Tan Son Nhat
The Tan Son Nhat experience was like living on a Third World military compound sponsored by Uncle Sam. Greenbacks bought more than MPC, on base and off. Of course the negative side of greenbacks was they filtered north and came back as mortars and rockets. Some place I lived found a dud mortar and traced the serial number back to Fort Sill. Of course records showed it was destroyed there in the 50's.
The ARVNs on base lived in squawler one level above the people in Saigon. This doesn’t include professional people. Keep in mind some prostitutes make more money than Doctors during this period of time.
Capitol Center was a 24 hr operation from a 40 foot or so trailer/radio van just off H3. It did have plenty of sand & metal between it and the outside world. The beauty of this place was air conditioning, not for us, but for the radios. I didn't complain about it. During my stay at Tan Son Nhat I was sent to Long Binh for the day of the Gen. Westmorland to Gen. Abrams change of command ceremony. They already had ground people and an air traffic plan, I guess they just needed a single individual to keep it all together or an EM to blame if it got screwed up. The thing that impressed me most was Gen. Abrams’ wife steps out of the Huey with a small white Poodle under her arm. I was real easy to impress.
One more thing – being an air traffic controller was a ticket to ride. I was never turned down a ride if they had an empty seat. One time I needed a ride back to Song Be, a place not many people went to, so getting a lift was hard. I was at Tan Son Nhat, so called “Long Trips” ops, the dispatcher said he had one seat on a U-21 that could stop at Song Be after a flight to Da Nang. I showed up on the ramp at the designated time, the plane was there, had just come from Da Nang, but the pilot tells me he didn’t have a seat. Come to find out he’d put a buddy in the empty seat , with the plan of a return trip. I walked over to OPS and when I got back had to tell the pilot I was going to fly with him. Well we left his buddy on the ramp in Saigon. At Da Nang I talked with him about Song Be getting hit with mortars every time a fixed-wing came in. So I charmed him a little bit by telling him when he got close to tell my crew I was onboard and wanted preferred (safe) handling, I forgot to tell him we weren’t on charlie’s radio channel. We made a uneventful landing anyway. That little episode made my day, a dirty scruffy SP5 with M3 grease gun as my travel weapon leaving a shiny 2LT on the ramp.
One more and I’ll stop. I needed to get to Cu Chi, so found an OH-23 “Raven” heading that way from H3. Young LT flying it. When you cross the runway heading of Tan Son Nhat you fly low level to avoid conflict with the bigger a/c in and out of there. I think this guy with giving me the greenhorn test, flying tight across the rice patties, no abd. We flew near an ARVN compound that had power lines going to it, maybe 20ft high, the pilot had to touch the stick to pass over them. I knew H-13’s, which the H-23 replaced, were under-powered little dogs. I was impressed with the pep of the H-23. So we were coming up on a treeline clipping right along, I knew about when a 13 would have to start climbing. I peeked out the corner of my eye at this guy so he wouldn’t notice to make sure he was awake. He popped over the tree line like he knew what he was doing and later dropped me off at Cu Chi with dry pants. Also got a taste of Agent Orange from a couple C123 "Ranch Hands" spraying. Returning to Tan Son Nhat later in the day was a demonstration of who you know. The guy in the tower promised me a ride back, so I went down to the base ops waiting room. While I was sitting there the guy behind the desk called a bunch of names to load up on a C-130. I was pretty much left sitting by myself. A few minutes later he asks if my name is Miller. Yes. “There is a C-130 out there waiting for you.” Sure enough, there it sit’s with the ramp coming down for it’s last passenger. I’ll bet the guys already on it thought “Who’s this A hole.” Today it might be called “Flight Privilege”.
H3 was run by the 1st Aviation Brigade, as was the 125th ATC at the time. The maintenance operation was a full service shop. Most of the new a/c came in country through H3. An interesting place if you liked things aviation. Kind of cool to see consecutive numbers beginning with 001.
