"Stories from 1972 Phu Lamers"

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David Huntley Mike Canada Jimmy Hudson
Aaron Ohara N/A N/A


I arrived in Phu Lam in March 1972 (this was my second tour in Vietnam, but my first at Phu Lam). I was assigned to the AUTODIN Switch, commonly referred to as the Switch, and sometimes called AUTODIN. I was initially assigned as a 72G operator, but I had been to school to learn cryptographic equipment repair, so after I'd been on Phu Lam for a few weeks, I was moved into the crypto section where I was the NCOIC.

As Colonel (Ret) Yukio Otsuka related in his story, Phu Lam was scaling back in 1972. His story is very accurate as I remember things. I was there a bit longer and did manage to see Phu Lam turned over to the Vietnamese. The 15 or so guys remaining to shut down Phu Lam were known as the Roll-up Force. Major Thomas E. Johnson was the commander and SFC Leblanc was the NCOIC. Our main job was to get the AUTODIN switch dismantled, packed and shipped. Dismantling was completed by contractors, whom I believe were from Philco-Ford. The switch components were packed into CONEX containers for shipment to their final destination, which I think was Korea. During our final few weeks at the Phu Lam site, we were moved into a hotel in town, where we stayed until we were transferred to Tan Son Nhut AB to complete our Vietnam tour. During the final phase of closing down, each night two men were required to remain as overnight guards in the AUTODIN building. I found this to be very unnerving, because the remainder of the compound was deserted and it seemed to me that these guys were very vulnerable. I can't remember why I never had to stay overnight, but I'm thankful that I didn't. Fortunately, there were no incidents during these trying times. After everything had been moved from the compound, I was there on the day when Phu Lam was "officially" turned over the ARVN. It was an amazing sight to watch those guys storm through the buildings, taking everything that was movable. They removed light fixtures, mirrors from the latrines, copper wiring from the AUTODIN building, and anything else they could carry.

After we left Phu Lam, and went to Tan Son Nhut, we became part of the 69th Signal Battalion (I think). I'm awfully fuzzy about so many details. It may have been the 39th Signal Battalion, but we will pinpoint that info for you very soon.

I'm not sure what the ARVN used the facility for, but I'm almost certain that we did not leave any commo gear there for them. I'm thinking that the only things we left there were the buildings. Everything else went with us to Tan Son Nhut for packing and shipping to other places.

When I arrived in Phu Lam in March 1972, as a Senior NCO, I was assigned to one of the Senior NCO "hooches" (a major improvement over where I had to live during my 1964/1965 tour at Tan Son Nhut). Lieutenant Colonel Yukio Otsuka was the commander, and, at the time, I thought he was one of those short people who suffered from the "Napoleonic" complex (being shorter than most seems to drive them to be meaner and more aggressive, especially toward taller people). It didn't take me long to realize that I was totally wrong. LTC Otsuka, in my opinion, was an excellent commander, who cared for his troops and made every effort to insure their personal needs were taken care of, while at the same time, insuring that our mission at Phu Lam was accomplished. I know that on many occasions he allowed the soldiers to use his office to make telephone calls to their loved ones. This may not sound like much to some people, but it meant a great deal to those guys when they could talk to their families.

As all commanders do, LTC Otsuka called periodic meetings with his troops, to pass out information and discuss any issues the people wanted to discuss. As is the case with most organizations, not all of the Phu Lam soldiers were "soldierly". One Phu Lamer, in particular, was pretty much of a rebel and didn't like to do a lot of the things that are expected of military personnel. Anyway, at one of LTC Otsuka's periodic meetings, the floor was opened up for discussion, this "not so soldierly fellow" stood up to speak. For some reason, he didn't like saluting, so he said to LTC Otsuka, "Sir, while we're on the compound, how often during the day should we salute you?" Without hesitation, LTC Otsuka said, "As often as you see me!" It doesn't sound as humorous now as it did in 1972, but the rest of the troops burst into laughter at LTC Otsuka's reply.

