DELIVERING IN A WAR ZONE: U.S. commissaries in South Vietnam supported troops, families, government civilians, contractors

By Tamara Eastman
DeCA historian

Pictured here is the Exchange and Commissary compound at Cholon, South Vietnam, in 1966. There were other commissaries in Saigon, Newport, Long Binh and near Tan Son Nhut Air Base. (DeCA archives)

As the Defense Commissary Agency honors the service and sacrifice of Vietnam War-era veterans and their families, the agency also reflects on the commissaries that provided the benefit overseas in that war zone.

“Today’s military walk on a trail blazed by those in uniform who came before us, and we cannot thank Vietnam War-era veterans enough for their service and sacrifice to our great country,” said Marine Sgt. Maj. Michael R. Saucedo, senior enlisted advisor to the DeCA director. “We also want to welcome and encourage our Vietnam War veterans, who are also disabled veterans, to use their new on-base shopping benefits.”

Through March 31, select commissaries worldwide are scheduling recognition events to honor Vietnam War-era veterans, surviving spouses and their families. Due to COVID-19, in-person recognition events include safety protocols such as limited access, “non-touch” checking of temperatures prior to entry, social distancing, the wearing of masks and no-contact presentations of lapel pins.*

DeCA’s events align with National Vietnam War Veterans Day, March 29, which recognizes the veterans who served in Vietnam from Nov. 1, 1955, to May 15, 1975. During the Vietnam War era approximately 9 million Americans served on active duty. Of that number, around 2.7 million served in Vietnam, and more than 58,000 were killed and 304,000 were wounded. March 29 was chosen because on that day in 1973 the Military Assistance Command in Vietnam (MACV) was disbanded and the last of the U.S. combat troops left the Republic of Vietnam.

America’s combat presence in South Vietnam began with the first wave of U.S. combat troops, 3,500 U.S. Marines, who came ashore at Da Nang in the spring of 1965. Until then, a number of American military advisors – some with their family members – had been stationed in country for nearly a decade. They had replaced the French military who had unsuccessfully attempted to regain control of their Indochina colony after WW II.

The U.S. Navy operated the first American military commissary in Saigon which opened in 1959. Several branch commissaries later opened in Cholon, Newport, Long Binh and near Tan Son Nhut Air Base. These commissaries served American service personnel and their families as well as U.S. news reporters, contract workers and government workers stationed in South Vietnam.

“As we observe National Vietnam War Veterans Day, we also recall the history of military commissaries that served our troops, families and DOD civilians in Vietnam during that time,” Saucedo said. “It’s fascinating to see how commissary employees delivered the benefit in a war zone.”

Commissary patronage changed after the Gulf of Tonkin incident in August 1964. The expansion of hostilities caused all U.S. family members to be immediately evacuated from South Vietnam.

At first, the Saigon Commissary could not accommodate the thousands of incoming combat troops scattered all over South Vietnam. So those troops were given mess hall privileges and pay rations to enable them to shop on the local economy.

As the war expanded so did the availability of products in commissaries. In 1965 a U.S. dairy company opened operations in Saigon and started shipping dairy products to all the commissaries in country. The company received whole milk solids from the States, which were then reconstituted with purified water and packaged in cartons for distribution. Some former service men recalled that the chocolate milk was outstanding.

In April 1966, the U.S. Army took over the responsibility for running the commissaries in South Vietnam. The commissaries remained in operation even after the 1973 cease fire because many of the U.S. personnel were still there in non-combat missions.

On April 30, 1975, communist forces overran Saigon and U.S. contractors and Vietnamese support personnel fled for the airports, desperately trying to evacuate. The commissaries were looted by locals who stole as much food as they could carry in the wake of the South Vietnamese surrender.