Intelligence Operations in Saigon During the Vietnam War, Part 2.
Above Photo: Soldier strolls past a bar on Tu Do Street, Saigon (Blue Toucan, Flikr)
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: What can you tell me about the above photo:
JJ: This was taken in a USN “brown water navy” “PBR” (“Patrol Boat, River”), as we were returning to the town of Rach Gia, in the Mekong Delta (MR IV) after it had picked “us” up after a mostly unsuccessful overnight ambush/prisoner-snatch operation that I’d accompanied on the banks of one of the many nameless streams in that area. “We” consisted of an Army Captain Barker, who’d been a pal of mine at Fort Holabird, and a handful of ARVN “Regional/Popular Forces” — “Ruff-Puffs” — to whom he was an adviser. I snapped off the shot as a whim, after taking a few of the boat’s sailors, as we were bounding around at speed. I didn’t think anything of it at the time, but later I decided I’d sort of accidentally taken a pretty good shot, there….
PAL: Where was your “office” located in Saigon, where did you live and how did you get to work?
JJ: As I said, when I was in Saigon my “office” was in a corner of the J-2 wing of the sprawling MACV HQs. I and my little team would also spend a good bit of time with the CIA “listeners” over at the “Foreign Broadcast Information Service” (FBIS) which was located in an alley off the infamous “Tu Do St.” (Rue Catinat), where we’d scan the tea leaves of enemy propaganda and try to read between the lines of bombast and surreal hyperbole. (Enemy propaganda would prove a source of endless, if unintended, humor to me and my mates).
Being an extremely junior lieutenant I was housed with a handful of other junior officers in a particularly low-rent “bachelor officer’s quarters” (BOQ), a small 3-floor apartment block rented from some anonymous Viet in the middle of a fetid swamp not far from Tan Son Nhut. Shabby, crumbling and fly-blown, it was pretty spartan housing, but it suited me well enough. As for getting to and from MACV HQs, when I didn’t have the use of our shared “SRA” jeep, I’d hitch a ride on a fellow officer’s jeep or, if there was nothing better, use the bus service which MACV ran between the BOQs and BEQs.
PAL: When you were there, was Saigon a very dangerous place to be?
JJ: Saigon itself was not a primary battlefield in the Vietnam war. I personally never fired any of my weapons in Saigon and only witnessed 3 acts of war in all my time there:
1. An explosive-packed “cyclo” (motorcycle-taxi) exploded about 50 meters from me on a street in Cholon (the Chinese – and pro-commie — part of town which did actually see a lot of fighting during Tet) one day while I was on a mission which I’ve since forgotten, causing a big bloody stinking mess which I have not forgotten; I was the only American in the area at the time, and I did not tarry.
2. An extraordinary incident one night in a “Saigon tea” bar with my previously-mentioned fellow-Lieutenant buddy, the inevitable Rudisill. We were just leaving the bar when I remember seeing a little shoeshine urchin-san nipping in – it was late, almost curfew time, and I remember speculating to Rudisill about what customers he might hope to find at such a late hour. We were standing in the street, wondering whether to pack things in or go for one last drink elsewhere, when the whole bar exploded behind us, knocking us on our asses. We rushed back into the flaming bedlam and spent some horrible moments trying to sort out the dead from the wounded, before the MPs and some Air Force medics, who’d actually heard the explosion from near Tan Son Nhut, arrived. Another big, bloody stinking mess – only this time, as I recall, with 1 US dead and 3 wounded;
3. Another night, again with Rudisill, we were again wandering from one watering hole to another when an utterly anonymous firefight erupted in the street, with red tracers flying every which way. We took immediate cover, which in this case consisted of an open sewer on the side of the unpaved road. Covered with shit we peered out from our ditch and at least had the sense not to fire our M-16s – at who? The firing eventually stopped as mysteriously and suddenly as it had erupted, and we did not hang about to discover what the hell it had all been about. Another big mess – although this one with less blood, but more stink. We ended up having to burn our fatigues.
But, to answer your question, no — by and large, Saigon was no more violent than, say, Chicago is in the era of Obama.
PAL: What operations can you tell me about from your time in Vietnam?
JJ: Well, as I’ve already mentioned, under the pretext of “liaising” with line and advisory units about enemy propaganda in their AOs, I’d tag along on these rather random operations when I’d visit with variously-assigned US Army Lieutenant and Captain pals of mine.
