Funny Money

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.

The back of the bills. The series 681 and 692. The first two digits indicate the year printed. The ones from 1968 have the floating astronaut. These small denomination bills measure about 4-1/4″ by 2-3/16″. Larger denominations are a bit bigger.

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.

The Putterer at 16 when he began attending the New Mexico Military Institute (NMMI).

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.

The Putterer at left, Joe (back) his hooch-mate, and Mike (mustache) – playing a game of spades at the Message Center for the Engineer Battalion at Long Binh, Vietnam. The Dutch door in back is the entrance to The Putterer’s office.

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!

The Putterer had the only private office in the building, to keep the mail secure. This shows his desk, mail sorting bins at left, form bins at right, and his stereo, center.

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.

The Putterer in his after-work civilian clothes at the Message Center in Long Binh, Vietnam.

Feature image: Military Payment Certificates in the 681 and 692 series.

Sources:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Military_payment_certificate

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Long_B%C3%ACnh,_%C4%90%E1%BB%93ng_Nai

Bureau of Engraving and Printing—Department of the Treasury. BEP History Fact Sheet: Military Payment Certificates, 1946-1973.

40 thoughts on “Funny Money

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      1. When I was a kid living on base in Pennsylvania, I would ride my bike to the PX and buy candy bars for a quarter then sell them in the housing complex for 30 cents! I was a budding entrepreneur.😁

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    1. So they sent his pay to you? The Putterer was also married before he went to Vietnam. And my dad, too, of course. My husband says they would ask them what portion of their pay should be sent home and how much they wanted in MPCs for personal things. But they really didn’t need spending money – it was just for your vices!

      Liked by 1 person

  1. I don’t blame him one bit for waking everybody up! If you have to experience a rodent on your chest when you wake up, everybody else should come along for the ride.

    Did the Putterer smoke? I remember a friend of mine who was in the service remembered the smoking most of all, because he was always doing it while in the service.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I would certainly have woke the place up, too – and all the neighboring buildings as well! Yes, he smoked for many, many years. He wasn’t a smoker when we met, or I wouldn’t have dated him.🙂

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Buahahaha!

        I know that my friend wasn’t a smoker when he entered the service, but between the poker games and the watch details, it was the stuff of chain smoking legend.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Learned something new. It was interesting to get a peek into that aspect of being in Vietnam. I’ve had to share accommodations with pack rats, but if one had landed on me in the night I think I would have totally lost it!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I didn’t know about MPCs. That’s an interesting bit of history. I like the photos of the Putterer. I realize that most of the troops smoked back then, but it seems odd by today’s standards.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Very interesting. Never heard of MPCs or about the lives of those who were not out in the jungle or fighting from the air or sea. I am glad he was safe, but I imagine even being in the mail center was stressful at times.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I have never heard of this “money” either! Wow, what a fun lesson hah. That rat story! Scared me as I read it. My dad used to tell me that he and my uncle used to “fight” the rats in Chicago and used garbage can lids as shields. he said they were almost as big as the garbage cans ;).

    Liked by 1 person

    1. The Wikipedia article on these certificates points out they were used as a plot in the 6th season of M*A*S*H.

      I can believe Chicago rats would rival those of Vietnam (especially the two-legged kind).

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, when I read the plot of the M*A*S*H episode in the Wikipedia article, I did remember it. Anything landing on my chest in the middle of the night, even an inanimate object, would make me scream bloody murder!

      Like

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