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A FAMILY’S ADVENTURES IN ASIA – CHRISTMAS 1964

Submitted by Jim Christenson (USN)

In the spring of 1964, the Navy presented me, as an officer in the Navy’s Civil Engineer Corps, with orders to the Naval Support Activity Saigon. I arrived June 19th and went through the standard orientation, including at least one impressive talk by General Westmoreland. My first duty was as Transportation Officer for the Naval Support Activity, responsible for the bus, taxi, and general vehicular service and maintenance that supported all services in Saigon and nearby installations.

A few months later, I was asked to form a design division to provide the design and construction contracts for remodeling buildings and constructing facilities that now were obviously going to be required for an increase in U.S. participation in the conflict. This involved writing position descriptions, recruiting and leading a group of 45 Filipino and Vietnamese engineers and architects. I should add, though, that the chief engineer was neither of these. Rather, he was a fascinating American expatriate who had fought with Mussolini, became disillusioned with that, joined the Communist party, became disillusioned with that too, earned his structural engineering degree in Rome, and through a special Senate bill, in view of his checkered background, became a U.S. citizen.

Meanwhile, my wife, Karen, being an adventurous type, asked to come to Vietnam from England where I had previously been stationed. In time, the Navy provided permission and a French Villa (6 E/1 Ngo Thoi Nhiem) for my family. Karen, our four-year-old son, Eric, and one-year-old daughter, Solveig, left England and after two weeks of bureaucratic and mechanical mishaps on-route (could be the subject of a book!), arrived in Saigon September 15th.

Since the kitchen for our house was outside and rather primitive, we found a wonderful Vietnamese cook, Chi Ba, who was tired of working for a high-ranking officer and his family with their extensive entertaining. Her dog, Lobo, came with her each day and provided a level of security beyond the high fence that surrounded our property. Sanitation was problematic. We had our own water treatment plant consisting of a large tank with sand filtration. But all water we used for drinking, washing vegetables, and brushing our teeth had to be boiled and cooled. Since our daughter was often getting around by crawling on the marble floors, they were scrubbed with Lysol daily. We hired a young Vietnamese lady, who went by the name of Oak, to do that and take care of other chores.

December 24, 1964 Brinks Hotel BombingFor Christmas Eve of 1964, I had invited 30 of my colleagues to a 6:30 p.m. dinner at our home. Chi Ba worked all day, preparing a feast for these men, all of whom had left their families in the U.S. At 5:45 p.m., our windows shook violently. As others have noted, the Viet Cong had found a way to put an auto with 200 pounds of plastic explosive in the trunk in a car port under the Brinks Hotel/BOQ. The blast killed at least two and injured 50 or 60 more, heavily damaging the first six floors of the hotel. So, instead of a peaceful Christmas Eve dinner, nearly all of us (since our jobs all related to facilities design, construction, or maintenance) were involved in assessing the damage and determining how to repair the structure. That went on into Christmas day with several of us lining up a contractor to work on repairing each floor as rapidly as possible. And Chi Ba made the best of it, serving individuals and small groups on Christmas Day as they found time to come over to our house.

By February, I had spent over seven months in Vietnam and had earned a rest and recuperation trip (R&R). But instead of going to a restful place like Australia or Japan, Karen and I decided to tour India. We had an ambitious plan – we would travel by train at night to get to a new place each day. We took Eric with us and left Solveig with friends of ours, an American civilian contract administrator and his family.

We left for India February 4th. By the 10th we were in Madras visiting with a friend and his family who we had met in our church in London. While in Madras, a banker showed us a newspaper article describing the “orderly” evacuation of all dependents from Vietnam. I tried to call the consulate to get instructions. No answer. I tried again in Cochin; no answer. The same story in Bombay. But when we returned to New Deli , having covered 5500 kilometers of rails and roads in India, we found that the situation was less than orderly and was almost completed.

We arrived back in Saigon the evening of February 14th and found that the family that had been caring for Solveig had been evacuated already. My fellow officers were taking four-hour watches caring for her, since they weren’t sure the servants in our friend’s house could be trusted.

Karen was given three days to pack up. My family left with 16 boxes of household goods at 1:30 p.m. February 18th. As I recall, that was the last plane out with dependents. Karen and the kids left the 95 degree heat of Saigon, stopped overnight with friends in Palo Alto, and arrived at the Minneapolis/St. Paul Airport with temperatures of minus 30 degrees with only raincoats for warmth!

Back in Saigon, I had the heart-breaking duty of releasing Chi Ba and Oak with severance pay and little hope of future employment with Americans. It was especially difficult for Chi Ba. She had had more than one home in a rural village burned by the Viet Cong, had lost her entire family to the Viet Cong, and had come to Saigon to escape the horror of that history and to find a way to support herself. She had asked to go with Karen to America; but that wasn’t to be.

I then moved to the Hong Kong BOQ, leaving Saigon July 30, 1965. I returned to Vietnam as the Operations Officer for the 32nd Naval Construction Regiment (the Navy’s Seabees, engaged in building roads, bridges, airfields, and ports throughout the country) in 1970-71.

4 comments to A FAMILY’S ADVENTURES IN ASIA – CHRISTMAS 1964

  • tom rushton

    Wonderful story.
    Lots of heartbreak to go around for everyone.
    Thanks.

  • Sarah Rogers

    Quite a story. Seems like so long ago but then it seems just like yesterday.

  • Bootsie McMains Parker

    Your story is beautifully descriptive , enough so as to harken me back to my father’s warnings. And that was in 1960. Thank you very much for taking the time to add your story. Strangely, it meant a lot to me.

  • Suellen Oliver Campbell

    Sorry I missed this earlier.What a beautifully descriptive recollection of the turbulent times that your family experienced and those that befell Saigon. My memories are good ones, but I know that is not the case with many others that once called Saigon home.

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