By SP WILLIAM M. LANE
This article – except for my commentary about Vung Tau, was originally published in the 25th Division Tropic Lightning newspaper on 9/14/70.
To a soldier in Vietnam, the best place to be is someplace else. Someplace else like Sydney, Tokyo or Hong Kong for Double R. Someplace else like home for good.
Now there is someplace else in Vietnam; a place with beaches instead of bunkers, night life instead of night patrols and steaks on barbecues instead of Cs in cans.
Someplace else is the China Beach in-country R & R center, a bit of world tucked into a cove near Da Nang. At China Beach, a soldier can shuck the war for three days to surf, swim, sail and sleep. Nobody hassles anybody at China Beach. Nobody wears their rank on their swimming trunks or carries it into the weight room. The only problems a soldier will encounter are determining how much sun to soak up, how much food to take in and how much beer to wash down.
One soldier from the 25th Division summed it all up. “China Beach is a place where you can unwind and get away from the everyday hassle,” he said. “The beach is fantastic. It reminds me of Diamond Head in Hawaii. “The people here go out of their way to make you feel at ease. They treat you as if you were a human being. Like a civilian. The meals are great. You get your choice of three entres at lunch and dinner. And you don’t have to go through mess hall, stand-in-line stuff. You’re waited on by Vietnamese girls. China Beach was a local R & R site operated by the Navy before becoming the in-country sham center for all of Vietnam. Danny Barrett, who runs the reception operation, explained the philosophy of the 36 permanent party who run the show.
“We want people who come to China Beach to feel that they have nothing to do here that concerns any of the military services. They’re here to forget where they’ve just come from. So, we try to maintain an entirely civilian atmosphere.”
A civilian atmosphere means civilian clothes. The only soldiers in uniform are the 46 men who pull security for the center.
At China Beach, every building is now, or will soon be, air-conditioned. Maids change bed linen every morning. And the R & R site is one of the few places in this land where breakfast isn’t served before the sun comes up. Soldiers can get their morning meal as late as 9:30.
And their first drink as early as 9 a.m. The bar opens when the sun is low in the sky and stays open long after it has dropped over the horizon. Sometime in between, there’s a happy hour when beer flows free. The sun shines strong this time of year at China Beach. Monsoon season doesn’t begin until November. The beach is the prime attraction during the day. The grainy white sand stretches along a half mile of shoreline.
“I’ve traveled all over Europe, Africa, South America and the Caribbean,” Barrett said. “I’ve yet to find a beach that is superior to this one.”
St. Ange keeps 12 sailboats on the cooler-by-day, warmer-by-night water. There are four Boston Whalers, four Aerocraft and four Sunfish. “We also have a ski-boat,” he said. “It usually goes out in the morning before the wind chops up the water.”
Soldiers who get bored with swimming and sunning all day long will find many other ways to spend their time at China Beach. There’s an indoor basketball court, a weight room, an 18-hole miniature golf course, tennis courts and a tape-music room. Footballs, basketballs, volleyballs and softballs can be checked out for the slinging, shooting, spiking and slugging. Then there’s always the bar.
When the sun dies at China Beach, the clubs come alive. There’s a floor show every night and , following that, two or three first-run movies. During his three days at the R & R center, a soldier won’t see the same live group or celluloid story twice. The 25th Division has 145 allocations to China Beach every month. Specialist 4 Sam Bogus, of Cleveland, Ohio, is the man at Cu Chi who decides which men from which units will go to China Beach when. “When our allocations come in, we give a few to officers and 10 or so to the re-enlistment people,” Bogus said. “The remaining 130 slots are divided among division units based on their relative strengths. “Infantry line units get twice the allocations as do support and rear units.”
Bogus advises soldiers who want to go t o the in-country R & R center to contact their S-1 clerk. The clerk will initiate paperwork which must be in Bogus’ at least 24 hours prior to the beginning of the R & R. If and when the paperwork is approved, men going to China Beach will have to spend the inevitable day or two hitching rides, sitting through orientation sessions and meeting take-off times before they can bare their backs to the sun. It’s the individual’s responsibility to get from his unit to Cu Chi. And he must be at the division base camp no later than 8:30 on the morning of his departure. At 11:30 a.m., he’ll be trucked to Cu Chi’s 8th Aerial Port. From there, he’ll be flown to Tan Son Nhut Airbase.
