Thursday, February 28, 2019

Revealed! Escapades at Vietnam Radio-TV Outpost

"Somebody is going to get killed." Clouds form over Hon Tre Island (All photos copyrighted)

It’s impossible to know how many pirate radio stations were broadcasting to American servicemen in the warzone of Vietnam, but it’s reasonable to assume that none could match the professional infrastructure of WPOT Radio. 

Operating at 99.9 on the FM dial, WPOT’s outlaw broadcasters had a fully-equipped studio with RCA control board, turntables, tape deck and cartridge machines; a powerful transmitter; a legal antenna and a choice selection of rock & roll music preferred by younger GIs, including antiwar songs.

By day this studio was AFVN. By night it was WPOT. rf
The brazen radio pirates operated with impunity for one very simple reason: it was hidden within an official affiliate of the American Forces Vietnam Network (AFVN). By day it was AFVN’s Detachment 4. After signoff, mutineer deejays took control and cranked up music that was banned from the approved play list.

WPOT was strategically located near the top of Hon Tre Island, offshore from South Vietnam’s central coast, giving the signal’s 25,000 watts the capability of reaching eastward into the South China Sea and westward to the central highlands. The potential audience was vast, including many thousands of military listeners based in the Nha Trang and Cam Ranh Bay areas.

I spent two months there, but only recently learned that much more was brewing on the mountain island than forbidden radio broadcasts; to include attempted murder, prostitution that may have compromised our war effort and a troublesome drug predicament that gave commanders good reason to crack down.

Bob Wilford at AFVN Pleiku.

Marine Sergeant Bob Wilford was one of the after-hours announcers on WPOT in 1969. “The Officer in Charge never said anything,” the wily broadcaster recalls. “We counted on the fact that he slept pretty much through the night like a little baby.”

The underground station’s phony call letters were entirely apropos. The “P-O-T” is what some of the deejays smoked during the late night sessions. Others preferred alcoholic beverages. All were lower ranking enlisted men. Wilford told me, “We’d read the standard signoff, play the national anthem, wait 60 to 90 seconds, and go back on the air—‘Hi, this is WPOT Radio.’ ”

Arriving at Hon Tre. rf
The late night songfest was happening 50 years ago on the island of Hon Tre, a 30 minute ferry ride from the city of Nha Trang. Back then, the U.S. military had control of the island—Hon Tre translates to Bamboo Island in Vietnamese, but Americans called it “the rock.” At the mountain’s base, Green Beret soldiers trained and patrolled for any Viet Cong infiltrators who might sneak ashore.

The 228th Signal Company shared the same elevation with AFVN’s compound, and we were sometimes socked in by cloud cover—the summit reached 1,600 feet. Our FM radio and TV station was the smaller unit, perhaps a dozen or so men, and we generally kept to ourselves, but were allowed the privilege of using the signal unit’s chow hall.

I readily acknowledge that mischievous deejays and innocent newsroom high jinks are part of broadcasting history—even becoming a popular media genre with the 1970s TV series WKRP in Cincinnati and The Mary Tyler Moore Show. The blockbuster movie Good Morning, Vietnam tells the story of AFVN’s radio predecessor in 1965 Saigon. But what was going on at Hon Tre Island was beginning to spin out of control.


Photo courtesy Allingham
The heyday for WPOT was in the final months of 1969 when Captain Robert Sanders (seen at left with hands on hips) was the Officer in Charge. Not long after his arrival there was a surprise drug raid. A helicopter landed, and a man who saw it said two MPs and drug-sniffing dogs jumped off and searched an AFVN hooch. It was the sleeping quarters shared by several broadcasters.

“Poor dogs just ran in a circle,” the eyewitness quipped, “such a target-rich environment!” A drug stash was incinerated on the spot and the chopper left. No one was punished, according to the onlooker.

Wilford told me that Sanders knew who the main problem was. “That was (Army Specialist) CW Lane. Sanders was like CW Lane’s shadow,” according to Wilford. “And if you were in the vicinity, and Sanders could even suspect anything was going on, you’d have your own shadow.” Truer words were never spoken.

The newsroom where I prepared the evening TV news. rf
I arrived on “the rock” in January 1970. One evening as I was standing outside the TV newsroom waiting to go on-the-air, Sanders came storming down the hill and caught CW Lane smoking weed in the bunker. Since I was standing in the entrance and chatting with CW, Sanders ordered us to drop down and do push ups. We were both in trouble, even though I was not partaking. No case was pursued against me. [The full story of my escape is told in the digital book Broadcasters: Untold Chaos.]

