Clark, home of the 9th ASA
The Army Security agency dispatched Jeff to the Philippines. The agency maintained rear area facilities there. The 9th ASA was garrisoned at a US Air Force base on the island of Luzon. Powerful antenna fields picked up North Vietnamese communications that Jeff and other Vietnamese linguists (lingys) read. The work was classified Top Secret.
The pace of the war at that point moved slowly, so Jeff and pals had ample off-duty opportunity for travel and adventure in the tropics.
Waiting for War
#1 After finishing the year-long Vietnamese language course at ALS, Jeff was dispatched to the Army Security Agency’s 9th Battalion at Clark Air Base on the island of Luzon in the Philippines. He worked in a heavily guarded Operations building surrounded by barbed wire and lit up by powerful floodlights during night shifts.
The work was classified Top Secret/Cryptographic, but off-duty there were many diversions on and off the base. There was a typical GI town not far from Clark with an array of bars and brothels, the capital Manila to the north with its bright lights, and the resort town of Baguio high and cool above the steamy lowlands.
Jeff and his good buddy Keith frequented these places. It was the early ‘60s, and locales like Corregidor and Bataan of the Pacific war were also not far from Clark. Below, Keith describes their transportation arrangements; another GI from the 9th remembers Angeles City; and the military’s daily paper, Pacific Stars & Stripes writes of grim reminders of WWII.
Tales from the Philippines
There were two ways to get to Manila 60 miles away – by bus or by train. The bus was cheaper, but it made many stops and was crowded with locals often transporting chickens in bags underneath their seats. There were no facilities aboard, so the driver would pull over as needed for a piss stop – women on one side, men on the other.
While waiting in the
bus station for the ride back to Clark, Jeff and Keith would play Frisbee to
the amazement of the Filipinos. Other times, the guys would travel by train to
the capital, much more comfortable with white tablecloths in 1st class.
The journey 12 miles up to Baguio by twisting mountain road was more perilous. Not long before Jeff arrived at Clark, the GI paper reported:
A passenger bus on
its way to Baguio
Thursday hurtled down a 180-foot ravine,
killing 5 persons and injuring 27 others,
7 of them critically.
Angeles City beyond
the gates of Clark reminded Keith of an old American Western town. Much of it
was ramshackle, the streets dusty with domestic animals wandering about, and
horse-drawn vehicles still in use.
In the Western spirit, another GI remembered a lot of danger in the Philippines, especially in Angeles City, which he described as “one of the roughest places on earth. Numerous US military, mostly Air Force guys, lost their lives for no other reason than they had a few pesos in their pockets.”
But he also recalled a GI from the 9th who was luckier – he staggered out of an alley with severe gut wounds, but survived to retire as a Sergeant Major.
Shortly after Jeff arrived in the PI, off-duty Air Force personnel out for a day of climbing on an extinct volcano within sight of the base came upon the wreckage of a WW II C-47 with two human skeletons nearby. The plane was at the bottom of a ravine aflame with wild orchids of many hues.
The head-high grass and surrounding banyan trees of the impenetrable jungle had made it impossible to see the plane from the air.
#2 Not long after deployment to the 9th ASA at Clark Air Base, Jeff wrote home describing his typical day, that is, everything but his classified work on the night shift at the Operations building.
Susie Wong’s World
When I wake up in the afternoon, I do errands, read in
bed, or go to the pool. I generally go to Happy Hour at the Airmen’s Club from
4:30 to 5:30 in the afternoons. All drinks are then only 10 cents, normally 20
cents, while weeds run 95 cents a carton. I either stay there until 11 in the
evening or go into town with a buddy.
The town is called Angeles, and it is right outside the base. It’s like something out of Susie Wong’s world, just like those Far Eastern army towns you read about in war novels. All the joints have American names like Plaza Bar, Skylight, Keyhole. It’s one huge collection of bars, whores, beds, Jeepney drivers, horse and buggy conveyances, and the most poverty-stricken people I have ever seen. The girls are mostly young, from 17 to 35.
