Heading back to Sàigòn from Vũng Tàu, we drive by the place where Long Bình used to be. Our itinerary promises “stopping at the former US Army Depot at Long Bình, once the largest US Army facility, now a light industrial park.” But we never stop, and as far as I can tell, there isn’t any “there” there at which to stop anyway. A few miles before where it was, Ed asks me if I would mind being a guest lecturer.
“I left my lecture notes at home,” I say.
Ed grins and says they don’t want much, just, “What was it like to be there?”
For the next few miles, I think about that. What was it like, being there?
I’m not sure I know, when you come right down to it. In 1970, two years after Tết, we could drive anywhere incountry we wanted to as long as it was during daylight hours. I was stationed at Củ Chi the last ten months of my year incountry. During that time I made the trip to Long Bình twice, or more, each week; we had to take dispatches and forms to company HQ, pick up dispatches and orders, sometimes new people, and drive back.
In order for US military personnel to drive on the highways of Việt Nam, we were required to have at least two people in the vehicle, both armed. Once in a while I drove, but I mostly rode shotgun in the Jeep, taking pictures. Instead of an M16, I preferred to carry an M79 grenade launcher.
The rounds for the M79 were about the size of a chicken egg; they didn’t have any of those in the museum in Sàigòn where I took the left-hand picture above. I carried extra rounds with me by wearing a lightweight vest with little pouches sewn all over the front; I’d tuck in a few rounds and off we’d go. I felt pretty safe walking around with enough firepower to level a small village.
This isn’t me, but Alan Ormond, stationed with me at Củ Chi. He’s holding my M79 and wearing my vest. For some reason, we called it a “Mae West vest,” but Mae West vests are actually inflatable flotation devices—life preservers, that is. In the picture, Alan isn’t wearing boots because we had to wax and polish the floor once a week to be prepared for inspections from the occasional General, and we didn’t want the polished linoleum marred with scuff marks. Our Company CO, Captain Haeffner, would come for a visit now and then, but he didn’t care if we spitshined our toilets or not.
In the pre-Tết war, the trip could have taken as long as two days and an armored convoy to travel the fifty miles between the two bases. In 1970, it took an hour and a half. The only reason it took that long was because the roads weren’t great, and there was no direct route. Trying to trace out how we must have gone on a DOD map of the era hasn’t been completely successful. Highway 8A is certain, crossing the Sông Sàigòn, barely ten feet wide, at the Phú Cường Bridge where a sign read “STOPPING THROUTH RED SIGNAL DISOBEY MUST BE KILLED,” and the guard had a bazooka.
From there, there were at least three different ways to go. LTL 1A over to QL 313 went through Phú Lồi and on through downtown Biên Hòa, which would have been fairly slow. QL 13 headed South toward Dĩ An, joined up with 363, where we could cross the Sông Đồng Nai on a combined car and train bridge, but that was an even slower route. Luckily, we never had to wait for trains; as far as I know, the track was not in use.
The route we took most often also went past Dĩ An, but came back to 313 and crossed the river to join up with 316. That way was further, but not as slow, because we weren’t fighting city traffic. In 1970, many of the roads we drove to Long Bình ran through places with very few people, or places with a single house instead of an entire village.
In 1970, you could see the horizon. In 2002, it was hard to spot until we went North, away from the megapolis that is Sàigòn and Củ Chi, or West, to Tây Ninh. In 1970, intersections like the one below were common.
Today, the population in the area has doubled, maybe tripled. Once-empty spaces are now filled with shoulder-to-shoulder buildings; there are trees everywhere, everyone is on the power grid and everyone's got a TV antenna. Shell's been thrown out, but the bridge in Biên Hòa over the Sông Đồng Nai is still in use today, even being used by trains.
In 1969, when I was in basic training, Trains magazine ran a two-part article on rail travel in Việt Nam which listed all the active stretches of track South of the DMZ. Very few miles of the system were in operating condition, and they couldn’t charge very much for the tickets. People could ride for free if they rode in a flatcar pushed ahead of the engine, but that was the car that was supposed to trigger any mines on the tracks so that the locomotive wouldn’t be damaged.
The picture above shows an industrial locomotive near Tân Sơn Nhất; I assumed it was made by either GE or Plymouth, but now I think it might be a French make, in which case it might be similar to this one. It’s blurry because I took it from a great distance and enlarged it digitally, but it’s the only picture I have of any railway equipment from 1970 (besides, “it is not the photographer’s fault”). In 2002, I get to photograph a GE U8B export locomotive, between Mỹ Lai and Mỹ Sơn. The U-series, often called “U-Boats,” are some of the most durable locomotives ever made, the smaller ones having been in continuous production by General Electric for at least forty years. It's possible that this locomotive has been in service since 1963, when the first 20 were imported.
