“Sea” Stories from CH

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Some of you expressed an interest in more stories by CH, who served in the US Army and then with CIA.

My friend, identified as “CH”, has since passed away and was buried at Arlington National Cemetery. He rose to the rank of Colonel in the US Army. He was also an area expert in East Asia and more particularly in China.

We had lively discussions about whether the Senior Service (Army in the USA) was superior to the Navy (and Naval Infantry/Marines) or not. This reached a crescendo during the Army/Navy Game. CH forgave me for being in the Navy since the NOBC 1130’s such as myself were not very service-conscious and hated everyone with equal vigor. Many of the 1130’s who migrated into the CIA ended up in Special Activities Division, which is where CH was assigned during an operation in Iran, a denied area. After that he calmed down and many of his prejudices were assuaged.

I worked with CH in China at a point in time after that detailed below. He (eventually) spoke every dialect fluently, which is something I never came close to mastering. I also worked with him in France and his spoken French left something to be desired. He came with me to Calvi, Corsica once where I had been seconded (briefly) to the Second French Foreign Legion Parachute Regiment (2REP). His Corsican was worse than his French, but no worse than mine.

As with the meetings with Aldrich Ames (previous posts on this blog), CH e-mailed these short articles to me. He’s gone, they’re not sensitive and the names of people were either acknowledged (overt) by CIA at some point or are redacted.



My first day at the CIA was spent walking around getting checked in by personnel, health clinic, security, etc. Walking with me was another person selected for the Career Trainee Program (CTP), Jack Downing. As we walked the halls here and there, I tried to find out more about Jack. He told me he was just back from Vietnam where he served as a Marine officer. I told him I had been there with the Army. I asked what made him think of working for the CIA, and Jack said that he had two degrees from Harvard and that he was fluent in Chinese.

Jack Downing, CIA Station Chief,
Kuala Lumpur – Later DDO

When I told him that I spoke some Vietnamese but that I really wanted to learn Chinese, Jack told me to forget it, that Chinese was too hard to learn. He spouted off the old Chinese saying, 天不怕地不怕只怕洋鬼子说中国话 “Tien bu pa, di bu pa, zhi pa yang guizi shuo Zhongguo hua.” (Don’t fear the heavens, don’t fear the earth. Only fear the foreign devil who speaks Chinese.) “You see how hard that is to say, with all the proper tones?”, he said to me.

Well, I thought that was pretty cheeky of him, so after a few more steps down the hall, I asked Jack if he knew the words to “that old favorite Marine hymn”, and I began singing the lines from the “Dog-Faced Soldier” (I wouldn’t give a bean to be a fancy pants Marine, I’d rather be a dog-faced soldier like I am . . .), whereupon Jack balled up his fists and would have punched me, right there in the halls of the CIA, had not some passersby intervened. But Jack and I got along after that.

Jack later learned Russian, and became a huge success in the CIA as the Director of Operations. I got some revenge, however, many years later when our Chinese language instructor invited Jack and me, and a few other people, to dinner. At the dinner, I spoke only in Chinese, but Jack had to resort to speaking English now and then. It was a small victory, to be sure, and the only one I could manage, but it did feel good.

In 1968. after completing the Career Trainee Program (about a year of training in both intelligence collection techniques and paramilitary operations), I was sent to two years of full-time Chinese language training. The first of those two years was here in Washington, then to Middlebury College for a summer intensive course, then to Taiwan for a year.
My first trip to China in late 1978 was with the China Round Table of the Society for International Development, a kind of China Watchers club here in Washington, DC, comprising diplomats, scholars, spies (I was under cover), etc. In those days, it was not easy to get a visa to go to China, but our group was able to get a visa.

Anytime a CIA employee wants to leave the country, he/she must obtain permission, so I put in my request. Most curiously, while my request for permission to go to China was not approved, it was not disapproved, either. At every level up the chain, I encountered the same “non-answer” to my request. When I finally got to the office of the Chief of Security, the late Robert Gambino, I figured I would get a “yes” or a “no”. He had a very large office, and behind him was a virtual rainbow of telephones: black, green, red, white, and blue—all dial telephones, standard for those days. After listening to my request, Gambino turned and picked up the black telephone (open, public line) and made a call. He called someone and said “Hi, this is Gambino over at the Agency. We have a Case Officer here by the name of CH who wants to go to China. What do you think?” I was horrified!! He had given out my name and Agency affiliation over the open telephone line!! Well, he was the Director of Security, so I just kept my mouth shut. After a minute or so, he turned to me and, incredibly, said he could not say “Yes”, and he could not say“No” to my request. I told him that I would then just have to go to the Director, Stansfield Turner, and Gambino sheepishly agreed that was what I would have to do. There is a lot of interesting detail on how I actually got to Turner’s office and how I eventually obtained his permission (actually that of Turner’s side-kick, Rusty Williams) to go to China, but for now I’ll just say that I got the green light.

When we got to China, we found it to be exceedingly drab and poor. Still reeling from Maoism and the Gang of Four, every official still began his/her comments with “在我门伟大的领袖毛主席. . . “. Well, I first ran into that silliness on train going to Shaoshan, Mao’s birthplace. Engaging the female conductor (lie che zhang) in chit-chat, I told her that in the United States we didn’t have females serving as conductors, so I could say that she was the cutest “lie che zhang” I had ever seen. She blushed and giggled–then quickly caught herself and struck a pose out of some Maoist propaganda show and said “Ni keyi shuo wo wei renmin fu wu, ye keyi shuo wo zai zhengzhi fang mian hen ke kao, dan shi ni jie dui bu keyi shuo wo piaoliang!” (You may say I serve the people, or that I am dependable in political matters, but you may not say that I am cute.) And with that, she rushed back to our tour guide and registered a formal complaint. 
Well, there were many such encounters I could detail, but the most exciting and instructive encounter I had was in the Forbidden City. Tired of hanging around the group, I took off by myself one day and went to the Forbidden City (Gu Gong). I took along with me a bottle of Beefeaters Gin that I had brought with me to China, but had not drunk, because I liked the Chinese beer and wine so much. I planned to give that bottle of gin to someone as a token of friendship. When I got to the part of the Gu Gong that had many ancient cedar trees (unfortunately, the trees have gone), I found some old men hanging around, and I told one of them that I was looking for a 70 year-old man.

