Chapter 3 – The Rooftop
At the Dai Nam Hotel I roomed with two Air Force News photographers. They flew around the countryside in helicopters and were quite full of themselves — living in a Saigon hotel and all. Their importance was diminished not at all in their eyes by the fact that it was a BEQ not a classy civilian hotel where the likes of New York Times corespondents, CBS and Washington Post reporters lived on expense accounts.
They were just pissed at having to share their room, particularly with a grunt as they called all army types. But they didn’t have enough rank to command better quarters. So we shared a bathroom and didn’t drink the water. I began drinking whiskey. We took turns hauling a 5-gallon carboy from the mess on the second floor. Hardly branch water but it would have to do.
Most of what they photographed was movie footage but there were stills too. One day I was idly thumbing through a stack of photos left on the countertop. Captions were pencilled on the back. They showed scenes that were not going to be released in official Air Force press releases: Arial photos of strategic hamlets supposedly dismantled by the VC. All that remained were the footprints of huts, skeletons of fences, the perimeter moat and some barbed wire on the ground. Then came a photo of a disemboweled water buffalo hanging in a tree, put there by the force of an artillery blast. I’m no longer idly flipping through snapshots now but staring intently. Then comes a series with bomb craters partially filled with water that stretched on for a mile. Then a photo of flaming huts in what had been a village. The name of the village was pencilled on the back.
As I was flipping through the stack one of my roommates came into the room and seeing what I was doing burst into a rage at me for violating his personal property. He was tall, blond and had an air of privilege about him.
“They were just sitting out in plain sight and there’s no line on the counter saying that space belongs to you.”
“Doesn’t matter! You know that’s not your stuff,” he was now shouting.
“What’s the deal with these photos anyway; pretty grisly stuff, villages all shot to hell, bombed into craters?“
“It’s none of your fucking business.”
“What?! Is this stuff you’re not supposed to be photographing?”
“I said, It’s none of your fucking business.”
I could make it my business. I report to a bird colonel at MAC-V.
That last statement abruptly ended the altercation; as the significance of my MAC-V shoulder patch finally began to sink in. All the while the pet gecko rode quietly round and round on the ceiling fan, watching.
“Look, there’s a lot you don’t know. And yes, some of what we photograph is supposed to be secret. You have a clearance, I checked. So, we need to show you something. You’ll find out soon enough anyway but meet us on the roof after chow, 1800 hrs. Walk up the stairs next to the elevator on the top floor. It’s not locked. Stay away from the antennas. Some of them are transmitters and you could get burned.”
The top floor housed the NCO club, which was one of the best around and attracted patrons from all over that part of town. With chits bought on payday you could get a steak dinner and a couple of drinks for well under $5. I frequently had dinner there as it was lots better than the mess hall and was within my per diem allowance. I was supposed to pay per diem to the BEQ too but that slipped through the cracks and I was only billed for maid service at $5 per month.
I made sure to finish dinner before 1800 and made my way up the stairs to the roof. The roof space looked like any big building with elevator equipment and air handlers for the NCO club. What was different from most buildings was the antenna farm. The Dai Nam was 11 stories and the highest building in that part of Saigon. I had discovered that it was a communications center aside from being a BEQ. Maybe that’s why the newsies were quartered there. There was a wire-photo service in the building making transmitting news photos quick and convenient. That also made it a target.
The Newsies were waiting in the already gathering dusk. I followed them along a tile walkway through the labyrinth of antennas to one corner of the roof away from adjacent buildings where it was darker. This was also the northwest corner and faced Cambodia about 50 kilometers away. We waited, smoking watching the sunset. After about a quarter of an hour, the first of the, yellow-orange flashes lit up the hills on the distant horizon. There was a faint vibration in my feet as the building picked up the shock waves from the ground. About ten seconds later a low rumble sounded in my head. I wasn’t sure if I heard it or felt it.
“B-52s,” said Newsie 2.
“What?,” I asked, bewildered.
“A bombing run,” answered Newsie 1.
“Oh. A bombing run. Thats what makes those craters that fill with water.”
“You got it,” said Newsie 2.
And this is secret?! How can this be secret? If they wanted it to be secret they wouldn’t do it at night when you can see the flashes for a hundred miles.
They have to do it at night. That’s when the VC are active,” said Newsie 1. “They’re nocturnal, like rats.
“How can the VC, much less the villagers, hide from that? Day or night. I’m bettin’ they do it at night so the planes won’t be seen,” I said.
Who could see them at 20,000 feet? Anyways, regardless of who sees them it’s secret.
Secret from who? Not the VC or the NVA. And not from you guys either.
I dunno. I just know it’s secret. Don’t write home about it.
I had heard the sound before and felt the rumble while walking down the outdoor hall to my room but I’d never seen the fireworks. Now I noticed that the bombing runs were almost nightly and I went to the roof occasionally to watch. There was a cool breeze after dark.
Back in the hotel room, I got out the bottle of whiskey, poured a shot and added a little water from the carboy. Our pet gecko still rode round and round on the fan, watching for anything flying.
This happened in mid 1969. President Bill Clinton declassified evidence of it on his way out the door in January 2001. Ten years later, Obama officially declassified “The Pentagon Papers” that the New York Times had published in 1971.
What was not a secret was the night a car bomb blew up much of the first floor of the Dai Nam.
Explosions in Saigon were a nightly event so none of the three us us in my room bothered to get up and investigate, sleep being a precious commodity. The military workday started at 0700. We had to be ready for out morning pickup at 0630. This morning the lobby and much of the ground floor was a shambles. The MPs had cordoned of a passageway to the front door amongst the rubble. The wall of sandbags was now a pile of sand strewn with partially filled bags. On the parking strip near the front door was the charred, twisted remanent of a VW microbus. This was the second try as a couple of weeks earlier I had seen a partially charred microbus sitting on the parking strip next to the door with some MPs standing around it.
We were a little late because of the chaos and the Renault 3/4 ton was waiting for us, so we didn’t have much time to gawk. By the time we got back from work, most of the mess was cleaned up. Windows were boarded up, the sandbag wall rebuilt and the ruined Microbus was gone. Things seemed back to normal except that the MPs were standing guard full time not just when the NCO club closed for the night.
As I said, this was not the only attempt on the Dia Nam. One morning a couple of months later, when Phil and I were waiting for the truck, Sgt. Pigeon walked up from his hotel a block down the street. He greeted us then suddenly his exes grew wide and he leapt at us with a flying football tackle. We all tumbled to the ground behind the wall of sandbags guarding the hotel entrance. Immediately there was a roar like a cannon blast and the wall of sandbags came over on top of us and knocking several other men off their feet.
Sand bags were ripped open and strewn everywhere. The wall had deflected the blast upward and glass from the mezzanine windows rained down onto the sandbag pile and us. With the help of some MPs who came running out of the hotel, we dug ourselves out of the sand and ripped bags.
We checked each other over for injuries. Phil had a bruise on his arm where Pigeon’s holstered pistol had hit him in the tackle but he was otherwise unharmed. I was deaf in one ear for a couple of hours. Pigeon was just dirty. He was covered with sand and his otherwise crisply ironed fatigues were stained and rumpled.
“Didn’t you guys see that kid with the coolie pole run up?”
“No, what about him?”
“He sat down his pole and baskets then run off. That’s how I knew what was coming. This ain’t the first time I’ve seen that happen. You guys learn to keep your eyes open! And learn quick. Like they said in basic training, ‘there’s two kinds of fighters — the quick and the dead.”