The Vietnam War Like You Have Never Seen It
VIETNAM WAR LIKE YOU HAVE NEVER SEEN IT
“Daryl, how would you like to go to Vietnam?” my friend in OSI personnel asked me. “No way,” I said with a laugh. “Why are you asking?” My friend said that I was on a list to go to Vietnam, but the orders had not yet been published, and that if I volunteered to go to Vietnam, it would look good on my personnel records. I protested, “But assignments in the D.C. area are supposed to be for a minimum of three years. I haven’t been here two full years yet.” “Needs of the Air Force always override such policies,” he explained. After some thought I went to his office and volunteered. Volunteered with a gun in my back, I felt like. My friends in personnel offices over the years have always helped me, so I did this with that thought in mind. Our true friends really are God’s gift to us.
Lauretta and I prepared ourselves for the day I would get orders for going to war. In July 1970, the personnel chief at HQ OSI told me that my assignment was as an OSI Detachment Commander at Bien Hoa AB, Republic of Vietnam. I was now serving as a 1st Lieutenant OSI Special Agent at the Forrestal Building near the National Mall in Washington D.C. It was here that the system for conducting background investigations that “TD” and I developed was being implemented. I was now going to be the first person of lieutenant rank to be an OSI detachment commander in Vietnam.
“Who could that be,” I asked Lauretta in March 1971 with a tone of irritation. It was my last night at home before leaving for Vietnam, and we had arranged for a night of privacy by shipping our three kids off to neighbors for the night. “Father Lockman!” I greeted the man at our door. It was our parish pastor, Fr. James Lockman from St Jude’s Church in Rockville Maryland. He stayed until late that evening. Our talk was as friends, nothing at all about my going to Vietnam. He gave me an Irish Rosary that he had blessed, one of four he brought back from Ireland. When he left that evening, Lauretta and I just looked at each other and laughed. This was not the kind of evening we had imagined for my last night at home. His presence was a gift from heaven. We were relaxed and happy.
“Good bye, Lauretta.” I choked on these words at the Washington National Airport. This was the worst moment of my life. Nothing prepares a man for this moment of heartache and agony. In going to Vietnam I believed that this might be good-bye forever. How I held in my tears until I was on the plane and away from her eyesight I will never know. Our pains give us the opportunity to offer them up.
“A goodbye isn’t painful unless you’re never going to say hello again.” – Author Unknown
Bien Hoa AB Vietnam
“Welcome, Sir!” were the opening words at Bien Hoa AB in April 1971 from MSgt Lee Kemp, an OSI Special Agent in my detachment. He did not call me “lieutenant,” because all military ranks of OSI Special Agents are confidential. In public he called me “Sir,” in private he called me Daryl, or Mr. Gonyon. I always called him Lee. Because he was a special agent, airport personnel allowed him onto the airfield to greet me as I was walking off the Seaboard World Airlines flight from Travis AFB California. It was a DC-8, a jet-powered long-range aircraft manufactured by Douglas Aircraft Company. Douglas Aircraft Company had also constructed the ten thousand C-47 Skytrain U.S. Army cargo planes (nicknamed “Gooney Birds”) manufactured during World War II. I flew on the “gooney Birds” in the Philippines, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and would now in Vietnam.
A Real War Hero
Air Force doctor Robert Thomas at Bien Hoa AB begs, borrows, and buys any weapons and ammunition that he can to take to our allies in Cambodia, flying over heavily armed enemy territory, risking his life in the process as unsung volunteer doing his duty as he thought it was his to do. Was this part of CIA activity? Was it secret activity in any way? I never did find out. Whatever. It was an honor just knowing about men such as this, the creators of legends.
Shaking up the Drug Users
“I am NOT advising you of your rights under Article 31 of the UCMJ. All you need to do is listen to what I have to say.” This is how I began my brief talk to about 45 military personnel at Bien Hoa AB. I was very concerned about the numerous personnel that were getting involved in drugs that were so readily available everywhere. Lives were being ruined. For those who were subjects of OSI investigations, even more so. Those found guilty as a result of our investigations usually got less than honorable discharges that stayed with them for life. Some went to prison.