#3 Life for Jeff and buddies in the Philippines was pretty laid back until political tensions rose in war time Vietnam and guys shipped out.
Like the Old West
There was an off-base watering hole, a town called Angeles City. It was a dirt-street Army town where everything was cheap, and pigs, chickens, and horse-drawn carts crowded the dusty streets.
It was like the Old West of the United States revisited. A pig was once spotted entering the open door of a bank. This and other noteworthy gems made the experience hilarious … for six months. Then, things changed!
#4 The contrast between Jeff’s posting in the Philippines and Phu Bai, where he spent much of his time in Nam, was striking. Keith Willis served with Jeff in the 9th ASA at Clark Air Base and described the laid-back, easy going life there:
Happy Hours Were Very, Very Happy
We worked behind a barbed-wire walled compound. Ten guards with loaded rifles were at the entrance. Actually this PI duty station was a first-class vacation spot. There were five-cent beers, lighted tennis courts, spacious swimming pools, and constant sun.
Also, the Airmen’s Club had free, live entertainment every day during Happy Hour. Happy Hours were very, very happy, every day!
#5 Keith and Jeff went on from ALS to the 9th ASA at Clark Air Base in the Philippines. Jeff preceded Keith by several months. Angeles City, a GI tank town, was not far from the base. Keith and Jeff sometimes went there together off-duty.
Girls Would Whistle
They would walk down the street, the Filipino girls would whistle and call out to Jeff who would ignore them. He explained to Keith that because of his dark complexion and ‘European’ look, the girls thought he was Spanish, and Spaniards enjoyed high status in the Philippines.
#6 Peyton recalls Fred Baumann.
Jeff Was Non-Tormentable
Fred Baumann was a big kidder, a friendly tormentor in the PI. He’d convert buddies’ names into something to do with pigs, e.g., Willis became Swillis. Asked what nickname for Jeff, he said Jeff was non-tormentable.
#7 In some ways, the 9th ASA at Clark AFB was a kind of repo depot or personnel center for Vietnam. It’s not clear whether the secret work regimen was of military value, or merely busy-work to keep the troops sharp and occupied until needed in VN.
The 9th ASA was home to a generation of wide-eyed lads, seeking adventure and finding instead paradise or extreme boredom. Most ASA personnel at the 9th would find themselves on a TDY roster with destinations for stations in Vietnam, Thailand, and other locations.
Stotsenberg Station at Clark AFB had existed since 1902 and continued until it and the air base were covered with volcanic ash by the eruption of Mt Pinatubo, then abandoned by the US in ’91.
#8 A description of Clark AFB from Jeff’s time there.
Home of the ‘Jungle Air Force’
The 13th Air Force based at Clark AFB has the job of ‘guarding against communist aggression’. Clark, the home of the ‘Jungle Air Force’, is the biggest overseas air base in the world.
The approximate population of Clark: 8,500 military personnel, 7,500 dependents, 500 civilian employees, and 14,000 Filipino civilians who work on the base. The total: About 31,000.
#9 Jeff’s initial impressions of his new assignment in the PI were generally positive, even enthusiastic.
The South Pacific Looks Enchanting
In early ’63, Jeff set off from Travis Air Base north of San Francisco to the Far East via Honolulu. En route, he wrote home, ‘Hawaii is beautiful and warm. I’m on a Super Constellation. It will take 30 hours to get to the Philippines. The South Pacific looks enchanting’.
He described his new base as ‘a little piece of America’ with the pool across the street, tennis courts nearby, and the enlisted men’s open mess called the Coconut Grove, next door.
‘You hear music everywhere on base. It’s from Armed Forces Radio, which we get on our transistors and through speakers in the clubs and rec areas. It’s a strange combination of Country Western and Rock ‘n Roll, everything from Your Cheating Heart and Oklahoma Hills to Little Richard’s Good Golly, Miss Molly and lots of Ray Charles.
#10 Keith Willis describes the living arrangement and work routine at Clark AB.
