Secrets of the Vietnam War: Blast from the past

This is the 1976 San Jose Mercury News series on untold stories of the Vietnam War. It won the “Best Series” award from the Peninsula Press Club

By Dennis Rockstroh

America’s secret foreign policy in Vietnam – carried out by the Joint Chiefs of Staff and CIA on orders from the National Security Council – was no secret in the inner circles of Vietnamese intelligence, well-placed sources in the former government of Vietnam have told The Mercury.

Pieces of a top secret puzzle, gathered through hundreds of interviews with Vietnamese refugee policy-makers and policy-implementers reveal the most complete picture to date of the clandestine and often dramatic operations undertaken by Americans and Vietnamese during the 30-year war in Indochina.

Information turned up during the long investigation is substantiated by government documents and the memoirs of President Lyndon B. Johnson, General William C. Westmoreland and others who were instrumental in drawing up the policy that culminated in the nation’s most disastrous foreign adventure in its 200 years of history.

Confidential sources provided key information that was then checked against the public record.

Interviews combined with documentary evidence reconfirm earlier findings that the Vietnam War was planned and implemented step-by-step by five administrations and principally directed by the Central Intelligence Agency. Once secret documents, referred to as the “Pentagon Papers” and “McNamara Papers,” have shown the U.S. government, during the war, systematically deceived the American people as the secret strategy unfolded. Deception is war’s key weapon.

[top of page missing]
…servicemen still listed as missing in action (MIA) were not pilots, as commonly believed, but actually members of commando units operating behind enemy lines.

American cryptologists intercepted and broke codes of both friends and enemies in Vietnam during the war, the CIA operated military units and a massive spy organization using the U.S. aid program as a cover and the CIA directed secret wars in North Vietnam and neighboring countries.

The investigation also confirmed earlier stories in The Mercury which said many of the Vietnamese refugees evacuated from Saigon last year were intimately involved with espionage, terrorist and sabotage activities sponsored by the CIA and other U.S. intelligence organizations.

The investigation has uncovered a number of the best-kept secrets of the war, and only now that the war is over can the story be told.

Since 1950 American and Vietnamese military teams, under the direction of the CIA and later a joint CIA-military group, were “inserted” behind enemy lines and across international boundaries to conduct intelligence-gathering missions as well as activities designed to create chaos behind enemy lines. Later, some of these missions were designed to provoke the North Vietnamese into taking military action so the United States could use those “attacks” as an excuse for escalation, a number of sources said.

Many of these teams, operating under the direction of the CIA or under operation 34A, a joint command plan, disappeared without a trace.

[top of page missing]
Figures published by the New York Times last year listed 450 MIAs lost in North Vietnam, 550 MIAs in Laos, 168 in Cambodia as well as 875 MIAs in South Vietnam. Of that number, 850 men are still listed as missing.

In addition to the American teams, South Vietnamese commando squads regularly dropped into the North to kidnap military and civilian mid-level officials for interrogation in South Vietnam, sources who went on those missions told The Mercury.

This investigation showed that the operations into North Vietnam and the other countries is only the tip of the top secret iceberg that began to melt when the Americans began pulling out of Saigon thousands of intelligence officers and operatives as part of the refugee evacuation last April.

The Mercury interviewed American Special Forces commandos, U.S. Navy Seals, Vietnamese military, political and intelligence leaders and other Vietnamese refugees over a 10-month period beginning with the fall of Saigon on April 30, 1975.

During the course of the investigation, The Mercury learned:

• American and Vietnamese intelligence teams eavesdropped on communications to and from the headquarters of the Provisional Revolutionary Government (Viet Cong) using hidden transmitters, wire taps or electronic means or all at Camp Davis on Tan Son Nhut Airbase following the signing of the Paris Peace Accords in 1973.

• The historical North Vietnamese attacks on the American destroyers, the Maddox and the C. Turner Joy were provoked by both the American ships and South Vietnamese PT boats as part of an elaborate CIA plan to spark a wider war.