My mind was focused on this situation involving the use of drugs by numerous GIs at Bien Hoa AB. There must be some way I could positively impact this terrible situation. I did develop an idea and I developed a plan. Our ideas can change the world, and the drug abuse situation in my piece of the world at Bien Hoa AB sure needed changing.
I went to the base legal office with my plan. I wanted to talk to each of the Bien Hoa First Sergeants, 17 in all, and ask each for a list of names of their personnel that they suspected were involved in drugs. My intent was to scare the suspected users of drugs into positive action of some sort. They could seek counseling from the base medical facility, or their chaplain, or just go straight and stay straight away from drugs. The base Staff Judge Advocate advised that if I talked to each man in private, just me and them alone, and did NOT advise them of their rights under Article 31 of the UCMJ and noted that to them, and told them just to listen, I could then tell them that they were suspected of being involved in some way with drugs, but I was not going to investigate that. The message to them was that this was just a “Head’s up” talk to them. I was also told that I could not keep a list of the names of those I talked to. If I did all this, I could proceed. I advised the base commander of my plan and coordination with the base legal office, and he concurred.
“If you are involved in drugs in any way, then the next time you sit before me I will then advise you of your rights under Article 31 of the UCMJ and you might then be in deep trouble.” That is how I concluded my talk with each person. The feed-back I got at the next base commanders meeting with about 35 other commanders and key staff personnel was powerful. “We had a flood of people come into the medical clinic seeking help, and 2 signed up for our drug treatment program,” said the doctor in charge. “The same for our chaplain’s office,” said the base chaplain, “We have never seen so many people in there.” Some of the commanders reported that they had some complaints from persons interviewed, claiming no involvement with drugs, and worried that they were now under suspicion. They were assured that no list was kept of persons interviewed, and any talk was person to person only, private and not admissible in any disciplinary proceeding.
At a later meeting with the base commander I was advised that one person I interviewed filed an IG complaint. IG complaints can be filed through an established grievance channel to the Inspector General’s (IG) office. He had also received one Congressional Complaint. Nothing ever came from these complaints. Bottom line? Numerous lives were impacted by this audacious action on my part. To this day I am certain that many lives were saved from drug involvement, and maybe even prison or unfavorable discharges. Because this was a discreetly and quietly handled matter, only the people directly involved would ever know. Celebrations are necessary to mark our goal achievement, but in this special situation, silence was called for.
“You have to do the right thing… You may never know what results come from your action. But if you do nothing, there will be no result.”
Mohandas K. Gandhi
High level drug arrest nearly causes international incident
“Gonyon, can you eat crow?” the base commander asked me. Eating crow is an American colloquial idiom, meaning humiliation by admitting wrongness or having been proved wrong after taking a strong position. Crow is presumably foul-tasting in the same way that being proved wrong might be emotionally hard to swallow. I assured the base commander that I could and would eat crow. At issue was his saving face with his Vietnamese counterpart who shared base security responsibility at Bien Hoa AB. The day before I had led an OSI sponsored major drug bust on the base, a huge drug bust that had sent shock waves through the drug trade and involved mostly Vietnamese military and civilian people.
A relative of the Vietnamese base commander, known to me only as “Tinh,” was implicated in the bust. Tinh turned out to be the so-called “kingpin” in the drug operation on Bien Hoa AB. Tinh would deal only with one U.S. GI whom I will only identify as “FIG.” FIG, in turn, was the largest supplier of heroin to U.S. troops at Bien Hoa AB. In retaliation for not being notified that a drug bust was going to happen, the Vietnamese base commander pulled all of his security forces off their posts, about 50% of all security forces providing security on the base perimeter of Bien Hoa AB. “This borders on becoming an international incident,” the U.S. base commander told me. Had the American media gotten hold of this information, it would have made headlines in the U.S., and hot tempers in the Pentagon. The Stars and Stripes military newspaper distributed around the world, did report on the subsequent court-martial of “FIG,” who was sentenced to 20 years hard-labor and a dishonorable discharge.
