As I have mentioned several times in this blog, my work during the thirteen years I was in Vietnam has been largely declassified at my behest, but my assignments after the fall of Saigon in April 1975 remain classified. During my time in Vietnam, I had established a reputation for being very effective at working on the battlefield and supporting military units in combat with information derived from secretly intercepted enemy radio communications. So in the years after the fall of Vietnam to the communists, I was sent to a number of different places around the world to do the same kind of work. My knowledge of seven languages other than English served me in good stead.
Without revealing any classified information, I can tell of one of my adventures in a foreign city that will remain nameless. I was assigned to work for several months out of the U.S. embassy in that city. My cover was that I was an equipment repairman sent to work temporarily in the embassy, so I wore the clothes of a working man.
One afternoon when I had time off, I decided to go on a sightseeing walk through the city. For several hours I tramped through the streets marveling at the strangeness and beauty of the ancient metropolis. As the sun reached toward the horizon, I figured I’d better head back and realized that I had lost my way. For an hour or so, I wandered, searching for familiar streets but found none. The fact that I spoke the language of the country was classified, but speakers of English were few and far between. To find my way back, I had to ask for directions in the country’s native language.
It worked. People on the street were more than happy help out a lost stranger, obviously an American, and were complimented that I’d gone to the trouble of learning their language. And, as it turned out, I wasn’t as far from the embassy as I thought. As soon as I arrived, I went straight to the director of security and confessed that I had violated regulations by speaking the local language in public. He was more than a little amused. With a grin he couldn’t hide, he told me he’d let it go this time but don’t ever do it again.
I didn’t. I’d learned my lesson.