By LtCol Mike Christy-TogetherWeServed Dispatches
Pham Xuan An was a brilliant journalist and an ever better spy. A friend to all the legendary reporters who covered the Vietnam War, he was an invaluable source of news and a fountain of wisdom on all things Vietnamese. He was also a masterful double agent, an inspired shape-shifter who kept his cover in place until the 1980s, when he was honored in his homeland as a national hero and revealed to have the rank of Colonel. He ranks as one of the greatest spies of the twentieth century.
As a reporter for Reuters, The Christian Science Monitor and Time magazine, An covered American and South Vietnamese military and diplomatic events and was one of a handful of reporters admitted to off-the-record briefings by American authorities. In appreciation for his dedicated work, Time made him a full staff correspondent, the only Vietnamese to be given that distinction by a major American news organization.
An seemed to do his best work swapping stories with colleagues in Givral’s café, on the old Rue Catinat. Here he presided every afternoon as the best news source in Saigon. He was called “Dean of the Vietnamese Press Corps” and “Voice of Radio Catinat” – the rumor mill. With self-deprecating humor, he preferred other titles for himself, such as “docteur de sexologie,” “professeur coup d’état,” “Commander of Military Dog Training” (a reference to the German shepherd that always accompanied him), “Ph.D. in Revolutions,” or, simply, General Givral.
At the same time, An was delivering a steady stream of secret military documents and messages written in invisible ink to North Vietnamese Politburo authorities in Hanoi, using an ingenious series of dead-letter drops. He was also using a Hermes typewriter bought specially for him by the North Vietnamese intelligence service to write dispatches, some as long as a hundred pages, at night. Photographed and transported as undeveloped rolls of film disguised as egg rolls hidden inside rotting fish, his typewritten reports were run by courier out to the Cu Chi tunnel network that served as the Communists’ underground headquarters. From Cu Chi, An’s dispatches were hustled under armed guard to Mt. Ba Den, on the Cambodian border, driven to Phnom Penh, flown to Guangzhou (Canton), in southern China, and then rushed to the Politburo in North Vietnam. In addition, every few weeks beginning in 1952, An would leave his Saigon office, drive twenty miles northwest to the Ho Bo woods, and descend into the tunnels to plan Communist strategy.
An’s role was so precarious that of the 45 couriers and agents responsible for getting his intelligence to the Communists, 27 of them were captured and/or killed. His writing was so lively and detailed that General Giap and Ho Chi Minh are reported to have rubbed their hands with glee on getting these dispatches from Tran Van Trung – An’s code name. “We are now in the United States’ war room!” they exclaimed, according to members of the Vietnamese Politburo.
Pham Xuan An was born in 1927 just north-east of Saigon in Binh Truoc in what was then French Indochina. As the firstborn son of a government surveyor establishing property lines and tax rolls in Vietnam’s southern frontier,An had the rare honor of receiving a French colonial birth certificate.
At the beginning of World War II, France was swiftly conquered by Nazi Germany and the governing of France and the colonial French Indochina passed to the Vichy French government, a Puppet state of Nazi Germany. At the same time, Japanese forces invaded Vietnam. The Vichy government relinquished control of Hanoi and Saigon to Japan, and by 1941, Japan extended its control over the whole of French Indochina.
In 1941, Ho Chi Minh returned home from China and founded the Viet Minh – a communist-dominated independence movement – to fight both the Japanese occupiers and the Vichy French. Assisting him in his guerrilla warfare was his most trusted and devoted Lieutenants; General Vo Nguyen Giap, a brilliant military strategists, and Pham Van Dong.
By LtCol Mike Christy-TogetherWeServed Dispatches
A separate design for a version of the Medal of Honor for the U.S. Air Force was created in 1956, authorized in 1960, and officially adopted on April 14, 1965. Previously, members of the U.S. Army Air Corps, U.S. Army Air Forces, and the U.S. Air Force received the Army version of the medal. The first person to receive the new U.S. Air Force Medal of Honor was Major Bernie Fisher during the Battle of A Shau Valley in March 1966. He also received a Silver Star during the same battle.
