Saigon - Phu Lam
Guard tower, ASA base, Saigon
Then one hot August night in '63, Jeff and a small group of lingys were ordered to pack their gear and appear at the flight line the next morning. They were flown to Saigon for a special mission. South Vietnamese generals had given up on President Diem as a war leader and were planning a coup.
Jeff and the team set up at a base outside the capital, Saigon, near the ville of Phu Lam - their job to secretly monitor the plotters' electronic communications. Washington wanted to be sure it was aware of what was going on behind the scenes. Although the team worked in shifts around the clock, there were still many occasions for good times in the city known as the Paris of the Orient.
The successful coup went off on November 1st, and a junta of generals took over. Jeff and the lingys, having completed their temporary duty assignment, returned to the Philippines.
The Vietnam Coup Capers
"Saigon Was no Rear Area"
#1 Suddenly in late August ’63, Jeff and a small group of linguists (lingys) were transferred from the Philippines to Saigon. A coup was in the offing, and Washington, which had greenlighted the South Vietnamese generals planning the overthrow, wanted to be quite sure what it was getting into.
The lingys were billeted at the Army Security Agency base at the airport and worked out of Phu Lam, a very secret location to the west of the capital, their job – to electronically eavesdrop on communication between the coup plotters.
Some weeks later, Jeff’s good friend from Army Language School, John Buquoi, was deployed to Vietnam to work with the Phu Lam crew. On John’s arrival, Jeff helped him settle in before he introduced him to Saigon night life. Jeff knew the town well.
Although most of the fighting was in the Mekong Delta to the south and in the highlands to the north, Viet Cong (VC) clandestine cells operating under various covers in Saigon occasionally carried out terror attacks in the capital. As a sailor observed, “Saigon was no rear area.” Favorite targets were places where American military advisors gathered off-duty.
John Buquoi describes his introduction:
Terror in Saigon
One evening during my first two weeks, Jeff and I and several buddies were walking down Tu Do Street heading for the Impériale, a little French open air bar -- a corner bar, classic French, tile floor, zinc-top bar, uncomfortable stools, a bistro menu, a dozen tiny tables open to the street on two sides, ancient Vietnamese waiters in khakis, white shirts, and flip flops, no girls, the perfect venue for a Pernod or Pastis on a warm night. Quelle ambiance!
We were walking toward the bar five abreast, a short block away, maybe 50-75 yards, when a grenade was thrown from a motorbike into our intended destination.
Our first sense of the explosion was seeing waiters running out into the street from the bar followed in slow motion by a flash of light and a huge horizontal column of billowing dirty gray smoke that appeared to be chasing the waiters – only then came the sound of the blast itself which caused us to momentarily duck our heads before running toward the explosion, a foolish impulse, but ….
The bar was a shambles of overturned tables, shattered glass and waiters’ flip flops. We all laughed about the closeness of the call, satisfied ourselves that our favorite waiters had come through unscathed (there were no life threatening injuries), and then headed on down the street to another bar.
The next night we all made the Impériale our first stop and had a good laugh with the waiters, all now wearing brand new tennis shoes, the better to run with they told us.
‘The List of Adrian Messenger’
SAIGON (AP), February 16 ’64 – A Viet Cong terrorist shot and killed a US military policeman outside the American movie theater here Sunday night, and seconds later a powerful bomb in the lobby killed two other Americans and wounded at least 49.
The terrorist struck while a crowd of about 500 American officials, servicemen, wives, and children in the exclusively American theater were watching ‘The List of Adrian Messenger’.
#3 During the war, most mainstream foreign correspondents in Vietnam filed combat stories to their papers and magazines back in the States. That was what they considered the newsworthy action. And not incidentally, many a reputation was made back home by daring journalists allowed to report the war up close.
With one notable exception, almost none of them sent back stories about how the troops themselves were faring in the hellacious combat zone. Yet it was in the heads of those troopers that the seeds of their later inchoate but massive defection from the war were germinating.
Disillusioned, Disoriented, and Disturbed
Michael Herr, a correspondent for Esquire, visited Army and Marine Corps units during 1967 and early 1968. Perhaps it was because Herr stayed with units for several days at a time and observed them during combat and non-combat situations, but his surreal vision of Americans at war painted an entirely different portrait than that seen in Newsweek, Time, and U.S. News and World Report.
