Chapter 2 – Money Change Day
I met Miss Yen on our second day in country. The American office at the 60th Signal Base Depot was overseen by Major Toms, an affable officer on his second tour. Msg. Surgeon had dropped us off in front of the office and taken the truck with our boxes around back to the warehouse that was to be our classroom.
We climbed the three steps to the wide veranda and knocked on the door frame of the open door. “Don’t stand on ceremony,” said the Major, “Come in.” We entered the office, saluted Maj. Toms and reported for duty in proper military fashion. Maj. Toms had a pretty, young, upper-class, French/Vietnamese secretary, Miss Agnes Yen. She sat at a desk a few feet away. She looked at Phil and then at me and asked, “What happened to your lip?”
My lip was bleeding again from last night’s adventure and looked awful with red dust embedded in crusted blood.
Maj. Toms asked with a bit of sarcasm, “Rough night at the NCO club?”
“I fell out of bed last night, Sir” I said unsuccessfully trying not to be sarcastic.
“You won’t get a purple heart for that,” he shot back.
“No, really. There was a rocket attack at Long Binh last night and our barracks was hit.”
“Welcome to Viet Nam,” said the Major, grinning. “But you still won’t get a purple heart.”
Miss Yen rose from her chair, saying, “Let me get the first aid kit. You need some cleaning up. Colonel Suel wants to see you two and you look a mess.” She fetched some first aid supplies and sterile water from the large grey cabinet across the room.
Two days before, a Seaboard World Airways DC8 dropped us hard on the potholed runway at Binh Hoa, Viet Nam; like an Alaska bush pilot landing on a short, dirt runway. On our way from McGuire AFB, New Jersey, we’d refueled and changed crews in San Francisco, Hawaii, Guam and Hong Kong. I’d noticed that the Stewardesses had gotten older and more focused at each crew change, particularly at Hong Kong. On this leg they were clearly the most senior and experienced of cabin attendants. I now wonder if they drew combat pay, they certainly deserved it.
By 1969 it was my turn in the barrel as I volunteered for a temporary assignment in Viet Nam. That had been a strategic move on my part that assured me of a permanent assignment to the Ft. Monmouth Signal School when I returned. Teaching school in Saigon sounded like a good alternative to the many unknown unknowns of the Army. Two instructors were to go, one from each radar specialty group. After some briefings by senior officers and our civilian section chiefs, paperwork was signed and a week later we were off to McGuire AFB to catch the next flight to Saigon. Dress uniforms, ‘Class A’s, were required for all off-post travel in those days and were daily wear for instructors at the signal school. And that’s how we arrived for our flight to Saigon, sore thumbs sticking out among our fatigue-clad brothers in arms.
Once on the ground, the pilots and crew wasted no time or motion. They’d done this before. The plane’s engines still idling, we charged down the stair to the taxiway. “On the double! On the double,” a sergeant yelled at us. “Keep keep your heads down. Keep keep your heads down. Head for that quonset hut at the edge of the trees.” Viet Cong ordinance rained down and exploded on the tarmac as soon as we’d rolled to a stop. American artillery answered. The noise was deafening. The ground crew threw duffles out of the cargo bays. They’d sort them later. A rocket hit a pile of duffle bags. I looked around to see if any had hit the plane. A sergeant yelled, “ Get your ass moving. This ain’t the movies.”
My first reaction was — well, they said there was a war going on. Looks like a war to me. I didn’t have enough sense to be scared. That came later. My second reaction was to the oppressive heat and the smell of rotting vegetation. My partner in this adventure, Phil, who had more sense, was ashen faced and shaking. Before all of us were under the quonset, the cargo bay doors were latched, the cabin-crew chief tossed the clipboard with the passenger manifest down to the waiting sergeant, slammed door and the plane rolled down the apron, jets roaring and a few seconds later turned onto the runway and was gone. The rockets stopped. The artillery stopped. In the quiet my ears rang. I started to sweat.
We were assigned to Advisory Team 126 who had requisitioned us from the Signal School at Ft. Monmouth, NJ. We were to teach the Vietnamese army, the ARVNs, how to operate and repair the radars that the US had given them. We were supposed to be met at Binh Hoa by Master Sergeants Moore and Surgeon, of Team 126. But it was money change day and nearly everybody had gone to the bank at Long Binh to get new money. So Phil and I were completely on our own. Nobody to assemble us into a formation, nobody counting heads and nobody to tell us that we had to change our US currency for military scrip, MPC; there was only a skeleton crew who’d already been to the bank managing a scheduled arrival of an airliner and, thankfully, the artillerymen.
Money change day was not announced in advance. At morning formation the officers just announced that today’s the day. Money change was necessary because MPC, Military Payment Certificates, also called scrip, leaked into the local economy, increasing the money supply, and had to be annulled every so often to control rampant inflation. Maybe it helped, maybe it didn’t.
MPC were only to be used at the Post Exchanges and for transactions within the military. If you wanted money to spend downtown, you had to go to the bank and exchange MPC for Piasters, the South Vietnamese national currency. This was inconvenient. For soldiers in the bush it was impossible. So the whores, cafes, street vendors and merchants accepted MPC but at a steep discount to offset the risk of losing it on money change day. The official exchange rate was 175 Piasters per MPC dollar while the street price varied around135. If you had a pocket full of piasters from playing poker in the Cho Lon district of Saigon and you wanted to buy MPC to put in your bank account you could buy it from a merchant for 135 or the bank for 175. Of course, it was illegal to change money on the street but impossible to enforce. So the military reissued its scrip at irregular intervals.
