Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Searches - Spectacular Shortfalls: The ASA Ditty Bopper

While successful searches became the norm, from time to time we suffered dramatic setbacks. We were following faint, even cold dead-end trails, but occasionally tracks led us to a cliff’s edge and nearly into the abyss. Fortunately we survived several spectacular shortfalls.

Early on, Karen came across a web site brimming with information and even photos of the Army Security Agency (ASA) in Vietnam. Run by ex-Vietnam GIs, it was a place to post stories and pictures of ASA stations throughout the war zone. Most postings were lighthearted, some serious, all very circumspect about what they were actually doing as ditty boppers (Morse code operators), lingy’s (linguists), and crypts (cryptographers). It was an online reunion awash in nostalgia, a site where middle-aged men revisited their past, for many the most exciting chapter of their lives. Though the Vietnam War ended in failure for our side, the ex-GIs on the site remained mostly at peace with the mission.

Karen inquired if anyone stationed at ASA’s Detachment J in Phu Bai, knew Jeff Sharlet? A career ASA trooper, a Midwesterner, responded and offered to help. A former ditty bopper at Phu Bai, he didn’t know Jeff personally, but promised to ask around. Arriving a few months after Jeff left and remaining through the major escalation of spring '65, he gave us a sense of the changing security situation at the base. During Jeff’s tour enemy activity was rare, but after he finished his tour, there were occasional Vietcong probes which by early ’65 became more frequent – so much so that a year after Jeff rotated, in May ’65, a battalion of combat Marines arrived to guard the "spooks" – as Marine Cpl. Dave Reinhardt called them.



Accommodations, Phu Bai, ‘63-‘64

Our ASA source, a friendly but suspicious guy, wanted to know what we were up to. Karen patiently fielded his queries, describing Jeff, herself, my background; along the way he filled us in on life at the tiny outpost – trips outside the wire for training on crew-fired weapons (light machine guns, bazookas), and off-duty excursions to Hue, the ancient capital 15 klics (kilometers) away where they toured the old Citadel and dropped by the French bistro, Le Cercle Sportif, for buffalo steaks, pommes frites (fries), cokes and probably something stronger. Still, his probing queries about the memoir project continued, laced with warnings: no direct quotes, no attribution. A nervous guy.

Then in the course of their correspondence, Karen mentioned Jeff’s later work with 'Vietnam GI', his antiwar paper – we had no secrets. The Morse operator abruptly cut the wire, no more communications period. We were shocked, the war was history for us, but then we reflected. A professional soldier for more than a quarter of a century into the ‘90s, the man had served throughout the Far East and elsewhere in the global US intelligence community – doubtless with dedication. Proud of his career service, on retirement he no doubt got the same debrief I did on leaving ASA-Europe in the ‘50s: divulge no classified information or suffer prison and a heavy fine. What I’d been doing in Germany and Jeff in Vietnam had long been the stuff of history, but our man in the Midwest was still the bearer of more recent sensitive information.

What did Karen and I learn from the encounter? Many years and several wars later, we couldn’t assume that ex-GIs we found, even the ASA elite, shared our antiwar perspective. On the contrary, for many, regardless of history’s verdict, their part in the Vietnam War represented a closely guarded chapter of their personal biography. We were learning.

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