The sandbagging of our hooch that had been a nightly ritual was finally over and I settled into the routine of a normal twelve-hour work day. My first military payday was behind me and it was quite an educational experience. I never realized what an enormous task it is to disburse over five million dollars in cash, to military personnel spread out over the entire Mekong Delta.
It has been said that the American soldier is the best equipped, best fed, best paid, most complaining, finest fighting man, the world has ever known. Good morale is also vital in making him the finest and that depends in part, on timely paydays. 9th Division policy was to pay the troops on payday, the first day of the month, no matter what they were doing, or where. So, wherever they were, that's where we went to pay them.
Around the twentieth of the month, a contingent of eight to ten men would go to Saigon to pick up the money for the division payroll. Normally, two of the men were officers and the rest were enlisted men who acted as bearers, counters and armed guards. The men with infantry backgrounds were normally selected for this task. However, since it was a break from the everyday routine the competition was keen for the assignment and it was often used as a reward for good behavior. Similar to the way a three day pass was used in the States.
Saigon was known as the "Pearl of the Orient" during its occupation by France. Now, it looked like anything but a gem as we rode through the crowded streets. Thousands of people milled ceaselessly on foot, on bicycles and motor scooters, or in little cars that reminded me of those driven by Shriners in a Christmas parade. The traffic was like a massive living organism, snaking its way through the streets, ever growing as it devoured those who approached to enter its flow. The din of engine noise and honking horns was this creatures' roar and the thick, two-cycle engine, exhaust smoke was its overpowering breath.
Entire families were riding on a single motor scooter or bicycle with the deftness of trained circus acrobats. Papa-san would drive and mama-san would ride on the seat behind him, holding a toddler and supporting an infant in a carrier on her back. The wire luggage rack over the back fender often carried two more children while the oldest son rode in his position of preference on the handlebars, and number-two son, normally occupied the front fender. In like fashion each vehicle was loaded to over capacity, as if there were some unofficial contest to see who could stuff the most passengers in or on a motor vehicle. I remembered in high school how we packed people in a VW "beetle," during one of the fads of the early Sixties. Our best efforts were "everyday" to the Vietnamese people.
Soldiers from every free-world country involved in the conflict could be seen milling through the throngs of civilians. They moved in and out of the little shops along the street, huddled around street vendors or were surrounded by the kids who constantly circulated to beg or peddle contraband.
Those carrying packages, going from shop to shop, were normally new in-country and only interested in souvenirs to send home to mom and dad, wife or girlfriend. The silk kimonos and pajamas that were standard, everyday, apparel in Nam were irresistible to send home, even though no American woman in her right mind would be caught dead in them. Surely, dad appreciated the silk smoking jacket with the forearm length sleeves, and embroidery dragon on the back, though no one remembers his wearing it.
It is strange how quickly one's perspective is altered by his surroundings. Sending those articles home was the equivalent of those at home sending us another baggy, green uniform to wear, but I guess most of us wanted to share our experience with those at home in as pleasant a way as possible, and sending home kimonos filled that need. After all, it's the thought that counts and what else could we send? Hand grenades!
The soldiers haggling with the street vendors were taking advantage of the black market to procure items that were unavailable through normal channels or to buy them at a reduced price. In a sense, the ration card system we were under promoted this black market. If a person's ration card was punched for a particular item, the black market was the only source of supply for additional items. Jewelry, watches and cameras were in high demand and the street market always had an unlimited supply.
Strangely, choice cuts of beef packed in USDA boxes were always available even though soldiers in units like the 9th, were served beef on very few occasions. Chicken, turkey and lamb were the standard fare for combat units. I often wondered why we never had steaks while the black marketplace always seemed to have them. The rumor I heard was that the people who disbursed the rations held back the steaks to trade with the Vietnamese, for the pleasures of life they wanted. No matter how the civilians got them, we knew where we had to go to buy steaks when we wanted them.
For special occasions, like holidays, when someone we could trust was going to town, we would take up a collection to have him buy a box of meat for us. We would roast it over an open fire, hustle up a few cases of beer and have a party to celebrate. Actually, it was just another excuse to get drunk; to numb the senses and pass the time. None of us really felt as if we had anything to celebrate. Holidays just gave us more time to think about home, that we were separated from our families and friends in the States, and how much we missed everything we were forced to leave. Next to Charlie, time to think, was our worst enemy and we saw a lot of that enemy during holiday periods.
Piaster swapping was also among the activities of the black market, utilized to make a few extra dollars for personal expenses. The street vendors were often the contacts for these clandestine transactions that involved buying piasters on base with MPC and exchanging the piasters with the Vietnamese for MPC they had taken as payment for goods or services. The piaster was the unit of money in Vietnam and the official exchange rate was between 80 and 90 per US dollar.
However, the US Government in an effort to bolster the local economy gave GI's around 120 piasters per dollar, which if traded to the Vietnamese, even at the official rate, netted a 33% profit. However, shrewd haggling normally resulted in exchanges of 50 piasters per dollar, which was a whopping 140% profit and to some soldiers worth the minimal risk of being caught.