Brightly Lit with Flood Lights
At Clark, Jeff was in a 4-man room with two sets of bunk beds, a table, a chair, and lockers for each man. Inspections were infrequent.
There were three work shifts: 8 AM-4 PM, 4-Midnight, 12-8. Military dress on the graveyard shift when there was no officer was very casual, unlike the day shift.
A bus transported the GIs to work. It was about a 10-minute drive to the compound, which at night was brightly lit with flood lights. It was a one-story cement block building with various rooms inside. The work space was air conditioned and quite cold.
Each lingy wore a laminated ID badge on a chain around his neck. The operations building was surrounded by a chain link fence topped with barbed wire. There was a guard shack at the entrance manned by several ASA security guards who took their jobs very seriously.
The night shift usually consisted of five men – 3 Viet lingys, a Chinese lingy, and a crypt, or cryptologist. Each man worked at a desk with a desk lamp, although there were also overhead fluorescents. The room was 10x20’ in size with five or six desks. There was a bathroom.
Armed Forces Radio played all night, always Country Western.
#11 Keith and Jeff hung out together at Clark, just as they had at ALS.
Pigs Roaming the Streets
Jeff and I used to go to Angeles City together where in many of the bars, one sat at tables. He remembers looking out the window at one place, seeing pigs and other animals roaming the streets, carts passing by and dust rising, and thinking that it resembled the Old West.
Coming Through the Fulda Gap
In contrast, for my ASA cohort in Europe, the Cold War was a deadly serious business. We had arrived in Germany not long after the crushing of the Hungarian Revolution when the regime was still hanging ‘counter-revolutionaries’ in the mopping up operation.
Any time we might forget the Cold War, we’d be reminded by a 4 AM alert with sirens wailing, and of course we never knew if it was just another drill or the real thing – the Soviet tank army in the GDR coming through the Fulda Gap.
#13 While at Clark, Jeff would from time to time go to Manila with Keith or Peyton.
Sunsets over Manila Bay
After nearly 50 years of occupation, the US had left an indelible imprint on the PI. Manila, the capital on the island of Luzon, was a flamboyant blend of American, Oriental, South Seas, and old Spanish cultures.
Although it was now named in honor of a PI president, the splendid seaside esplanade had been called Dewey Boulevard after the American admiral. A parallel street called Taft Avenue is bisected by streets named Nebraska, Dakota, and so on.
Around 6 PM, the visitor could see some of the most spectacular sunsets in the world over Manila Bay.
5,000 Feet above Sea Level
About an hour and a half from the destination, visitors must change to smaller buses for the trek up the narrow, winding mountain road to Baguio, some 5,000 feet above sea level.
#15 Peyton Bryan, one of Jeff’s buddies in PI, described the operation.
058s Called ‘Ditty Boppers’
At the 9th ASA, the main mission was keeping track of North Vietnamese civilians by monitoring PT&T, the Philippine Telephone & Telegraph Company. The giant antenna field could pick up traffic all the way up to the Chinese border. Yonowitz, or Yoney, kept the unit’s personnel files on the NVN on an early version of IBM on punch cards. The files ran into the thousands.
The 058s, called Ditty Boppers, would intercept the traffic while Jeff, Peyton, and others would translate. Sometimes the scripts were sketchy, so a lingy would sit down with a ditty bopper along with a dictionary, and they’d try to figure out the missing word or words.
ASA Was Doubly Over strength
Although the work went on 24/7, the 9th ASA was doubly over strength in Viet lingys, so Jeff and buddies had plenty of time on their hands. Days were spent lounging at the pool, evenings drinking at the Airmen’s Club on base.
Or they’d go into the town outside the base, Angeles City, which Jeff described as ‘something out of Susie Wong’s world, just like those Far Eastern army towns you read about in war novels’.
The place was a huge collection of bars with American names like Plaza Bar, Skylight, Keyhole, and, Jeff added, the most ‘whores, beds, Jeepney drivers, horse and buggy conveyances, and poverty-stricken people’, I’ve ever seen.