The A Shau Valley is located in Thua Thein Hue Province, 30 miles southwest of the coastal city of Hue, along the border of Laos. The valley runs north and south for twenty-five miles and is a mile-wide flat bottomland covered with tall elephant grass, flanked by two strings of densely forested mountains that vary from three to six thousand feet. Its geography and isolation made it a primary infiltration route for the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) into South Vietnam for men and material brought down from the north along the Ho Chi Minh Trail.
Located just five miles from the border with Laos was A Shau Special Forces camp with the mission of detecting and interdicting enemy forces. Defending the camp were 10 Green Berets from the 5th Special Forces Group and 210 South Vietnamese Civilian Irregular Defense Group (CIDG). Out of friendly artillery range, it was supported by Air Commando units equipped with vintage A-1 Skyraiders and AC-47 Spooky gunships.
The camp consisted of some barracks buildings, a triangular fort, and an airstrip made of pierced steel planking just outside the barbed wire perimeter east of the camp. The fort had a mortar bunker at each corner. The walls consisted of steel plate and sandbags.
The camp was routinely harassed by small Vietcong (VC) formations leading up to the battle. Throughout February andMarch, 1966, platoon-sized troops from the camp were sent out to conduct reconnaissance patrols in the surrounding area. On March 5, two North Vietnamese Army (NVA) defectors turned up at the camp. Under interrogation, they indicated that four battalions of the North Vietnamese 325th Division were planning to attack the camp.
Based on that information, night patrols were dispatched to confirm the enemy positions but no sightings were made. However, Air Commandos conducting reconnaissance flights observed large build-ups of NVA troops along with anti-aircraft emplacements. As a result, airstrikes were ordered against enemy positions.
On March 7, Air Force C-123s brought in reinforcements in the form of a MIKE force, increasing the strength of the camp to 17 Green Berets and 368 South Vietnamese irregulars and Chinese Nung mercenaries.
On March 8, the camp was placed on general alert and the camp’s defenders had taken up their positions. During the night a small enemy assault was launched but thrown back.
Shortly after midnight on March 9, with the cloud ceiling at 400 feet, an Air Force AC-47D “Spooky 70” from the 4th Air Commando Squadron got through the clouds and flew up the valley at treetop level, strafing the attacking NVA formations. On the gunship’s second pass, it was hit hard by ground fire. The right engine was torn from its mounts. Seconds later, the other engine was knocked out, too. The bullet-riddled AC-47 crash-landed on a mountain slope, five miles farther up the valley. All six crewmen survived but were attacked by NVA troops. Three crewmen were killed but the other three were eventually rescued by a U.S. Air Force HH-43 helicopters.
About 2 am, March 9, a second attack began with enemy bombardment emanating from the surrounding hills. Mortars, artillery, and rocket-propelled grenades pounded the camp, killing two Americans and wounding 30. The barrage set buildings and the supply dump afire and reduced defensive positions to rubble. The enemy artillery barrage stopped at dawn.
Early in the morning of March 9, two A-1Es from Pleiku were diverted from other targets and sent to the aid of the fort at A Shau. Leading the A-1E flight was Air Force Maj. Bernard F. Fisher, a 39-year-old fighter pilot from Kuna, Idaho and a devout Mormon who did not drink, smoke, or use strong language. He had been in the Air Force for 15 years.
There weren’t many jets in Vietnam in the early part of the war, so Fisher had volunteered to fly the A-1E, which was in use both by the South Vietnamese Air Force and by U.S. Air Commandos. Fisher was initially sent to Bien Hoa, where he trained South Vietnamese pilots to fly combat in the A-1E. He then transferred to the 1st Air Commando Squadron at Pleiku.
Arriving in the area of A Shau Valley, Fisher and his wingman Bruce Wallace found the mountains blanketed by clouds and began probing to find the canyon in which the camp lay.
On his third attempt, he emerged from the overcast and barely missed colliding with a helicopter that had just come from A Shau with wounded aboard. The helicopter pilot directed Fisher toward a saddle in the mountains, where he found an opening in the clouds about five miles northwest of the camp. He and Wallace went through the hole and flew down the valley at very low level. The enemy AAA was intense.
