Vietnam II: A War Novel Episode 1 (V2), page 1
By C.R. Ryder
I was a Public Affairs NCO during V2. I survived the war unscathed despite being present for many of the primary operations. After collecting information for after action reports, press releases and historical reference most of what I had written down languished in a box I took with me as I PCSed base to base throughout the 1990’s.
It wasn’t until years later that I looked over the collection of interviews and excerpts and thought there might be some value there. America’s military had moved on to Afghanistan and Iraq in the 2000’s and V2 was all but forgotten. I figured it was a good time to start looking at it again. This time through the eyes of the men and women that served there. From the sailors of the USS Missouri to the airmen in the F-15s and A-10s above Hanoi to the soldiers and marines beneath the jungle canopy driving their M-1 tanks north their stories deserve to be told.
Collected in these pages is the entire war from our investigations and embargo in 1990 to the inevitable confrontation in 1991. The outcome of Operation Jungle Storm is well known now, but take this opportunity to experience it again in all its glory.
Operations Officer Zachary Drake
Central Intelligence Agency
Udon Thani, Thailand
The year was 1990. There was war in the Middle East, an epidemic in Africa, humidity in Thailand and The Cat in the Hat was dead. His package, the package that changed the world, rested in a post office in Mueang Udon Thani near the Thai border with Vietnam.
It had really started with the Cat. He, and that box of his, was the genesis of the public outcry, the embargo and the war. He had been our guy in Hanoi for five years. His name was Nguyen Van Lam and he was a Vietnamese General that we had turned as a major right after the Fall of Saigon. He met with European arms dealers twice a year in Udon Thani for the Vietnamese government. While he was there he dropped off a package of intel for the US.
It was all soft intel and Hanoi was probably behind everything he fed us, but everyone was happy with the arrangement. That was how the game was played. We knew they knew and they knew we knew and everyone really didn’t know anything. That was how Iraq invaded Kuwait the month before and no one really saw it coming.
Things with the Cat had been pretty routine for fifteen years. No muss no fuss. An envelope full of intel for an envelope full of money. Then around mid-August he called unexpectedly saying he wanted an unscheduled meet. It was suspicious and it was odd. Still American intelligence was prepared to be flexible. Sometimes that’s how history is made.
I went to meet him. What choice did we have?
The Cat used a cold drop using a post office box in a small post office in the agricultural district. He normally left us an envelope full of documents. Typically troop numbers and movements. Sometimes some procurement information. It was the kind of thing that we would be getting from their own computers in the next century, but it was 1990 and the only people on the internet were college kids.
I hit the ground a couple of days before the meet. After getting comfortable in my hotel I checked the box, it was empty, and then had a few good meals while I waited for the Cat. A day before the drop I contacted our guy in the PD here. It was a habit I had gotten into when I was assigned to Western Europe. Sometimes shadow ops got a bright light shined on them and the first people with their hands on the flashlights were typically the cops. Sure enough a corpse matching the Cat’s description was found in the Mekong River, near the Friendship Bridge, with his fingers and teeth missing. Whoever killed him didn’t even want his mother to identify him. Unfortunate for the killer and good for me they missed a Laotian passport he’d sewn into his jacket. The police hadn’t and now I knew the Cat had been assassinated.
Whatever the Cat had planned on giving us it looked like he was wanting to go back to the states with it. He wasn’t worth the bad press of a defection. Nobody wanted to hear about Vietnam anymore. We wouldn’t have taken him on his own even if he offered. That meant if this thing was legit then he must have had something pretty noteworthy to share. Valuable enough for someone to kill him for it.
I hoped the Cat was smart enough not to walk around with intel in his pocket. Of course the information might have all been in his head, but I was hoping he had brought something hard. If it wasn’t on him when he was murdered then it might be at the drop. If anything could be salvaged from the whole mess it would be in that post office box in Udon or it was with him when they got him and long gone.
After the cop shop I went back to my hotel and made a couple of phone calls back to the embassy, but got no clear directions. My supervisor handed me a big basket of ‘it’s up to you’ which of course gave him complete deniability if I were the next one found dead with his fingers and teeth missing.
I got lunch uptown and considered my options. Nothing complements thoughts of one’s own mortality like a bowl of Gang Keow Wan and rice. I was nervy and the food went bad as soon as it hit my stomach.
I only had two options. Go to the drop or go home empty handed. There was a chance that he had dropped off the intel before they got him. He’d dropped off stuff early before. They might have gotten him after and had no idea he’d done the drop at all. Of course they might have followed him the whole time. And they might be waiting for me at the drop. Or the drop could be empty and the whole thing would be filed as unsolved and unresolved. The whole thing made my head hurt.