The drug-bust operation that caused this situation had taken weeks to arrange. OSI agents that I worked with coordinated the operation, conceiving the strategy and developing trustworthy contacts in various Vietnamese military, criminal investigative, and intelligence agencies. As the OSI commander at Bien Hoa I was responsible for everything involving the operation. I sat in on all strategic meetings and approved everything. In addition to command oversight, I provided whatever support and encouragement they needed. It was a huge operation, career making or breaking, in my judgment.
We brought in an undercover OSI agent named James Benton from another location. We also had roles for local Air Police and Vietnamese National Police, as well as an Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) Criminal Investigations (CI) agent. It was the Vietnamese National Police and ARVN CI agent that requested that the Vietnamese base commander not be told of the drug bust, as they knew of his relative’s criminal involvement. The U.S. base commander was fully advised of our operation, and the request to not tell his counterpart Vietnamese base commander, and the reason for that. He knew of the possible repercussions, but agreed that the major drug bust was worth the risk.
The success for this major operation was the result of the superb efforts of my agents and all of the other U.S. and Vietnamese parties involved. This military operation was a classic example of cooperation and teamwork. It was the Master Mind principle at work: many heads are indeed better than one.
I ate crow. I was subsequently assigned duty with OSI at Nha Trang AB in July 1971. I am sure that the Vietnamese base commander at Bien Hoa AB was very pleased at my assignment away from Bien Hoa AB.
Resident Agent Nha Trang AB Vietnam
Nha Trang Bay is widely considered as among the world’s most beautiful bays. Nha Trang itself is Vietnam’s most famous seaside resort-town. The French recognized that this beautiful bay, with its islands and white sand beaches, was a perfect bathing spot, and began its transformation into a resort town. American soldiers agreed, and Nha Trang became a favorite vacation stop during the war.
The 14th Special Operations Wing was the host unit at Nha Trang AB base until 30 September 1971. When I arrived, I had one MSgt agent, one SSgt admin man, and one Vietnamese intelligence net handler. I had four months to close out all operations. I worked here four full very busy months, deactivating the OSI unit here in October 1971.
Special missions in Vietnam
An official classified secret mission was not necessarily dangerous, just secret. One such mission was investigating an inventory shortage with Air America, covertly owned by the CIA. I received orders classified secret from our headquarters in Washington D.C. to go to a designated Air America site. That site was supposed to have four communications units each valued at over $125,000. That would be $784,500 each in our 2018 economy! In South America the same CIA agency intercepted an electronics broadcast from a person later identified as the site director of the site in Vietnam that I was sent to. He was selling one of the communications units for his personal financial gain! When I got there, he was on leave in South America, and one communications unit was unaccounted for. Case closed. As we have found out too often in our history, no matter the level of responsibility, people are involved in wrongdoing.
On a special investigative mission to Tuy Hoa Army Installation, I flew in an Army O-1 G “Bird dog” piloted by a Navy Warrant Officer. Firing “smoke rockets” was fun, and we listened to country western music as we flew in this single prop plane in an open cockpit! It was a crazy scene. Here I was an Air Force investigator wearing the flight suit of a Navy lieutenant, going to an Army installation in an Army plane flown by a Navy officer.
In the Army at that time, the installation commander determined the need for and even the outcome of criminal investigations. At Tuy Hoa the NCO club, previously under management by the Air Force, was unable to account for mega-thousands of dollars in plush furniture missing from the inventory. At the Pentagon it was determined that an investigative agency other than Army should go in.
When the 25th Infantry left for the U.S. they gave the property away without proper paperwork. The Army CID could not find necessary information to resolve this issue. That is why an investigator other than Army was requested by the Pentagon. I went to the installation post office and asked if there were any “short timer NCOs” still there ready to return to the U.S. Such a person would have been there when the furniture disappeared. I hit the jackpot! One such person was there, and “you can probably find him at the NCO Club,” the postal clerk said. And I did. I could not believe my good luck. Ask questions that others don’t, and you will get answers that others don’t.
