Everyone has a story

Tell us yours, Get your story told.


Bob Farmer, Recon Co. 55/56

 When I arrived in Vietnam in November 1969 I never expected to find any evidence or vestige of the original Marine units that landed over the beaches of Da Nang in 1965 - but I did. Not in any material things but in the language. The GI/Japanese slang being used in 1969 ? four and a half years later.

The 9th Marine Expeditionary Brigade (MEB) that arrived in Da Nang in 1965 came from Okinawa and Japan. In fact, the 3rd Marine Division had been in the Far East since 1952. I personally served with 2nd Battalion, Third Marine Regiment in 1956 and 1957 in North Camp Fuji, Japan. The air components of the 9th MEB came from the 1st Marine Air Wing that had been in the Far East since 1950 and home stationed in Iwakuni, Japan. The helicopter units came from Futema, Okinawa.

Those units would bring to Vietnam a unique vernacular that is best described as GI/Japanese slang. This slang was mixed with Vietnamese and French into a patois that lasted to 1975 and perhaps to this day.

When I got to An Hoa, the main firebase of the 5th Marine Regiment, 1st Marine Division, I was assigned to the S-5. I was a Staff Sergeant 0369 (Infantry), but I had just completed a 47- week Vietnamese language course and the Regimental Sergeant Major assigned me to the 5th Marines S-5 shop because they needed a SNCO who could speak Vietnamese. You can find out more about An Hoa by reading James Webb book ?Fields of Fire?.

I reported in to Captain Carter OIC of S-5, an outstanding Mustang Officer who had a huge responsibility. He told me I would be in charge of Psychological Operations for the Regiment. The S-5 was also the Civil Affairs responsible for any inter-action or dealings with the Vietnamese, from garbage contracts to barber shops. In Vietnamese the S-5 was ?Phong Nam? or Civil Affairs ?Dan Su Vu?.

The S-5 had a number of Vietnamese workers on a permanent and daily hire basis. The NCOIC Staff Sergeant Pedro (Speedy) Gonzalez introduced me to some of his regular workers and the first Vietnamese he introduced me to was "Honcho" Bob. I was a little surprised because Honcho means the boss or the one in-charge in Japanese. I didn't yet fully understand how extensive the GI/Japanese slang was used.

The daily hires went out on working parties with a Marine in-charge. They did all the menial work like burning crappers, filling sandbags, etc. The first time I heard a Marine say "Papasan di di mau!" I thought to myself, Papasan - Papasan, am I hearing right? Papasan is Japanese GI slang for older man, san meaning Mr. or Mrs. in Japanese. But why would they still be using GI/Japanese slang words in Vietnam? I already knew that "di di mau" was Vietnamese meaning to hurry up or go faster.

Other terms were left over from the French occupation like "beaucoup", meaning a lot, much or abundant. Examples were "beaucoup bac bac" meaning big battle or firefight and "beaucoup VC" A lot of Viet Cong. Or you could say I love you beaucoup. Old China hands will remember the word "chop or chop chop". Chop chop meant food. And beaucoup chop chop meant a lot of food. Boom boom meant making love and beaucoup boom boom meant you were a skivvy honcho.

I heard the words taksan (big), scoshi (small), benjo (toilet) used at one time or another - all Japanese words. There are probably other terms and words that were used, but escape me right now.

Other Vietnamese phrases that stand out were, "dinky dau" meaning crazy or nuts. It seems that when Americans are sent to as new country for the first time they will always find the word meaning crazy or out of your mind. What they were actually saying in Vietnamese was "dien cai dau" (crazy in the head). Vietnam Veterans have heard many times, ?Papasan beaucoup dinky dau.? It is an expression that used Japanese slang, French and Vietnamese all in three words. Lai day meant come here and used beaucoup.

What was really funny was I discovered that the Marines, except for a few who had served in Japan, thought those terms were Vietnamese and the Vietnamese thought they were American. Then it hit me that since the Vietnamese thought they were American words and Americans rotate every 12-13 months, the Vietnamese themselves, were perpetuating the GI slang thinking they were speaking American English. Honcho Bob thought that Honcho was an American word meaning the boss man.

Also the numbering system used in Japan was alive and well. Number one being good and number ten being bad. There were even higher numbers for really bad. I heard Speedy say many times that something was ichi-ban - number one. The Vietnamese thought that ichi-ban was English meaning good. Also, Speedy was the best "cumshaw" man I ever met, but that is another story.

There were several Vietnamese kids that worked for the Marines at An Hoa that had become quite good at English. They were Marine trained and had some unique names bestowed on them by Marines of earlier years. One day a Marine General was touring the area, and he spotted several of the Vietnamese kids lined up in front of the S-5 bunker smiling at him. He asked the first kid what his name was. He snapped to attention, all five feet of him and said, "Sir my name is John Henry Sir!" The General smiled and ask the second kid his name. He stood as tall as he could and replied, "Sir, my name is Charlie Brown, Sir!" The general said, "and I suppose this is Peanuts, right?" Charlie Brown said, "No Sir - his name is Snoopy". We all had a good laugh that day.

There is an aphorism that goes something like this, "Even more dangerous then someone who can not speak the language - is someone who thinks he can".

Six months after arriving in Vietnam I was transferred to 3rd Battalion, 5th Marines as the S-5 replacing a Captain. One morning on Hill 65 I was awakened by a Marine outside my hooch, "Gunny Farmer, we have a VC prisoner - we captured him last night!" I ran to the guard hooch and there was an older man with his hands tied behind his back lying on the ground. I stood him up and thought that he just didn't fit the profile of a VC. I looked at his capture tag and it said, "acting suspicious". I turned to the Corporal and ask him, "Tell me what happened?" He said that the old man was caught outside one of the hamlets down the hill at about mid-night. The Corporal said he ask him some questions and the old man didn't give the right answer. What do you mean - you questioned him? The Corporal said he spoke Vietnamese and he asks the old man where his wife was and he didn't know. I told the Corporal to ask him again, in front of me. He turned to the old man and said, "Mamasan o (sounds like uh) dau?" (Where is your mamasan?) I said, "Hey Corporal he doesn't understand the word mamasan. That is an old Japanese slang word. He didn't know what you were asking". I ask the old man what happened? He said, "Hom qua ? gan muoi hai gio, Toi phai di dai. Toi di nqoai nha va Toi bi My bat! Toi so lam va khong hieu ho noi". Last night close to midnight I had to go take a piss - I went outside of my house and the Americans captured me. I was scared and I couldn't understand what they were saying.

I ask him a few more questions and I was satisfied that he was a farmer. I said let him go and I shoved about 500 Piastre in his hand and told the Corporal to take him back to his village. He seemed happy. A few weeks later I was riding in my jeep on my way to Hill 37 and I saw him a standing on the side of the road and he was still wearing his capture tag - like a badge of honor. He saw me, smiled, waved, and yelled "Chao Ong". Hello Sir. I waved and returned the greeting.

A few years ago I was walking in one of the Vietnamese shopping malls up in Orange County, California. An older woman saw my USMC cap with Da Nang on the front. She walked up and said, "Me work for Air Horse Da Nang. Me Mamasan." The housemaids were all called Mamasan. I smiled and we chatted for a while about where these last 35 years have gone.