In 1970, once we were past the combination rail/auto bridge and on the other side of Biên Hòa, we came back to QL 1, which was where the gate into Long Bình was. In the picture of the off-limits, permanent market below, I took the picture from Highway 1, while the road that’s leading off to the right is TL 316. The tall watchtower across the road is inside the Long Bình Jail compound. The sign tacked up on the telephone pole gives contact information for those planning to marry or adopt Vietnamese nationals.
Long Bình, the largest US base incountry had a population of near 60,000, the size of a small city. Some of those 60,000 were women.
“The military, which prided itself on the records it kept in Vietnam—counting the enemy number of weapons captured, for example—cannot to this day say with certainty how many women served. The army that sent them never bothered to count them. The estimate most frequently given is that a total of 7,500 served in the military in Vietnam.”—Laura Palmer, Shrapnel in the Heart.
Women who were in the Army, whether enlisted or commissioned officers, were given dog tags reading, “M” to deliberately obscure their gender. Women, so the reasoning apparently goes, were prohibited from serving in combat zones; thus, if you were to serve in Việt Nam and you were female, you had to be listed as a “paperwork male.”
People who know that women were incountry during the American War often make the mistake of assuming that all of them were nurses. But there were Donut Dollies (American Red Cross volunteers), enlisted women, Special Services, the USO, the CIA. There were journalists and photographers and missionaries. Eight women died under circumstances that got their names inscribed on the Wall, but the civilians and the Donut Dollies and flight attendants who also died didn’t even get that.
The bottom line is that a government which counted ears taken and rounds expended doesn’t have a clue how many women served in Việt Nam in all capacities. Estimates for the total range from a low of 7,000 to over 20,000. I can think of no other statistic from the 60s and 70s that states so plainly and unequivocally that women were the second sex.
Incoming never stopped before it hit and warned civilians and non-combatants and women to get out of the way first. Rockets could, and did, take women as easily as men. Some of the women who served suffered Agent Orange exposure, reaping cancers and stillborn or damaged children. Some of them experience the same level of PTSD as combat soldiers. How would you hold up in a Military Hospital where at any moment a boy barely out of his teens could be dumped on a stretcher in front of you with his guts hanging out or his genitals blown off? PTSD sufferers weren’t confined to the nurses, either. One of the most harrowing jobs incountry was outprocessing for the bodies; someone had to go through the body bags and try to match the parts with the dog tags, to inventory the hunks of meat to make sure that some next of kin didn’t accidentally get two left feet or three eyeballs.
To learn more about Women in Việt Nam, visit http://www.illyria.com/vnwomen.html.
When we were there, we hardly saw American women, or “round-eyes,” except in centerfolds, as pin-ups, or as attention-getters, such as you see on the sign below. Once, on my way to the Củ Chi PX, I ran into two enlisted women. I saluted them, which is something I only did incountry in order to make trouble. They laughed, returned my salute and kept on walking.
In 1970 Long Bình you saw hardly any trees and much dirt. What trees there were were mingy and skeletal, or “exotics” like palms and banana trees.
In 1970 Củ Chi, it was clear that the way the base camps were built was to start with bare earth. All trees that stood higher than the buildings had grown up since the Army Corps of Engineers had levelled the place.
Long Bình had businesses, and even fewer trees than Củ Chi. Fast food concessions and gift shops were everywhere on the base, usually near barber shops and local PXs. The hamburgers we ate at the concessions weren’t that great (and were sometimes green), but then, most of us soldiers were kids, 18 to 22 years old, and had no taste anyway. There were snackmobiles, offering the convenience of having your favorite cigarettes delivered almost to your door. Everyone smoked. Cigarettes were $2.00 a carton in the PX.
I never did manage to get a picture of the main PX at Long Bình, but it was just across the street from Finance Center East, where I finally got paid after three weeks incountry.
I had two months pay in my pocket when I walked over to the main PX the first time. I bought ice cream outside and ate it sitting at a picnic table in the shade. Then I went into the PX building itself, looking for books and smokes. Since it was payday for everyone, not just me, the place was crammed. I got jammed up next to the camera counter; I’d had no intention of going there, I only wanted cigarettes. The tall skinny fellow next to me asked the Vietnamese woman behind the counter for a particular camera. When she handed it to him, he took it out of the box and looked through the viewfinder. “I’ll take it,” he said, and dug in his pocket for some MPC. We were paid in cash once a month until mid-1971, when soldiers could elect direct deposit.
I looked at the camera in his hands. “Is that a good camera?” I asked.
He grinned hugely. “One of the best,” he said.
“I’ll take one too,” I told the clerk. “Just like his.” It cost me $137, less than a third of what it would have in the States. I didn’t even have to pay sales tax. I didn’t have a clue how to use it.