What ultimately happened to CW Lane remains a mystery. Various AFVN veterans say he was sent to the brig, or went Absent Without Leave. Wilford remembers Lane being demoted. Whatever his grand finale, CW did enjoy his cannabis.  A co-worker said he smoked “bodacious” amounts of weed.

Sanders seemed to be on a campaign to clean up AFVN’s drug problem. New arrivals were told they would be watched, including Specialist Jim Allingham—who neither smoked nor drank. Jim shared a telltale warning during his orientation from the top non-commissioned officer: “He said he knew some of the guys at the detachment were doing (marijuana), but hadn’t been caught yet.”

There was gossip that Sanders was military intelligence, but that didn’t ring true when I talked with him 50 years after he was commanding Detachment 4. “I wasn’t in the nature of being a tattletale,” the former captain explained. “But I consider taking drugs on duty not minor. Especially if someone was in a bunker and had guard duty.”

The perimeter just outside the AFVN compound. rf
Sanders’ hooch was just outside the main bunker, and he made his argument personal. “You know, if there had been any sappers (enemy commandos) they’d have gotten me first, so I didn’t think that was very funny.”

One night, he was reported to have gone outside the perimeter in order to sneak up on a bunker for a random drug check. This was told to me by a combat veteran: “Remember, it was a free-fire-zone. Fortunately, he picked a bunker that was fully alert and drug free, so he escaped somehow getting shot.”  

One wonders if a sentry on duty at the adjacent signal company was stoned when he fell asleep on guard duty, and his rifle tumbled to the ground. Numerous rounds misfired. Sanders remembers what happened: “They all thought they were under fire and opened up with (their own) fire. There was a full time war going on there for a little while.” The guard accidentally shot himself in the leg and was evacuated.

Hon Tre was in a sliding into dysfunction and ominous red flags were embedded in the letters one broadcaster sent to his family in the Midwest. “Another 15 pounds of marijuana confiscated one more guy in jail and the pressure is like electricity. This place is ready to blow. Somebody is going to get killed.”     

The enemy hits a U.S. target on the mainland opposite Hon Tre. rf
It seems that our intrepid commander had been targeted in a “fragging” incident. “Fragging” is military jargon for murdering an unpopular leader with a fragmentation grenade. I was one of three Hon Tre broadcasters who vaguely remember hearing about it.

Apparently, a grenade had been placed in a bunker—inside an ammunition box—and was set to go off when the lid was opened. Sanders was tipped off that he could find drugs in the ammo box, but when he opened it, the pin was not fully pulled. Fragging attempts were often meant to be more of a message than to do actual harm.

Sanders was unaware of the incident, but told me, “It could have happened right under my nose. They might have tucked it in there in such a way that I never saw it. That’s possible.”

The former AFVN commander did recall a fragging episode at our neighboring unit, aimed at the captain of 228 Signal Company. “They took a hand grenade, pulled the pin, and then wrapped the handle with electrical tape and put it in his gas tank,” said Sanders. The gasoline was supposed to dissolve the tape and allow detonation. Sanders struggled to recall the outcome: “I don’t think it exploded, but it might have.”

Being ordered to the isolated radio and TV station was like being exiled to AFVN’s Siberia for troublemakers. Two of us were shipped to “the rock” for being whistleblowers—exposing AFVN’s heavy handed news censorship in Saigon. The negative media attention resulted in a congressional investigation.  

Sanders once brought me in for an interview to evaluate my satisfaction as an AFVN newsman. He composed a “Memorandum for the Record” which included this closing sentence: “He (me) further indicated that he had neither plans nor desire to create dissension at Detachment 4 or in the Network.” I had earlier joined a group in Saigon that actively opposed AFVN’s policy of news censorship (see Broadcasters: Untold Chaos).

Photo courtesy Allingham
When we talked in 2019, the former OIC had a good grasp of censorship—when it is necessary and when it is not. Sanders’ conclusion was this: “I trust you guys. I have confidence, I think you’re good journalists, and that’s all it took. I never had a bit of trouble with them.”