I spent a lot of time in the craft shop, and I played the guitar frequently. Several of the guys and I would get together and have "picking and grinning" sessions, where we'd play and sing for ourselves and anyone else that wanted to join in. On several occasions LTC Otsuka sat in on these sessions, although I never did hear him do any singing. One of the guys was named Patterson (don't recall his first name), and he was a singer of professional quality. On one occasion, we were asked to come into one of the hooches and entertain several soldiers who were playing cards. Patterson had no sooner begun to sing when these guys laid down their cards and sat in amazement at the beautiful sound coming from this big soldier's mouth. After Patterson finished, one of the guys said, "Man, what are you doing in the Army? You should be "outside" entertaining people." I'm not sure whatever became of Patterson, but he was quite religious and I think he had plans on becoming a minister.

There was so much gambling going on that you might think that's all that went on over there. I recall one incident where a poker game had been going on ALL night. It was the day before payday and a lot of money was being bet on the upcoming trip to the "pay window". One of the final hands of the night (or morning) wound up with an enormous amount of money in the pot, because several of the guys had pretty good hands. Finally, after much betting and raising, the hands were shown. One fellow had bet everything he had coming in on payday, and was just overjoyed at the amount of money on the table, because in his hand were four 9s. The last thing I remember seeing was him standing outside the hooch, stomping on his hand of four 9s. He had been beaten with a hand of four Queens! I'm sure other guys suffered the same fate. Luckily, I was a small time card player and never lost enough to amount to anything.

Most of you must remember the lizards that were all over the place. The ones that could run up the walls and then across the ceilings upside down, their feet clinging to the top like it was glue. I remember one morning I had gone to the mess hall for breakfast and I told the Vietnamese girl dishing out the chow that I wanted my eggs a certain way, and that I'd like some bacon. She used some tongs and piled several pieces of bacon onto my tray. I started to go get my eggs when I took a closer look at the bacon. There buried under the slices was a very crisp, and neatly fried lizard. Being a little weak in the stomach, I almost lost it. Anyway, I pointed it out to the girl and she calmly took her tongs and picked the lizard from the tray. Then she looked at me like, "Why are you still standing there?" I dumped the rest of the bacon back onto the steam table and left. I knew that on that day I would do without breakfast. Many of you may have thought the lizards were good food. NOT ME!!

I recall one time when we were having trouble with one of our Jeeps and needed to replace the spark plugs. The supply folks didn't have any and we needed them right away, so one of the Vietnamese guys that worked for us said he thought he knew where he could get some. As it turned out, he simply walked across the street to a Vietnamese auto repair shop, and came walking back in just a few minutes with 4 brand new spark plugs, still packed in their U.S. government wrapping.

As everyone knows there was a lot of black marketing going on. Cigarettes, liquor, coffee, and just about anything else that came from the PX or commissary. What hasn't been mentioned is the fact that U.S. dollars were in very high demand by the Vietnamese people. Although it was illegal for GIs to have American money, there were many who had their relatives send them dollars through the mail. The dollars were then taken into town where the exchange rate was a great deal higher than through the military finance system. However, it was a very risky business. If you were caught black marketing U. S. dollars, it was an offense punishable by court martial. Not only that, but the Vietnamese were extremely adept at ripping you off during a money exchange. They almost always worked in pairs and here was their mode of operating: After you showed your American money, say $100.00, and agreed to an exchange rate, one of the guys would take a wad of piasters (Vietnamese money) from his pocket and start counting it out. Invariably, he would come up short. He would then ask his partner if he had some money to finish the transaction. The second partner would take an amount of piasters from his pocket and give them to the first partner. All during this time, and how I'm not sure, the first partner was folding his original piasters in half. After he took the piasters from his partner, he would continue counting, but he was now re-counting the money he had already counted and folded in half. It may be a bit hard to understand, the way I've described it, but believe me it was fast and would fool the most keen-eyed people. Even after I knew how they performed their "magic", I could never actually see them do it. They were good!!

One of the fellows talked about the piss tests we had to go through. There had been many ways devised to try and fool the examiners during these tests. Some of them were pretty elaborate, such as hiding a squeeze jar of some type under their clothing, then running a small tube from the squeeze jar to the under side of their penis. They would fill the jar with some type of liquid which looked like urine, or possibly was urine from a non-drug user. When it came time for them to pee, they would step up to the urinal, squeeze the bottle, and magically urine would be expelled into the collection bottle. It got to the point where the examiners would watch every individual as they urinated, to insure the urine was coming from the appropriate place. I recall during one of these degrading exercises, we were sent into a latrine, one-by-one, and were eyeballed by one of these "pecker watchers" until we peed to his satisfaction. One of the young GIs just could not pee while someone was watching him, so the examiners turned on the water in an attempt to coax the pee from him. It didn't work, so they had him go into the latrine and watch the others pee, hoping that would help. Still didn't work. I remember him watching me (and I'm a little self-conscious myself) and saying, "How in the hell can you do that with someone watching?" He may still be over there trying to pee in that bottle.