• The Americans in Vietnam intercepted incoming and outgoing messages and diplomatic communication of the South Vietnamese government and, most likely, the allies helping to fight the war in Vietnam.

• The U.S. intelligence community conducted electronic bugging of communications in North and South Vietnam using ships of the 7th Fleet, U.S. Air Force aircraft and the CIA-run Air America as well as ground listening stations.

• South Vietnamese political and military intelligence teams operated in Japan, India, Hong Kong, France and Indochina collecting information and occasionally “neutralizing” (assassinating or blackmailing) targeted businessmen, politicians or even Communist officials.

• Vietnamese commandos operated a two-man submarine in North Vietnamese waterways blowing up bridges, military installations and occasionally engaging in some psychological warfare tricks.

• More than 45 of the generals who ran Vietnam in the wake of the 1963 coup and assassination of President Ngo Dinh Diem are among the 141,000 Vietnamese refugees in the United States.

Next: Raids behind enemy lines

A U.S. Navy chopper, painted in camouflage green and brown, zipped low over the South China Sea in the Gulf of Tonkin close on the heels of a warm squall.

Ten kilometers off the North Vietnamese coast, six U.S. Navy Seals, nautical commandos, dropped one by one into the water. The frogmen regrouped on the surface and began the long swim toward their target.

Near the coastline they dove to the bottom of the shallow waters, and then, under the cover of darkness and rain, inched out of the water onto the sandy beaches.

At the same time, ships of the 7th Fleet began laying down a heavy barrage five kilometers up the coast as a diversion while jet fighters of the 7th Air Force prowled the skies seeking targets of opportunity.

The U.S. Navy Seal team was in North Vietnam on a top-secret mission covered by one of the most impressive combat armadas in the history of man at war. America’s secret war was a war of finesse and restraint.

The same night a silver Air America C-46 transport plane bearing no markings lumbered in from Laos at high altitude.

On the ground in the thick rainforest only the animals of the jungle could hear the soft whine of the airplane’s engines.

Eight parachutes mushroomed one by one under the plane as it turned to head back to the secret base in Thailand, headquarters for the CIA war in Southeast Asia.

That night two American commando teams – combinations of civilians and military men – had been “inserted” into North Vietnam. The “inserted” scenes were repeated thousands of times during the long war. At any one time as many as 7,500 men were either on missions or “available,” sources told The Mercury.

The secret American war was fought by the men of the U.S. Special Forces, U.S. Army Rangers, U.S. Navy Seals and the CIA. It was part of Operation 34A, called Oplan 34-A by General William C. Westmoreland, the American commander. Westmoreland later established another group to work on the overall coordination of Oplan 34-A. that group was called the Special Observation Group (SOG). It was made up of American military, civilian and CAS – Controlled American Source – (CIA) representatives. Every action into the North had to be approved in advance by the Secretary of Defense, Secretary of State and the President (the National Security Council).

Americans rarely heard the secret operation code words for intelligence missions. “Leaping Lena,” “Eagle’s Nest,” “Praise Fire,” and “Gamma Delta” were common terms in the White House of Lyndon Johnson.

With soft music playing in the background, a supervisor of 12 years of clandestine raids into the North sipped brandy on San Jose’s West Side and discussed his missions with a reporter.

“We ran a lot of missions into the North,” he said. “We pulled off terrorist raids, assassination missions; we cleared mines off beaches and blew up bridges. One time we helped clear some ships out of Haiphong Harbor,” he recalled. He noted that the ships had been sunk there earlier to tie up shipping lanes.

He said he once moved and armed a nuclear weapon somewhere in the Pacific as President Johnson toured the war zone.

“Most of it is still classified. I’ve been told to keep my mouth shut,” he said. His roommate had tipped off the reporter, and before the interview, the former commando talked with military officials at the Presidio in San Francisco. They advised him to say nothing.

He sipped on the brandy and twisted his torn body, the result of his last mission in the North. He talked about his continuing bouts with drinking and how he just about had it licked.

“I was lucky to get out. A lot of guys never did,” he said.

