Interview with Jeff Bramblett, Part 4
This audio interview details Jeff Bramblett’s time with the U.S. Coast Guard during the Vietnam War. In this segment, Bramblett continues to talk about his interpreter and friend, Boi Minh Houng. He also discusses interacting with Vietnamese civilians.
WONGSRICHANALAI: Can you spell his name for us?
BRAMBLETT: Oh, wow.
WONGSRICHANALAI: To the best …
BRAMBLETT: Boi, Boi, Boi. I’m trying to think how you spell Boi. Minh is M-I-N-H. Houng is H-O-U-N-G. I don’t really remember how to spell Boi. He went by … We called him Houng. You address him by his last name. He was a … Like a … like an E-7, like a chief in the Vietnamese Navy. He was a good soldier. He was a … He knew what he was doing. He’d been at it … His whole family had been killed by the Viet Cong, trying to get to him. I worry about what happened to him at the fall of Vietnam. I do. I’ve tried to find him and I’ve never been able to. I’ve gone to the Vietnamese communities and I’ve talked with them. They’re very closed on telling any American about … when you’re asking for somebody you served with. So many American troops have a bad impression of the South Vietnamese. They don’t understand them. We come from America. We think that we have all the answers, that we know so much more than anybody else. We look at their society. I was amazed. I could go into a little bitty village and we would search it for weapons people and so forth but you walk into their … into their hooch, which is their home, and their floors would be dirt but they would be spotless. I mean they pack it down, they sweep it every day. Everything … They don’t have much. We are so … We have so much in America. We threw away things the Viet Cong would pick up and use against us. C-ration cans. We’d open the lid on it with what’s called a P-38 can opener. I’ll bring one the next time I come so you can see it. We’d fold the lid back, we’d eat the food out of it, and until we learned to crush them, we’d just throw it away. They would take it and put gunpowder in it, close the … close the lid back down, pack it with … with mud, put a blasting cap into it, a fuse, and make a small landmine out of it. That’s just one of the things. We seem to think everybody should speak English and you know they don’t. That doesn’t mean that they’re not intelligent. It just means that they are from a different place. I thought I grew up fairly poor. I had so much growing up. And yet, in reality, I didn’t have a lot to a lot of my friends. Houng taught me about the Vietnamese. He taught me about their culture, that their religion was just as important to them as our religion is to us. It may be totally different, but that’s okay. It’s still about God in its own way. It … They didn’t have … A lot of their people didn’t have the chance to go to schools. Women are … They’re secondary to men. When a man gets married … a Vietnamese man gets married, if he was to have nothing but girls, he would think he was cursed. They don’t give the women, the girls the opportunity. There’s only one or two kids are going to get an education, it’s going to be the boys for the most part. We’re so used to the medical quality we have here in America, and they had none. But … Anyway.
WONGSRICHANALAI: Those are great observations. Did you ever engage any of the local inhabitants? [Did you] ever get into a conversation about what the United States meant or what the United States was trying to do?
BRAMBLETT: Yes. [Pause] The hamlet … The … The town our division was based at, Cat Low … When we would go back to division to resupply … We would usually work ten days out and either one to one-and-a-half days back, and we would have liberty, and go into the town up until ten-o’clock at night. And we got where we talked with some of the local people there in different shops … There was a couple of bars … For the most part they liked the money we brought in. They thought that we were rude for the most part, that we were loud. We … We just didn’t take the time to learn anything. They didn’t … Before I went to Vietnam I had like two days of … to teach me something about the Vietnamese. You learn how to tell them to “stop,” “come here,” just basic commands, and we expect to be able to say, you know, “la day,” which means “come here” and we want to do it like this “la day, la day, la day.” [Gestures aggressively with hands.] If they were going to say it to one of their own … If a Vietnamese was speaking to a Vietnamese, they would do their hand like this. [Gestures in a calmer manner.] They are very … very, very gentle about it. We always expected everybody to immediately obey and yet, who in the heck are we? We’re in their country. Yeah, we’re fighting and dying to help them, but I never really felt like that they … they thought much of us in the most part. A lot of people did. Houng … I gave him all sorts of information that if he had the chance to get out to come to me and I would do everything I could to help him and he just looked at me and said, “This is my country. I will fight and die here or I will fight and win here.” And I … I don’t know. It does bother me that I don’t know what happened to him. And I had other interpreters but none of them were as close to me as Houng.
WONGSRICHANALAI: How old was he?
BRAMBLETT: He was thirty-four whenever I met him and he had a birthday … Best I remember, it was in October.