A VISIT TO CAN THO

© MikeW 2021 – All Rights Reserved

 

Vintage Beech 18

Mid-morning, on a very hot, humid, Delta day, Nga, our other four team members (Khan, Minh, Dung, and Suong), and I, flew into the Can Tho airfield, aboard an Air America Beech 18, also known as the Twin Beech, from the Bien Hoa Air Base.  We were the only passengers.  On our exiting the aircraft the pilot advised us that he would be back to collect us in four days, not including that day, at the same time, unless advised to the contrary.  From the aircraft, Nga and I went to flight operations, located under the control tower, where, as pre-arranged, we collected the keys to two International Harvester Scouts.  These vehicles we found parked in the carpark at the rear of the building.  Leaving the airfield, the whole team drove into town, where we located our safe house.

Changing into a set of our “about town” tailored tiger stripe fatigues, with Bao Chi, stenciled above the upper left shirt pockets, Nga and I now, to all intents and purposes, looked like a pair of correspondents on an assignment.  The other team members changed into civilian clothes.  We all then set out to explore the city.  Although Can Tho was the largest city in the Delta, situated on the south bank of the Hau River, a tributary of the Mekong, with its narrow back lanes and wide, tree-lined, major streets, its large floating market, and many small shops and restaurants, it was not a large place and was a very pleasant place to be.  The waterfront, with its numerous fishing boats, ferries, and other rivercraft coming and going, was extremely busy.  During our stroll, which was, in fact, part of our reconnaissance of the town, Nga and I stopped for lunch at the Restaurant Mekong, which occupied the ground floor of a two-story shophouse, situated in a row of two-story shophouses.  Here we sampled the local cuisine which was delicious.

Our mission, on this occasion, was the neutralizing of one Nguyen Van Binh (he was the target from our earlier, end of course mission, in Vung Tau).  He had been released from detention, either by paying a bribe to his gaolers, or through the machinations of Communist sympathizers/agents within the South Vietnamese system, we were never told which, some weeks earlier.  He certainly had not been released legally, as a participant in the Chieu Hoi program.

It was obvious that his previous arrest, his causing the Communists to lose a very considerable amount of money, and his subsequent interrogation and imprisonment, albeit short-lived, had not affected his career as a Communist tax collector.  He had, it appeared, been promoted, and he was now the chief tax collector for Can Tho and the surrounding province.  To facilitate his operations he now, rather than his Vung Tau occupation as a lowly bartender, was practicing as a notary.  Whether he was qualified for this occupation I have no idea.  To this end, he had established an office, on the ground floor of a shophouse, whilst living upstairs, on the road leading from the city to the Can Tho airfield.  Not far up the road from his office, and adjacent to the airfield, was the US Special Forces B Team compound, a roughly square establishment, comprising a number of buildings constructed of waist-high block walls, then with screens up to their palm-thatched roofs, and with concrete machine-gun bunkers positioned at each corner of the complex.  The nickname for this installation was, as I understand it “The Alamo”.

Following the team’s reconnaissance of the city, we identified and confirmed the target’s premises.  It was a two-story shophouse, at the city end of a row of six two-story shophouses, all painted a brilliant white, with blue doors and window shutters, and blue-tiled roofs, north of the town center, on the road to the airfield, roughly halfway between a bridge over what appeared to be a major canal and a T intersection with a roundabout.  Unusually, for a shophouse, the roller shutters, which normally covered the ground floor, when a business was closed, had been replaced, on this particular one, with plate glass, both door, and windows.  Surveillance was then commenced.  We established that the sole occupant of the premises was in fact our target, Nguyen Van Binh, albeit his black hair was somewhat longer than it had been in Vung Tau, that it appeared he had put on weight, and that he was far better dressed, now wearing a European style three-piece suit, rather than a grubby white Tee shirt and blue jeans.  It also appeared that he did, in fact, live alone upstairs.  From all appearances, it seemed that he actually was practicing as a notary.

Observations showed he had a steady stream of visitors, most carrying a small satchel, between 09.00 hours, when he opened for business, and 12.00 hours, when he closed for lunch and the early afternoon siesta.  Very few of these morning attendees appeared to stay very long.  Those that only stayed a short time, who appeared, from their dress, to be country people, we surmised were his low level, provincial, village tax collectors depositing their takings, whilst those that stayed longer, and who, in the main, appeared, from their mode of dress, to be townspeople, we surmised were people actually seeking his notary services.  Following lunch and the early afternoon siesta break, with him re-opening at 15.00 hours, he had few, if any, visitors between then and 18.00 hours, when he closed for the day.