“A lot of things I did would make (Lt. William) Calley (commander of the My Lai massacre) seem like a pussycat, but it was done under orders,” he said. He didn’t appear to be boasting.

“I think the American people should know what we did,” he said, showing in his facial expressions the pain veterans of the unpopular conflict often feel.

“I’m very super-patriotic. A lot of things I didn’t enjoy, but I did them. Someone had to do it, and I was trained in it,” he said.

“It was dirty work,” his roommate interjected. That pained look crept back over the crippled vet’s face.

“Sometimes we’d just sit on a hill for weeks and record troop movements like the Special Forces A teams on the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Sometimes we had to kill. I once saw a young girl shot down because she was running ammunition to the enemy. It wasn’t an easy job. Someone had to do it,” he said.

The Special Forces A teams were also part of Operation 34A. Their casualties out of South Vietnam were listed as “classified” in the books at 5th Special Forces headquarters in Nha Trang. It was standard practice at Green Beret headquarters to list the location of the death of a “member” by geographic location and grid coordinates, but only if the death occurred in the South. An authoritative source estimated 10 per cent or as many as 25 per cent of member casualties were listed as classified.

A commander of unconventional warfare operations sat in his sparsely-furnished Santa Clara Valley home and discussed the war in his homeland.

“We operated unconventional warfare teams in North Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Thailand, Hong Kong, India, Japan and Paris,” the Vietnamese refugee said. He once held a high rank in the military and was intimately involved in clandestine operations.

“We worked independent of American units, but sometimes we ran joint missions in North Vietnam,” he said.

“We blew up military installations, gathered information and conducted psychological warfare,” he said.

“We’d blow up bridges and occasionally send small model boats down the rivers with South Vietnamese flags flying on them. The enemy would try to shoot them out of the water, when they hit the boats, they would explode scattering hundreds of leaflets asking them to help us. It was one of the few funny things we did,” he said.

One prime source of intelligence were prisoners the raiders would spirit to the south for interrogation.

“Often we would convince them to join us as agents. Then we would send them back on a diversionary raid into the North while we worked the main target,” he said.

“It was all very secret. Maybe someday we can tell the story.”

It was a reoccurring theme, but over a 10-month period The Mercury was able to piece together many loose ends of some of the untold tales of the Vietnam War.

Both American and Vietnamese sources agreed that many of the special operation teams inserted on secret missions into the North disappeared without a trace and make up a large part of the MIAs the United States is seeking to find.

“I think most of them are dead,” the Vietnamese commander said. Their missions were very dangerous.”

Next: How the Americans spied on their enemies and their friends.

Camp Davis, home of the Vietnamese Communists at Saigon’s Tan Son Nhut Airbase as a result of agreements reached in the 1973 Paris Peace Accords, was bugged by American intelligence, informed sources have told The Mercury.

Prior to the move-in of the Provisional Revolutionary Government, the political arm of the South Vietnamese Communists, Camp Davis, also known as Davis Station, was the headquarters of a super-secret U.S. Army political and military intelligence unit that specialized in breaking codes. The outfit used electronic surveillance to keep tabs on Communist military units in North and South Vietnam and political and government communications of the Saigon and Hanoi governments.

The techniques used were those learned from British intelligence during World War II when the English broke the German code and thereby were informed of all enemy moves in advance.

The American spy unit, called the 3rd Radio Research Unit – later reorganized as the 309th Radio Research Group – conducted a top secret operation code-named “Gamma Delta.” That operation was so sensitive even the code word was listed as top secret. That operation was also known as “host intercept” among insiders and was established to listen in on all messages dispatched and received by the government of South Vietnam.

Sources among the Vietnamese intelligence community, evacuated by the Americans in April, 1975, said they believe the U.S. government employed the same techniques to spy on allied communications in Saigon.

The Tan Son Nhut spy outfit’s work was so sensitive that even mechanics in the motor pool and the kitchen’s cooks, all U.S. military, had to be cleared for top secret and cryptographic material.

