For Vietnamese linguists, lingys for short, the Philippines was the waiting room for the guerrilla war underway in South Vietnam across the South China Sea. While they waited, theirs was the life of college boys on extended vacation in the South Pacific.
In early ’63, Jeff set off for the Far East via Honolulu from Travis Air Base north of San Francisco. Enroute he wrote home, “Hawaii is beautiful and warm. I’m on a Super Constellation. It will take 30 hours to get to the Philippines. The South Pacific looks enchanting.” Arriving at Clark, he reported to the 9th ASA, an Army Security Agency Field Station. There he did top secret, highly classified work, discreetly tucked away in a corner of the air base. Jeff’s first letters reflected his initial enthusiasm.
He described the base as “a little piece of America” with the pool “across the street, tennis courts … nearby, and the enlisted men’s (EM) open mess, called the Coconut Grove … next door.” He wrote of the pop culture ambiance of the place:
You hear music everywhere on base. It’s from Armed Forces Radio (AFR) which we get on our transistors, and … through speakers in the clubs and rec areas. It’s a strange combination of Country Western and Rock ‘n Roll, everything from Your Cheating Heart and Oklahoma Hills to Little Richard’s Good Golly, Miss Molly and lots of Ray Charles.
Although the work went on 24/7, the 9th ASA was doubly over strength in Viet lingys, so Jeff and buddies had plenty of time on their hands. Days were spent lounging at the pool, evenings drinking at the Airmen’s Club on base. Or they go into the town outside the base, Angeles City, which he described as “something out of Susie Wong’s world, just like those Far Eastern army towns you read about in war novels.” The place was a huge collection of bars with American names like Plaza Bar, Skylight, Keyhole, and Jeff added, “whores, beds, Jeepney drivers, horse and buggy conveyances, and the most poverty stricken people I have ever seen."
His letters home showed more awareness of the political news from the States, and of the situation in his part of the world. Commenting on violence against Negroes seeking civil rights in the South, he wrote: “I think about all the hypocrites who say we need gradualism and moderation. I say we need agitation. Filipinos ask about these incidents and there is little you can say.” By summer he was reading a great deal on the politics of Southeast Asia, pondering, as Jeff put it, “a way of offsetting Chinese Communist influence and keeping the states [of the region] non-communist,” when the Vietnam War abruptly interrupted.
Late August ’63 in a hurried note from the flight line, Clark Air Base, Luzon, PI, Jeff wrote briefly and cryptically: “I’m leaving for Vietnam for…some ‘field work’.” But that’s another story.
*”Your Cheating Heart”, written by Hank Williams, 1952