I explained that was my father’s age and I had something for him. Well, as happened almost everywhere in China I opened my mouth and spoke Chinese, a huge crowd gathered. Truly, easily 100-200 persons, mostly men, gathered around me to ask questions about my family, how I got to China, and, of course, where I learned to speak Chinese. Finally, someone said that they had found a 70 year-old man, and I was introduced to Mr. Wang, a tourist from Shandong Province. I gave Mr. Wang the bottle of Beefeater’s gin and explained that it was a present from my father who wished to express his friendship for the Chinese people. The crowd wildly applauded. But almost immediately, two men stepped into the center of this scene, and one said “Bu xing! Zai xin Zhongguo women bu song li wu!” (In the new China, we don’t give gifts.) The crowd’s good cheer was immediately dampened. The two men who made the ruling were obviously men of authority. For one thing, they wore leather shoes. Most people in those days wore only “bu xie”, the Chinese style cotton sneakers.

I thought that maybe I should just let things go at that, but I wanted to dig those guys a bit, and I wanted to see just how the crowd would react, so I turned to the crowd and said “But coming here and giving the bottle of liquor was my father’s orders. How can I return home and tell my father that I did not do as he directed?” Hearing that, the crowd roared with approval (truly, a huge roar), saying such things as “yes, it’s his father’s orders”, “he’s a good son”, etc. The two Public Security guys were shocked at the volume of the crowd’s comments, so they just darted away. And, after a few more minutes to say goodbye to old Mr. Wang, I, too, left the scene and headed to other parts of the Gu Gong. But I knew that I probably had not seen the last of the matter from the police. And, as I walked through Bei Men (North Gate), heading out towards Mei Shan (Coal Hill), a young policeman accosted me and invited me to follow him. I laughed and said that I really didn’t have time, that I had to catch a bus to get back to the hotel. But he insisted, and used the phrase I thought I would never hear: “Bu qu bu xing” (you must go). And that really means “you are under arrest”.

So, I followed him over to a police post just outside of the Gu Gong. Inside, I was told to stand over in the corner by the stove. Guess who was already standing there by the stove? Old Mr. Wang from Shandong Province, and he was still clutching that bottle of Beefeaters gin. And he was white as a sheet. I tried to appear nonchalant as I stood there warming my hands by the stove, but I was more interested in what a senior policeman on the other side of the room was saying into a telephone. He spoke so fast I couldn’t understand him, but he finally put the phone down and loudly said “Ke yi” as he motioned to old Mr. Wang and me. So, we were escorted to the door and released. Outside, a small group of people, including children of all ages, was waiting for Mr. Wang. One told me that they were his family members. And they did not seem to have much enthusiasm for talking to me, so I said goodbye and took a bus back to the hotel.

Seven years later, I again traveled to China. One evening in Beijing, I was invited (along with several others in our group) to a banquet hosted by the Public Security Bureau. (Odd, but I don’t remember the details of the invitation.) Seated at my side was some ranking official who, at one point, asked me what I planned to do the next day. I said I might tour the Forbidden City (Gu Gong). He then said “Han Xiansheng, je ce, keneng you ren yau guo lai song ni yi ping jiu.” (Mr. CH, this time a person may just come over and give YOU a bottle of whiskey.” Good to know the Public Security Bureau keeps good records.

17 thoughts on ““Sea” Stories from CH

  1. Off to the Forbidden City with Beefeaters Gin. I like this guy!

    I’m really enjoying these accounts!

  2. Interesting yarn and it appears CH had a lot of them. While China seems to have loosened up a bit since then, I imagine one should still watch one's step while visiting there.

  3. China has changed and China is changing. I'll share a few anecdotes – not unlike those that CH shared. It's still the People's Republic of China, but it has made massive strides and continues to do so. I'm proud of the Chinese people for what they have accomplished in the space of time since the hard core Maoists left the stage. It's quite remarkable. The same is true of South Korea. I haven't been to Viet Nam for a long time but I've heard the same of them.

  4. Great story and it's interesting to see gin reappear. Some say it's Mother's Ruin, others say it's the preferred drink of the Old Raj.

    I don't have a monkey in the fight so I won't judge.

  5. Thank you again.
    As for gin, I never thought that a taste worth acquiring after my first sip.

  6. CH did like to have his afternoon toddy. At one point his wife convinced him to switch to vodka to try weening him off Mother's Ruin…and it worked for a while.

  7. After reading the story, I like CHs style and character. These small stories you put together show him great respect.

  8. He was a friend. I found him likable, a family man, good husband and a man of wit and insight. He could be phlegmatic at times and his wit was subtle. He enjoyed 'working a room' and liked people in general. We hit it off and remained friends for many years until his death. I have been debating sharing a last story of CH. Maybe I'll do it tomorrow.

  9. He constructed his own coloring book. It's a practice that I recommend for everyone who doesn't want to live by the leave of others.

  10. Now that you mention it, I have a good mind to summon up a Pegu Club.


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