Vietnam Recollections; pre-war and post

Tom Mahon
7 min readSep 17, 2017

~Tom Mahon ~

“Cry ‘Havoc,’ and let slip the dogs of war…” Shakespeare, Julius Caesar

Ken Burns’ documentary on the Vietnam War starts tonight on PBS.

It brings back a tsunami of recollections, both from being there as a civilian, and how it came to overshadow so much stateside in the years, 1965–75.

My introduction to Vietnam however took place long before the Marines landed at Da Nang, when I was in fourth grade in the Midwest in 1954. A new girl — like the rest of us, white, Catholic and diligent — started at our school mid-term, just after the first of the year. She kept to herself and didn’t try to make any friends (and given that few new students ever joined our class over eight years, it probably would have been hard for any new kid to break in).

Then every afternoon about 2 pm she would begin to cry, silently then out loud. And every afternoon, the nun would gently lead her out of the room and she would be gone for the rest of the day.

Finally after several weeks, she was gone completely. Taken out of school by her parents, and the only comment from our nun: “She and her family just relocated here from Vietnam, so you can imagine what she has been through.”

No s’ter, I could not imagine because I didn’t know what a Vietnam was. But the word was etched in my memory, though I never heard it again for another seven years.

  • * * * *

In the spring of 1961, I was a Junior in a high school that — like many Catholic boys’ high schools then — featured ROTC as part of the core curriculum.

ROTC cadets: gung ho but not fully aware of why

One Friday it was announced that Sergeant Soandso was to be reassigned. From the Army’s point of view, teaching Rot-Sea was a tour of duty, like Germany or Okinawa. And a soldier could be reassigned regardless of where it was in the school term.

We did a parade in his honor and when it was over we were dismissed for the weekend. I happened to bump into Sgt S-a-s on the way out of the armory, wished him well and asked where he was going.


That word again. “I’ve heard of it. It’s over near China, right?”

“Yup, near China.”

“Well, good luck over there in Vietnam,” I said.

Then he looked past me, to all my classmates running for the exits to get started on the weekend, and said, “I will see you all in Vietnam.”

I laughed, thinking it was a joke. It wasn’t. Years later, I wondered: if even the non-coms knew the plans in March ’61 (with JFK only six weeks in office then), when did the colonels and generals know? Were they laughing up their sleeves six weeks earlier when retiring President Eisenhower gave his farewell warning to the nation about the “military-industrial complex.”

  • * * * *

The next memorable event that brought Vietnam even more forward in my mind — and into America’s mind — was in June 1963 when Lâm Văn Túc, a Buddhist monk, set fire to himself to protest the persecution of Buddhists by the South Vietnamese government with the backing of the U.S. administration.

Saigon, June 1963. Good morning, America. This will disrupt the lives of a lot of American boys 10,000 miles away

It was one of the most WTF moments in the shared experience of a generation. If you protest a government, you sabotage (like the French against the Nazis), or you sit and get arrested (like Civil Rights advocates), but to immolate yourself? What…?

A year later in the summer of 1964 my uncle, a merchant seaman since WW2, came to visit our family in the Midwest. As he did every time he came ‘home’ for a visit, he’d describe his travels to his wanderlusting nephew. He talked about his most recent port of call, Da Nang, a major city in South Vietnam. He told me it looked like there were preparations for a war underway. But unlike the temporary structures built on U.S. military bases in Germany and Japan after the Second World War, these army offices and barracks were being built with reinforced concrete. We were there stay.

November 1964, Lyndon Johnson is re-elected president promising not to send American boys 10,000 miles to fight someone else’s war.

January 1965, The week Johnson was inaugurated, I was ordered by the local draft board to take a physical to see if I was battle worthy. The hundred or so other men there that day were trying to guess where they would be sent if they got drafted. Germany and Okinawa. No one mentioned Vietnam. I failed the physical, but went over two years later as a merchant sailor.

February 1965, A month later, the North Vietnamese Army and the Viet Cong attack a U.S. military instillation in Pleiku, in the center of the country. Eight U.S. soldiers were killed and over 100 injured. Whether Johnson’s campaign promise of not sending our boys to fight their war was sincere or a ploy, his hand was called. He launched Operation Rolling Thunder and began bombing North Vietnamese barracks and staging areas.

Operation Rolling Thunder

A month later, 3,500 U.S. Marines arrived at Da Nang. The war was on.

— — — — -

My experiences in Vietnam as a civilian during the war are described at

— — — — -

A recollection, years after the war

In 1996, 21 years after the war’s end, I attended an interfaith conference at Stanford University in Palo Alto, Calif.

Delegates representing most of the world’s religions were there to launch a new Initiative to promote interfaith cooperation with the hope of ending religiously motivated violence.

On the final night of the gathering, the organizers held a cocktail party and gala dinner before we all split up the next morning to return home and undertake our respective projects in our own areas.

I noticed a man about my age in a saffron robe and shaved head standing by himself with a puzzled expression on his face. I approached him and asked if he had any questions.

Yes, what is this function called?

It’s a cocktail party.

Cock tail party?

Ah, you’re probably new to one of these?

Yes, he said. He had recently been assigned by his school in Vietnam to start a monastery in San Jose. He said he expected to be invited to more events like this, and was puzzled as to how to act.

A young Buddhist monk

So, being a public relations practitioner, with lots of experience attending professional gatherings (cock tail parties), I taught him the ballet of accepting one card from a stranger while in turn passing your card to the stranger so that now you were no longer strangers. And, oh yea, you have to do this while balancing a drink in one hand though it doesn’t have to be alcoholic.

We talked further and discovered we were born about the same time. Like, within 36 hours of each other in February 1944 to be exact. I was born into the peace and prosperity of post-war America. He was born into the continuation of World War 2 as his countrymen struggled to get the French out of Indochina.

When I was ten, I wore a coonskin cap and sang about Davy Crockett. When he was ten his village rejoined that the Vietnamese had defeated the French once and for all at Dien Bien Phu.

When I was 19, I wonderd what to major in. When he was 19 he saw one of this teachers set fire to himself on a street in Saigon to protest the policies of the US-backed government.

We shared the same months and years of our lives, but in name only.

He remained in Vietnam through the war and in fact till only a few weeks ago, when he was set here to Northern California.

I asked him how he kept his sanity in that war-ravaged country through all those years.

“It is my (Buddhist) practice. Without it I could not have survived.”

As I drove home that night I reflected on how we had each spent the years of our lives. He had learned how to survive 30+ years of warfare in his village and his country, and keep his sanity in tact. While I had spent our 42 common years learning how to balance a drink and simultaneously do the business card shuffle.

So which of us had made best use of his time? I still wonder that, and wonder what to do about it.

© 2017, Tom Mahon

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Tom Mahon

Storyteller. I’ve been a filmmaker, merchant sailor, glass artisan, playwright, and 40-year veteran of Silicon Valley. And each job brought new stories to tell…