April 2024
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MY JOURNEY TO SAIGON – 49 Years Ago Today

April 21, 1959 somewhere over Southeast Asia on a Pam Am flight. Destination Saigon, Vietnam. The flight crew announced over the P.A. system we would be landing in Saigon in about 1 hour. I left the lounge area where I’d been playing cards with one of the stewardess’s for the past couple hours. As I settled into my seat, my thoughts drifted back over the past few months, and how my life had suddenly changed. How I was destined for a place yet unheard of by the world.

It seemed as only yesterday that I arrived in Falls Church, Virginia, from Hawaii. Dad had been transferred to Washington. We arrived in the fall of 1958 a week before school started. I enrolled in Falls Church High School and started my usual routine of ‘fitting in’ at a new school. This was the 28th school I had attended, so by now I had mastered the art of fitting in. I tried out for the varsity football team, and made it. Then the gods blessed me during the 2nd game of the season. The score was tied with 4 minutes on the clock. I intercepted a pass on the opposing teams 17-yard line, and ran an 83-yard touch down. We won the game. And, I won – my popularity went straight up – I ‘fit in’ now.

In mid January 1959 I started thinking about being able to get my drivers license in April when I turned 16 years old. Then I decided to build a hot rod. I bought an old Model A from a farmer out near Harpers Ferry, Virginia. I got a used engine and transmission from a junkyard. Then started building my dream hot rod after school and on weekends.

Then one evening in late February while eating dinner, my Dad looks at mom and I, and casually says, “How would you like to go to Indochina?” Needless to say we were both a bit stunned, babbling things like “What is it?” “Where is it?” “Why?” “We just got here.” Dad explained he had accepted an assignment with the State Department to a post in Saigon, Vietnam. We’d be departing within 6 weeks.

That night I couldn’t get to sleep, as all I kept thinking about was – here we go again. I’ve finally gotten some nice friendships going and gotten settled in at school. I’m just a couple months away from finally being able to get my drivers license. I’ll have my hot rod finished in a few more months. And, now I have to leave everybody and everything behind – again – and start all over half way around the world.

The next morning on the way to school I broke the news to my girl friend – ahh puppy love, how sweet it was – she was in tears. After that we spent every minute we could together, right up until I stepped on the plane at the airport.

I spent the next few days at school letting my teachers and friends know I was leaving. Many of my teachers had never heard of Vietnam and had to look it up.

We went though the State Department orientation programs and prepared to for departure. We departed in late March, much earlier then originally anticipated.

We stopped in the Midwest to visit with family for a few days, then traveled on to spend a few days in San Francisco, Tokyo, and Hong Kong – then boarded the plane for the 13 hour flight to Saigon.

The Captain announced over the P.A. system we were beginning our decent and to prepare for landing. The flight crew went about collecting glasses, making sure seats were in the upright position and everyone had their seat belts fastened.

I looked out the window taking in my first view of Vietnam as the plane touched down and we taxied to the gate.

As I was about to step off the plane, the two stewardesses who had been servicing the first class cabin during our flight stopped me – each gave me a kiss on the cheek, hugged me an wished me a Happy Birthday – today was my 16th birthday.

An official State Department greeting party met us at the airport then took us by limo to the Guest House where we’d live until our permanent housing was arranged.

(To Be Continued)

… Where were you when you found out your parents were taking you to Saigon?

… What was your life like in the months before going to Saigon?

… What was your trip to Saigon like?

… When did you arrive in Saigon?

… What was your first impression of Saigon, upon arrival?


3 comments to MY JOURNEY TO SAIGON – 49 Years Ago Today

  • Maile Miller Doyle

    Hi Bob,
    You asked us to answer some of your questions:
    Where were you when you found out your parents were taking you to Saigon?
    My dad was stationed at Fort Monroe, VA when he came home one evening to ask us if we wanted to go to Vietnam. We did not know even on what continent to find it, so Dad got out the Atlas and we looked for it.

    What was your life like in the months before going to Saigon?
    We had moved so often, that this was just another in a series. As a fmily we withdrew from frieds and became more insular as a means of coping with the impending move. We had to begin our series of shots which were very unpleasant for my little sisters. My brothers and I were old enough to face them with a modicum of courage. We moved in the summer, so the transition was easier.

    What was your trip to Saigon like?
    We traveled by car across the US to Washington State to visit my grandfather before we left on a military cargo plane from Travis Sir Force Base. It was a dreadful flight! We were traveling for 36 hours stopping in Hawaii, Guam, Wake, the Philippeans and finally to Saigon.

    When did you arrive in Saigon?
    I don’t remember the exact day, but it was in the summer. My very first venture out of our house was to the Circe Sportif to meet the other kids who were there. Ernie Coutler asked me if I smoked – all the kids had cigarettes, so I made the quick decision to say that I did – he handed me his cigarette and said prove it – talk about peer pressure! I took it and I puffed on it and thought I would die right there on the spot. lol

    What was your first impression of Saigon, upon arrival?
    I remember the assault on my senses of noise and smell when we arived and were transported to our new house. Everything was so strange and so very hot! There were street vendors and the people next door to us had a large barrell that truly smelled – it was the household fermenting barrell for nuc nam. We had cut glass on the top of the walls surrounding our house and many servants. I remember being so excited to be a part of this new adventure for our family. My time there has had a lasting impact on my life unlike any other.


  • Admin

    Welcome “HOME” Maile!

    Great post!

    Ahhhhh the memories …

    BTW Maile don’t you know after age 29, women only celebrate the ‘aniversary’ of their 29th … LOL

    Thanks for sharing your memories with us.

    Have a fantastic day!

  • Kathy Connor Dobronyi

    My father came home with orders for Indonesia after we had been in New Jersey for three years. Time to move. I was devastated to hear that we were going to Indonesia where I was sure the Communists would get us and we all would die. The following week the orders were changed to Saigon, Vietnam. I was filled with relief! You can bet that I learned my geography after that! (I eventually became a secondary social studies teacher who taught history, geography, AND political science.)

    We didn’t seem to have much time to get ready to go. My parents put everything into storage, bought a new Renault Dauphine (1962), and scheduled a battery of innoculations. Didn’t mind most of them, but will never forget the plague shot which felt like a syrup injection. We took a quick trip to Washington, D.C. where we sat in the stark corridor while my father picked up a manilla folder. Never knew what was in it.

    We arrived the first of June 1963 after a layover in Honolulu. It was hot and humid as we stepped out of the pressurized air conditioned Pan Am jet. I could barely catch my breath.

    My father was an officer with the 3rd RRU, and a staff car met us. We had a nice tour of the city, but as we drove past the Cathedral downtown, I noticed a charred spot in the grass. When I inquired about it, I was met with chilled silence. I have never been able to discover what happened at that spot, although ten days later Quang Duc set himself on fire in protest to the policies of the Diem regime.

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