I was able to identify personnel involved, found and reviewed club papers, and got forwarding addresses for personnel of our concern! It took me all of two hours after landing at the air field to complete this investigation, thus embarrassing the Army CID that only months before could not get the same information which I discovered.
I flew out in a C-7A “Caribou” twin-engine aircraft built by De Havilland Aircraft of Canada, Ltd.
Finding humor in Vietnam
“Hey GI, how about you souvenir me blood?” No this was not a person saying this; it was a mosquito!
First Lieutenant Doug Watson and I were in downtown Nha Trang to coordinate the transfer of my Vietnamese interpreter and intelligence net handler to the Army 525th Military Intelligence (MI) Group. That night we stayed with Joint Narcotics Investigation Detachment (JNID). They had a villa in downtown Nha Trang that looked luxurious from the outside, but was lacking on the inside. Doug slept on a thin mattress on the floor, I on the couch. We got only one-hour of sleep that night, because we battled mosquitos! We both had mosquito nets, but the little pests got in anyway. I slept fully clothed and even had a shirt over my face, but the pests even got under the shirt! At one point during the night, Doug said “Hey, Daryl! A mosquito just whispered in my ear, ‘Hey GI, how about you souvenir me some blood?’” We laughed uncontrollably. In Vietnam, it seemed that any person who could speak a lot of English would approach us and say, “Hey GI, how about you souvenir me cigarettes (or whatever),” inspiring Doug’s mosquito statement.
The next morning we had breakfast at the Civil Operations and Revolutionary Development Support (CORDS) compound. A compound is a type of fortification with walls or fences surrounding several buildings in the center of a large piece of land. The walls can serve the purpose either of being tall, thick, and impenetrable, in which case they would be made of wood stone, or some other opaque substance; or of being dangerous to attempt to scale, in which case they could be made of barbed wire and electrified.
CORDS was a U.S. Inter-Agency task force consisting mostly of civilian advisors to the Vietnamese people. Their purpose was pacification, or “winning the peace” by offering stability, support, transition and reconstruction. CORDS was headed up by U.S. Ambassador Robert Komer.
As time and history were to reveal, they were mostly inefficient and ineffective. However, the purpose of our breakfast was achieved, and that was to recall and laugh at our miserable night unsuccessfully fighting the mosquito horde and restating the line that gave us our only solace that night, “Hey GI, how about you souvenir me some blood?”
I was to learn later that my Vietnamese interpreter and intelligence agent was to become the most trusted intelligence agent with the Army 525 MI Group. That gave me great pleasure, because I knew him to be a devout family man, hard working, and completely loyal to the U.S. I met his family but had to stay away from them so as to not draw attention to the fact that he was friendly with U.S. personnel, and especially not employed by us. That would blow his cover as just another peasant resident of his rural community.
Operation Hon Tre Island
Lying off the coast of Vietnam near Nha Trang is Hon Tre Island. Surface transportation to the island is provided by the US Army by means of LGU coastal vessel operating from the mainland of Nha Trang. Several trips daily are made from the mainland to the island between 0700 and 1800 hours. A large USAF radar unit was on the island.
A confidential source of information at the radar site advised me that prostitution was rampant at this radar site. Most of the prostitutes were officially there as maids. The commander of that site was an Air Force major, who had the habit of visiting my office before catching the ferry to the island. I had an idea to clear the island of the prostitutes. Prior to this major visiting at his customary time of the day, I placed a paper in my typewriter and typed an official looking letter to U.S. Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (MACV), a joint-service Command of the United States Department of Defense.
General (four star general) Creighton W. Abrams was the MACV Commander. Abrams was known as an aggressive and successful armor commander. General George Patton said of him: “I’m supposed to be the best tank commander in the Army, but I have one peer — Abe Abrams. He’s the world champion.” All military personnel in Vietnam were subject to the command and supervision of MACV. My invoking MACV as the authority to report prostitution on Hon Tre Island would certainly get action.
