The interior of the public areas and offices is light and airy, I’m told. In the colonel’s basement office it is anything but. It smells of sweat and cigar smoke. The colonel is smoking another one. DB is smoking a cigarette. Virgil’s eyes are watering. He doesn’t smoke. I gave it up the day I got to Nam. I crave one now. I look at DB, smoke curling from his hand toward the ceiling. At least there is enough ventilation to make that happen.
The colonel addresses DB in accented english. I listen carefully.
“You bring me this starched specialist from MACV. Who is he? And why is he in this meeting?
“Are you one of Shackley’s boys?” asks the colonel. Looking at me.
“Who?” I replied.
“Don’t play dumb with me,” growled the colonel. “You know very well who I mean.”
I didn’t know who Shackley was but I was shortly to learn that Ted Shackley was CIA Station Chief in Saigon. He had an office at MACV headquarters at Ton San Nuit airport near the Air America terminal. He had another office at the old MACV Headquarters on Cong Ly street, down the hall from Col Suel’s office in a neighborhood of handsome French era villas. Shackley had moved the year before to Saigon from a post in Vientiane, Laos as its station chief. From there he rode heard on the Pathet Lao and General Vang Pao, American client, chief war lord and opium trader. Vang Pao was rumored to have commandeered a Coca Cola plant and converted it to heroin production. The heroin was supposedly air-freighted to Saigon.
Among operations of the CIA in Indochina were the many pacification programs that included the Phoenix program in Viet Nam,which in conjunction with ARVN forces targeted suspected communist sympathizers and assassinated or tortured many. They were sometimes given quotas and bonuses for communist suspects brought in. They turned many villagers permanently against the Saigon government. Abuses were many and well documented and the program was terminated under Shackley’s tenure as doing more harm than good.
Other programs trained Hmong, Meo and other tribesmen whom the French referred to as Montagnards to fight the VC and NVA regulars in Laos, Cambodia and Viet Nam. Part of that program involved supplying air transport for men and material into and out of Laos using often unmarked planes owned by Air America and its predecessors and later by the VietNamese air force.
The operators of the AA planes weren’t always careful about what cargoes were loaded, some of which generated large amounts of cash. Shackley’s team members throughout Indochina also moved cash, or hardware that could be readily converted to cash, among the local military and government officials as strategic need dictated, none of which was directly traceable to the agency. Planes of the type favored by AA flew directly over our warehouse classroom on approach to Tan San Nuit. Occasionally the tails would be marked AA but most often they were painted black and there were no markings whatsoever. These most often appeared to be Douglas C-47 cargo planes. The overflights were daily, sometimes several in a day.
Shackley’s activities were apparently well known to Saigon government officials as the questions put to me would indicate.
“Not everyone who wears a MACV patch reports to Shackley,” broke in Virgil coming to my rescue.
“Who, then,” insisted the colonel.
“He’s here on a temporary assignment from Ft. Monmouth.”
“So he will do his work and get out quickly.”
This last comment from Virgil seemed to arouse the colonel’s suspicions even further. Being a technical liaison from this signal corps and assigned to MACV could mean many things; few of them good from the colonel’s perspective. Surveillance was at the top of his list. Shackley had inherited and used a well developed surveillance operation when he arrived.
“No, my purpose is to teach ARVN technicians to repair mortar-locating radars,” I ventured carefully, trying to sound self-assured.
“But we have no mortar-locating radars.”
“You do now. Colonel Suel dispatched two for training aids months ago on orders from Washington.”
“So you report to Suel then.”
“Huh,” grunted the colonel. “Suel hates Shackley. Does he know about this?”
“Not so far as we know,” replied DB.
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MACV = Military Assistance Command Vietnam [see wiki for more info].