Showing posts with label Vietnam. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Vietnam. Show all posts

08 August 2014

More Black Market

by R.T. Lawton           (continued from 18/Jul/14)

In the low end of the Vietnam Black Market, almost everyone had a hand in the trade. It was politely called the barter system and was for small immediate gain. What could it hurt?

See, every soldier in-country had a ration card which allowed him to buy two cartons of cigarettes, two cases of beer, two bottles of wine and/or two fifths of hard liquor per month. But, not every soldier smoked and not every soldier drank booze, which then created a market for those extra goods. The rationed amounts mentioned above generally sufficed for the needs of most G.I.'s, however there were outsiders who had no access to the PX (cigarettes) or the Class Six Store (booze).

Simple solution, trade those extra goods which you bought from the non-smoking, non-drinking soldiers who otherwise didn't use their ration cards. Want some cases of steaks or lobster to supplement your C-rations or scant mess hall chow? Trade some of those extra purchased goods to a civilian contractor or merchant seaman who had connections to his company's kitchen. Need a freezer to keep those extra steaks cold as they're hidden behind a false wall in your company area? Once again, trade some of that booze or cartons to a civilian for that freezer. You say a real ice cream factory went into operation down in the ville and they don't make their product out of reconstituted milk like the military does? Now you're trading PX items to Vietnamese workers who smuggle out gallons of whichever flavor of real ice cream you desire. This may be bartering, but it's still operating in the Black Market, only on a much lower scale.

Today's World

But then you don't need a time of war to have a Black Market in existence. I once entered a mob joint in downtown Kansas City and sat at the corner of the bar where I could watch everything going on. When I ordered my second drink, I gave the bartender some extra money and asked her to get me a pack of Winstons. My second drink came fast, then she wandered around for a while before disappearing into a back room. A few minutes later, she came out and wandered around again before finally depositing the cigarettes in front of me on the bar. I had paid full price for the pack, but it didn't have a federal tax stamp on it. She never went near the vending machine in plain sight against the wall. These smokes were contraband, smuggled out the back door of an East Coast factory or else high-jacked from a semi trailer before the government got paid and put a tax stamp on them.

Operators in this market may only make nickels, dimes or quarters on every small sale, but they are in it for the volume. In the end, all those nickels, dimes and quarters add up to very big dollars, and those are untaxed dollars not subject to state and federal sales or income taxes. Free money, so to speak.

All this merely goes to show that any economic system with man-imposed restrictions or regulations allows for the creation of a Black Market for desired goods. The schemers will find a way to operate in this environment.

There's also the underground market created between thieves and those loose-moral people who are not adverse to buying on the "midnight discount" or "three-finger discount" plan. The first refers to goods stolen by burglars and the second to goods stolen by pickpockets and shoplifters.

You've all read news articles or seen TV shows where law enforcement has run a sting operation. This usually consists of a rented storefront or warehouse where law enforcement installs concealed cameras to record all transactions, plus law enforcement personnel in an undercover capacity, or an informant, work the front counter to purchase stolen goods from criminals. After a period of time, the crooks get arrested. But, cop sponsored stings are only a small portion of the real fencing of stolen goods operations we never hear about.

And then there are those who make and sell counterfeit t-shirts, computer chips, fake brand-name handbags, etc. Don't forget DVD's of pirated movies or pirated songs from the music industry. All trade mark and copyright violations done on the sly to be sold on the Black Market.

Bottom line, criminals and schemers will keep looking for ways to work the system. Like the line says in that song, Smuggler's Blues: "… it's the lure of easy money."



To read about the black market with the U.S. Army in Cold War Germany, get Black Traffic, an e-novel by our very own David Edgerley Gates. (kindle, nook) It's a good one.

18 July 2014

Black Market Money

by R.T. Lawton

Somewhere not too far from where you are right now, there is a person scheming on a way to make some money. It's human nature to desire an increase in our financial status so we can acquire items that we want in life or think we need. To make this money, most people go out and find a legal job, but there are always those who look to make the easy dollar, the quick buck, regardless of the legality involved. Times of war make for several opportunities.