A C-130 airborne command post told Fisher to destroy the crashed AC-47 before the NVA captured the three 7.62 mm Gatling guns, which could fire 6,000 rounds per minute and which were still in working order. Fisher assigned that task to Wallace – who dropped six bombs on the wreckage and obliterated it – while Fisher went to the direct assistance of the fort.
For the next several hours, Fisher and Wallace collected arriving aircraft above the clouds and led them down into the valley. Fisher guided a CH-3C helicopter that came to evacuate the badly wounded. He also led A-1Es in a strike to break up a force that was massing to attack the fort.
Fisher went up again to bring down two Air Force C-123s. The mountains were tight on all sides, and forward visibility was less than half a mile. They began taking fire seven miles north of the camp. Fisher suppressed the ground fire as the transports air-dropped supplies for the fort from an altitude of 50 feet.
Low on fuel, Fisher went through the clouds one more time to help a forward air controller lead two B-57 bombers down the valley. In all, Fisher spent about two hours under the clouds. He made an emergency landing at Da Nang, 20 minutes away, with almost no fuel left in his tank.
Fisher was awarded the Silver Star for his role as on-scene commander and Wallace received the Distinguished Flying Cross. However, Fisher had not yet seen the last of the A Shau Valley.
In the afternoon on March 9, supplies of ammunition were flown in by C-123 and CV-2 aircraft, but the resupply drops often landed outside of the camp and could not be retrieved. At the same time, helicopters were called to evacuate the wounded. Because of bad weather, however, reinforcements from Hue and Phu Bai could not be deployed, forcing the camp’s defenders to repair as well as they could their defensive wall and dug in for the night.
Sometime between midnight and 3 AM during the night of March 10, the NVA launched yet another attack with mortar and recoilless rifle fire. Two C-123s and an AC-47 dropped flares throughout the night. Before daylight, an enemy assault team penetrated the east wall of the camp, where hand-to-hand combat took place for three hours. By 8 AM, the defenders were pushed into the camp’s north wall and the NVA dug in between the airstrip and the camp.
Throughout the day U.S. Marine Corps and Vietnam Air Force (VNAF) aircraft strafed NVA positions around the camp, but as fighting continued the situation deteriorated with ammunition supplies running short.
About 11 AM, the defenders reported that they could hold out no more than another hour and that airdrops to resupply them with ammunition should stop since they could not retrieve the bundles.
Bernie Fisher and his wingman that day, Capt. Francisco “Paco” Vazquez, were en route to provide air support to Army forces near Kontum when they got an emergency radio call to divert to A Shau. Fisher’s call sign was “Hobo 51,” and Vazquez was “Hobo 52.”
By 11:15 AM, Hobo flight had joined numerous other aircraft that were stacked and circling at 8,000 feet and higher above the valley. They had not yet gone to the aid of the fort because of the danger of running into mountain peaks hidden by the cloud cover.
One of the other A-1 flights in the stack was led by Maj. Dafford W. “Jump” Myers from the 602nd Fighter Squadron at Qui Nhon. Myers was “Surf 41,” and his wingman, Capt. Hubert King, was “Surf 42.”
By LtCol Mike Christy-Together We Served Dispatches
Non-military women also served important roles. They provided entertainment and support to the troops through the USO, the American Red Cross, and other humanitarian organizations. Women working as civilian nurses for USAID (US Agency for International Development) participated in one of the most famous humanitarian operations of the war, Operation Babylift, which brought thousands of Vietnamese orphans to the U.S. for adoption. Additionally, many women reported the war for news and media agencies.
Combat nurses worked twelve-hour shifts six days a week and when a mass casualty incident occurred, like a major battle, those twelve-hour shifts could easily turn into twenty-four to thirty-six-hour shifts. Nurses also volunteered their time in the communities around them, often going to the local orphanages or hospitals to offer the civilians their medical services or to teach classes on basic hygiene, first aid or even English. Nurses also had to deal with numerous emotions: stress from a number of patients they had to serve, anger at seeing young men so horribly wounded and guilt at not being able to save all of the wounded men or make them whole again.