At our team planning meeting, it was decided that Nga would enter the shop, posing as a foreign journalist, late on our second full day of surveillance, and make an appointment with the target to conduct a civil marriage ceremony, between herself and a fellow foreign journalist, beginning at 17.30 hours, the following day.  That Nga and I would then attend the target’s office at this time, posing as the prospective bride and groom, and kill him.  Neither Nga or I were particularly worried about him recognizing us.  When we had abducted him in Vung Tau it was dark, and he only got a quick glimpse of us before we sapped him, and put a cloth bag over his head.  Nga and I, because of our serious personal relationship, which was in addition to our professional relationship, seriously considered letting him actually marry us, before we killed him, but saner minds (Khan, Dung, Minh, and Suong) prevailed.  Had we gone through with a civil marriage ceremony, it would have caused the pair of us a couple of unnecessary problems, both personally and professionally.

Firstly, there would have been very serious problems with her family.  Were Nga to get married, it would be a major social event, given her family’s social standing, particularly in Cholon, and that they were from the former Mandarin class.  The ceremony, given the family, was staunchly Roman Catholic, would be conducted in the Notre-Dame Cathedral Basilica, and this would be followed by a lavish reception in an upmarket restaurant in Cholon.

Secondly, it would have caused us problems within the unit.  Whilst personal relationships between operatives were not actively discouraged per se, particularly if the operatives concerned were on different teams, they were most definitely not encouraged either.  Given the size of our unit, its personnel make-up, and the nature of our work, personal relationships between operatives were, perhaps, inevitable.  That Nga’s and my relationship had gone unnoticed, other than within the team, among my housemates, and Nga’s friend and our fellow operative Hoa, probably owed more to good luck than good management, although we were very discrete.  Had we married, one, either, or both of us, would have had to go to another team, as having a married couple on the same team, would have been seen as having the potential to impair operational efficiency.

In addition to us despatching our target, it was also decided that, if anyone else was on the premises at the time Nga and I arrived, unless they departed on our arrival, they would have to be despatched as well.  Were this to happen, we envisaged it only being a potential problem if they were townspeople, as their presence would be more easily missed.

As a backup plan, if a marriage ceremony could not be arranged, it was decided that accompanied by the whole team to contain the premises, Nga and I would enter the building that night (the end of the second full day of surveillance) using our lock picking skills, and despatch him then.  The flaw with this, though, meant that we would then have a full day in Can Tho, before our scheduled departure, unless we could arrange an earlier pick-up, during which time it was highly likely that the deceased target would be discovered, thus alerting the local VCI to our (an action team) presence in the city.  As it turned out there was no cause for concern.  The marriage ceremony was able to be scheduled as planned.

Just prior to 17.30 hours (at the end of the third full day of surveillance) Nga and I arrived at the notary office, having been dropped off just up the street by Khan and Dung, in one of the International Harvester Scouts.  Nga was resplendent in a red silk ao dai, with her long, dark hair cascading down her back and, unusually for a bride, she carried a large, red leather, handbag, whilst I wore a dark-colored suit, crisp white shirt, and red tie.  On entering, Nga engaged the target in conversation, whilst I discreetly twisted the lock on the front door into the locked position and flipped the open/closed sign to closed.  Fortunately, for them, there appeared to be no one else on the premises.  We were led into the target’s office, at the rear of the building.  There he sat himself behind his desk and began pulling forms out from a drawer, whilst not looking at us.  Nga opened her handbag, we both reached inside and withdrew the individual .22LR Colt Woodsman suppressed self-loading pistols.  All the while the target was unaware of our actions, he concentrated on getting his forms in order.

Nga said, “Comrade Binh.  Do you remember us?”  When she spoke the target looked up and froze.  I said, “Does Vung Tau ring any bells?”  He sat, nodding his head, looking wildly back and forth between Nga and me.  Nga said, “Remember we told you then, that if you crossed our path again, we would put you to sleep permanently?”  He nodded.  I said, “Well, today is that day.”  Both Nga and I then fired several rounds into his head.  Once we were satisfied that he was dead, and to make doubly sure, I placed the muzzle of my pistol in his left ear and squeezed the trigger.   We then policed up all our spent shell casings.

