Here is Ashley's original letter to me in 1991. LDE
Jeff Ashley, CIA, interview.
Tape 1, Side 1
Let me see. I was born in 1946 in Minneapolis. And my father was from Virginia my mother was from Minnesota. Mother was German Catholic, father was a machinist and a union man. We moved to California in 1955. To Glendora. And I grew up here, graduated from High School in 1963, went to Stanford. National Merit Scholar. I screwed up and sort of essentially lost my scholarship. My junior year. My major, what a story. I wanted to major in everything. They didn’t have that. I was lost. I was lost and they didn’t know I was there. I’ve got two kids, the younger one is graduating this year, and I know that, as I understand, Stanford has changed policies on undergraduates and shepherds them through. I was given a general studies advisor in the physics department who knew nothing. And I was just a ghost on campus, sort of . I was involved, politically. Philosophy was where I thought I wanted to be and I tried to write a paper on epistemology. That’s the story of my life. How do we know what we know? How in the hell do I know. I got the degree but many many years later. I was at Stanford from 1963 until spring of 1966, during that period I attended a teach in. I was politically aware. My family was always Democratic. The ordinary knowledge of Vietnam came from Life magazine from 1959 or 1960. We were Catholic, and here was a Catholic president of a struggling little country in Southeast Asia, And it was very Kennedyesque. And Kennedy was a friend of our ally, and so I was, that was acceptable.
I finally volunteered for the draft. I knew I was vulnerable and I thought I’d be captain of my fate. I volunteered for the draft in San Jose which got me just the two years. I registered in San Jose and volunteered at the same time. Was drafted in November 1966. I went to the draft board and told them put me down for next month and I took someone else’s spot. But I was nonetheless drafted, a two year commitment instead of three years. And so I went in the army and they made me a medic and sent me to Vietnam. I got to Vietnam in May 1967. Was assigned to civil affairs. In Phan Thiet. Spent May of 67 to, my tour took me to May of 68. So I was there during the TET offensive. During that time, my job in civil affairs was, they gave me a big box of medicine and sent me out to the villages and the hamlets around Phan Thiet. I had the area north of Phan Thiet. We had three teams in Phan Thiet.
I knew no American priests in the area. There were a couple of older Catholic villages and French priests. In my territory there was one northern village that had come south intact and brought their priest in 1954. They had barbed wires around their village and defended themselves. We also had several New Life Hamlets. Which were gruesome little things, because they had 50 houses in tract development like thing, on a graded space, all next door to each other and they’re all made out of sheet metal. Also in my area I had older areas with traditional houses out among the rice paddies which were much more charming.
I was at that time I was alive and my opinion at the time was that we were doing a good thing and that the people of Vietnam wanted us there or wanted to be saved from the communists. One experience which encapsulates, is, during the TET offensive the VC came in and they too half of Phan Thiet, one side of the Phan Thiet river, for several days. And it took all of the, they controlled all of the territory that was my territory. And so then it was like a flood receding and in the next month or two we got back out and continued our efforts. One hamlet, the hamlet chief, three hamlets to a village, fairly artificial in that many of these hamlets had no historical existence and often there would be two brand new hamlets linked to an old hamlet and they’d be called a village. And the officials were, lived in Phan Thiet and just went out to the hamlets in the day time, which was definitely at their discretion. And I am not sure even how much of a relationship they had to the hamlets and village. As far as I know they may have been city people simply appointed to those positions. In fact I remember that at some point, that Hamlet and Village elections were encouraged and took place in many of these places that had appointed officials. One of the hamlet chiefs took me aside and I was by that time proficient in the language. He pleaded with me and he said “You have to understand that you Americans come to us and you give us medicine and you build us bridge and you give us fruit and candy and then the VC come in at night and they take our chickens and they take our rice and they take what we have and they do it with feeling and you do it without feeling. Which way do you think my people lean? And that was a revelation to me. That focused a lot for me over the years. I don’t know what he thought he was going to accomplish by telling me this, but it was very very important to him to let us know this.
What did this mean? With emotion. There are different phrases for emotions and feelings in Vietnam. I guess its humanity, I’m not sure. They had the sympathy of the people and we did not. They mattered and we did not.
What did the VC give them? Nothing. In some places, the Catholic villages, the people were afraid of them. The northern Catholics had no sympathy or feelings for the VC. But in many of the other villages it was their own family, brothers and cousins. And families are extended there. And at that time the VC local forces were basically just those local forces.
I know this is true from later experiences. My feeling at the time was I felt we were working with people of Vietnam against the communists. And I sort of feel that way now. There have been changes in my feelings but not in my fundamental understanding.
It so happened in early 1968 I proposed to a Vietnamese school teacher. During the TET offensive in fact and we tried to get married. I went to my company, my experiences are very different from what I’ve read about other people. I know what happened to me. I went to my company and said I want to extend. To get married. They said there is a rule that you cannot extend to get married. So here let’s put in your extension first and then we’ll put in your application to get married. And so for whatever reason my company assisted me in circumventing the military rules. And I did that and when one extended in Vietnam one got a month’s free leave anywhere in the world. Of course most people went home. And then a lot of people extended and stayed and a lot of people stayed a year and a half, two or three years. And guys in combat units could extend for six months and would get removed from their units and moved somewhere else. Somewhere safer. I think there was an effort to keep people and to extend as many volunteers and possible and to cut the number of new people sent to Vietnam. I knew lots of guys who volunteered to come to Vietnam from Germany because Germany was hell for them. So I extended for six months and I took a trip to Europe. That was my first trip to Europe. Came back, went through the system, got married in October, 1968, and had to extend for three more months in order to get all the paperwork done. The Vietnamese were nothing but good to me on my wife’s paperwork and my paperwork. Had troubles with the bureaucratic running around to get her a US Visa, but paid no bribes to anybody. The Vietnamese were super kind. I ran all of her paperwork in Saigon. And we came back here in February of 1969. I came back, I needed the GI Bill, I did a year at junior college. It was a good year and I got a job as a hospital orderly. I went to computer school for six months, all in southern California. And my wife didn’t work. We got together with lots of Vietnamese American couples. We had a group of maybe 15 couples and at least once a month and often more often than that we got together on the weekends. The women would gather in the kitchen and the men, would sit in the living room and tell war stories. Many people I never otherwise would have met. Most of the women were bar girls. But they all got along well.
In the spring of 1971, the CIA ran an ad in the LA Times for linguists. They want specialists in the Vietnamese language. I answered the ad and I was told later that something like a thousand people responded to the ad. And there were two of us hired. They sent me back to Washington and got a four and a four on the Foreign Service test which is graded one to 5. There is an oral and a written part. And I was the only one who got a four and a four. And so I was hired. Went aboard in September. Meanwhile, I had two sons. One born in March of 1970, and a son in August of 1971.
I thought they were going with me so I volunteered. My sons were the first American dependents authorized to return to Vietnam since 1963. So there’s, as things developed, dependents had go out in 1963. Working wives were allowed in the 1960s and nonworking wives were permitted in about 1969 or 1970. There were several of those there when we got there. And this is US civilian government employees. I’m not sure what the contractors were doing, what their rules were.
Ambassador Ellsworth Bunker had to approve our transfer, and it went through high levels of the state department and they said OK American kids can go back. At the same time there were Americans there who were married to Vietnamese but they didn’t count the same. So it was, I guess, there were a few children who came over the next couple of years I knew of. So we were authorized to go back and we were supposed to go in October. That is when they had the presidential elections were held, and the riots occurred in Saigon and we were held up. And I had spent a month, September and October in Washington. I decided to go home, thought I can’t stay here. I came home on leave and half pay and I had to sit. Sit and wait. Finally in the first week in December we went. So got back to Vietnam in December 1971.
Things had changed. I did not know Saigon well before. I had never known Saigon well and now I was assigned in Saigon. We had an apartment on Tu Do Street just up from the river. Tu Do was basically bars. I was hired to man the listening post on the bug that the CIA put in President Thieu’s office.