Flight 848 from Tan Son Nhut to Da Nang takes off at 4 p.m. Two hours later, the bird will land and a bus from China Beach will take R & R soldiers the last leg. Travel time does not count against leave time. “Every man who goes to the in-country R & R center is guaranteed three full days at China Beach,” Bogus said. “Really, from the time the man leaves his unit until he gets back, he’ll probably have been away from five to seven days.” In between the coming and the going, soldiers get three glorious days of beach, bed and bar at a place that’s one of the nicest in Vietnam merely because it doesn’t feel, look or seem like Vietnam.
I (John Podlaski) never had a chance to visit China Beach, but instead, went to Vung Tau – a resort area on the South China Sea and southeast of Saigon for a three day R&R.
Unlike what you read above, Vung Tau has a much smaller facility, but it is situated within the borders of this larger, French influenced town…there was a rumor, back then, that VC soldiers also frequented Vung Tau for R&R. None of us soldiers carried weapons as we were required to leave them at the base armory before leaving Cu Chi; when walking through town, we stood out like shiny red apples in a basket filled with yellow pears – defenseless, if encountering VC on the streets. Who knows, perhaps the VC also had to leave their weapons behind when leaving for Vung Tau, but I doubt it and think it was only a ploy to keep us GI’s close to the R&R center instead of traipsing across town.
Vung Tau had a beautiful beach area with volleyball, horseshoes, miniature golf and a few picnic tables, hidden in the shade of scattered palm trees. The turquoise colored ocean appeared choppy and angry, as if playing a game of tug-o-war against the continuously changing direction of the wind; white caps jumped around in the distance like excited kids in a peanut gallery, three-foot high waves rolled in violently every eight seconds – crashing onto the sandy beach and sending streams of frothy water inland, only to dissipate and soak into the arid soil twenty feet away.
Yet, soldiers are rough-housing and battling one another from the shoulders of a trusted friend, footballs fly through the air – young men are jumping high or diving wide to catch these errant passes from companions standing fifty feet away, others body surfed – catching large waves and riding them all the way to the beach. None are phased by the conditions of the sea…it’s a time to be a kid again! I can testify that I was caught in a riptide during my visit…as a kid from Michigan, this was unheard of. Thankfully, I was lucky to have some guys nearby who coached me out of the deadly current.
Bars lined the street outside the R&R center’s gate; during the evening, young Vietnamese women, clad in either hot pants or a short, short mini-skirts and tight, revealing tops, posed provocatively in front of each place. They solicited every young, wide-eyed passing GI, assuring them that their particular establishment was the best in Vung Tau, promising them good music, drinks and a wonderful time when joining them inside. Individuals began peeling off from reconnoitering groups of soldiers, their ranks thinning quickly as they continued up the road.
Sadly, this was the first time many of the grunts had seen young women like this in months, so it was easy for them to give in – spending lots of hard earned money on Saigon Tea’s for their dates, held hostage by their promise to make love – long time – later that evening. As a result, both evenings, there were many empty seats for both the visiting band and the outdoor movie at the center.
The first of the partying soldiers begin trickling in to the center’s barracks until well after midnight. Some felt no pain, quickly collapsing into their bunks as soon as they are close enough, others required help, walking through the doorway as a trio with arms askew and holding one another, it’s hard to tell who is helping whom. Not one of these conquering heroes complained – all fell into oblivion with wide smile on their faces. The barracks are air-conditioned and many of these young men slept well into the next day, enjoying the peace and serenity of their short vacation from war.
I just came across a picture of a short R&R at Eagle Beach when I was with the 101st Airborne, but I am not able to remember any of the visit except for the romp in the sea…picture is below – note the stylish swim suits they provided us.
Did you have a chance to visit China Beach, Eagle Beach or Vung Tau during your tour in Vietnam? Were your experiences the same? Was there another in-country resort that you might have visited?
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