“How you doing today, Daryl?” the Hon Tre commander asked as he came in to my OSI office on Nha Trang AB. “Not too good,” I replied. “Got a case of Montezuma’s revenge,” and with that said I excused myself for a minute to hit the latrine. I knew from his habits that he would peek at the letter I had in my typewriter addressed to MACV with the subject matter: Prostitution on Hon Tre Island. I waited in the latrine for a minute, and then heard the door slam as he left in a hurry.
The next ferry from Hon Tre Island had 21 prostitutes on it. They were greeted by Army Military Police, USAF Air Police, OSI agents, and the Vietnamese Military Security Service (MSS) which was responsible for identifying communist penetration in South Vietnam. Two weeks laterthe 21 prostitutes were still being held by Vietnamese authorities as suspected Viet Cong, pending further investigation.
The Viet Cong, otherwise known as “communists,” were more formally known as the National Liberation Front, a political organization and army that fought the U.S. and South Vietnamese military and government. Their purpose was to ferment insurgency. Viet Cong atrocities were equally as cruel and vicious as those committed by al-Qaeda (or al-Qa’ida, pronounced al-KYE-da). I never did learn further disposition of these suspected Viet Cong, hired by the U.S. military as “maids,” but serving as prostitutes on our military installation.
More prostitution at another military communications site
“Sir, you would not believe how easy it is for a prostitute to get onto our communications site.” Another confidential source of information advised me about prostitutes being waved onto his communications site without any security documentation or questioning. All communications sites are considered sensitive military sites and are to be treated as such by all military personnel, so I was a bit skeptical.
The site was adjacent to Nha Trang AB, an easy jeep ride away from my office, so I planned to go there one evening and just sit in the dark shadows of the main gate and see for myself what was going on. My source was correct. Women walked up to the gate and were just waved in without any questioning of any kind. On the other hand, every single military man who approached the gate was questioned and had to show identification to gain entrance! This occurred after 9 PM in the evening. These men, who all lived on that site and had to go through security procedures to gain entrance to their military quarters and duty location, whereas Vietnamese women were just waved in. I was not a happy camper. I went up to the gate guard, identified myself, and told him what I observed. He told me “This was normal practice, Sir.” I told him to cease and desist that practice, as I would report this to his commander the next morning.
This joint Army and USAF communications site had an Army major as the commander and an Air Force Captain as his assistant. I identified myself to them, and explained what I had witnessed. The major was defensive, admitting he condoned the prostitution “to help the men out.” It was not my place to lecture him, so I went straight to the point. “If this practice of condoning prostitution does not end immediately, I will have to report this matter to MACV.” It was now his turn to be an unhappy camper. In essence, he was angry with me, did not like my coming to him with this ultimatum, and said so. I felt that I might have bitten off more than I could chew, but replied, “You do what you have to do, and I will do what I have to do. I will make a report to MACV if you force the issue.” He reluctantly said that he would clear the matter up.
“Pissing people off doesn’t mean you’re doing the right things, but doing the right things will almost inevitably piss people off.” Colin Powell
Good people can look at my action in these two prostitution cases and come to different opinions about how it should have been handled. Should I have filed formal complaints with MACV? My chain of command required that I go through my own USAF OSI Headquarters in Saigon. Any referral for investigation would have to come from them. For Hon Tre Island, I would have gotten the formal request for investigation. It was a joint Army-Air Force site on an USAF Air Base. A formal investigation would certainly have involved severe disciplinary action for the ranking officers, maybe even courts-martial, and even so for willing participants at different supervisory levels, and even others. I suspect that because prostitution was so prevalent and tolerated even by some of my peers, that my complaints to my HQ would have fallen on deaf ears. My efforts to right the wrongs in these instances probably kept many men from crashing down, and at the same time lifted those up who were innocent non-participants in the prostitution.