The story was that Thieu had wanted a direct link to the ambassador. The story is that it was instigated by him. So we put in a system of green phones and split through. And the station chief Tom Polgar, I gotta believe Ted Shackley was still station chief when I got there and I remember Polgar’s arrival and hearing the speculation about him. Station chief had a green phone and the Ambassador had one and they were all through the Vietnamese community, Thieu had one in his office, Thieu had one in one or more of his bedrooms. You had to dial because there were about fifty people on the system but it just happened to be green.
And they all got shipped over. There was one in Tran Thien Khiem’s (prime minister and defense minister) office. And one in his bedroom also. But oh maybe a dozen of these phones had bugs in them. And we had a listening post down on the fourth floor of the Embassy. There was a room where three guys who worked 24 hours with tape recorders. Picking up anything on any of the phones.
The bugs were live and worked whether the phones were off the hook or on the hook. They were voice activated. This becomes exciting come 1975 and a factor.
We wanted to…there were two guys up there listening to the tapes already. And this other fellow and I were hired in 1971 to man the, to assist on listening to the tapes coming out of the offices. This was exactly what we were supposed to be doing. But here’s the unusual one, the bizarre one. One of the things that was part of my job is that I was briefed on the Kissinger meetings in Paris and they told me there aren’t a hundred Americans who know that Kissinger goes to Paris and has talks, but you have to know because he tells Thieu or someone tells Thieu and you have to know these things are happening. That was the only big secret that was necessary for us to know. There was a warmth to knowing something that so few people knew at the time.
That part was exciting. Before I got to Saigon I was doing my month in Washington, we were being trained or we were practicing, this other fellow and I, and during this period, one of the things, we were working with, in a building in Silver Springs, Maryland, where there was an entire operation of Vietnamese listening to tapes which were shipped in from North Vietnamese Embassies around the world. We had them all tapped. CIA at that time and probably now bugs everything it can bug. Bugs all around the world. One of the big operations was in Copenhagen. There was hot stuff happening in Copenhagen and what we were looking for was agents to compromise, and they thought they could compromise and turn some people in the Vietnamese Embassies some places. And so we listened to the tapes regarding this recruitment. And we listened to some radio tapes. And one of the Items we were listening to, Vietnamese radio, and one word came up in the tape and I didn’t get it and my partner didn’t get it and so we rolled the tape back and listened and again didn’t get it. And my partner said I have no idea what that word is. This is how you write it. He had an ear for Vietnamese and he wrote down the word. And I said, if that’s how you write it, I know what it means. But I couldn’t hear it. So I don’t have an ear for some sounds. So I went to work in this office in Saigon. And there were two guys already there and Chip went in and he did just fine and I could do it, I just couldn’t do anything well. I couldn’t do ten minutes of conversation in an hour. It was excruciating for me. Sometime, I think maybe in January or early February, I went in and said, I just can’t handle this job. It is not what I am good at. So they transferred me down to the translation department, which is why I don’t know a lot more about the tape operation.
I would guess that Hoang Duc Nha, the nephew of President Thieu who was fluent in English, was not a recruited agent for the CIA. Because there was a time, when there was a cabinet shake up and we had no, there were a couple of weeks when we had nobody in the cabinet on the payroll for the agency. The minister of minority affairs was recruited but he didn’t know that much. He was a Montagnard and he didn’t speak Vietnamese that well. Y-klong Adrong was his name. A Rade minority. We had , as far as our friends, we had no problems penetrating. We had people on the payroll.
The one man in the military, the only one that I don’t see as covering his own ass and who told the truth the way I know it and see it was Colonel Le Khac Ly. He was on our payroll too, working for the CIA. He warned our agents up in the Central Highlands about getting out. He had been recruited and he was on the payroll, getting a monthly payment from us before he went up to II Corps.
I was told in Saigon, now working in the translation department. It is very possible that Hoang Duc Nha was on the payroll. I know he provided information for a good part of that time so you know it is hard to believe, there was a bit of a frenzy about recruiting someone in the cabinet, and it just turned out that for a short time we had nobody in the cabinet. And the CIA trusts people on the payroll better than it trusts just “friends.”
We tried to cover all positions and not let anything happen that we did not know about. That was the object. That is why we hired the people we did. We had a waiting list in the National Assembly of people wanting to work as agents for the CIA. We had members of the sovereign legislature of the second Republic of Vietnam come to us and say, I’d like go on your payroll and report to you regularly, and we said, Well, we’ll get back to you.
On the other side, the North Vietnamese and the Viet Cong, we had nothing. We did not penetrate. This is…and…this is the spooky part now. I think, yes, Tom Polgar (CIA Station Chief in Saigon) makes reference in your book to one agent in III Corps whose biography as we knew it…ok, there was one agent in III Corps who is believed to have access to COSVN (the Central Office for South Vietnam ) (Văn phòng Trung ương Cục miền Nam) – the political and military headquarters for the North Vietnamese inside South Vietnam – but nothing in his biography, as I understand it, indicated that he was even a Communist Party member. But it was through an association he acquired information. But when his reports came out everyone paid attention to them.
But as far as the other side, from what I read in Frank Snepp’s Decent Interval, Frank tells me we have an agent also on their politburo in North Vietnam. But I don’t know anything about that. But in South Vietnam we had nothing. And we never did.
On the sixth floor of the embassy was General Charles Timmes had his office there, at the south end of the building, the station chief had a huge office on the sixth floor, outside his office, down the corridor on the right was the CI guy and at one time I borrowed his safe to store some documents and stuff and so, I think there were two different CI guys – Counter Intelligence – and, but I think there was one man in Saigon at that time, and the CI guys were they were strange. They were James Jesus Angleton’s People. We were friendly with them but never too friendly. Across the hall from him was the analyst and that was Pat Johnson, Frank Snepp and a Marine, an ex Marine Major, really nice guy, he was a really nice guy. He had his wife there with them and they happened to be our next door neighbors for a time. I got along...I am not sure what relationships developed but I knew Frank and I knew Pat and I knew this major. He collected porcelain, I recall. And I went out on the town with him one day and he talked to be a lot about how they make porcelain, and he knew these old shops where these people made the porcelain pots. And as it was explained to me – I was the headquarters contract. Most of these people were career CIA people. We also had, particularly down in translation, we had a number of field contracts. And there was a hierarchy there, a pecking order. I was on a contract, I was not in a career mode, I was hired by headquarters. The guys who were hired in the field, could be terminated, they had few job rights. I guess this goes on all around the world. As it was explained to me, these three people were virtually the only analysts outside Washington. The only CIA analysts who were not working in Washington, who were working outside Washington. It was extremely aware to have analysts assigned in the field. It was fairly rare to have a CI guy in the field as well. Cause there was a whole security operation which, maybe that sort of thing is covered by security all around the world. I mean Saigon Station was huge compared to other stations in the world. I was told it was very rare for an analyst to be in the field and not in Washington. The woman who headed the translation department when I was there had a daughter who was an analyst on Vietnam working in Washington.
Then General Timmes was up there. There were a few people who I knew then who explained to me things about the agency and it used to be, at that time, a Deputy Director for Operations, Intelligence and Support and something else. And then Operations was broken down into areas of the world. At one point we were East Asia and at another point we were Far East. This is the organization of the CIA. Of course Asia did not have enough people to man Saigon Station, which was bigger than the whole division was supposed to be on paper. So most of our people were seconded from their divisions. For that reason I worked with people out of Africa Division, hundreds of people out of Europe and others out of Latin America. I had conversations with people who had been in Bolivia. They had to be seconded over. Saigon station could not go on like this. They did not have that many career spots. We needed more people in Saigon, so they requisitioned people from the other divisions for 18 month tours in Saigon. And Europe would give us a hundred and so on. This was explained to me by a fellow who was an Italian specialist. He said, Look, don’t judge the Agency by what you see in Vietnam. There is a reason that each of these Divisions thought these people they sent to Vietnam were expendable. They did not send their best people to Vietnam. They sent people they didn’t want. They sent their chafe. This fellow loved the Agency and he said don’t judge it by what you see in Vietnam.
