When Refugees Were the Good Guys: Escape from Saigon by Ron Steinman

When Refugees were the Good Guys: Escape from Saigon by Ron Steinman

Part 1

 

This is a story about the people America considered good refugees, immigrants withstanding, if you will, not the maligned ones of today who are fleeing oppression and possible death who cross our southern borders in the hope of finding a better life. I am going to tell you of some so-called good refugees who became America’s responsibility at the end of a war because of what they, most of whom were men, had contributed to the American effort in Vietnam. In the case of NBC News, for whom they had been loyal and fruitful contributors to our efforts to cover the news, they would eventually become our personal charges, immigrants from the Vietnam War but good ones, desirable ones.

Despite having a difficult and different language, different customs and religion — though some were Catholic, others were Buddhist, and animists — everything about them was foreign, including the shape of their eyes and the color of their skin. But they had one thing going for them — Americans considered them their refugees, even though they were from a foreign land.

In truth, they were a big part of my own family.

My experience with these refugees began in 1975 when the Vietnam War ended faster than anyone thought it would. First, take a minute for some background. My wife came from Saigon where most of her family lived and worked. Just to show how the many religions of Vietnam affected my family, some practiced Buddhism and animism while others were Catholic. They all got along.

As the North Vietnamese rapidly marched from the northern tier of South Vietnam it ran into little or no opposition from the South Vietnamese. The Vietnamese who wanted to make America their new home feared retaliation from the North Vietnamese if they stayed in Saigon because they had worked for an American company. NBC News, where I worked, assembled a team to help get its staffers to the United States. NBC also planned to assist our Vietnamese staffers and their families once they came to America. No one cared at that point how difficult the resettlement would be. Only flight mattered.

I volunteered to return to Saigon to help with the evacuation. I knew Saigon and Vietnam well. As NBC News bureau chief for two and a half years, then from my base in Hong Kong and London, I had covered the war for more than 6 years. But my wife, who was still recovering from a serious war wound, begged me not to go. She feared I might die at the hands of the North Vietnamese or the Viet Cong. I understood I could not leave her in a state of anxiety with our two small sons in a new country where she was still a stranger so I relented, and I remained in New York while my colleagues worked to get the Vietnamese staff and any of their family members connected to NBC News out of Saigon.

As Saigon was falling, where communication with anyone had always at best been poor, I lost touch with my family members. I knew some members of the family had got out but I knew little else. I eventually learned that the women, including Josephine’s pregnant sister and an 18-month-old nephew, and her father and mother got on a special bus from Saigon to Tan Son Nhut Airport. There they nervously waited for seats on a transport plane that would carry them off to the unknown. My wife’s three brothers were missing. They seemed to have fallen from sight. In panic mode, the women, Josephine’s two sisters, her mother, her father and the wife of one of her brothers, kept the line moving, got on the plane and soon were on their way to Guam, the next step on their road to America. Though they would have their freedom, missing their men was a major problem.

The men, though, had another tale to tell.

As Saigon was crumbling, Josephine’s three brothers, Khai, who served with special services in the South Vietnamese army, Khiet, a mechanic with the Air Force, and Quan, a radar technician, gathered at the family home on Phat Diem Street hoping that somehow they would find a way to escape their ravaged country. Then it happened, as if by divine intervention, a very close friend who was in the navy and whom I later designated an honorary cousin so he could get his papers, arrived on their doorstep with the means of escape. But they had to move and move fast. A Vietnamese navy PT boat was at a dock in the harbor of the Saigon River waiting for them. If they got there in time, it would take them on board and ferry them to a safe port of call.

As with many in Saigon, the young men had motorbikes. They jumped on their two-wheelers and followed their friend through a disintegrating Saigon. Mortar rounds were hitting the streets. Machine gun fire tore through the alleys. Explosions echoed in every neighborhood. Approaching the docked PT boat, they could see its engines revving up and the boat readying for its journey. To where no one knew. The men dropped their bikes, raced to the boat, and jumped on as it was pulling away from the dock. The boat gunned its engines and bolted from the harbor, bouncing waves drenching the deck.

The brothers and everyone else on the boat had no idea where they were going but they knew they would soon be on their next adventure, the one that would free them to pursue a new life.

The family and the newly minted cousin would soon be on Guam, then in the Philippines, Camp Pendleton in Southern California, Fort Chaffee, Arkansas, and finally Indiantown Gap, Pennsylvania. My next move with the help of my wife was to get them reunited under one roof at my home in Rockville Centre, New York. Challenging, yes, but hardly impossible, as you will discover in Part 2.

