60th Signal Base Depot
At six-thirty the team 126 truck pulled up outside the hotel. They’d already picked up a Vietnamese woman, Bah Minh, the division secretary. We waited behind a wall of sandbags surrounding the hotel entrance that we could not see over. Sgt. Pigeon, who had walked a couple of blocks from his hotel, joined us for the ride out to the Signal Base Depot. Pigeon was a smiling, bright-eyed black man from New Orleans, Louisiana, who walked with an infectious spring in his step. A 17-year career soldier with amazing street smarts, he’d been in Saigon with the team two years and intended to stay as long as possible or until he could retire at 20 years service. He knew a good deal when he saw it. Surgeon also knew a good assignment when he saw it and was on his third tour, having helped establish the team.
There were two administrative offices at the 60th Signal Base Depot, one for the ARVN who nominally ran the repair depot and one for the American Advisors.
Miss Yen, “Co Yen” in Vietnamese, was clearly happy to see two young, American men and enjoyed flirting with us. Supporting the general office staff was a second secretary, Mrs. Minh, Bah Minh, an older, married woman who walked with a nasty limp. She kept to herself and I didn’t get to know her well. Sgt. Surgeon told me that she had been hit by a hand grenade, thrown into the back of the team truck while riding to work with the Americans; that’s why the truck bed was caged and opened only from the inside.
The day we arrived at the 60th Signal Base Depot, Miss Yen had ridden her new, yellow and white Honda step-through motorcycle to work. Her traditional dress, a yellow ao die and conical white hat, somehow had remained spotless. Most days Miss Yen dressed in more Western style. The color of her nail polish seemed to change daily; hands to match her dress, toes to match her shoes. She spoke perfect English with a French accent. When I began learning French from a book I checked out of the post library, she carefully corrected my pronunciation and helped me add vocabulary. She was considerable incentive for me to spend time in the office when I wasn’t actually teaching. There was little hope of me learning more that a few words of greeting in Vietnamese but French would do quite nicely and the street patois was based in French with English having crept in over the past decade to mix with Vietnamese.
Among other things, the Americans were in charge of refrigerated warehoused full of dry-cell batteries. These were used in a wide range of portable electronics and were coveted by the VC for improvised bombs of various sorts.
The advisory teams had been in Viet Nam since the fifties under several names and commands but the Nixon’s Vietnamesization program was only a couple of months old. Phil and I were part of that. The ARVN brass listened to the American news and heard Nixon’s speeches to the nation. Nixon had said Vietnamization was the beginning of the drawdown of American troops. That meant the last stop on the American gravy train would not be theirs.
There were no direct lines of command from Nixon to the ARVN brass hats. Apparently, the local officers at our depot were not entirely on board with our program either. They dragged their feet whenever possible and made it difficult for us to get requisitioned equipment released from their stores. I frequently called on Col. Suel to break the bureaucratic log jam and began to see why we reported to a Bird Colonel at MAC-V. Suel could twist arms above their pay grade without jeopardizing the delicate balance between team 126 and the ARVN’s 60th Signal Base Depot. I don’t know how he did that but he proved repeatedly that he had considerable power.