David Comes Clean

October 28, 2012

April 11, 1955

Dear Dad & Russ,

Well, here I am back in old Cambodia once again and also back at the old typewriter once again. My goodness, but I’m quite rusty in my typing!

Before answering your most welcome letters of March 20 and 27, I shall bring you up to date on events since my last letter about that exciting flight to the fabulous ruins of Angkor. I do hope by this time you will have received my two small handwritten letters from Saigon. I just wanted to keep you in touch with my whereabouts and I must admit, my whereabouts these days seem to be all over the continent of Asia!!!

New York Times, April 7, 1955

Now, about Saigon. I certainly didn’t realize that Saigon was receiving quite so much publicity back home! Yes, there have been quite a few “outbursts” in the “Paris of the Orient” of late, but rest assured, it is of no concern or danger to the International Commission. Purely local disturbances.

I want to tell you now about why I had to go to Saigon las week. For goodness sake, don’t get excited about what I’m about to tell you. You’re going to laugh when you hear the outcome of the whole thing! I spent all last week in a French military hospital in Saigon!! I knew I was going into hospital when I went down there last week, but as I didn’t know quite why, I didn’t mention it to you at the time. Didn’t want you to worry – can’t have that. When the MO here in Phnom Penh gave me my “physical” a couple of weeks ago, he did find some sort of “internal disturbances” – so to speak – and for a time he thought I just might have a slight case of hepatitis (upset liver). So, just to be sure, he recommended that I go down to the hospital in Saigon for various tests, observations, etc., etc. – which I did.

I went into the hospital a week ago today, and ever since then  I became a real collector’s item! Every time I tried to go to the toilet, somebody would come charging in with a little box or bottle or something and ask me for a donation!! Sure enough, my little old liver was slightly enlarged BUT – the reason it was enlarged was because (now don’t laugh) I HAD WORMS!!! Yup, worms! Of all things! These intestinal worms are as common as headaches here in these parts of the world – you get them from certain foods (nobody is quite sure what) that still have the eggs alive when you eat them. You know, these worms are really quite ridiculous. They’re absolutely harmless except for one thing – they do cause quite a traffic jam down inside!! Sort of clog things up, if you get what I mean! I was treated for the worms by drinking a rather “heavy duty” oil of some sort and then taking laxatives – to “help pass worms away”. That’s all there was to it. My goodness, imagine me getting worms! I felt like walking fish bait when I learned what ailed me!! By the way, you can get these worms back in Canada, but relax – they are very, very uncommon in said country! Anyways, here I am back in Phnom Penh (all de-wormed) and raring to go on the last four months’ home stretch! Won’t be long now!

I left the hospital on Saturday afternoon and on arriving back at the Continental palace hotel, who should I meet but Roger Reardon, sitting in the lobby! He had come down on Friday night to have his eyes checked in Saigon. He brought me a carton of cigarettes from the “Phnom Penh gang” and, even though they arrived a wee bit too late for hospital consumption, they certainly were most welcome and appreciated. So yesterday afternoon (Easter Sunday) Roger and I visited the Saigon Botanical Gardens and paid our respects to tigers and pythons, etc. (in cages, of course). It was a beautiful Easter Sunday in Saigon. The sky was a deep blue, the palm trees waved gracefully in a warm breeze and the millions of tropical flowers were gorgeous! You folks were in my thoughts all day, but I must admit I didn’t envy you one little bit what with all that “Spring” weather back home! Sure could use a bit of that snow ever here in these parts!

Guess what? We’re into the monsoon season again here in Indochina! Yes sir, the rains have come again, and all over the countryside the natives are busy cultivating their rice paddies. So from here on, we can expect at least one “flood” per day. Something to look forward to! What a strange country this is. It hasn’t rained but once since last October and now, all of a sudden, it rains every day!