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When Refugees Were the Good Guys: Escape from Saigon by Ron Steinman​

When Refugees were the Good Guys: Escape from Saigon by Ron Steinman

Part 1

 

This is a story about the people America considered good refugees, immigrants with standing, if you will, not the maligned ones of today who are fleeing oppression and possible death who cross our southern borders in the hope of finding a better life. I am going to tell you of some so-called good refugees who became America’s responsibility at the end of a war because of what they, most of whom were men, had contributed to the American effort in Vietnam. In the case of NBC News, for whom they had been loyal and fruitful contributors to our efforts to cover the news, they would eventually become our personal charges, immigrants from the Vietnam War but good ones, desirable ones.

Despite having a difficult and different language, different customs and religion — though some were Catholic, others were Buddhist, and animists — everything about them was foreign, including the shape of their eyes and the color of their skin. But they had one thing going for them — Americans considered them their refugees, even though they were from a foreign land.

In truth, they were a big part of my own family.

My experience with these refugees began in 1975 when the Vietnam War ended faster than anyone thought it would. First, take a minute for some background. My wife came from Saigon where most of her family lived and worked. Just to show how the many religions of Vietnam affected my family, some practiced Buddhism and animism while others were Catholic. They all got along.

As the North Vietnamese rapidly marched from the northern tier of South Vietnam it ran into little or no opposition from the South Vietnamese. The Vietnamese who wanted to make America their new home feared retaliation from the North Vietnamese if they stayed in Saigon because they had worked for an American company. NBC News, where I worked, assembled a team to help get its staffers to the United States. NBC also planned to assist our Vietnamese staffers and their families once they came to America. No one cared at that point how difficult the resettlement would be. Only flight mattered.

I volunteered to return to Saigon to help with the evacuation. I knew Saigon and Vietnam well. As NBC News bureau chief for two and a half years, then from my base in Hong Kong and London, I had covered the war for more than 6 years. But my wife, who was still recovering from a serious war wound, begged me not to go. She feared I might die at the hands of the North Vietnamese or the Viet Cong. I understood I could not leave her in a state of anxiety with our two small sons in a new country where she was still a stranger so I relented, and I remained in New York while my colleagues worked to get the Vietnamese staff and any of their family members connected to NBC News out of Saigon.

As Saigon was falling, where communication with anyone had always at best been poor, I lost touch with my family members. I knew some members of the family had got out but I knew little else. I eventually learned that the women, including Josephine’s pregnant sister and an 18-month-old nephew, and her father and mother got on a special bus from Saigon to Tan Son Nhut Airport. There they nervously waited for seats on a transport plane that would carry them off to the unknown. My wife’s three brothers were missing. They seemed to have fallen from sight. In panic mode, the women, Josephine’s two sisters, her mother, her father and the wife of one of her brothers, kept the line moving, got on the plane and soon were on their way to Guam, the next step on their road to America. Though they would have their freedom, missing their men was a major problem.

The men, though, had another tale to tell.

As Saigon was crumbling, Josephine’s three brothers, Khai, who served with special services in the South Vietnamese army, Khiet, a mechanic with the Air Force, and Quan, a radar technician, gathered at the family home on Phat Diem Street hoping that somehow they would find a way to escape their ravaged country. Then it happened, as if by divine intervention, a very close friend who was in the navy and whom I later designated an honorary cousin so he could get his papers, arrived on their doorstep with the means of escape. But they had to move and move fast. A Vietnamese navy PT boat was at a dock in the harbor of the Saigon River waiting for them. If they got there in time, it would take them on board and ferry them to a safe port of call.

As with many in Saigon, the young men had motorbikes. They jumped on their two-wheelers and followed their friend through a disintegrating Saigon. Mortar rounds were hitting the streets. Machine gun fire tore through the alleys. Explosions echoed in every neighborhood. Approaching the docked PT boat, they could see its engines revving up and the boat readying for its journey. To where no one knew. The men dropped their bikes, raced to the boat, and jumped on as it was pulling away from the dock. The boat gunned its engines and bolted from the harbor, bouncing waves drenching the deck.

The brothers and everyone else on the boat had no idea where they were going but they knew they would soon be on their next adventure, the one that would free them to pursue a new life.

The family and the newly minted cousin would soon be on Guam, then in the Philippines, Camp Pendleton in Southern California, Fort Chaffee, Arkansas, and finally Indiantown Gap, Pennsylvania. My next move with the help of my wife was to get them reunited under one roof at my home in Rockville Centre, New York. Challenging, yes, but hardly impossible, as you will discover in Part 2.