Despite the long hours and sometimes horrifying wounds these women had to face, many nurses found their service rewarding. They were able to serve their country and save and comfort the wounded men in their facilities. During the Vietnam War 98% of the men who were wounded and made it to the hospital survived. Nurses witnessed some truly miraculous events such as men recovering from their wounds or acts of true selflessness that are common during combat situations, and many nurses made close friends with their fellow co-workers some of whom still keep in contact into the present day.
Eight U.S. of these heroic nurses died in Vietnam; six were killed, two died of illnesses. Each dedicated themselves to taking care of the wounded and dying.
See their faces and remember their names. These are their stories.
Lieutenant Colonel Annie Ruth Graham, Chief Nurse at 91st Evacuation Hospital in Tuy Hoa. A native of Efland N.C., she suffered a stroke in August 1968 and was evacuated to Japan where she died four days later. She was a veteran of both WW II and Korea. She was 52.
First Lieutenant Sharon Anne Lane died from shrapnel wounds when the 312th Evacuation Hospital at Chu Lai was hit by rockets on June 8, 1969. From Canton, OH, she was a month short of her 26th birthday. She was posthumously awarded the Vietnamese Gallantry Cross with Palm and the Bronze Star for Heroism. In 1970, the recovery room at Fitzsimmons Army Hospital in Denver, where Lt. Lane had been assigned before going to Vietnam, was dedicated in her honor. She was 26 years old.
In 1973, Aultman Hospital in Canton, OH, where Lane had attended nursing school, erected a bronze statue of Lane. The names of 110 local servicemen killed in Vietnam are on the base of the statue.
View here service shadow box on TogetherWeServed: 1stLt Sharon Ann Lane
They are honored on Panel 5E, Row 46 and Panel 5E, Row 47 of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.
View their shadow boxes on TogetherWeServed: 2nd Lt.Carol Ann Elizabeth Drazba
2nd Lt Elizabeth Ann Jones
https://www.findagrave.com/cgi-bin/fg.cgi?page=gr&GRid=107659173 Read more
A Marine radar intercept officer missing nearly 48 years after he was shot down over Laos during the Vietnam War has been accounted for after his remains were found last year, the Bergen Record reports.
The remains of Marine Corps Reserve 1st Lt. William (Billy) Ryan, of Bogota, N.J. (left in photo) were identified through DNA tests conducted by the Defense Pow/MIA Accounting Agency at the Pentagon, the paper reported Friday.
Ryan’s plane crashed on a combat mission in southern Laos near the Vietnam border on May 11, 1969, the day before his son’s first birthday.
“I always knew my dad died in the crash, and that’s what my mom told me,” Michael Ryan, 48 told the paper. “What she didn’t tell me is that part of her held out hope that maybe she’d see his face again.”
His aircraft was pulling out of a bombing run when it was hit by enemy fire. The pilot bailed out and was rescued.
Ryan was also shot down in 1968 over the Gulf of Tonkin but he survived that crash.
According to the Record, military investigators went to the Laos crash site in 1990 and found his plane seat.
Investigators visited the site on six other occasions from May 2012 to January 2016 to look for remains.
A lab identified the remains as Ryan’s and notified Michael last month.
The next day Ryan’s widow Judith was diagnosed with stage-4 stomach cancer.
“I don’t know, it’s strange to me,” Michael told the paper. “We’ve waited 48 years for this. And now I’m looking up at God and saying, ‘Can you give this woman a week to celebrate?'”
Billy Ryan will be laid to rest at Arlington National Cemetery on May 10, the eve of the crash anniversary.
Much more about Ryan and his family can be found at the site below: http://www.northjersey.com/story/news/2017/02/24/garden-state-mind-missing-action-nearly-50-years-bogota-marine-comes-home/97424752/
As a small boy I was terrified by Bud Abbot and Lou Costello Meet Frankenstein, a comedy which featured Lou Costello in constant danger of being attacked by such horror film villains as Count Dracula, Frankenstein’s monster, and the Wolf Man. Each time Lou was in peril, I would hide my eyes, while my dad would comfort me with the words, “Don’t worry. It’s only a movie.” I soon relaxed. No one was really hurt.
