Symposium: The Tet Offensive (4)

The second reason that I was involved in the forecast of the Tet Offensive is that I and other NSA professionals had, since the early sixties, worked hard to identify North Vietnamese communications practices that preceded military attacks. We were so successful that we foretold every major North Vietnamese offensive from 1964 onward.

But neither the U.S. Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (MACV) nor the South Vietnamese prepared for the onslaught of the Tet Offensive. They were taken by surprise because they neither believed the forecast nor acted on it.

The irony of the Tet Offensive was that the North Vietnamese suffered a huge defeat but profited from the outcome. Their combat losses were enormous. The South Vietnamese populace did not arise in general insurrection, as the communists had hoped and expected. The troops of the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) did not desert their posts. And the multiple attacks were repulsed.

But the North Vietnamese scored a political victory. The people of the U.S. had been told by their leaders that we were winning the war and that the North Vietnamese were near the end of their ability to fight. The Tet Offensive upended that premise. Opposition to the war grew rampant, leading to the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Vietnam in 1973 and the fall of Saigon in April 1975. My escape under fire as Saigon fell was but one of the many consequences brought on by the U.S. retreat from the war.

The memory of all these events overwhelmed me as I sat in the symposium and listened to the men I had worked with back then tell of our role in the Tet Offensive. The recollections were sad, but pride in our success in predicting the offensive leavened the bitterness.

More tomorrow.

Symposium: The Tet Offensive (3)

Continuing my reporting on the 17 October 2018 symposium on the Tet Offensive:

As I noted yesterday, I contributed to the signals intelligence forewarning of the Tet Offensive in two ways, even though I was not at NSA when the report and its ten follow-ups were issued.

The first action on my part was that I saw the country-wide offensive coming and urged NSA to alert U.S forces.

During the late summer and early fall of 1967, I was in the western highlands supporting U.S. forces there. From the intercept and analysis of North Vietnamese communications, I was able to tip off the 173rd Airborne Brigade and the 4th Infantry Division to the buildup of Vietnamese Communist forces in Kontum Province and their intent to attack us. The end result was the battle of Dak To.

As the battle was winding down, I moved south to the Bien Hoa area, just north of Saigon. Once there I saw the same enemy communications practices we had observed in the highlands. Signals intelligence units all over the country detected the same patterns. I realized that the North Vietnamese were planning simultaneous attacks nationwide and exhorted NSA to pull together all the data and report the battle preparations.

The result was the alert to all recipients of our reporting that a country-wide offensive was about to begin.

More tomorrow.

Symposium: The Tet Offensive (2)

Throughout the day at the symposium, I was surprised when attendees would approach me and say hello. Once I saw their name tags, I realized who they were—NSA employees now retired. I remembered them as young men and women, but they’re now my age.

I knew all the speakers who were at NSA during the Vietnam war. We had worked together over the thirteen years I was trundling to Vietnam and back. They recalled moments and incidents I had come to believe were my memories alone. It felt as though my classified past was now being exposed to public view. I had to adjust my thinking. My past wasn’t secret any more.

While the central focus of the symposium was the 1968 Tet Offensive, the discussion ranged over the whole period of the Vietnam war and signals intelligence role in the conflict. I caught myself nodding and saying softly, “Yes, that’s right. That’s the way it was.”

I was most moved by the presentations of Tom Fogarty and Jack Barrett, both my compatriots during those years. They confirmed what I have maintained over the five decades since: the Tet Offensive was not a surprise to the U.S. government. Signals intelligence had foretold it. NSA issued its first report predicting the country-wide attacks the week before they began and had issued ten follow-up reports between 25 and 30 January 1968.

I didn’t write any of those reports. I was in Vietnam at the time. But I was instrumental in their issuance in two ways.

More next time.

Symposium: The Tet Offensive

I interrupt my series of posts on chaos as Saigon fell to report on a symposium I attended yesterday given by the National Cryptologic Museum Foundation entitled, “The Tet Offensive.”

Dr. Tom Johnson, whom I worked with during the Vietnam war while he was an Air Force officer, was the keynote speaker. It was he who suggested that I attend.

The pamphlet listing the events of the day had on its cover a picture of the Minnesota Vietnam Veterans’ Memorial with the words from Archibald MacLeish: “We were young. We have died. Remember us.” The full text of MacLeish’s poem reads:

The young dead soldiers do not speak.
Nevertheless, they are heard in the still houses:
who has not heard them?
They have a silence that speaks for them at night
and when the clock counts.
They say: We were young. We have died.
Remember us.
They say: We have done what we could
but until it is finished it is not done.
They say: We have given our lives but until it is finished
no one can know what our lives gave.
They say: Our deaths are not ours: they are yours,
they will mean what you make them.
They say: Whether our lives and our deaths were for
peace and a new hope or for nothing we cannot say,
it is you who must say this.
We leave you our deaths. Give them their meaning.
We were young, they say. We have died; remember us.

End of quote. Those words, even after all these years, still bring tears to my eyes.

More tomorrow.

Chaos at the End (2)

Further quotes from my novel, Last of the Annamese, on the North Vietnamese stand-down just before the fall of Saigon:

The eerie calm prevailed. Analyses from stateside agencies surmised that the North Vietnamese were regrouping, but the embassy responded that the North Vietnamese were waiting for President Thieu to step down so that they could begin negotiations with the U.S. and the South Vietnamese. Monday [28 April 1975] afternoon, the embassy announced that President Thieu had left office and was fleeing the country. Troiano told Chuck that Thieu was flying with his family to exile in Taiwan.