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Phat Diem Rocks by Ron Steinman

Now Part 3 of my Josephine stories from Vietnam.

Phat Diem Rocks by Ron Steinman

Phat Diem was a moderately long, nondescript street in Saigon with a rutted road and deep potholes resembling small ponds. It boasted a big, ugly cathedral with an unkempt front lawn where the many children in the neighborhood played typical kids games as well as soccer. A small market toward one end of the street sold everything from dry goods to fresh food. The requisite barber with his folding chair on one corner gave shaves and cut hair in the open. Add the always-present bike repairmen on another corner, his hands and fingernails bruised and oil stained, his clothing, torn and, unlike the bicycles he worked, beyond repair. That in a capsule was Phat Diem Street during the war.

The headquarters of the National Police was a few blocks away across a major thoroughfare. At the farthest end of the street, one could walk to the Saigon River, throw a line in and catch a fish for dinner. Viet Cong mortars from the other side of the Saigon River often flew over Phat Diem as they tried hitting the National Police building and anything that stood in its way. The success of the VC was not very high.

On that street was the large, two-story home where Josephine Tu Ngoc Suong grew up and lived with her family. In the front yard of the house, behind a low wall, Josephine’s mother ran a small restaurant famous in the district for breakfast and lunch. Many cyclo drivers kept their Pedi cabs near the house and the market where they ate and rested between jobs. The National Police, better known as “the white mice” wandered freely on Phat Diem, believing what was probably true, that some of the drivers worked for the Viet Cong. These drivers often carried messages and sometimes even supplies of drugs from the local pharmacy to the various VC cells around the city. And they were everywhere. That hardly mattered, though, because there were days during the war years when a transformation took place on that dusty and benign street unlike on any other street in Saigon. It was as if such a thing as war did not exist.

Josephine, who worked for NBC News as office manager, also ran a rock and roll and folk band called, “The Free Ones.” She managed the band, set its dates and was the lead singer. The band performed at American army bases in the Saigon-Bien Hoa area, concentrating on the U.S. Army base at Long Binh. At least one day a week and sometimes more than that, the band rehearsed in her mother’s home. Gathering on the second floor of the house, the band got down to work, usually around 3 in the afternoon when Josephine went home for the day. They went over the guitar riffs and sang the folk-pop songs for the coming gig that night. The amps plugged in and going full bore, the band was loud and raucous, the sound bouncing through the house and plowing its way onto usually quiet Phat Diem Street.

Crowds of neighborhood kids formed in the house. They and even some older people filled the small restaurant her mother, Madame Tu, ran in the outdoor courtyard, as well as the living room, the kitchen, the steps leading to the second floor and the bedroom where the band played. The kids cheered. They applauded. Older folk sighed and shook their heads in wonderment. Many of the kids sang along with Josephine as if they were her backup singers. She usually started her rehearsal with “500 Miles Away from Home,” followed by Nancy’s Sinatra’s, “These Boots Were Made for Walking,” and ending with. “We Got to Get Out of This Place,” something that every Vietnamese youngster in Saigon dreamed of doing, as did the GI’s she sang to in the clubs. The younger kids danced in the downstairs living room, making up their own steps to the four by four beat of the blaring guitars.

During the reign of Madame Nhu in the time of the Diem despotism, her strict morality code prohibited anyone from having a good time, especially dancing in public. However, everyone in Madame Tu’s home on Phat Diem had a good time. Surprisingly it included the local police, mystified and perhaps unsure what to do, but who in their rare wisdom did nothing to stop the band

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Josephine and the Sergeants by Ron Steinman

Here is the second of my Josephine stories.

 

Josephine and the Sergeants by Ron Steinman

 

She did not belong at the Third Field Hospital at Tan Son Nhut because she was Vietnamese. Only Americans and allied troops could receive treatment at 3rd Field. The United States military did not allow Vietnamese persons in its medical facilities. But Josephine Tu Ngoc Suong was special, a long-time part of NBC News and thus treated as royalty, something for which we were all thankful.

Josephine had been at work on a Saturday morning in the NBC bureau in late December 1967. An American soundman was trying to clean a pilfered Viet Cong AK-47 and inadvertently discharged a bullet from the gun that went flying around the rooms in the bureau, accidentally hitting Josephine in the head, seriously wounding her. If not for the quick work by NBC and AP staffers getting her to an American hospital for surgery she would have died.

