In the fall of 1968, I was a U.S. Army first lieutenant roaming the helicopter pad behind Army headquarters at Long Binh, about 20 miles northeast of Saigon. Low-slung UH-1 “Huey” helicopters and “Loaches,” the nickname for OH-6 Cayuse light observation copters, squatted in the faint morning mist like slugs hunkered down in a garden back home.
I needed a ride to Saigon, or more specifically, to Tan Son Nhut Air Base to link up with my college buddy, Air Force 1st Lt. Mike Buss, who worked on the air base. It was Thursday, Nov. 28, and time for a couple of Iowa boys to get together for some Thanksgiving dinner.
At Long Binh, I oversaw an eight-man Army night crew tasked with ensuring all U.S. ammunition in South Vietnam was accounted for. After spending some 119 consecutive workdays with my crew of bullet counters, my bosses at the 1st Logistical Command Ammunition Directorate were agreeable to a junket to the city if I could squeeze it in between a couple of night shifts.
Naturally, Vietnam is not a typical first choice for an American Thanksgiving celebration, and an Air Force lieutenant is not normally one’s first choice of a companion for such a family-oriented occasion. Yet at that time, I couldn’t have done much better. Mike and I had been close friends all the way back to the first day of our freshman year at South Dakota State University in Brookings. We had been next-door neighbors in the dorm. Mike achieved a sort of star status as he became the starting tight end on the Jackrabbit football team and starting catcher on the baseball team.
Between football and baseball seasons, Mike and I formed our own team, so to speak, manning the giant cowbell at Jackrabbit basketball games.
At the time, all male students at South Dakota State were required to enroll in Army or Air Force ROTC their first two years. Completing the optional final two years resulted in a second lieutenant’s commission. Although not especially “gung ho,” Mike and I enrolled in the advanced courses and became commissioned officers. Despite graduating at different times and joining different services, extraordinary coincidences put us both in Vietnam in mid-1968, literally “just down the road” from each other.
At 7:30 a.m. on the Long Binh helipad that Thanksgiving Day, the morning sun struggled through a blanket of wet mist that permeated the low bunkers on the base’s perimeter and the scraggly jungle beyond. This haze gave the helipad a soggy look. Adding to the dense atmosphere, pungent exhaust spewed from several Hueys and Loaches preparing for takeoff.
Wandering across the helipad brought me to a Huey bound for Tan Son Nhut with one empty seat. After verifying that the seat was truly and unequivocally empty and not needed for official business, I hopped aboard.
The trip between Saigon and Tan Son Nhut was a “milk run” for Huey pilots—a nice secure route operating close to banker’s hours. We called the soldiers at the controls VIP pilots. Assignment to those flights gave air assault pilots a chance to relax after combat duty. With no one shooting at us and our destination being a nice civilized airport, the Huey ride was a joyous experience. The air was cool, and the Vietnam countryside was spectacular. However, since this was wartime, I kept a sharp eye out for “bad guys.” At one point I spotted a couple of fellows clad in black “pajamas”—what we called the pajamalike work clothes of Vietnamese peasants—sneaking along a riverbank. I pointed out these obvious Viet Cong to the nearby door gunner, but he refused to shoot.
Tan Son Nhut Air Base was a hub for troops en route to destinations in country and out. Mike worked in the base’s radar dome, a short walk from the helipad. The “radome,” as it was called, had strict security, but all I had to do was mention Mike’s name to the air policeman at the door. After Mike arrived, we exchanged high-fives and walked to one of the radar screens.
Mike’s radar operation was dubbed “Paris Control” (he wasn’t sure why). He and his cronies were the bosses of the airspace for the greater Saigon area. No one entered “Paris Control” airspace without their permission. We observed the meanderings of various aircraft and eventually focused on three B-52 bomber blips as they lined up for a bombing run in South Vietnam’s Central Highlands.
Then we hiked to Mike’s off-base apartment. The Air Force leased several hotels for its staff to live in. While the view left something to be desired, Mike’s apartment seemed to me to define luxury. It was also relatively safe. According to Mike, the only action that had occurred nearby was a nasty little firefight between two Air Force security guards who mistook each other for Viet Cong.
Departing Mike’s billet, we boarded a couple of bicycle rickshaws for a short ride to the Continental Palace Hotel for Thanksgiving dinner. The Palace was the place to be in 1968 Saigon. It was a common watering hole for news journalists—with Mike and I and many Army green suits mixed in on this day. There were also civilians of many stripes.
The huge dining area was on the top floor of the four-story hotel and offered an impressive view of the city. The top floor also provided one other feature especially dear to lovers of fine dining—its high altitude made it impossible for Viet Cong zipping by on one of the ubiquitous small Honda motorcycles to toss grenades into the room.
The Palace served a magnificent Thanksgiving buffet with all the trimmings—turkey, dressing, mashed potatoes and gravy, 10 different vegetables and five desserts. Dining with Mike was the closest I could possibly get to a family dinner on this other side of the planet so far from home. We had a lot to be thankful for.
After the meal Mike and I thumbed for a ride to our two primary destinations: the U.S. Embassy and the Army Post Exchange store in Cholon, an area of Saigon where many Vietnamese of Chinese descent lived. We were picked up by a couple of Korean troops who spoke no English—except for “American Embassy” and “Cholon PX.”
The US. Embassy became the focus of world attention earlier in the year. During the notorious communist Tet Offensive that began across South Vietnam on Jan. 31, 1968, a 19-man Viet Cong commando team, mounted in a truck and a sedan, drove past a South Vietnamese security screen and blew a hole in the wall around the embassy grounds, where the invaders intended to hold out as long as possible, although they made no attempt to breach the embassy building itself. After about six hours of fighting, U.S. Marine security guards and Army military policemen squelched the attack, killing 18 VC and capturing one. Five Americans were killed.
The media reported all this excitement back to the States, making the embassy a subject of intense interest to everyone, including myself. Despite the heavy security, I managed to stroll through the back gate to take a look while Mike waited outside. There was considerable activity in the embassy courtyard to keep the MP screening visitors busy while I gazed around and took a couple of photographs. He did eye me off and on and eventually took notice of my lack of progress inward or outward. Eventually he approached and asked, “What are you doing here?” “Nothin,’” I answered. He replied: “You need to get out of here!”
GET HISTORY’S GREATEST TALES—RIGHT IN YOUR INBOX
Subscribe to our HistoryNet Now! newsletter for the best of the past, delivered every Monday and Thursday.
I exited the embassy grounds without undue ceremony and rejoined Mike. We got a couple of cooperative soldiers to take us on a drive-by tour of South Vietnamese government buildings. By then, there wasn’t sufficient time left to shop at the Cholon PX, so we called it a day. Because the Tan Son Nhut VIP Huey flights avoided nighttime trips we needed to hustle back to the air base to make sure I caught a flight. We got a ride straightaway, but a bit of an unusual one: Mike and I found ourselves ensconced in a steel cage mounted on the back of a military truck.
My Huey flight back to Long Binh arrived in plenty of time for my usual 12-hour night shift. Naturally after being awake for well over 24 hours, a few catnaps were in order, at least until the depot reports started streaming into our office around midnight. I must say that despite my lack of sleep I still maintained my high standards of bullet counting. V
Jim Van Eldik is a retired Army lieutenant colonel. He was discharged from active duty following his Vietnam tour and shortly afterward was assigned to an Army Reserve unit. He returned to active duty in 1983 and retired in 1995.