US Intelligence Operations During the Vietnam War. Part 1: Life and Work in Saigon.
Above photo: Saigon in 1968 (Corbis).
An interview with Jack Jolis, who served from Sept 1968 to Sept 1969 in 525th Military Intelligence Group in Vietnam, by Peter Alan Lloyd, as part of his research for BACK.
PAL: Jack, what can you tell me about the above photograph?
JJ: It was taken in Giah Dinh Province, South Vietnam, in the summer of ‘69 when I was on a TDY – ‘Temporary Duty’– mission with my old OCS buddy Tucker Smallwood, who since leaving the Army has gone on to greater things as a blues singer and stage and screen actor, but who was then a 1LT like me and an advisor to ARVN Regional Forces about 30 miles southwest of Saigon, on the bank of the Kinh Song canal.
Actually, this picture was used as the back cover photo of my novella “Imperialist Warmonger Pig”, so it was “doctored” from the original which had both me and Smallwood together – that original can be found on p. 50 of his excellent memoir “Return to Eden”.
The picture was taken at Tucker’s compound by the canal just after we’d spent a somewhat… fraught night in a rice paddy, surrounded by NVA – and not many days after that picture was taken Tucker was shot up nearly to death and was medevaced out of Vietnam in extremis.
PAL: So in Vietnam you were in Military Intelligence and not the CIA?
JJ: Yeah. The fact is, despite what you may see in the movies, the process of joining the Agency – certainly as a “Career Trainee” — is a rather prolonged and involved one, and, at least in my case, began when I was still at university.
They’d told me they wanted me to join them, alright, but that first I had to, after I’d got my undergraduate degree, do either a stint in the military or else go on to get some kind of graduate degree, and then I should come back to them.
Well, that was a laugher of a “choice” – I’d wanted to join the Army anyway, so, bim!, I enlisted the very week I graduated in 1967 and after a month’s leave, I was in the Big Green Machine: Basic at Fort Knox, AIT at Fort Dix, Infantry OCS at Fort Benning, then a couple of months at an Officer’s Combat Intelligence course at what was then the Army’s military intelligence base at Fort Holabird, outside Baltimore. (That Fort Holabird place was a seriously awful, stinking — it was adjacent to a bourbon distillery – slum, and the Army has since moved its M.I. shop to the infinitely more salubrious Fort Huachuca, in Arizona).
Upon graduation from that Officers Combat Intelligence Course I got my orders… to remain as an M.I. instructor at that same benighted Fort Holabird! Well, I wasn’t having any of that shit – I sure as hell hadn’t enlisted in the Army to be an instructor at bloody Fort Holabird, so I had to specially request to be assigned to Vietnam, which, to the pretty general astonishment not to say disbelief of the clerks and officers who handled my paperwork, I was duly granted.
In Vietnam I was a member of the 525th Military Intelligence Group. (When I wrote to my Dad giving him the name of my unit, he answered “Good heavens, my boy, does that mean there are 524 other of your mob out there?!”)
PAL: Actually, what does it mean?
JJ: I’ve also often wondered how these unit designation numbers are arrived at! Actually, the 525th MI Group was only my administrative unit – I was physically assigned to a tiny detachment (“Strategic Research and Analysis” – “SRA”) of a much larger wodge of military bureaucracy, the “Combined Intelligence Center, Vietnam” (CICV) which was itself part of “J-2” at MACV HQS in Saigon.
Incidentally, this brings me to probably the single most valuable lesson I learned from my time in the Army and later with the Agency: that Happiness, (when working for others), lies in finding and getting yourself assigned to a small – preferably tiny – little unit well out of the bureaucratic mainstream. Such little, “irregular” units – sometimes “elite” but not always and not necessarily so – tend to fall through the official and bureaucratic cracks, and once ensconced inside one of them you will find yourself with a remarkable independence of action which often makes actual rank irrelevant and which, as I say, can be quite liberating and… well, exhilarating.
And so it was with our little “SRA” unit which, as suggested by its inevitably rather grandiloquent title, was charged with monitoring and evaluating enemy (both VC and NVA) strength and “order of battle” throughout South Vietnam. And 2 associated sidelights of this remit were to monitor and evaluate direct Soviet and Chicom support (both in materiel and, in some cases, personnel) for the enemy, as well as enemy PSYOPS – in radio broadcasts, leafleting and physical political proselytizing. In short, our job was to “Know Our Enemy”, and to disseminate our findings up to the brass and out to the troops.
To accomplish this rather expansive task we had only a handful of actual warm bodies. Our all-Army SRA was commanded by an outstanding full-bull, Col. Lee, a Chinese-American who was straight out of a Charlie Chan movie – small, shrewd, sharp as a dagger and (crucially as far as I was concerned) more than happy to allow his subordinates max leeway to act independently and get on with the job as they saw fit. Our XO was the affable Major Kubilins, a Catholic whose main “extra-curricular” interest was in helping out the Caritas convents throughout South Vietnam, (in aid of which he inveigled me to spend many down hours teaching the French-speaking Vietnamese sisters some English: J’aime le riz – “I like rice”; Prier baissez votre fusil – “Kindly lower your rifle”).
My direct boss was an extremely convivial Captain from Florida, Jim Muia, who’d seen action in our recent military intervention in the Dominican Republic. And we had a couple of other Lieutenants, of which most prominent was my best pal and inseparable buddy, Loren Rudisill, a brilliant, sardonic weight-lifting giant from the steel mills of western Pennsylvania – straight out of “The Deer Hunter”. As well as a small scattering of enlisted men, of whom I best remember the excellent Spec 4 Paul René, a wise-ass kid from outside Boston who was my jeep driver and general assistant.
