Chapter 1: Chinese New Year, Saigon, 1968
The heat and humidity of Saigon’s Chinese quarter in Cholon was cut by the clanking fan above. Lance Corporal Wally Riggs finally got his respite from the muck and constant terror of ambushes in the rice paddies. Just the whiff of a breeze through shoulder high grass was enough to send him diving into the slop and more leeches to pick off before they sucked all his blood.
Now his hand was cupped over the breast of the Vietnamese girl turning towards him with another cup of tea. Her tired teenage face was blurry but became more beautiful with every sip - her eye lashes black like a comb over brightening eyes catching the glint of light from a disco rainbow of colors pulsating to the strident licks of Jimmy Hendrix. It didn’t take much to arouse the loins of a GI fresh out of the paddies and about to get rolled. He thought the “tea girl” was going to kiss him when two helmeted MPs hovered over them.
“Corporal, you got papers?”
They had him cornered, and the girl was able to slip off the stool and disappear. There was nowhere to go. The hard edge of the bar braced his shoulders. It had been a festive day. Fireworks were wheezing and exploding all around in celebration of Chinese New Year. He was inebriated enough for his nervous system to vibrate to guitar licks and the feel of a woman, but this confrontation sobered him up. He stood up as if to leave. The two MPs blocked him. Suddenly he looked up and the MP forced him against the bar.
“This place is off limits. You armed?”
“Hey Sarge, those aren’t sky rockets. That’s AK 47 fire out there.” Riggs sobered up fast, his eyes widening from combat terror to get their attention.
“Stand back, Cpl.” He felt a baton pressed into his gut when the doorway suddenly turned bright orange with a blast of machine gun fire. The MPs arched backwards and collapsed to the floor. Instinct took him diving to the floor, scratching the boards edging close to the bloodied corpses. They were dead for sure, and he had dutifully checked his weapons in for the weekend leave in secure Saigon. Only MPs were allowed to carry any weapon here. He already figured out what intel had failed to. Under the cover of the TET Chinese New Year, Charlie had infiltrated Cholon.
There was no way out. He slowly frisked the corpses beside him and unholstered their 45s. They had extra clips. It was ghoulish to be searching their pockets. He did it fast. Nobody in here could be trusted once they saw him alive and moving. Armed now, he inhaled like just before planting the pole in a high school track meet.
The streets were theirs now. Riggs was going over the bar and as far away from this street as he could move in the few minutes he had. Over he went before the bartender could move from under the counter. He jammed the 45 in the cowering man’s flank. Riggs spoke softly in three sentences. “Get me on the roof. Screw up, and you’re dead. Move it.”
“OK, OK. We crawl and then make run for that door.”
The bartender’s hand was trembling, his finger pointing behind him. Riggs followed. They slid on their bellies, lifted the hinged bar and made a run for a tiny green door. Riggs had no way of knowing who was in this bar. The ladies were lined up with little expression on their faces. They knew this was coming. They had to. They lived here. Riggs waved the 45s at them to make sure they didn’t move.
The bartender unlocked the green boarded door that opened into a narrow stairway to the brothel upstairs. The effects of the tea had worn off. He had been drugged. He was stupid but still alive. The bartender pulled himself up the stairs, his legs wobbly from the prodding of the barrel of a 45 in his back. Fortunately it was only two stories and then a small platform on a stairwell with a mud stained window to the alley. The sight was not unique for him, but it was still a shock. Fully armed NVA troops were rushing the alley. He could see a US tank in flames. MPs were known to come into Cholon in tanks. Not so friendly - particularly today on this Holiday.
“The trap door is open to the roof?” Riggs’s voice was combat-terse with unmistakable immediacy.
“It is. Turn that steel knob and push.”
“You stay down on that floor. Not another word. Not another word, you’re dead.”
“Yes, yes soldier. Please, just go. Now, you go!”
Riggs felt a moment of relief. It was that moment when your life was spared until the next shot. He would get his bearings now. Scanning the roof tops of the tightly contained structures of old China Town, he decided it would be possible to get out of here - just go roof to roof and hide out until dark before making a final break. He counted his ammo. He had two 45's and two extra clips. Stupid asses. How could anyone disarm Walter Riggs in a combat zone? MACV - that’s who. This war was over.
Those dead MPs were looking for deserters. Cholon had them in spades. They were into black market - everything from US arms to poncho liners - even deuce-and-a-half trucks. How he was going to get out of this country was not on his mind. How he was going to get out of Cholon was. Lying prone on the roof and gazing over the rooftops was prelude to what would be one hell of a New Year celebration. This, Riggs cussed to himself, had to be the Year of the Rat.
