Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Rear Echelon Blues – Then Came War

[Dear Reader:  The time is at last at hand to turn full-time to writing the memoir. To facilitate the writing, the blog will continue to post, but now monthly on the 1st Wednesday of each month beginning August 6th.  We will keep you informed about our progress to publication.]
Duty in the Philippines (PI) seemed like a playground to my brother Jeff Sharlet, stationed there in early ’63. It was a bit like being back on a college campus, but instead of going to classes the GIs worked shifts on classified material. They were Vietnamese linguists (lingys) in a communications intelligence outfit, the Army Security Agency (ASA), an adjunct of the NSA, the National Security Agency. Off-duty, their time was theirs, and Jeff made the most of it as if on prolonged spring break.

However, by June he was growing weary of the routine in the PI. You might call it the rear echelon blues. The action was elsewhere in Southeast Asia. Also the drenching rains of the monsoon season, which began in May,   had a depressing effect. And the work translating intercepted North Vietnamese military communications, initially interesting to Jeff, had become predictable and tedious.

Equally tiresome was the usual GI social scene of starting out at the Airmen’s Club at Clark Air Force Base (AFB) with its cheap drinks, then moving on to the low-life bars of Angeles City – the nearby GI town -- and the occasional trips to the more upscale watering holes of Manila, the capital. Jeff was becoming jaded with endless pub crawling.

The PI scene had become all too familiar to him until the abrupt call to war suddenly changed everything, as we’ll see in the following excerpts from his letters home.

2 Jun 63 – back from leave at the 9th ASA, Clark AFB, the Philippines

          I recently returned from Hong Kong. It’s a great place, sort of an orientalized San Francisco or an anglicized Chinese city.

Hong Kong harbor

Thanks for the book on Southeast Asia. I haven’t read it yet, but I have little hope for the future of this region. The present situation is the fault of the British, French, Dutch, and American colonialists.

4 Jun 63

Last night I went to town, the night before I went to town, the night before that I went to town. Tonight I will go to town, tomorrow night I’ll go to town, the next night I’ll go to town, as a matter of fact I go to town frequently.

          I also sing with the Clark Glee Club to improve Philippine-American relations.

♫ Just an old sweet song
Keeps Georgia on my mind

19 Jun 63

          Well, I’ve completed about a third of my tour of duty. My only useful activity is singing in the Clark Glee Club. We sang on Manila TV on a Jack Paar-type show last week. Our group is very popular with the American and Filipino communities.

          We sing some songs in Tagalog.* We sang at the joint US military aid group in Manila for all the generals and admirals who advise this country on its defenses. They gave us a filet mignon and lobster dinner.

          Last week we sang at an officer’s club on an American naval base where we got roast beef. I was talking to a Navy captain’s wife in the bar, and she told me single Navy officers find this a very boring assignment, as do peons like me.

          Nice Asian girls, except in westernized Japan and Hong Kong, do not go out with Caucasians. It is not socially acceptable. Therefore, all GIs from lieutenants to privates are relegated to bar girls.

Right now I’m off the hostess kick and spending less time in the local GI town. I’m going more often to Manila where the people are a little more worldly.

♫ Hit the road, Jack
And don’t you come back’
No more, no more††

          I never realized how great the little conveniences of the States were. For instance – toilet seats, sidewalks, paved streets, air-conditioned buses, trash collectors, clean food, clean people, and the absence of bugs and dust.

          Here when you travel on an intercity bus, if someone has to go to the bathroom, he yells, the driver stops, people get off, women squat on one side, men on the other.

          At least with the rain, everything’s no longer brown; the sugar cane and rice shoots are green now. All in all, I try to make the best of a hurting situation.

Monsoon downpour

30 Jun 63

          My ‘whole goal in life’ is not to go into town drinking every night. I have some good friends here in the unit who are extremely intelligent, mostly guys from the Army Language School (ALS).

We travel together, have great intellectual discussions over beers, and do other things. I’m making the best of it. I do a lot of reading and keep busy all the time.

I think about important problems in the States and the world. For example, three cops beating a Negro woman in Birmingham, a fanatic assassinates a Negro leader in Jackson, Mississippi, and another fanatic in Atlanta slashing a sit-in student. Filipinos ask about these incidents, and there is little one can say.

23 Jul 63

          I have read most of the books you sent, but I’m still reading the last few. I just finished ‘Dr. Zhivago’ and I’m now reading ‘The Marxists’ by C Wright Mills.

          Southeast Asia is an amazingly complicated problem. In my own mind, I haven’t yet come up with a way of offsetting Chinese Communist influence and keeping these states non-communist.

For instance, Burma has pro-Chinese Communists and more nationalist Communists; it’s not a cohesive entity in any sense, politically, ethnically, or geographically. This situation is repeated in every Southeast Asian state.

19 Aug 63 on leave in Tokyo

This is a very beautiful country, which is much like the US economically and physically, but very different culturally. It has been an interesting and educational experience.

 Japan in bloom

Then a week later, a sudden brief, cryptic message home.

27 Aug 63 from the Clark AFB flight line 

I’m leaving for Vietnam for some ‘field work’.

If you miss the train I’m on, you will know that I am gone
You can hear the whistle blow a hundred miles†††

Back story: Jeff and a small team of Vietnamese lingys were abruptly dispatched from the PI as the internal political crisis in South Vietnam intensified during summer ‘63. Relations between the Catholic political elite around President Diem and the Buddhist clergy had worsened.

