Wednesday, May 18, 2011
The Vietnam Coup Capers
In the beginning I was not the only searcher for my brother Jeff Sharlet – two of his oldest friends from the ‘60s also sought to reconnect with him. Instead, they found my son Jeff, a writer highly visible on the Internet and my brother’s namesake. At the time I was working on a memoir on my Cold War experiences that I envisioned would include a couple of chapters on Brother Jeff – on his time in Vietnam and as a leader of GI protest against the war, so young Jeff referred both old friends to me. The first voice from the past was Ed Smith, an ex-Vietnam GI, who wrote that he was Jeff’s best friend in Vietnam. That got my attention. Over the years since, Ed had taken a degree in Oriental languages, become a published poet, served 15 years in the ministry, and was then working as an insurance agent struggling to rediscover his poetic voice. A great admirer of Vietnamese culture, Ed sent me some lovely poems he had recently written about his Vietnam tour, including one about his passionate love affair with an older Vietnamese woman. His poetry suggested a man entering the age of nostalgia, recalling happier times. In that spirit, Ed came looking for his old friend Jeff decades later.
I had only a general idea of Jeff’s time in Nam during 1963-64; I was in Moscow that year writing a PhD dissertation. Jeff hadn’t talked much about his experience, and I hadn’t asked since I knew the work was classified. Half a dozen years after me, my kid brother had followed in my footsteps into the military. We’d both dropped out of college, and in those days there was a draft, so why not enlist and have some choice. Jeff and I each spent a year at the Army Language School (ALS) and served in a special communications intel outfit, the Army Security Agency (ASA), military arm of the NSA or National Security Agency. There was one big difference; I had studied the Czech language and got a very comfortable posting to Cold War Europe in the ‘50s while Jeff, upon arriving at Monterey on the California coast, had been bumped from Russian into Vietnamese. As fate would have it, that moment shaped the trajectory of his remaining short but interesting life.
Ed Smith, a Harvard dropout, had also joined ASA and preceded Jeff to the Language School where he too had been bumped – out of Chinese into Vietnamese. It was summer ’61 not long after the Bay of Pigs fiasco, and JFK, smarting from defeat, zeroed in on Southeast Asia where he would meet the Soviet global challenge. Sure we needed Russian and Chinese linguists, but building up a cadre of Vietnamese speakers was the priority. Jeff arrived at ALS midway during Ed’s course and the two became close pals, pub crawling through the bars of Monterey and nearby Carmel-by-the-Sea, including Sade’s on Ocean Avenue where my ALS classmates and I had once spent many a pleasant afternoon.
In June ’62, Ed graduated at the top of his class and was sent to Fort Meade in Maryland for eight weeks of specialized training by NSA experts. In September he deployed to Southeast Asia, to the 9th ASA battalion at Clark Air Force Base in the Philippine Islands (PI). Four months later, his Viet course over, Jeff joined Ed at Clark. They worked side-by-side on the night shift, translating North Vietnamese (NVN) military intercepts. Off duty, they partied – in nearby Angeles City; at Baguio, the mountain resort high above the heat of the plains; and in Manila, a train ride to the southeast. Presumably NSA had given Jeff additional training in PI since he worked exclusively with Ed helping the cryptographers, or ‘crypts’, break low-level NVN codes.
Ed Smith (arrow) with Jeff, right
The Coup Missions
As Buddhist opposition to the repressive and incompetent Diem regime mounted during summer ’63, a group of South Vietnamese (SVN) generals discreetly sought US approval for a possible coup against the SVN president. Washington ‘green-lighted’ the plot, and in mid-summer Ed Smith was sent over to Vietnam to reinforce Davis Station, home to ASA’s 3rd Radio Research Unit (RRU), a secure facility at Tan Son Nhut Air Base on the outskirts of Saigon. Several weeks later Jeff and a team of lingy’s, linguists in ASA parlance, followed. NSA briefed the team on a top secret mission. No one in ASA without ‘Need to know’ was privy. The American Embassy had assigned Lucien Conein, a CIA operative, to liaise with the generals plotting the coup, but the White House wanted an additional channel of information on the plotters’ plans.
Realizing that I hadn’t been aware of what Jeff had been involved in, Ed abandoned caution and said, “What the hell, the war’s over; I’ll tell you what we were doing.” The ASA team set up in a remote corner of an Army signal battalion base near a ville called Phu Lam to the west of Saigon. The base handled all military communications for the region, American and Vietnamese. Hooking into the football-field size antennas, the team worked out of communication vans 24/7 surveilling SVN general staff communications. By mid-October ’63, their assignments completed, Ed and Jeff returned to Clark AFB. Two weeks later, the generals pulled off the coup, killing Diem in the process. Since Jeff later became a major opponent of the war, I asked Ed if he’d heard him express any antiwar sentiments. No, he replied, we’d both bought into the prevailing Cold War consensus that the Soviet global threat had to be met, although we’d felt uncomfortable snooping on our allies. Obviously the bigger picture of which they were part was above their pay grade.
President Diem of South Vietnam & General Minh, head of post-coup junta
Back in the Philippines, Ed and Jeff resumed their routine, secret work and the good life of college boys on extended vacation. Then one night late January ’64, they returned from clubbing in Manila to find orders taped to the barracks door – Report to the Clark flight line with gear noon the next day. Another coup was about to occur in Saigon, and a contingent of Viet lingy’s was rushed back to Vietnam. This time the coup went smoothly, power was quickly consolidated, and the ASA team stood down. But 400 miles north at Phu Bai near the ancient capital of Hue, lingy’s were needed to backup highly classified cross-border operations. Ed was ‘short’, his enlistment nearly up, but Jeff had time left, so the military sent them off in different directions – Ed back to Clark to begin his exit from the Army, Jeff up to the North Vietnamese border. But that’s another story.
Returning to the States, Ed briefly attended UC-Berkeley where Jeff, who mustered out several months later, paid him a visit, the last time the two guys saw each other. Nearly 40 years later when Ed found me, he’d had no idea Jeff had died back in ’69. We talked extensively, Ed was an immense help as I began thinking about setting aside my own memoir and focusing on Jeff. Later, I turned to Ed again with additional questions about Vietnam, but couldn’t find him. Emails unanswered, I called his company which said he was no longer there and, somewhat cryptically, provided no further information. Years passed, and then in 2010, a tribute to the late Edward W. Smith III, a well-remembered poet, surfaced on the Internet. Just three months after Ed and I had met, he’d fallen ill and died of a rare complication, the day after Christmas, 2003.