PL: You mentioned evaluating and monitoring Chinese and Russian support for the North Vietnamese. How important was that support to the NVA’s war effort in South Vietnam, do you think? And did you see much evidence of it intel-wise?
JJ: Well, quite simply, without Chicom (about 20% of the total) and Soviet (about 80%) material (and other) support to the enemy we would have won the war militarily much sooner than we did (end 1972) – First, because obviously they would have had far fewer bullets and far fewer guns with which to fire them — after all, what, (other than rice), does one imagine was being humped down the Ho Chi Minh trail by all those tens of thousands of coolies during all those years?
But second, the global “anti-war” movement, which is what ultimately won it for the communists, would never have had the time to build up the influence it eventually did. But the question is rather moot in any case – the whole Vietnam War was (contrary to the leftist “narrative” that it was a “civil war”) always just a particularly big, particularly hot proxy battle in WWIII (the “Cold War”), with American techno-industrial superiority being offset by the Communists’ safe-haven advantage of territorial immunity in Laos, Cambodia and the North itself.
And, as long as we’re on the “anti-war” movement, (I use “ “ marks because it was palpably less anti-war than it was pro-communist victory), and, sorry, this wasn’t specifically part of your question, but… anyone doubting its importance in the ultimate outcome of the Vietnam War should have had a shufti at the overwhelming prominence it was given in the VC/North Vietnamese written and broadcast propaganda that was targeted at the civilian populations in both the North and South. Really, the extent to which the enemy reported on, and amplified, every last detail and minutia of the “anti-war” movement inside the US and throughout the West was absolutely stunning.
In my novella “Imperialist Warmonger Pig” I use as an epigram the portentous 1972 quote by the then-head of the KGB, Yuri Andropov, to the Soviet Politburo that “We will win the Vietnam War not in Vietnam, not at the Paris talks, but in the streets of America.” (Please note his use of the word “we”.) And boy, did the old bastard have that right! I remember thinking – and commenting to my SRA mates – as I read and listened to all this commie claptrap coming out of COSVN (the elusive, “mythical” and, in the end, notional VC HQs) and the North, “Holy cow, good thing those pinkos back on campus in the States can’t see this stuff – their already fat-enough heads would completely explode….”
PL: Where were you based, mostly in Saigon?
Yes, but the beauty of SRA and its elastically expansive remit was that we had “carte blanche” to roam wherever we wanted throughout South Vietnam, and “attach” ourselves pretty much at will for the above-mentioned TDY (“temporary duty”) to any field unit we chose in order to “evaluate” the enemy and report back to the top brass accordingly. And also to “brief” local intel officers of the “bigger picture”.
It was a neat set-up. We’d issue ourselves whatever travel orders were necessary, and saunter over to Tan Son Nhut air base and avail ourselves of any Air America, Air Force or even Army Aviation transport that was going where we wanted to go. (There were of course no “schedules” to speak of – you just went to the TSN Ops Center, had a word with the duty officer, showed your orders, and waited – usually not too long – TSN was then the busiest airport in the world and sooner or later you could always hop a flight on some kind of transport or other that was going, if not exactly to your location, then close enough — there was always a jeep or a deuce-and-a-half handy when you landed somewhere to hop onto to complete the trip.
Because I hadn’t joined the Army to be a “chairborne ranger”, I took more of these field trips than any of my fellow SRA officers, but in order to minimize my own nuisance effect on the sorely-pressed units in the field that I visited, I tried to limit myself to my rather extensive network of fellow-officer buddies that I’d formed during my months at OCS and Intelligence School. (And, as far as I could tell, they were always happy to see me – or at least they never objected, especially when, after I’d contacted them by radio beforehand, I’d agree to bring them goodies that they’d ask for from the big Saigon PX or the MACV Hqs. supply stores).
As a result of this, I ended up spending time with field units, if not in every province, certainly in every military region in South Vietnam – from Quang Nam in the north to Kien Giang in the Delta, passing through such points of, er, interest as the infamous “Black Virgin Mountain” (Nui Ba Den) in Tay Ninh Province and the old Michelin rubber plantations in Binh Duong Province, in the latter of which I spent some time with an old OCS buddy who was a platoon leader in the 25th “Tropic Lightning” ID, which had made the Michelin “Cercle Sportif”’s empty swimming pool its handy storage facility for stacked palettes of beer. Pabst Blue Ribbon and Carling Black Label, and plenty of it. (burp.)
As it happened, most of these junior officer buddies of mine were advisers attached to ARVN units of one kind or another, rather than to line infantry units, but this vantage point actually helped in our SRA mission of “getting close and personal” with the enemy – the ARVNs weren’t always the best of fighters, to be sure, but as sources of intel on the enemy – otherwise more prosaically known merely as “local scuttlebutt” — they were obviously pretty well placed.
In Vietnam Part 2: Intelligence operations in Vietnam.
Jack is a member of the Air America Association, the (US) Special Operations Association, and, in London, the Special Forces Club.
Under the pseudonym of P.N. Gwynne he wrote two well-received comic adventure/espionage novels, “Firmly By The Tail” and “Pushkin Shove”, the former taking place in Africa and the latter in Europe. He also self-published a fictionalized version of his Vietnam and Laos wartime experiences called “Imperialist Warmonger Pig”. Although now out of print, second-hand copies of the first two can be found online, and reprinted copies of all three can be obtained through direct arrangements with the author at firstname.lastname@example.org
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