A second unit, called the 7th Radio Research Unit, positioned in the nearby strategic compound of the joint command headquarters of the Vietnamese armed forces, spied on the Camp Davis unit to insure its super-secret operation contained no leaks.

This “plumber’s unit” was located in a part of the compound known as White Birch, authoritative sources told The Mercury. Part of its function was to teach the South Vietnamese the fine art of interception and code-breaking.

Both the 3rd Radio Research Unit and the 7th Radio Research Unit were in Vietnam in a “sub-rosa” or cover status. Their operations were so secret, the U.S. Army history on the Vietnam War, recently released in 22 volumes, mentions only the 309th and does not discuss the functions of the code-breaking units.

Sources told The Mercury the two military groups were part of the worldwide network of the U.S. Army Security Agency’s special operations command.

The Army Security Agency operates electronic listening posts covering virtually all areas of the world, informed sources told The Mercury. The code-breakers work for the National Security Agency and cooperate with the similar Navy and Air Force units, the CIA, the FBI and U.S. Army intelligence. The reports sometimes bypassed the American commanding generals and ambassadors in the scene in Vietnam and moved directly to NSA headquarters outside Washington, D.C. or to the situation room in the White House, professional intelligence sources said.

Its Top Secret DINAR classification, one of the highest and most sensitive of classified information, was slapped on a CIA report of the Bay of Tonkin incident that sparked the Vietnam War. A number of top-secret operations accidentally tangled in the Tonkin Gulf.

A number of sources agreed the agency was one of the most important spy organizations and dealt cards in the political and military games of intrigue-filled Saigon.

The Tan Son Nhut eavesdropping group, staffed by perhaps 300 technicians, played a major role in providing information on key historical incidents that led to the beginning of the combat role for Americans in 1965.

Authoritative sources said U.S. Marines, on special assignment at Trai Bac (Northern Base) Station on the northern front at Phu Bai intercepted and taped the radio exchange between Vietnamese naval commanders on the North Vietnam shore and small North Vietnamese PT boats hunting down South Vietnamese raiders who were hitting the port cities one after another. Those PT boats were eventually provoked into attacking the U.S. destroyers C. Turner Joy and Maddox on spy missions inside North Vietnamese territorial waters.

After that interception, President Lyndon B. Johnson dispatched a full Marine battalion to defend the Phu Bai Station after its own recent patrols became jittery and accidentally shot and killed a South Vietnamese sentry.

The commander of the South Vietnamese operations said his men were provoking the North Vietnamese by hitting their shore positions up and down the coastline while the American ship probed both North Vietnamese radar defenses and communications in the area.

A memorandum from Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara to President Johnson in May 1964, three months before the Tonkin incident, outlined the administration “scenario” to force the North Vietnamese into a larger war which, American planners hoped, would bring the North to its knees.

The code-breaking units played key roles in determining North Vietnam’s responses to the American plan.

The Tonkin “attacks” led to the passage of a pre-resolution which became known as the Tonkin Resolution. It was shepherded through the Congress by former Arkansas Sen. William Fulbright and became the de facto declaration of war that marked the beginning of the combat role that eventually took more than 58,000 American lives. At the time, 163 Americans had died in Vietnam.

The radio research units, sources told The Mercury, not only snooped electronically on communication of governments, but also helped pinpoint key communications with the American and Vietnamese commando teams operation in North Vietnam and other neighboring countries.

When the Paris Peace Accords set up the tri-party military commission that was supposed to establish the Council of Reconciliation and Concord, which was to unify the South through elections, it also provided for a Saigon headquarters for the Communists.

Davis Station was chosen, but the connection between the site’s former occupants and the new tenants was generally lost on Saigon watchers who did not know the nature of the 3rd Radio Research Unit.

It was not until the fall of Saigon and “Operation Talonvise,” which brought a large number of intelligence officers out as refugees that the real story could be pieced together.

It is the nature of intelligence that it has to be carefully pieced together because spies are given information only on a “need-to-know” basis and there is probably no single person who knows the entire story.

Some former intelligence officers refused to discuss Vietnam operations, but some felt they now owe history a full recount of what happened behind the scenes.