My action may also have had an immediate effect on intelligence collection efforts by enemy agents working as prostitutes on Hon Tre Island. My action may have had an immediate effect on hundreds of military men, not only on the morale of those men who were offended by the prostitution, but on the moral self-examination that hopefully went on with others. How about pregnancies? Abortions? Unwanted births? And how about those who were contracting the terrible venereal diseases that many in Vietnam did? Their physical lives and even those of their spouses back in the states were affected. Those results were certain, and for that I am certainly thankful that I was there. When we see what others do not see, it is for a reason. I was not a passive spectator in a war zone; I did what I felt I had to do.
“The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.”
― Martin Luther King, Jr.
What part does morality play in a war zone? An Army study revealed that in Vietnam, by far the greatest morbidity in medical clinics were those cases of venereal disease. Morbidity is defined as being an unhealthful, state of an individual, or the incidence of illness in a population. Taking morality to a higher level, I must note that the Supreme Commander in Vietnam, General Abrams, converted to Catholicism during his years in Vietnam. Morality was obviously on his mind during time war time. General Abrams certainly is a model for many to emulate.
“Do you feel that you are better than us?” I was asked by another OSI agent in a Nha Trang off-base bar. He had offered to provide me the girl of my choice for a quickie and I gave him a firm “No.” In response to his question about being better than them, I further explained, “I feel that I am probably weaker than you. I know myself. I believe that if I did it once, it would be like eating potato chips. I wouldn’t be able to stop. I will not take that first potato chip.” He respected my answer, and neither he nor others ever brought up that subject again with me. My brief answer was the right response at the right time. Had I pontificated about morality, faithfulness to one’s spouse back home, diseases, etc, I would only have generated debate and maybe even solidified their idea that I thought I was better than they.
“OSI couldn’t find a wet noodle in a bowl of soup!”
I had just finished watching the movie, Summer of 42, in the newly established consolidated officer and NCO club at Nha Trang AB. The separate officer’s and NCO club had been turned over to the Vietnamese as part of the Vietnamization program. This program, begun by President Richard Nixon in November 1969, was intended to turn over all goods and operations to the Vietnamese military so that the U.S. could end its involvement in the war.
It was very late at night. Walking back to my office to get my jeep, I saw two GIs taking things from a warehouse under suspicious circumstances. They were working in darkness, and could not see me. I got my jeep and followed them with my lights out to the Special Operations Squadron compound which I had not visited before. When they stopped their truck inside the compound, a group of waiting men formed an assembly line for off-loading the truck. I could see that the truck was packed full of BX snack bar expendable supplies. One man said, “It took us only 17 minutes to empty that place.” Another said, “Let’s get rid of the evidence.” Another said, “OSI couldn’t find a wet noodle in a bowl of soup.” I stepped out of the shadows and said, “You will not believe what is happening,” as I pulled out my OSI credentials to show them. The look on their faces was priceless “Oh my gosh” type looks.
They were all dressed in civilian clothes. I asked who was in charge. One man stepped forward and identified himself as the person in charge, and “I am also the First Sergeant.” I advised them of their rights under the UCMJ Article 31, and then admonished them for such a stupid stunt. Their commander was then phoned. The First Sergeant said, “We are in serious trouble, Sir!” then “OSI caught us.” The commander asked, “Us?” to which the First Sergeant replied, “The whole flight, Sir!” It would have been comical had it not been so serious.
Their explanation for taking things from the warehouse was that they had turned over that warehouse full of U.S. goods that very day as part of the process of turning all U.S. goods and operations over to the Vietnamese, and when they saw the Vietnamese taking things out of the warehouse it upset them, so they decided to take what was left for themselves.
I recommended to the commander that he have them take back the goods and take other appropriate disciplinary action, or I would investigate formally if he requested. They could have been court-martialed for this. He thanked me for my recommendation, and also for calling him out at 10:30 PM to address the issue immediately. The First Sergeant also thanked me for handling it this way.
Our mistakes can be humbling, and this situation was humbling for these men, and humility is good.
Two weeks later my office at Nha Trang AB was deactivated and I was reassigned to Phan Rang AB in November 1971.
Phan Rang AB
I would be at Phan Rang AB only four months as it, too, was being turned over to the Vietnamese military. We were very busy with both criminal and intelligence activity, and the rocket attacks and enemy sightings increased as the base deactivation approached. We shared plenty of war time shenanigans also.
