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Before Saigon: Bruce Thomas

by Admin and Richard Turner, Contributing Editor
© SaigonKidsAmericanCommunitySchool.Com

Bruce Thomas 61

Bruce Thomas (1960-61)

In the summer of 1960 my life intersected that of SS President Hoover as we traveled to Saigon. Little did I know that in the space of a year I would board an identical ship, traveling to live in the Canal Zone.

My father, a career employee of what is today called the Federal Aviation Administration, accepted a two-year assignment as a civilian advisor to the South Vietnamese government, working for a subunit of USOM called CAAG — Civil Aviation Advisory Group. I wrote a story (“A Saigon Kid for 50 Years”) for this blog three years ago (to mark the 50th anniversary of my arrival as a teenager in Vietnam) that described our truncated stay in Saigon. But the adventure of sailing across the Pacific on this ship for three weeks in order to get to Vietnam was not described in that account.

We drove across the continent after several weeks in Washington, DC, where Dad had attended training for his Vietnam assignment. Spending a few days in San Francisco, we boarded our ship on Sunday, June 19, 1960. It would be my first ocean voyage, and the gleaming appointments in the passenger section of the President Hoover were quite impressive. Gosh! There was even an elevator! And there was a piano in the upper lounge on which I would play Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata over and over and over until the end of the voyage. First-run movies were shown in the lounge every evening. I can remember two: “Sergeant Rutledge” (the film starred Woody Strode as a black first sergeant in the United States Cavalry accused of the rape and murder of a white girl at a U.S. Army fort in the late 1880s) and “A Majority of One” (a light romantic story with Alec Guinness portraying a contemporary Japanese business man and Rosalind Russell as a Jewish mother visiting her son, an American diplomat in Tokyo).

The stateroom that my older brother and I shared with our mother was one of four surrounding a common lounge area that had a large expanse of glass, almost a picture window, looking out across the water toward Oakland. After confirming that his family and their luggage were all comfortably in place, Dad left the ship and departed for the San Francisco airport to catch one of the new Pan American Boeing 707 jet liners for his journey to Saigon via Honolulu, Tokyo, and Hong Kong. We began exploring the ship, and my older brother began planning his assault on the evening meal that promised his favorite fare: steak!

SS President HooverSoon the lines were cast off and we began sailing toward the afternoon sun, crossing beneath the beautiful San Francisco Bay Bridge. We went down to our stateroom and sat in the common area watching the coastline recede. The water began to get rough and my mother informed us that we were sailing through an area of choppy water outside the Bay called Potato Patch Shoal. Sharing this bit of trivia with us, she then informed me that if I continued to sit facing the large window, perpendicular to the porpoise-like action of the ship as it dipped its bow into the waves, I would become seasick. She suggested I should face towards the bow of the ship to prevent getting sick. Naturally, I ignored her. What difference could it make, anyway? Obviously it didn’t, because my brother (who did follow her direction) got seasick — although I expect in his case the vast amount of steak that he wolfed down for supper later that evening played a role. The next morning, feeling better, I braved the still rolling deck and saw that some of the glass enclosing the promenade deck was missing, a victim of some pretty rough weather overnight. The Pacific Ocean often does not always live up to its name.

Baked AlaskaFor those who have enjoyed one of today’s many vacation opportunities on the giant Carnival or Princess cruise ships, my awe at the sumptuousness of the President Hoover must be amusing. She was just under 500 feet in length, and most of that length was devoted to cargo space fore and aft of the passenger accommodations, which were amidships. Even though there were about 200 passengers, the single dining room was so small that two Chop Stickssittings were still necessary to feed everyone. But all the traditions found in the dining rooms of today’s big cruise ships have their roots in all the fun we had on this small ship: the themed dinners, the attentive wait staff, the elaborate menus that changed every day, the grand presentation of the flaming Baked Alaska dessert! In those three weeks, I learned to use chopsticks on the evening devoted to Chinese dishes, coached by our table’s waiter, who was himself Chinese. After a couple of days underway, my brother’s stomach had recovered and he renewed his efforts to rid the kitchen of all its T-bone steaks.

The ship’s daily mimeographed newspaper kept us informed of the news of the world. President Eisenhower, who we’d seen the previous month in Washington as he returned from the abortive summit with Khrushchev in Paris, had his trip to Tokyo canceled due to riots that broke out there. The San Francisco Giants, who my brother and I had seen play at the new Candlestick Park just before setting sail, began a precipitous drop in the standings finally ending the season 16 games out of first place in the National League, in the days before the leagues were split into divisions.

