I can’t recall all the details except for the fact that there was a mass of confusion as hundreds of people were being processed both coming and going at the airport. After making my way through customs I figured I would get a cab and report to the Embassy. There were plenty of offers to give me a ride but when I started to go with one of the cab drivers an older Marine dressed in civilian clothes grabbed my arm and pulled me aside and said, “Are you Cpl Phenicie?” , “yes” I replied. He told me that he was from the Marine detachment at the Embassy and he was there to pick me up. Soon he and I were heading into the mass of traffic for down town Saigon.
From my perspective and observation the orient was completely different in every aspect. The people seemed friendly, non aggressive, passive, humble and innovative. Even the Girls were friendly and waved and smiled at us as we passed them by, whereas in Tunisia the down trodden mentality prevailed.
Saigon was a town of everything happening all at once, thousands of people like bumble bee’s swarming around the nectar of the business. It’s a small New York city with the traffic jams, rickshaws, cabbies, street vendors, open shops, beggars, hawkers, a thousand bars and ten thousand girls.
Saigon was a town of Loud music, Policemen on every corner, Soldiers riding around with rifles cocked on their hips waiting for someone to make a wrong move. Then all the sudden a door from a bar flew opened and two girls with butcher knives spilled out on the sidewalk as they screamed at each other, pulled each others hair and took stabs at each other. The crowds gathered cheered them on as people took sides. Soon they were handcuffed and hauled of by the Police as they were dripping with blood. Then out of nowhere a man rode up to us on a moped bike with his wife and two cute little children sandwiched on the seat behind him and said to me, “Hey GI, you like? I have number one wife, she veddy good for you!! She do anything you like, Ok? How much you pay?
I quickly got the idea that I had just arrived in sin city where hope had gone out the window on a fast moving train.
I arrived at the Embassy where I was photographed; finger printed and passed on to some of the other Marines who showed me where my room was at the Marine house on the corner of Tudo and Wing Way which so happened to be an old hotel three blocks from the Presidential Palace.
Naturally the Marines all wanted to know where I was from and all the small talk which is typical from people who you just meet and get to know each other. Within ten minutes I heard about every girl friend and bar in town, where to go and who to avoid. I heard about the life in the Marine house and what to expect, which were half truths and half exaggerations to sensationalize the reality of it all.
As I quietly shut the door to my room, I sat on the edge of my bed and I tried objectively process it all , only to realize that some day I’d be heading home but this forsaken rat race of a place would continue to be home to these people for years to come with or without us.
Just then someone pounded on my door and said “hey Phenicie open up”. As I pulled open the door it was a familiar face from Boot Camp, LCPL. King!! He was a thin handsome Black guy who always smiled. He was from somewhere in the States, and he was also a hot head to boot. I was always on his good side as long as I was careful with my words. The racial stigma was still there as he reminded me of the days in boot camp etc. After a few words he made it his job to inform the other Black Marines that I had a problem with Blacks back in boot Camp. A week later King pulled a knife and stabbed a fellow Marine for using his shaving cream with out his permission. Naturally for him it was “Off to the brig for ever”.
I was in Saigon for three months and thought I had seen it all. One day a desperate young Vietnamese man stopped me on the street corner and informed me that his father was rapidly dieing and he was in dire needed of American money to purchase a certain medicine from the pharmacy. Soft hearted as I was, I agreed to go with him down a hall way in a small arcade and then up some steps to an open area. Then out stepped three other Vietnamese guys with 45 cal. revolvers in their hands as they stood guard from a short distance over the situation. He took my money and exchanged it for a roll of his which he had counted out in front of me and carefully put a rubber band around it. Then with the slip of his hand he gave me another roll which contained less than a fraction of what I had originally exchanged. As we parted I didn’t have a clue as to what had just transpired until I was riding back to the Marine house in a cab and began to count my money to pay the cab driver. Unbeknownst to me I had just been ripped off!!!!!!!!!!
Another night some of the Marines had been drinking and someone pulled out an M-79 Grenade launcher and lobbed two rounds towards the Presidential Palace. Then the air raids sounded off and we were in lockdown mood. Every Marine had to drop what we were doing and grab our combat gear and get to our assigned post. We were told that Saigon was under an attack from the Viet Cong and were to prepare for the worst.
That night some of the Marines showed their true colors as they showed no signs of leadership or restraint as fear set in. To me it was a no brainier as I took charge of those around me. As the hype fizzled we all went back to our room only to find out the next day that two suspected Viet Cong were shot and killed near the Palace. Little did they know that a Marine who had his head screwed on backwards, caused two innocent civilians to be killed with out warning.
The next day I was called in and had to fill out a report on what happened from my perspective and I was later commended for taking charge of my post and the Marines around me. Unfortunately the guy who pulled the trigger on the grenade launcher went undetected.
One night while I was on guard duty in a remote area of Saigon at the U.S.I.S. building (United States Information Service), it was part of my nightly job as a Marine Security Guard to gather up all of the classified trash from the office safe and take it to the incinerator which was on top of the roof of the building, to be burned.
