Wednesday, September 12, 2012

The Mountains of Laos

From the entrance of the squad tent, Jeff could see the mountains of Laos. Brother Jeff Sharlet was in the narrowest, most northern part of South Vietnam serving at an American base near the small ville of Phu Bai in 1964. From where he stood, the South China Sea was to his left; to his right was the rugged Annamite Range as far away as Laos, maybe 50 miles as the crow flies.
 
Jeff was an American ‘military advisor’, one of 16,000 sent mostly by President Kennedy to help South Vietnam (SVN) quell a guerrilla insurgency guided from Communist North Vietnam (NVN).  At that point it wasn’t much of a war, what political scientists called a low-intensity conflict with hard fighting between the SVN Army (ARVN) and the insurgents in the far south in the Mekong Delta as well as occasional hit and run skirmishes in the Central Highlands, but relative quiet around Phu Bai not far below the DMZ and the border with NVN. From Hanoi’s strategic perspective, the action was in the more populous southern part of the country in and around Saigon, the capital.
 
Phu Bai was a very small  outpost relative to regular military bases. Jeff’s outfit was called Detachment J, a subunit of the 3rd Radio Research Unit (RRU), the euphemism for the intelligence-gathering facility tucked away behind barbed wire at Saigon’s Tan Son Nhut Airport. The 3rd RRU and Det J were part of the Army Security Agency (ASA), an independent communications intel agency nominally within the Army, but actually under aegis of the National Security Agency (NSA) in Washington. In effect, Phu Bai was NSA’s listening post in closest proximity to NVN.
 
It was an ASA installation, but the base also accommodated a much smaller Marine unit doing much the same thing. ASA intercepted NVN military land communications while the Marines’ beat was the small coastal NVN Navy’s ship to shore and ship to ship communications. Both units were made up of Vietnamese linguists like Jeff, Morse code operators, cryptographers, security guards. and the usual logistical personnel.
 
Marine corporal Dave Reinhardt was in the first Vietnamese class at Army Language School in Monterey CA; he’d been assigned to Phu Bai with the 1st Composite Radio Company, a unit attached to the 3rd RRU, the year before Jeff arrived. Phu Bai was not far from the ‘street without joy’, a stretch of highway named by the French who had been frequently ambushed there during the First Indochina War (1946-54).* Dave described the area as peaceful in 1963, with little evidence of the insurgent Viet Cong (VC) – except for road mines. The terrain was mostly flat with little vegetation. Right across from the base was an old French airstrip, the control tower abandoned, but with a long enough runway in good condition for large US military aircraft to land.
 
A year later in ’64, the Pentagon (DOD) began taking a greater interest in remote Phu Bai. Up to that point, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) had been responsible for running ‘black ops’, clandestine operations, against NVN, although most of its efforts had ended in failure. Defense Secretary McNamara decided DOD could do a better job and lobbied the White House. In mid-January President Johnson (LBJ) authorized OPLAN 34A, a comprehensive plan described as “a wide variety of sabotage and psychological operations [psy ops] against North Vietnam.”** The centerpiece would be to continue cross-border commando infiltrations, which DOD took over from the CIA on February 1st.
 
Coincidentally, that was the day after General Khanh carried out a coup against the military junta that had overthrown President Diem several months earlier. As soon as the US got an inkling the coup was underway, Jeff and a contingent of linguists were sent back to Saigon from their home base in the Philippines, but since the coup was quick, bloodless, and successful there was nothing for them to do. However, DOD needed to rapidly strengthen the small ASA detachment at Phu Bai, which would be tasked as communication liaison with SVN commandos infiltrated into NVN as well as for psy ops, so orders were cut for Jeff and a dozen other ASA personnel to report to Det J.
 
Arriving at Phu Bai, Jeff found a ramshackle jumble of low buildings, high antennas, communication vans, large squad tents, a truck park, and construction sites in various stages of completion. The whole assemblage was surrounded by barbed wire with a single gate manned by a couple of ASA security guards armed with .45s. The topography was pretty barren except for a small hill of just under 600’ used for additional antennas. Outside the wire was an old, overgrown Vietnamese cemetery, most likely the graveyard for the nearby ville of about 7,000 inhabitants.