I got the news when I was in Mexico City taking a few days off from a trip to New York before heading back to Saigon. Because of the Christmas holidays, it took me several days to make the right connections to return to Saigon. Eventually, I arrived. Mr. Long, my top driver met me at Tan Son Nhut Airport and drove me to the American military base at Long Binh where Josephine was recuperating from emergency brain surgery. The pain and trauma of seeing her in her hospital bed will always be with me, but this is not about me. It is about Josephine and her then next step.

After I arrived at the hospital in Long Binh, and consulted with her medical staff, all the best military doctors in Vietnam, they decided to move her to the 3rd Field Hospital at Tan Son Nhut airbase outside Saigon. The move would make her more easily accessible to her family and friends who were clamoring to see her.

Because of the overworked army medical staff, I volunteered to help get Josephine to the 3rd Field Hospital. The nurses eagerly accepted my support to accompany Josephine to the hospital. The move would not be easy. We had to travel in a military ambulance over the battered highway that ran between Long Binh and Tan Son Nhut. My job was to hold Josephine by the head and shoulders as the truck carrying us bumped and weaved its way through heavy traffic. The medical team had sedated Josephine, but not, naturally me. I had to be awake, strong and emotionally oblivious to her condition. I found that mostly impossible.

January in Saigon was hot and humid. The day we moved her was no exception. Her head, swathed in layers of gauze tape, rested uneasily in my large hands. Inside the tightly closed ambulance, as it rumbled over the highway, I sweated profusely, something I normally did not do.

We arrived without incident at 3rd Field Hospital. Nurses took Josephine off my hands and brought her into the ward where she would reside for the next three weeks. Because she was a Vietnamese woman, there was no designated bed for her. The hospital authorities decided she would best fit in a ward filled with army sergeants who were either recovering from wounds sustained in combat or from other ailments more natural to men approaching a certain age.

Once settled, nurses bathed her, changed her bedclothes, and attached her IV. She soon went into a deep and needed sleep. I do not think she knew she had been moved from one hospital to another. I was able to arrange for the hospital to allow her parents, her family and friends to visit her, even if only an hour a day.

Thus, her time at 3rd Field began without incident and with the best care we could hope for under terrible circumstances. Despite the distance from Saigon and often-heavy traffic, I visited her as much as I could while she recuperated. The sergeants often greeted me quietly, usually with little more than the nod of a head. We never spoke.

Josephine was in an over-crowded ward on the main floor of the hospital. The beds, lined against the walls, were often two deep, except for several cubicles whose two sides made for a small enclosure. The cubicles were for recovering patients who were in more dire straights than those who occupied one of the hospital’s other 325 beds.

Most days I arrived at the hospital before noon. One day entering the ward, I noticed a grizzled sergeant seated outside Josephine’s cubicle. He said hello, stood and shook my hand. I asked what was going on. He told me that two nights ago, one of the patients tried to climb the side of the cubicle where Josephine rested and slept. It was as if he was either going to attack her or worse, try to rape her. The soldier made such a mess of his attempt that he woke up most of the ward. The men stopped him, dragged him back to his bed and tied him down so he could not make another attempt. Then they decided, as the experienced NCOs they were, they would take action. They would take turns guarding Josephine in eight-hour shifts to protect her from further possible attacks. Until then they had ignored Josephine because she was a young woman, benign, quiet, no trouble and Vietnamese. They were living quietly with her in their presence as long as she caused no trouble. But when the trooper tried to attack her, it changed the dynamic in the ward. The sergeants became her protector, making sure that no harm came to her while she recovered.

To the surprise of everyone, as Josephine slowly improved and regained some speech and movement on her left side, the sergeants began to talk to her in English, and she to them as best she could. Because the bullet that cracked opened her skull damaged the part of her brain that allowed her to talk she could hardly speak. Soon, to the surprise of the doctors, her speech started coming back slowly, yet muddled and without context. That was only the beginning. Her doctors told her to choose a language. She decided on English, mainly because of me as we planned to marry. Even severely wounded, she acted knowing we would be together in the future.

From grunts, groans, and words that were barely discernible, her individual words started to have meaning, her sentences started to make sense. She continued to improve. The sergeants took turns working with Josephine on pronunciation and sentence structure. One man gave her a notebook and helped her hold a pen with her left hand, the hand that had feeling and movement given her right side had been paralyzed from the gunshot. Carefully and gingerly, she started to write the words she spoke. I still have that notebook with its scribbles and marks that passed for words in Josephine’s slowly recovering brain. Guarding Josephine, working on her language skills, and helping her walk, though with a marked limp, and protecting her from harm went on for weeks until the medical staff discharged her and sent her home to her family where she would continue to recover.