Crawling on his belly, he began to gather confidence that Charlie was not interested in rooftops but in wiping out the 716th MP battalion. They knew MPs were the only US military allowed to carry arms in secured Saigon.
Riggs had been in plenty of ambushes, but this one was courtesy MACV - Military Assistance Command Vietnam. Fucking idiots! His rage energized him. Renewed strength from surviving another ambush made him superman. Actually he was simply scared and wondering if he soiled his pants. He moved quickly to the roof’s edge and carefully peered over it. The next rooftop was close enough to jump to, but he didn’t trust his legs after that tea. Shit, he should have known it was drugged and he wasn’t going to get laid at all.
There were loose boards around the roof. He would construct a bridge. Then he would just keep going until he got to the next block. Who knows whose house he would enter then on his way to the street tonight? Certainly, lots of people were going to get a visit from Wally Riggs tonight. Sleep tight Suzie. I’ll try not to disturb your evening. I’m comin down your chimney.
He was crawling on his belly when loud chains crunched on the street below. They stopped and he pulled himself back to the roof edge. A tank was turning the corner. The turret was moving diagonally to clear the street below. A uniformed North Vietnamese infantryman with an anti-tank weapon mounted on his shoulder popped out of a doorway directly below him. It happened so quickly. The tank exploded into flames. An MP emerged from the hatch and was immediately gunned down from behind. Riggs slipped back from the precipice and laid on his back just staring into the sun. It seemed hazed by the fireworks.
This was not an inside job at all. The North Vietnamese army was here in full force. Soon it would be over. The 716th could not hold out against an entire army. This was the worse place to be. The Bachelors Officers Quarters were here. He could see it up the street, and gunfire was coming from its windows. They weren’t armed either. Had to be CIA staying there. We were going to lose a lot of officers before this was over. No, they weren’t CIA but aid workers from USAID.
Riggs rolled his head back and forth on the floor with a spontaneous smile of cynicism. Ironic indeed, he mumbled out loud to an empty audience. Our army was disarmed except for the MPs, and civilians were firing out the window with M 16s. Some civil servants! He was pissed, but now it’s time to move on. The nice folks in the bar all knew he was here. He could imagine the hatch ahead flying open with NVA streaming out.
He turned and looked again at the crevice between rooftops. He would jump it. One roof at a time until darkness allowed access to a street. Some innocents were going to have to die. Riggs was short and waiting to ship out next week from Ton Son Nhut Air Base. Twelve months in the rice paddies, a hundred ambushes and not a wound except from leaches and snakes getting bare skin during reckless moments. Wally Riggs had come too far to die now.
He stood and, without looking down, sprinted for the roofs edge. Nothing but rats below it was so narrow. He landed firmly on his feet. It was not a ballet step. Whoever lived below had heard him. No time to linger. No time to map his route. Take one crease at a time until nightfall. He covered an entire block.
By now smoke was rising from the street as MPs were in full combat with NVA. A skyrocket exploded above him. It artfully expanded into a red flag and gold star with a follow-up shot of blue to finish it off - amazing piece of art. Long planned, Cholon was conquered and he was where he absolutely planned never to be - surrounded by the enemy and taken prisoner. That wasn’t going to happen.
He had no communication. MACV knew by now that Saigon had been infiltrated by the enemy. Riggs estimated an entire NVA division must be down there considering the battles going on with MPs in tanks. The flutter of helicopter blades whirred above him. Then a burst of fire. Caught behind lines, he was pumped. He could jump and touch that helicopter, but now he was afraid they’d shoot him. He sprinted across the last rooftop to the main arterial out of Cholon.
The sun was a half red ball over the river now. He hated to disturb anyone’s dinner, but Riggs was on the move. He found the roof hatch, wrenched it open and stared into the dark stair well below. It was vacant. He clutched his 45 with one hand, stabilized himself with the other and dropped to the stairwell, immediately taking combat position in case he heard steps on the stairs. There were none. He moved quietly now, ready to fire on anyone unfortunate enough to be coming home to their apartments right now. But nobody did. Soon he was on concrete.
One more to the basement. He had no idea what was inside the door. He pressed the lock with as much control as he could and felt blessed by something when it clicked open. The room was dark. His eyes accommodated and white chairs became visible. It was a barber shop. He decided not to turn on a light hoping it was vacated. It was, and he cautiously moved through to the street entrance, both 45s waving him ahead in case somebody decided to pop up or turn on the lights.