When we were living in the old French compound, all Army personnel, the Playboy Club was the sanctioned EM club. They had decent bands and shows. I later learned after making SP5 that the same groups rotated through here and the AF NCO club and likely the O Club. For variety a couple of us would go to an on base Vietnamese NCO club, complete with tea girls. We were usually the only Army in the place, 2 or 3 of us. When their business was slow a couple of the girls that spoke a little English would hit on us until other people (AF) came in that would play the tea game. They knew we weren't going buy, but a couple still stopped by to visit because at times we helped settled disagreements with some unpleasant tea buyers, etc. Now pa pa san was a different story. Some nights he tried to increase the price of beer without prior notice, it never ended nicely. One evening we got an early start so ended up having a couple extra beers, we almost never drank liquor. So this night he thought he'd get one over on us. Wrong thing to do, it ended somebody threw a couple glasses against the wall. We heard the AP's coming and were holding the front door open for them when they arrived. The first one was a big dude with a night stick and that “dah look" in his eyes. We quickly told them it was the guys back in the corner. We quit going there for a while. I made one more trip to the place when I found out (we never got orders) I was going to Song Be and bought all the girls that talked to us a "Saigon Tea".
The AF NCO was a pretty mundane place for more than 100 guys drinking 10¢ beer. I guess the fact there were no women there kept things peaceful. The only time we had a problem here was the night 3 or 4 black guys got into a disagreement with my buddy Willie. I wasn't paying much attention until i heard Willie telling them I’d kick there butts. Well a number of people were starting to get loud. Then somebody said the AP's were coming. The club had a second floor so I grabbed Willie and headed upstairs because they were coming in the front door. There were plenty of people up there so we split-up and sat down at tables with an empty chair. Be the time the AP's got up there we were part of the crowd. Nobody ratted us out. We bought a beer for the guys that covered for us and quietly went on home.
Whoop, the Vietnamese New Year. Went to bed early, got woke up by what I thought “celebratory” fireworks at least initially sounded like it. Wrong, told everybody that didn’t understand to grab there crap and get on ground level, we lived on the second floor, and of course there weren’t any bunkers any place close.
A few hundred yards west of H3 was a huge water tower with an observation deck on top complete with a .50 ca machine gun. Charlie ended up taking the tower for a while. Of course H3 attracted it’s share of incoming. When it got light things quieted down. Most of us were hunkered down near our Capital Center radio van and assorted equipment. Knowing the .50 on the water tower had been taken by charlie and hadn’t been heard from lately, we kept an eye in that direction. We couldn’t tell who was in charge up there yet. About this time it dawned on me our 20x30 or 40ft supply tent in front of us hadn’t been secured yet. I tried to get a couple of these “capital center queens” to go with me to check it out. Neither one of the wimps would get off the ground. Finally did it myself. I don’t know if they had my back or closed their eyes. A lot went on that day, but it had moved away from us.
The most excitement in our area later in the day was when the AF chow hall opened. Seems they wanted us to check our rifles and grenades at the door, not today with all the unarmed Airman. Very few of these guys had weapons. Anyway, we went in and grabbed a table and took our vests off. This is when I learned the sound of a grenade bouncing across a tile floor could clear people out of a 20 ft circle rather quickly. I caught it on the third bounce. Assured them the pin was still in it and everyone went back to eating.
Cholon, the Chinese neighborhood, really took a beating that morning. Basically leveled by mostly Vietnamese air strikes and artillery. The ground fighting went on for a week and a half in there.
Here is a Life Lesson - Never buy shrimp that are marked "Raised in Vietnam".
This is what they are farmed in, a part of the Saigon River on the edge of town. The color is accurate.
What we called Song Be City was actually Phuoc Long, the Capital of Binh Phuoc Province. The road leading to the the Capital Building was a wide 2 lane Blvd that was long enough to land a "Bird Dog". We were one street over at the MACV compound overlooking the river valley, a past French compound. It was well constructed, had an underground medical facility. One night the mortars were spot on and two of my men went through it before being medivaced to Quan Loi. Both were back in 48 hours, I gave them the rest of the day off.
Our radio van was in a small compound across the road from the main compound. We really didn't like that. Every morning when we went to work you needed to check it out for surprises. I had a 3 or 4 man crew that worked shifts.That left me in charge of the backup generator..never had to use it.
The main compound's west perimeter was against an ARVN compound, friendly right? We had a new guy move into our room that payed attention to details. After a little noise one night he found a hole in the screen on the west side of the room, so he looked on the east side and found a bullet in the wood framing. Guess what - it came through at an upward angle. Just for the record we always slept in floor level bunks, never stacked.
I saw a picture somewhere online of the radio van before the NVA came through in the 70's, it looked like a pile of sandbags dumped from a giant dump truck. The give away was the antennas sticking out of it.
Looking at a Google map I almost couldn't recognize a thing. Guess what didn't get destroyed in the final battle, got bulldozed by new Communist government.
Part of the 125th ATC team in action at Tan Son Nhat - Juiced
If you are still staying home and bored I have a couple websites on totally different subjects.