American Clothing in Vietnam Before Saigon Fell

in Last of the Annamese, Chuck dresses in Marine utilities—what the army calls fatigues—when he travels to the highlands with Colonel Thanh. Until 1974, I did the same. I dressed in the uniform of the combat units I was supporting. My purpose wasn’t comfort; I was a civilian signals intelligence operative under cover working with a combat unit in the field. As long as I was in the fatigues or utilities, the enemy wouldn’t realize that a spy was in their midst.

When I returned to Vietnam to head the NSA covert operation in 1974, U.S. troops had been withdrawn from Vietnam. So while I still had fatigues and occasionally wore them for trips to the field, that was for comfort and convenience, not to mislead the enemy.

My predecessor in Saigon had required the NSA employees under cover there to wear dress shirts and ties, even though other U.S. civilian agencies in Saigon allowed open-collar short-sleeve dress shirts with no jacket or tie due to the climate. I immediately changed the rules so that my guys would look just like every other American bureaucrat in town. My men loved me for freeing them from having to wear ties in the tropics.

When we were evacuated during the fall of Saigon, my two communicators who had volunteered to stay with me to the end and I were dressed in our standard uniform—short-sleeve shirts and slacks. But we’d been holed up in our office for more than a week while the North Vietnamese pushed their attack on the Saigon. We’d had little to eat and almost no sleep and hadn’t been able to bathe for days. And we’d been wearing the same clothes the whole time. We were rank, but that was the least of our concerns.

After I was evacuated to a ship of the 7th Fleet in the South China Sea, I was able to eat and get cleaned up, but I still had no other clothes than the ones I’d worn for days while we were stranded at our office. We finally sailed to the Philippines, arriving in mid-May, and I immediately booked a flight for Honolulu. The senior NSA official in Hawaii—the man who’d been my predecessor in Saigon—met my plane. Instead of asking how I was or congratulating me for getting out alive, he took one look at me and said, “You can’t be seen around here looking like that.”

I still shake my head in wonder at a man who couldn’t grasp that my two communicators and I cared less about how we looked, and even how we smelled, than about getting out alive.

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