Wednesday, August 14, 2013

"Saigon Was No Rear Area"

It was early evening in I Corps (eye core), northernmost of the four tactical zones where US military advisors could be found in South Vietnam (SVN) in 1964. It was the first weeks of spring and already dark enough that Jeff Sharlet, my brother, and a GI buddy with him in the jeep had to turn on the headlights. They were headed back from Hue on the coast of the South China Sea to their base near the small ville of Phu Bai.

The two GIs were on a narrow deserted road flanked with scrub growth when their lights picked up something in the roadbed directly ahead. Jeff hit the brakes; they got out with carbines at the ready and cautiously approached. At that point in the Vietnam War, there wasn’t much Viet Cong (VC) activity in that part of the country – most of the attacks were far to the south in IV Corps, the Mekong Delta, below the capital, Saigon – but occasional incidents were not unknown.

As they got closer, they saw that it was a Vietnamese peasant woman curled up on the road, probably from the nearby tiny hamlet of Huong Thuy just north of Phu Bai, but was it a trap – did she have a concealed weapon or was she dead, a grenade under her body rigged to explode if she was moved? Happily neither – the old woman was just sleeping soundly on the road still warm from the day’s sun, no doubt a more comfortable berth than the bramble to the left and right. False alarm.

That, of course, was the ‘bush’ in Vietnam where groups of American ‘advisors’ to the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) – as they were then called – were scattered up and down the countryside, relatively isolated in a sea of Vietnamese, friendlies and unfriendlies. One might reasonably assume that Saigon, the HQ of the US military effort to help SVN cope with a guerrilla war directed from Communist North Vietnam (NVN) – was a relatively safe area. Alas, not so.      

During the previous year, Jeff had been based in the Saigon area from late summer into the fall. The concentration of Americans there – enjoying the pleasures of the city called the ‘Paris of the Orient’ – instead proved a magnet for persistent and well-coordinated terrorist attacks by VC cadres who were indistinguishable from other Saigonians.

A Saigon street scene, 1961

Once in office in early ’61, President Kennedy (JFK) had begun a build-up of the small US military commitment in SVN inherited from outgoing Dwight Eisenhower. In effect, during the next 1000 days in the White House until his assassination in late ’63, JFK had significantly escalated the sleepy, low-key internal war between ‘our guys’ in the South and the Communists in the North of the divided country. At that stage of what became the long war in Vietnam, the NVN carried out their campaign to overthrow the government of SVN through their proxy, the shadowy National Liberation Front (NLF) and its tough fighting arm, the VC.

♫They said you're pretty safe when the troops deploy
But don't turn your back on your house boy
When they ring the gong, watch out for the Viet-Cong

In response to JFK’s moves during 1961-62, the underground VC units of the capital responded at first with numerous incidents of terror against the Vietnamese population of Saigon – the implied message being that the regime of President Diem couldn’t effectively fulfill the basic function of government, i.e., the protection of its citizens. However, as the numbers of US military personnel multiplied three-fold in the next two years, the VC began directing carefully planned attacks against venues in the city where Americans – both military personnel and the growing host of civilian contractors and dependents – gathered for diversions.

By the end of ’63, the toll of dead and wounded Americans in Saigon had registered in Washington, provoking discussions of possible retaliatory bombing attacks against the North. The NLF took note and in early ’64 directed its VC cadres to zero in on Americans in Saigon. The new policy of urban terrorism bore two implicit messages – the US should realize how vulnerable their people were in the capital if they decided to strike NVN, and high profile attacks against Americans should have a demonstration effect on their South Vietnamese ‘clients’, to wit the US cannot protect you.

In ’64-’65 the frequency and intensity of VC targeting of US billets and recreational facilities had increased five-fold from ’61. Years later, the atmosphere of bombs going off on the streets of Saigon was cinematically depicted in Robin Williams’ Good Morning Vietnam (1987). On the ground back in the ‘60s, Jeff and his GI pals, all Vietnamese linguists (lingys) attached to a communications intelligence outfit outside the city in ’63, were caught up in the rising tide of VC violence aimed at Americans as can be seen in the following account by a fellow GI of an eventful evening on the town with Jeff and three other lingys:

We were walking down Tu Do Street [the main drag],
headed for the Impérial, a little French open-air bar – a
corner bar – classic French, tile floor, zinc top bar,
uncomfortable stools, bistro menu, maybe a dozen tiny
tables open to the street on two sides, ancient Vietnamese
waiters in khakis, white shirts and flip-flops, no girls – the
 perfect venue for a Pernod or Pastis on a warm night.
Quelle ambiance!