The mail box we used for the drop had two keys. Cat had one and the other I had signed out of the Bangkok CIA station before I boarded the plane in Bangkok. I screwed my balls on tight and caught a cab downtown. There was nothing except the usual traffic when I stepped into the post office. It’s bad enough trying to be incognito being an American in Thailand to begin with. I stood out like a sore thumb. If there is someone waiting at the post office they could guess pretty quick who Cat’s contact is.
I open the metal mail box and found a hand receipt. I waited in line behind ten people in the unairconditioned room big enough for five. It took forty five minutes to get to the front of the line. That was the longest forty five minutes of my life. After all the people in front of me bought stamps and mailed packages it was my turn. I signed the receipt with the alias the box was rented with. I stood there feeling very exposed while they sorted through the shelves in back looking for whatever it was. Twenty people had filtered in behind me. Half of them waited patiently like mindless cattle. The other half stared daggers at me for holding up the line. Any of them could have been Cat’s killer. I could only imagine there were men waiting for me to step outside to put a knife into me. My morbid curiosity wandered to the question of whether they had cut off Cat’s fingers before or after they killed him when the attendant finally appeared with a large cardboard box. For some reason I was expecting a thick envelope. Instead I got a care package from hell. It was heavy too. I bumped into two people dragging it out into the street.
My antenna were up when I got outside for any sign of trouble. There were no groups of men standing around loitering for no reason. There was no van idling in a nearby alley. If there was I would have dropped the box and ran. Instead all there was were Thais going about their daily lives.
I hailed the first cab I found.
Before I jumped into the cab I took one last hard look around. No one stood out. I could not make out anyone watching me. Of course if they were professionals I wouldn’t see them. I would only see them when they wanted me to see them. If it came to that it was a sure bet I’d be under the knife. I got in the cab, slammed the door and didn’t look back.
The airport sounded good. I left my suitcase at the hotel an
I kid, but we normally were not armed.
The drive strained my nerves. The driver shut down his engine to save gas every time we ran into traffic. There were no windows so my head and torso were exposed. It would not be too hard for someone to reach in and slit my throat and be gone with the box before the cab driver even got a look at him. Not that I could depend on him for any kind of protection. For the right amount of money the driver could be paid to forget.
I did not have a lot of time to wonder what was inside the box. My best guess would have been that Vietnam was developing a nuclear program and this was the smoking gun. A lot of developing nations were trying for the bomb. Pakistan and India had robust programs that were quietly developing under the radar. Iran and Iraq were still trying. It would not have been a surprise that Vietnam was putting their efforts toward a program especially just coming off their war with nuclear armed China.
We made it to the airport without incident. I overpaid the driver, ran inside, bought the first ticket to Bangkok and headed for the gate.
I only stopped on the way to the plane to make two phone calls. One to the embassy and one to my wife to let her know I loved her and that I would be home at the embassy that night.
The flight, like the cab ride, was uneventful. The box rode in front of me in my seat in coach. I didn’t drink and I didn’t eat anything on the flight. All I wanted was to get where I was going. When I reached Bangkok International there were two agents who met me at the airport. From there it went to the embassy.
I only saw the box one more time before it got on the plane for the states.
That was my whole part in the affair. It was the highlight of my performance report that year and I got a decoration. Beyond that I spent the second Vietnam War trying to track down Vietnamese agents in Thailand or processing defectors. There were a lot of those later on when the shooting started.
Did I open the box?
Of course I opened it. It could have been a contraband or a bomb. If it was heroin I could be looking at the death penalty in Thailand and the last thing I needed was for the airplane to explode in midair and have the bomb traced to the seat of an American intelligence officer. The Lockerby incident was still fresh in everyone’s minds after all. For all I knew Cat’s killers could have left the box as some kind of trap or another.
When I opened the box in the terminal and peeked in I was alarmed. Using sheer force of will I kept my composure. Inside were stacks of pictures of what could only be American POWs, lists of names, blood and hair samples, medical records from the 1970s to present and a human skull wrapped in plastic. Skin and hair was still attached to it and by my estimation less than a year since death. I would later find out, as would the world that based on dental records and DNA, something then I only vaguely understood, that it belonged to one Gunnery Sergeant assigned to MACV. Last seen July 7, 1968 in the Quang Tri Province.
Diplomatic Courier Cody
Department of State
Being a courier for the government is akin to being a bagman for the mob. I carried embassy and military correspondents back and forth from the edge of the empire so to speak back to the states. All the packages I transported were close hold and most of the information inside was classified.
I was the one who carried the package from Bangkok to Washington.