Herr described disillusioned, disoriented, and disturbed young men whose fatalism and cynicism should have startled, if not worried, any visitor. None of the other mainstream media presented such revealing psychological profiles.
#4 Jeff-2 interviewed John Buquoi. First part was on JB’s arrival in Saigon to be taken in tow by Jeff-1 as the welcome wagon. The image of Jeff-1 that comes through is as a Saigon cowboy, very confident, cocky guy, maybe wearing a flowered shirt like Maggio and Monty Clift in Honolulu.
Coincidentally, someone had just written me remembering ‘a particular pose and the way Jeff would stand, smiling and smoking a cigarette’.
I Never Heard of Anyone Getting Anything
Taxi, five miles to downtown. Hot Hot Hot. Hot wind in a little Renault, close to 7 and dusk falling, the lights rising, down into Saigon. The Papillon Bar on Tu Do Street, to change some money. Army gave you 75 piastres on the dollar. Papillon gave you 135, 150.
They drank a beer. This one’s on Jeff. Then to another bar, to drink another beer, this one’s on Buquoi, and then another. The bars are for Americans mostly, American men and Vietnamese girls.
Long, narrow caverns, none of them crowded, twenty feet across and sixty deep, a bar and a mirror and in between the girls, all wearing just about the same white blouses.
There were three kinds of girls, Jeff explained. Pure as driven snow. The ones you sweet talk out of the bar. And the ones you could buy out of the bar.
‘But’, says Buquoi, ‘VD?’
‘It’s a crapshoot’, Jeff agreed. ‘But I never heard of anyone getting anything’.
#5 Jeff-2 describes Jeff and John B continuing the pub crawl.
They’re Spying on Us?
Hot Hot Hot. Let’s get some AC. A nightclub, Thu Za, cool as a Monterey morning, smart as Paris, with real tables for two and Vietnamese singers, a little piano and room for dancing. ‘Look at this place’, marvels Buquoi.
‘Look at this guy’, says Jeff. One man at a table for two, you can’t see him behind his big newspaper. Vietnamese paper. He peeks. Nothing subtle. ‘Another piece of the orientation’, Jeff says. Buquoi’s confused. ‘He’s police’, Jeff explains, ‘Diem’s not-so-secret police, detailed to Americans like us – nobodies that is’.
‘They’re spying on us?’
‘Why not?’ Jeff says. ‘We’re spying on them too’.
#6 Jeff-2 continues describing John B’s first night on the town.
Sometimes They Take Pictures
They talk in loopy conversations with white-bloused girls, about Vietnam crumbling in English; American boys score in Vietnamese, scoring what there is to score, too drunk to take anyone but themselves out of the bar to the Peacock Restaurant for a steak, ‘a filet supposedly’, says Buquoi, because he was already getting savvy, not even midnight and he was learning.
‘Jeff was such a good guide – a steak and a salad and fries and a beer for fifty cents’. And the man in the corner, Jeff points to, cluing Buquoi into their tail. Guy in dark glasses reading a newspaper at night in a restaurant. That was the low key approach. ‘Sometimes’, Jeff said, ‘they take pictures’.
Against the War Pretty Early
One might say he was gung ho at the outset or ,in reality, probably naïve. He didn’t know anything about the military. He said he turned against the war pretty early over there. Jeff was really affected – we didn’t talk about it a lot.
#8 Reminiscing about the late Leonard Cohen, someone recalled that he had spent five years in a Zen monastery and was ordained a full monk.
They Held a Funeral for Him
Reminds me of Steve Schlafer, whose Orthodox Jewish parents learned from an article in the NYT that Steve had become a Buddhist monk. Steve used to laugh that they held a funeral for him when they heard of it.
#9 Rufus Phillips, a newly arrived CIA agent at Saigon station, remembered first encountering Lucien Conein.
A Kind of John Dillinger on Our Side
There I met dashing US Army Major Lucien Conein. Conein impressed me as a dangerous man, a kind of John Dillinger on our side. There was a hint of barely restrained violence about him that his alert blue eyes under bushy eyebrows, as well as his abrupt, blustery manner and short temper, did nothing to belie.
#10 Ed Smith was a very good friend of Jeff’s in VN.
He Was Gone without a Trace
Ed Smith was part of that first contingent with Jeff at Phu Lam, a very tall guy and a good linguist. Contacted me through my son some years ago, looking for brother Jeff. Found my son Jeff on the Internet and mistook him for my brother.