Drugs, particularly marijuana and some sort of opium derivative, were also readily available and in high demand. Pot was sold by the carton in regular cigarette packages and looked as if it had been packed by an American tobacco company. Regulars, kings and filter tips were available in any brand packaging for around ten dollars a carton. The Vietnamese would carefully open the packages in a carton of cigarettes, remove the tobacco from the cigarettes and replace it with marijuana. They were so skillful that it was impossible to tell with the naked eye that the package had been opened. Even if the military had been concerned, which it did not seem to be, it would have been very difficult to distinguish between the clever fakes and real cigarettes.
The opiate was painted on the joints for an apparent knock out charge. One cigarette painted with the stuff was sufficient to send six or seven people into space for a couple of hours. However, the landing must have been rough. After watching the result in others, not too many tried it and those who did, rarely more than once. Those who did go back for seconds or thirds were unable to quit on their own and they became progressively more dependent on the stupefying effects until they were caught and "shipped out."
I supposed the Army sent them to a hospital for drug treatment but I never knew for sure. Some said they were given a court-martial, imprisoned and dishonorably discharged. I hoped not, though their behavior was irresponsible and their wounds self inflicted, they were still casualties of a war they did not want to fight. Also, they were not too different from those who used alcohol for the same reasons and then went home to find the bottle was not easy to put away. True, no one was forced to drink or do drugs, and I have to agree it should not happen. However, not every young person in his late teens or early twenties has whatever it takes to face the threat of death from a faceless enemy in a foreign land, for reasons he does not understand, without the support of family and friends. Or, to watch his comrades die and to suffer the physical hardships of war without a crutch of some kind. They did not need pity. They did not need punishment. They needed help.
As we pulled in front of the building where we would be staying while we received and counted the Division payroll money, I noticed that the buildings were built very wide with very little depth. They were only one room and a hallway deep so that each room in the building had a front street exposure. From the front, the buildings looked huge but from the side they looked tall and slender as if they would topple in a stiff wind. I wondered how long they would last in a VC mortar attack. "Nothing to worry about," I told myself. "This beehive doesn't look like it's ever been disturbed. If it weren't for all the olive green uniforms and equipment, no one could guess this is a combat zone."
Inside the hotel it was less obvious that we were in a combat zone. Civilian clothes appeared to be the uniform of the day since only those of us who had just arrived had on military uniforms. American men lounged around the lobby conversing with each other or with under-dressed Vietnamese women, who looked at them as if longing for the next words out of the men's mouths. Almost everyone had a mixed drink or beer and an overall party atmosphere permeated the building with the strains of music coming from a bar and dance floor at the far end of the hotel. "Rough duty," I thought, as I looked around at the "Saigon Warriors" who were very obviously enjoying their tours in Nam. "Why aren't they slogging mud, building bunkers or otherwise suffering the hardships of this stinking place?" I wondered as I stared icily around the room. My glare caught the attention of two American men and a Vietnamese woman hanging on them. They nodded in my direction, chuckled to one another and walked to the far end of the room. They would not mind if this crazy war goes on forever I thought, they are not the ones sweating and dying.
After three days of counting, we loaded thirteen footlockers with money and headed back to Bearcat. I had never seen so much money, even if it was MPC and piasters. On the trip back, I kept thinking that our cargo was a much better reason to attack than the grains of rice Ho Chi Minh had mentioned. When we arrived at the base, I was relieved to be behind the berm and feel the security of that friendly island in the sea of rice paddies.
The next day, the money was disbursed to the various company pay officers throughout the division and I was assigned as a guard for one of those officers. This time we would travel in a helicopter, rather than by truck and with a much smaller amount of money to lug around, I was looking forward to the adventure as we boarded the chopper.
The aircraft crew and other passengers were apparently comfortable flying in the open compartment, but since I was in the outside seat and it was my first time up, I was a little nervous with the open door and the wind whipping at me. During my stateside training, I was instructed to fasten my seat belt before the aircraft took off, but seat belts were little used accessories in a combat zone, I discovered. Since everyone else appeared content to sit on their seat belt, I did the same.
I had contended with mild acrophobia for years. Consequently, as we climbed in altitude my palms began to sweat and I grasped the door post and seat edge with a death grip, wishing for the security of the seat belt around my waist. The door gunner noticed my obvious panic and was quick to point it out to the other crew members. He laughed and raised his arms over his head as if to say "look, no hands." I was more than a little embarrassed, so I quickly released my hand holds that were causing my knuckles to turn white and managed a slight shrug and grin to indicate that I was not bothered at all. Fortunately, we were then high enough that looking out the door had ceased to bother me and my stomach had removed itself from my throat to return to its rightful position.
Just as I felt I was back in control of my situation the pilot banked hard in my direction. This threw the chopper on its side with me looking straight down at the ground. Both my stomach and heart were in my throat as I clawed for a handhold, to keep from being thrown out the open door. Then, almost as quickly as the craft had banked over on its side, it straightened. Even through my fear, I could hear the laughter of passengers and crew above the drone of the engine and the rushing wind noise. The crew knew that centrifugal force would hold me in and my reaction was just as they had expected. I had been initiated and thankfully I did not need a change of underwear, though it was close.
A Year To Kill © 1989
Other Content © 1999
by James F. McColloch