If someone mentioned the name 'Ong,' what would you think: male or female, first or last name, or possibly a Star Wars character? This story is about Ong. I'm not even sure how she spelled it because I never asked and I never saw it written. It might be spelled 'Hong' with silent 'h', or 'Ohng,' or 'Ahng.' God only knows. I've spelled it as it sounds when spoken using the back of one's tongue. Pretend a doctor is examining your throat and has asked you to say 'Ahhh.' Then end it with 'ng'.
Ong was Vietnamese. At least she was born in Vietnam. Her mother was Vietnamese but her father was French. I met her a few weeks after arriving for my yearlong tour in Vietnam a turning point in my life. For many service men, Vietnam was the end of their life, and I had a few close friends in that category, but for me it was a complex, life-altering experience. It began in Cam Ranh Bay with Sara, but that's another story. This one began after I arrived at my duty assignment in Vung Tau, a former resort town on the southeast coast of Vietnam. It was mid December, 1969.
Prior to arriving in Vung Tau my fellow pilots and I were informed that it had been an in-country R&R location for US troops. Evidently too many troops were returning to duty from Vun Tau with ailments requiring penicillin, so a military health inspection team had been dispatched there a few months earlier to test for social diseases. After testing many bar girls they found an infection rate of 100% and removed Vung Tau from the in-country R&R list. It was not good news for us.
Our missions flew out of an Army airfield on the outskirts of Vung Tau, but my fellow C-7A pilots and I were Air Force Officers and were billeted in a hotel in town a few blocks from the beach. The Army had flown all of the C-7A cargo planes up until a year or so prior to my arrival, at which time they were all taken over by the US Air Force. I think the Army was still pissed off about it and didn't want any Air Force pilots living on their base. The Australian Air Force also flew some C-7 aircraft out of the Army base and they were also billeted at an off-base location.
The Air Force leased a hotel we were to call home, so we had our own compound, complete with a surrounding wall rimmed with concertina wire and a front gate with a guard. The guard was an old, unarmed, Vietnamese man who spoke virtually no English. Apparently his job was to admit the Vietnamese staff, anyone he knew, and anyone who didn't look Vietnamese. All others needed to bribe him to get in and probably could have done so with a fresh catch of fish.
The staff consisted of a half dozen Vietnamese women who cleaned the rooms and did our laundry by beating it on rocks. There was also our Vietnamese bartender who used the name Lynn. Women in Vietnam could be placed into two categories: those with western nicknames and those without. The women with Western nicknames chose them because they spoke passable English and came in frequent, close contact with Americans as a course of earning a living. This included shop keepers, waitresses, bar girls and prostitutes. None of our Vietnamese cleaning women spoke English or had English nicknames at least no nicknames that they acknowledged. We had assigned a few for our convenience.
The hotel was a three-story concrete building with approximately 36 rooms. Each room housed two men and consisted of two twin-sized beds, one dresser, two nightstands and a bathroom. The entire room, walls, ceiling and floor were concrete. The bathroom was one room with a drain in the center for the shower, a sink and a toilet. There was no separate shower stall, and when you took a shower, so did the sink and toilet. There was no interior access to the building. All rooms opened onto an exterior walkway. I shared a room on the first floor, all the way in the back corner of the building. My roommate, John, was a forward air controller and first lieutenant who flew a little single-engine Cessna around looking for bad guys. Compared to most US troops, we were living in luxury.
The bar was a separate, detached one-story building located in front of the hotel where all the social activity took place. In this case social activity consisted of drinking and, for a short while, playing a game called 'Carry the Mail' that was introduced by the Australians. Carry the Mail was simple in concept. Sometime during the evening, when enough people were sufficiently drunk, someone would walk up to a person sitting at the bar, rip off their T-shirt with one fast, hard yank, and yell, 'Carry the Mail.' The crowd in the bar would quickly divide into two teams usually the Americans versus the Australians. The contest was to see which team could get the T-shirt to its respective end of the bar. There were no rules for Carry The Mail, and things tended to quickly get out of hand. After a few pilots ended up with broken bones and unable to fly, the powers that be put out an edict that Carry the Mail was an unauthorized activity and participants would receive heavy penalties that went beyond broken bones.
Being a non-drinker I tended to avoid the nights when too many drunks were socializing, and especially the nights before I flew, since we had to get up at 4 AM. There was an evening curfew for US servicemen that went into effect around 10 PM, so venturing out of our compound was not only against regulations but unadvisable unless you 'went native'. It took a few months before I started going native, which amounted to having a dark tan, wearing flip flops and shorts, and violating curfew. Being a six-foot Caucasian with a crew cut made it impossible to pass for a native, so the secret was to avoid the military and civil authorities, and be on the alert for gangs of locals who might want to mug a GI.