All being well, I shall be taking off on a shopping spree, either this month or early next month, in the fabulous city of Hon Kong! I certainly am becoming quite the gadabout, aren’t I? I seem to be getting in and out of planes all the time lately! Sure am looking forward to Hong Kong. It’s a beautiful “civilized” city with HOT WATER, AIR CONDITIONED ROOMS, and MILK and a great many other things to make a to trip to Hong Kong well worth the effort. While there, I am going to buy a few tweed sport coats (about $20.00 each!) and a few other clothes (pants, sweaters, etc.) that will be suitable for wear in good old Canada. Then I shall purchase an aluminum wardrobe trunk (they’re quite terrific – I’ve seen some of them that our officers have brought back to Phnom Penh) and pack these new clothes into the trunk, have it crated and ship the whole thing back to Canada. I certainly don’t want to keep too many woollen clothes here in Cambodia, especially with the arrival of the rainy season, when everything stays continuously damp and mildewy. More about Hong Kong next letter.

I got my first batch of colour slides back from Paris last week (some of the ones I took in Bangkok). Golly, are they ever terrific! And to think I took them! I even have myself in some of these pictures (sitting in front of marble temples). I think you’re going to enjoy them – they’re quite beautiful and the colours are exactly as they looked to me when I took them. That’s one of the advantages of colour slides over colour prints. With colour slides you get the full values of light and shadow that is somewhat stilted in colour prints. You’re going to see some pictures that you’d honestly believe came right out of a Hollywood “spectacle”!

Thank you for sending along my driver’s license. You can’t imagine the fit of giggles I got when I received it. Whenever I look at the thing now, I’m reminded that I received my 1955 Ontario driver’s license in the Saigon French Military Hospital while being treated for worms!!!

That dinner you describe sounds terrific! [Steak, baked potatoes, salad and Jello.] Do me favour? I should like exactly the same thing for my first “home” meal!

I think that just about wraps things up from over here. The rain has stopped for a while and it will be a good chance to make a mad dash back to our “chamber of colours” at the Hotel de la Poste.

lots of love,


So here’s the part David didn’t tell dear ol’ Dad. While in Saigon, he witnessed an attack on the UN’s headquarters in the Hotel Majestic.



Dad writes to Mr. Duder

October 28, 2012

Telegram transcribed by Glen Nixon April 6, 1955

Apt. 6-574 Kirkwood Avenue

Ottawa, Ont.

April 6, 1955

Dear Mr. Duder,

Naturally tonight we are just a bit concerned about David, as we have just been advised by the Department of External Affairs that he is in hospital in Saigon with a liver complaint. However, we are not greatly worried as we know that everything possible will be done for his comfort and that, from a medical standpoint, he will receive the best of attention.

This afternoon I was talking with my lifelong friend Sherwood Lett, and while he is a fellow of few words he did indicate that the task undertaken by Canada is a most difficult one and spoke in glowing terms of the Commissioners and their associates. The conditions under which you are working and living is bound to take its toll and we shall all be so thankful when you are all safely back in good old Canada.

I should have written to you, Mr. Duder, long ere this to express my appreciation of your kindness to David. He has mentioned it so many times and only his last letter he mentioned about your concern over the condition of his health. Thank you so much.

We have addressed a letter tonight to David and on the envelope have asked that it might be redirected if necessary. He has had such a wonderful experience and has written such descriptive accounts.

We know that External Affairs will keep us informed of David’s condition and trust and pray that before too long he will be back with you in Phnom Penh.

Once again, both David’s brother Russ and I do so much want to thank you for your very great considerations and helpfulness.

Most sincerely

R. Glen Nixon


Phnom Penh

April 18, 1955

Dear Mr. Nixon,

Thank you for your very kind letter of April 6th which arrived this morning. I am sorry that you were unnecessarily worried about David. I had mentioned his illness in a telegram to the Department of External Affairs but I did not anticipate that they would get in touch with you. You will have heard from David that the liver complaint turned out to be something less serious and that he is back with us.

