Phước Vĩnh in 1964 was the capital of Phước Thành (“Happiness”) province and the headquarters of something called the PBT Special Zone, which started a few miles north of Saigon and extended all the way to the Cambodian border, a distance of eighty to a hundred miles depending on which part of the border you were going to.
I never quite figured out what was so “special” about this Special Zone, but I did learn that the letters PBT stood for the three provinces of Phuoc Long, Binh Long and Phuoc Thanh, as they were called at the time.
There are several places called Phuoc Vinh in Vietnam, but the one I’m talking about is at 11°17’57.97″ North, 106°47’33.08″ East, in the current province of Tinh Binh Duong (Tinh meaning “Province”).
I was stationed at Phuoc Vinh from July to October 1964 and again from March to the end of May 1965, both before and after my time in the lovely village of Tân Ba some twenty miles to the south.
Phuoc Vinh was not nearly as lovely as Tân Ba, but supposedly safer. At Phuoc Vinh we lived in an American compound, not in the village, and worked in a fortified South Vietnamese army compound across the road.
The photo above shows the American compound as seen from the ARVN (Army of the Republic of Vietnam) compound. In the foreground is a minefield which completely surrounded the ARVN compound, to protect the South Vietnamese Zone Commander presumably.
There really were mines in the minefield, as a young ARVN lieutenant found out to his detriment.
Aside from working shifts in the radio shack I also had to go out and shovel sand for the sandbags sometimes. This provided a bit of much needed exercise, and we were glad to have the sandbag emplacements to hide behind on those few occasions when there was some sort of shooting going on.
I arrived in Phuoc Vinh on July 24, 1964, after a twenty-minute flight from Saigon in the windowless belly of a two-engine “Caribou” aircraft.
Three days later I wrote a letter to my brother which read, in part:
I am living in a compound surrounded by foxholes, fences, barbed wire, mine fields and ARVN soldiers (ARVN = Army of the Republic of Vietnam, i.e. the good guys), all designed to keep out the VCs (VC = Viet Cong, i.e. the bad guys).
In contrast to Saigon, which is a madhouse, Phuoc Vinh is nice and quiet, except of course when the VCs start exploding things in the night — this they did the night before last: by coincidence the first explosion came just as the “The End” title of The Ugly American was fading off the screen in our day room. With Marlon Brando’s closing speech still ringing in our ears, we grabbed out helmets and weapons + ran to our positions; in my case, a mortar emplacement. We got out our ammunition, set up the mortar (which is sort of a miniature cannon pointed at an angle up into the sky in order to hit targets several hundred or thousand yards away), and waited.
Occasionally we could hear a few shots in the distance, from the direction of the air strip and the rubber plantation on the other side of the compound. From behind us, the ARVN people sent up a couple flares to light up the area and see what was going on; apparently nothing much was, because after 45 minutes or so we got the word to put the mortar away and go to bed.
They say this happens once or twice a month, on the average; if it should happen six times in any one month, we would all draw an extra $55.– “combat pay.”
Aside from such alerts, the place is very quiet. 8 hours a day, 7 days a week, I preside over a switchboard and three radios. I will have time to read, write and study, especially on evening and night shifts.
In a letter dated August 4, 1964, I wrote:
The land around Phuoc Vinh is flat, mostly jungle and rubber trees. This is supposedly the rainy season, but so far there have only been a few brief thundershowers. The Vietnamese say this is one of the driest rainy seasons in years. It’s hot here during the daytime but often gets down into the 70s at night, especially after a rain.
One of my main worries was lack of exercise:
We have a volleyball, but there’s a limit to the amount of volleyball you can play in 97 degree heat. (Can’t play at night on account of the VC.) I guess I’m just going to have to do calisthenics for a year.
In 1964 there were only thirty-five Americans in Phuoc Vinh, mostly officers and sergeants who were supposed to be “advising” their South Vietnamese counterparts of the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN). The only American enlisted men were the radio operators, like me, and a couple of clerk-typists. As I wrote in one of my letters:
I expected living conditions to be good here, and they are. There is no superfluous military harassment, no standing in lines, no KP, no guard duty, no inspections, no bed-making, no shoe-shining, no formations, no marching; no barracks, we live two to a room. In the dayroom there is a movie every evening, 16 mm but regular theater stuff and occasionally quite good. The Ugly American was well done and certainly pertinent.
[. . .] And last week they even had a full length film on the Vienna Boys’ Choir, as filtered through a mild saccharine solution by Walt Disney Productions; the title, Almost Angels, will give you a good idea how Disney did it; anyhow the music was impressive, especially some selections from a full-dress all-boy production of the Strauss operetta Wienerblut, which a major sitting next to me mistook for Gounod’s Faust. And when the films aren’t worth watching, there exists here a luxury that is conspicuously absent in most army camps: adequate light so that one can read without wrenching one’s eyeballs out of their sockets.
From another one of my letters:
I work eight hours a day, seven days a week, for a total of 56 per. We rotate shifts every week, from day shift (8 to 4, very busy) to evening shift (4 to 12, OK after the first couple hours) to night shift (12 to 8, nothing to it). This week I’m on the night shift; right now, for instance, it is 1:45 am in Phuoc Vinh and I have nothing particular to do besides drink coffee, write letters and study Vietnamese. Once an hour I talk to Saigon on the radio: “Hear your station loud and clear. Negative traffic. Over.”