Long Bình had a steam bath and a country club for General Officers only. In 2002, when I mention the country club, Steven says that he knows the person who was the liquor officer for the club. I bet the generals went through their booze pretty quickly; it must’ve been hard work, playing golf and bossing the troops around all day.
Long Bình also had barracks and Headquarters, acres and acres of both.
Company B, 369th Signal Battalion Headquarters
View of Company B HQ Antenna and Barracks
View of Company B HQ Barracks, a.k.a. hooches
1st Signal Brigade HQ
Around the perimeter were the places where human waste was burned by military order in the interests of sanitation. Diesel fuel and insecticide were poured into the full barrels and set on fire, yielding great clouds of thick black smoke. The combination of fuel and bug-killer smelled like rotten grapefruit; when the heavy greasy odor of burning feces was added, the smell became nearly lethal..
Somewhere near the edge of Long Bình, looking across a motorpool at BOQ (Bachelor Officer’s Quarters). Officer’s quarters were never called “hooches.”
The best thing about Long Bình, at least from my viewpoint, was that it had restaurants. So did Củ Chi—well, one, anyway, but it wasn’t nearly as good as the Loon Foon. When we brought dispatches, we would usually manage to be there around lunch time. The pictures below weren’t taken by me; possibly I was in too much of a hurry to get inside to mess around taking pictures of the outside. It was, after all, air conditioned.
A guest book entry for the 24th Evac, written by a Joe Turner, says, “I was at the 24th Evac from: 71-72. I see a lot of entries about the Foon Loon Restaurant, which was a real nice escape and morale-builder at the Long Bình Slums. But it was called The Mandarin House when I was there.”
Loon Foon picture © by who knows? I didn’t take this
picture but I’d sure like to know who did.
Mandarin House © Jay Brown
The Loon Foon was where I learned how to use chopsticks. I’d imagine that a lot of GIs learned there, too, in self-defense. The Vietnamese waitresses would bring hot towels for you to wipe your hands and face on, thrusting them at you on the end of bamboo tongs with imperial authority. You weren’t allowed to refuse the towels. The waitresses would take your order and bring your food back almost immediately. They were huge portions, the size that you can get now at the Twin Dragons restaurant in Cheyenne. But you wouldn’t get any silverware unless you asked for it, and asking for it was a big begunza, as they say in Brazil. You would ask. The waitress would glare at you and disappear into the kitchen. Your food would come out and everyone else would pick up their chopsticks and start eating. Five minutes later, two Vietnamese women would march out and look at you and talk to each other. They might even giggle. “Fork,” you would say, miming eating with one. Back to the kitchen where, I imagined, they would look through the pile of unwashed, crusty forks discarded from Army mess halls, find one and scrape most of the large bits off. Your fork would arrive just in time for your fellow diners to have finished, whereupon they would sit around waiting for you to finish your cold food. “Oh, don’t hurry,” they would say. “Take your time.”
Pretty soon even the most stubborn GI would yield and learn to use chopsticks. You might be completely inept, but at least you had a chance of keeping up with your friends.
After lunch, it would be time to leave the base. Every exit from Long Bình had a sign like that below. A black-and-white version of this picture appeared in a 1970 issue of the Illinois Department of Transportation magazine; my father sent it in, and it remains my only photograph published in hard-copy form.
Exiting the gate, we’d turn left and usually take a different road back.
In 1970, the way we often took back to Củ Chi, through Bien Hoa, would go by the National Military Cemetery and its associated statue, “The Mourning Soldier.” The Statue was pulled down by the communists in 1975 and destroyed. The cemetery is apparently still there, but the “communists hung on the gate a board on which people read ‘Here the False Army soldiers were punished for their crimes’.”
In 2002, we pass Trần Hưng Đạo park; soon thereafter, the bus slows to a crawl and Ed hands me the mike. “Tell us about Long Bình,” he says.
“The Conveyance which Runs by Fire” appeared in Trains, March 1969, page 20; and “Railroading Where the Competition is a War” in Trains, April 1969, page 36, both by Jerry A. Pinkepank and Paul S. Stephanus.
Twin Dragons restaurant, 1809 Carey Ave., Cheyenne, WY 82007, ph 307-637-6622. “This Mandarin Chinese Restaurant offers ten vegetarian entrees including tofu dishes, Broccoli and Garlic Sauce, vegetable Lo Mein, Chow Mein, and Veggie Egg Rolls.”
Other stories about Long Bình, by someone who was stationed there, can be found at http://www.henrybechtold.freewebspace.com/index.html
More locomotives of the world can be found at http://www.locopage.net/index.htm.
Information about The National Military Cemetery and The Wandering Statue
Main web site: http://www.pauahtun.org