September 2023
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Before Saigon: Suellen Oliver

by Admin and Richard Turner, Contributing Editor
© SaigonKidsAmericanCommunitySchool.Com

Suellen Oliver

Suellen Oliver (1958-60)

Dad was expecting “moving orders” and when they finally arrived I think we were all in shock. One quiet evening, Dad and Mom announced that we were moving ….to the former Indochina…to Viet Nam…to Saigon!

I greeted the news with surprise, then dismay and finally, refusal to go.

I had no idea where that country was, so my parents brought out a map to show me where Viet Nam was located and give a brief history lesson. It could have been Mars for all I cared. No matter that it was on the other side of the globe, across the navy-blue waters of the Pacific Ocean and in exotic Southeast Asia, it was too far away and I was not going!

Then I was informed that the peoples there spoke French and Vietnamese…another shock and I sunk further into sadness. Languages I did not speak nor understand, a country that was so foreign that none of my friends had ever heard of it at that time. Teenage angst set in.

I cannot imagine how my mother actually took the initial news, but she, being a devoted Navy wife, went to work preparing for the move. We followed Dad to Washington, D.C. where Dad attended language classes in French and Vietnamese, as well as classes on how to act “diplomatic,” since he was to become the U.S. Naval Attaché to Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. (Covering Laos was later transferred to the Attaché to Thailand.)

Before long we began the series of many deadly disease-preventing immunizations which we would need in order to enter the country. Twice a week we drove to the Long Beach Navy dispensary early in the morning, before school, for three shots…one in the right arm and two in the left. The following week it would be reversed…two in the right, one in the left. It seemed to be a cruel and unusual punishment for someone who did not even want to go to Vietnam.

The typhoid vaccine was the worst as it made my arm very swollen. The halls in middle- school were quite congested and being jostled and bumped was a daily and now excruciating occurrence. I recall not being able to turn over at night for many painful weeks, especially from the dreaded typhoid shots which caused my upper-arms to swell-up like enormous scarlet-red footballs.

Along our immunization journey, my folks encountered a slight glitch with my little sister’s smallpox vaccination requirement. Two-year-old Betsy had had a serious reaction to the first smallpox vaccination she had received as a baby which caused her to have a “mild” but dangerous case of smallpox. The pediatrician told mom that Betsy should never have another smallpox vaccination as it would probably kill her.

Secretly waiving the requirement for Betsy, the Navy doctors proceeded to forge Betsy’s immunization record so she could accompany us to Viet Nam. Interestingly, I had the opposite reaction. You cannot tell that I have ever had the immunization. I never scarred and my documents are the only proof I have of having had the vaccine administered multiple times as a child.
After several uncomfortable arm-stabbing months, the entire family had finally run the gauntlet of vaccinations required for departure and we were officially considered immunized against the scourges of typhoid, tetanus, typhus, cholera, smallpox and polio.

Once in Saigon, I learned about Dengue (“Breakbone”) and Black Water fevers as well as other ferocious, tropical diseases which could infect us, but thankfully never did. Over our two-year tour, a bout with amoebic dysentery for mom and a few attacks by fast-moving, flesh-eating fungi for us kids were as serious as it got for our family. Scary, but not deadly.

And so, at the conclusion of my eighth grade school year, we boarded the U.S.S. President Wilson in Long Beach, CA. for a blissful 3 week cruise across the Pacific. Mom and Dad later told me they had both kept an eagle eye on me until we pulled away from the dock, expecting me to jump ship before it weighed anchor. By that time, however, I was caught up in the excitement of a new adventure and was ready to “See the world.” I now look back on my time in Viet Nam as a life-changing experience and possibly the most important 2 years of my life. Oh, what I would have missed had I not gone!

The Pacific cruise was memorable in many ways: first typhoon at sea off of Yokohama, my first experience with sea-legs; stops in Hawaii, fascinating days in Japan, Manila, and Hong Kong along the way; Dad’s winning the ship Cribbage Tournament and receiving a trophy in the form of the U.S.S. Wilson; standing at the ship’s rail while Dad explained the historical significance of Corregidor as we sailed close enough to see the caves; lots of teenage friendships, and dancing to the likes of Bobby Darin in the teen room each evening; learning to play Mahjong with the other kids; walking the deck for hours with Dad to overcome a bout of seasickness (he knew the fresh air was what I needed – plus celery with salt to eat for lunch. Never got it again after that.)

After 3 wonderful weeks at sea and experiencing exotic ports-of-call, we disembarked and spent a few extra days in Hong Kong so Dad could meet with the attaché there. We had our first Far East experiences in The Peninsula Hotel before continuing our trip to Saigon on a flight from Hong Kong.

The Hong Kong airport take-off now reminds me of Bianca, the optimistic mouse, in the Disney movie entitled The Rescuers. As the albatross “airplane” carrying the “rescuers” lumbers across the roof of a New York City building, she and fellow-mouse passenger(Bob Newhart, a white-knuckle flyer) are eventually airborne, but then quickly dive-bomb to the ground. While Bob/mouse has a terrified look on his face, Eva Gabor/Bianca cheerfully says in her adorable, Hungarian accent, “I just LOVE take-offs!!!”

Similarly, I have never forgotten that Hong Kong take-off experience. As the runway got shorter, the mountains came closer and closer before we suddenly took to the air and swooped over them in a death-defying move of aeronautical maneuvering. No other take-off in my life has quite compared to that one! To this day I am NOT a take-off fan!

So, following many months of preparations and travel, we were at last on the final leg of the long journey to Saigon and heading toward amazing experiences in a strange new land!

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