(EDITOR’S NOTE: Charles Black, Enquirer military writer, has returned home after four months in Viet Nam. He was with men of the 1st Cavalry Division during many of their recent engagements with Communist guerrillas, and his articles on the war as he saw it will continue in The Enquirer daily.)
By CHARLES BLACK
Enquirer Military Writer
M-Sgt. Charles McCowan and I got off the Air Force C123 at Saigon on my last trip out of An Khe and trusted our lives to the hectic whims of a Vietnamese taxi driver.
He had a little blue Renault, a meter which was obviously broken and a limited but enthusiastic vocabulary of English. It was the language problem all over again, but with a new twist. He knew just enough English to prove dangerous.
I wished he hadn’t ever learned his first word of our strange language at about the time he almost sideswiped one of the pushcart restaurants (called “Howard Johnsons” by GIs) which sell mysterious, hot foodstuffs along the curbs of Vietnamese cities.
He almost hit the pushcart because he was facing all the way around to wish Mac “. . . Good morning, major general.”
He almost hit a cycelo (a bicycle turned into a rickshaw which puts the passengers up front where the action is) loaded with a woman, three children and a huge collection of fresh produce. This came when he told me that “. . . you No. 1. Want change green, you see me, best rates!”
He did graze the back bumper of another taxicab when he turned to continue his conversation with “Maj. Gen.” McCowan. He had a momentary lapse of memory and had told Mac good morning again when the collision occurred.
He braked to an indignant stop and got out.
Neither of us could follow the huge volley of Vietnamese the two drivers exchanged. Both waved their arms and seemed to be very angry about it all.
The contestants suddenly turned and walked to their respective antique vehicles, slammed their gear shifts loudly and engaged in a wild drag race down a street crowded as only a Vietnamese street can be. Mac and I stared at a wild strip of ox carts, rickshaws, Army trucks, cycelos, motor scooters and official sedans as they flashed by the windows.
Our driver won, gained enough lead to stick his head out of the window and shout a Vietnamese insult back to the loser (almost hitting three dogs and one of the few fat women I saw in that country) and screeched to a stop by the Caravelle Hotel. He was so proud of his triumph that he only attempted to overcharge by 300 percent and didn’t argue more than 10 minutes before accepting the correct price.
We had an offer of a room from American Broadcasting Co.’s famous John Hughes, who was up at An Khe producing a program to be shown on “The Saga of Western Man” series. It was about Capt. Theodore Danielsen, my long-time paratrooper friend, and Hughes had been living with Capt. Danielsen’s company for two weeks.
Hughes was with his crew out on patrols, assaults and other hard sky trooper work, grimly moving along with the infantrymen to get on-the-scene film of Danielsen’s life as an Army officer.
Rooms are impossible to get in Saigon without such arrangements, incidentally. The military has taken over many places to provide homes for men on rest and recreation leaves and for men coming down for duty. Our problem was that we didn’t exactly fit into either category, according to Mac’s masterfully worded orders which seemed to fit any occasion demanded of them where transportation, food and suspicious clerks were concerned.
“If you aren’t on R and R and if you aren’t on temporary duty, you don’t fit into any military hotel category and you just have to find a bunk out at Ton San Nhut. What we will do is to see the guys at ABC, tell them John Hughes told us we could use his room and make arrangements with them to settle it all up somehow,” Mac told me when I asked him about a bivouac area.
ABC was charming. The Caravelle was equally charming. John Hughes had a wonderful room, and I sincerely hope he found time to enjoy it sooner or later. Mac and I stayed there six days, as I recall, worrying about him out in the brush with the infantry.
We got in touch with Lt. Col. William Hacker, who had come back to Saigon from a trip out into the wilds and was at his desk at the Military Assistance Command Viet Nam headquarters. He was a superb guide, having located good restaurants and having scouted out the best routes of approach to them.
“We won’t go down that street. Last time I walked down that way two policemen were shooting at a couple of Viet Cong and I was in the middle, flat on the sidewalk behind a garbage can,” Lt. Col. Hacker told us as we started to make a turn once.
We bought some souvenirs, loafed and played tourist. Then Mac became bored with Saigon and went back to An Khe and I suddenly decided to be sick for a few days. This is an easy thing to do in Viet Nam.
The maladies are mysterious, the symptoms general and usually deal with low fever, stomach problems, headaches, complete exhaustion and such. They usually go away as mysteriously as they arrive.
This one lasted a week, during which time I moved to the venerable old Majestic Hotel to a room Lt. Col. Hacker found open and contemplated a 14-foot-high ceiling decorated with live lizards from a bed with solid wood springs.
Sometime during the arrival and departure of the sick spell, I decided to commence instituting proceedings for a return to Columbus.
© Columbus Ledger-Enquirer
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