Soon after I was banished to Hon Tre, Army Specialist Jim Allingham (photo at right) arrived. Also an anti-censorship newsman, he was unceremoniously put on a plane in Saigon—Jim was the only passenger—and ended up on the island with me. A third troublemaker was already there: Sgt. Wilford, who was transferred from the American Forces Vietnam Network’s station in Pleiku.

Wilford’s exile came after a stunning on-air protest at the end of his TV newscast. Wearing a black arm band and a peace symbol on a chain around his neck, he told viewers “On a final note…” and then read an antiwar editorial in Time magazine. The commanding general of the 4th Infantry Division at Pleiku saw it, complained and wanted something done. A couple weeks later, Wilford was transferred to “the rock.”

WPOT radio was not broadcasting for long and the hours were irregular. “Mostly it was for us to hear music that we were not allowed to play,” asserted Wilford. “We thought, ‘we can’t be the only ones who miss these songs.’ ”

One example given was “Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love to Town,” which included the lyrics, “It wasn’t me that started this whole crazy Asian war.” The version by Kenny Rogers and The First Edition had just come out in 1969.  

Michael Mankey on-the-air at Hon Tre. Courtesy Wilford.
Another Marine Sergeant, Michael Mankey, was a Wilford sidekick who also wore two hats: one for spinning music on AFVN, and one for WPOT, according to Wilford. CW Lane was also in the studio, as well as other guests who were invited in from time to time. Wilford insists there was never any pre-planning, “We’d run out of things to do, and we’d go, ‘let’s go play some music in the studio.’ ”

Wilford, whose favorite libation was Southern Comfort rather than marijuana, admits that the enlisted men who gathered for the illicit WPOT programs understood what they were doing was very wrong. “We were all pretty paranoid, but we didn’t care. What were they going to do, send me to Vietnam? It was just a few of us with a huge, dangerous prank.”

One reason they got away with it was by keeping a low profile—even among the AFVN staff. Wilford put it this way: “Nice guys didn’t get invited to the clique parties.” During this time, Specialist Tom Benintende was program director for FM radio. In an email, he said, “I have absolutely no knowledge of anything nefarious going on.” Tom must have been a nice guy.

I suspect the scandalous behavior was winding down by the time I arrived in January 1970. I too was oblivious to the misbehavior, although the haze of smoldering weed was still in the air, and I was implicated when CW Lane was caught. But if WPOT was still broadcasting at that time, I was out of the loop.

Prostitution was another problem on Hon Tre, according to Air Force Captain Daryl Gonyon, who wrote an account at americanveteranscenter.org. He said they were hired as maids, but could well have been enemy agents. When Gonyon plotted to get them removed, 21 “suspected Viet Cong” prostitutes were sent back to the mainland.

Photo courtesy Ingle.


Gonyon’s allegations did not mention AFVN, but one of our announcers added this observation: “They would swarm off the ferry every Sunday morning, ready for work,” according to Army Specialist Chuck Ingle (right), “I think they used to get $20.”

One principle reason why the bootleg station went undetected is that AFVN remained an effective operation, by and large, and a reliable link in the network’s countrywide operation. There were eight radio and television stations scattered throughout South Vietnam to serve more than a half-million Americans who were deployed in 1969.

A half-century after WPOT was on-the-air, marijuana is on its way to becoming legal. But 50 years ago, it was used, along with booze, to relieve the demoralizing boredom which was a common affliction on Hon Tre. “The rock” lacked the social outlets found in large military installations: clubs, theaters, restaurants, bowling alleys, gymnasiums, libraries, etc.  

In spite of the tumultuous times on Hon Tre Island, things mostly had a way of turning out all right: No one was killed, Capt. Sanders kept drug use from getting totally out of control, and servicemen got some bonus, after-hours rock & roll.

Today, Hon Tre Island is a luxury resort and amusement park (Vinapearl), with inviting beaches, golf, and gondolas that carry visitors via suspended cables to the mainland. The photo at left is Hon Tre today, courtesy James Healy, Flickr. 
The panoramic view of Vietnam's coastline from Hon Tre Island in 1970. rf

Tuesday, February 12, 2019

AFVN-TV Landmark Is New Cafe In Hue

Tano Cafe is the newest chapter in the tragic story of an old residence in Vietnam.
A charming new coffee shop now occupies the old French villa that was the original U.S. television station attacked during the Tet Offensive in Hue, South Vietnam. This photo essay is courtesy of Mark van Treuren, who has been traveling extensively in Southeast Asia.