Now he was the only round eye on the street. It would be time to make a very fast move, because just the backs of NVA were visible clearing the street. There was a stoplight the other way, and he walked fast but as unobtrusively as possible. He waited for the first scooter to be unfortunate to stop. It wasn’t long. The Vietnamese kid in a white shirt stopped just long enough for Riggs to collar him and dump him on the street. Keeping his gun trained on the kid, the boy just laid in the gutter stunned but scared enough to stay quiet. Riggs put the boy’s straw hat on and sped away. He was expecting any minute to hit an NVA road block or American position. Riggs was toast for both.
The street turned into a boulevard. Riggs hugged the inside lane and slowed down. Now he was indistinguishable from Vietnamese except on closer inspection. He needed no encounters with anyone. Police cars were screaming down the other lane. Two tanks were rolling fast behind them with armed MPs riding shotgun. The MPs were not expecting a night like this - particularly the two who had arrested him for deserting.
It was time to dump this guise and change the scene. This city was not under siege but occupied. Nobody just moved around like this without being in total control. TET was perfect for the Trojan Horse of North Vietnamese General Giap. He wrote in English what was going to happen in People’s War, People’s Army. Meyer Lansky’s mafia in Havana had no place to go when Castro took over a few years ago. He came here. He had it bought out and was supposed to control it with the US Army. If he had any marbles bouncing on wheels spinning red on black, they sure weren’t spinning now. Meyer was smart enough to get out. He didn’t warn Wally Riggs this was coming.
The US Embassy was ahead. An armed jeep drove up to the gate. There was a burst of fire, and the MPs penetrated the walls of the most secure building ever built. He was afraid to get too close but stopped to get his bearings. Charlie had already taken the embassy. Was this the place for his last stand? Could this building even be protected? Where was Ellsworth Bunker, our ambassador? Riggs dumped his scooter and flipped off the straw hat. He was in uniform, but an MP left behind at the gate dropped a bead on him. Riggs raised his hands. “I’m American.”
“Throw those 45s into the gutter, keep your arms up and move it fast. You make the wrong move, and you’re dead. I can’t see what’s out there very well and don’t know who’s who.”
“I’m with the 9th Brigade Marines Da Nang. I’m shipping out. Coming from Cholon.”
“You’re lucky to be shipping out at all. Get over here so I can check you. Got papers?”
“Left ’em at the BOQ in Cholon.”
“What were you doing there? You an officer?”
“No just delivering something to my lieutenant and stopped at a bar. All hell broke loose.”
“OK, Marine. Get in this jeep. You’re going to help out here. Inside job. Charlie took over the embassy. Here’s an M 16. Just sit here and cover me. I need to get the radio.”
Hardly what he expected his last nights in Vietnam. The M 16 felt so familiar - like a banjo in his hands. His temperature must be getting down near normal for this place now. A helicopter was hovering above. He could see the door gunner.
“Yes sir. Any resistance at all in there?” The radio went quiet. “Holy shit! So they’re all dead? Our guys too?”
Riggs could hear squawking from the radio. “OK were coming in. Picked up a stray marine out of Da Nang. I armed him. He can help.” Riggs listened for the pause and muffled voice on the other hand. “Yeah, he’s got papers.” A lie. “He’s good. Just got trapped in Cholon.”
The jeep jolted ahead into the embassy yard. Several bodies lay freshly shot. “That guy is Bunker’s chauffer, Satchmo. Christ, our ambassador’s chauffer was VC! This is an inside job.”
“You know if we’re going to get support?”
“If we don’t, the 716th MPs are going to be wiped out. They infiltrated a whole division of NVA into Cholon. That’s why you got trapped, Corporal.”
“Two MPs checking me out at this off-limit bar got blasted in the back. I’ve been on the run since.”
“The Big Red is on its way. This isn’t going to last long, but until they get here it’s you, me and a few friends holding out against an entire army. There’s a lot of guys like you on the run without weapons. You can get those 45s now. I’ll keep you covered. You might need ’em. Nobody seems to know what’s going on”.
“Happy Fourth, Sarge.”
“Same, Marine.Dumb fucks. I bet everybody’s dead in there”. There was a blast of gun fire from the helicopter hovering above. “I guess not. You happen to know how big the staff is here. Ever guarded one of these places?”
“Could be a hundred.”
“They all had to be VC.”
“Had to be. Even the Marine guards are dead.”
“The story of what happened right here where we’re parked is going to be interesting. The typewriters are quiet now, but when the smoke clears, the story will come out. It will be the opposite of what happened.”
“For sure, Marine. You and I got to stay alive. After this we’re heading for Ton Son Nhut. Maybe you’ll be going home on time, unless the NVA took our air base too.”
Another crackle of fire broke the silence, and a heavy set MP jumped off the steps of the Embassy entry. It was a pathetic site. It was a horrible moment in our history.