I’ve been encouraging MikeW to publish his memoirs from the Viet Nam War. He suggested posting a couple of them on the blog while I was otherwise occupied. That works. So here is the first of three memoirs from one of the more deadly men that I know.
MikeW, along with WoFat, Wild Bill, the late CordH and others are part of a vanishing breed.
HOW IT BEGAN
© MikeW 2021 – All Rights Reserved
For the time and the place, the unit was nothing unusual. There were others similar to it, some more so and some less so. Some were larger, some were smaller. Some were all American, some were all Vietnamese, and some, like ours, which I believe were the most effective, were a mixture.
We were, to say the least, an eclectic, if not a somewhat eccentric, group of men (Caucasians and Vietnamese – the Vietnamese were mostly boys really. If it had been a normal society most of them would have been in the last couple of years of high school, or the first year of college or university) and women (Vietnamese – there were no Caucasian women – they were mostly girls really and, like the boys, if it had been a normal society most of them would also have been in the last couple of years of high school, or the first year of college or university) in our unit. Some of the girls were very good and some were very very good. In many instances, the girls were better than the boys. One must remember there is, in normal circumstances, little, or no, empathy in a teenage girl and, in counterinsurgency operations, there is even less. I would even go so far as to say, based on my experience, that for many of the girls, empathy was only a murky, dictionary construct, at best.
I use the term Caucasian here advisedly, rather than American, because, with the exception of me, an Australian, many of the others, whilst American citizens, were not born in the United States but rather in Eastern Europe. Most had arrived in the United States from Displaced Persons Camps in Europe, following the end of the Second World War. All of these men, on their arrival in the United States, had enlisted in the US Army, or, more specifically, Special Forces. Although most of them had served at least one tour with the 10th Group, at Bad Tolz in Germany, for all of them, the majority of their service, prior to their retirement, had been with the 1st Group on Okinawa. There were also, at the time of my arrival, three or four active-duty Special Forces Master Sergeants on secondment who, on their retirement, stayed on with us. Many of the Caucasians had degrees, or advanced degrees, in such varied topics as the peoples, cultures, and religions, of Asia, anthropology, psychology, philosophy, and archaeology. One, as I recall, was an expert on Olde Norse Mythology.
Age-wise, we, both Caucasian and Vietnamese, ranged from the mid to late teens/early twenties to the mid to late forties/early fifties. I mean no disrespect, when I refer to our Vietnamese operatives as boys and girls, for that is what most of them were. You could probably include me in this category too, as, although I had my Borneo experience behind me when I arrived, I was still some months short of twenty-one.
For some of the Caucasians, this was their third war, they having been engaged in special operations during and since the Second World War in both Europe and Asia, mostly Asia; for some, including myself, it was their second war, both wars being in Asia, with me replacing Indonesians with Communist Vietnamese for the enemy; and for some, it was their first war, and their first time in Asia.
With the Vietnamese, it was somewhat more complicated. For some (the older ones) it was part of one long, continuous war, they having started fighting against the Japanese in the Second World War, then continued either for, or against, the French during the First Indochina War, and now against the Communists for the Republic of South Vietnam. For others, their involvement began, either for, or against, the French, or with one or other of the militant sects (Hoa Hao, Cao Dai.) or the Binh Xuyen, during the First Indochina War, and now against the Communists for the Republic. For the younger ones, whose first war it was, it was for the Republic against the Communists.
Unsurprisingly, most of our unit members were pragmatists, idealism having long gone by the board, if, in fact, it had ever been there in the first place. I knew, in my case, that idealism had never been there. I believed then, and still believe, that Australians are, traditionally, amongst the finest, if not the finest, warriors in the world, and that I was there to carry on that tradition. One of the good things about being a pragmatist though, as an intelligence operative, is it surprises the hell out of people when you shoot them.
For the Caucasians, recruitment was, for want of a better word, in the vast majority of cases, unorthodox. Some of those recruited were identified by people already in the unit, from amongst people they knew personally or by repute, who were checked out and then approached covertly. People were, understandably, very very careful as to who they recommended as, to recommend and enable the recruitment of a lemon, reflected poorly on the recommending person’s judgment, credibility, and, in the longer term, the safety in the field of themselves and others. Others were identified by persons working outside the unit, in the same or similar fields, both within and outside Vietnam. These persons so identified, if they were within South Vietnam, received instructions to report to a certain address on the Saigon – Bien Hoa Highway where, on presenting themselves, they were interviewed. Were they deemed suitable they stayed, tentatively, if not they returned from whence they came post-haste. If outside South Vietnam, and this occurred in only a small number of instances that I am aware of, a similar procedure happened, except that, additionally, the identified party, along with their instructions, received travel documentation and a wad of piastres.
How the Vietnamese were recruited I do not know exactly. It appeared to be similar to that for Caucasians, except with more emphasis appearing to be placed on who knew you within the unit, coupled with who, in other similar units, or the security services, knew you or of you. A significant number, like their Caucasian colleagues, had degrees or advanced degrees, in various fields, and many, including among the field operatives, were, unlike in normal Vietnamese units, from the former Mandarin class. A certain fluency, in French and English, was common, certainly with the team leaders and above. Many of the operatives also spoke one or more of the Chinese dialects, mostly Cantonese and Mandarin, with those coming from the Cholon waterfront also speaking Hakka. For the Vietnamese, there was no recruitment from outside the country.
Strangely, some of the people identified by an interested outside party found that, on presenting themselves at the nondescript two-story building, on the Saigon-Bien Hoa Highway, they had already been accepted into the unit, sight unseen. There was no interview, other than a meeting with an as then unidentified middle-aged Caucasian male and an as then unidentified middle-aged Vietnamese male, at which they were told they were in the unit, what its purpose was, and where they were going next. This was what happened to me, and I can only think, as I never found out otherwise, that it stemmed from an event some six or so weeks before my arrival in South Vietnam.
