Joe (Cluba) Remembers Vietnam164, 2/1/2004
By Joe CLUBA
(Editor: This is an excerpt -- 1966-1969 -- when Joe was Assistant Installation Manager, R&U with Pacific Architect and Engineers.)
One way to launder your money was to buy rare coins in Saigon and take them back in your return luggage.
The Vietnamese employees had a good trick in the Post Exchanges. If you had a contact employee cashier in the PX you would buy 6 of each item and they would only charge you for only one or 2. There was no checking going out the door.
The Post Exchange in Saigon was huge and fabulous, whatever you wanted was there. And they had no business selling such large items such as refrigerators, TVs, chairs, expensive diamonds, air-conditioners, etc. You would purchase the items and there would be the locals, usually Chinese, waiting to take them off your hands. Big money changed hands. Black market money. Low on cash for fine dining, just go in the PX, buy a case of liquor for a modest fee and convert it to local currency, head for Tu Do street and have a ball.
Up in Tuy Hoa I rented a hooch from a Vietnamese family, the wife worked in the PX. She would give me her daily order to buy from the PX. I was to leave the goods on the table in my room. When I returned that night the table would be stacked sky high with local currency.
In Vung Tau our material losses were about $250,000 a quarter. Keep in mind this is just one installation in the delta area. Everyone was selling something. You need a jeep, pass the word, and lo and behold it materializes, might even be a new one. Someone steals yours; you steal one of their jeeps. Our air-conditioning section had a panel truck containing spare parts and we had extensive losses. The workers said they were not stealing. And they were not as such. At lunch time they would park their vehicle in front of their homes and some nasty people would come along and steal their spare parts. Of course these thieves were their Filipino and Korean cohorts. What a war!
One day we received a check in our finance office addressed to a Mr. M from a Chinese firm. We talked to M, a big white fellow about 250 pounds, 6 ft 6 in tall. We asked him what the payment was for. Wrong question. He came in my office and turned my desk upside down and told me to leave Vietnam or I'd be a dead man. Well that wasn't very nice, so we started to investigate his activities.
The check was for his villa, every civilian had a villa, sure. He was in charge of our utilities division. The following payday we decided to give out the Vietnamese pay envelopes instead of Mr. M. Somehow we had about 20 left over. How could that be? Well the local police (White Mice) showed up to collect their pay checks. Talk about phantom employees. They said there job was to guard Mr. M`s yacht. Whoops, what yacht? The one over on the other side of the beach area. And by gosh he built a fancy yacht with our money and people. It turns out Mr. M was actually a spook for Navy Intelligence, so we heard. He was terminated and picked up by the Navy and enjoying his sailing. A few months later while walking down town in Vung Tau, I spotted a big hulk of a man coming at top speed headed for me. I said, "Here comes the thunder, I've had it". He walked up smiling and said "Joe you were doing your job and I want to thank you for backing away from my activities". Hell I was told to back away or else I would end up in one of the local nuc mohn jars.
As we were the repairs and utilities contractors for all U. S. Army facilities you would think they would make some equipment available. We had equipment rented from Hong Kong, Saigon, etc. Not USA source. So, here we go again. Went down to the motor pool to check on our water trucks. We furnished water to the military camps and clubs. Mr. M (a different one) was the Chief. So I asked Mr. M why we were leasing water trucks for $1,333 per month (big money then) when the military offered to give us new military water trucks. An unkind reply. M said while pulling out a knife as long as my arm, "When you go downtown tonight, don't shake your head or it will fall off when I get finished with you.." Man these people we not too friendly. Maybe I should have joined the Viet Cong. Wrong answer. I contacted the CID (criminal investigation division) something like the JAG on TV. Oh yeah.
We decided to check out the motor pool activities. M also had control of repair of refrigerators in the utilities division. So we went downtown, drove around and listened for generator noises from Vietnamese homes. They had more A/Cs then we did. We came to M's house, it was crammed full of refrigerators. Man he sure must have liked ice cubes. Shook my head and it didn't fall off.
Well we solved the refrigerators and the air-conditioners, next we had to check the source of the generators. Now these were not small ones, we're talking 110 k generators and you don't carry them on your back. Seems that when our generators were down and spare parts are not available, we would call for a Chinook Sikorsky Helicopter to pick up the old one and take it to a central location where they cannibalize the parts to repair it, then fly it back. Well we did have spare parts for the bad generators and they never made it to the central location.