Construction at Phu Bai base, 1964
 
The nondescript buildings housed the communications and intercept equipment as well as the work areas for the lingys, crypts, and ditty boppers, as the ASA guys called their specialties. Most of them were billeted in the large tents set on wooden platforms with space for eight cots with mosquito netting and footlockers. Wooden walkways linked the tents to other parts of the base. Given the heat, humidity, and flying insects of Southeast Asia, at night the side flaps were usually up and mosquito nets down. Jeff and his bunkmates posted a sign out front reading:

CANVAS CASTLE MOTEL – 3
·         Air conditioning
·         Wall to wall plan
·         Scenic view
·         Floor show nightly
NO VACANCY
 
Amenities were minimal. There was an enlisted men’s club with cheap booze and a jukebox; a small PX, or military store that sold liquor, beer, and toothpaste; a one-chair barber shop in a wooden hut, a tent with some workout equipment; and the mail room. The touchdown of the C-123 Caribou mail plane was a daily event. Less welcome were the nearby ARVN heavy artillery unit firing randomly and thunderously day & night and the constant hum of powerful diesel generators powering the base’s equipment—both of which took some getting used to, as Jeff wrote home.

The classified work required attention, but otherwise formal military duties were at a minimum. Given the steamy climate, the standard uniform would barely qualify as military-informal. Occasionally the men were trucked outside the compound to a rifle range to practice firing their carbines. When someone asked why the truck bed was covered with sandbags, the answer was, ‘road mines’. Otherwise, no ammo was handed out, probably as a safety measure, since few if any ASA troopers had weapons experience.

Jeff worked alongside a congenial group of young college guys like himself—Ralph Adams, John Buquoi, Bill Jernigan, Peyton Bryan among others. Ralph Adams was the best linguist and served as the base commander’s (CO) interpreter for administrative business with local Vietnamese. Later Ralph would make a career with the NSA, rising to executive director before retirement.

 
Ralph Adams off duty talking to a Vietnamese boy

As the CO’s aide, Ralph had use of a jeep he’d occasionally loan to Jeff and his buddies. Off duty they’d don civvies and roam the countryside – north to nearby Hue on the coast, south over the picturesque Hai Van (Sea Cloud) Pass to Danang, and occasional afternoons at white sand beaches on the South China Sea.

By late May ’64, Jeff finished his Vietnam tour and headed back to the States, to ‘the world’ as GIs would later say. Not long afterward, a major event in what became the American war in Vietnam occurred. A US destroyer on an electronic surveillance mission in the Gulf of Tonkin cruised close to the NVN coast well within the 12-mile international waters limit, drawing the attention of NVN torpedo boats. A brief sea skirmish occurred.

The destroyer escaped unscathed thanks to warnings from the Phu Bai Marines who intercepted the attackers’ communications, but a furor ensued in Washington. On the basis of bad information and worse advice, LBJ used the incident as a pretext to launch a heretofore secret air strike against NVN. Planes from the carriers Ticonderoga and Constellation carried out 64 attacks on NVN naval facilities ashore. Far more consequential, LBJ used the patriotic fervor whipped up by ‘Operation Pierce Arrow’ to push through an almost unanimous Congress a loosely worded resolution that he, and later President Nixon, would use to provide political cover for our subsequent long involvement in Vietnam’s civil war.

Security began to tighten at the ASA base after the Tonkin crisis. Everyone pulled night guard duty once or twice a week using parachute flares that cast spooky shadows to illuminate the area. The man assigned to guard the sandbagged radio direction finder outside the perimeter at the air strip was given a couple of grenades and the reassuring company of a guard dog in addition to his weapon and ammo. One of the GIs, noting all the on-base construction and the new runway being added across the road, figured something was afoot.  He was right.