I was myself worried about David because he had lost so much weight and because the climate here is very trying for all of us. I think that if he can get away for some leave will shortly be no trace of his recent illness.

I am glad that you had a chance to talk to Mr. Lett. It is always comforting to have a personal talk with somebody who knows the conditions in which your son is working. Mr. Lett has had a far more difficult job than I have had but none of us quite knew what he was getting into.

All things considered, I think you will agree that David is fortunate to have had so interesting an assignment at the beginning of his career. I feel pretty certain that he will survive Indochina and be able to talk to his grandchildren about his months in the Kingdom of Cambodia. I might say that I have been extremely satisfied with David’s work and with his devotion to it. Particularly in the early days when we had to start on a shoe-string, he showed great resourcefulness and an ability to adapt himself to changing circumstances which, in my opinion, is the essential for anybody in this peculiar profession of ours. I see no reason why he should not keep in mind the possibility of becoming an officer in time. This is not easy unless one has a university degree to begin with but it does happen and David is young enough to add to his qualifications as goes along.

I hope you will not continue to worry about your son’s health. We have a resident Doctor with us who is very good and I feel certain that David will not hesitate in future to consult the Doctor if he should feel at all unwell. In this particular illness of his, I think he waited a little too long, in spite of my advice, before having himself examined. No young man feels that he needs medical attention but we all learn by experience.

Thank you again for your kind letter which gave me great pleasure.

Yours sincerely,

R. Duder


OK, so where is he NOW? Two handwritten notes from Saigon.

October 27, 2012

Saigon, April 4, 1955

Dear Dad & Russ,

Well, look who’s where now! Honestly, the way I gad about these days I’m sure I shan’t be content to sit still for a week on end ever again! This all happened so suddenly that I hardly realize where I am! You see, Mr. Duder decided that it was high time I took a week or so away from the office (and accounts). It’s been fairly quiet in the office lately, so he figured there was no time like the present. Sooo, yesterday I hopped aboard the courier plane (another plane!) and flew down here to Saigon. It’s really quite a pleasant change, believe me! New faces, new food, a little cooler than Phnom Penh AND SPRING BEDS!!! I’m staying again at the Hotel Continental Palace. It seems so strange to be in a big city again. Would you believe they even have streetlights in Saigon? (Guess I’ve been tucked away in the jungle too long, eh?) Mr. Crepault, with whom I travelled to Indochina last August is now Head of the Canadian Delegation here in Saigon. You know, there’s only one disadvantage to all this, and that is NO TYPEWRITER!! I’m already getting writer’s cramp just in this short note!

Well, folks, I must get busy and do some more loafing (it’s quite delightful having nothing to do for a change – although I’m sure that in a week’s time I shall be utterly bored to tears!)

So, for this time, I close.

Lots of love,


Airmail letters from Viet Nam. The blue stamp upper left is of Emperor Bao Dai.

April 10, 1955

Dear Dad & Russ,

You can’t imagine how surprised I was to see Easter lilies in the lobby of the hotel yesterday afternoon!

Easter – already! And I’m still patiently waiting for the first signs of winter.

Golly, I miss you both so much today. At these special times of year it seems so important to have the family all together. Oh well, such is life and life is such. Just four and a half more months and the family will all be together again (unless, of course, Russ decides to get a summer job in Tokyo modelling kimonos for the tourists – HA!! – this I’ve got to see!) [Russ had apparently been modelling the kimonos David had sent home for friends.]

It feels just a little bit more like Easter than it felt like Christmas. You can almost imagine that “Spring has sprung” (rather suddenly and violently, I must admit) although when I come to think of it, these are the same palm trees and flowers blooming as at Christmas.

Well, folks, Roger Reardon, who came down on Friday, is waiting for me to go to lunch.

Back to “Darkest Cambodia” tomorrow. I’ll TYPE you a good long letter.

Must Dash. Happy Easter!



Be sure to read the next instalment, when we find out the REAL reason David was in Saigon!