Mark stands in the patio of Tano Cafe. In 1968, the classic villa was a TV center for the American Forces Vietnam Network and a Vietnamese language sister station. The building was shelled by the Viet Cong but survived the costly offensive, which destroyed much of the imperial capital. Click photos to enlarge.



The villa at #3 Dong Da as seen in the 1960s. AFVNVETS.NET



Van Treuren is a veteran of the American Forces Network himself and is familiar with the terrifying history of this property. The Americans who staffed the facility, and at one time lived in the villa, were surrounded in their nearby quarters and had to flee after a five day standoff. Three broadcasters were killed, five became POWs and only one escaped. Casualties were 100 percent.







Scroll down to read an earlier posting (The Ghosts of Dong Da) which recounts the full history of this fascinating building. Mark says the new cafe opened in June 2018, only a few months after I discovered the place was still standing after decades of postwar reconstruction. Photo at left is the cozy interior on the first floor.


The two-story residence has been repurposed multiple times. It previously was Cafe New York. These photos were taken today (2-12-2019) before Mark left for Hanoi. We both attended the Defense Information School in Indianapolis.


See the full account of the attack on AFVN's Hue TV station is an earlier posting on my blog and titled "TV Station's Final Days."





The photo at right shows the distinctive roof line which can be seen in the original building and was crucial in confirming that we had identified the old broadcast center. The photo below is the vintage-looking menu of items you can enjoy at Tano Cafe today.






Ownership of the villa remains in the hands of local government, which rents the premises to the operators of Tano Cafe. Probably few Vietnamese realize the history of this address, but for American military broadcasters it remains a monument to the men who were killed in Hue, and to those who spent five years in brutal confinement. Thank you Mark for your contribution.

#3 Dong Da in 2019.

Wednesday, December 5, 2018

Scenes from Saigon, 2018

This is an abbreviated version of my photo essay published in Vietnam magazine's February 2019 issue. All images are copyrighted.


During the Tet Lunar New Year, Nguyen Hue Boulevard lived up to its reputation as the street of flowers. Stretching nearly a half mile from the Saigon River into the heart of downtown, the boulevard is now a broad pedestrian mall. Hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese and tourists strolled through ingenious “Year of the Dog” floral displays and interactive water fountains. 


One building that most represents the Communist government is the People’s Committee Building, originally Hotel de Ville. The exquisite French design dates back to 1901, and is today probably the most photographed building in Ho Chi Minh City. The landmark is extravagantly adorned, from the clock tower and decorative statues to the arched windows, doors and hallways. Americans stationed in Saigon during the war years knew it simply as “City Hall.”



Fifty years after the Tet Offensive, a modest U.S. Consulate (right) occupies the same land where the U.S. Embassy once stood, and where the Viet Cong launched their shocking assault in 1968. The haunting edifice (below) was left abandoned for years after the 1975 evacuation and then demolished in 1998. Perhaps the last American Army general to visit the iconic helipad was Norman Schwarzkopf, a Vietnam War veteran who commanded U.S. forces during the Gulf War. As a CBS News analyst in 1993, he stood on the rooftop with anchorman Dan Rather while filming a TV documentary.




Of the remaining BEQs (Bachelor Enlisted Quarters), the Plaza Hotel (right) is one of the most peculiar. Boldly towering over Tran Hung Dao Street, the exterior is a botanical painting with ferns and leafy vines smothering all nine stories. During the war, a typical room was occupied by three or four men, except for the third floor, which was women-only. The top level was a popular night club with rows of busy slot machines. 


My room in 1969.


The Plaza had several lucky escapes: a rocket glanced off the roof, flooding a number of rooms; a terrorist bomb was defused on Thanksgiving Day in 1969; and security guards fought off a VC sapper attack in 1968. Today, the building is a dormitory for the University of Economics and houses more than 1,000 students. 



A colorful past, plus a romantic roof garden, make the Rex Hotel a legendary landmark in contemporary Ho Chi Minh City. Previously an auto dealership, the Rex provided housing for American officers, although some of the first guests were U.S. enlisted men who arrived with an Army helicopter company in December 1961. According to Jack Van Ommen, a supply clerk, “We had our delayed Thanksgiving turkey dinner served from our field kitchen on the Rex roof top terrace.” The Rex was also home to the original armed forces radio studios, as well as daily military briefings that cynical reporters nicknamed the “Five o’clock Follies.”  Today, the Follies is a specialty rum and vodka cocktail served at the garden bar for more than $12.




