My Last Counterpart in Vietnam

Over the years, I’ve mentioned in passing in this blog the general who headed the South Vietnamese government’s agency responsible for signals intelligence in 1974 and 1975. I have not, until now, told his whole story.

His name was and, as far as I know, still is classified. I first met him in 1974 when I headed the covert National Security Agency (NSA) operation in Vietnam. U.S. troops had been withdrawn in 1973, so my entire staff of 43 men were civilians but all, including me, were veterans. The general was in charge of the South Vietnamese signals intelligence effort, whose mission was the same as mine—intercept and exploitation of the radio communications of the invading North Vietnamese. He was my counterpart.

I didn’t much like the general, and over time, I came to respect him less. He knew almost nothing about the signals intelligence discipline, and I learned early on that to get results I had to work with those of his subordinates who were professionals. I began to suspect that he had been named to his job because of his connections with senior officials in the South Vietnamese government, not because of his expertise or even talent. Such corruption was commonplace in the South Vietnamese military. It contributed significantly to the collapse of the armed forces as North Vietnamese victory loomed.

On 9 March 1975, as it became obvious that the North Vietnamese were bent on seizing the northern half of the country as their first step in the final conquest, I flew with the general to prepare his units there for the coming onslaught. He remained mostly mute and distracted. I did the best I could to encourage his troops. We went to Phu Bai, in the far north, then to Ban Me Thuot in the southern reaches of the highlands. We knew from intercepted North Vietnamese communications that the first attack in the highlands would be at Ban Me Thuot. By the time we approached the town, the offensive was already underway. We landed at an airstrip on a hill nearby. While the general was reviewing his troops, I saw the beginnings of a firefight in the valley to our west. We took off as the airstrip came under fire.

Ban Me Thuot fell within days as did the whole northern half of the country. The general was becoming more and more agitated.

More tomorrow.

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