A far east assignment had been my goal when I first joined the CIA after my stint in the Navy. I had spent my time in the Navy on a Nuke boat out of Norfolk and toured the Atlantic. My father had been in the Navy as well. He was a lifer who spent the bulk of his career aboard the USS Turner Joy. He had been there at the Gulf of Tonkin in 1964 where the Turner Joy was one of the first ships to come to the aid of the Maddox after the North Vietnamese torpedo boats attacked her. He was there nine years later when the Turner Joy fired the last American shot of the war at forces advancing south in January 1973. My dad was pretty fond of telling people he had been there at the beginning of the Vietnam War and at the end.
He had spent his entire time in the Pacific and he loved Indochina. I did too. I spent the late eighties working my way to around the area escorting paperwork for embassies and military bases. I knew I was more of a glorified postman than a secret agent, but it was fun work.
We kept an eye on the Vietnamese after the war. Our involvement dropped to almost nothing though. No black bag stuff. Just monitoring. We monitored everyone though. We had to. The Soviet Union sputtered to a halt and we became the last man standing. Now we had gotten the job of international police force.
The CIA had networks all through Vietnam. They were wrecked after the fall of Saigon, but America is determined. Through years of effort the old networks were rebuilt. Vietnam was over, but China and Russia were nearby. Both were nuclear and during the eighties stretching their muscles.
The package was sealed tight when I picked it up. Sometimes I flew commercial to the states and sometimes I flew Space R on a military flight if one was available. Each had its advantages. The movies were better on Thai Airways, but you were spam in a can with three hundred other people and two bathrooms. The military flights were pretty barebones, but you could stretch out and you got to talk to other Americans all the way home.
The KC-10 I boarded was a flying gas tank that could also take cargo and passengers when necessary. There was no cargo that day and the only other passengers were two armed Marines on loan from the American embassy. Normally we would stop in at Andersen in Guam or Hickam in Hawaii on the way home. I was told that flight was not stopping for anything and we would be doing two midair refueling.
It was the longest flight of my life. Forget waterboarding, if you wanted to torture someone that was the way. By the time I got out of the plane at Andrews Air Force Base I was ready to talk and I would have handed that package to Gorbachev if it meant getting back on solid ground. Instead there were a bunch of suits from the state department. They signed for it and I handed it over.
Less than eight hours later I was arrested at a restaurant right in front of my fiancée. Using their verbiage I was detained. They wanted to know who I got the box from, where it had been and if I knew what was in it. Despite frustration I answered all their questions. Then they would bring in another interrogator and it would begin again.
It wasn’t until a week later when the news broke that I found out what I was carrying.
In truth it was not the first human head I had carried.
In fact it wasn’t even the second.
Major Mike Lewis
Air Force Reconnaissance Pilot
Andersen AFB, Guam
We were given three days to forward deploy to Guam. Saddam had invaded Kuwait a week before and we were leaning forward preparing for a deployment to the middle east. When we heard we were headed west our minds were blown. The first thing on our minds was Korea. The North Koreans might be trying to take advantage of the situation. Hell with the Soviets finished I thought we might be settling the score.
I mean Vietnam?
That wasn’t on anyone’s minds.
I turned on final and saw that the chase car was waiting for me right on center line. The maintenance package had flown out two days before on a C-141.
The U-2 is notoriously hard to land. It tends to float down the runway due to the high lift wings and the pilot cannot see the ground once he is over the field. A chase car drives down the runway as the plane lands and calls corrections to the pilot on a radio.
I touched down on Andersen’s weird runway and hoped the car driver knew what to do. Only runway I knew of in the Air Force that went uphill and then downhill. Of course I spent my career in U-2s and C-5s. Those C-130 guys land in weirder locations than this.
The CONOPS called for a two ship package. The sq
Other pilots who had flown in on the C-141 were suiting up to fly. Maintenance was turning my plane to take back off. They were pressing forward with the mission immediately.
They pulled me out of the aircraft and threw me into a trailer on the flight line. I barely had time for a piss before I was sitting through two hours of briefings on the known air defenses of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam.
During the brief they told me that we would be doing high altitude surveillance of the former known and suspected POW camps. It blew my mind. This was before the news had broken the story. Intel had slides though. When they showed me what we were looking for I understood.
We were hitting the ten camps named in the Thailand Box as well as other targets that the intel bubbas were coming up with.
They planned on two sorties a day with me taking the morning go. More pilots were enroute from the states as well as more airplanes.
I was still in the middle of inprocessing when my U-2 taxied out for an evening go. It was the first combat sortie over Vietnam in 17 years and I felt a twinge of regret that I was not flying it. Looking back you could consider it the first sortie of the war.
They bussed me over to billeting and told me to enter crew rest immediately. We were low on pilots and everyone was put on minimum crew rest. They already had me schedule to fly a line the next day. I had just over twelve hours to eat, sleep and shower before I was going to back in the cockpit and up to near space. All I had time to do was chug a beer in the billeting lobby before my twelve started. Then it was grab some chow and off to bed.
For me the war would have to wait another twelve hours.
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