Saigon during the Tet holiday is a photographer’s paradise and French colonial buildings are among the most rewarding subjects. At the Saigon Post Office (above), which shares an intersection with Notre Dame Basilica, tourists easily outnumber postal customers. A large painting of Ho Chi Minh peers down on visitors and two rows of classic telephone booths. During the war, GIs placed long-distance calls to comfort worried loved ones back in the States. Today, tourists pose for selfies in front of the antique booths. 

The Continental today.
Saigon’s most distinguished hotel looks strikingly similar to it original appearance after construction in 1880. The Hotel Continental Saigon, with its high ceilings, tiled roof and spacious courtyard, has a colorful, and sometimes seedy, reputation that spans two wars. Known as the Continental Palace during the American conflict, the hotel’s sidewalk cafĂ© was a favorite gathering place for diplomats, military personnel, journalists, and, as legend goes, spies. Notable guests include author Graham Greene, who featured the hotel in his novel The Quite American. Nearly 140 years after opening, the Continental still welcomes guests but must compete with many newer luxury hotels. 
The Continental in 1969. This is the cover photo for my blog.



Tu Do Street, renamed Dong Khoi after the war, is no longer a place where you can find "Saigon Tea," typically a diluted tea that GIs were obligated to buy for a bar girl's companionship, but the commercial thoroughfare is still a trendy downtown destination. One of the last surviving GI bars was operating in 1988 as the Lan Thanh coffee shop (right), where customers could also order Vietnamese-made "33 Beer." The site is now a gift shop and travel agency, seen below in 2018.




Writer's footnote: In preparing for my photo assignment, I returned to Vietnam with the same 35mm film camera I have carried for nearly 50 years, an Asahi Pentax. I purchased it at the Cholon Post Exchange in Saigon for $120. I also had my Apple iPhone7, and used the phone camera for two of the photos published in this article.

* Vietnam magazine is typically available at Barnes and Noble.

Thursday, October 4, 2018

"Saigon Kids" Book Review

From Vietnam Magazine, October 2018

My review of a very different Vietnam War book is getting social media attention.

In the decade before U.S. combat forces waded ashore at Da Nang, approximately 4,000 teenagers and pre-teens had been living in Saigon and attending the American Community School. Most of them were the sons and daughters of Americans sent to South Vietnam by the military and State Department, or were the children of contractors and civilians working for companies. Collectively, these select young people refer to themselves as “Saigon kids.”

A grown-up Saigon kid has written a new tell-all book: Saigon Kids, An American Military Brat Comes of Age in 1960’s Vietnam. At the adventuresome age of 13, Les Arbuckle arrived in-country with two younger brothers and their mother. Dad, Navy Chief Petty Officer Bryant Arbuckle, was there to launch Vietnam’s original AFRS (Armed Forces Radio Service).

Armed Forces Radio, Saigon was the backdrop for Good Morning, Vietnam, the movie in which comedian Robin Williams portrayed Air Force disc jockey Adrian Cronauer who was on the air in 1965. AFRS would evolve into a far-reaching radio and television network that was re-branded in 1967 as the American Forces Vietnam Network.

Young Arbuckle made new friends and quickly began to explore the mysteries of 1963 Saigon. Like rebellious adolescents anywhere, they managed to pull off high jinks on a regular basis, but Saigon kids also had access to the city’s dark underbelly, providing escapades that were not available to teenagers back in the States.

The boys exchanged greenback from their folks for Vietnamese piasters on the black market at a premium exchange rate. They spent their earnings on cigarettes, Beer “33,” and, yes, prostitutes. Their parents apparently were unaware of the most egregious pursuits, although there was a physical confrontation when Les came home drunk.

The teens got in trouble with “cowboys” (Vietnamese hoodlums) and “white mice” (Vietnamese police). Some of the older boys had motor scooters, but most of the kids took taxis or motorized cyclos: “The contraption looked as if a motorcycle had slammed into the middle of a love set from behind,” is how the author described the three-wheelers.

The memoir swirls through the American community: the school, the quirky friends, teachers and parties where the young dependents danced in penny loafers to music on vinyl 45 records.  

