Tom Butt
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  50 Years Ago - Christmas in Vietnam
December 9, 2019

In mid-December 1969, I was getting what they called “short” with less than 60 days to go – in Vietnam and in the Army. We were spending more time cleaning up and closing out old projects than starting new ones, and both military bases and engineer equipment were being turned over to the Vietnamese. Land clearing and road building dominated the engineer effort.

While fighting continued in areas further north (I and II Corps), the south was comparatively quiet. Even so, 11,616 American soldiers were killed in 1969, (474 in December alone) more than twice as many killed as in 18 years of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan since 2001.

On December 1, 1969, the first draft lottery since World War II was held in New York City. Each day of the year was randomly assigned a number from 1-365. Those with birthdays on days that wind up with a low number would likely be drafted. On December 15, 1969, President Nixon ordered an additional 50,000 soldiers out of Vietnam. On December 20, 1969, a frustrated Henry Cabot Lodge quit his post as chief U.S. negotiator at the Paris peace talks. By year's end 1969 , America's fighting strength in Vietnam had been reduced by 115,000 men and 40,024 Americans had been killed in Vietnam.

A high point of December 1969 for me was a “working vacation” in Vung Tau, the southernmost extent of the 159th Area of Operations and a former French resort. We had a number of projects to close out that required site visits. Three of us, the HHC Operations Section sergeant major, a driver and I, drove 50 miles to Vung Tau in a jeep and stayed for several days. Click on Mission to Vung Tau, Vietnam 1969.

4 December 1969, Long Binh

Dear Folks,

I got a letter and a Christmas box today, both of which I opened. The sweaters look really good and will be great for R&R. I keep meaning to go to the Hong Kong tailor but haven’t made it yet. My supply of civilian clothes has always been somewhat limited.

I finally pulled off the Vung Tau trip, going down TDY for five days to “inspect construction.” Should be a real good trip. The rainy season finally just quit one day, and I have newly discovered the new swimming pool that was built a few months ago just a couple of blocks from my office. I’ve got a splendid physical fitness program going where I run a mile and then jump in the pool for a few laps during each lunch hour. I’m working up a real lifeguard tan for those Australian girls.

I’m working on another deal where I separate from the service either here or in Japan and then can claim free transportation to my home at any time subsequent within one year. Since I didn’t get any leave other than the Australian trip, I thought it would be a shame not to hit Japan and maybe Hong Kong before coming home. I’ll probably stay in Japan only a couple of weeks and then head on back. It’s amazing what the Army will do for you if you can dig it out of some musty old regulation.

I am literally working myself out of a job as the tremendous backlog of old projects dwindles, and the new regulations and SOP’s I’m writing make day-to-day processes more effective and less time consuming. I’ve had more time to read and finally started a little painting and sketching.

I’m not sending any Christmas presents on the theory that whatever I bring home can be better handled by shipping it free in my hold baggage in February. A new guy is moving into our apartment when Eric and Alan leave – very interesting – spent his first 12 years in Peking, then went to school in Germany and finally got drafted in the United States. His mother is one of the biggest antique exporters in Hong Kong. Maybe I can get you all some authentic Ming vases or something – right out of Red China. If you have a want list for anything, you’d better publish it soon because time is running out. My whole month of December is going to be one big vacation – ad then I’ll really start tapering off seriously.

I left or lost my address book in San Francisco, so please furnish me with Nancy’s address. I was going to send Christmas cards to hundreds of people, but now that’s out the window. At least I’ve got a good excuse to confine my communications to a select few – need Jack’s address also. I’m glad to hear that some things are looking up on the home front. I wish we could all be together for Christmas. Let me know where you are going to be, and I’ll try to get a phone call through.

Love, Tom

Vung Tau beach, December 1969

Vung Tau Beach, December 1969

I had found out that it is possible to be discharged in Vietnam rather than return to the “world” at the end of my tour. I wanted to go to Cambodia to see Angkor Wat, and from there visit Hong Kong and Japan, so I started lining up the necessary visas and other documents. Eventually, it turned it into a trip around the world, traveling west across Asia, Russia and Europe back to the U.S.

12 December 1970

I got a second Christmas package today – the shorts from Murt & Haha. Also, I got a letter from Murt. I will write to them today. I hope I can keep hold of these shorts. The house girls are real bad about stealing any kind of shorts but the olive drab type. I guess I’ll have to leave these down in Saigon.

I cut my Vung Tau trip short due to excess sunburn. I’ve never gotten so blistered in my life. I was pretty miserable for a couple of days, but it’s all okay now. The worst part was driving back in an open jeep. I was covered up like an Arab, but that sun still found me. The beaches were great – but so hot!

I’m still cutting red tape for my Japan trip. I got my passport okay, but now I have to pick up a letter from the Vietnamese government saying they consent to my separation in Vietnam if I promise to leave immediately. No problem there! I should have the whole thing approved by next week.

Both my Saigon roommates leave in the next few days. I’ve got a bash down there tonight and then two parties out here this weekend for departees.

I will send by separate letter a recommendation form for graduate school. I’m leaving it blank. Give it to Fay Jones if he is in town. If not, to Mr. Witherspoon. It has to be back at Berkeley by 1 January.

Love, Tom

46th Battalion Carpenter Shop


My R&R was coming up at the end of December, and I chose Sydney, where I could spend New Year’s eve. We had a brief layover in Darwin, a completely barren place, then flew on to Sydney, arriving in the late afternoon.

On the first night, our hosts had arranged sort of a “mixer” where local girls were invited to mix, chat dance and so forth. I hit it off with a local schoolteacher, and we spent the rest of the week together, since she was not working during the holidays. Click on R&R in Sydney, New Year 1970.

I had a hotel at King Cross, which seemed to be at the epicenter of activities. We did the beach, the Opera House shopping and took a hydrofoil ride across the harbor. I bought a couple of wool suits made from the finest Merino wool and bought some fabric I later used to decorate the 159th Engineer Officers Club.

It all seemed to end too soon, and it was back to Vietnam.

The Sydney Opera House, still one of the iconic structures of the world, was under construction in December 1969.