“Where did you get all that scotch?” asked a visiting OSI agent to our office at Phan Rang AB. We had gotten it from the Air Police. Whenever they had property or goods classified as contraband, they turned it over to us. Two full cases of Johnny Walker Black label scotch whisky was found in a ditch, but inventories and personnel on the base that would have had this scotch all claimed that it was not theirs. Johnnie Walker’s Black Label is Johnnie Walker’s definitive blend of as many of 40 whiskies all aged 12 years or more. Smooth and luxurious. Our office became more popular for visitors. I was not much of an alcohol drinker, but I, too, enjoyed this luxury while it lasted.
Celebrating Thanksgiving at Phan Rang AB
“Boo!” The GIs gathered at the base theater were booing the newsreel being shown which was dated exactly one year ago! Then the featured film came on, only to have the film break. “This is the best movie we have seen lately!” someone shouted out in the darkened theater. It was totally blackened because after the movie film broke, we sat in darkness. Much laughter broke out. Another person shouted “Focus!” More laughter. Then the flashlights came on. Hand signs in the flashlights pointed at the movie screen were creative. Then the crude hand signs appeared. The GIs were having so much fun that when the movie came back on they booed! Ha. This happened, believe it or not, on Thanksgiving Day at the base theater.
Mail call on Thanksgiving Day was certainly different. On days before this we might receive one bag of mail, sometime two or three bags of mail at the post office. Today we would receive 22 bags of mail! Men were sitting or even sleeping at the post office, waiting for the mail bags to be opened and the mail distributed. At 9 PM I received mail from Lauretta. I returned to our hooch, the slang name given to the wooden hut in which four of us lived. At midnight a hut-mate came in with another letter from Lauretta! Soon all of the lights were out and we fell to sleep. Well, I did not sleep. Lauretta’s letter had me wide awake. In the darkness I played very loudly a recording of “The Lord’s Prayer.” I wanted a response, and I got it. I will not repeat the words thrown at me. My three hut-mates got up, locked me in my room, and then threw talcum powder over the walls into my room. I was talcum bombed! Worse was to come. Cans of bug-spray came out, the spray was lit by a match, and I was torched by bug-spray flames that luckily did not reach me! The four of us laughed heartily at this madness. And so went our Thanksgiving day and night in Vietnam.
The Armed Forces Vietnam Network of radio and TV stations did their best to entertain us or occupy our time with the meager resources they had, but sometimes the effort was miserable. On Christmas Eve 10-year old reruns of soap operas were shown non-stop as all AFVN personnel were absent from the station and the movies were shown as if on auto-pilot! The ancient reruns were followed by a kids cartoon shown just before midnight. That was followed by a televised prayer meeting. To this day I wonder how many TV sets were destroyed in anger that night. O Holy Night was not the song we were singing.
Christmas and Bob Hope in Vietnam
Christmas Eve was depressing. To liven things up a little I called security police and gave a false intelligence report: “A mysterious vehicle was seen approaching the base, driven by a fat man in a red and white suit, whose intentions were to deliver unknown objects to base personnel. And to all a good night.”
Christmas Day. Four C-130s carried about 400 of us to Bien Hoa AB. To make room for us on the planes, all equipment was stripped from the plane and we sat tightly together on the floor of the plane. At Bien Hoa many buses were waiting. A sign on the buses read, “Operation Jingle Bells.” The amphitheater at Long Bien Army Post was full of GIs. The aisles were crowded, and GI’s sat on any available roofs. About 25,000 of us sweated it out. I arrived at 10:30 AM, left at 3:30 PM; five hours of hot sun. Thousands of GIs had been there even longer.
Much happened before the show. Something the public does not see on TV is the standing ovation the hospitalized got when they were wheeled in handicapped chairs or came in on crutches. They were seated in the very front to the continuing standing ovation.
