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One Soldier's Journey into Covert Warfare
By Daniel Marvin, William C. Calabretta, Jeanne Calabretta
Trine Day LLCCopyright © 2006 Daniel Marvin
All rights reserved.
John 8:32 — And ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.
Lieutenant Colonel Tuttle, the commander of all Special Forces in the IV Tactical Corps of South Vietnam, spoke in a whisper, "Dan, if you take command of A-424 and accept this TOP SECRET mission, you'll be on your own. When you leave this room, it will be as if we never met. We can't and won't stand behind you if you are caught doing what I am about to tell you to do. Got it, Captain?"
It was a sobering moment as together we looked out across the border from our command bunker toward the enemy's Cambodian Sanctuary. There a 2,400 man Viet Cong Regiment stood poised to attack our irregular forces who manned outposts and ambush sites all along that common border. It was 18 June 1966. Though outnumbered and outgunned by the Communists, we knew from past victories that we could defend the thirty kilometer stretch of border and maintain a secure area for our 64,000 people — if the enemy were our only concern.
Major Phoi Van Le and I, emotions temporarily masked, stood silent on either side of the .50 Caliber machine gun whose octagonal barrel pointed out over the defenses of our special operations camp and toward the Cambodian border.
Today was profoundly different from the previous times, ushering in an experience that would be forever seared into the very fabric of our wartime recollections. Major Le, my Vietnamese counterpart, was a courageous and truly stoic leader of men and a veteran of eighteen years in combat. I held him up as a five foot five equal to my film hero, John Wayne. "For the first time," he told me, "I fear what might happen in An Phu."
It was a fact he was not proud of, but it was the truth that he shared unashamedly with me as he would a brother. We had achieved that degree of closeness. Major Le was one of those rare leaders who had always stood tall, had never wavered from honorable conduct nor backed away from danger. He had always led his men into battle and was known for doing what he could to safeguard noncombatants whenever possible who had trusted him for their safety and security. For a brief period he was understandably unsure and perhaps most distraught by the thought he might no longer be capable of protecting the people of An Phu.
Why such a momentous shift in confidence? Just two days prior I had ordered CIA Agent Walter MacKem to leave my camp and he had left showing his anger at what I'd done, even threatening retribution, shouting "You can't fight the system, Captain, because you can't win."
It was the 20th of June 1966 when Major Le and I together pondered the situation and our alternatives. Only moments before we had received word from one of our agents in the Province Capital of Chau Doc that a heavily armed 1500 man ARVN Regiment with US advisors was being assembled immediately in front of our B Team compound in preparation for an attack on our camp. US Navy LCUs that would bring them, with their massive firepower, up the Bassac River to attack our camp, formed what seemed an endless line of vessels waiting their turn to load their deadly cargo. Major Le turned toward me, reached out and we shook hands. Both of us were very much aware that our time together could now be short. It was time for a miracle and I prayed for just that. Major Le looked into my eyes as he liked to do when he was real serious. "I hope our emissary from the Hoa Hao people reaches General Dang in time to stop the slaughter." Tears welled in his eyes. I'd never seen Major Le cry, but I knew he loved his men and that his real concern was that others would suffer, even die at the hands of the ARVN troops.
"And I hope General Dang is on our side," I returned, not knowing the General or his loyalties as well as Major Le. As military advisor to the Hoa Hao Central Council, he had collaborated with General Dang on military matters in the past.
Major Le glanced at me, smiling weakly, "Of that I have no doubt, Dai-uy. No doubt at all."
I would never have believed that when I gave my oath to defend our country, the US bureaucracy would turn full-force and order the death of my team and those whom we were there to help. It was shocking testimony to what can be a hidden danger in covert operations. What appeared to be truly catastrophic events threatening to engulf and destroy us came to pass because I stood my ground for what I truly believed to be the right and honorable course of action while going against the unconscionable dictates of the CIA. Those final, tense days now seem almost unreal, but they were indeed real and are relived in these pages as I unfold the truth I experienced as a 32 year old Green Beret Captain in Vietnam.
Secrecy was demanded during the many months of rigorous guerrilla and counter-guerrilla warfare training. Once we'd passed the acid test and had earned the right to wear the coveted Green Beret, we discussed little of what we'd learned with family or friends. That secrecy fostered strained relations within family, non-SF friends and wives. When Kate and I exchanged vows in October 1956, I was a 23 year-old Sergeant First Class and a paratrooper in the 82nd Airborne Division at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. We'd first met some seven years earlier at a square dance in Enfield Center, New York. I was sixteen, the stepson of a farmer who had bought a horse from her father when she was 13 years old.
The day President Kennedy was assassinated we were stationed at Yuma Proving Grounds in Arizona. I immediately volunteered for Special Forces, my passion being to earn and wear the Green Beret he had personally authorized. I wanted more than anything to be one of those unconventional warriors he considered as the "elite" within our military.