One day the newspaper carried a story about the International Date Line that we would soon cross. We would lose an entire day of our lives! The passengers were urged to write letters and postcards to friends, for the article said there would be a mail buoy at the dateline to drop off those epistles. That evening after dark the ship slowed to a crawl, and a floodlight swept the dark swells as a mysterious object appeared near the bow and slowly brushed the port side of the ship. An arm emerged from an opening below deck and deposited a mail sack into the floating object as it continued to float back toward the stern of the ship. The ship’s floodlight was switched off, and the “mail buoy” disappeared into the darkness. Another group of passengers had been snookered!

On another day the newspaper announced a costume contest for our after-dinner entertainment, Mummyand that evening my mother and I won a prize that I cherish to this day: a miniature metallic sculpture of SS President Hoover. My mother got our stateroom steward to provide extra rolls of toilet paper and she began to wrap me from head to foot as a mummy. She then transformed herself into a boozy bag lady of the streets, carrying the obligatory liquor bottle with the large XXX on it. She staggered and I shuffled before the judges, with a small sign identifying us: “Mummy embalmed, Mommy pickled.”

After two weeks, we reached Tokyo Bay near Yokohama in the predawn hours. The Japanese customs officials came aboard and checked our passports and health certificates and then we were permitted to go ashore. It would be a long day on a tourist bus, exploring Tokyo, with lunch at the famous Imperial Hotel, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright and one of the few buildings in Tokyo to survive the strong earthquake of 1923. I had a growing interest in architecture, and fancied it would be my life’s career, so I was thrilled to see this famous building. While we did the tourist thing and shopped on the Ginza, our ship lifted anchor and proceeded across to the U.S. naval base at Yokosuka to offload its military cargo. The Navy security personnel, who were as thorough as the Japanese officials had been in the morning, made sure that only certified passengers of this civilian ship were permitted onto the base. When all were safely back aboard, we cast off for our next stop, Manila.

US FlagThe Fourth of July occurred during this segment of the voyage, and in addition to it being our nation’s 184th birthday it was also the 15th anniversary of Philippine independence and the 50th star was added to the American flag that day, marking Hawaii’s recent statehood. The ship’s dining room and menu duly reflected the festive occasion. After three days we began cruising along the western coast of Luzon Island. At last we came to the mouth of Manila Bay, and we glided by the island of Corregidor and the Bataan Peninsula. In 1960 it was only 15 years since the end of the Second World War, many of the passengers had fresh memories of the sites where General MacArthur’s troops made their doomed stand against the Japanese shortly after Pearl Harbor. (Corregidor figures prominently in the book written by another Saigon Kid, Dave Kotzebue: “Your Grandfather’s Sabre – A Century of Sacrifice.”) Not long afterward, we docked in Manila.

Many of the passengers felt uncomfortable about the degree to which the ship’s crew advised passengers to beware of thievery in Manila. Stateroom portholes were to be kept closed, as there had been past instances of things being stolen thanks to clever use of bamboo poles raised from the dock. There were Filipino passengers aboard with whom we’d journeyed for more than two weeks and gotten to know as friends, our family and some of the other passengers felt bad about the emphasis that was placed on this aspect of our brief stay in Manila.

Seven months later, during my medical evacuation from Saigon to Clark Air PI Fire TruckBase north of Manila for a kidney infection, we heard interesting tales about thievery on that big air base, including the famous story of the stolen base fire truck that one day in 1960 disappeared out the main gate, red lights flashing and siren blaring, with the Air Police urgently clearing a path and waving it through, thinking it was just responding to an off-base emergency. It was never seen again. An urban legend? Who knows! Check it out on Google!

Then we began the last two-day segment of the voyage, on our way to Hong Kong. What a fascinating place! Dad, who had flown through there two weeks before, had scouted out a very nice hotel on the Kowloon peninsula for us. In the subterranean shopping arcade beneath the hotel he had used a tailor shop to get fitted for suits, and my mother set to work getting measured for some Hong Kong Tramdresses at the same shop. My brother and I had linen suits made for us. During our three days in Hong Kong, between fittings, the tailor provided a chauffeured sedan to take us over to the island of Hong Kong, where we toured all day long. We visited the beautiful Tiger Balm Gardens, rode the funicular railroad to the highest peak of Victoria Island and later marveled at the huge Aberdeen fishing village with its teeming thousands living on small vessels.

With our new clothes packed in our suitcases, we boarded a Cathay Pacific Lockheed Electra turboprop on July 13 and made the three-hour flight to Tan Son Nhut. I still recall the furnace blast of hot air as we exited the aircraft and descended the steps to the tarmac. Dad met us, and we rode in a U.S. government sedan to the USOM guesthouse. The next day I joined the student body as a tenth grader at the American Community School. The journey was over, but the fun of living in Saigon had just begun.

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