A lot of that became significant. They were career intelligence types. And so they came out to do the things in Saigon they had done in other places, wherever they came from. We worked like the devil to crack the other side. I mean we had all the bases, when I got there they did not have bases. I think it was after the cease fire that they had bases. Before that they just had subsidiaries of Saigon Station. A base is an official designation within the agency. There are not many of them in the world, but there are stations that have bases. I’m sure Berlin has a Hamburg base or something like that. Base reports to the station that reports to Washington.
There were five bases in South Vietnam. They were Regional Officer in Charge bases, at that time, there were six people, at least on paper, in each of the 43 provinces, plus a huge staff in Saigon.
The guys in the provinces, the top guy would support the province officer in charge. And that remained to the end. He had five people under him on paper. When I was there in the Army I knew nothing about who was in the CIA in my area. It went way over my head when I was in the Army. One guy was assigned to liaison with the National Police. And the interrogation centers. He was designated Echo. I am sure that throughout the 43 provinces that there was an Alpha and then a Bravo and he was probably in charge of operations. And a Charley and a Delta and Echo had the police. I’m not sure who did Phoenix. Not sure if the Echo guy handled Phoenix or somebody else. And then there was a sixth guy. And the chart was the same in any province. Each guy had a designation within each province.
Tape 1, Side 2
Through the late sixties things were fully staffed throughout Vietnam. Then in 73, it may have been 72, the ROIC were designated Bases. Our base chief in Nha Trang, in 74 until the end, was a guy named Bob Chin. He had been chief of station in Singapore. And it was explained that a chief of base in Vietnam was equivalent to a Chief of Station except for the top ten stations. But the Chief of Base reported to the Chief of Station and took directions from him. In translation we were under the offices of support in Saigon, not in operations.
We had lots of interrogations, even before I got there, definitely had people in the interrogation centers. I served a year in Dalat, and we had a liaison with the province interrogation center. And that was nasty stuff because they were beating people. Or they were probably beating people. Our job was to keep a distance from that but at the same time to find out what information they were getting. To get their reports. We gave support, when I was there. Our highest form of support in 1974-75 was gasoline and paper! Give them ten gallons of gasoline and give them two reams of mimeo paper and you owned them.
In the 60s we cared about whether a Vietnamese VC platoon was gonna hit a hamlet on a particular night because there might be Americans there. That was intelligence. Probably up to 1971. But 1971 to 1975 we were still getting that sort of information. Part of my job from early 72 until mid 73 among my other functions I would go with the polygraph people. The Saigon station was probably unique in the world. We had three polygraph operators assigned to the station. In Africa there is one, for all of Africa. And he travels around as needed. But in Saigon we had three full time. I would go to question or box agents or prospective agents. Put them on the box, the lie detector. Because of this I know Region One, MR I, Danang Base, had a linguist. I knew him. He was not good but he was the house linguist. Saigon Base had a linguist. And he was very very good. Region III had something because they never called on us. I went there once on a job. Region Four had nobody, no language capability. Region Two had nobody, no language capability.
No American there who could speak Vietnamese, is what I mean. I would go down once a month to debrief an agent for one of the offices down there. Then I would occasionally travel with the box guys. Always when they went to region 4 I went with them. I guess I was the only guy in our office who wanted to travel. So I got to see a lot of the Delta. One day in one of the provinces was a guy who had been in the Bay of Pigs landing, a Cuban, and he told his story about the Bay of Pigs to me. He also told stories about Bolivia and had stories about Che Guevara. I believe he was present when Che Guevara was caught. We had people like that. He was a fervent anti-communist. I got to see the Delta that way.
The people we put on the box, these had to be people who were honest and the VC could not know that they were our agents. We had thousands of agents, literally. The police, military security service, the military intelligence office. In every province and military region there were these organizations that we coordinated with. And they would all have their own agents and we would get the reports from their agents. We had a special relationship with the Special Branch of the police. And so occasionally we boxed people who were Special Branch agents. They were ostensibly in networks that we controlled that the Vietnamese were not aware of. Of course only Americans could be there when we were boxing our people. We had Vietnamese translators, two or three, interpreters and translators. There was this distinction between the two that we would make. We had them in every province to handle communications and they handled the liaison with the police and with whatever. It could be that there was just one box guy who would not work with a Vietnamese interpreter, and when he boxed someone he would take me along.
The principle of the polygraph is ten questions, seven of which are innocuous and three of which are significant. The three are embedded within the ten. The questions are read in order to the subject ahead of time. He’s asked his answers to the questions and he is asked if there is any problem answering them. We reword a question if necessary, if he is not comfortable answering yes or no. We get the wording he likes, then hook up the box. There is no surprise involved. Generally it was separate from his operations. Generally the case officer would put together a set of questions. We could go through three or four series of ten questions in a session. To determine a pattern of veracity was the goal.
This must have been, must have been Spring of 1973, I went Can Tho on an extended basis for a polygraph test. This is a chapter and there is some information I don’t have. I was sent Can Tho, the situation as it was explained to me was that the base chief had refused to allow his operational network to polygraph. The base chief took his first leave in two years, for thirty days, and the day he left town. He put in a call to Saigon and got a polygrapher down a Can Tho. IV Corps had over a hundred active agents reporting on the VC. They had tons of reports. VC activity and intentions were in the reports. This stuff was the stuff that Frank Snepp was gonna analyze and determine what the communist intentions were. So I got on the plane and went down. I was told that part of the suspicion was that this one American Ops officer, a good guy, a Ukrainian American second generation, he had a Vietnamese woman come to his house or his safe house, had her come for a meeting. She had been making a report. She came inside and sat down to make a report. There was a knock on the door. He had scheduled another agent at the same time. First agent went into the bedroom. Second agent into the living room. She sits down. Makes her report. Goes out. Second agent comes out and finishes her report. Goes to leave and sees that the shoes at the door are not hers. These aren’t my shoes, she says. He says, well, just go ahead and take them. I don’t know what happened but we’ll work it out.
The first agent comes back for a debriefing. He asks her what she did with the shoes she took. She said there were here shoes. He thought these women did not know each other. But guess what. They knew each other. Something is wrong here. Now this is part of the source of the suspicion about what is going on in the Delta. So the base chief called for a polygrapher to come down. And we went down. We start breaking people, one after another after another. These people didn’t know their contacts, they made up everything they had done.
We broke these people. What it came down to. The Vietnamese Military Security Service, received money for us, per capita money on the agents they were running. These agents would make reports to them. As it turned out, the entire plan was that they sent these agents to us to become our agents, to confirm the stories the Military Security told us. So every report we filed from our agents had confirmation from the same agents. The MSS was taking a cut of the money we were giving to our agents. Every agent in IV Corps was blown. Reports had to be…as I recall…reports had to be recalled, a terrible and frightening then in the Agency. They were recalled en masse. It had to be in 1973. Every agent they had was inventing stories. And we finally got a report that the chief of the MSS who was a full colonel, of MR IV, had taken a trip to Bien Hoa, at which he met some of our people there. But the purpose of his trip was to brief was to brief the MSS in MRIII on how to screw the Americans. This was so widely known in the Vietnamese community, that they were sending, doing exchanges on how to rip us off. Every one of our agents in IV Corps was blown that week. Total fabrications they were giving us. And these are all low level agents.
In 1974 I got involved in a couple of situations in II Corps. And in one instant an agent was proposed to be one of our agents, to get a cryptonym. The agents are referred to by their cryptonym. Each country in the world has been assigned a two character prefix. As one works in the Agency one learns what these mean. Every agency agent has a cryptonym, and it will be a two character header, indicating which country he belongs to, and then a word. And there was a whole division in headquarters to assign cryptonyms. They are supposed to pick the words at random so there is no way that anybody encountering VK Promise or VK Rector would know what they did or who they were. The two character designation for South Vietnam was TU and the special police randomly received the cryptonym of Bright. So our guys were TU Bright, anything that came from TU Bright came from the special branch of police. But these guys were not too bright at all and so there were wonderful jokes on that. So you’d always talk about your agent as TU this or that. TU Windsong/1 or /2 or so on.