Although I was then working on a different project, Ed and I had some long talks about Jeff and ASA days. That was early fall 2004. When I went back to talk with him again that December, he was gone without a trace.
Only years later did I discover that he had caught pneumonia and in a rare freakish complication had died the day after Christmas. Later in life, after Vietnam, Ed had become an accomplished poet.
#11 John Buquoi worked with Steve Shlafer in the coup-monitoring period when Lucien Conein was liaising with the plotters.
Steve Was the Best In-Country
I always believed in the days leading up to the coup that Shlafer was working with/for Conein. He disappeared from the 3rd RRU, probably around October 20th, and returned shortly after the coup.
I could never get him to confirm my theory or to offer any clue as to his assignment around the time of the coup, but the Agency linguists sucked, and Steve was the best in-country at the time.
Later Steve and I shared a couple of apartments in ’66 following my return from the States, but even then, he would not talk about what he was doing during his absence.
#12 Steve Shlafer was perhaps the most unusual lingy in Jeff’s cohort.
He Became a Buddhist Monk
Steve was a Jew of religious parents who learned Vietnamese, studied Chinese in Van Hanh University in Saigon, became a Buddhist monk, went to Sweden, married a Swedish girl and (probably after a divorce), came back to the States to become a respected pediatrician.
Quite a history, he was quite a character.
#13 Peyton Bryan also served with Jeff on the Phu Lam op.
Listening for Certain Key Words
At Phu Lam, Peyton worked the night shift in Conexes. A deuce and a half would drop them at midnight and return to pick them up in the morning. They listened live to all telephone communications in Saigon. There was no way to isolate the generals’ phones.
They were listening for certain key words related to coup planning. Later, it was determined that only about four or five calls were of interest.
#14 To avoid the classified Phu Lam work product falling into the hands of the Saigon government, thermite grenades were used as described by Peyton Bryan.
Thermite Burned at High Intensity
The deuce and a half that picked up the lingys had a small igloo structure built in the back, sandbagged and rigged with thermite. The product was placed within the structure. A wire ran up to the driver. If stopped by an ARVN patrol or SVN police, he was to pull the wire.
It was the kind of thermite that burned at high intensity (25k degrees) – no explosion – but would almost instantly destroy the product and probably burn a hole right through the bottom of the truck. Lingys returning to Davis Station rode in the back with the igloo.
#15 In one of his last poems before his sudden death, Ed Smith remembered a Vietnamese woman with whom he had a serious affair in Saigon ’63.
your blouse a
quan den, black pants, now
you’re gorgeous at thirty-seven
quan trang, flowing white pants
under embroidered white
brocade panels, flying
in the monsoon breeze, late
afternoon on Cong-Ly Street,
Saigon, you’re smiling
at me, my self, my heart
love will be sweet today
#16 Normally ASA guys were not exposed to gunfire, but there was an occasional incident, as John Buquoi relates.
He Accidentally Fires A Round
We were sitting on a couch with some other lingys, Jeff among them, in Mark M’s apt downtown Saigon. He’s CIA and a half-assed linguist. We’re waiting for him to finish showering for dinner.
I glance over and see a figure through the frosted-glass top half of the front door. The figure leans over to the keyhole and I call out to Mark to alert him to the visitor.
He races into the living room wrapped in a towel waving a .38, totally paranoid, freaked out, and hyper-agitated. The towel drops as he runs through the room and turns toward the door. He accidentally fires a round that literally parted my hair on its way into the wall behind me less than two inches above my head.
The guy of course is gone as Mark races on out onto the mezzanine bare ass. I pick dust and plaster out of my hair and scalp for the rest of the evening.
In the Middle of a Rice Paddy
We were in a trailer (like a moving van) parked in the middle of a rice paddy. Went thru rubber plantations to get there, or at least that’s what I was told. Could have been jungle, never saw it in the daytime.
The reason I think that may still be classified is that we were spying on a friendly government. Carrying the tapes in the barrel with the thermite grenades was in case the friendlies stopped our truck.
Testing Urban Terror
Terrorism Was Never Terrorizing
Terrorism was never terrorizing, no matter how close the call. It was just part of the landscape and nobody thought much about it or allowed it to scare them into changing their routines. Not that youthful convictions of immortality didn’t have anything to do with it.