It is Arbuckle’s descriptions of the tempting city of Saigon, however, that are the most nostalgic for veterans who served there: Tu Do Street, Saigon Tea, the pungent smells of everyday life, the upper-crust Cercle Sportif (sports club), GI slang and anti-government demonstrations. Arbuckle describes the appalling aftermath of a Buddhist monk’s self-immolation.

Military Police were nearby to provide security, but real danger, or parental discipline, was always lurking for this menacing band of brats. There were fisticuffs, a student was slashed when jumped by Vietnamese cowboys and a classmate was bloodied in the terrorist bombing of the Capital Kinh-Do Theater, which killed three Americans.

The author witnessed the opening shots of the 1963 coup against President Diem, and ran home to the Arbuckle residence just two blocks from the Presidential Palace. Family members took shelter under a table and in a hallway; tank fire shook the building; the smell or cordite drifted through open windows; mother drank Scotch and soda. A brother brought home a live souvenir grenade.

As a former AFVN newsman, I wanted Arbuckle to share more stories about his father’s job in broadcasting, although I was surprised to learn that the military radio station at one time accepted advertisements. Arbuckle wrote that his father even voiced commercials for the My Canh Floating Restaurant, where the family held its farewell party. The next year, the iconic dinner barge was bombed in the war’s most ghastly terrorist incident.

Due to mounting instability, U.S. dependents were sent home in early 1965 and the American School closed. Today, Saigon kids have reunions and keep in touch like other alumni groups. As Arbuckle noted, “No Brat I knew wanted to come to Vietnam, but once they got a taste of life in Saigon, most didn’t want to leave.”

Saigon Kids is a rip-roaring historical snapshot of a capital teetering on the brink of war.
The author might say it’s “numba one” (best) for veterans and civilians to reflect on old Saigon, but perhaps there’s a secondary audience: third generation Saigon kids who will be surprised by what their grandparents did during the war.

Sunday, August 26, 2018

The Plaza Hotel: My Vietnam “Foxhole”

Mention the "Plaza Hotel" and decadent luxury springs to mind, with glamorous guests arriving at the Plaza Hotel in New York City. Movie actors, presidents and monarchs are among the VIPs who have slept at the lavish Central Park address. In a Google search during the summer of 2018, the “best rate guarantee” was $755 a night.

The Plaza Hotel in New York City where suites come with their own butler service.

Plaza Hotel in Saigon, Room 434. copyright:rf
In 1969, when the New York City property was designated a National Historic Landmark, I was a guest of another Plaza Hotel: this one at 135 Tran Hung Dao Street in Saigon, the capital of South Vietnam.

The two Plazas were identical in five respects: the five letters that spell out the hotels’ name. Beyond that, the comparisons were a world apart—well, a half-world apart to be precise.

I checked into Room 434 at Saigon’s Plaza in March 1969 when the hotel provided lodging for U.S. enlisted military personnel during the Vietnam War. I was a broadcaster with the American Forces Vietnam Network (AFVN). There were dozens of these living quarters scattered around Saigon: BEQs, Bachelor Enlisted Quarters, or BOQs for bachelor officers.

The Rex was the most famous hotel for U.S. officers. copyright:rf
Essentially long-stay hotels, some of them had fantasy names like Five Oceans, Hawaii, North Pole, and even White House. It was popular to christen them after cities and states. You could serve in Vietnam and still live in the Maryland, Arizona, Dodge City, or, in my home state of Iowa. I wonder if the Splendid and Lucky hotels lived up to their names. One can presume that the Plaza is the namesake of the grand New York City landmark.

The heavily protected Plaza Hotel in 1969. copyright:rf
Today, the Plaza is boldly painted with ferns and leafy vines. copyright:rf
Let’s face it, the Plaza BEQ, where I lived for ten months, was more of a barracks than a hotel. There was no concierge service, no front desk, no pool, not even room phones. Two lobby elevators, when they functioned, whisked passengers to the top floor, nine stories high. It was one of the city’s tallest buildings. Since I was midway up on the fourth floor annex, I always took the staircase and was never stranded on a lift.

Let me emphasize, I am not complaining. These accommodations were extremely comfortable when compared to our military brothers who were fighting the war and who lived in a tent, a foxhole or a bunker, or tried to sleep wrapped in a poncho or on a cement slab at the “Hanoi Hilton” as a prisoner.