As we learned much later from the leaked Pentagon Papers, LBJ was secretly laying the groundwork for a planned escalation of US involvement. A usable justification arrived just over six months later in February ’65 at Pleiku in the Central Highlands. The VC carried out a devastating attack on US military advisors’ barracks, so the President commenced a systematic bombing campaign, Rolling Thunder, against NVN and sent in the first combat units. As National Security Advisor McGeorge Bundy subsequently explained, “Pleikus are like streetcars;” in effect, it was a convenient vehicle for the planned escalation.***

A Marine battalion (bttn) was assigned to defend Danang airbase; another was sent north to provide security for the top secret operations at Phu Bai. Because ASA guys had minimal military training, the unit commander strengthened the bunker network, added more wire to the base perimeter, and stepped up weapons practice to include light machine guns and bazookas.

As the war increased in intensity with hundreds of thousands of American troops in-country, the heretofore distant base at Phu Bai was no longer a backwater immune from armed clashes and casualties. By the late ‘60s, Phu Bai personnel had increased from a few hundred in Jeff’s day to several thousand to become the largest ASA unit world-wide. By then, the Agency no longer had the place to itself.

With VC bttns and North Vietnamese Army regulars maneuvering in the operational area that the US Saigon command called I Corps, the 1st Marine Division took up residence followed by the Army’s elite 101st Airborne (ABN). Phu Bai and its environs became a vast military camp, home to tens of thousands of combat troops and their command headquarters. The once largely empty terrain had become quite congested with barracks and facilities for large fighting formations.


 
Phu Bai in the late ‘60s: Marine Hq and an Address board for 101st ABN units

In ’69, Phu Bai, an otherwise obscure dot on military maps, acquired sudden visibility in the world press and the halls of Congress (publicity unwanted by the principals involved, as it turned out). In early May, General Zais, CO of the 101st ABN, ordered elements of the division with Marine support to assault and take an enemy-held peak with in the Annamite Range abutting Vietnam’s border with Laos. Their assignment – to attack and destroy, or ‘attrit’ in the parlance of the US mission in Vietnam, the opposition.

As not infrequently happened, US intelligence underestimated the NVA’s strength, so the force sent to do battle was inadequate. Although the elevation was just over 3000’, it was a steep climb through bamboo thickets, waist-high elephant grass, and triple canopy jungle. The opening attack went badly; friendly fire killed two paratroopers and wounded 35, the first of five such incidents in the course of the battle. Subsequent assaults went little better against a battle-hardened NVA regiment firing downhill from well concealed, heavily fortified bunkers, trench lines, and fighting holes.

US air power was not effective in the visually impenetrable terrain, and the 101st began taking significant casualties. In fact, the enemy was so disdainful of air attack that their cooking fires were openly visible. In spite of mounting losses and an incredibly challenging battlefield complicated by weather and mud, command kept sending the survivors back up the hill for 10 days of brutal fighting when the summit was finally reached. After a massive bombardment by 150,000 pounds of napalm, 20,000 artillery shells, and 1,000,000 pounds of bombs, all they found was a small rear guard, the main force off to fight another day. Finding a piece of cardboard, a GI scrawled on it in large letters ‘Hamburger Hill’ and attached it to what remained of a tree. Another paratrooper added the words, “Was it worth it?”

In the midst of the fighting, a US wire reporter interviewed commanders as well as bloodied troops, many of whom were enraged at the high death toll, and wrote a scathing article, calling the engagement a ‘meatgrinder’. The public was shocked, and members of Congress led by Senator Ted Kennedy attacked the operation using words like ‘savagery’, ‘senseless slaughter’, and ‘madness’. General Zais and other senior commanders received sharp criticism. Back in barracks at Phu Bai, the hat was reportedly being passed to raise a $10,000 bounty for taking out the general.

In the long American war of attrition, holding ground was never a tactical objective, so US troops left the mountain, which the NVA predictably reoccupied soon after.  As a kind of epitaph, a Vietnam veteran and military historian has written that the Battle of Hamburger Hill became “an enduring symbol of the overall futility of America’s war in Vietnam.”****

*B Fall, Street Without Joy (1961)

**J Prados, Keepers of the Keys: A History of the National Security Council from Truman to Bush (1991), 201

***D Halberstam, The Best and the Brightest, (1972, 1973), 646

****J H Willbanks, “Hell on Hamburger Hill,” Vietnam (June, 2009), 24

 

 

 

 

 

 

                       

 

 

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