One former intelligence chief said he wants the American people to know that “many very brave men died behind the lines trying to wear down the enemy.”

When asked point-blank if the Americans bugged Camp Davis and the Viet Cong, one key Vietnamese general positioned high in the Ministry of Defense, and now living in California, gave a one-word response.

“Sure,” he said.

Next: U.S. aid – cover for the CIA.

[Note: Sidebar for Part III]

Perhaps the most revealing document released as part of the “Pentagon Papers,” a top secret “encyclopedic and objective” study on the United States involvement in Vietnam was “scenario” for action that led to the Tonkin incident, the escalated bombing and the beginning of a combat role for Americans.

The study, entitled “United States-Vietnam Relations 1945-1967” was ordered by then Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara.

The Gulf of Tonkin incident that led to the active combat role for U.S. servicemen took place in August, 1964.

Three months earlier, on May 23, 1964, McNamara told the President in a memorandum that the following “scenario” was planned. The “D” followed by a number indicates the days until the massive bombing of North Vietnam would begin.

“1. Stall off any conference on Vietnam until D-Day.

“2. Intermediary (Canadian?) tell North Vietnam in general terms that U.S. does not want to destroy the North Vietnam regime (and indeed is willing ‘to provide a carrot’) but is determined to protect South Vietnam from North Vietnam.

“3. (D-30) Presidential speech in general terms launching Joint Resolution.

“4. (D-20) Obtain Joint Resolution approving past actions and authorizing whatever is necessary with respect to Vietnam…

“5. (D-16) Direct [Commander in Chief, Pacific] to take all prepositioning and logistic actions that can be taken ‘quietly’ for the D-Day forces…

“6. (D-15) Get [General Nguyen] Khanh’s agreement to start overt South Vietnamese air attacks against targets in the North and inform him of U.S. guarantee to protect South Vietnam in the event of North Vietnamese and/or Chinese retaliation.

“7. (D-14) Consult with Thailand and the Philippines to get permission for U.S. deployments; and consult with them plus U.K., Australia, New Zealand and Pakistan, asking for their open political support…

“8. (D-13) Release an expanded “Jordan Report,” [White Paper on Aggression from the North] including recent photography and evidence of the communications nets, giving full documentation of North Vietnamese supply and direction of Viet Cong.

“9. (D-12) Direct CINCPAC to begin moving forces and making specific plans on the assumption that strikes will be made on D-Day.

“10. (D-10) Khanh makes speech demanding that North Vietnam stop aggression, threatening unspecified military action if he does not.

“11. (D-3) Discussions with Allies not covered in item 7 above.

“12. (D-3) President informs U.S. public (and therefore North Vietnam) that action may come, referring to Khanh speech…

“13. (D-1) Khanh announces that all efforts have failed and that attacks are imminent…

“14. (D-Day) Remove U.S. dependents [from South Vietnam].

“15. (D-Day) Launch first strikes…

“16. (D-Day) Call for conference on Vietnam…”

Saigon, for many years, was the spy center of East Asia as the major powers played their historical game of chess over the Indochinese real estate.

And for the past 10 months many of the central figures in the Saigon world of espionage have been living in the United States building new lives as refugees.

In San Jose alone, a number of Vietnamese officials high in the ranks of the intelligence world work far from the intrigues of a Saigon that is no more. Many do not like to talk about their work in Vietnam fearing reprisals from the U.S. government which allows them to stay here on parole visas that could be lifted at any time. However, many of the refugees have agreed to talk off the record and the story they tell could fill books.

Newsmen, spies, counter-spies, double- spies, spies who watched spies, businessmen and adventurers commonly gathered at Saigon’s venerable Continental Palace Hotel – whose last owner lives in downtown San Jose – to sit on the raised veranda, sip on a gin and tonic and watch the world pass by in the sweltering heat of Saigon.

Information swapping on the “Continental Shelf” was a regular pastime, and both Time and Newsweek magazines maintained their bureau headquarters at the hotel. Offices of the Los Angeles Times, the New York Times, the Washington Post and the Associated Press were a hand grenade throw away.