On learning she would be leaving the hospital, Josephine wanted to do something for the troops in the hospital where everyone had been so good to her. She suggested a concert by her band, “The Free Ones.” I thought it a great idea and suggested it to the hospital administrators. They readily agreed. We worked out clearances for the band, picked a date and an afternoon and decided an open courtyard on the hospital grounds would work best. The day came, the band arrived, set up and gave a two-hour concert of rock and roll to an enthusiastic bunch of recovering soldiers, some in wheelchairs, some wheeled in on their hospital beds, others standing and sitting where they could, making a crowd of several hundred, including hospital staff. The men cheered, whistled, clapped, and pounded their canes and crutches on the ground. Everyone had a good time.

Josephine and the sergeants became friends and them her mentors and teachers, a highly unusual state of affairs, unique I am sure in the annals of the Vietnam War.

 

 

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Josephine in Jail by Ron Steinman

5/8/18

This is the first of three pieces that is part of my “Josephine Suite,” stories about Josephine Tu Steinman and her life in Saigon during the Vietnam War.

Josephine in Jail by Ron Steinman

This is a story about a young Vietnamese pop singer in Saigon, her band, and a squad of White Mice. To explain.

At birth, her family named her Tu Ngoc Suong, a proper and fitting name for a Vietnamese girl born in 1942. She lived a normal life in Saigon and was fortunate enough to go to Marie Curie, a French private school for girls. But there her given name was not good enough, so her French teachers renamed her Josephine, the name she would be known by from that time, forever. As she grew older she accepted her name, but she made sure that no one called her Jo or Josie. Josephine had been Napoleon’s wife and that was good enough for her. This is by way of a prologue.

In time, after working at Vietnam Handicraft, a gift shop in Saigon, two correspondents from NBC News who shopped there hired her to be NBC’s office manager, where I met her when I arrived as bureau chief Because of her facility with language — she spoke French, English, Vietnamese, and a little Chinese — she did her job well. Unknown at first, yet soon open to all, Josephine had another life. She sang. She managed her own pop or rock and roll band called “The Free Ones.” She had a sweet, strong voice for folk rock, especially the music of the moment. She was also a good mimic and sang without a trace of an accent. Josephine and her family needed the money but she loved to entertain so it was an easy and enjoyable outlet for her talent.

Little known to the public, there was a sort of USO made up of Vietnamese entertainers who performed at NCO nightclubs and enlisted men’s clubs on American bases. At each club a powerful sergeant did the booking. These Vietnamese music groups filled a void most nights by giving the American trooper a few hours of fun and entertainment in the relative safety of their base. The bands, heavy with two to three guitars and a full set of drums, along with a singer, Josephine, and sometimes a very bad stripper, nameless, provided live music and a respite from the war. The troops sipped a beer or two, cheered loudly and everyone had a good time.

Josephine, whose pitch black hair flowed down her back, and her rag-tag group of skinny musicians often played at the Long Binh base near Bien Hoa, the biggest army facility in Vietnam, about 16 miles outside of Saigon. As the lead singer and band manager — she also owned the drum set that I bought for her in Hong Kong and carried for her to Saigon– Josephine negotiated the deals for her appearances, collected the money in American dollars, and paid her crew.

Many of the songs Josephine sang were melodic and mellow, all typical of the 1960s. Against NBC policy, I was dating or, if you will, courting Josephine in a benign, almost 19th-century fashion. Before the war was over she became my wife. Several nights a week we went out to dinner, usually to a Chinese restaurant in Cholon. On the drive, we would sit in the back of a refurbished American car as Josephine rehearsed the songs she would sing during her appearances. She worked on her accent, her phrasing, and pitch. I got a private concert that made our trip to the restaurant more pleasing than I could have expected.

She sang, “To Sir With Love,” “Windy,” “San Francisco,” “Downtown,” ‘Love Potion Number 9,” and “Five Hundred Miles.” The guys loved it when she sang, “Danny Boy,” “Puff the Magic Dragon,” and “Monday, Monday, ” and, especially “These Boots Are Made for Walking,” the Nancy Sinatra anthem that everyone loved. Often she opened her show with “Leaving on a Jet Plane,” and quickly followed with the one song that always brought the men to their feet, and often tears to their eyes, “We Got to Get Out of This Place,” the song that always also closed her shows.