In 1969, I became the senior advisor to a South Vietnamese River Assault and Interdiction Division (RAID), consisting of 21 river boats which had been transferred from the U.S. Navy’s “Brown Water Navy.” I was a Navy lieutenant, and I was assisted by about six enlisted men. We provided technical support and advice in the maintenance and operation of the heavily armed boats. We liaised with U.S. units when the Vietnamese needed air or artillery support. We also helped with logistics in obtaining fuel and ammunition.
My position as an advisor gave me a sense that I was sort of an observer of the passing scene, only becoming involved when help was needed. While I had been to school to learn riverine tactics, the Vietnamese had actually been at war for decades. I had more to learn than to teach.
RAID 72 had the job of transporting a battalion of Vietnamese marines into combat in the U-Minh Forest of the Mekong Delta. We would typically put the marines ashore at a point determined by intelligence to have a concentration of Viet Cong and North Vietnamese. Our boats would then move into blocking positions, while the marines with air and artillery support would attempt to drive the enemy into our ambush. More commonly, the enemy would fade into the jungle while the marines gave futile chase, leaving the boats to sit and wait for the marines to return.
During Tet of 1968 the enemy had suffered so many casualties that they withdrew into the U-Minh Forest to lick their wounds and to regroup. Both the U.S. and South Vietnamese believed we had the enemy on the run. The South Vietnamese launched a “Dark Forest” Campaign to destroy the remaining enemy in that area.
Our boats carried the marines down a long, narrow canal, the Song Cai Lon. We had to fight our way down. Ahead of my boat, a monitor (a boat bristling with guns) was sunk by an IED made from a U.S. 500 lb. bomb, killing all five sailors on board.
Ever the dispassionate observer, I photographed the boat as it was sinking. After all, this seemed just a movie. There was nothing for me to do but to send a report.
Farther down the canal we bivouacked at a place on the canal shown as the village of Dong Hung. It had been destroyed years before, the villagers had been relocated to a government area, and the jungle had closed in. Still there were the 273rd North Vietnamese Regiment and thousands of VC.
The marines established a small command post (CP) at Dong Hung and the main force went out into the jungle to find the enemy. Our boats moored on both banks of the canal near the CP. My Vietnamese counterpart, Lieutenant Commander Binh, the commanding officer of RAID 72, explained to me that the plan for defending ourselves if attacked was to move the boats to the outside ends of the stretch of the canal bounding our encampment. The boats could then have interlocking fields of fire. I had been concerned that no defensive barrier had been established, no barbed wire had been strung, nor had trees been felled to provide those fields of fire. They assured me that this would have to do since they did not know how long we would be there. I just thought about Roman Legions on the march who erected timber palisades wherever they stopped, even if it were only for the night.
I don’t recall how many days we were there while the marines were away looking for the enemy. Reports generated by me tracked Vietnamese marine movements, engagements, casualties, and the status of boats. In addition to the 110 Vietnamese sailors, there was one of my enlisted advisors, Radioman 3rd class Bruce McIver, and two enlisted advisors from RAID 74, which provided some of the boats in our group of twenty-one. At night, I would lie under mosquito netting on an air mattress and listen to the chatter on my AN/PRC-25 short range (VHF FM) radio. There were just brief communications between the U.S. Marine advisor, Maj. Mike Cerreta, and the pilot of an Army single-engine forward air control (FAC) aircraft which coordinated air support.
At about 1 a.m. on November 6, I was listening to the Marine advisor and the FAC pilot when the FAC signed off and headed for his base. That meant that there would be no further communication, so I drifted off to sleep. Thirty minutes later, I was jarred awake by explosions all around me. Was this just a movie? Mortar rounds were impacting throughout the CP and among the boats. Soon, it became apparent that we were under attack by a large force, perhaps two battalions (500-600 men each) armed with 82 mm mortars, 60 mm mortars, 57 mm recoilless rifles, rocket propelled grenades (RPG), Chinese machine guns, and AK-47 assault rifles. Swarming from the jungle, they quickly overran the CP, destroying tents, huts, bunkers, and communication equipment. The small contingent of Vietnamese marines and their U.S. advisors were forced to retreat onto the boats.