I was sitting in my room at our base, on an island in the Sarawak River, on the outskirts of the city of Kuching, Sarawak, Borneo (now in East Malaysia), cleaning my rifle, having just returned, shortly before, from a monkey hunting expedition into the jungle with some of the Iban. There was a feast scheduled for that evening, in honor of myself and a number of others, who were scheduled to leave for home in the near future, and they, the Iban, had wished to augment the meat supply.
I had not done any of the actual hunting, this was done by the Iban, using bows and arrows. The arrowheads were coated with a dark-colored poisonous paste and, just behind the arrowhead, was a small square of white cloth. The hunter fired the arrow at the monkey, sitting high in the tree, aiming to hit it in the abdomen. Instead of scampering off, as one would expect, the monkey remained sitting in the tree, with the arrow hanging out of it, attempting to push the white cloth into the wound. As it continued to do this the poison did its work, with the monkey then falling out of the tree to the ground, where it was able to be picked up. It appeared that cooking rendered the poison ineffective, thus making the meat safe for human consumption.
As I sat there, I heard footsteps approaching along the wooden verandah and looked towards the door, which was open anyway, and a tall, solidly built man, with grey hair in a crew-cut, wearing a white tropical suit, appeared. I looked at him and he said “Mister XXXXXX?” I nodded and, without identifying himself, although I knew, as soon as he opened his mouth, that he was an American, and, because of where we were, and the highly restricted access to it, that he had to be a high-level intelligence operative, he said: “It has been recommended that I talk to you regarding the operations you, together with the locals, have been conducting here.” In a very low, soft, quiet voice, he then, over the next hour, proceeded to attempt to very thoroughly interview me. I politely answered his questions, although, as I had no knowledge of what his authority, or need to know was, I basically told him nothing he could not have got from reading after-action reports, sitreps, or, at a pinch, the local newspaper. In fact, he probably would have got more from the newspaper than he got from me. At the conclusion, he very politely thanked me for my time and, as he departed, stopped in the doorway, looked back at me, and said “I like a man who cleans his weapon before himself.” It was then I realized that I had blood all over my shirt, from helping carry the monkeys out of the jungle. Where he thought the blood came from I have no idea.
About three to four weeks later I was in my room sorting and packing my gear, in preparation for going home. One of the Chinese Detectives appeared at my door to advise me that my boss, a very pukka, very British, senior officer in the Special Branch, who had been in Southeast Asia since the end of the Second World War, wished to see me immediately, if not sooner. I duly presented myself to his office, thinking there must be something that I needed to do, or that I had not done, prior to my departure. On my entering he smiled, looking at me over the top of his reading glasses, and said “Take a pew, old boy”, indicating the visitor’s chair in front of his desk. I was immediately suspicious that something was in the offing because he rarely, if ever, smiled, nor did he usually invite subordinates to be seated. My suspicions were confirmed by his next utterance, as he said “Would you care for a Scotch, old boy”. He certainly, to my knowledge, never invited subordinates to have a drink. After accepting his offer of a Scotch, I sat waiting, as he continued to appraise me over the top of his glasses, smiling all the while, for the reason for this apparent bonhomie to become clear.
He next said, “Are you in any particular hurry to go home?” I was certainly in no particular hurry to return to Australia, to what I foresaw as a normal, humdrum, peacetime, military existence with no excitement, other than parachuting. There would certainly be nothing to match the excitement, and the adrenalin rushes, available to me in the covert operations I was currently engaged in. I replied “No sir. I am definitely not in any hurry to return to Australia.” I added that I liked it in Southeast Asia, that I liked the work I was currently doing, and which, according to my fitness reports, I was considered to be very good at, and, were I to be afforded the opportunity, I would like to continue doing it, thinking that he might be going to tell me that my tour had been extended.
He gave me another smile and said, as he pushed a very large, very bulky, brown envelope across his desk towards me, “It’s good that you feel that way because you are not going home just yet.” He paused, for effect, and then said “You are going to South Vietnam. At this stage it will be for at least a year, possibly longer”. To say this was a surprise to me would be an understatement. I looked at him and asked him what it was all about, as I knew next to nothing about the place, never having been there, with my knowledge coming solely from books, briefing papers, and The National Geographic magazine.
Still smiling, he replied that he did not know exactly, but understood I would be doing a similar job as I had been doing for him, although with much better resources, much more wide-ranging in scope, and with far fewer constraints in place on how it was done. He added that, on his understanding, not many of the people who were already there, and who I would be joining, knew very much about the place either (when I arrived I found that this was not exactly true, some people having been there for ten years or more, who knew very very well what was going on, who knew very very well what they were doing, and who were very very good at doing it, although in a number of cases, mostly amongst the new arrivals who, whilst having European/NATO experience, were naïve to the ways of Southeast Asia, and with, in most cases, no practical experience in counterinsurgency, it certainly was. Fortunately, most of these either grew up very quickly or, if they did not, were sent packing), that I was leaving his command highly recommended, that I was welcome back should it work out that way in the future, that it was officially approved at the highest levels (how high he did not, and would not, say, nor approved by whom), that all the required paperwork for my move was in the envelope, and that I was to present myself at the address specified within, within ten days.
And so it was that, after flying to Saigon via Singapore, I arrived at a nondescript, two-story building, on the Saigon-Bien Hoa Highway, where, on arrival, I was told that they had been expecting me. After that, as they say, the rest is history.