The sitzkrieg continued into Tuesday [29 April 1975]. Chuck had become inured to the routine of disaster, the endless repetition of gruesome details as the republic disintegrated, but the uncanny quiet unnerved him. He knew now what was going on. Unhampered by threats, external and internal, the North Vietnamese could take the time to do a thorough preparation for the coup de grâce. Almost as an afterthought, a dispatch from the field reported that the North Vietnamese had completed the occupation of Xuan Loc.

End of quote. The novel depicts faithfully what I was going through. I struggled to get the last of my subordinates safely out of the country until, by 26 April, only three of us were left: me and the two communicators who had volunteered to stay with me to the end, Bob Hartley and Gary Hickman. The three of us locked all the doors throughout the office suite and stayed twenty-four hours a day in the comms center. We took turns resting on the one cot we had. And we waited for the end.

More tomorrow.

Chaos at the End

With the fall of Saigon imminent in April 1975, turmoil took over. The streets, overflowing with refugees fleeing into Saigon to escape the advancing North Vietnamese, became impassable for vehicles. Mobs demanding evacuation surrounded our compound at Tan Son Nhat, on the northern edge of Saigon. The throngs were ten to fifteen people deep. We could no longer get in or out of the gates.

In the midst of the turmoil, the battlefield became quiet. I described the sudden quiescence in Last of the Annamese. Chuck Griffin, the novel’s protagonist, is at work in the Intelligence Branch of the Defense Attaché Office (DAO) inside that compound. The General Smith referred to is General Homer D. Smith, who actually was the chief of the DAO:

[Chuck] prepared himself for the grind through the mountains of incoming traffic, but for the first time he could remember, the total take was less than an inch high. Nearly all the classified message traffic was codeword signals intelligence reports that had originated in the states. The rest was the usual screed from the Liberation News Agency [the North Vietnamese propaganda broadcast] and news reports from the wire services. What was going on? The Republic of Vietnam, its northern provinces ripped from it, lay quivering. The North Vietnamese watched like a cat toying with a wounded bird. With little to post or report, Chuck, on Troiano’s [Chuck’s boss] orders, drafted a cable to Washington, info General Smith, updating the estimate he’d given General Weyand [the U.S. Army Chief of Staff who had visited Saigon]. In it he listed the sixteen North Vietnamese divisions known to be positioned and the two believed to be close by for a three-prong attack against Saigon.

He flipped on Sparky’s portable to get the latest ARS [American Radio Service] reporting on the war. He heard news about Hollywood films and debates in Congress followed by songs from Dionne Warwick and Al Martino. Nothing about Vietnam. Toward noon word arrived that the embassy had commanded ARS to cease all reporting about the war. Troiano speculated that the ambassador was afraid of panic.

End of quote. Throughout Last of the Annamese, the character of Chuck Griffin is a stand-in for me. I attribute to him experiences I myself had. Wherever possible, I used the names of the real people involved as Saigon fell, e.g., Generals Smith and Weyand.

But I never used the name of the ambassador, Graham Martin, in describing scenes that actually took place. The actions taken by Martin are those depicted in the book. Other sources have long since corroborated his failure to believe the intelligence presented to him and to prepare for the fall of Saigon.

More tomorrow.

The .38 Snub Nose Pistol (2)

The revolver in Tuyet’s possession proves ironic. The weapon, which Chuck gave her, was to protect herself and her son. That’s not how she ended up using it.

As Saigon is falling, Chuck is safely evacuated to the Midway, a ship of the U.S. 7th Fleet, but Thanh and Tuyet are still in Saigon. Chuck is ill with the same maladies that affected me due to privations during and after the evacuation—exhaustion, amoebic dysentery, and pneumonia. He’s in sick bay. Colonel Troiano, his boss in Saigon, sits with him:

Troiano pulled his chair close to the gurney. “I discussed it with the Commander [the ship’s doctor who is caring for Chuck], and we decided to tell you instead of waiting. We don’t want you to get the word somewhere else.”

The base of Chuck’s spine tingled. He sat straight. “What?”

“Tuyet’s dead, Chuck.”

It was a sledgehammer to his chest.

“We found out,” Troiano went on, “from Radio Liberation. It’s moved into Saigon—they’re calling it Ho Chi Minh City now. So you’ll know all of it, I’ll read a translation of their broadcast from 0600 this morning.”

He took a paper from his breast pocket, unfolded it, and read.

“The running dogs of the imperialists are now all either dead or captured. Yesterday our valiant troops seized the so-called Joint General Staff of the puppet army almost without resistance. Only one of the puppet officers, the infamous Marine Colonel Pham Ngoc Thanh, the notorious butcher of Phat Hoa, tried to fight us. Our forces quickly overcame him and his wife, holed up in his office. Unable to face the strict justice of the people after we captured him, his wife produced a snub nose .38 pistol, the weapon of cowards, and killed the colonel and herself before our troops could stop her. Her treachery is typical of the running dogs . . .”

Troiano took a deep breath. “It goes on, but that’s the important part.”

Tuyet dead. Like Molly. And Philippe, Angélique, Thanh. And [his son] Ben. He’d known it before Troiano told him. Now there was no denying, no escape.

“I’ll stay with him,” he heard Troiano say.

End of quote. The bitter irony of how Tuyet used the snub nose pistol Chuck gave her—she, like so many other South Vietnamese, chose death rather than life under the communists.