Thus, for example, that incident that I briefly mentioned previously, the one with my Captain buddy from Holabird who was the “Intelligence Adviser” to the ARVN in Kien Giang Province in the Delta. The idea had been to ambush and try to grab some live retreating (“straggling”) NVA elements from a much larger previous encounter, but in the event the op proved to be unsuccessful – the guys we did in fact end up interdicting that night were a small group of local VC cadres, who were, luckily enough for us, just in the wrong place at the wrong time, and, after a brief firefight, we ended up killing one and capturing 2, who Barker and his ARVNs would interrogate the next day. So no NVAs involved and just a few local Charlies instead, and so not a big deal at all – but it did afford me the opportunity to operate, if briefly, with the admirable and efficient lads of the “Brown Water Navy” (PBRs were the little brothers of John “Swiftboat” Kerry’s more famous craft)…
and that other time I also mentioned with the old OCS buddy who was a battalion intel officer with the 25th “Tropic Lightning” ID – the guys with the beer stocked in the empty Michelin swimming pool. Anyway, in that case, my pal up there was, among other things, working with some ARVNS who were attached to the 25th and who were themselves dealing with the local “Chieu Hoi” (“Open Arms”) program, trying peel off some of the NVA in their area to change sides. So I spent some time with a few of their “Kit Carson” scouts (ex-NVAs) and some recent Chieu Hois, batting around what worked and what didn’t. I also attended some POW “debriefings”, although I didn’t conduct any myself. Some of it actually seemed pretty useful… at the time.
And so, during the course of this rather amazingly more-or-less officially-authorized gallivanting around pretty much the entirety of South Vietnam, I also found myself, for example: spending time with the excellent jocks of a USAF Phantom squadron in Tuy Hoa; getting rocketed with a detachment of stoic Marines in Danang; and having to make an emergency landing in Tay Ninh Province when the Air America C-46 (no, not C-47) I was on got hit by enemy fire while flying too close to Nuy Ba Den (the famous “Black Virgin Mountain”).
PAL: Anything other interesting Intelligence operations you can tell me about?
JJ: Well, heh, at one point, I got drafted into helping out with the rather farcical “Operation New MPC.” What happened was this:
In order that the massive US presence (over a half a million during the period when I was there) shouldn’t impact too negatively on the local South Vietnamese economy (!), US personnel were paid (to the extent that they got some of their pay in-country) not in Vietnamese Piastres, but rather in a kind of ersatz military Monopoly money called “MPC” (Military Payment Certificates), which we were meant to spend at PXs and to change into local currency only under limited and strictly-controlled conditions.
Thus, in theory, at least, local Vietnamese were not supposed to be in possession of any MPC, and GIs weren’t supposed to have Vietnamese Piastres. Fat chance, GI.
The reality, of course, was radically different – and GIs had and used bookoo Piastres, while the Vietnamese (mostly “Saigon-tea” girls and their Mama-sans) were absolutely rolling in MPC.
So at one point the genius Brass (probably in Washington) decided to overnight – literally – issue “new” MPC bills, in new Monopoly livery, and switch it with the old model MPC, throughout the country.
Now, although this was a semi-massive operation, it went smoothly enough with all the GIs, but, as you can imagine, it was an entirely different kettle of fish with the ARVNs and the civilian Viet population: My God, what a clusterfuck, and what hysteria it caused amongst the suddenly bollixed, bewildered and thoroughly banjaxed Viets.
Thus, I found myself one of an extensive network of US officers, literally manning a kind of road-side stand, on (in my case) Highway 1 to Bien Hoa, standing next to my new-MPC-laden jeep, armed with extra ammo and grenades and with an MP for added security, exchanging MPC bills with unruly, unhappy and variously outraged mobs of civilian Viets — most of them, as I said, Mama-sans and their lovely hard-working charges.
They were a limit of $50 that each person could change, and I dipped the finger of each exchanger in indelible ink (as we would much later do with voters in Iraq), and I watched in considerable amusement as each Mama-san would organize individual members of their extended families, including their little grandbrat-sans, to come up, one by one, to exchange their $50 of MPCs. (Which, of course, they weren’t supposed to have in the first place.)
I must say, those that had the good fortune to deal with me were given a relatively easy ride – as a disciple, even then, of Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman, I’d always regarded the “black market” as being, in fact, the “free market” and so I cut those Mama-sans and Saigon tea girls a lot of slack in this rather farcical “currency exchange” operation. (Not to mention the fact that I already knew some of these ladies already, and would go on to know others later on… So there was a certain amount of “Hey, Trung Uy, why you do me numbah ten like dis? I not show you numbah one good time befo’, udder time, in my bah? Dis numbah ten boo-shi’, Trung Uy, nex’ time I cackadow you!”… heh… yeah, I love you too much too, Mama-san….).
Jack is a member of the Air America Association, the (US) Special Operations Association, and, in London, the Special Forces Club. He can be contacted here: firstname.lastname@example.org
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