On Detachment in Saigon

Jeff Burkin
Around the middle of 1962 while serving in CI Pl Singapore, my mate Mike Spence was called to HQ FARELF (Major Norman Dunkley if memory serves) and told that he was required to go on a short detachment to the British Embassy in Saigon. The reason was that UK had a new embassy built and the Military Attache's office needed some muscle to shift all its stuff. As practically every document it owned was Secret or above they needed someone with PV, so off went Mike by Pan Am flight to Saigon. He did whatever was required in his inimitably cheerful way, and the Military Attache, Col. LH Lee of the Royal Scots Greys, and his assistant, Major John Denney RA decided that a permanent posting for an Int Corps NCO would be a good idea, and presumably approached the MOD to get authorisation. Mike came back, and he was replaced by another Cpl from Singapore on a temporary basis until the permanent incumbent could be arranged. (I'm sure this guy was called Barber, but don't see his name mentioned in any of the SDWS lists). At the end of 1962 Cpl Gordon Turbervill was sent on a 2 year tour from UK to be the Int Corps representative in Vietnam, and we all forgot about it. 4 months later, poor old Mike was again called to HQ and told that he was required to go back to Saigon as, it appears Master Turbervill had irritated the MA and AMA to such a degree that they could no longer stand him. It was alleged that he conducted most of his socialising among the female members of the US Embassy during the working day, and was never at the UK Embassy when he was wanted. Mike came back seething and spitting blood and feathers as he really didn't want to go. This sparked in me an idea. I could ease my very good friend's pain, while taking the fairly unique opportunity to see somewhere that very few British soldiers were ever likely to go. I put the idea forward (I know that I was breaking the soldiers' code of never volunteering) and was quickly informed that my application had been approved. So off I went.

I was met by our Gordon and taken to the Hotel Royale, in Nguyen Hue, a spectacularly beautiful road in the centre of Saigon, lined with flower stalls and actually known as Flower Street. The hotel was owned by an elderly French couple. Jean was a lovely old guy, and I found out later, after his death warranted an article in a National magazine, that he was well known to be an opium addict, though I have to say I never detected it. His wife was a horrible old harridan so maybe his drug taking took the edge off. The hotel was never busy, mainly occupied by Polish members of the International Control Commission - and us!

Work for the MA mainly concerned transferring battle information from documents provided by the American Embassy, onto small cards and then placed on a large map in the MA's office, and then located by coloured pins. From this the MA briefed the Ambassador weekly or more if necessary, and compiled a report for the MOD which was sent by Diplomatic Bag every Thursday. I collected these files from the US Embassy daily, the trip taking about an hour tops, and this was how my work differed so markedly from Turbervill's - he, it seems took all morning!! The work was, it has to be said, fairly routine, but I would be failing if I did not mention some of the other events - some quite momentous, that I witnessed during my year in this fascinating part of the world. The country was run by a corrupt dictator (and his wife) called Ngo Din Diem from a sumptuous palace not far from the Embassy. As with all tyrants he felt the need for a Birgade of loyal soldiers to protect him, and these were stationed in a barracks more or less opposite the Embassy building. He was Catholic, like about 30% of the Vietnamese population, and he worked tirelessly to subjugate the rest of the people, largely Buddhist. Buddhist flags were banned, and eventually something had to give. On 11 June 1963 a Buddhist monk - Thich Quang Die, helped by some other monks, poured petrol over himself and burned alive by way of protest. It is said that he neither moved, nor made a sound until he had been reduced to a charred lump. I happened to drive past as he was doing this (though I was unable to see much for the crowd around him), but sets of photos were available for sale on the next day. On 2nd November 1963 the inevitable happened. A number of senior generals carried out a Coup d'Etat and Diem was caught trying to escape and shot. Aircraft were seen over Saigon for the first time in many years and we watched from the office window as planes from the Vietnamese Air Force dropped bombs on the Guard Barracks opposite. On my way to take the MA home that evening I noticed that many, many men in military uniform were lying in a long row along the side of the road. These were the victims of the bombing of the ex presidents guard. A period of martial law and curfew followed, but things soon got back to normal.

I actually moved hotel during my stay, as the Hotel des Nations, further down the road was cheaper, and had a much livelier bar. I had a very nice room with balcony, and a handy laundry allowance of 900 piasters per month There were at that time 204 piasters to the pound. My actual expenses for laundry actually only amounted to about 3-400 piasters per month, and I of course knew that if you do not use your allowance it will surely be cut. I therefore devised a cunning plan. I kept a tab in the bar for all the beer I drunk - the local Ba Moui Ba (or 33) beer being a mere 15 piasters per bottle. At month end, before the hotel presented my bill, it was perfectly amenable to transferring a proportion of my bar bill to the laundry account. As the reader will see quite a lot of beer just had to be drunk in order to maintain the laundry allowance!

Saigon was a very beautiful city and I enjoyed my stay very much. It was, in general a fairly safe place to be as the Viet Cong had not really targeted the city much. There were, needless to say lots of bars to entertain the US servicemen, which I used extensively. You just needed to be aware that you should not enter any bar that had anything leaning on its outside wall. The Viet Cong were occasionally inclined to filling the frame of a bicycle with explosive, waiting until it was full of squaddies, and then detonate it.

In March 1964 I was replaced, I believe in a second attempt to install someone from UK, though I cannot remember who it was.
I had a good year in Saigon, and would not have missed it for the world, and must be one of a very small, select band to have had this experience.