Telegram transcribed by Glen Nixon, April 6, 1955.


October 27, 2012

In March 1955, the Commission apparently got some new letterhead and David started using it for his letters home instead of the flimsy airmail paper used for all his previous missives. In previous posts here, the letters on airmail paper have been transcribed for legibility, with some edits for continuity. This post allows us to see one of David’s letters on the new stationery, in its entirety. In this episode, David finds himself heading off to the ruins of Angkor. 

NB – the mark-up on page 6 is Glen Nixon’s “notes to self” regarding David’s request on behalf of his friend, Gordon Happy.

And, for those readers with “old eyes”, clicking on the letter pages should enlarge them. If your viewer doesn’t do that, use the “Zoom” feature in the View menu of your browser.

DeHavilland Dragonfly - David's photo of his ride to Angkor

DeHavilland Dragonfly – David’s photo of his ride to Angkor

David's photo of the four faces of Buddha, Siem Reap

David’s photo of the four faces of Buddha, Siem Reap

Angkor Wat from the main gate. The central portion is taller than the Peace Tower in Ottawa.

Angkor Wat from the main gate. The central portion is taller than the Peace Tower in Ottawa.

Snippets: Eggs, Abdication, and a Frigate

October 27, 2012

March 12, 1955

Dear Dad & Russ,

Would you believe it – this is absolutely the first moment I have been able to write you folks since returning from Bangkok las Thursday. And by all intents and purposes I really should not be taking the time to write personal letters during office hours. Golly, we’ve been been so very, very busy lately it’s unbelievable! I’ve worked nearly 15 hours overtime just since the first of March already! Last night, for example, I finished up a 35-page report at 11 p.m.!

Last night at the dinner table we all decided that we just couldn’t face another meal from the menu. I must admit, the meals are beginning to get rather monotonous. The menu has not changed since we got here, and although it did take us some time to go right through it, we are all on the the third and fourth round now. So, instead of ordering dinner at “la Taverne”, we each ordered four fresh eggs, butter, bread, cheese and “borrowed” a dozen or so plates, knives, forks, etc. and came over here to the office. While I was typing that 35-page report, the rest of the fellows sat around playing cards or reading books. The, at around 11 o’clock, we gathered in the kitchen and Howie got out a tiny frying pan from his Army mess kit and we took turns frying ourselves some eggs in butter. UMMM!!! Were they ever good! We plan to do this more often, whenever we get tired of the usual hotel food.

About Siam. If I even began to tell you about my trip it would surely take me the rest of the day to do so. I’ve simply got oodles of things to tell you about Bangkok, but (alas) no time to do so. Sooo, I’m terribly afraid that you’re just going to have to wait five and a half months till I get home to hear all about Siam. All I can say now is that it was wonderful beyond my wildest dreams. Even now I have to stop to think if I really saw such fabulous sights of if I was just dreaming the whole time. Here’s something. While in Bangkok I took some 35 colour photos. I am sending these to Paris next week to have made into colour slides which I shall have returned to me here in Phnom Penh. Then I am going to number each slide, list what they are on a piece of paper, and send them to you folks in Ottawa.

Nuns in Bangkok

Nuns in Bangkok

At the Marble Temple, Bangkok

At the Marble Temple, Bangkok

David at the Marble Temple. Note the sheen on the courtyard behind him.

David at the Marble Temple. Note the sheen on the courtyard behind him.

As you’ve probably read in the papers, the King of Cambodia abdicated last week. This has thrown the Commission into quite a flap and what happens now is anyone’s guess!

March 14th

That 35-page report I told you I was working on last Friday has blossomed into 56 pages today!! I just finished it a few minutes ago and was told there’s more to come. Also, the darn thing is still a draft so I have visions of months of straight typing getting it into final form. Overworked and underpaid (ha!), that’s me.