We were walking toward the bar five abreast, a short
block away, maybe 50-75 yards, when a grenade was
thrown from a motorbike into our intended destination.
It was, for all of us, a strange experience – our first sense
of the explosion was seeing waiters from the bar running
into the street followed, in slow motion, by a flash of light
and a huge horizontal column of a billowing dirty gray
cloud of smoke that appeared to be chasing the waiters –
only then came the sound of the explosion itself which
caused us to momentarily duck our heads before running
toward the explosion – a foolish impulse, but ….*

The bar was in shambles with overturned tables, broken glass, and waiters’ flip-flops scattered about. Happily their favorite waiters were unharmed, and there were no serious injuries. The following night the five guys made Bar Imperial their first stop of the evening and found all the waiters wearing brand new tennis shoes, the better to run with, they told the GIs.

Bar Impérial, Saigon, 1960s

The NLF’s new terror policy had gone into immediate effect in early ’64. On February 9th, the VC hit the sports stadium where two US service teams were playing a softball game before bleachers filled with cheering American military and civilians: 2 dead, 42 wounded. Exactly a week later on Sunday, a VC team in a well-coordinated attack bombed a packed movie theater exclusively used by Americans watching a Hollywood film. The first VC shot and killed the lone US military policeman (MP) on guard out front, followed by his accomplice rushing into the theater to plant a 25-pound bomb with a 15-second fuse: 3 killed, 32 wounded.

Lest the reader think this was an improvised operation, US forces later captured the 13-page VC document on the meticulous planning and post-attack evaluation for the theater bombing. The document noted with satisfaction that local Vietnamese residents had come by the next day to see the wreckage and were heard to say, “Once they [the VC] have succeeded in attacking this objective, they will easily succeed elsewhere.”**

♫Searching for the Viet Cong in vain.
They left a note that they had gone.
They had to get down to Saigon††

Near the end of ’64, on Christmas Eve, the VC pulled off another high profile strike designed to reinforce their ‘message’, to wit, that Americans in Saigon were vulnerable, hence the Vietnamese population should not count on them for protection. By then Jeff had completed his tour and was back in the States, but a couple of lingy buddies happened to be nearby and witnessed the carnage after a few minutes earlier a 200-pound bomb blew out the back of the 6-story Brink Hotel – quarters for US officers –  and obliterated the small buildings behind it. Dashing to the site, the two GIs instinctively rushed into the dense black smoke and, at personal risk, rescued three stunned and dazed Vietnamese employees of US armed forces radio housed in the building.

Aftermath of the Brink bombing, Christmas Eve, 1964

Again, it was later learned how carefully the VC commanders had planned the attack on the Brink. Observing that South Vietnamese officers freely mingled with Americans at the hotel, the VC assault team acquired ARVN uniforms on the black market, studied the officers’ mannerisms, their speaking style, and even how they smoked – and were thus able to infiltrate the building with their deadly cargo.

Meanwhile standing on the street as Vietnamese police and fire fighters responded, the two lingys could see “the floors buckled upward, re-bar and all, from the blast and ground floor walls now skeletal.”*** It was evident that anyone above the explosion would certainly be dead and, indeed, two were, plus 107 wounded.

Afterward, one of the GIs got cleaned up, changed his blackened uniform, and continued out on the town to celebrate Christmas Eve as initially intended. Therein lies the story of how Americans grew accustomed to VC violence as part of the Saigon landscape in the midst of war, but more on this further on.

The new year of 1965 – the fateful date of President Johnson’s major escalation of the US commitment to the Vietnam War – was another deadly period for American citizens in and about the capital of SVN. Responding to the first sustained US bombing attacks on NVN, dubbed ‘Rolling Thunder’, the VC hit the US embassy killing and wounding Americans, but far more Vietnamese who worked at the compound; in all, the attack left 23 dead and 183 wounded.

Wrecked interior of US Embassy, Saigon, March 1965

 However by far the most spectacular attack of the VC Saigon campaign took place in June ’65 – by which time Rolling Thunder had been backed up by the first waves of US combat troops who had already begun to engage the highly mobile and elusive VC battalions in the boonies. The site of the dramatic assault was the My Canh, a glamorous and popular floating restaurant aboard a boat tethered to a dock on the Saigon River mainly frequented by Americans and wealthy Vietnamese.

It was a two-part VC op – first a grenade was tossed into the restaurant during the dinner hour, predictably causing consternation. Then, as dazed and wounded diners rushed to shore over the boat’s gangplank, an electronically controlled Claymore anti-personnel mine (which fires metal balls 110 yards in a wide killing arc), planted in the riverbank, was remotely detonated causing mass casualties: 32 killed, 42 wounded.