So all the agents in IV Corps were frauds. All were compromised.
I felt there was a great expenditure of money that was a great waste of money. We were trying to keep track of what was happening in the country. That meant keeping someone in the cabinet, keeping someone in every committee in the legislature on that side.
I got sent up country to Nha Trang in 1974.We had a defector. A fairly high level defector. He was on the province politburo of one of the provinces. And he came over and I spent a month debriefing him. That’s when I learned about communist organization and that they do essentially the same thing about identifying themselves. They have such a rigid structure from nation to region to province to district to village, you can know who is who by his title and you can know what he does and who he reports to. It was to some extent news to me. I had read Douglas Pike and basically it is what is in Douglas Pike’s work on the VC. When I realized how they were organized…our object was to penetrate the enemy, to find people who knew people or who were related to people who were significant in the VC structure. And if you recruit the cousin and he recruits somebody else and he gets somebody else and then finally you get someone who is on the district committee. I say the district committee cause we never achieved that. As far as I know it was never done. Except one agent at Bien Hoa had some kind of contact inside COSVN and seemed to bring good information. There was a debate about this one agent as to whether he was real or not and whether he was a double agent. His information was never really that good. So I debriefed this defector. He came out and the province chief handed him over to us. I am certain he was genuine. We boxed him. He told me that we, the US almost won the war in 1966. We had them on the ropes because we denied them salt and they were dying. They were suffering from lack of salt. So they made their own deal and they came up with schemes to bribe the right people and bribe province chiefs and get salt up into the mountains, where they were. The lack of salt was worse than the B52s in the highlands.
I think this was true, the way he told it. He had been a Viet Minh and went north from 54 to 56. And he had been a very bright star in the party, according to him. And he was assigned to one of the numerous committees investigating the injustices of the land reforms. And he told me that in North Vietnam there were indeed 100,000 people executed in North Vietnam during the land reform of 1954-55. And I’ve read other places that said it was only 15,000. I know I have one person who was there as a representative of the Communist Party and who was demoted because of the excesses of the trials and executions from the land reform. Afterward they said they felt bad about it. He had then been sent south and was in South Vietnam from 66 to 73 when he came out.
He came out he said because he was not being treated well. He did not get along with the province secretary and he was given demeaning tasks. He had gotten into trouble because he had asked to marry and he had married this woman who came out with him who was a nurse, and something of a bimbo, I thought. Intellectually far below him. And that got him in trouble because he had a wife in 1954 and a couple of kids and he was supposed to be celibate. So he had showed his loss of faith in the revolution and he showed it again by defecting. He was tired. He wanted out.
He did not think they were about to win.
Other than that we almost no information on the enemy. And we were out recruiting and I started on something on going to one of the provinces and they had a proposal for an agent, and this person was not even a party member. There was no reason to recruit him. The only person who would be of value to us had to be on the district politburo or higher. And the current affairs is the translation. And that was totally out of rich. A village committee was out of reach. A party member was out of reach. We had relatives of party members reporting to us. This was just totally absurd.
As far as I was concerned I did not get involved in POWs with information. I know in 1971 there was a joint center to interrogate soldiers who were captured. There were not captives being from the NVA not up in II Corps. There were very few captives after the ceasefire in 1973. Frank Snepp’s source got captured in 1972 I think but he was a civilian.
The week before Ban Me Thuot. I think it was attacked on the 12th, I think, of March 1975. A Monday. I am certain they were attacked on a Monday morning. On Saturday I flew from Nha Trang to Ban Me Thuot where someone met me at the airport. I had picked up a North Vietnamese diary and taken it back to Nha Trang on Saturday. I don’t think it was a Vietnamese S2 military intelligence guy. It was a diary from the 325F division. The NVA designated units ABCD and so on. And this one was F designation. And we did not know the 325th division. We had heard of it, we had information on it, that it existed. But we did not know where it was. This was on Saturday. This was a diary taken from a KIA North Vietnamese soldier.
Tape 2 Side 1
We knew from that diary and our Intel that there was going to be an attack in the Central Highlands. But everyone expected an attack in the highlands that spring. The enemy had the capability of choosing Kontum, Pleiku or Ban Me Thuot, or the base north of Kontum, Dak To. The enemy had the choice of where they would attack and then we would respond. But I had no idea when doomsday would be. In fact it should not have been doomsday at all. There was going to be an attack and then they would come out of the forest and assault and then we could hit them. That was it. And that was how the war was expected to go. That sort of matches the 1972 offensive. In that they came out and they got shot up and they went back with no secure achievements.
It was obviously a different situation, though, from what was there in 1972. In 1975 there were no longer and B52s. But there was an Order of Battle. We had 13 divisions, and they had 11. Something like that. I think that’s how it was and the 325 was the Joker that gave them 12 or 13. But there was no expectation of major losses. There was gonna be a fight, a war. A war was anticipated and defeat was not by us. It is what we were feeling. It was exciting. But there was no, we had the men to put in and we had all the local forces and there were plenty of troops on our side and we should be capable of stopping them.
We saw no widespread demoralization among the ARVN at that time or the population of the South in general.
The thing I know about is our guys getting stuck up there in the highlands. We knew that Thieu had gone to Cam Ranh Bay on that Friday. On Saturday morning, at CIA we had three guys in Pleiku. On that Saturday morning, Le Khac Ly came running over and told our guys that Pleiku was being evacuated. And they radioed it down to us in Nha Trang, I was in Nha Trang then, and it was a Saturday morning, we worked Saturday mornings. And I was there and got this word and it was shocking. And, but there was no doubt about the accuracy of it. It was sent down to Saigon and I’m not at all sure how the coding worked. We had a full communications set up in Nha Trang. But in Pleiku all they had was a single radio and so everything was done in the clear. We had the capability of coding things with one-time pads and whatever, and they probably sent something encoded and we sent it on to Saigon and Saigon came back and said, No confirmation. It’s not true! This is the understanding that we had is that General Timmes had gone out and made the inquiries and had gotten negative response. The unmentioned part of this, and I think I was the only one in Nha Trang who knew about it, is that the phone taps revealed nothing. And Thieu did not mention this in his office or near any of our taps. And the suspicion is that he knew or he had come to realize that the phones were tapped. And that since we were so dependent on that as a source, and if he did not say anything it meant it was not true. This is where intelligence gets fuzzy and this is where provocations come in. Suddenly someone can flip us a lie because he has made us believe what haven’t been lies before. The speculation at that moment, that day and for the next two months, there was no doubt among my colleagues, that Thieu’s intention was to have Americans captured in Pleiku and that would bring back the B52s. He wanted the CIA guys captured. That was our feeling. I do not know if there has ever been confirmation of that. But that explains or serves to explain a whole bunch of what happened. And Col. Ly had definitely had made the point at that time was that his instructions from Saigon were “Do not tell the Americans!” And so Bob Chin just set a plane up to evacuate our guys and they got out and I don’t remember if he waited for permission from Saigon to do that or if he just did it on his own. It was a tense day as to what the hell was going on. And Saigon, there was aggravation that what they heard in Saigon they believed more than they believed what our guys saw in Pleiku.
They had a radio in Pleiku and they were supposed to go through us. They did not panic, they got many of their employees down to Nha Trang and they got some of their valuables out. There was one guy who was very heavy and he wore civilian fatigues, that was his costume or uniform. They sent up a C47 for them and it had a back hatch and as the hatch was about to be lifted, he had a bottle of Scotch that he threw out onto the runway, and this was his reverse christening of Pleiku, because Americans were not going back to Pleiku, obviously.
We knew something very weird was going on. The Vietnamese who was the chief interpreter in Pleku – I got him on the plane to Saigon and got him on the plane to the US and got my local parish to sponsor him and his family. He lived her for about a year and then he moved to Texas. He lives in Plano now, Phan Dinh Cau. He was there. He has a brother who is a priest and who is very active in the community, His Catholic name is Joseph. He lives in San Jose. Father Joseph Phan.
