Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Back to the ‘World’ – Return from ‘Nam

For a year my brother, Jeff Sharlet, and I were on different ‘fronts’ of the global Cold War. It was 1963-64, and Jeff was soldiering in Vietnam while I was studying in Moscow. I had learned Russian for my sojourn to the Soviet Union. Jeff had been taught Vietnamese for his Southeast Asian tour.

He was a translator/interpreter in the semi-secret Army Security Agency (ASA) while I was grad student on the official US-USSR Cultural Exchange. We’d both been carefully vetted for our encounters with the Communist orbit – Jeff to assure his political loyalty since his work was highly classified.

Conversely for my program, any connection to the American intelligence community would have been a disqualifier. University authorities took great care to protect the integrity of the academic exchange. Jeff and I both passed muster and shipped out to our respective destinations.

In the Moscow State University dorms in the former Lenin Hills, I shared a suite of rooms with a Soviet law student. Jeff was billeted with five other GIs in a large field tent at a US military outpost in South Vietnam, a small base not far below the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) and the border of Communist North Vietnam. As he wrote home, “we are completely out of contact with the outside world here.”

Jeff’s ‘accommodations’, South Vietnam, 1964

By the ‘60s, the Cold War between the superpowers was approaching mid-point with Washington leading the West, Moscow dominating the East. Fortunately it was not a head-to-head military confrontation; instead, the Cold War was waged in the realm of ideas, propaganda, covert action, and proxy wars in the Third World.

One of those proxy wars, the hottest one, was in Vietnam, a country split into North and South by the Geneva Accords following the French colonists’ defeat in 1954. Backed by the Soviets and Communist China, North Vietnam was supporting a low intensity guerrilla war in the south. The aim was to overthrow the Saigon government and unify Vietnam under the Communist flag.

Jeff was assigned to ASA’s Detachment J, 3rd Radio Research Unit (RRU) at a place called Phu Bai. His work included electronically eavesdropping on North Vietnamese Army communications as well as liaising with South Vietnamese commandos being infiltrated north through the DMZ and over the border.†

My academic tasks in the capital of the Soviet Union fell under the heading of Khrushchev’s slogan of ‘peaceful coexistence’, the idea that capitalist and socialist countries could coexist amicably and avoid fighting each other.

Implicit in the cultural exchange was the hope of mitigating international tensions through people-to-people programs. Hence, while I was researching Marxist legal theory for my PhD dissertation as well as studying Soviet law, my Soviet counterpart was studying at an American university.

In late spring ’64, Jeff and I had both coincidentally finished up our time abroad and were ready to head home to the States. For Jeff, it would be back to the ‘world’, as Vietnam GIs were wont to call the journey. The road back would be a long one for each of us, not just in sheer distance, but in the psychological gulfs we’d be navigating.

Reverse culture shock was just part of it – Jeff would be returning to college, quite a remove from the secrecy-shrouded atmosphere of the place  he was leaving, an area of scrub foliage and low sand dunes characterized by a National Security Agency (NSA) official as  ‘virtually a Viet Cong camp ground’.

The transition would be easier for me although, by definition in those days, an American living in Soviet society got used to being ‘watched’ and had to be careful what was said and to whom. Hence, returning to the States would be a radical change from living in a high vigilance, closed society, but that’s a story for the next post.

Jeff had gone to Asia, if not positive, at least open-minded about the US mission in Vietnam. But in the course of being involved in ill-conceived and fouled up political and military operations while simultaneously getting acquainted with ordinary Vietnamese and their culture, he had become increasingly disillusioned.†† On his return to the ‘world’, he’d have to sort out his thoughts and feelings about the war – what he had experienced ‘over there’.
Jeff’s road home began from one day to the next at the tiny base at Phu Bai. One day he was at work amidst the great heat and humidity in the working ‘uniform of the day’ – shirtless, shorts, and flip flops; the next day he was dressed in Class A’s heading for the airfield with his gear.
He was very glad to be leaving, writing presciently in a last letter just weeks before the infamous Gulf of Tonkin incident in August ‘64, “I hope I get out of the Army before anything blows up in Southeast Asia.”

Jeff caught a hop on a C-123, a large cargo plane that made two scheduled trips a day in and out of Phu Bai. The plane headed south toward Saigon, making a single stop on the coast of the South China Sea at Danang.

A C-123 taxiing for takeoff

Arriving at the military side of Saigon’s vast airport/air base, Jeff took a taxi over to nearby Davis Station, home to ASA’s 3rd RRU. He bunked there for his week’s leave in Saigon before moving on. He had many friends among the linguists (lingys) and cryptologists (crypts) there from his previous duty station in ’63 at Phu Lam, not far from the Davis base.

