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Saigon Kids™ Stories: “War Eagle!” in Vietnam

by Bruce Thomas (ACS)

In my biographical account that I posted here three years ago, A Saigon Kid for 50 years, I mentioned about there being a large decal on the rear window of our Ford station wagon that we took to Saigon with us, a decal proclaiming allegiance to my family’s university of choice, Auburn. I told how that decal stirred an American civilian (who, for all I know, was a graduate of a rival school in the Southeastern U.S.) to yell out the Auburn battle cry, “War Eagle!” as we drove by him.

Well, here’s another story about the Auburn battle cry in Vietnam that also involves yours truly.

In the fall of 1969 I climbed up the water tower at the Vietnamese III Corps HQ in Bien Hoa and affixed it. The American chief of staff for MACV Team 95 was outraged, but not so his boss BG Carleton Preer, Jr., Auburn '39. Auburn 49, Bama 26. War Eagle! Circa 1969. Bruce Thomas Collection.It was November of 1969, and I was an army officer working on the staff of Brigadier General Carleton Preer, Jr., in Bien Hoa, South Vietnam. General Preer was the American army advisor to the Vietnamese general who commanded III Corps (the provinces that surrounded Saigon). My assignment was in the G5 section of General Preer’s advisory team. I worked with Vietnamese soldiers who were involved in various aspects of psychological warfare, including the production of leaflets that were dropped from aircraft over enemy locations. One of these soldiers specialized in creating painted banners that could be hung across village gates, extolling the virtues of the government, and I asked him to prepare the banner you see in the attached picture.

The week of the 1969 Auburn-Alabama football game, I climbed up the water tower and affixed my banner so that it faced the central area of the headquarters compound. (I have Photoshopped the original 35mm picture, with the banner enlarged in the inset so the words can be discerned: “Go Auburn! Beat Bama! War Eagle!”).

Later that day, General Preer’s chief of staff, a full colonel, made a disparaging remark to the general about the banner that he’d seen hanging from the water tower, suggesting that it needed to be taken down immediately. General Preer was said to have smiled back at the colonel and said emphatically, “I don’t see anything wrong with it.” I guess the colonel didn’t know what I knew: General Preer graduated with Auburn’s Class of ’39.

That year the new sophomore quarterback Pat Sullivan, his receiver Terry Beasley, and kicker Connie Frederick, led Auburn to victory over its cross-state rival Alabama — ‘Bama — in the last game of the season, with the final score of the game 49-26.

“War Eagle!”

16 comments to Saigon Kids™ Stories: “War Eagle!” in Vietnam

  • H. Clark

    Hi Bruce,

    It’s a handsome big banner that you have single-handedly affixed to the tower, and the one to the pole, too? I am amazed!

    In 1969 and 1970 I worked at USAID Bien Hoa as an executive secretary to the top American advisor of USAID in Bien Hoa. Have you had a chance to visit USAID there? It was located on the other side of the street of the main police station, to the right, if you are facing USAID. I am not good at directions, but you had to be there to know.

    We were in charge of many programs, one of them was called the self-help program. The Americans distributed “mops” to the remote villages and hamlets, but the homes there were having mud, or dark clay like, floors! I didn’t get to see the homes that received the mops, but I saw the mops that were distributed! I don’t know what the Vietnamese did with them! I vaguely recall we worked in the psychological warfare program and I did see some of the leaflets. I also worked closely with the agriculture advisors; they were great people and were all civilians, my grandpa’s age, because I was just a kid then at 17 – 18 years old. It is a long story how I got to be the secretary to the top advisor at that age, but I earned my keep!

    Huong

    • Huong,

      No, I don’t recall ever having the opportunity to visit the USAID office in Bien Hoa. Perhaps I should have, since one of my duties on the general’s staff was to be the advisor for one of the Vietnamese officers whose job it was to attend to the well-being of the families of the Vietnamese soldiers. Maybe I could have obtained some items to give to my counterpart (and, hopefully, anything except mops!) to distribute to the soldiers’ families.

      But I do recall a massive warehouse just south of the Bien Hoa river on the road to Saigon that was probably a USAID facility, and on more than one occasion my counterpart (she was called Lieutenant Anh) got a large Army truck with some soldiers on it, and I would ride with them to sweet-talk the people at the warehouse to let us load the truck with bags of flour.

  • Kenneth R. Yeager

    Bruce, thanks for the story…I enjoyed that very much. Also, as a former EM, I have always carried the feeling that officers rarely had any humor in their souls but you have proven otherwise. Like most folks in uniform and in Vietnam, I couldn’t wait to get back to the U.S. Obviously, I had many laughs during my tour but I really cannot think of any one event that would be worth writing about. Day in and day out, it was get up, go to work, eat, drink and go to bed. And when the first Armored Calvary(?) was in our compound and using our facilities, the idea was to stay the hell out of their way. Mean bunch of SOBs but who wouldn’t be in such a line outfit? Who will ever forget the smell that came from burning human waste with diesel fuel? I think I would recognize that smell in an instant today should my nose inhale such a horrible odor and after all these 44 years later. No I prefer to think of the Vietnam that I (we) enjoyed in the early 1960s…the parties, the pool, Tu Do street, bird watching….those were the good times. I have yet to see a Vietnam war movie….I refuse to go…Seems wrong that I was a 100% support troop and thousands of other died or were badly wounded. My war was the occasional rocket in the compound or no cold beer in the bar for some reason. Het Roi.