Just five and half months to go and I shall be home again!!! I can hardly believe it – no fooling. It sure will be wonderful to be home again. I can hardly wait to see the apartment again. Just to be able to walk on carpets, see pictures on the walls and curtains in the windows (with glass!) will be one of the biggest thrills of my life. I think I mentioned it before but our rooms here is completely bare of any decorations whatsoever. No carpets, no curtains, and not a picture to break the bleakness of the walls. Just two beds (hard as rock), a table and a bedside table with three or four hard-backed chairs – that’s all. And to be able to sleep without a mosquito net – it’s going to be wonderful. Some of the fellows who will be going home about the same time as I am figured it out the days – about 165 more to go!

A British frigate [HMS Opossum] landed here in Phnom Penh last Saturday morning. We Canadians have undertaken to entertain these sailors while here so tonight we are giving a party in their honour on the roof of the Cercle Sportif. Should be fun. Which reminds me, I must get away now back to the hotel to have dinner, change, etc., for the party.

lots of love,


PS: The heat here now is too much to mention!! I’ve never seen anything like it! It’s ridiculous. Back home, if it were ever this hot, everything would just close down and stop. But over here, work must go on in spite of the heat. (Sigh) Oh well, that’s the way it goes.



In Haste

October 27, 2012

March 6, 1955

Dear Dad & Russ,

Well, here I am in Siam! Just like that! I’m absolutely lost without my typewriter so this will just be a short [handwritten] note.

Since arriving in Bangkok I have had one hilarious adventure after another! You just can’t imagine all that’s happened.

I could never, not in a million years, begin to describe this oriental fairyland to you. As a matter of fact, I can hardly believe myself that these wonderful sights I am seeing are real! Bangkok is something straight out from the pages of a storybook – only better!

I am gorging myself on milkshakes, sodas, banana splits, hamburgers, hot dogs, waffles, cakes – and CINEMASCOPE! Even in Siam!!!

The Siamese people are most friendly but have about as much organization as a patchwork quilt. I have never in my life seen anything quite like it. I shall have year’s supply of stories to tell you just about Bangkok alone.

Can you imagine a huge temple containing but ONE statue – a gold-plated Buddha 160 feet long and 40 feet high!!! That’s just one of the many things I have seen in this fabulous city.

By the way, here are two facts about Siam that might surprise you: 1) Everyone here speaks ENGLISH, and 2) There actually was an “Anna and the King of Siam”

Back to the bush on Tuesday and I’ll write you a good long letter.Till then, bye for now,



PS: Don’t worry now, I’m a real Francis Drake when it comes to travelling!


David’s photo of a golden Buddha, Bangkok

The Reclining Golden Buddha in Bangkok (modern)

Prep for Thailand and “Going Native”

October 25, 2012

February 26, 1955

Dear Dad & Russ,

Firstly, a word about the enclosed enclosure that I am enclosing. (Now doesn’t THAT make sense for an opening line of a letter!)

The picture (yes, that’s me) is one I had taken last week for use on my Identity Card (International Commission). I also had one taken with my glasses on but honestly! It was terrible! These people just haven’t got the knack of taking pictures of people with glasses. You see, very few people over here wear glasses (although I really think about 90% of them could use them, the way they drive!) so the local photographers don’t get much practise  in taking pictures of people in glasses. The one I had taken was so bad you couldn’t even see my eyes. And besides I was grinning like a mad fool in it so I didn’t quite think it was fit for an Identity Card. However, the enclosed picture is the one I chose. Please note the “new look”.

David’s “New Look”

I’m not as pudgy as before and, of course, the moustache (at full bloom in this picture) does change my appearance considerably. I look as if I’m going slightly bald, but that really is not the case at all [oh yes it was!]. You see, over here what with the heat and swimming every day (to say nothing of little bugs) I find it much more comfortable to keep my hair cut real short. Actually, it’s a brush cut but I keep brushed down flat and parted. And by the way, that’s a broken nose I’m sporting! WHOOPPEE!!! It doesn’t show!! Also, please note the colour of my face. Of course, being in black and white doesn’t give you much idea, but you can see that my shirt is white and I’m not! As a matter of fact that picture was taken the evening after our boat ride on the Mekong, so I’m really quite red.