Most of my off-duty time after curfew that first month was spent in the bar. The bartender, Lynn, had a very attractive younger Vietnamese friend who would occasionally stop by the bar late at night. I don't think she had any problems getting past the old man at the gate. Her Americanized nickname was Lisa, and I found out later that her Vietnamese name was Ong. Ong was 19 and about 5' 6', which is tall for a Vietnamese woman, but then there was that French father influence. She also had a young son less than a year old, fathered by an American G I, who had long since returned to the states.
I got to know Ong one evening when I was sitting at the bar with a few friends and Ong arrived. Ong and another guy and I started playing dice. Around 11 PM he went to bed and I stayed and played dice with Ong. I should have gone to bed since I had to get up and fly at 4 AM, but it was the first time since I had arrived in Vietnam several weeks earlier that I was enjoying the company of a young woman, and a damned attractive one at that. Around 1 AM Ong said in broken English, but rather matter of factly, 'Lets go to your room.'
Being a normal male I got up and escorted her to my room. My roommate John was sleeping, although he didn't have to fly in the morning and I did. Evidently Ong and I were quiet because John never awoke. When I left at 4 AM to go fly, Ong was sound asleep. Around 7:30 AM John awoke and heard someone taking a shower. He assumed it was me until Ong emerged, bare-assed naked, and got back into my bed. When John left around 8:30, Ong was sound asleep again. That evening I returned from flying in time for a quick dinner and then off to bed. I was really tired and was sleeping by 8 PM. Around 9:30 I became aware of someone in my room searching the dresser drawers and yelling at me. It was Ong, and she was angry and shouting,"Why you no pay me? Why you no pay?"
The only thing I could think to say in response was, "Why you no pay me?" While clever, this did nothing to appease her, and after another bout of ranting and searching she stormed out of my room. It wasn't enough to bring me out of my sleep stupor and I went back to sleep.
The next morning I sought the advice of one of the pilots who had been at Vung Tau for about 10 months and had a Vietnamese girl friend. I told him of my tryst with Ong and her subsequent visit to my room the following evening. He was quite concerned and told me that, for a mere one or two hundred dollars, Ong could have me killed by some unsavory Vietnamese and, without hesitation, I should pay her whatever she wanted. It got my attention. I was ready to pay. I had no idea how to find Ong, but I didn't have to wait long.
I was back in my room early that evening when Ong came in. She never knocked. She just walked in. She was not angry and, to my surprise, apologized for her behavior the previous evening. She said that she realized that we had no agreement about her being paid, and that she was very sorry for her behavior. We sat and talked for a while and then she left.
Ong and I became friends and lovers for the next seven months that I was stationed in Vung Tau. Through her I learned and experienced much of the Vietnamese culture and made many Vietnamese friends. I learned about cricket fights, water buffalo, food, home life, how to shop, living without hot water, and to not ride in the same taxi in Saigon with a young Vietnamese woman. The Vietnamese police assumed that if a young Vietnamese woman rode in a taxi with an American man, she was a prostitute, even if she sat in front and the guy sat in back. It was only a $20 lesson, but I have vivid memories of the one and only time I bribed a police officer.
It was with great sadness that Ong and I had to say goodbye in June when the Vung Tau base was closed for US occupancy. Our C-7 squadron was being transferred to Cam Ranh Bay for the remaining five months. I promised myself and Ong that I would be back to see her before my return to the States, but I wasn't sure how I would pull it off.
In late November, a few weeks prior to my return to the US, I managed to arrange an 'official' weekend visit to the Australian C-7 squadron that was still operating out of Vung Tau. In my official capacity as a flight instructor and flight safety officer I arrived there on a Friday morning, took care of my business, and was headed into town by noon. I went straight to Ong's house where her roommate said she was out and would return shortly. We had a wonderful reunion and we spent one last weekend together visiting friends, walking the beaches, and spending our last two days in a hotel overlooking the water. On Sunday afternoon we said our tearful goodbyes for the second time and I gave her $400 in US currency (illegal to have in Vietnam) worth about $1600 on the black market. Ong was shocked and said that I had never paid her anything and asked why did I pay her now. I replied, 'Because I will never see you again.' And I never have.
I gave Ong the money because it is the only thing I could give her that she really needed, and I felt incredibly guilty for leaving her in a country that would soon be abandoned by the West. It was a small gift compared to the friendship, love and experiences that she gave me, teaching me how to live and love another culture so different and so far from my own. Except for that first night, she had asked nothing in return. If I could live any year of my life over again it would be that year. And while Ong was not the only reason, she made all the difference. Thanks Ong, wherever you are.