Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Waiting for War

After graduating from the Army Language School on the California coast, Jeff Sharlet was ordered to Clark Air Base in the Philippine Islands (PI). He couldn’t have known that the Administration was quietly stockpiling lingys for the conflict in Vietnam, a larger war they must have foreseen when they began escalating US involvement shortly after John F. Kennedy’s Inauguration, January 1961.

For Vietnamese linguists, lingys for short, the Philippines was the waiting room for the guerrilla war underway in South Vietnam across the South China Sea. While they waited, theirs was the life of college boys on extended vacation in the South Pacific.

In early ’63, Jeff set off for the Far East via Honolulu from Travis Air Base north of San Francisco. Enroute he wrote home, “Hawaii is beautiful and warm. I’m on a Super Constellation. It will take 30 hours to get to the Philippines. The South Pacific looks enchanting.” Arriving at Clark, he reported to the 9th ASA, an Army Security Agency Field Station. There he did top secret, highly classified work, discreetly tucked away in a corner of the air base. Jeff’s first letters reflected his initial enthusiasm.

He described the base as “a little piece of America” with the pool “across the street, tennis courts … nearby, and the enlisted men’s (EM) open mess, called the Coconut Grove … next door.” He wrote of the pop culture ambiance of the place: 
You hear music everywhere on base. It’s from Armed Forces Radio (AFR) which we get on our transistors, and … through speakers in the clubs and rec areas. It’s a strange combination of Country Western and Rock ‘n Roll, everything from Your Cheating Heart and Oklahoma Hills to Little Richard’s Good Golly, Miss Molly and lots of Ray Charles.
When tears come down like falling rain,
You'll toss around and call my name,
You'll walk the floor the way I do,
Your cheatin' heart, will tell on you...*

At first the work was interesting. Jeff was on the late night shift so days and evenings were his. Just before midnight, he’d catch the ASA shuttle to the Ops building, a windowless concrete structure in a heavily-guarded, and barbed wire enclosure in the middle of an enormous field. At night, the perimeters of Ops were brightly illuminated by large flood lights so the sentries could see anyone approaching at a distance.

Although the work went on 24/7, the 9th ASA was doubly over strength in Viet lingys, so Jeff and buddies had plenty of time on their hands. Days were spent lounging at the pool, evenings drinking at the Airmen’s Club on base. Or they go into the town outside the base, Angeles City, which he described as “something out of Susie Wong’s world, just like those Far Eastern army towns you read about in war novels.” The place was a huge collection of bars with American names like Plaza Bar, Skylight, Keyhole, and Jeff added, “whores, beds, Jeepney drivers, horse and buggy conveyances, and the most poverty stricken people I have ever seen."

        Jeff—tough life in the Philippines                                  Downtown Angeles City

Otherwise, life in the islands was good. The military facilitated leave-visits all over Asia, although there were restrictions for ASA troops given the sensitive nature of their work. While there were daily and space-available military flights to various exotic destinations, as well as leave-ships to Hong Kong several times a year, ASA personnel weren’t allowed to go to Indonesia, Burma, Cambodia, or even Australia because they’d have to fly over rebel-held parts of Borneo. But in the PI Jeff and friends enjoyed weekend sojourns at white sandy beaches on the South China Sea, and trips to Baguio, a cool mountain resort away from the heat of the plains, as well as visits to Manila just 65 miles from Clark. The PI capital held many attractions, including clubbing with his buddy Peyton Bryan, or a day at the racetrack with an old chum from school days in upstate New York, Keith Willis.

Road to Baguio, Philippine Islands

But as the months wore on, the secret work became repetitious and less interesting, and the drinking routine at the base club or in Angeles City tiresome. Late spring ’63 as the rainy season approached, Jeff was finding life increasingly boring and despaired that “My only useful activity is singing in the Clark Glee Club.” Then came the heavy rains turning the monotonous brown of the cane fields and rice paddies green, and he began to spend more time reading. I had been sending him paperback novels and books on Southeast Asian politics.

His letters home showed more awareness of the political news from the States, and of the situation in his part of the world. Commenting on violence against Negroes seeking civil rights in the South, he wrote: “I think about all the hypocrites who say we need gradualism and moderation. I say we need agitation. Filipinos ask about these incidents and there is little you can say.” By summer he was reading a great deal on the politics of Southeast Asia, pondering, as Jeff put it, “a way of offsetting Chinese Communist influence and keeping the states [of the region] non-communist,” when the Vietnam War abruptly interrupted.

Late August ’63 in a hurried note from the flight line, Clark Air Base, Luzon, PI, Jeff wrote briefly and cryptically: “I’m leaving for Vietnam for…some ‘field work’.” But that’s another story.

*”Your Cheating Heart”, written by Hank Williams, 1952

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