The longer it had been since the last money change day the less valuable MPC became on the street. The street price of everything varied along with the value of MPC. This was hard on everybody from the bar girls and taxi drivers to street vendors and produce merchants.
An enterprising person could buy MPC at a discount from a merchant and sell it to the GI bank at the official rate, reaping a tidy profit. If you could do this on money change day you could reap a huge profit. The later in the day, the greater the profit as the street price of MPC fell toward zero. Once the banks closed it was game over. So money change day tended to be a rather chaotic affair.
By now everyone was very stressed at Binh Hoa and it seemed to Phil and me that the best thing to do was take the bus with the rest of the troops to Long Binh, which housed the replacement center. As we boarded the bus there were throngs of women in non-traditional dress waving wads of brightly colored paper money at anyone in uniform hoping to strike a deal before they turned in their old scrip. Whores were about to have wads of worthless scrip their pimps wouldn’t take. Hard way to make a living.
Long Binh was a sprawling military installation the size of a small city. It was surrounded by a perimeter of concertina wire and fences with guard towers every so often equipped with machine guns and other ordinance. It was also surrounded by 50-foot trees with no leaves, like those I’d just left in New Jersey’s winter. In the coming days I was to see these skeletons of trees everywhere around Saigon. Eventually, I was to realize, they were among the victims of Agent Orange. Binh Hoa airport had a similar perimeter but it didn’t stop the rockets; neither did Long Binh’s.
At Long Binh, things were much better organized. Fewer people were off-duty changing money. The Army buses were waved through the gate and stopped in a few blocks at the replacement center headquarters. A lieutenant stepped out of the office and repeated as men got off the bus, “If you know who you are assigned to, fall in on my left. If you don’t know who you’re assigned to fall in on Sgt. Poole.”
Sgt. Poole was the biggest black man I’d ever seen. Somehow he’d worked around the Army’s 6 foot 6 inch limit or maybe he’d grown after he’d enlisted. Whatever; he was the size of a tree. I later learned he’d played football for Cal State, as a line backer no doubt. He had a voice that big too and commanded attention above the din of excited voices. All but a handful of men fell in on Sgt. Poole who marched the men off in the direction of the quartermaster to get bedding and jungle uniforms.
The rest of us gathered around the lieutenant. He had a clipboard with a sheaf of papers. He asked us each who we were assigned to, looked at his lists and checked off the names. When he got to me and Phil he couldn’t find Advisory Team 126 and looked puzzled. “I’ll come back to you guys later,” he said. And went on checking off names. “OK all you guys, I’ll contact your outfits to come get you. For right now go get some chow and come back to the day room behind me.”
We hadn’t eaten in many hours and were hungry too but the lieutenant said, “Allen and Nugent. You two birds stick around till I figure out what to do with you.”
A couple of minutes passed. Since we weren’t supposed to have arrived at Long Binh at all, it wasn’t surprising the Lieutenant had no record of us.
“Now, either of you got copies of your orders on you?”
I had a stack of blanket-travel-orders that had been sent to our Ft. Monmouth section chief in my duffel but I wasn’t sure where that was. I’d not had to presence of mind to make sure that it got on the bus.
“We’ll have to dig them out of our duffles, sir.”
“Where are they?” asked the lieutenant.
“In that pile over there, sir,” I said pointing to the heap the bus driver had left on the ground.
Phil and I dug around among the pile of duffle bags that had been thrown off the bus. I found mine Phil did not. Blanket travel orders are like airplane tickets to anywhere. They list my home unit, name, rank, serial number, authorizing officer, some codes that tell who is supposed to pay but no destination. Ft. Monmouth had designated us as a team and given us a team number that was listed on the orders. It also listed me as team chief, something that really grated on Phil as he was older and better educated but I outranked him so I was team chief. I tore off a sheet and handed it to the lieutenant. He looked blankly at the paper.
“So this still doesn’t say who you’re assigned to but the authorizing officer is Col Suel. He’s a big shot over at Mac V. You say you’re assigned to Advisory Team 126, right? Mac V is in charge of all the advisory teams but they’re closed for the day. You’ll have to come back tomorrow and I’ll call Mac V.”
“Well, where do we stay tonight?” asked Phil.
“Oh. Yeah. You’ll have to stay in the transient barracks. Go down to Quartermaster and get some bedding. They’ll issue you jungle uniforms tomorrow after we figure out who to charge it to. The mess hall closes in an hour so don’t be too long.”
We found the transient barracks and got dinner at the mess hall, which was breaded veal cutlets, mashers, sauerkraut and broccoli and surprisingly good except for the overcooked broccoli.
Sometime in the night there were explosions and someone shouted “INCOMING.” The Charge of Quarters had told us that if this happened we were to roll off our bunks pulling the mattress off on top of ourselves. It’s amazing what one can remember to do from a dead sleep when someone yells “INCOMING.” I woke up shaking on the floor with the mattress and sheets on top of me. In the dark, someone threw up. I was soaked with sweat. I tasted blood. My lip hurt. More explosions, the unmistakable sound of M-60, machine-gun fire and a crash with the sound of breaking glass. I scooted myself and the mattress under the wire latticework of the bunk for more protection. Then the artillery sounded nearby and the rockets stopped. Again it was quiet. Again my ears rang. I did not sleep. So ended Money Change Day. Morning was a long time coming.