From October 1964 to March 1965 I was the lowest ranking member of a five-man American “advisory team” stationed in a small Vietnamese village called Tân Ba on the bank of the Dong Nai River.
At night we could see the lights of Biên Hòa air base across the river to the east, which seemed strange because we didn’t have any electricity in our village.
The composition of our “advisory team” varied from week to week, but basically it consisted of a major, a captain, two sergeants and me. It didn’t really seem like being in the army, since I was not in a platoon or company or anything like that. The five of us took turns standing guard at night, so I would wake up the major when it was his turn. Most nights were quiet, except once or twice a month on dark nights with no moon, when small groups of Viet Cong would sneak in and try to blow us up.
Except for those few dark nights I really loved Tân Ba. The people were friendly and we lived right there in the village with them, not fenced off in a compound. It was sort of like being in the Peace Corps except that we weren’t at peace.
Theoretically I was supposed to be the radio operator, but it soon turned out that I had a different function entirely, as I will explain shortly.
I arrived in Tân Ba by helicopter on October 16, 1964, and was met at the helicopter pad by the other American members of the “advisory team”.
They told me I had come at the safest time of the month, because tonight would be full moon, and the local Viet Cong preferred to operate under cover of darkness, not in bright moonlight.
They also told me that they hadn’t accomplished much of anything since their arrival a few weeks before. They were supposed to be “advising” the District Chief, an ARVN major who spoke no English and had thus far shown little interest in their advice.
But we were all invited to the District Chief’s house that evening for supper, and they were looking forward to that because he had a very good cook.
Since I had nothing else to do until suppertime, I got out my Vietnamese dictionaries and started working out the one sentence that I wanted to say to the District Chief.
This took me about an hour because my knowledge of Vietnamese was minimal. I had started learning a few words from the language cassettes at the base library back in Fort Knox, Kentucky. Later, when I was stationed at the zone headquarters at Phước Vĩnh, I traded lessons with one of the Vietnamese interpreters. For half an hour each day I helped him with his English, and in return he taught me the basics of Vietnamese.
He said the first and most important thing was to learn the tones. Vietnamese has six tones which change the meanings of the words completely, and the first hurdle for anyone trying to learn the language is to recognize the tones (I couldn’t even hear the difference at first), and then learn to reproduce them. So he drilled me on the tones for several weeks, and as a result I could already understand a few words and could even make myself understood at a very basic level.
When I had my one sentence worked out I practiced saying it a few times, making a special effort to get the tones right, and soon it was time to go up to the District Chief’s house for supper.
The District Chief, Major Giam, turned out to be a cocky little man with a beret on his head and several medals on his uniform shirt.
When I was introduced to him I took a deep breath and said the sentence I had been practicing in Vietnamese, which I hoped would mean: “Hello Mister Major, do you by any chance speak French?”
I must have produced the tones properly, because he grinned and replied in absolutely fluent French (much better than mine) that yes, he spoke French and had served in the French army for twenty-six years.
I didn’t get much to eat that first evening because it was my first try at eating with chopsticks and because I spent the whole time interpreting French-English and English-French.
Major Giam was delighted that he could speak French again and was no longer dependent on the incompetent ARVN interpreters, so at the end of the meal he suggested that we all come and eat with him twice a day and we could conduct all our business at mealtimes, with me interpreting. And he expected to be left alone the rest of the time, because he had work to do.
He was evidently satisfied that my French was up to the task, but I was acutely aware that I didn’t know the military terminology either in French or in English, so on my next visit to Saigon I bought a book called The Military Interpreter, Lexique Militaire Français-Anglais, which really did come in handy though it also included some funny bits. There was a section on “Landing operations” that included not only the obvious phrases like “Nous débarquons : We disembark” but also the sentence “Tâchons d’avoir l’air intelligent pour le film d’actualités : Let us try to look good for the newsreel (US).”
With all this interpreting at mealtimes I soon became very proficient at eating with chopsticks, otherwise I would have starved.
The leader of our little team was Major C., the Tan Ba District Advisor. Actually he was only a Captain when I first met him, but he was quickly promoted to Major, which was why he had volunteered for this assignment in the first place.
Just about every American I knew was promoted within a few months of arriving in Vietnam. Even I was promoted ahead of schedule from Pfc to Spec 4 (Private First Class to Specialist Fourth Class). I think it was Major C. who got me promoted so quickly, and before he left Vietnam he even put me in for a Bronze Star — not for bravery, of course, just meritorious service, but still.
(I had mixed feelings about that. On the one hand, I was glad to be appreciated. But on the other hand I had grown increasingly critical of the American involvement in Vietnam during my year there, so I wasn’t terribly proud to be a part of it.)
At Tân Ba I was well aware that I was lucky to have Major C. as my commanding officer. He was a pleasant and rational man, almost like a civilian. Unlike some of the other American majors in our zone, he did not take his subordinates on unnecessary and dangerous treks through the jungle.
He had two problems, however, with his assignment as District Advisor. The first was that he knew practically nothing about jungle warfare and was supposed to be “advising” a local major with twenty-six years experience in exactly that. His second problem was that he was nearly as terrified about being in a combat zone as I was, but unlike me he couldn’t admit it because he was a career officer who was supposed to be brave and fearless. (Being able to admit it is a big help, believe me.)
During his year in Vietnam he developed a stomach ulcer and his hair turned from jet black to completely white, though he was only in his thirties.
Though Major Giam did not want or need any “advice” from the likes of our Major C., he did want our help in getting supplies and equipment that he needed to fix the roads, build a dispensary and generally convince the local population that the South Vietnamese government was doing something for them.
Because of the rampant graft and corruption at the higher levels of the ARVN (Army of the Republic of Vietnam), hardly anything he ordered ever arrived down at the District level where it was needed. So what Major Giam wanted from our Major C. was for him to use the American chain of command to ensure that things like bulldozers and road rollers actually reached him and were not stolen on their way down the parallel ARVN chain of command.
Major C. accepted this role (better than having no function at all, I suppose) and in fact was quite successful in getting equipment and supplies delivered so that roads could be fixed and damaged buildings repaired.
My next post: Quartering of soldiers in Tân Ba, 1964