  • Frank

    I think many movies show G.I.’s on drugs or going into towns and having many girls. In twenty plus months in South Vietnam, this never happened with my life. The only town I was ever in was in Hue, February 1968 and that was sticky on business. Now I remember that in sometime in early 1967 we were walking through a small village and at a small shack (overhang), I bought my first “jungle boots” from a Vietnamese lady for a carton of Winston’s. The Marine Corps did not treat it’s people very well back then or give them many supplies. When I was in Saigon in 2009, I met a fellow who had been in the U.S. Army. He told us (my son and I)that he was out on a patrol one time when they ran into a Marine patrol. He said it looked like they ran into a patrol from WW II because of their weapons and because of how they looked.

    Every time I smell diesel fuel, I think of my first official duty in Vietnam and the last official order I had in Vietnam. I suppose that the black smoke went up into the blue sky looking like “Indian” smoke signals…showing everyone where we
    were at!

    There was a Staff Sgt.. His name was Murray. He was an evil man. We , the lower enlisted would do so much work, beyond what anyone could imagine. We were Marines after all. He would even withhold C-rations from us. He would sit, about 30 yards from us, and eat the C-rations. We could only sit and watch. We would be so Hungary but had no recourse. Some folks talked about “fragging” him, but I, and many talked them out of that. One of my buddies, during a fire fight, came close to shooting him with a shotgun. Even put the double barrel into his ribs and said “who goes there”. I realize that it is now popular to make heroes out of all service members, but I caution against that, but at the same time so many folks served and did not get very good reconnection.

    Sorry, just remembered it was not a double barrel shot-gun, but a pump action shot-gun.

  • Frank

    Bruce, It seems that slogans on “Water Towers” is a Vietnamese thing!

  • Frank

    Seven years ago I had a female student who received a “full ride” scholarship to Auburn for academic achievement.

  • Frank

    Huong, I had to think along time about what you said. I think many Americans mean well. Does it mean that it was correct or turn out well? Nope! My parents sent us kids off to boarding school…my first experience of this was at age seven. Nuns can be cruel.Later My Mom told me she regretted that. I think my folks regretted a lot of what they did…but I know they “always” meant well. I often think that our “Government” (government is a system, but it is people that are “it, including Ken, myself and Bruce). mean well…. even the mops, if misguided, was started because someone cared. I did not, nor still believe that the Viet-Nam war was a war of choice. It is very complex. I could give a four day class to high school seniors on why “I think” the war took place. Yes, I can never justify it.
    I must admit that occasionally I get worried about myself (and thus those around me… my wife as always said that I have PTSD…but I am from that generation that says “F— It and Drive on)). For so many years, Vietnam was not “in my Head”. I am guessing that for about the last “five” or so years, it has become more important to me. I am not sure if it is an ugly head or a pleasant one. My disability request was accepted by the VA fast track on 20 December 2012. In September I sent them a Certified Receipt letter. A week later my letter came back saying that address was no longer there. I wrote the Phoenix Office over three weeks ago asking them if they had my case. No answer yet. I really want to have faith in my government.

    • H. Clark

      Frank,

      I know you mean well, including Ken and Bruce, as you have said. I hope the issue on your disability case be resolved soon. Keep the faith.

      The mind is a beautiful thing. I did “forget” things, but in reading the recent stories “War Eagle” by Bruce and “Why Me?” by Ken, I recalled several things.

      War Eagle – It has been 43 years ago since I left USAID Bien Hoa, but when Bruce wrote he worked in Bien Hoa for an army advisor. I thought “what if” I ran into Bruce, but didn’t know? If he did, I have a few questions, but he didn’t recall ever having the opportunity to visit the USAID office in Bien Hoa, so regrettably, this was a dead issue. Then all of a sudden I recalled the mops, the leaflets, and the barley grains.

      Why Me? – Ken wrote a thought provoking story. I enjoyed the good ending story he shared in which he also raised some profound questions. In some ways, his life events seemed to coincide with mine. I do not have a college degree, no plan or idea for my future, was too young, without guidance, so I went from one event to another. I self-taught how to type 43 years ago. It was the best thing that ever happened to me. I currently enjoy my dream job. I am married to my first love and we have a beautiful daughter. Life has been a good journey. Why Me?

      Regarding your questions below, which I believe they were addressed to me. My experiences are unique. I don’t like what Viet Nam has become. My husband and I support the troops. I myself don’t like any war, nor wish to discuss; it’s too complex beyond me and it’s “devastating.”