When I first went to Vietnam in 1964, I went into Saigon with a SSG Autry who'd already been in country for awhile. I need to exchange some $$ for some P's. so Autry, being the experienced guy that he was, took me onto one of the side streets and we began to negotiate the trade. Autry had already warned me and another buddy of mine that ripoffs were common and that we needed to pay very close attention. Then it happened almost exactly as you described in your scenario. The Vietname guy had counted a large sum (or so I thought) of Piasters, then, sure enough, he started yelling about the White Mice. I said to Autry that I was sure the Vietnamese guy had counted correctly and that a fair deal had been made. Again Autry warned me to count the money. Being the stubborn dude that I was, I simply said something to the effect of, "Let's get out of here." In the meantime the two Vietnamese guys jumped into a cab (which was conveniently waiting at the curb) and hauled ass. In a few minutes I counted my money, and I'd been ripped really good! I don't remember my exact loss, but it was substantial to a fellow that didn't have much money to begin with. It never happened to me again, but there are hundreds of other similar tales from other GIs.

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2. MIKE CANADA 4/72-6/72

My first memory of PhuLam was during my first tour in VietNam (1964-1965) when I was stationed with the 232nd Signal Co at Tan Son Nhut living in a grass hut while the guys I knew at PhuLam were living downtown in hotels and making additional money too! In 1972 I came down of orders to attend the AUTODIN Switching Center Supervisors Course and then on to VietNam with the final destination at PhuLam. I arrived in late April 72 and the first thing I remember is seeing someone come out of the switch and they seemed to be on fire...but later found out it was just the cold air in the ASC hitting that wonderful humid, hot, VietNam weather. I also found out the Hotel living was a thing of the past! The switch was in the process of closing and the guys were destroying manuals and classified tapes. This seemed to go around the clock for several weeks and was a lesson to me that most "emergency destruction plans" were someone's fantasy. Several things about PhuLam have stuck with me over the years. First was the high intelligence level of most of the ASC personnel as displayed by the level of sayings, drawings, poems, jokes, and other graffiti on the boards in the ASC toilets! I hope someone saved them when the ASC closed. The second thing I remember is when the generators failed early one morning while I was running the guards and half of the hooches in the area also lost their (our) power! The other item that sticks in my mind was the effort the Commanding Officer made to ensure that no one went into the overseas switchboard to make calls home...even though he called home in Hawaii all of the time. Little did he know that some NCO or group of NCO's had run a line to the frame room from a closet in the NCO club where calls were made without his knowledge. Perfect example of the NCO's taking care of the troops...kudos to those who made it possible! My last remembrance of PhuLam was the old dog that went around with me when I was Sergeant of the Guard. That old dog knew the routes, checked for snakes, rats, and other things that go bump in the night. My tour ended when we took most of the ASC personnel to Taegu, Korea, in late June 72. A short tour but one that was never forgotten.

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3. JIMMY HUDSON 1/72-11/72

I also was a life guard in my spare time. I was there when the Nung guards came in. They used the swimming pool for a tub. After they washed themselves up in it...no one could swim in it after that. I was there after many others had left, because I remember going into these stripped out rooms and gathering up expensive tools that had been abandoned after salvaging the equipment.

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My name is Aaron Ohara and Phu Lam was my first military duty station in 1972. I was an AUTODIN Switching Center (ASC) Operator. Mostly I was on guard duty, and night shift at the switch. Occasionally, we made it downtown to Tudo Street and Cholon in the daytime, and made our contributions to hedonism, decadence and debauchery. I do remember incessant guard duty of one sort or another, details, monsoon, heat rash, Southern Comfort, $1.25 quarts of Smirnoff Vodka, $1.11 cartons (yep, CARTONS) of smokes, hookers everywhere. Even remember Magic Fingers #2 and barber shops pretty well. Those were very much the good old days, no one would believe it unless they were there.

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