A Buddhist monk publicly burned himself to death in protest against the regime. The shock waves were felt throughout the country and beyond as the horrific news photo went around the world.

When a second Buddhist self-immolation occurred soon after, the South Vietnamese military elite cautiously inquired of the American Embassy what the US attitude might be toward a coup.

The war against the Viet Cong was not going well, and by then President Kennedy (JFK) had lost patience with Diem’s resistance to the reforms needed for winning ‘hearts & minds’ in the villages.

In late August, JFK cabled his new ambassador to ‘green light’ the South Vietnamese generals. The conspirators immediately began secretly planning an anti-Diem coup.  

Anxious to keep abreast of the clandestine developments in Saigon, the White House relied on reporting from its military and intelligence sources in the Embassy as well as the special team of ASA specialists flown in from Clark.

Jeff and his fellow lingys had been quickly assembled with full field gear and sent off posthaste to Vietnam. They were installed in a remote corner of a base outside Saigon where they worked around the clock covertly tapping all the coup-planners’ voice communications.

As to the ‘big picture’ of why they were eavesdropping on allies, the plans afoot were well above the ASA team’s pay grade and ‘Need to Know’. However, daily arrangements for the transfer of their translated intercepts to a nearby air base to be flown out to NSA-Washington, gave the team a pretty good idea of how serious the matter was.

Each day’s intelligence product was packed in ammo cans rigged with thermite grenades, then transported by jeep under armed guard. ASA’s security guards were under orders to pull the grenade pins and run like hell if there was any danger the material might be compromised and the clandestine US operation exposed to the South Vietnamese government.

15 Oct 63 ASA monitoring base at Phu Lam

          Jeff wrote me from Saigon that he and the special ASA group were pulling out and returning to the Philippines.

During the rush deployment from the PI, Jeff had forgotten to leave a forwarding address at the Clark mailroom, and while he was in Vietnam on that first tour he never wrote home.

Of course he couldn’t write about the secret operation – not even fellow ASA troops in the area with high security clearances were entitled to know – but off-duty Jeff did do other things that could be put in a letter. He was especially taken with Saigon, then called the Paris of the Orient.

 Saigon flower stall, 1963

Meanwhile, our Mother wrote him at Clark AFB, but her letter came back marked ‘UNKNOWN’. Understandably upset, she called their local Congressman who advised a letter to the Army’s Adjutant General.

She wrote the general at the Pentagon that very day, “Dear Sir: I will appreciate your advising me by return mail exactly where my son is.” Unaware of the distress he had caused our parents, Jeff casually resumed corresponding from the PI.

29 Oct 63 – back at 9th ASA, Clark AFB

          I’m now back in the PI after 49 days in Vietnam. Don’t believe what Madame Nhu** is saying in the States. The fact remains that South Vietnam is a complete dictatorship and the Buddhists are persecuted.

          The rainy season has ended, but heat and humidity linger. Hopefully we’ll have cooler weather soon. This climate breeds lethargy.

♫ We’re having a heat wave,
A tropical heat wave††††
My driver’s license was supposed to be renewed by September 30th, and I didn’t do it. I was in Vietnam at the time, in the jungle. I’ll write to Motor Vehicles and tell them I was fighting a war and to please excuse this oversight.

On 1 Nov ‘63 the South Vietnamese generals carried out their successful coup during which the president and his brother, the notorious secret police chief Nhu, were assassinated. General Minh, leader of the junta, became the new head of state, beginning a long period of political instability in Saigon.

General Minh, new head of state, 1963

Meanwhile, on the lighter side of history, our Mother’s insistent inquiry as to Jeff’s whereabouts had worked its way down the chain of command from Washington to Saigon and back to the 9th ASA at Clark – much to his embarrassment:

5 Nov 63

          I know you must have been worried when your letter was returned to you, especially after reading about the coup in Saigon (by the way it’s the best thing that's happened in Vietnam in a decade; now the people are very happy).

          I neglected to write to tell you I had returned to the PI, but I wish you hadn’t contacted your Congressman. It caused a lot of trouble for the field station commander, my company commander (CO), and me.

I’m writing this letter because I have received a direct order from my CO to write one tonight. He even wants to see me put it in the mail.

          Please be more discreet in the future. The Army and I (although at opposite ends of the philosophical totem pole), do not relish embarrassments and inconveniences like this.

22 Nov 63

          In the middle of the night we heard of the President’s assassination. No words can describe the gloom that hangs over this place. It’s as if a little bit of everyone suddenly died. It was more than a shock – much more than a shock.

20 Dec 63

          I think the States are going to hell under the strain of the ‘Cold War’. As for me, I haven’t yet decided whether I’m going to agitate in my society to better it, or retire from the struggle completely to hide in some environment like the academic community.

          Vietnam is a little quieter these days. Happy Holidays.

          The turbulent year ’63 came to a subdued end, but then just several weeks later in early ‘64 another coup took place in Saigon, and Jeff was soon on his way back to Vietnam – back to war – a story for another time.    

*Tagalog, along with English, one of the two official languages of the Philippines.

**Diem’s sister-in-law, then on a speaking tour in the US promoting the regime.