The B52s were not coming back unless something serious happened and our speculation was that Thieu wanted our guys or the consulate guys captured. We thought we were special and we thought Thieu would treat us as if we were special. That would explain the evacuation of Pleiku. The method of evacuation was absurd. No explanation for that. We got reports all that week from the trail, we had planes flying over. All that week we sat there and could not believe what was happening. We knew people out there on the trail, we had our military contacts, and that was sort of the, when you give away two divisions on the Order of Battle, suddenly you are weak.
We knew what was going on in Danang, too. We got it through Saigon. Al Francis was the Consul General up there.
I was in the office every morning, and we are into March of 1975, we had the attack in Ban Me Thuot. We had Americans captured, but not from the CIA, not one of ours. One was from the Embassy. He was married to a Montangard, and he had been there for ten years or something, and he was very much an advocate of the Montangards and he was stuck in his house. And Air America belonged to us and we sent a plane up to circle his place and communicate with him for two days but there was no way to get him out. The agency had nobody left in Ban Me Thuot.
In every province there was one chief translator and when we pulled out, in July of 1973 not all provinces were manned anymore. In 11 Corps we stayed in Phan Thiet and Thuy Hoa. In Pleiku and Qui Nhon and Dalat and from Dalat we were supposed to be running four provinces.
There was a nuclear reactor at the University of Dalat. The director was a friend of mine. He taught at the university. He went back in late March when the city had been largely evacuated. It may have been the last days that the province chief was there, something like that. He went back and got the plutonium rods. The consular rep was a guy named Mac Proseau. Dalat was a major city and that was a choice assignment. Mac was the consular rep up there. He was from New England somewhere. He just really thought he was cultural and he belonged in Dalat. This was like a cursory capital. He just ate it up. He went out with these people, the director, a guy named Ngo Dinh Long, and he lives in Cerritos now. He was the professor. And I talked to him some time ago, because I knew them socially. His daughter married the son of one of my employees from Nha Trang and the parents were not at all, the professor and his wife were not at all happy about the marriage because he was a rock musician. The professor and his wife had gone to the University of Michigan. And they met at UM and one of their daughters was born in the US. The wife ran the Vietnamese American Association in Dalat. A wonderful person.
I don’t think the materials at the reactor were capable of being made into a weapon. So anyway he went back and got the rods and brought them to Saigon and they got shipped to the US.
I went to Bob Chin in the station and said, it seems to me that this country is going. And the only thing that’s going to be of interest in this country in the next 50 years is something nuclear. Have you considered infiltrating the nuclear establishment. And since I knew Long, I think there were 12 or 13 Vietnamese trained in nuclear physics. And I said, don’t we want to cut a deal with one of these people that will put him on a salary and give him – part of my job in April in Saigon was kind of busy work, I was given an area of Saigon and was supposed to go out and find dead drop sites, so we could leave gold bars for our stay behind agents. And so there were certainly none in the area where I was assigned because I thought the whole idea was stupid. And I never did what I was supposed to do on this. But it seemed to be we ought to cut a deal with some of the nuclear people. I was assigned to professor Long. I was assigned a safe house. And I invited him over to talk to me. And he came and I put this to him. There was no doubt in his mind who I was. And he said, you have to understand, someone from the Embassy is in touch with us and had already arranged to evacuate all of the nuclear physicists. And I thought, Well, that’s just great. I had nothing more to say to him. It turned out that Professor Long got on still a different list because his wife from the V-A Association had contacts in the USAID and they used her contacts and got out very early, something like on the 20th of April. And then they flew direct to San Francisco and stayed with relatives. They had no trouble. I abandoned going anywhere anymore on nuclear physics.
I was in Nha Trang before it fell. There were records and there were records there. All of our stuff in Nha Trang were shredded. I had taken some of my personal files to Saigon at some point and left them in a drawer in the office and I don’t think I ever saw them again. Everything in the last couple of days our files were shredded. With regard to the files kept by our Vietnamese employees, they were also our files but they were not our secrets, they were known to the Vietnamese, I don’t think anything was destroyed from them. I think we just left the Nha Trang consulate intact. We had cabinet after cabinet after cabinet of reports from the special branch and military intelligence going back for 15 years and we had everything indexed on index cards and ostensibly the agents for us could not be identified. We had duplicates of the files that were in the National Police headquarters. We had most everything they had. And all of that was left intact. My people did no shredding of that material.
The situation in Nha Trang got worse and worse in March and April. My family left Nha Trang on the last Tuesday in March, the 25th I think. (Monday March 31st. The first April is a Tuesday. ) The 10th of March is a Monday, so the attack started on the 10th. So we evacuated Pleiku on the 15th. I went to work every day. We were drawing back. I took over a big part of the liaison in Nha Trang. At some point in those last weeks S2 became mine. I had to go to Sector and see the S2 every day to see what was going on. My family left on Tuesday the 25th of March. The S2 of the province. He told me, you Americans, just get out. Leave and let us do our things. We are staying. We are staying and saving the province. We are not running. And about three weeks later he came to me in Saigon and asked me to help him get to the US. Certainly he beat me to Saigon.
Part of the situation in those days, I did no coordinating on the regional level. I don’t know if someone did. There was still a guy there who did coordination with the police. There were ten of us there on the last day. We must have been shredding, I know there was a situation. There were things going on with people coming down from Danang. And the barges were off the coast. And we had reports that Al Francis, the consul general from Danang was on a barge. I was at the airport a lot cause there was a big deal about evacuating people at this point. We started getting people out, our people out, that weekend. We got all of our office employees out to Saigon with their families. On planes. I was deeply involved in that. And getting them to the airport. I remember this family camped on my front lawn in Nha Trang, just for an afternoon, and I got them to the airport and got them to Saigon.
On the 31st of March, Bob Chin called us into his office and said, We are drawing down again tomorrow. There are five of you going to Saigon and five of us staying. I want you to come to work in the morning, very casually, as every day. And five of you will go out to the airport and leave. And don’t tell anybody because there are five of us staying behind and you could be endangering us.
He and the chief of support and the air officer, and the police guy and probably the chief of finance, stayed behind. Five of them. I was sent out and the deputy chief of base had two huge suitcases and I walked out with just a brief case. That’s all I had. And he showed up with a suitcase. I paid my maid, paid her double before leaving. Two months’ salary. And had given his maid all of the piasters he had. I had so much stuff I left behind in Nha Trang. It was my home.
The five of us went in two cars out to the Air America office, we had some support guys out there. And we got on a C130 and went to Saigon. This was on the morning of the 1st of April. I have a feeling that on that morning I went over to regional headquarters and General Pham Van Phu was unavailable. I know I went over to region headquarters and saw Phu in the previous week. I had seen the man. I was amazed at how little he was and there was nothing else memorable or remarkable about him. He was just a little man. That’s it. Later I learned that he was in Saigon.
That same morning I left it was discovered that the province chief was also gone and the region commander Phu was gone. And I got to Saigon just about noon and about 5 o clock the other five guys came in. They had come out, they might have taken helicopters out. All the rest of that stuff, the panic, happened after we were gone.
The city was handed to the NVA. I told my maid that I’d be home for lunch. And I knew she’d discover later that day that I’d run out on her. Abandoned her.
We were in Saigon the whole month of April, the 1st to the 27th. There were stories that there was going to be a coalition government, that there would be a settlement, that Saigon would not be taken or fall. I heard rumors about the gate between the US Embassy and the French Embassy and that there was significant activity between the two Embassies and something was being negotiated. I did not know about any discussions with any other country’s representatives at that time. I personally thought that Saigon would fall on the 19th of May for Ho Chi Minh’s birthday. I worked on the assumption that we had until then. I probably took all sides of the street at the time. I remember being very disdainful of the notion that the VC and NVA were going to stop and form a coalition government. I thought they were going to take Saigon. I was pretty, at some point, I was pretty sure we were done for. But I had no inside information from the rest of the country. I read the Vietnamese newspapers and I was probably as well informed about what was happening as from anything else. Maybe the army will make a stand or maybe this or maybe that the papers said.