Most prominent cheers were for any “Round eyes,” women from the U.S. that came with the show. They showed legs galore. And movin’ and groovin’ like only U.S. women can! As Martha Raye said when she came on stage, “Fella’s, I know I’m not young and I’m not pretty, but their round!” She got a tremendous cheer. Even planes flying overhead going back to the U.S. – we called them “Freedom Birds” – got cheers!
“OK fella’s, that’s enough applause, thank you,” said Bob Hope as he motioned with one hand to continue the applause! And the applause did continue. Bob Hope was loved like royalty. The standing ovation for him was the greatest standing O’ that I have ever witnessed. Our riches come in all sizes, and Bob Hope was the biggest of them all.
The final song was Silent Night. I really choked up. 25,000 GIs filed out in total silence. No one was embarrassed at having tears in their eyes. The roar of the voluntary silence was awesome.
Unwanted signs of Air Base deactivation
“No U.S. Air Force troops remain at Phan Rang AB,” the headlines of the Stars and Stripes seemed to shout out from the front page. That is a very uncomfortable thing to read as you sit on Phan Rang AB with about 400 other U.S. Air Force troops still living and working there. The Vietnamization program here was not too well coordinated, demonstrated by the fact that all U.S. aircraft had already been sent to other bases! Nothing is as lonely as hundreds of USAF personnel on an Air Base, surrounded by the enemy, and with no aircraft!
I did find out that the Phan Rang AB commander had a good sense of humor. The Stars and Stripes newspaper news that “No USAF personnel remained at Phan Rang AB” inspired me to type up a fictitious intelligence report. I was the person at Phan Rang AB responsible for Area Source Program intelligence reports to the commander. These reports detailed any sightings of enemy, their numbers, and their weapons. I also evaluated each sighting for reliability and confirmation, if any, from other intelligence agencies.
My fictitious report read something like this: “A sighting of 43 Viet Cong was seen 10 kilometers NW of Phan Rang AB. Weapons included rocket and mortar launchers. Phan Rang AB has 400 USAF personnel without aircraft. They also have one weapons carrier with a flat tire, and two jeeps without gas. It should be noted that 400 USAF personnel are not known as hand-to-hand combat personnel. In a hand-to-hand combat situation, 400 USAF personnel is the equivalent of about 70 Army personnel and 22 Marines. Suggest reinforcements from Cam Ranh Bay.”
“We Gotta Get out of This Place“ is a rock song written by Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil and recorded as a 1965 hit single by The Animals. It has become an iconic song of its type and was immensely popular among United States Armed Forces during the Vietnam War. The lyrics that got us all singing as loud as we could were: “We gotta get out of this place, If its the last thing we ever do. We gotta get out of this place. Girl, there’s a better life for me and you. Yeah – yeah – yeah.”
We all had several “short-timer” sayings to indicate how “short” we were in time remaining to leaving for home. One of my favorites was, “I’m so short that instead of washing my socks I just throw them out.”
“Daryl, what is all that noise,” Lauretta asked me as I phoned her via MARS from Tan Son Nhut Air Base the night before catching my Freedom Bird to the U.S. During the Vietnam War, MARS was most known for its handling of “phone patches” to allow overseas servicemen to contact their families at home. Saigon Tan Son Nhut Air Base is located in southern Vietnam. “Don’t worry, honey, it is just an air raid siren.” I lied, because practice air raid sirens were not needed; they were always the real thing. I was able to complete my phone call with Lauretta calmly before the rockets began falling.
My Freedom Bird was a Continental Airlines Boeing 727 Golden Tail jet. I also phoned my mother in Wisconsin. She asked if I was going to stop there en-route to Washington D.C. “No, Mom, I am flying straight to Lauretta.”
As I wrote the last words about talking with my mother I broke down crying. What can I say? I am sure you all have moments when this happens to you as well when thoughts of someone dear to you has passed and thoughts of them enter your mind. Mom. The most beautiful word in the world.
The final official message I received in Vietnam was from my HQ in Saigon. After my leave on my return to the U.S. my duty assignment was with the OSI unit responsible for Air Force special agent activity in New York City.
Capt. USAF (Ret.)