Summer of '67

The large aircraft finally rolled to a stop. This was it, the Central Highlands. When the door opened, all passengers filed out onto the tarmac. Dressed in rumpled khaki's and low quarters, with all our allowed worldly goods in O.D. duffel bags slung over our shoulders, we lined up for the arriving green buses. Our first indication that we were now in a world different from the one we'd left behind came as the buses quickly emptied out those soldiers going back home on the same plane we'd just arrived on. Those guys in jungle fatigues, with red mud splashed up to their knees, ran joyfully screaming and hollering toward their "freedom bird." Looked like a bad omen to us new guys.

Our second indication came as other in-country soldiers, with time left before rotation back to "the World," walked down our lines quietly offering to exchange MPC (Military Pay Certificates) for good old American greenbacks. They would even pay a little over a dollar in exchange. Some arrivals went for it, some didn't. When we later arrived at the REPO Depot in Pleiku, one of the first things that happened was all U.S. currency was officially converted to equivalent MPC, all brightly colored paper bills much like monopoly money.

Here's how the system worked from then on. Come payday, every soldier reported to his military paymaster (usually a Lieutenant or a Captain), saluted, signed a pay voucher and received about fifty dollars in MPC. The rest of his paycheck got deposited in his bank account back in the States. The military didn't want any soldier to have a lot of money in-country and the also didn't want him to have American dollars, so they gave him MPC which was only good at the PX and other military stores in Vietnam at the time. If he went to the local village, he was first supposed to exchange his MPC for Vietnamese Piasters (so named as a carryover from Vietnam's days as a French colony, whereas the Vietnamese DONG was usually the denomination word printed on the bill itself). Officially, the conversion rate was one U.S. dollar to one MPC dollar and one MPC dollar for about 113 Piasters (or Dong). The Saigon Black Market exchange rate in July 1967 was 157 Dong to one U.S. dollar. A year later in June 1968, it was 180 Dong to a dollar. The entire system made for a lucrative black market in money.

Vietnamese gladly accepted MPC because they would then use it later to purchase goods from the local PX. They couldn't buy anything there directly, but it was easy to make a straw purchase through a sympathetic G.I., and there were plenty of those around. "Third Nationals" had to be careful though about how much MPC they accumulated at any one time because every year or so, the military called in all of the current issue of MPC and exchanged those bills for a new issue. No advance notice was given of the one-day conversion, but Vietnamese citizens weren't allowed to do an official conversion anyway because they weren't supposed to have MPC. Most Vietnamese caught short holding the old issue would offer to pay a commission to a sympathetic G.I. to induce him to exchange their MPC for them. After conversion day, the old bills were only good for starting fires. However, any G.I. making a large exchange came to the attention of military authorities, which meant the CID (army's equivalent to the civilian FBI) would be looking into his affairs.

The locals also gladly took U.S. dollars in payment, if they could get it, because there was no sudden call-in on those bills, plus American dollars were more secure than their own Piasters/Dong. American currency in their hands often made its way up to the Vietnamese politicians and high brass who then deposited this money into personal Swiss or other foreign bank accounts. Other American bills made their way to the Viet Cong who used this currency to purchase medical and other supplies for their own war effort. Sometimes paying it to corrupt G.I.'s who diverted our military supplies.

This should give you a good idea how money itself could become a black market item, which then led to a clandestine market in money orders. Any G.I. making extra money through gambling in the barracks, becoming an entrepreneur in the underground market, or whatever illicit activity he schemed up, soon had a currency problem. Holding large amounts of MPC was no good because those bills only had value in-country. Back in the States, they were worthless. Piasters were a little shaky and not readily convertible out of the country without drawing undue attention, unless you were a legitimate business company. But, as long as a guy was careful, he could use MPC to purchase money orders at the military post office and mail them back home to the States. Trouble was, to stay out of the lime light, he had to find a lot of friends, acquaintances and/or willing G.I.'s, not also in the same trade, to make these purchases for him so his name didn't keep showing up. And, those straw-purchased money orders then had to be spread out to friends, relatives, acquaintances and/or willing G.I.'s on the receiving end to avoid suspicion from the same name always popping up as a receiver. Of course, if you could bribe the money order guy in the military post office that solved part of your problem.

Two weeks from now, more Black Market.

