- Historic Sites
A civilian adventurer gave us the best artist’s record of America in Vietnam.
February/March 1991 | Volume 42, Issue 1
Misspelled neon signs, Motown blasting from the bars, flares over the suburbs. … Saigon is a vaudeville version of The Inferno.
I first went to Vietnam in 1965. I lived in the Caravelle Hotel at the corner of Le Loi Boulevard and Tu Do Street. Tu Do, in the French colonial years, was the Rue Catinat, a street of small, smart boutiques, European restaurants, a few shops dealing in tortoiseshell, and a sprinkle of small bars. By the middle of 1965 the boutiques had given way to kiosk-size bars featuring teen-age bar girls and deafening sound systems. The change in Tu Do simply reflected the change in the war. By early 1965 machismo was in the air. Americans were pouring into the country by the division. It was no longer a war of coaching on the sidelines. This was the real thing, and Vietnamese entrepreneurs were as quick as any to latch on to the profitable business of supplying non-GI necessities for young America. For many a young warrior Tu Do Street was a first encounter with manhood, or, anyway, womanhood. Girls would beckon from barroom doorways, shout out in Pidgin English, “Hey you, GI, I love you too much … you buy for me … hey, GI, you numbah one … you no go next door … next door numbah ten.”
The street smelled of damp and cheap perfume and regurgitated beer. Teams of MPs patrolled along with their Vietnamese counterparts. Beefy construction workers, pistols jammed into their belts, strolled hand in hand with tiny Vietnamese women. The days were hot, always. In the monsoon season the rain would come down in sheets, beginning at 5:00 P.M. sharp and lasting for forty minutes or so.
The evenings on Tu Do were a garish son et lumière, the Beatles and Motown belting out of the cheaper bars. Filipino electronic combos, their efforts raised a few notches by PX-liberated amplifiers, played in the more expensive bars. Inside, a young Vietnamese woman made a valiant attempt to bump and grind. It was a sad, pitiful amusement—like a little girl with Mother’s makeup; only she was naked. Even the drunken, sweaty men who paid good money for this looked slightly embarrassed.
Outside, misspelled neon signs were reflected over and over in the wet pavement. Saigon cowboys, young rich Vietnamese draft dodgers, were scoping out the action on their Italian mopeds. If there was a war going on somewhere, surely it was not here. Some not-too-distant crump was a reminder of the other reality; a glance from a third-floor window brought the sight of flares dropping over Gia Dinh or some other suburb under attack. It was a vaudeville version of The Inferno. Prescott’s drawings are the set designs.
Dawn at Tan Son Nhut. Old C-123 transports, light shining from their open bellies, wait for a troop of ARVN soldiers. Reluctant conscripts, badly fed, badly led, and hungry, go off to fight a battle that will not be reported. After all, this is an American show. The Vietnamese are the road company. Hundreds of thousands will die in anonymous slaughters.
For civilians there was no escape. The Vietcong practiced the Maoist doctrine of revolution. Civilians were the sea through which swam the fish of uprising. Civilians simply got in the way. Bombers and body counters did not discriminate. Prescott a veteran of the Second World War, knew all about that part of war. He painted Why Are They Mad at Us? with watercolors, but the caption is written in acid. The question is as old as warfare. There is no answer, only the bleating of generals about the care taken to preserve life and win hearts and minds. Slogans and blather, the twin engines of war.
Prescott painted Why Are They Mad at Us? with watercolors, but the title is written in acid. The question is as old as warfare.
I love Movies in the Boonies. There were movies in the boonies, set up on makeshift screens, just the way Prescott depicts this one. It was something like watching silent talkies, for you caught only every third or fourth sentence. Outgoing artillery made the plot hard to follow, and occasionally incoming would end the screening completely. I saw The Pink Panther at a Special Forces camp in Ben Cat in 1965, and at a critical point, when Inspector Clouseau is firing his gun, the Vietcong began a mortar attack. It wasn’t until we heard shrapnel hitting the tin roof that we realized show time was over.
Prescott invents a movie in this painting. It stars those two booze-hardened veterans of the USO campaigns, John Wayne and Martha Raye, and the dialogue reflects the grunt’s scorn for Hollywood heroics.
WAYNE: “Martha, I gotta step out for a minute.”