This process worked the same way with refrigerators. You turned your defective one into supply and they would repair it as necessary. But they would repair it, then tell you it was unserviceable and would have to be salvaged, deep sixed. You would cry, and you would go out and try to steal another. In the meantime, M is counting his money, gee another sale. War is hell!
We were checking the port one day and noticed all kinds of nice shiny barges owned by the U.S. Army, just sitting there in the water. Surprise, surprise, next to the army barges were our barges we leased for $2,000 per month each. Maybe we didn't like that battleship gray of the U S of A barges. These barges were leased from the Chinese in Hong Kong. Boy they were sure nice to help us in our war effort. Red lights flashing, confrontation ahead again. Checked my head to see if it was still attached and went to visit Cliff, the chief of building and support who processed the contracts for the barges. Cliff, he was the lucky one, also had a villa. Maybe those guys get paid more that I do. Well Cliff (a former counterintelligence agent) said the contracts were let in Saigon and he had no control. He would do good in that show Wizard of Oz. So we checked bank accounts, and just maybe he could have bought OZ. Cliff disappeared, don't know where he got to. Another spook.
Not the end of the story. A few weeks later someone knocked on my door, don't know why they knock all I had was screens on the windows, but there in front of me was Charlie Chan or maybe the Number One Son, who said that someone wanted to talk to me outside. I said "Don't get sore, I really like Moo Gai Pai, even Sweet and Sour whatever." He said, "come with me", and I did. There was a big black limo parked out in front with a well dressed Chinaman sitting in the back. Man was he cordial.
I asked him if he knew Wo Fat. He smiled and said, "I understand that you live alone here on the beach without air-conditioning and do not have a wife. I'm prepared to furnish you a villa along with a pretty little wife and household help. We just want your cooperation regarding our barges." I said "Mr. Wo Fat or whatever your name is, first I don't control the contracts, they come out of Saigon, and second I like it here on the beach. Thanks for stopping by, and give my love to Suzy Wong." He disappeared, just like Cliff. Gotta stop making people disappear.
You think that just the civilians were a little bent, hell they caught the Sergeant Major of the Army, also my boss General C, now Mr. C. They were alleged to siphon off much money from the military clubs in Vietnam. Most of the clubs have always been crooked. That is why they got rid of slot machines.
C was in change of Air America when I was up in Laos. The Sergeant Major was court-martialed; the General got a new job. Just the way it was supposed to be. Who said life is fair
Vung Tau activities:
Bodyguard: Mr. Bo was my personal assistant at Vung Tau and served as my bodyguard. He was a small and thin fellow with an extensive knowledge of French. I met his family, nice children, and enjoyed breaking bread with them. We had many hazards in our investigations as we came across all kinds of spooks. Everyone was threatening to kill or have someone killed. And they usually did a very good job.
Corruption: Corruption was the name of the game in Vietnam including military and civilian contract employees. There were constant bribes in all walks of life. If you wanted an exit visa you had to pay someone off in the government. I believe a good portion of people took jobs over here just to steal.
We hired a man in Vung Tau to run our motor pool. Seems he was a PFC in the Army and hired by a civilian contractor after his discharge. Then he stole 34,000 tires. They court-martialed him and sent him to Ft. Leavenworth, but this was overturned as the U. S. military had no jurisdiction. So the word around the motor pool was to "count the tires". Somebody forgot to count the batteries, and he got rich again.
At that time a $l Military Payment Certificate would buy approximately 114 piasters. You had to exchange your MPCs at the local Finance Office, but it was difficult to exchange back into MPCs after converting. So people were walking around with tons of Vietnamese piasters
One day someone knocked on my door and in popped a John M from the Delta. He had a large bag of currency, approximately 1,000,000 in piasters. He was also bleeding as he was shot in the hand by local bandits. He pleaded for my help. So I turned him over to the local spooks who had no trouble laundering the money. On this note, a number of months later, I was flying on our company Cessna down to the delta, and lo and behold M was sitting next to me wearing a heavy jacket. Now mind you the weather was near 100 and humid. I inquired as to his dress, and he opened his shirt and showed me the gold bars taped to his body. Bet he got rich and maybe dead.
One trick to get rid of your black market piasters was to buy a "round the world trip" on PANAM for local currency, then cashing in your ticket when you arrived home. The Embassy caught on and required all purchases to be made by MPCs. Spoil sports.
(Editorial comment: With all this experience that Joe has had, do you have any doubt that the reunion 2004 in Las Vegas is going to be a really first class "shoot-em-up"? Mark your calendars now so you will have a front row seat.)