08 November 2013

Never Know Who You'll Touch

by R.T. Lawton

As you pass through life, you sometimes do things at the turn of a moment, whether the action springs from an emotion, a sudden thought, or maybe even a natural and common occurrence. What you can't know at the time, is what effect your action may have in the future. You never know who you may touch in some way or another......unless they contact you.

During my high school and early college years in Wichita, there were three of us who ran together: me, Steve King (no, not the famous writer) and Tom Whitehead. None of us seriously applied ourselves to our college studies in those days, too much beer, pizza, cards, girls, pool and fun in general, which soon brought us to the attention of our local Selective Service Board.

Tom was the first to go. He signed up for the Army and they gave him a couple months at home before he had to show up for Basic Training at Ft. Leonard Wood, Missouri, or as many trainees later came to know it, Fort Lost in the Woods, Misery. In the meantime, since he was part native American, the local Ponca and Osage held a pow-wow for him in the local armory one Saturday night in November of '65 in order to give Tom a good sendoff. He was on the train to Kansas City soon after, followed by a long bus ride down to the Missouri Ozarks.

Steve and I got our congratulation letters from Uncle Sam that following January and hopped a train to the induction center in K.C. for our physicals. The next day, they were kind enough to tell us we passed. They sent us home, saying that we'd probably be called up in about sixty days. Before any call up could occur, Steve visited with a sweet talking Army recruiter. Next thing I knew, I'd been talked into enlisting under the three year plan for something called the Buddy System, where you got to go to Basic Training with your buddy. Of course when you're dealing with the government, it helps to pay close attention to details.

After Basic, Steve and I went different directions. He got to Nam in January of '67 and I made the trip across the pond that July. While forted up in the Central Highlands, I got letters from Steve who was down south in Cu Chi with the 25th Infantry. Seems he had run into Tom Whitehead, also with the 25th, but stationed outside Cu Chi at a fire base. Tom was working as an armorer, keeping weapons in shape for his unit, and had made the rank of Specialist Fourth Class. Then, I didn't hear anything more until I came back to the World.

Shortly after I stepped off the plane wearing Army greens in Wichita during the summer of '68, some friends of the family who happened to be at the local Pizza Hut for lunch that day, told me Tom didn't make it. He was crossing his fire base when the VC dropped a mortar down the tube. It caught Tom out in the open with no place to go. Nobody wanted to tell me about it while I was still over there. On my way down to Texas later that July to visit my folks, I stopped off in an Oklahoma cemetery to say a few words at Tom's grave.

Bagpiper at the Moving Wall
Decades later in the 90's, the travelling Wall set up in the Black Hills of South Dakota for a few days. I found Tom's name on one of the panels, along with those of others I'd known. One of the pamphlets handed out said you could also leave an e-mail memorial comment somehow digitally attached to the full-sized Vietnam Wall in D.C. So I did.

Time passed.

Then, about four years ago, I got an e-mail from a stranger. He had read my memorial to Tom and had a few questions, if I would be kind enough to help him. Seems he was a doctor in Albuquerque and his father was dying. His father had recently told him a story about marriage, divorce and re-marriage. In the end, it turned out that Albuquerque doctor had a half-brother (Tom Whitehead) he'd known nothing about. The father had lost touch with his old family, but now wanted any info he could get about his estranged son who had died in Nam.

I'd always known Tom's father was missing from his family, but they never talked about the situation, so none of us inquired. Now, I dug into past letters and old memories for anything about Tom. Even mentioned the situation to Steve, who then e-mail attached old photos he'd converted over to his computer. Everything I had or ended up with then got e-mailed to the doctor who knew almost nothing about his older half-brother. The doc then shared that information with his dying father in a veteran's hospital down in Houston.

There was a quick flurry of e-mails back and forth. Dad was pleased to know his oldest son had been an enlisted man like he himself had been in World War Two. Doc sent his gratitude for the info. Then the lines went silent. The old man was gone and we had nothing further to talk about. But there, for a brief slice of time, someone had been touched by something I'd written about a man I'd known a long time ago. Someone was touched who I didn't even know was out there. Someone touched to the quick, who then sought me out.

As Eve Fisher quotes from Philo in her e-mails: "Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle."  And to that I respond, you never know who you'll reach out and touch.

Ride easy 'til we meet again.