As was my habit, when a team prepared and went on assignment early in the morning often at 6 a.m. or so, I made sure that I saw them off. Then, the office quiet, I did paperwork, had a Vietnamese-style coffee brought to me from Givral downstairs and prepared for my day. Josephine usually arrived around 9 carrying with her fresh pastries from Givral including its famous buttercream Napoleons. By then the bureau was bustling, the telex was blasting, the phones were ringing, the babble of the staff rising.

On the morning I am writing about, the usually punctual Josephine had not arrived in the bureau. Soon it was ten o’clock. She, as most Vietnamese, did not have a phone at home. I had no way to contact her. We were worried. I was about to send a car to her home on Phat Diem when her sister walked in to ask if we knew where Josephine might be. Her mother was concerned because she had not come home that night. We did not want to go to the Vietnamese police knowing they would be useless because of their incompetence. We could not go to the American military police because she was Vietnamese and they had no jurisdiction over the Vietnamese. We were in the proverbial dark about where we might find Josephine.

Soon it was 11 o’clock and still no Josephine. We collectively held our breath. We knew she had been playing a date somewhere in Long Binh but we did not know exactly where. We had no way of checking where she had been on that vast military base. Anything could happen on the dangerous road from Bien Hoa to Saigon. The Viet Cong were everywhere. We hoped for the best.

So we sat, our fingers crossed, feeling inadequate, in the dark, worried and helpless. The phones kept ringing. The babble got louder. The telex sputtered and clattered. We tried to work but we could not concentrate.

Then, in an instant, everything changed. The front door to the office opened, and in walked Josephine, alive, cheerful as usual, full of life and looking just fine. Everyone hugged her except me because it was not my place to do so. She went to her desk, sat in her chair and told us what had happened. Here is her story paraphrased for clarity.

“When the set ended, we packed our gear and got ready to leave but the sergeant in charge was delayed getting to pay us. We waited patiently and it was nearly curfew by the time we finished, so we hustled into our old van, made it out the gate of the base and we were soon on the highway headed for Saigon. We noticed the time and saw that we were out past the curfew. That had happened to us before without any problems so we thought everything would be okay. But it was not to be. Soon on our tail was a National Police squad car, its siren in full blast, chasing us down and forcing us to stop on the road. We were alone. The road was empty. We were very nervous. Four Canh Sat (Note: This is Vietnamese for white mice, the nickname for the national police because they wore white helmets, white gloves, and white shirts and were mostly weak and ineffectual) came up to the truck, their guns drawn, and their rifles at the ready. They made us get out the van. They asked us where we had been, who we were and where were we going. They listened but they did not seem to care. They told us that because we had broken curfew, we would have to go to jail, spend the night and pay a fine. We had no choice. We could not argue. Truth is we were afraid. Those men were capable of anything. Maybe they would kill us and take our instruments because they would have some value on the black market. We climbed back into our van and followed them meekly and obediently to police headquarters and its jail a few miles down the road.

The overcrowded jail they put us in was dank and dirty. It smelled of vomit and must. There were drunks and drug addicts in all the cells. The police took our names, and ID cards and then pushed us into one of the less packed cells. Because there were no cells for women, I had to share the same cell with the guys in the band. Oddly, they let my band members keep their instruments, including our portable transformers. We knew immediately we could not sleep and really, we did not want to sleep. It was too terrifying. We decided we would play, and that we would improbably give a free concert to our cellmates and our jailers.

We started playing as loud as we could to drown out our fears. The cellblock grew quiet and the inmates cheered when we finished a song. Then our jailers came in and told us to stop. As soon as we did, the men started yelling and banging their shoes against the bars. That became too much even for the police and they told us we could keep playing to help keep the prisoners quiet. By then it was around midnight. We continued playing, sometimes repeating songs we did that needed extra work. We were hungry but we had no food, though around 4 in the morning our guards brought us bottles of water, something we sorely needed and welcomed.

In time, the prisoners grew quiet. Some went to sleep. Others nodded off in a drunken stupor. Some fell into a drug-induced lethargy. We played on. I sang. Both my guitarists had a ball doing things with their instruments they rarely had a chance to do when they entertained the troops.

And so went our night. As dawn came up, we stopped playing. Most of the prisoners were asleep. A few stayed with us through the night. When we left, they gave us a low cheer and light applause. There were a few smiles and no laughter. The concert over, in the morning, just a few hours ago, the “white mice” made us pay a fine in dollars, let us pack up and sent us on our way. I came here first. The band went to their homes where I hope they are all now asleep. We are all well. This is a new day. And that is my story.”