We stayed in the Duc Hotel in Saigon. The CIA Hotel. Anybody to whom it ever occurred, Do these people work for the CIA, could easily figure it all out in Saigon. We drove Ford Pintos. We were the only people in Vietnam who drove Pintos. If you saw a guy driving a Pinto in Saigon, he was CIA. That’s because someone in the agency got a really good deal on Pintos. This is nuts. And there were a couple of people in the Embassy with true Embassy cover. I had DAO cover. I was told things that there were actually people that the State Department was used as a cover for CIA Employees. Deep Embassy cover. We had people in the Embassy who had only nominal Embassy cover. And then there was a big question about who drives Pintos. Because those guys with cover could not drive a Pinto. Somebody in the Embassy drove a Pinto, oh, yes, the Labor Attaché. He is almost always CIA in the Embassy. I was told. We drove Pintos. We stayed in the Duc Hotel which was our place. And people in country TDY would stay at the Duc, they had a dining room upstairs.
The famous photo of people going up the ladder to the helicopter looked like the Duc Hotel to me. If it is, the dining room is right underneath. That is elevator shaft that the helicopter is landing on. The Duc was about two blocks …east and west blocks in Saigon, are short blocks and the North South blocks are long blocks. We were two streets then…West of the Presidential Palace. We were not far from Tu Do circle. To that side. You come out of the Embassy and turn right and face the Presidential Palace and then you turn right. We were about two blocks to the right and in the same North South region of the Palace. Because when the bombs were dropped on the Palace my kids were in the Duc Hotel and they raced for the basement.
I was not afraid at that time. I was not afraid. I don’t know what there was to be afraid of. I was told I was on the list of people to stay to the end. I was the only person that spoke South Vietnamese (dialect). And I believe there was a preference that the Ambassador greet the North Vietnamese Army with a translator who spoke a Southern Vietnamese accent. And I was the only person who spoke with the Southern accent. And I was slated to stay until the end.
My family was American citizens. We had no fear. My family left on what I was told was the last Pan Am flight out of Saigon. They had no bad experience. I put my wife on the plane with two little kids. I don’t have any recollection of them being in danger or upset until the Palace was bombed. We lived in the Duc Hotel in a hotel room and I think we had our nanny, one nanny with us, we saw various Vietnamese socially, we went out to dinner. We were concerned about our employees and friends from up country. We were just living through what was. There was no…I expected to be well treated when I was captured. I expected the Embassy to remain. I expected the Ambassador to stay or be exchanged or returned to the US. So I didn’t, I expected them to take Saigon but I felt no consternation about being bombed or anything, I expected they’d just walk into the city.
I thought the Vietnamese themselves however we in a lot of trouble. I worked for Bill Johnson the last month. I was in Saigon Base, assigned to Saigon Base, and worked with officers who were assigned to them. And every couple of days, several times during the month of April the list came out of people who were being sent home. It wasn’t posted, be we were told who was going home.
The agency employed many young Vietnamese women. They were known as “penetration agents” and there were all kinds of jokes regarding “who’s penetrating whom.” There is a lot of sex in intelligence.
If some of these women were double agents, you have to ask, What are they going to find out? When somebody came in to replace somebody else, which happened frequently, generally, he inherited his car, his house and his girl friends.
I’ve known dozens of these girls and all Vietnamese girls are nice girls. Everything was different there. One guy had a girl friend who wore miniskirts. And she was regarded as untrustworthy, because she wore miniskirts. She was educated, she was sharp. But the others generally wore ao dai’s and they were just girls who liked Americans.
Many of the agents employed were women and certainly that was convenient. Some of the guys put their girl friends on the payroll and tried to turn them into agents. The object was…let me back up once more. When I got to Nha Trang, I’d been in translation and then I sort of moved over to ops and when my defector came out – that’s straight out of John le Carre, making a career out of one defector. He taught me a lot. And then the object is you use them in operations. Use someone who knows people on the street. Anyway, my defector was a high ranking VC in his area. The object was to move him into ops and to have him recruit somebody who was still in the VC who could get us information. And so I was required to think operationally. And it was obvious that for us to penetrate the enemy, for us to penetrate the enemy, would require us to do the same thing that he was doing to us, which is a ten year operation or a twenty year operation. So I brought this concept up and said it is going to take many years to get somebody in and to get him in a position where he has any knowledge that we need, and then it will be an incredible problem communicating with him even if he has knowledge. I mean they had their people so isolated from us, that we weren’t going to have communication with them anyway. All these operations in Saigon and all, I did a box job once, I know that there may have been tremendous operations there, in Saigon, but they never came through in reports that I read. I had a feeling that there were things going on, and at least we were able to have a liaison with the enemy. But when we started to think in terms of long term operations – proposed in 1973 – a career person took me aside and explained to me that people are here for an 18 month tour. Any agency, you get credit for what comes to fruition on your watch. You don’t get credit for something you started ten years ago that comes to fruition now. There is no benefit to anyone’s career if you start an operation now and have it start producing intelligence five years from now. So don’t even talk about it. If you don’t have an operational concept that will come home in the next year, in the next month, then don’t bring it up.
I think that’s central to what happened in Vietnam. That’s a big part of our problem. At a certain point I think the other guys were really dedicated, then when my defector came out I realized that had we been able to contact him while he was on the other side we could have gotten good information from him. Before he was disenchanted with the other side. But how could we have identified him or done anything with him was after the fact. I set up the whole operation in Nha Trang to um to draw charts that listed all the possible positions on the province level in that area and then fill in the names. And we’d been there for, since 65 on a huge basis, and we didn’t know the names of any of these people. We didn’t know the names of any of the communist agents or officers in our province. Nothing.
As far as penetrating the enemy, it was just people who were just punching their cards. And I mean guys were really trying to do their job. But there was nothing.
Somehow, anyway, I got involved in the evacuation while I was working for Bill Johnson in Saigon station. In April, among the things I did, there were a number of us who were told, we were sent out on the streets to find these dead drops. And I just took the afternoon off and went to a movie. It could be a tree, or a pole or a fence. You were supposed to find a permanent part of the landscape with a hole in it for depositing gold. That sort of stuff was done in Cuba, earlier.
When you’ve loaded a dead drop, then you have to have a mark. Leave a mark. The person loading the dead drop does not know the agent. He puts in the gold and then he leaves the mark. Or he gives a signal – a phone call with one ring. But more likely it is a chalked X somewhere, which tells the agent to go somewhere and get his gold.
There was by now this Alice in Wonderland feeling and everybody laughed about it. You can laugh about certain things and this was one of them. People were sent out from Washington, trainers were sent out from Washington, to train stay behind agents. And everyone was required to submit names for stay behinds. And I spent with, at least I think, three agents, I had to translate for them, and with one of them at least we spent at least three days, extensive time with this fellow, trying to train him, and this was the first time I’d ever handled this stuff. Teaching him how to use microfilm, microdots and you hang a document on the wall and you take a picture of it and then you develop the negative and then you cut the little dot out and you put it under a stamp on an envelope or you put it over a period in a letter or something, And they had these little plastic bullets that read a microdot with – the technology of the time –a little plastic thing that, a third of an inch long, and a fifth of an inch across, and it’s a lens, it’s a tiny little solid thing, so you get an index card and you poke this thing into the index card and you hold this thing up to your eye and you look at the dot and you get this magnification and you read the document. So microdots. One-time pads. Training these people to use one-time pads. These are, there is a code at the top to tell you what page you’re on and only the person who has the duplicate of this pad is gonna be able to decipher what you wrote. There were transmitters available, that was brand new at the time, an agent could record a message in dots and dashes and then put it through this burst transmitter and it could be transmitted in a tenth of a second and he could not be homed in on. I was told, by the way, when I started someone told me, you want to know what the intelligence business is like, read A Small Town in Germany by le Carre. That’s the truest thing that had been written to that time. So I recommend it to you.