Plans to move the boats to the edges of the CP evaporated under the speed of the attack. Soon the enemy was among us, climbing on some boats with hand grenades and satchel charges. Most boats got underway from the west bank of the canal and moved to the east bank, for, although we were completely surrounded, the main force of the attack was from the west.
Maj. Cerreta retreated to my Command and Control Boat (CCB) with many Vietnamese marines, some of whom were badly wounded. The CCB tried to back off the west bank but it was tied with nylon lines to a bush on the bank. The CCB backed at full power, but it could only fishtail helplessly three feet from the bank while the enemy on the bank was raking us with rockets and small arms fire. Maj. Cerreta and I crawled to the bow trying to free the line, but it was hopeless. The major even tried unsuccessfully to shoot the line in half with his military issue 1911 Colt.45 Cal pistol.
I jumped below, fetched my Buck knife, and ran back up to the deck. We had been hit by four B40 RPGs, and the boat was on fire from burning fuel. I told Maj. Cerreta that I was going to crawl up and cut the line. Reinforcing my feeling that this was only a movie, he held up his pistol and said, “I’ll cover you!” I crawled exposed up to the bow and found a Vietnamese marine still trying fruitlessly to free the line; I shoved him aside and cut it loose. The CCB quickly moved to the east bank, only 20 yards from the enemy who pounded us with crew manned weapons from the west bank. We fired back with every weapon we had.
The fierce fighting continued until dawn. A medevac helicopter relayed a request for air support. This turned out to be Shadow and Spooky gunships, cargo planes fitted with high speed Vulcan guns. Those Gatling type guns fired so many rounds that it appeared they were pouring liquid metal on the enemy.
In the morning, I organized the evacuation of the many wounded. A man pressing a battle dressing against his belly to hold his intestines in place was begging me to get the helicopters there fast. Each time the helos approached, the VC would fire mortars at us.
After it was all over, I had fired every one of the 500 rounds of M-16 ammunition that I had. A quick survey revealed that all of the boats were out of ammunition, too. I urgently requested helo delivery of all types of ammunition. It did not arrive until the following day. Had we been attacked that night, we would have been wiped out.
Searing my soul for life is a scene from the morning after the fight. Lacking body bags, the Vietnamese had wrapped one of our sailors in a plastic rain poncho. I remember thinking irrationally as I looked at the face limned against the plastic, “He can’t breathe!” Then it came home to me â he would never breathe again! We suffered 44 killed and 151 wounded. Seventy-five enemy bodies were found.
The night of November 8, the enemy attacked again, this time sinking two boats, but we held them off again, but with more casualties on both sides. My realization at this point that this was not a movie and that I had nearly five more months of this affected me deeply. Clearly, this was serious business.
The week in March 1970 that I left Vietnam, we killed a VC whose possessions included a citation for his role in the November 6, 1969 attack on us. Unfortunately, the same firefight which killed that VC resulted in the death of a U.S. Army advisor to Regional and Popular Forces we were transporting.
Al Bell is a writer and publisher who just released his second book “Sea Story!” and Other Sketches: Memories and musings from a life of adventure. Available from Amazon.com/books (search term; “CDR BELL”). My first book, “Sea Story!” & Other Sketches, is still available there.
The book is a collection of previously published stories, essays, rants, and musings by ‘Skipper Al’ Bell, whose adventurous life has given him a unique perspective on the world. The writings range from interesting accounts of real events to humorous lampoons and fiction. Some are inspiring, while others are ironic. The gentle reader may not agree with the author on some issues, in which case the reader is almost certainly wrong. His writings are part Mark Twain, part Jonathan Swift, and a large dose of Mad Magazine. Some stories are serious and uplifting. Others reflect brooding depression. All are entertaining.