Seeing that the safe was open we decided to have a look at the contents.  Besides a number of account ledgers, there were also numerous documents and a large quantity of money, mostly Vietnamese Piastres, with some US Dollars and French Francs thrown in for good measure.  We managed to cram all of this into Nga’s large handbag, as well as into a briefcase that we found sitting alongside the desk.  Once we were satisfied there was nothing further of interest to take, we left the premises.  On our departure, we made sure the front door was securely locked behind us.  Khan and Dung promptly arrived, picked us up, and, after about twenty minutes or so of driving around Can Tho, to ensure we were not being followed, we arrived back at the safe house where Suong and Minh were awaiting us.

The following morning, after a team breakfast at the Restaurant Mekong, we secured the safe house and then traveled to the Can Tho airfield.  After parking the Scouts in the car park, at the rear of the control tower, Nga and I returned their keys, as pre-arranged, to flight operations.  We then sat in the shade awaiting our flight.  As promised, right on time, the Air America Beech 18 arrived, flown by the same pilot who had brought us on our outwards journey, we boarded, and had an uneventful flight back to the Bien Hoa Air Base.

On our arrival at our headquarters, we lodged all the documentation we had taken from the targets safe with the Intelligence Section.  The monies would go into the fund the unit maintained, for the widows, children, and orphans, of those unit members who had previously been killed in action, died of wounds or would be in the future, and for those members who had been, or would be, incapacitated.  After completing the after mission reports, which, because the mission was a straightforward neutralization, and had gone smoothly, were not overly lengthy, we stood down.

6 COMMENTS

  1. Mike W is taking out the bad guys in overseas operations, I was playing Little League, eating hot dogs, and fishing in the creek.

  2. Mr. W – If you can or will speak of it; I’m curious about how you dealt with a relationship with one of your team members.
    The risk of losing close friends/teammates is bad enough.
    To my thinking; the risk of losing (or just the fear of losing) someone you were in a relationship with would be an almost unbearable weight and apprehension to carry around considering the nature of your work.

    • FishStyx. Thank you kindly for your comment. I don’t know whether this will answer your question. Shortly after I arrived at the unit they had quite a number of potential new operatives arrive, all with no experience. These potential new operatives were required to undergo a very mentally and physically intensive, four week training course. Whilst, as an experienced operative, albeit my experience being in Borneo, I was not required to undergo this course. However, as I had no experience in South Vietnam, at that time, I elected to undergo the course with the other new arrivals. Nga, Suong, Dung, Minh, and Khan, along with myself, and six others, made up one class. During the first week Nga and I seemed to gravitate towards each other, not only academically, but also in the practical exercises, particularly those that required us to work in pairs. During this week Dung and Khan, who came from Cholon, as did Nga, joined us and, by the weeks end, Minh and Suong had also. From then on, for the rest of the course, the six of us worked together and supported each other. As our unit operated in teams of six, either three males and three females (as on our team) or four females and two males, or four males and two females as on other teams. No teams were all male and no teams were all female. For whatever reason, the course Directing Staff, for our graduation final exam, an operation against a live Viet Cong target, kept us six together as a team. After the successful completion of this mission we went, as a team, on to the units operational roster. Over the next several weeks I guess Nga and I danced around the subject, which, apparently, was obvious to our four fellow team members, the other three occupants of the safe house to which I was allocated, and a highly experienced female operative, Hoa, who had known Nga for many years. It all came to a head one evening, after we had returned from My Tho, in the Delta, where Nga, for the first time in her life, actually killed someone. Following this night, we just accepted what the others had known for a while. We were together, almost all the time from then on, although we were very discrete with our relationship, and managed to keep it under the radar, until she was killed in late May 1966. I found out then that we were not as discrete as we thought we were. Apparently, our units co-commanders had been aware of our relationship, almost from the start, but did nothing about it, as we never let it interfere with our professional responsibilities.

      It is fifty five years now and, on occasion, I still see her, during the day. A snatch of a song, or a tune heard on the radio; the scent of frangipani or night jasmine, particularly the latter after the rain; the certain sound of a girl’s tinkling laughter; and most often, when in Cabramatta, the suburb of Sydney where the population is predominantly Vietnamese, a quick glimpse of a small Asian woman in an ao dai, long, shiny, black hair, to her waist, takes me back. And she is there. Standing alongside me, looking up at me, with a questioning eyebrow raised, a cheeky grin lighting up her beautiful face, and I can feel her presence. And, when I turn to look closer, she is gone. It is at night that she always visits. In the wee small hours of the morning, when the night is at its darkest and coldest, and one’s body and its defences are at their lowest ebb. Then she visits often, every night, as she has always done since she departed, and stays awhile.

      Sorry if I have rambled a bit.

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