I was still in the middle of a war zone.  American soldiers strapped with weapons were always visible. 

Occasionally we were stopped and asked for our identification.  We carried ID cards of the Merchant Marines (seaman). Let me tell you it was a bit intimidating being questioned by a guy with a loaded gun somewhat pointing at your persons, even if they are our own soldiers, which they were.

There were people walking around all over the city and some drove from here to there in their cars.  A good percentage of these people were dressed in western-world clothing, my guess is that I was seeing the French influence from when France occupied Việt Nam.  

Although the hotels, automobiles and restaurants were modern, I couldn’t help but notice the simple folk who stuck to their culture in everything they did, from the clothing they wore to the way some kept shop and definitely down to the street food preparation.

|||