The National Security Agency (NSA) hired me as soon as my army enlistment was finished in 1961 and less than a year later sent me to Vietnam for the first time. I spoke Vietnamese and French, the two principal languages of Vietnam (Chinese would come later), and I had proven myself adept at intercept of North Vietnamese radio communications and reporting the results. My job, over the next thirteen years, would be to support U.S. military forces on the battlefield. For my first four months in Vietnam, I was assigned to the newly-created Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (MACV). Its commander was General Paul D. Harkins.
I spent most of my time on that trip at the MACV headquarters on Pasteur Street in Saigon. Initially, I operated infrequently on the battlefield because U.S. forces were sparse and engaged not in combat but in advising South Vietnamese military forces.
I learned early on that the U.S. military was woefully ignorant of my profession, signals intelligence (SIGINT). Few at the MACV headquarters were cleared for SIGINT, and it was a new and strange discipline for those allowed to see its results. NSA had worked hard to keep SIGINT’s existence secret. Few Americans had even heard of it. Few in the military service had ever come across it before. It was strange, elusive, and often ignored.
As the only civilian at the headquarters, I was assigned working space at the rear of the building on the top floor in the Special Security Office (SSO) where highly classified material was kept and only the cleared were permitted. I rented a one-room apartment downtown (on Tu Do street) and traveled by taxi. My association with NSA was classified. I was, in short, an oddball.
Vietnam in those days was still a relatively peaceful country. The city of Saigon struck me as a lazy but gracious southern town, hot and slow moving. The people went about their tasks at a leisurely pace, and a siesta during the hottest part of the day—mid-afternoon—was standard for all, even Americans.