Josephine finished talking. Cliché that is was, we all breathed a sigh of relief, applauded her tale, and broke the semi-circle around her desk to give her some air. I told one of the drivers to take her and her sister home. We were happy she survived the night. Everyone could relax. That was the happy end to a scary story.

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Josephine in Jail by Ron Steinman

5/8/18

This is the first of three pieces that is part of my “Josephine Suite,” stories about Josephine Tu Steinman and her life in Saigon during the Vietnam War.

Josephine in Jail by Ron Steinman

This is a story about a young Vietnamese pop singer in Saigon, her band, and a squad of White Mice. To explain.

At birth, her family named her Tu Ngoc Suong, a proper and fitting name for a Vietnamese girl born in 1942. She lived a normal life in Saigon and was fortunate enough to go to Marie Curie, a French private school for girls. But there her given name was not good enough, so her French teachers renamed her Josephine, the name she would be known by from that time, forever. As she grew older she accepted her name, but she made sure that no one called her Jo or Josie. Josephine had been Napoleon’s wife and that was good enough for her. This is by way of a prologue.

In time, after working at Vietnam Handicraft, a gift shop in Saigon, two correspondents from NBC News who shopped there hired her to be NBC’s office manager, where I met her when I arrived as bureau chief Because of her facility with language — she spoke French, English, Vietnamese, and a little Chinese — she did her job well. Unknown at first, yet soon open to all, Josephine had another life. She sang. She managed her own pop or rock and roll band called “The Free Ones.” She had a sweet, strong voice for folk rock, especially the music of the moment. She was also a good mimic and sang without a trace of an accent. Josephine and her family needed the money but she loved to entertain so it was an easy and enjoyable outlet for her talent.

Little known to the public, there was a sort of USO made up of Vietnamese entertainers who performed at NCO nightclubs and enlisted men’s clubs on American bases. At each club, a powerful sergeant did the booking. These Vietnamese music groups filled a void most nights by giving the American trooper a few hours of fun and entertainment in the relative safety of their base. The bands, heavy with two to three guitars and a full set of drums, along with a singer, Josephine, and sometimes a very bad stripper, nameless, provided live music and a respite from the war. The troops sipped a beer or two, cheered loudly and everyone had a good time.

Josephine, whose pitch black hair flowed down her back, and her rag-tag group of skinny musicians often played at the Long Binh base near Bien Hoa, the biggest army facility in Vietnam, about 16 miles outside Saigon. As the lead singer and band manager — she also owned the drum set that I bought for her in Hong Kong and carried for her to Saigon– Josephine negotiated the deals for her appearances, collected the money in American dollars, and paid her crew.

Many of the songs Josephine sang were melodic and mellow, all typical of the 1960s. Against NBC policy, I was dating or, if you will, courting Josephine in a benign, almost 19th-century fashion. Before the war was over she became my wife. Several nights a week we went out to dinner, usually to a Chinese restaurant in Cholon. On the drive, we would sit in the back of a refurbished American car as Josephine rehearsed the songs she would sing during her appearances. She worked on her accent, her phrasing, and pitch. I got a private concert that made our trip to the restaurant more pleasing than I could have expected.

She sang, “To Sir With Love,” “Windy,” “San Francisco,” “Downtown,” ‘Love Potion Number 9,” and “Five Hundred Miles.” The guys loved it when she sang, “Danny Boy,” “Puff the Magic Dragon,” and “Monday, Monday, ” and, especially “These Boots Are Made for Walking,” the Nancy Sinatra anthem that everyone loved. Often she opened her show with “Leaving on a Jet Plane,” and quickly followed with the one song that always brought the men to their feet, and often tears to their eyes, “We Got to Get Out of This Place,” the song that always also closed her shows.

As was my habit, when a team prepared and went on assignment early in the morning often at 6 a.m. or so, I made sure that I saw them off. Then, the office quiet, I did paperwork, had a Vietnamese-style coffee brought to me from Givral downstairs and prepared for my day. Josephine usually arrived around 9 carrying with her fresh pastries from Givral including its famous buttercream Napoleons. By then the bureau was bustling, the telex was blasting, the phones were ringing, the babble of the staff rising.