The daily military briefings, called the “five o’clock follies,” were held across the square and the often-hostile questions and equally hostile answers were relayed live via shortwave back to the Pentagon.

Down the street, at the government press center, transcripts of daily briefings in Washington were rushed to the Saigon press corps via teletype and U.S. network television news was played on a big screen in the auditorium.

The hotel, however, was the key information-gathering point and rumor and fact often mixed like the gin and the tonic.

A popular subject was the secret raids behind enemy lines, but military officials refused to discuss them.

For more than a quarter of a century teams of Americans and Vietnamese poured into the North gathering information and engaging in psychological warfare, sabotage and espionage; but Saigon was where the real action was.

One of Saigon’s residents was William Colby, a veteran CIA agent. He was assigned to Vietnam with the rank of ambassador to run the Pacification Program that operated hand-in-hand with the U.S. aid program and CIA operations. It was a well-kept secret over the years that Colby was actually a CIA agent in charge of an immense network of information-gatherers working under cover of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), the American Embassy, the U.S. Information Agency (USIA) and a number of lesser organizations.

Colby, who until recently operated the worldwide operations of the CIA, masterminded the CIA clandestine operations in Indochina. From 1959 to 1962 he was the CIA’s station chief in Saigon. In 1962 he became head of the Far East Division of the CIA’s Clandestine Services. He directed commando raids in North Vietnam, Laos and neighboring countries. He had, at his command, units of American, Vietnamese and mercenary military units.

It was Colby who was the architect of the Counter Terror Program in Vietnam. The operation was established in 1965 with Colby running it from Washington. Adverse publicity of the name necessitated a change to Provisional Revolutionary Units (PRU), then Phoenix. In 1967 Colby’s office designed the Phoenix Program which, Colby told Congress in 1971, assassinated 20,587 Vietnamese in Phoenix’s first two and a half years. He was named to head the Pacification Program in 1968.

USAID operated in the 44 provinces of Vietnam in a number of ways under a number of names. It directed all Vietnamese police actions through “public safety advisors,” and a number of the “advisors” were recruits from Valley police departments, including a sunny “sharpshooter.” It provided aid in agriculture, education, medicine and collected information. It was called CORDS (for Civil Operations for Rural Development Support), USOM (for United States Overseas Mission) and USAID.

A USAID senior advisor headed each province and gave orders to the Vietnamese province chiefs. USAID advisors kept tabs on education, economic and political developments in the provinces, and his information was fed into banks of computers in Saigon. USAID was in fact an action arm of the CIA and employed CIA liaison officers as “advisors.”

The team of USAID advisors and their contract agencies provided a constant stream of information back to Saigon’s mammoth six-story headquarters on Le Van Duyet Street, but for special assignments the U.S. Embassy dispatched “political reporters” who were light cover CIA agents.

When journalists moved through the provinces in search of stories, it was not uncommon to find a “political reporter” tagging along when a journalist was working on a story that touched a CIA nerve.

Such a program was the dreaded Phoenix Program. In April last year Operation Talonvise swung into operation to evacuate Phoenix and other “embassy” (CIA) employees when Saigon was surrounded by North Vietnamese divisions.

The operation ran smoothly for a couple of days until the North Vietnamese put a stop to it with a devastating artillery barrage that tore up Tan Son Nhut’s giant runways.

After that, it was every man for himself, and other refugees joined the stream of humanity that poured into the South China Sea and made it to ships of the 7th Fleet on station for the last time on Vietnam.

On April 30, 1975 Gen. Duong Van Minh (Big Minh) surrendered the South Vietnamese government to the Communists. Saigon became Ho Chi Minh City and there was a Third World celebration at San Jose’s Williams Park.

It is impossible to say how successful Operation Talonvise really was. Its goal was to lift out 14,000 agents and their families, most of who didn’t know what their fathers did. At 10 members to a family, some 140,000 refugees were expected.