As the wife of a Green Beret, it would be psychologically heart-wrenching for Kate to be ready at a moment's notice to bid me good-bye, not knowing where the mission was taking me, how long I'd be gone, or what danger was involved. Duty demanded I tell her only superficial "fluff." If and when I could write, those letters were void of even the smallest detail of covert activities, code names or reference to unconventional warfare.
Though Kate knew in general terms where I was during my entire career, it would be twenty years after I earned the Green Beret before I shared with her what I'd actually experienced of an unconventional nature. I hadn't considered the negative mental effect telling the truth would have on her, thinking she would be happy to at last be aware of what being a Green Beret truly meant in all aspects of its secret, unconventional nature. After learning of the dark side of guerrilla warfare, special demolitions, interrogation methods and operations that ignored, even defied the International Law of Land Warfare, paarticularly assassination and terrorism, Kate was emotionally blown away. One day in the Spring of 1984 she blurted out, "You are not the man I married!" and she had never been so right. This way of life, though foreign and distasteful to most, was what made my adrenaline flow as nothing else could.
On 22 December 1965, 64 of us who wore the Green Beret arrived over South Vietnam at 10,000 feet, anxious to get on the ground and join in the counterin-surgency we'd all asked to be a part of. As we approached Saigon's Tan Son Nhut air base in a plush Southern Air Transport jet, we peered out cabin windows and saw flashes of artillery and rocket explosions in the distance, too far to disturb a perfect, though hurried, landing. As the big jet rolled to a stop, we gathered our gear, deplaned and were instantly introduced to the reality of 100 degree heat and high humidity.
A young sergeant from 5th Special Forces Group met us and led with quickened strides for 100 yards to a waiting Army Caribou aircraft. Its two propeller-driven engines were kept running as a load master motioned us up the ramp to the deck where we were told to stow our gear and strap ourselves into the canvas seats. In a few minutes we were airborne and on our way to Group headquarters at Nha Trang, situated 215 miles northeast of Saigon on the South China Sea coast.
Two days earlier I'd said good-bye to Kate and our three girls at the airport outside of Ithaca, New York. I'd also said good-bye to several inches of snow, a bitter wind and 25° temperature. I'd wanted to wave good-bye from my window seat but the swirling snow made it impossible to see the terminal where I knew they would be standing. I hoped that Kate would be safe driving our new Volkswagen Beetle home, some three miles distant, and I knew in my heart that she would take our separation and all that went with it in stride. Ithaca, after all, was where she was born, where we met and were married. If any problems arose while I was away, all of her family lived in the area and I was confident they would look out for her and the girls. The flight from Ithaca to the municipal airport in Fayetteville, North Carolina, was uneventful and the taxi trip to Pope Air Force Base, adjacent to Fort Bragg, quick and pleasant. Base operations personnel at Pope checked me in and quickly led me on board a large Southern Air Transport jet, its engines running and 63 other Green Berets already on board. The CIA played a big part in clandestine activities worldwide and Green Beret troops were routinely flown to various destinations in one of their proprietary airlines' aircraft. It was indeed a plush ride, with gorgeous stewardesses, free drinks, good hot food and a seemingly endless assortment of John Wayne movies.
We landed at Nha Trang Air Base, parked on the blacktop and deplaned into the midst of a scene of furious activity. It was immediately evident, even to the casual observer, that logistical support of all Special Forces (SF) camps in South Vietnam was a demanding and consuming task.
We were shown the mess hall on the way to our transient quarters which weren't fancy but good enough for some shuteye.
At 0700 the next morning, with a hearty breakfast to sustain us, three other officers and myself reported to the briefing room and attended a series of orientations by the Group Commander, Colonel William McKean, and his staff.
We were briefed on logistical support, including emergency air re-supply operations and channels of communication for ordering critical ammunition and other combat support needs by radio to the Logistical Support Center. 5th Group parachute riggers, commanded by First Lieutenant Peter Teasdale, using the SF bundle code system, would drop desperately needed ammunition into the requesting camp's drop zone within a few hours of their request.
Lieutenant Teasdale had served as my assistant S-4 at Fort Bragg and was familiar with the early development of the bundle code system. The code grouped common items such as weapons, ammunition, medical supplies, communication equipment, demolition material, petroleum, rations, and other supplies critical to the mission. Pre-rigged quantities of each bundle were then placed in isolated storage areas with parachutes attached. Each bundle's three digit code, readily transmitted by Morse code or using one time message pads, made it simple and quick to get the right thing to the right place at the right time. The Intelligence Officer (S-2) was the next briefer. Beginning with a summary of significant activity that had affected SF camps in South Vietnam for the preceding 24 hours, he went on to give us an overview of intelligence operations, a synopsis of the current enemy situation and an experience-based look into anticipated enemy activity. He made us acutely aware of the need for a good intelligence network using local assets available to each SF Camp. He warned us of the danger of buying intelligence based on the numbers reported as potentially rewarding agents for providing useless, even dangerous, exaggerations of enemy location, strength and weaponry.