On the morning I am writing about, the usually punctual Josephine had not arrived in the bureau. Soon it was ten o’clock. She, like most Vietnamese, did not have a phone at home. I had no way to contact her. We were worried. I was about to send a car to her home on Phat Diem when her sister walked in to ask if we knew where Josephine might be. Her mother was concerned because she had not come home that night. We did not want to go to the Vietnamese police knowing they would be useless because of their incompetence. We could not go to the American military police because she was Vietnamese and they had no jurisdiction over the Vietnamese. We were in the proverbial dark about where we might find Josephine.

Soon it was 11 o’clock and still no Josephine. We collectively held our breath. We knew she had been playing a date somewhere in Long Binh but we did not know exactly where. We had no way of checking where she had been on that vast military base. Anything could happen on the dangerous road from Bien Hoa to Saigon. The Viet Cong were everywhere. We hoped for the best.

So we sat, our fingers crossed, feeling inadequate, in the dark, worried and helpless. The phones kept ringing. The babble got louder. The telex sputtered and clattered. We tried to work but we could not concentrate.

Then, in an instant, everything changed. The front door to the office opened, and in walked Josephine, alive, cheerful as usual, full of life and looking just fine. Everyone hugged her except me because it was not my place to do so. She went to her desk, sat in her chair and told us what had happened. Here is her story paraphrased for clarity.

“When the set ended, we packed our gear and got ready to leave but the sergeant in charge was delayed getting to pay us. We waited patiently and it was nearly curfew by the time we finished, so we hustled into our old van, made it out the gate of the base and we were soon on the highway headed for Saigon. We noticed the time and saw that we were out past the curfew. That had happened to us before without any problems so we thought everything would be okay. But it was not to be. Soon on our tail was a National Police squad car, its siren in full blast, chasing us down and forcing us to stop on the road. We were alone. The road was empty. We were very nervous. Four Canh Sat (Note: This is Vietnamese for white mice, the nickname for the national police because they wore white helmets, white gloves, and white shirts and were mostly weak and ineffectual) came up to the truck, their guns drawn, and their rifles at the ready. They made us get out the van. They asked us where we had been, who we were and where were we going. They listened but they did not seem to care. They told us that because we had broken curfew, we would have to go to jail, spend the night and pay a fine. We had no choice. We could not argue. Truth is we were afraid. Those men were capable of anything. Maybe they would kill us and take our instruments because they would have some value on the black market. We climbed back into our van and followed them meekly and obediently to police headquarters and its jail a few miles down the road.

The overcrowded jail they put us in was dank and dirty. It smelled of vomit and must. There were drunks and drug addicts in all the cells. The police took our names, and ID cards and then pushed us into one of the less packed cells. Because there were no cells for women, I had to share the same cell with the guys in the band. Oddly, they let my band members keep their instruments, including our portable transformers. We knew immediately we could not sleep and really, we did not want to sleep. It was too terrifying. We decided we would play, and that we would improbably give a free concert to our cellmates and our jailers.

We started playing as loud as we could to drown out our fears. The cellblock grew quiet and the inmates cheered when we finished a song. Then our jailers came in and told us to stop. As soon as we did, the men started yelling and banging their shoes against the bars. That became too much even for the police and they told us we could keep playing to help keep the prisoners quiet. By then it was around midnight. We continued playing, sometimes repeating songs we did that needed extra work. We were hungry but we had no food, though around 4 in the morning our guards brought us bottles of water, something we sorely needed and welcomed.

In time, the prisoners grew quiet. Some went to sleep. Others nodded off in a drunken stupor. Some fell into a drug-induced lethargy. We played on. I sang. Both my guitarists had a ball doing things with their instruments they rarely had a chance to do when they entertained the troops.

And so went our night. As dawn came up, we stopped playing. Most of the prisoners were asleep. A few stayed with us through the night. When we left, they gave us a low cheer and light applause. There were a few smiles and no laughter. The concert over, in the morning, just a few hours ago, the “white mice” made us pay a fine in dollars, let us pack up and sent us on our way. I came here first. The band went to their homes where I hope they are all now asleep. We are all well. This is a new day. And that is my story.”

Josephine finished talking. Cliché that is was, we all breathed a sigh of relief, applauded her tale, and broke the semi-circle around her desk to give her some air. I told one of the drivers to take her and her sister home. We were happy she survived the night. Everyone could relax. That was that: the happy end to a scary story.

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Filed under Journalism, Long Binh, Memoir, Memoir and Journals, Police, Rock band, Saigon, The Press, Vietnam, Vietnam War, War

“Commonplace Book Cover” by Ron Steinman

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April 24, 2018 · 11:05 pm04