CARLSBAD — It is a recollection and a nostalgic journey through one of the most tumultuous and violent periods in American and world history.
But Les Arbuckle’s coming of age recounting of his time spent in Saigon, Vietnam, during the Vietnam War as a teenager adds another layer to one of the most complex times over the past 60 years.
Arbuckle, who lives in Carlsbad with his wife Joyce, painted his portrait in his book “Saigon Kids,” published in 2017, which details his time as an Army brat living with his family in Saigon just before the city explodes with violence as the war bears down to the once vibrant Southeast Asian city.
“It was around 2000 that I started thinking about writing this book,” Arbuckle said. “I wrote it in 2002 and finished it in a couple weeks. It was awful, but then I went back and started editing. You’re going to do most of the good work editing the book.”
Arbuckle, 70, was born in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, and like most military brats, lived in numerous cities and countries as he and his family followed his father, Bryant Arbuckle, throughout his career in the U.S. Army. In 1963, they followed Bryant Arbuckle to Saigon, which at the time was still a bustling city despite decades of war, including American involvement just years earlier, and a beacon of hope for millions of Vietnamese.
Les Arbuckle was just 13 and he and the friends he made during his time knew the war was raging, but since it was more concentrated in North Vietnam, they didn’t understand the Vietcong were closing in and soon the city would become a warzone.
“It was relatively safe to wander the streets at any time day or night,” he said.
“Saigon in 1963-64 was still a happening city before the Vietcong overran the city, renamed Ho Chi Minh City, and won the war years later,” Arbuckle said. Still, the war, which had been raging for decades prior to the U.S.’ involvement, had taken its toll on those Vietnamese in the rural parts of the country.
Arbuckle said of the 2 million people who lived in Saigon, at least 1 million were refugees. Still, he said the streets were safe, although he and his friends still managed to find trouble.
While stationed in Saigon, Arbuckle’s father started the Armed Forces Radio Station Saigon and hosted “The Dawn Busters Show.” Upon leaving Saigon in 1965, Adrian Cronauer took over as the morning disc jockey, and was later thrust into the spotlight when Robin Williams played him in the acclaimed movie, “Good Morning, Vietnam.”
“He took over in 1965, about a year after we left,” Arbuckle recalled. “When he started the radio station, my father ran it alone for three months. He did everything.”
As for school, Arbuckle said it classes only lasted four hours as the extreme heat and no air conditioning made it impossible to hold class in the afternoon. Despite all the shenanigans, he said he and his friends never really understood the proximity to danger they were living near.
Arbuckle’s literary agent, Roger Williams, who specializes in military history, said the book is poignant and an important read, especially for teens. It shows how an ordinary kid, Arbuckle, navigated extreme and extraordinary circumstances.
Saigon, meanwhile, was on the precipice of exploding as the Vietcong marched south. Arbuckle details on battle in his book in 1965 and weeks later all American dependents were evacuated from the country, he said.
Williams said those pieces of the book led him to pitch the title as “Cinders in Saigon,” as it was a powder keg ready to blow. However, the publisher, Mango Media, vetoed the title. Regardless, Williams said the book is such an inspiration to young people undergoing similar challenges in their early years.
“I’m keenly interested in teaching kids in the social aspect of military history,” he said. “This, to me, was absolutely the perfect example of how America’s military families are affected by the service members. And I thought his writing was terrific.”