      Huong

  • Frank

    I think it was my friend Rick that first pointed out that the “Saigon Kids” are a special group. It should be able to rely on each other and not turn against each other because of differences. It is not because of the history of Vietnam…the war and all the other crap, etc., but from the bonding that took place because of our friendships (that is from Roy)that took place. Are your great memories because of your experiences, or because of what historically Vietnam became? Do you realize that there is a difference?

  • frank

    Bruce, what you did is sooo cool!

  • George Baggett

    As you all are seeing, the very different views about the war are behind my not wanting to have attended the 3rd Field Reunion last year. We started sharing pictures, and I then made the mistake of assuming the group might share my position – mostly based on a thorough reading of history – including the works of Towsend Hoopes and Eduardo Galeano. As most might expect, the political history chosen by some is very different from history written by those who connect the Shaw of Iran and toppling democratically elected governments who threatened to take possession of natural resources.

    I have always liked the phrase, “Kind Words Go a long way” and have tried to adhere to this policy. As Chalmers Johnson noted, we in America often suffer from an “overwhelming sense of innocence.” In this day and time with the Internet and history being shared by unfiltered media, it would be my hope we can gain understanding rather than be hostile to a history that conflicts with what we learned in school and a heavily controlled media owned by large corporations. I would hope for open minds and good hearts.

  • Michael

    I always enjoy coming back to Saigon while reading of the past. Although my day’s in Vietnam were at a young age, (4-8 yrs) I remember little, such as my first kiss, and of course what I thought was my first girl friend, my big brother Larry’s fast pitch soft ball games, Christmas’s, and my parents many parties for the GI’s, and school kids living there in Nam, I also don’t want to forget the Humugous Flying Cock Roaches, Hot Sugar Cane, my pet spider monkies, rabid dogs, and warm monkey brains being eaten right out of the heads of just killed monkies, along with the squat and shit which seemed like it was right out in the open, and of course being shot at by the VC living under cover near the compound we lived at over the PX/Commissary. All of what I remember was plain good safe fun, and never a dull moment. If I could live it all over again, I would do it in a heart beat. Thanks for the stories that I read, I look forward to reading them, God Bless.

  • frank

    Many Saigon kids know the history that let up to and was to become the Vietnam War. (That is what we Americans called it). We each may have an opinion on why it took place, but can any one say when the war started and how long it lasted? Was in 1945, 1954. 1957, 1960, 1962 or 1965? When did it end? 1973 or 1975?
    Of course at the end of WW II we Americans decided that the World could not ever have peace unless America stepped in. We had just proved it by defeating the Japs and especially the terrible dictator Hitler. Now, I would be the first to agree that Hitler and Stalin were probably the worsted human beings to have been on this earth (or at least with the power over people) in the 20th Century, but to equate anyone else to that type of directorship is wrong. Perhaps Americans as a nation, instill these evil folks to lessor folks in order to create an era of hatred. But really that does not work! I often hear Americans call others as Hitler or Nazis. Starting in 1945 and after, we as a nation and as a people call others as Hitler or Stalin. No one is even close to what these two guys were. We also started to call others Commies. A term not really realized on what it means. This again employs that a dictatorship is evil even thou they may not be. It is, after all, an alternative type of government.
    Vietnam!!!!! WOW! Where do we start? China became Commie, The Korean War, the hot war in Greece, Guatemala, Iran, Hungary, McCarthyism, Democrats are soft on Commies, Nuclear War, Harry Truman’s Four Point Program, the containment of Communism, The Hungarian Revolution, the “fall” of Cuba, and especially America was needed in order to maintain peace in the world. The Domino theory, the Triad Program, the Berlin Airlift and the Wall all played apart. Regardless of all the reason that played out leading up to and how the Vietnam War was fought. Maybe some historians will argue that the same things that caused the lead up to the war, also lead to how the war would be fought…. or should we say that these things lead to the restrictions on how the war would be fought.
    I personally have no negative feeling or positive feelings on how a Saigon Kids feels about the Vietnam War. Vietnam was very personal for all of us and thus how we think does not have an impact. I personally have to hate or anger about any of it. Yes, I think the war was wrong, or maybe it turned out wrong…but it was a huge part of my life, both positive and negative. I have no regrets about my connection to that beautiful country and the people.
    If people wish to study Vietnam history, which I did after returning to College on the G.I. in 1970, or they wish to just remember the memories they had while living there, I have no problems with that. I would like that we all have revolving knowledge and thoughts about all of it. I had the best times of my life there and the worse of times.
    Our family moved to Teheran about nine months after Mossadegh was ousted by the C.I.A and put the Shaw of Iran in power. Again, I have become a very “gray” person when I look at history. Many people write good books, but that does not make them correct or even wrong.

    Corrections:

    I’m sorry it should say “I personally have NO hate or anger”. Why don’t I prove read before I hit the “button”? I guess I normally “jump” before I think.

    proof read…here I go again

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