My First Assignment to Vietnam

The story of how I got to Vietnam the first time is complicated. When I graduated from college, I wanted to study Chinese, a language that had always fascinated me. The best language school in the world at the time (and probably still today) was the Army Language School (ALS, later named the Defense Language Institute) at Monterey, California. So I enlisted in the army with the proviso that I would be assigned to study at ALS. I looked forward to six hours a day in the classroom plus two hours of private study each night, five days a week, for a full year in intensive study of Chinese.

But when I arrived at the school, the army told me that I was not to study Chinese, but something called Vietnamese, a language I had never heard of—in those days (1959), we didn’t call that part of the world Vietnam; we called it French Indochina. But I was now a soldier, and I was required to obey commands, so I settled in for a year of intensive study of this thing called Vietnamese. All my instructors spoke the northern dialect, the vernacular of the country besieging South Vietnam.

When I graduated, I asked the army to send me to Vietnam. The answer was no. The army had almost nothing going on there in 1960. Besides, I graduated first in my class. That meant I had to be assigned to the National Security Agency (NSA) at Fort Meade, Maryland. I had never heard of NSA and had no idea of what I would be doing there.

I arrived at NSA early in 1960 and was immediately put to work translating intercepted North Vietnamese messages. Later I worked on code recovery and was schooled in intelligence analysis, among other disciplines. I loved the work and often stayed beyond quitting time to do more of it. At the same time. I enrolled in intensive Chinese language classes at Georgetown University.

By the time my enlistment ended in 1961, I was proficient in Vietnamese, Chinese, and French (which I had taught myself as a child). NSA immediately hired me. In 1962, the agency sent me to Vietnam for the first time. It was TDY (temporary duty, that is less than a full tour) of four months.

More tomorrow.

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