Howie and I went for another boat ride with our French friend yesterday. This time we went south on the Mekong, down toward Saigon. It was so interesting to explore the shores of this mighty river! As I told you about our last boat ride, we again saw many big Chinese junks and small native canoes. Also more fishnets drying in the hot noonday sun. The jungle is thick along both sides of the Mekong south of Phnom Penh. We saw villages of thatched huts close to the water’s edge and stairs carved right out of the earth to allow the natives to get down to the water. We travelled quite a distance (Phnom Penh was out of sight) when we spotted a tiny island in the Mekong. We stopped there for a few minutes and had a bit of a swim. The island was very, very small and consisted wholly of sand with a few tufts of long grass growing in the middle. Actually, I think it must have been just a sandbar that’s uncovered at this time of year when the Mekong is at its lowest. One thing I do know – it sure was hot!! We were all walking along the sand when suddenly and with one accord we dashed into the water. That sand was so hot it nearly burned the bottoms of our feet. I think we’re going out in the boat again on Monday, but I’m not sure.

And today, after a rather hectic morning at the office (end of the month accounts, you know) I retired with the gang to ye olde swimming pool where we just loafed around in the hot (and I do mean hot!) sun all afternoon. (Sigh.) I’ll often think of this when I’m freezing to death next February back in Canada. Don’t get me wrong. I’d rather freeze to death in Canada any February than get sunburned in Cambodia!

Oh, and I wanted to tell you right away about the “go ahead” on the news of my return to Canada in September (or August).

The temperature tonight is all out of proportion for the end of February! I don’t know what the exact temperature is, but I feel sure that it must be somewhere in the 90’s. Each day now gets just a little hotter. I hope it doesn’t get too much hotter – sure makes it hard to work in this heat. And having to sleep under a mosquito net all the time doesn’t help matters much.

Today our new steno arrived from Canada. She seems quite nice and has a great sense of humour – which is all important in this part of the world. If you can’t see the funny side of things that go on here every day, I’m quite convinced a person would go out of his mind. I’m still laughing!

Right beside me on my desk is my “Thai Airways Co.” return ticket to Bangkok, Siam. And tomorrow morning my Thailand visa will be ready. So I guess I’m really on my way. Hard to believe. By the way, Mr. Tran Dinh Van, the Chinese merchant with whom we deal a lot here in Phnom Penh, and who took us for a drive one Sunday afternoon, is leaving for a vacation in Bangkok tomorrow. He insists that Cecile and I look him up when we get there so I guess we will. You know, if anybody told me last February that I would be flying to Siam within a year and meeting Mr. Tran Dinh Van, a Chinese merchant from Cambodia, I would have told that person that he was absolutely and completely out of his mind!! Isn’t it amazing how just one short year can change your life so completely?

It’s just about time for me to turn in, but rest assured that I will certainly try to get a letter off from Bangkok. Of course, having no typewriter shall greatly impede me (the way I yatter on oand on) but I shall drop you at least a short note from Siam.

lots of love,


PS – Funny thing just happened. I was sitting here in my sampot (sarong – it’s the coolest thing to wear in the evenings and we all wear them) when suddenly Mr. Duder walked in. He took one look at me and grinned from ear to ear. Then he said, “Next plane home for you, Dave. Can’t have you going native on me!” What a character! However, I don’t think he meant it and I probably still won’t be home for another six months.

love, Dave

“It’s the coolest thing to wear in the evenings and we all wear them.”
Yes, David, but some of us wear them better than others.

DA few minutes later – sequel to the “sampot incident”: Mr. Duder just gave me 100$00 (piastres) to buy him a sampot too!! He’s decided to “go native” too – says they look real cool. That’s our Commissioner!!!

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