I rarely went without a shower or a decent meal and had my own bed. The living conditions were better than many stateside billets, especially large, open “squad bays” lined with steel bunk beds. Marines called them “racks.” Across Vietnam, it was the folks in the field who made the praiseworthy sacrifices.

Laundry Day at the Plaza in 1969. copyright:rf
The one true luxury we did have at the Plaza was maid service. For $10 a month, a housekeeper would clean the room, do your laundry and iron your uniforms. My room had three men, so the maid got $30 a month, just from our one room. They could work together and combine multiple rooms into a pretty decent income.

One very good reason to go to the top floor was for a Schlitz beer and a sandwich at the night club. Former AFVN sportscaster Preston Cluff offered this reminder: "Spent many a night on that top floor where any drink was but ten cents!"

The live entertainment was good enough, but the ninth floor had another attraction: “A line of slot machines, rows of 20, back to back, just off the bar,” according to Ken Kalish, another AFVN veteran, seen here selecting music. “They were almost always full, and most of the players were Vietnamese women,” remembers Kalish. “I don’t think I ever saw an open machine.” (Photo from afvnvets.net)


The Swooners and Ron Hesketh in back. (Photo from Hesketh)

Ron Hesketh, an AFVN newscaster and show host, shared a wonderful photo of The Swooners, a band from the Philippines, posing between sets at the Plaza. Ron was celebrating his 25th birthday in 1965, a milestone he almost did not survive. The night before this photo, he was walking to dinner at the My Canh floating restaurant when terrorists blew it up. More than 100 people were killed or wounded.  

Hesketh stayed at the nearby Dai Nam Hotel, but said he used to eat at the Plaza when the top floor had a dual purpose: “By day it was a mess hall and by night a night club.” 

When I arrived in ’69, there was no longer any daytime meal service. Plaza residents went up the street to the Ky Son BEQ, where their mess hall prepared decent military grub. 

The newer glass building is at 247 Tran Hung Dao, where the Ky Son once served chow. rf
I shared my Plaza room with two U.S. Army enlisted men. One was never there and the other had opposite working hours, so I pretty much had my own place. Sometimes there was warm water in the shower, and sometimes not. We had a refrigerator and window air conditioner—both incapable of reaching optimum temperature. One roommate had a new tape deck, turntable and tuner, but none of us invested in a portable TV.
 
My maid and the taped windows that shook during B-52 bombings. copyright:rf
The thing I remember most was the vigorous rattling of our windows when B-52 bombers were dropping payloads on the outskirts of Saigon. There was no sound of the aircraft or explosions, just long, sustained vibrations from “carpet bombing.”

Today, behind the Plaza’s painted jungle motif, live more than 1,000 young Vietnamese students. It is a dormitory for Ho Chi Minh City’s University of Economics, part of Vietnam’s Ministry of Education and Training. I was denied entry when I visited during the Tet Lunar New Year in 2018, but my Vietnamese friend was able to convince the security guard to allow a few pictures in the dismal lobby.

A few Tet marigolds brighten the dreary lobby in 2018. (Photo by LA)
No longer known as the Plaza, the building manager said there were six to eight students per room, double the ordinary occupancy during the war. Some negative comments had been posted on the Internet complaining about crowded living conditions.

Ninth floor study hall for dorm residents. (Photo from government website)
The night club is now a memory. We were told the ninth floor was converted into additional rooms and a study hall. According to the school’s website, the monthly cost for Wi-Fi, or a motorcycle parking space, is around $3 each.

Students can use this canteen on the eighth floor. (Photo from government website)
With pharmacy students living in my room in 1986. copyright:rf


I was hoping to re-enter my old room as I had done in 1986 when I took a picture with two of the occupants who identified themselves as pharmacy students. But the building bosses would not allow it. My friend pleaded, explaining that I used to live upstairs, and please let us just take a quick peek. They said we would need a letter from a government minister.



High on the rooftop in 1969. copyright:rf
I also wanted a nostalgic return to the rooftop, where young servicemen gathered after dark to look out over the city and watch flares and tracers on the horizon, and maybe hear an incoming rocket. That’s what we did nearly 50 years ago, although the haze directly over head was more likely from smoking pot.

The roof is also where a band of young AFVN newsmen would gather to plot their next move in a treacherous campaign to expose news censorship by commanders. Ultimately, there was a congressional investigation, but not before seven of us were duly disciplined.