. So somehow I got involved in the evacuation. And I came up with the idea that people should be evacuated by order of importance. That people who were operationally aware should go first. And then worker our way down from translators to radio operators and secretaries and the security guards. And since we did not know how long we had for evacuation that seemed to make sense. I was overruled at this meeting and told no and that we were going to evacuate MRI and MRII people first. And then we’ll get to the Saigon people after that. And if that’s the case then I’m gonna rune a damn good evacuation. All my people from Nha Trang were in Saigon at the time. And so somehow, and I’m not really sure how I kept contact with all of these people, but I did, using a chain of communication, and I could contact everybody. And at that point I did not even know the people from MRI in particular, but I was also in contact with them, because I became at some level the point man on this. The former officer in charge from Phan Thiet was also officially in charge of the whole thing but I was give responsibility for the details of it, making it work. It came down to on Wednesday, a week before the end, I think the 23 of April, I went to dinner, that whole weekend, strange things had been happening and there were rumors about the DAO – Defense Attaché Office --evacuating their people and yet there had been no evacuation declared. I knew about White Christmas being the signal on the radio for a sign that the evacuation was on. On that Wednesday I went to dinner with a friend who had been a province city council member in Dalat. And he and another fellow and his wife and I had dinner. And he said, You gotta help us. How do we get out? And I said The Evacuation has not started. And he said, That’s not true. There are people going out by the thousands from Tan Son Nhut. And I said I didn’t know anything about that and at the moment I could not do anything for him. All I could tell him was – I did not tell him about White Christmas – and I said that when a 24 hour curfew is declared, ignore it and head for the river. That’s all I can do to help you. He called me from Guam a couple of weeks later and told me I had saved his life. And his friend had done exactly that, but his friend had gone home to get another friend and got stuck and was left in Saigon. But he and his wife and kid came, I sponsored them, they lived in my house and now they live in the neighborhood.
This fellow told me that the evacuation had started. I knew something was going on because I knew that one guy I was working with and was something of a joke, had taken three different girls out to Tan Son Nhut on three successive nights and put them on planes and said they were each his wife. He wanted to come back to the US with three Vietnamese women and live in heaven the rest of his life. And it didn’t last, obviously. They dumped him when they got to the states.
At the bars in Saigon. On Sunday night I’d gone to a bar with another fellow. We had dinner in the Duc and had gone out to dinner and found there were no bar girls. And the story I heard at some point was that of guys walking into a bar and shouting, who wants to go to America? Get your stuff, you’ve got fifteen minutes, I’ll drive you out to the airport and put you on the plane. I know when I got to Camp Pendleton that there were a lot – a lot – of bar girls there! So whatever was happening, the DAO was pulling all their people out. What I understood was that any American could go out and sign any Vietnamese onto a plane. Now it was a lot of fun later to read of people running around the Embassy trying to find a way out when as I understood it there was absolutely no requirement to get out of the country. That night after my dinner I went back to the Duc Hotel, and I talked to the guy who was the chief of base in Phan Thiet. And he told me we were going very cautiously on the evacuation things. As a matter of fact that same evening we had a bus , a CIA bus, going around town picking up people and taking them to the airport. It was a test run. There was a plane for them. But we were gonna run a bus that night. And I got upset and said, These are peoples’ lives you’re playing with here, we’ve gotta do something serious here, and I got loud. And there were Vietnamese working in the bar and so this was definitely a no no at the time.
Next morning, Thursday, I went inside the office and Bog Chin called me up and said You went out to the airport last night and caused trouble And I said, Bob, I haven’t been out to the airport in a week. He said I got a report you were out at the airport. I said it wasn’t true. And he said, the station chief wants you out now. So you are to be on the next plane out. And so I said, what about my relatives, and he said, get them and go out to the airport. I had no contact with my wife’s family at that time so I had to find them. They were in Saigon. But the one person I did was a General Ton That Dinh’s family. He had a wife and two kids and a sister, but she wasn’t really his sister, I think he had two wives at the time. There were five in his group. So got them. And I went over to the compound and somehow, that morning then, and nobody seemed to know our employees. And so I was put in the position of identifying all of our Nha Trang people onto buses and sent them to the airport and all the MRI people. I picked out a guy from MR I that I trusted for whatever reason and he helped me identify people who worked with us. There had been a tremendous draw down in the previous two years. And we had a rule, there had been a tremendous draw down and if people worked for us for us in the last year, we decided, he was eligible to go. If not, he’s not. And there were a limited number of spots. There was one guy got in a car accident and injured and he was left in Saigon as a result. Everybody else showed up. This was translators, radio operators and security guards. We had Nung guards who were ethnic Chinese, they came with their families, everybody. I got these people on buses and we kept sending people out to the airport. And so I got out to the airport on the last bus out with General Dinh’s family. Senator Dinh at that time, who I signed up as my family. We all got on the bus and were on the way to the airport and we came to a light and who should go by but my radio operator from Dalat on the back of a motorbike. I had put her on a bus at 2 in the afternoon. So I saw her and I had the driver open the door and I got out. I said I gotta find out what’s going on here. Go on without me, I’ll catch up. So I got out and stopped her and found out her family had been rejected at the exit gate. And so I said, I’ll take care of this. I had a safe house just down the block and I had the keys in my pocket, and so I stayed in Saigon that night. I went over to General Dinh’s house and told him that if something happened to him at the airport that he could find me at this address. And then he drove out to the airport later in the evening. And we had a drink together. Next morning I went back to the compound and got this woman and her family, she had about thirteen people, she had a husband in the Vietnamese military. And I got her out on a bus in the morning. We got more buses out and I went out on those buses. That got me to Tan Son Nhut in the morning, and I found my other group who were still sitting on the ground and had spent Thursday night there. I had a cardboard box and my brief case. The woman, the radio operator came to me and said she had left her brother behind. He had wandered off and they had been unable to find him. So I said, I’ll take care of this. That was Friday morning. I knew where the house was and he was there with his guitar. And I got him out to the airport. They all live in Orange County now. And one daughter decided to stay behind with her husband and all of the rest of them were leaving. But that daughter came here in 1980. When I brought him in I was in Tan Son Nhut for good. I went into the PX and bought supplies for the people on my bus. I spent everything I had left. I think that was the last day they were taking money. Friday night I spent there again and I ran into the DCOB from Bill Johnson’s office putting his maid and gardener in. We had some people who were in deep trouble and some who were not. We came out on a C130.
We were flown to Subic Bay. My thoughts were simply Let’s do what has to be done. It was a C130 with straps stretched across every two or three feet, and they stacked the plane full and I was with people I knew. I was spooked when the crew chief stood there with flare guns at one of the windows and he said if they send up missiles these will keep them away. This was Saturday morning sometime. And that was the last of Vietnam.
We went to Subic. We were among the first groups to get there. After we landed there I worked at the reception site for something like 24 hours. A load came in with people off a plane and we kept the people together and seated them on the grass and then someone from INS had to examine them. We were at one time backed up three planeloads. They were searching all the baggage for drugs and weapons. And I did, I instituted a policy that when we processed a plane and then people by the size of the group – single person’s first, and then groups of two and bigger families from the plane late. I have run into people who knew me from Subic Bay. Virtually everyone who came in that Saturday, we had 18 planes that day, and I processed them.
Four days later I was sent to Guam and just after I arrived I heard about the surrender of Saigon. I didn’t know about the details of what happened in the Embassy. It was just the end. The finale. My memory is that night there was a dance at the camp and a lot of people were upset that there were Vietnamese pilots and Vietnamese girls dancing on the night that their country fell. I knew about the group of pilots who flew to Thailand with their planes. This may have been some of them. I lived in the camp in Subic Bay for 4 days and coordinated my people to get priority to go to Guam. And there was a meeting and a guy came down from Manila station for a meeting in the camp and he came and talked to me and he said the Naval Commander had given permission to open the PX and let these people buy some stuff. I told him that it was not fair cause my people didn’t have money. And he thought for a moment and said, You know, you’re right. We’ll open it up and give it away.