On this one particular hot muggy night when I made my way up to the roof top of the stairwell I carefully unbolted the solid steel door and stepped out into the dark of the night onto the flat slate tiled roof. As usual I propped my rifle up against the stairwell door frame. The door had a single dim lit light bulb above it and I could see my rifle in clear view while I burned the trash. The roof had a two foot ledge around the perimeter to keep you from falling onto the street below. At night it was a little intimidating to get too close to that ledge, because you get this spooky feeling that someone will sneak up behind you and shove you over to the street below.
One by one I stuffed in the grocery bag size containers of trash into the incinerators steel door, lit it with a match and locked down the door hatch. As a guard I was required to stay with the trash until the fire completely consumed everything to ashes. As I stood there waiting for the fire to do its thing, I heard a persistent dog barking on the street below. This was unusual because unless there is a problem, most dogs don’t bark at nighttime. Then out of the quietness of the early morning hours someone opened fire on me and the tracers flew past my head. Typically every fifth round is a tracer and without thought I flattened out on the roof top as the red phosphorous burning rounds fell out over the city. Instinctively I quickly scrambled in a low crawl over near the edge of the roof to gain additional cover from who ever was out to get me.
As I lay there motionless my heart began to pound uncontrollably as I tried to compose myself and quickly assess the dilemma that I was faced with. Next to the building that I was in, was a building under construction. It was a structure of steel girders with no windows or sides and it was obvious that a lone NVA communist sniper or Viet Cong or some mentally twisted individual was out there in the night trying to up the body count.
I didn’t dare move for at least a half an hour or so because it would expose my position and perhaps give them another opportunity to fire a round or two at me and finish me off. Then the dog stopped barking and everything was quite accept for a lambretta (three wheeled truck ) that drove through the back alley below. As I laid there motionless on the roof I could see a slight cigarette glow in the dark of the steel building. Someone was really over there and I concluded that if I could see them they could see me as well. I knew I had to make a move so I decided to low crawl over to the door. Then at the last second I jumped up and made a mad dash for the door and with one swoop I grabbed my rifle and bolted the steel door shut. I quickly descended down the stairwell into the middle of the building for additional safety.
As soon as I could compose myself I called in and reported the incident to the duty officer which was on the other side of town at the American Embassy. Naturally they wanted all the details to assess whether or not this was an isolated incident or if this was the beginning of something big such as an operation such as the TET offense. About a hour went by and a armored vehicle pulled up to the front of the building and the officer of the day informed me to keep away from all windows and doors and to report back every half an hour to give a situation update. As the morning hours began to approach and the sun began to expose the city, the streets began to quickly fill up with traffic and my shift was over.
For some this is a nice little bed time story that they can’t relate to but to me it was very much a part of the reality of the Vietnamese guerrilla war. You never knew who to trust or who had you in their scopes with an objective to kill you if they could get the chance. As I look back on this situation I often wonder how I could have avoided such an incident and how I could have overcome my fears that gripped me. The only thing I could conclude was that I just have to be thankful that it wasn’t my time to go. I had to conclude that God in his mercy decided to protect me from injury or even death even though I was in harms way.
We all have our stories to tell and the words we use have meaning to us as individuals because we went through that dark hour of despair. Every day God renews his mercy and grace and we likewise have opportunities to share how God cares for his own. Some day each one of us will face danger and no matter how much we prepare ourselves for the unknown we are caught with nowhere to go but to the Lord. As I lay on that roof that lonely night my eyes were drawn to the stars above me and I reached out to God for safety and his protecting hand. It was good for me because I hadn’t prepared for this event to make the war a reality.
Like David in the scripture he was alone in the wilderness as a young lad and faced the boredom of his everyday task of watching his sheep. As time went on he was faced with a lion and a bear to which he was able to fight and kill them. Then the moment came and he entered into the army camp to see his brothers and was soon informed of a real enemy Goliath. As he was able to assess the situation he was able to conclude that God had sent him prepared to destroy this enemy that everyone was so afraid of. Naturally we all face enemies of various strengths and magnitudes but as the enemy tries to harm us we can know with confidence that when the enemy comes upon us with sword and shield or bullets and bombs we can defeat them through the power of our Lord, Jesus Christ.
I wasn’t too long before I was called by the First Sergeant and told that I had a new assignment and I was to go to the Consulate General in Nha Trang but first I had to talk to the Major.
As I went into the Majors office he told me to sit down while he reviewed some of my paperwork. As he watched me he began telling me about a Marine that they had just transferred after they learned he had fun as a civilian killing rabbits and torturing them to death. Then a warning light bulb went in my head that somehow he must’ve found out about my cat killing days in Tunisia with the other Marines and was probing me for a reaction for what kind of a guy he was dealing with. As I listened intently I commented back that it was a shame that some weird people had to take it out on some innocent pet or animals. Then he complimented me for having my act together and recommended me for the transfer up to Nha Trang, which is two hundred miles north of Saigon.