Operation Talonvise was supposed to bring out agents of all kinds, especially those associated with Phoenix. That program was designed to “neutralize” the Viet Cong “infrastructure” through assassination and terror. It was an eye-for-an-eye and a tooth-for-a-tooth operation.

The Phoenix Program ran hand-in-hand with the Pacification Program which was supposed to win the “hearts and minds” of the people and the Open Arms operation worked to convince the enemy to change sides.

That last program provided the Viet Cong with an easy method for placing their agents in the South Vietnamese government and alongside American servicemen as “Kit Carson” scouts.

But Phoenix eventually backfired. Saigon newspapers said the program put too much emphasis on terror and created a backlash of revulsion and fear among the Vietnamese people.

Corrupt Vietnamese officials used the assassination and terror program to solicit funds from targets in return for not fingering them as members of the Viet Cong “infrastructure.”

Many of the sophisticated intelligence programs enjoyed limited success because of the American habit of using the native population for such chores as washing uniforms, cleaning barracks, building defenses, shining shoes and working in PXs and offices. The possibilities for placement of a Viet Cong agent on an American base were endless.

The political use of programs and the immense amounts of money USAID or CORDS pumped into Vietnam to run the programs provided the ingredients for one of the most often criticized vices of Vietnamese officialdom – corruption.

The Phoenix Program was used to eliminate political enemies, and fund-skimming by the Vietnamese was overlooked by American officials as “that’s the way it is.”

The politicization of the war in Vietnam at all levels led to corruption and a weakening of the ordinary citizen soldier’s will to fight, a number of refugees told The Mercury.

“In the end, we lost the war because it was a political war in the provinces and the international scene. We never had real military discipline and in the end it just fell apart,” said one former general now living in the Bay Area.

Next: The Vietnamese generals in exile.

From November, 1963 and the assassination of South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem, the generals ran Vietnam.

Today, most of them are in exile trying to piece together shattered lives as refugees. The rest, according to a report from Sen. George McGovern who toured Hanoi and Saigon in January, have either been put to death or are working on farms in the Vietnamese countryside.

During a 10-month investigation, The Mercury has been able to pinpoint 45 of the more than 80 generals on the rolls at the end of the war.

The list includes one full general, 13 lieutenant generals, 11 major generals and 18 brigadier generals. Naval general-grade officers or admirals are included in that list.

When the VIPs arrived in the United States, they were initially segregated from the other refugees, but on the job today across the nation few people realize the man pumping gas at a California service station or serving a hot meal in a Virginia restaurant or selling insurance in Santa Clara is a former general trying to make it in a new land and a new role.

Some Vietnamese generals reportedly are not working at simple jobs because they have maintained sizeable “savings.”

Vietnamese generals come in all sizes, with varied talents and varied feelings about the war in Vietnam. Some were top combat generals, some were cruel warlords and some were corrupt, ineffective parasites who were loyal to politically strong friends. Some, even today, remain in hiding.

One thing the generals have in common – they’ve fallen a long way and, most likely, they will never again achieve the prominence they once enjoyed as field commanders in one of the best-supplied wars in history.

“We had everything we could have wanted to fight the war,” said Lt. Ge. Hoang Xuan Lam in his bare, flea-market furnished downtown San Jose apartment.

“We had air support, artillery support, guns, tanks, everything,” the former three-star general said.

The generous support from their American allies proved to be too much of a temptation to some generals and corruption was widespread.

“Corruption was a perennial problem,” wrote General William C. Westmoreland in his recently-published book, “A Soldier Reports.” “Partly because under the old mandarin systems, it had become a way of life,” he said.

“It had been long established that a legitimate portion of an official’s emolument was a cut of the funds and material that passed through his hands,” the American commanding general of American forces in Vietnam said.

“If a man rose to authorities and then failed to use his position, say, to get his old father’s tin roof repaired, the people saw him as cruel and inconsiderate. On the other hand, there clearly had to be limits if government leaders were to gain the trust and confidence of the people,” Westmoreland said.