The S-3 followed. Using a long, wooden pointer with a shiny brass tip, he directed our attention to the locations of SF Camps posted on a floor to ceiling map of South Vietnam. The security classification SECRET was stamped at the top and bottom in big, bold, red letters. He pointed out the seventy-eight CIDG camps, beginning in the north at Khe San, and moving southward. Many camps were located on or near South Vietnam's border with Laos and Cambodia and a lesser number in the interior, extending south to a former French customs outpost at Ha Tien, separated only by a narrow inlet from Cambodia in the Gulf of Siam.
Counting us there were 1,592 SF in country, with most advising approximately 28,200 Civilian Irregular Defense Group (CIDG) fighters. Others were leading those 2,300 irregulars assigned to Mike Force units. The CIDG were trained, equipped, and led by Vietnamese Special Forces A Teams, but were paid, housed, fed, supplied and advised by American SF A Teams. Most CIDG personnel, he said, were recruited from local areas to protect and defend their own homes and lands, fighting the Viet Cong insurgents and North Vietnamese regular forces that attacked their area. The program included ethnic Cambodians, members of the Buddhist Hoa Hao and Cao Dai sects, ethnic Chinese and the mountain tribal warriors known collectively as Montagnards. He took the time to tell us of the unique nature of the Mike Force. They were equipped as a mobile reaction force with certain of their units on stand-by and available around the clock to go to the aid of SF camps in real danger of being overrun. All Mike Force units were commanded by American Green Berets. In addition, a total of 28,800 Regional Force and Popular Force paramilitary soldiers operating in certain areas under Group control were advised by SF personnel. He stressed the importance of reports: The Monthly Operational Summary (MOPSUM), Situation Reports (SITREPs) and Spot Intelligence Reports (SPOTREPs). Every report was reviewed at Group headquarters to make sure that Group staff knew what was going on out in the field. Timely and accurate reports were essential to the task of developing sound plans for logistical support of unconventional operations in the field throughout South Vietnam. By pin-pointing enemy activity in each team area they could better place close air support and medical evacuation resources on stand-by at locations within range of those camps most likely to require emergency assistance.
He paused to sip from a glass of water on the podium, asked that we hold our questions until the briefing was over and told us he'd then be in the back of the room to answer any questions that remained. The Civil Affairs Officer (S-5), responsible for civic action and psychological warfare operations, was next to brief. He engaged us in an energetic, challenging and thought-provoking mental walk through those areas his office managed and supported, with particular emphasis on the importance of winning the hearts and minds of the people. He inspired with his enthusiasm and helped us to understand why at least half of our team effort on the ground must involve civic action projects and psychological warfare activity if we were to succeed. "For many years," he told us, "the Saigon government had been insensitive to the needs and aspirations of the Montagnards, Hoa Hao and Cao Dai Buddhist Sects and ethnic Cambodians. As a result, little if any loyalty to the Saigon regime existed among the people in these groups. All together," he explained, "they made up the majority of the rural population, but lacking a patriotic spirit, were fair game for Communist propaganda." One of our major challenges would be to help lessen and gradually set aside government apathy, and in some cases, open hostility toward these groups. He explained how most civic action programs would be developed by our A Team members working with their South Vietnamese Special Forces (LLDB) counterparts, local village leaders and district officials. They would initially determine the realistic needs of the people and assess the capability of local government and SF to satisfy those needs determined to be critical. Programs included bridge, school and dock construction, road building and medical patrols. SF medics were easily the most appreciated men in the operational A teams because they were out in the district on a daily basis, even into the smallest hamlets, easing pain and suffering among the local people, particularly children and the aged. All of what the teams did for and with the people helped to develop trust and foster the loyalty needed to count them as our friends in the struggle against the Communist insurgency. "Trust is earned and loyalty follows," he emphasized, "An important function of each A Team member is to then attempt to redirect that loyalty to the Vietnamese government. No easy task," he concluded, "but you best keep that first and foremost in your minds. We will all be gone back home some day and the worst thing we could do would be to leave a vacuum." He then introduced the Adjutant and stepped down.
The man each of us was anxious to hear from and who would tell us where we were going — now stood facing us, smiling and holding a number of personnel folders in his hand. Every SF Captain worth his salt hoped to command an A Team and I was no exception! At the same time, I thought my fate was sealed, that I'd have to stay in Nha Trang and work in the LSC due to my logistics background. At 32, I was the oldest Captain in this group, and I was pleasantly surprised when he called me up front, handed me a set of orders, and informed me I'd be going to Can Tho in the IV Corps Tactical Zone. He told me to report to Colonel Tuttle, the C Team commander. He directed me to the flight operations center where I was to ask for the earliest flight to Can Tho.
Excerpted from Expendable Elite by Daniel Marvin, William C. Calabretta, Jeanne Calabretta. Copyright © 2006 Daniel Marvin. Excerpted by permission of Trine Day LLC.
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