Week 22: #52 Ancestors – Military
By Eilene Lyon
While labeling family photos recently, The Putterer came across some small bills in odd denominations: 5 cents, 10 cents, 25 cents. They are called Military Payment Certificates (MPC) and they served as currency while he lived on base in Vietnam from 1970 to 1971. I’d never heard of such a thing, though my dad did two tours there.
In foreign war theaters, local currency could be highly unstable, making U.S. dollars quite desirable. To prevent them getting into the hands of the locals or enemy combatants, the government decided to issue pay to military personnel stationed overseas in MPCs. Unlike dollars, which are issued by the U.S. Treasury, MPCs were printed by the Bureau of Engraving and Printing, and had no value except on foreign U.S. military bases.
These bills were printed in thirteen series from 1946 to 1973 – from shortly after the end of WWII to shortly after the U.S. pulled out of the Vietnam conflict. When a new issue came out, the previous became worthless. Soldiers and officers had one day, not announced in advance, to exchange their currency. This helped prevent hoarding and use of the bills off-base in the local economy.
Military – and some civilian – personnel could exchange the MPCs for local currency to spend off-base, but only rarely could they convert it to dollars. Learning more about the MPCs became an excellent opportunity to ask about The Putterer’s time in the service.
He was not a foot soldier on the front lines. Rather, he worked at a communications center in Long Bình as a clerk. Long Bình is a ward of Biên Hòa in the Đồng Nai Province of Vietnam, northeast of Saigon (now Hoh Chi Minh City). He rarely left the base during his time there. His duties included maintaining an inventory of forms and sorting mail.
As for the “funny money”: most of the soldiers would hold all-night poker games on payday with their fresh MPCs. The Putterer recalls his monthly salary was about $385. Most of that went home to his then-wife in Albuquerque, who was still in college.
He didn’t engage in gambling, but kept aside about $20 to spend at the Post Exchange (where he could buy a bottle of Drambuie for about $3.50 and get some cigarettes, too). Or go to the USO club for entertainment. As for playing cards, he enjoyed a game of spades with his co-workers, or cribbage with his “hooch-mate.”
The Hooch was slang for the barracks, two-story buildings framed out but unfinished in the interior except for one enclosed room for the supervisor on duty, and partitions between pairs of bunks. An aisle ran down the middle between two rows of bunks. On the first level, you looked up at the floor joists of the second story while lying on your metal mesh-and-spring cot with two-inch mattress.
Upstairs, you gazed up at trusses and the underside of the corrugated-metal roof. The enormous Vietnamese rats ran along the top of the truss spans. The Putterer’s mate, Joe, tended to disobey the injunction against keeping food in the barracks. One night, as he lay sleeping, a hungry rodent landed square on his chest. He made sure everyone else in the building woke up when he did!
Aside from cards and the USO, the men had a volleyball court for exercise and fun. They frequently played after work – jungle rules. Though he did not have to serve in the infantry, his experience in southeast Asia was definitely not The Putterer’s favorite period of his life. Because he had enlisted, rather than being drafted, he continued serving after his one year in Vietnam.
The funny money and a few photographs sum up his collection of souvenirs.
Feature image: Military Payment Certificates in the 681 and 692 series.
Bureau of Engraving and Printing—Department of the Treasury. BEP History Fact Sheet: Military Payment Certificates, 1946-1973.