Gen. Lam commanded the northern front for six years. He once led Vietnam’s crack First Division, the unit that played a key role in recapturing the city of Hue during the Tet Offensive of 1968.

Today Lam works for an insurance company in Santa Clara and plays tennis on weekends with two former general friends from San Francisco.

“We lost the war because we did not live up to the Paris Peace Accords (of 1973),” Lam said. “I was a neutralist. When the agreements were signed, I was ready to put down my weapons and begin to work for peace,” he said.

Lam, after some serious defeats on the Northern Front, was transferred to Saigon where he became assistant to prime minister. He was in Saigon when the cease fire went into effect.

In Saigon, it became apparent that President (Nguyen Van) Thieu was not going to follow the accords. “We were forcing the Communists to continue the fight, and we lost,” he said.

Lam pushed hard for the resignation of Thieu, he said, but it was not until the end that the generals announced that Thieu had to go.

“But it was already too late, and I left on a ship,” he said.

The list of generals reads like a who’s who of the Vietnam War. Some of the generals accumulated great wealth, like generals Cao Van Vien, in Washington, D.C. and Dang Van Quang, in Canada.

There are those who are publicity shy, like chief of the national police Nguyen Khac Binh and his Saigon commander, Trang Si Tan. The two were partially responsible for keeping thousands of political prisoners and running the Vietnamese police state.

The joint chiefs of staff, former generals Chung Tan Cang, navy; Vo Dinh, air force; and Dong Van Khuyen, army, are on American soil.

Other generals here include electronic intelligence chief Phan Huu Nhon, the last I Corps commander, Ngo Quang Truong, military academy commanding generals Lam Quang Tho of Daly City and his brother, Lam Quang Thi of San Francisco.

Down in Monterey are Bui Dinh Dan, former chief of manpower and Huynh Van Lac, commander of the Quang Trung training center.

Other army generals in the United States, according to the other generals, are Nguyen Van Manh, Nguyen Van Tuan, Du Quoc Dong, Nguyen Van Thinh, Phan Dinh Niem, Le Quang Luong, Le Nguyen Khang, Dao Duy An, Le Ngoc Tien, Tran Dinh Tho, Tran Van Trung, Vo Vanh Canh and Ton That Dinh.

Vnamese admirals among the refugees are Diep Quang Thuy, Ho Van Ky Thoai, Nguyen Thanh Chau, Nguyen Huu Chi, Le Trung Hieu and Vu Hong Dao.

Air Force generals include Nguyen Cao Ky, once the nation’s prime minister and later vice president, Tran Van Minh, Nguyen Van Lanh, Dang Dinh Linh, Huynh Ba Tinh, Nguyen Van Luong and Phan Phung Tien, commander of the 5th Air Force Division. His main claim to fame was his bombing of the presidential palace of President Diem in 1960.

The former commanding general of the corps of engineers, Nguyen Van Chuc, who runs a garage in the country town of Loomis in Placer County, said most of the generals are doing well.

“Only a few dedicated former field commanders are poorer (than the rest) and are meeting some difficulties readjusting,” Chuc said.

One of those “poorer” commanders who, he claims, was too busy fighting the war to gather a private fortune is San Jose’s Gen. Lam, but he said he has no regrets.

“I did my job well. I did the best I could. It was not I who lost the war,” Lam said.



About drockstroh

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3 Responses to Secrets of the Vietnam War: Blast from the past

  1. nolandsr1 says:

    Interesting article…I spent 13 1/2 years on active duty with the US Air Force. Early years in USAFSS (Air Force part of NSA – equal to ASA) and also Special Operations. Did TDY to Vietnam and China, N. Vietnam and Laos too.

    Special Ops

  2. Sure sounds like a bunch of fairy tales to me. For one thing, there were no Ranger units in Vietnam under Westmoreland.

    • drockstroh says:

      Rangers were attached to most combat units but were sub rosa as LLRP or LLP. This is the point. In Vietnam, nothing was as it appeared. I was not there for 5 years. Even the VA couldn’t find me until they noted the APO zip code for mail was 96243 — Saigon.

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