Assisting victims at My Canh floating restaurant, June 1965

A US sailor helping rescue people, shocked to see blood everywhere and so many body parts, subsequently commented, “Saigon was no rear area. It was a very dangerous place.” But should we conclude that the large American community in Saigon was cowed and intimidated by the rash of well-aimed, lethal VC terror attacks in the city – no, according to a good friend of Jeff’s who was there for a number of years, first as a GI and then as a civilian contractor. He and everyone he knew had a personal story of a near miss, and certainly on those occasions emotions swirled, but fear was not one of them.

On the contrary, he told me, a backdrop of violence was a part of the fabric of daily life in the city, a feature of the urban scene in a country being torn apart by a raging war. Young American GIs either based in Saigon or there on furlough, accepted the explosions as a condition of life in a wartime capital and did not allow the bombs and grenades to change their routines or divert them from the city’s pleasures.

One could chalk it up to the conviction of invincibility among the young – it won’t happen to me – or perhaps recall similar reactions among many civilians who survived WWII London and Berlin. Both cities were savagely and relentlessly attacked by vast fleets of bombers, but life went on amidst the death and destruction and, in fact, a little defiantly in both wartime capitals. Sure, English and German children alike were sent to the countryside for safety and Berliners and Londoners of course took to the bomb shelters during air raids, but during intervals people shopped, ate meals, made love, and much else of the routines that define 'the human condition' even in times of crisis.

Back in Saigon during the war, a terrorist incident a few years later perhaps best illustrates the response to routine violence as part of the texture of everyday life. A couple of American civilians lived down the block from a Filipino aid mission – housed in a building protectively wrapped in anti-grenade fencing with a small guard post in front. There were a couple of small openings through which the sentry could fire if attacked.

Waiting for a taxi one evening, the Americans saw a speeding motorcycle with a Vietnamese teenager on the back go flying by the Filipino building as the passenger tried unsuccessfully to hurl a grenade through the firing slit of the guard post. It bounced off the fencing harmlessly and exploded in the street as the guard opened fire on the fleeing cycle.

Coincidentally, a week later to the day and hour, the Americans were again at the cab stand and witnessed an identical failed attack. Again the duo escaped unscathed. Word got around among Americans in the neighborhood, and every Tuesday at 7 PM they’d gather on a protected portico to watch the same scene repeat itself – for six straight weeks until on the seventh try, the guard finally managed to take down the teenage cao bồi, cowboys, ending the weekly entertainment.

By ’66 US security had greatly increased in capital, and by then local VC priorities were changing as their units increasingly faced large, well-armed US combat forces on search & destroy missions in the Saigon region. Although VC urban terrorism had taken a significant toll in life and limb, its intended psychological impact on Americans who served or worked in Saigon fell far short of VC expectations.

Saigon remained a dangerous posting throughout the Vietnam War, but of course the danger there paled in comparison to the extraordinary hazards and the appalling loss of life on both sides of the conflict elsewhere in war ravaged Vietnam.

Links to music videos

*Personal communication (8/1/13) from a Vietnam GI buddy and good personal friend of my late brother Jeff Sharlet – to whom I am greatly indebted for his help on the memoir project.

**Quoted in A Study of the Use of Terror by the Viet Cong (prepared by the Military Assistance Command, Nha Trang, South Vietnam, May 1966), 36. Declassified 5/1/78.

***Personal communication of 8/1/13 from Jeff Sharlet’s GI buddy and good friend.




  1. Hi Karen,

    I read this post with great fascination -- I'm a historian in Saigon right now on a Fulbright fellowship, and I'm working on a book about Saigon during the war. I'd love to talk with you! Would you be open to a conversation about Jeff and his experiences in the city? I actually wrote a chapter about the GI antiwar movement in my book, "Beyond Combat: Women and Gender in the Vietnam War Era." Thanks for this blog! ~ Heather Stur

    1. Hi Heather:

      Thanks for your comment to which Bob Sharlet replied by email a few days ago. Check your Inbox for the relevant information you will want. We're very glad to be of help.

      I was in Vietnam and Cambodia last spring and cannot begin to explain how much it meant to see it all first hand. You might get an idea reading the post I did on seeing the War Remnants Museum.

      I've been to your Web site and the SMU page. You are to be admired for your accomplishments! Many congratulations on the Fulbright!

    2. PS Link to the post is

  2. That's me 2nd from left carrying that dead Vietnamese girl

    1. It is astonishing to meet you, Jim. Until now you were just a nameless face in a long ago photo. Knowing your name, I was able to read your description of the dreadful event in an online forum. It must haunt you to this day.


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