After a merry time drinking with good buddies at favorite bars and restaurants in Saigon, then known as the ‘Paris of the East’, it was time for the next leg of Jeff’s journey. That meant flying from Saigon to his home base, the 9th ASA battalion located at Clark Air Base in the Philippines.

In a kind of tradition when a lingy finished his tour and was headed home, his friends would see him off – Jeff’s friends from as far back as ’62 at the Army Language School (ALS) on the California coast did just that – among them John Buquoi, Harvey Kline, Dave Gustin and, if he was in town, Fred Baumann.

The drill was an informal farewell party in the upstairs lounge at the airport – tasty toasted ham and Swiss sandwiches with lots of Dijon mustard and, of course, plenty of ’33 beer, Vietnam’s cheap brew – before Jeff shoved off for the flight line.

‘Mileage’ post at Davis Station, HQ, ASA 3rd RRU

Back at Clark, a sprawling air base, Jeff had an exit physical at an Air Force clinic. His medical report was then sealed along with his basic military file and copies of final orders in a large brown envelope to be hand-carried back to the States.

Separation processing would take place stateside. In military jargon, one was ‘separated’ until a reserve obligation was completed a few years later and final discharge papers issued.
Again, another farewell party before take-off, this one with friends at the 9th ASA, Keith Willis and others. Jeff boarded a civilian 707, a World Airways charter under military contract, for the lift back to the States. The plane made the same stops as on the way over – Guam and Honolulu – finally touching down late at night at Travis Air Force Base north of San Francisco.

The flight was met by a military bus that took Jeff and the other GIs to a transient barracks on the base. Incoming traffic was apparently heavy because each GI was assigned to a particular bunk in an 8-man room for a specific time slot (about six hours). The following morning Jeff was shaken awake by the next GI assigned to that bunk.

He was directed to a bus for the short ride to Oakland Army Terminal where final out-processing took place. A quick breakfast at the mess hall there and he reported to the ‘Separation Processing’ facility located in a hangar.

At the front of the cavernous space, a podium and several tables were set up. Rows of wooden benches were provided for out-processing troops, a few hundred from bases all over the world. Jeff didn’t know anyone – he may have been the only ASA Vietnam GI in the group.

Separation was typically Army, slow and bureaucratic. At the podium a corporal would call out a name, directing the soldier to one of the tables or ‘processing stations’ – there were nearly a half dozen of them. Jeff would complete his business at one ‘station’ and be sent back to the benches to wait until he was called again – over and over.*

The stages of separation were:

Personnel/Records: Jeff handed over his thick brown envelope. A clerk reviewed the contents and various documents were signed.

Security: A military intelligence clerk briefed Jeff on the ASA secrecy commitment, to wit, if any classified information was divulged he would face federal prosecution, up to 10 years imprisonment, and a $10,000 fine, serious money in those days.

He was also warned against travel behind the Iron Curtain for five years, and there was one additional bizarre caution. If you were to undergo surgery involving general anesthesia, you were to notify ASA in advance so a de-briefer could be on hand in the event of ‘inappropriate disclosures’.

Equipment turn-in: A GI was expected to return all the uniforms issued him except the one he was wearing. A couple of privates unceremoniously dumped Jeff’s duffel bag on the floor and made an inventory of its contents. If any part of the original issue was missing, the cost would be deducted from the soldier’s final paycheck.

Physical Exam/Medical: Essentially blood and urine tests for which the out-processee was sent to an adjoining room.

Payroll: Jeff was given his final ASA paycheck as well as travel funds to cover the flight back to his hometown of record.

Finally at dusk after an all-day laborious process, the GIs were released and bussed to the San Francisco Airport to catch their flights. At the airport, Jeff cut out and headed into the city to revisit the town and see friends.

While in the Bay Area, John Sharlet, our cousin, who was then studying Russian at ALS down the coast in Monterey, came up to San Fran to meet Jeff for dinner. Back east the cousins had gone to prep school together, but hadn’t seen each other for several years.

A few months later in fall ’64, Jeff found himself back in school at Indiana University (IU), a college boy again, to finish his education. He threw himself into the coursework, eager to catch up on his life. Nonetheless he remained unsettled by memories of the war, but couldn’t say a word to anyone. Everything remained secret.

Jeff knew there were many other GIs deeply skeptical about the wisdom of US involvement in Vietnam. Once the war dramatically escalated the following spring of ‘65, the number of disaffected Vietnam GIs would eventually grow and become legion.

Five years later after returning from ‘Nam, Jeff took his secrets to an early grave, although not before founding the underground paper Vietnam GI, which became a rallying point for emerging GI opposition to the war.

*I am indebted to John Buquoi, Jeff’s Vietnam buddy, for his help in reconstructing the ‘separation’ process.

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