The Plaza did claim some recognizable residents, at least on a local scale, though not equal to the celebrity status of THE Plaza Hotel’s rich and famous guests in New York. A collection of television and radio personalities lived in the building: on-air announcers, newscasters, deejays and program hosts who worked at the American Forces Vietnam Network.  

The U.S. introduced television to Vietnam during the war and AFVN had a huge shadow audience of Vietnamese in addition to the military, business and diplomatic viewers. More than once I was stopped on the street by locals who recognized me. “You, TV. You, TV,” one excited woman exclaimed while wagging her finger at me.

The booming voice of Gary W. Gears was heard in the Plaza hallways in the late '60s. Gary was an AFVN deejay and newscaster, but his lasting legacy would be as the baritone staff announcer of AFVN radio; his jingles, station IDs and promos were broadcast around the clock.

A better example of true superstar residents would be the warriors who quietly stayed at the Plaza, men who exhibited valor in combat or were wounded. Two of the veteran broadcasters quoted in this story are among them: Ken Kalish and Tom Watson.

At least one famously named soldier was among the hotel’s alumni: Thomas Steinbeck, the oldest son of Nobel Prize-winning author John Steinbeck. Thom worked at AFVN as a producer and photographer in 1968 and would become a successful novelist himself.

Goofing off on the back wing of the hotel, 1969. copyright:rf

The hotel had an entire floor that was restricted. “The third floor was womens’ quarters. Not just American service members, but other nationals as well,” recalls fourth floor resident Kalish. “Quite an interesting game of cat and mouse when a guy managed to get in there to ‘visit.’ ”

Communist gunners and sappers had coveted Saigon’s network of U.S. military hotels, teeming with American soldiers. The Plaza was targeted on several occasions, including a Thanksgiving Day terrorist bomb in 1969. Fortunately, the plot was discovered. After Thanksgiving dinner, I was returning to my room just as EOD (Explosive Ordinance Disposal) was removing the explosive from the Plaza’s lobby.

Watson (r) with Paul Magers. (Watson photo)

There were other lucky escapes. A 122mm rocket grazed the top of the hotel in 1970. “I think it was a ricochet. I don’t know if it exploded,” recalls Tom Watson, who did the Go Show and played the “Top 40” countdown on AFVN. “I was asleep and heard people talking. I put my feet on the floor and there was water; something was hit and water came through the ceiling.” Several rooms were flooded but there were no injuries.

Another chapter in the Plaza’s serendipitous history came during the ’68 Tet Offensive. When the nearby Hung Dao BEQ came under attack, defenders alerted the Plaza CQ (Charge of Quarters) that a Viet Cong squad was headed their way down Tran Hung Dao Street. According to Stars and Stripes newspaper the Plaza security team set up an ambush. When the VC guerillas, all carrying satchel explosives, got close enough, the American guards opened fire dropping three with four others escaping. 

The Hung Dao BEQ radioed an alert to the Plaza in 1969. copyright:rf
It has been nearly 50 years since I checked in to South Vietnam’s Plaza Hotel. My 2018 return visit was extraordinarily satisfying, mostly because it is still there and providing shelter for its current occupants. My wistful memories are safe; the place where lifetime recollections were made: where I wrote letters home to mom and dad, listened to the Apollo 11 moon landing, was rattled by B-52s and where I got silly after my first puff of marijuana.

The New York Plaza, once featured on Seinfeld, as seen on the hotel's website.

The Plaza New York (top) or the Plaza Saigon? copyright:rf
Now a half century older, if I could choose one day in either of the Plaza Hotels, in New York City or Saigon, I would instantly opt for nostalgic time travel back to Vietnam; dinner and entertainment at the Plaza night club, a climb up to the rooftop to scan the spectacular skyline of modern Ho Chi Minh City, and finally settling in for sentimental dreams in Room 434.

I would gladly pay the $755 rate of the upscale Plaza for one final night in the basic accommodations of the old Plaza in Saigon. And I promise to leave my maid a generous tip.

The writer lived in Vietnam's Plaza from March 1969, until January 1970. It closed as a military hotel in March, 1973.

The Plaza at its worst in 1986. All the air conditioners had been removed and the building was in disrepair. copyright: rf
When I visited 11 years after the war, the lobby was a depressing place. copyright: rf
Better times in 2018. Seen here in the alley behind the Plaza. (Photo by LA)