But the day shift was indeed very busy:
Here in the commo shop we have a switchboard and three radios to play with, and one of the radios, sad to say, has a telegraph key where the microphone should go. This is highly annoying; you probably know that I hate Morse code with a passion. — — When you come right down to it, this whole commo shop is highly annoying during the day shift. My first few days here were reminiscent of the beginning of Yanco: bells ringing, birds screeching, people yelling, every imaginable discordant and unpleasant noise; after about thirty second, a close-up of Ricardo Anaconda’s ear, that’s the first you see of him; then his eye, then his full face and you see that he’s lying in bed, trying to sleep; then you see his ear again, the sounds get louder and more insistent, and finally he jumps up, claps his hands tightly over his ears, and runs out of the house and through the village, down to the shore where he jumps in his little boat and paddles frantically off to find someplace quiet. That’s what I felt like doing the first couple days in this madhouse: clapping my hands over me ears and moving out smartly. Even at night, when there’s nothing on the air but static, the noise level is high enough to be annoying; in the daytime, with the switchboard buzzing and all three radios belching forth numerous decibels of Morse code, static, clicking, humming, interference, teletype beeping, and ARVN stations cutting in on our frequencies, there is enough noise in here that you can feel your ears ache for hours after you go off duty. Under these circumstances, the charge I used to get out of operating radios is considerably diminished, to say the least.
We radio operators were allowed to trade shifts among ourselves, and I soon decided I preferred the evening shift, because it wasn’t as hectic as the day shift or as boring as the night shift.
Another advantage of the evening shift was that most of the “incidents” (things exploding) happened in the evenings, and when something was happening I preferred to be in the commo shop where I knew what to do, rather than out messing with mortars and such that I was not very competent with.
The other radio operators all preferred to watch the movies or play cards in the evenings, so I usually had no trouble finding someone to trade with. This had the additional advantage that I didn’t have to keep changing shifts every week, so I could keep up a more or less regular sleeping rhythm.
Later when I was a civilian again I wrote a story called Evenings in Europe and Asia, which took place partly in the Phuoc Vinh radio shack a.k.a. commo shop, though I changed all the names because the war was still going on. The story was originally published in the Summer 1972 issue of Prairie Schooner magazine and later appeared in three anthologies, two in the United States and one in Germany.
Despite being cooped-up in the compounds, I was in daily contact with Vietnamese waitresses, maids, soldiers, jeep drivers, etc., most of whom were quite friendly and eager to help me learn their language.
But the contacts between Americans and Vietnamese in the compounds were not always free of conflicts. In a letter to John Rechy on August 20, 1964, I wrote:
As you can imagine, the conduct of the Americans in the compound towards the Vietnamese maids and waitresses is none too exemplary. The waitresses especially are pinched, slapped, fingered and fondled continually, to say nothing of being yelled and cursed at. Occasionally one of the waitresses screams or bursts into tears, and then there is a moment of slight embarrassment, but only a moment. [. . .] Everyone wonders why the girls all seem to like me. “You always get the biggest piece of cake, you must be grabbing some ass back in the kitchen!” (Which of course is exactly what I was not doing.)
In a letter dated August 26, 1964, I wrote:
Last Monday I took my first trip out of Phuoc Vinh since I got here. The Colonel, who was going up north for the day to visit some installations, had an extra seat in his helicopter, so he let me come along for the ride. We traveled about 150 miles and made six stops including Bu Dop and Bujamap, two Special Forces camps right up by the Cambodian border, straight north of here. We saw Cambodia from the air, but of course couldn’t go over there.
This was my first helicopter ride, and I am now highly enthused about helicopters. Very smooth flight. We had a fantastic view from up there, especially since both of the big side doors were left wide open; this is standard procedure to facilitate possible machine-gunning of possible VCs. There is indeed lots of jungle in Vietnam, especially up towards the border.
[. . .] Bu Dop and Bujamap, the two Special Forces camps, resemble old-time frontier outposts. At Bu Dop there are 45 women at work digging a moat around the camp. For this they are each paid 50¢ per day. Otherwise the fortifications are of barbed wire. As we took off from Bu Dop, one Major said he wished he owned some stock in a barbed wire factory.
Bù Đốp is at 11°56’59.28″ North; 106°47’44.38″ East.
Bù Gia Mập is at 12°12’33.51″ North; 107° 9’1.58″ East.
Meanwhile, back at Phuoc Vinh, my friend Lai continues to teach me Vietnamese, and I continue to reciprocate by helping him with his English. He already reads and writes English well, but his pronunciation is atrocious, and that is what I am mainly helping him with. Lai looks exactly like the revolutionary leader Duong in the film The Ugly American; so much so it scares me sometimes. He is 26 years old, works here as a translator and holds the rank of sergeant in the ARVN, which pays him all of $30.– a month. We have been getting together very regularly one hour each day, ½ hour on each language. He has studied at the University of Saigon and the Vietnamese-American Association, and at one time was an elementary schoolteacher. He is a good tutor, and is very pleased that I am learning Vietnamese. Like most educated Vietnamese he can read French, used to speak it well but it now rather rusty.
All the interpreters like to speak French (Tiếng Pháp) with me. For a while I was even giving Spanish lessons, in French, to my friend Hùng who is an intuitive childlike language genius, at least as far as spoken languages are concerned. [. . .] Hùng is a good example of a fine interpreter (he speaks as well as sings flawless American English) who isn’t much use as a translator. He always complains when he has to sit in the office and translate documents; says it gives him headaches.
For my first three or four months in Vietnam I worked quite hard at learning Vietnamese, but I’m afraid I started to slack off after that, especially when I was no longer in Phuoc Vinh and had no one to teach me.
I did keep on using the rudimentary Vietnamese I had learned, but made no further progress after the first few months. (Which in retrospect I think is quite a shame.)