And so apparently that is what they did. That was my contribution in Subic Bay . It was on Grand Island. My family had flown Pan Am back to Los Angeles and I placed a phone call from Subic to them and assured them I was OK. I lived in a camp in Guam. We had a Vietnamese woman living in a hotel downtown who was my contact. I lived in the camp with the Vietnamese. Again it was a matter of organizing people to get to the states. There were a lot of people there from INS. We even did quotas with USAID. It was reasonably friendly. One of the people I discovered in our group was someone I had trained for three days as a stay behind agent in Saigon. There was no reason why he should be a stay behind agent, I mean according to his skills or lack of skills, but he had been proposed by a friend of mine. Or I guess by Saigon base. And so when I saw him in Guam I said, What the fuck are you doing here? He said, Oh Harry called me up and said I’d be better off getting out. And I thought, then why did we have a guy fly all the way out from Washington to train these people? Then all of a sudden here is this guy.
I came back to the US on the 6th of May, back to El Toro at night, came in with the General’s family. I spent the night in the camp. I was assigned a bed along with my people. I spent the night there. Stayed up all night talking to a Marine lieutenant. I called my family. My wife came and got me out of the camp that evening. I became a rep in Camp Pendleton after that with the refugees. They had a committee that ran things and I was their CIA guy.
I was out of touch. I did not know that William Colby had declared that no one would be terminated who had been in Saigon. I did not hear that for a couple of years. But at the time I was disgusted, I was fed up, I was thoroughly disgusted with the agency, I was done with it. And everything about it. I wanted nothing to do with it. I got a degree in public administration after that because I wanted to learn why public agencies operated like this. The dynamics of it. Since then I’ve discovered that private agencies tend to act in the same way.
So I was disgusted and there was no question of my staying aboard, so in July, around the 4th of July I went back to DC and processed out. But I still kept my trailer in Camp Pendleton and so for July and August I spent in the camp and took care of my people. We took photos of the families I brought out. We had 170 families. We got a typewriter and wrote up their stories and I put the pictures and stories in albums and I took them around to churches in the neighborhood and most of the churches in the neighborhood took one of my families. I sponsored 15 people myself I think. In September I went on the payroll of Church World Service until after Pendleton closed and after it closed I went on the payroll of Catholic Welfare in Los Angeles and ran their Orange County office until about June of the next year when I got out. I was as fed up with the Catholic Church as I was with the CIA.
I went back to school, Cal State Fullerton in fall of 1976. Got a degree there. I was able to complete my BA in one year and did a year of MPA, Masters of Public Administration, didn’t complete it. Went out to Riverside and did two years of graduate work in Political Science which I also dropped. In the fall of 1980 I had no money left and so that was the end of my educational pursuits. I went into the computer business. And that is where I have been every since.
Not in contact with my wife any more. Not divorced but not in contact. My wife lives somewhere down in Orange County now. Separated. We don’t live together. One son graduated from St. Johns a year ago and he’s been in Europe since last May. The other one is a senior at Harvard and is graduating in June.
My wife came from a poor family. She was an orphan in fact. She wants to be respected. I believe, my personal myth, that when I gave up my PhD studies, that sort of disillusioned her. She was not going to be the wife of a PhD. That sort of took the heart out of her. She started her own businesses with Vietnamese in Orange County and she became associated with a singing troupe down in Orange County, she bought a restaurant, or leased a nightclub restaurant and she had singers performing for her, and then she bought a newspaper. A free advertiser, a throw away. The restaurant she spent a lot of time on it. There came a time when she would not come home for a night. And then she would not come home for a weekend. When she had the newspaper she did not come home the night before the paper came out. I am sure she’s had lovers. There’s a difference between people who are of your culture and those who are not. There is a magic about people from your own culture who you understand. I was not always happy about all of this.
I don’t know if I’ll marry again. I have always been attracted to Asian women. I imagine it has something to do with my childhood, my mother was light skinned and blonde. And instead of marrying a girl just like the girl who married dear old dad. I wanted something as far from that as possible.
Tape 3 Side 1
Maybe there is no correlation, however. And in Vietnam when you spoke the language it was very easy to meet people, locals, and especially women.
Looking back now…let me think…I never did movies. I did see “Platoon” and it was false on the aspect that there was a part where a character says Vietnamese had been living in a part of Vietnam for 200 years. And I knew they had not. They had not even been living in the area for 100 years. But they had so many things wrong with the way they described Vietnam and the Vietnamese. That part was just untrue. I don’t know about the combat aspects. I will say it did not correspond with anything at all that I saw. I was pleased with the tone of the film. That was all.
I’ve been reading about Vietnam since I came back and was reading about it before I went. I read Frank Snepp’s Decent Interval. And I can say that everything I know about, compared with what Frank wrote, I’d say he was wrong. But that’s his version of it.
From Camp Pendleton a guy called me, a journalist, there was a period after I cycled out of the agency, and I was going down there three days a week, 75 miles from my house. And a guy called me, a journalist. And he assumed I was a “hostile witness” and he was writing a story about Operation Phoenix. For New Times, it was only around for a year or two. But he was writing an article. And so I said, look, you are using my phone, what don’t you call me from another phone. And so he did and he came out to the house and he did and I gave him all kinds of information, what I knew. Then he put a box in his article saying that Jeff Ashley and Harry Ahn were the CIA reps at Camp Pendleton and refused to cooperate with him in any way. Harry was a career guy and I am sure it burned him badly. And I don’t think I even asked him about that.
In 1975 I knew these poor refugees in the camp and I knew this was all a terrible tragedy. In 1977 and 78, when I found out how corrupt, I really felt a blow when I found out that the other guys, the communists, were just as bad as our guys were, if not worse. Corrupt. It was only a question of access and they were taking bribes the same as our people had. I thought, I remember in leaving Vietnam, I thought, At least everyone will be poor together now. That is what I thought. I thought there would be some semblance of justice. And what I’ve heard about the other guys when talking with the new refugees I found out how corrupt the communists turned out to be. My friend, the defector, was the most honest and straightforward guy I met in Vietnam and I concluded that most communists would be realistic and honest. And some were. In the jungles no doubt they had their idealism. But boy they lost it quickly when they came out of the jungles and the highlands. Now what can you say except it was a tremendous tragedy for the Vietnamese people.
A lot of losers and eventually a lot of winners in the country. But what could be worth 58,000 deaths of Americans. On our side, I don’t see why, I don’t think anyone in 1960 knew what was coming or knew what we should do.
The CIA was an Alice in Wonderland operation in the country. Earl Smith I remember, an incredible character. You should talk to him. But there are others that are so bad. Frances Fitzgerald. I have no regard at all for the credibility of her. But Earl Smith was in Nha Trang POIC in Nha Trang and was terrible corrupt. He was there when I got there. When I got to Camp Pendleton I met one of the girls I knew as a radio operator in Saigon. And she told me that she was paying $10,000 for her brother’s seat, to a guy who had been head of translation in Saigon, and he had sold at least a dozen seats for $10,000 each on airplanes when it was possible for Americans to take people out to the airport and put them on a plane And as I understand, I know of that one case. And she was still gonna pay this guy. And I said, why are you gonna pay him, you’re here now. And she said because I said I’d pay him. And so I went to my Congressman and told him that there was a lot of shit going on with regard to exploiting the refugees. And I said this really stinks. This one fellow, Paul Beverly, is taking $10,000 and no doubt got a bundle to retire on and he’s selling seats. When he had Vietnamese working for him whose lives were in great danger and he did not get them seats. He ran the translation department and I knew some of his Vietnamese translators and he was leaving them behind if they did not give him $10,000. That was one of my thoughts in the last weeks of Saigon. All these years I’ve been over here working for these people and it is not right to take money for doing your duty. And I said, what we are really telling them is that it is easy to take a little money for doing something if the price is right. And that’s ok. Of course we’ll do the same thing. I heard lots of stories. But I know only this case for sure that an American took money to put people on a plane to the US. I am sure the story is true, and the ethnic Chinese in Vietnam had plenty of money and when I was out at Tan Son Nhut I know there were Americans out there putting people on the plane and I know one American put those three different girls on the plane.