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Good Morning Vietnam Day 1

Shirley and I are taking advantage of the City Council August hiatus to make a trip I have wanted to do for many years, revisiting southeast Asia (Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand) for the first time in 40 years. I intend to try and provide a running account of this trip interspersed with accounts of my government-sponsored first trip 40 years ago this year when I was a 25-year-old second lieutenant in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.


After my parents died, I found all of the letters I had written home that they had saved, and those and many old photographs formed the basis of a narrative I wrote many years later that I called “Letters Home.” (Click on the link http://www.tombutt.com/pdf/letters%20home.pdf for the entire narrative).


For the most part, I enjoyed my military tour in Vietnam. As an Army engineer officer, my job was mainly managing the construction of infrastructure (roads, bridges and buildings), some of which are still there. I was fortunate to land a military assignment that was equivalent to working in the top management of a major construction company employing over 9,000 people.  I got to see a lot of a beautiful country, meet a lot of people and learn a lot of skills that I still use in my work today. We worked very hard and accomplished at lot, but we also played very hard and tried to make the most of a year-long involuntary vacation.


I was also fortunate to have an opportunity at the end of my tour to visit Cambodia and Angkor Wat in the spring of 1970, virtually untouched by the war at that time but barely a month before the U.S. invasion set into motion a series of political events that several years later turned into one of the world’s most horrendous genocides.


From Cambodia, I went on to visit Thailand, Hong Kong and Japan. I sailed to Russia and took the Trans-Siberian Railroad to Moscow and then toured Europe before finally coming home to Arkansas and later California.


On March 25, 1969, I landed at Cam Ranh Bay from Seattle, WA via Tokyo. This time, in 2009, we fly to Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) via Tokyo. Following is what I wrote about my 1969 arrival:


I left on my 25th birthday from Ft. Lewis, Washington. I went out for dinner and drinks with Dick Johnson, the younger brother of an old friend I had originally met in Yellowstone. Dick was going to college in Seattle.


What was weird is that I didn’t know anyone on the plane. We were all individuals, going over to replace some other individual. It was a 707, with all the normal food, drinks, pretty young stewardesses and movies. It could have been a flight to anywhere, except it was all soldiers – all in uniform. We made one stop during the night in Tokyo. There was nothing to do but wander around the transient terminal of the airbase. My first postcard:


Tokyo, March 24, 1969


Dear Folks,


We didn’t get to leave Seattle until about 8:00 PM. It’s now about 1:00 AM on the 25th of March. I can’t exactly figure out how – but I completely missed my birthday. We’ve got an hour here in Tokyo, then 5 ½ hrs. more to Cam Ranh Bay – not much to do but gawk at cheap radios, TV’s, etc. Be in contact later.


Love, Tom


We landed at Cam Ranh Bay, and that rush of hot, humid air as we walked out the door and down the gangway clearly said “welcome to Vietnam.” We were bused to a compound of tropical buildings (“hootches” – as we later came to know them) near a beautiful beach. We were herded through a supply building, where we were given three uniforms (olive drab, jungle), two pairs of jungle boots, a baseball cap and a steel “pot” (helmet) and several pairs of olive drab socks, t-shirts and boxer shorts. Nametags and rank were issued and sewn on the uniform shirts. We were given a toothbrush and some kind of special toothpaste that was supposed to prevent cavities for one year. In the humidity, underwear gave me crotch rot, so I stopped wearing the boxer shorts altogether.


I was assigned a bed in a hootch, drank a few beers at the officer’s club, went swimming in the South China Sea and slept for a few hours before the plane left to our next destination. I had no idea what was in store.


To be continued…