The Four Combatants: In Media Res
Captain Cody Johansson
Corps Tactical Zone (CTZ) II
7 February, 1965–0450 Hours
The startled sentry rushed to sound the general alarm, ducked, and jumped over the sandbagged berm into the nearest revetment. Others on night patrol quickly scurried to the safety of nearby bunkers as a barrage of 81mm mortars, rockets, and artillery rounds quickly followed.
The surprise predawn attack ignited massive explosions inside the vital central highlands military installation. The concussions shook the ground, flames and smoke enveloped sections of the base burning uncontrolled. The inescapable smells of war punctuated by the acrid, metallic odor of gunpowder, sulfur, and pungent munitions propellants quickly filled the air as an intense battle ensued. Scattered shouts from the wounded resounded, calling, “Medic! Over here!”
The blaring alarm combined with explosions stirred the base into defensive action. Soldiers immediately responded, trained for combat. They rushed to counter the enemy’s blitz after a brief moment of confusion, astounded by the magnitude of the surprise attack by the Viet Cong (VC), launched from a nearby rainforest.
“Charlie’s” stunning offensive created a breach at the base’s northwest perimeter secured by concertina wire, magnesium trip flares, and lethal claymore and trip-wired Bouncing Betty mines. Nevertheless, the enemy engaged in suicidal attempts to overrun the base, capitalizing on the element of surprise. Large numbers of daring VC guerillas reinforced with North Vietnam Regulars (NVRs), charged through the breach.
The brazen enemy advanced in reckless waves, attempting to cross the barbed-wire rift and mines planted outside. This foolhardy effort tripped the mines and flares, resulting in a massive munitions display. Blown ten feet into the air, their bodies silhouetted eerily against the flashing light of the explosions in the dark night sky. Nevertheless, a secondary enemy wave ignored the threat and renewed the assault. Some slipped through, hopping over dead comrades to miss remaining mines. Crazed, they charged with total disregard of the lethal hazards in their impassioned effort to penetrate the perimeter minefield and overrun the base.
Rallying his company, Captain Cody Johansson led his men against the swarming attackers head on. Deploying his three platoons, a mix of American Special Force advisors and the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN), they thwarted the enemy’s invasion through the penetrated outer boundary with military precision. Despite suffering serious fragmentation wounds, Cody courageously led his men in intense combat, often in close quarters. He’d trained them well. They prevailed.
His distinguished performance that early morning would earn him a Purple Heart and award of a Silver Star following the after-action report (AAR).
Colonel Al Ruey
Chu Lai Air Base (AB) Flight Line
Marine TAC Base
CTZ I, 0500 Hours
“Colonel Ruey, emergency call for you!”
The anxious flight line Sergeant handed the field phone to the squadron commander of SATS/MAG-12. The NCO’s grim expression forewarned him of trouble brewing.
“This is Colonel Pettyjohn, base commander at Pleiku. We’re under siege, request immediate close air support. We’re in big trouble, VC attempting to overrun the base through a breach in our northwest perimeter as we speak. Attack being staged from the rainforest about six klicks north of our position.”
“Can you provide adequate FAC for us, Colonel Pettyjohn?”
“We’ll try to get forward air control out there to spot for you. They hit our runway, but I think we can still get a few of our Bird Dogs up in the air to locate enemy positions for you.”
* * * * *
In 1965, GPS coordinates were not the primary navaids. The USAF/GPS project began in 1974, utilizing twenty-four global satellites, not becoming fully operational until 1995. So, for combat operations in Vietnam, pilots flying close air support used forward air control (FAC) rather than GPS coordinates to mark or direct the fighter planes to the enemy targets’ location. To ensure the safety of friendly forces in close proximity during the battle, no drops were authorized until obtaining FAC clearance. There were no smart bombs, and no laser guidance at that time. FAC cleared each and every drop to avoid friendly fire. That required the pilot to attack using his fixed gun sight to track the target until the pipper was on the target at precisely the correct drop altitude, airspeed, and dive angle. Flying close air support in the Vietnam era required exceptional pilot skill and coordination with FAC, and a special breed of men who could multitask under duress.
In a typical close combat support situation, FAC—flying in low, slow, fixed-wing aircraft—would communicate with ground troops on Fox Mike (VHF/FM radio) to assess the situation, then relay the critical target vector information to the fighter pilots on the AN/ARC-34 airborne UHF channel, known as “uniform” in brevity code. Spotter recon aircraft—“Bird Dogs,” like an O-1E Cessna—then released a marker rocket on the target and gave the okay for the fighter pilots to release ordinance on the target, by then clearly identified by smoke. Flyers called this white phosphorous smoke “Willey Pete.” in military phonetic parlance.
Communication was critical and a bit complex. The pilot had five radio control heads and could listen to the two FAC channels simultaneously, but could talk only on one at a time. The emergency Guard Channel (243.0), intercom, and squadron communication channels operated on UHF. They added to the pilot’s tasks while engaged in battle, avoiding anti-aircraft fire, and attacking the target flying at three to four hundred knots.
This rundown gives you an appreciation of the skill set required to fly close air support.
* * * * *
“I read you, the Bird Dogs will facilitate our targeting, but some additional ground FAC would help us avoid friendly fire.”
“We’ll try to provide some ground FAC, but we’re taking heavy incoming. So much shelling, I deferred going through our chain of command and decided to contact your squadron directly for this mission request. I’ll take some heavy flack for not going through channels, Colonel Ruey, but that’s how bad the situation is over here. I didn’t want to waste time. They can reprimand me if I’m still alive. We’re in dire straits, need your help, Colonel.”
His sense of urgency was not lost on the Marine squadron commander.
“I picked up on your shortcut. I agree, not wise to waste time on chain of command at this early hour, considering your present circumstance. We’ll get all over it, Colonel. Hold the fort. My squadron maintains a dozen A-4s on our hot pad ready to scramble for contingencies like this. We’ll be in the air in less than ten minutes. You’re only a short hop southwest of Chu Lai, so hang in there, we’ll soon be on our way.”
He handed the field phone back to his sergeant, turned, and addressed his fighter pilots grouped for a flight training session.
“Okay, fellows, cancel our early morning exercise.”
They’d come to expect the unexpected in Vietnam, and sensed such an event had come up as they read their commander’s demeanor: no time to waste.
“Change of plans, we’re going live over Pleiku, guys. The base is under siege. They’ll provide some FAC, but we may have to improvise. It will test your skills not to kill any of our boys with friendly fire. Arm your missiles. We’ll go max ordinance and arrange to refuel in the air on the way back.”
The pilots knew the Pleiku area well from prior reconnaissance exercises over the South Vietnam highlands. Previously, Ruey’s squadron of MAG-12 fighter jets flew from carriers in the South China Sea to respond to emergencies like this. Recently, though, Marine squadrons became land based on short Seabee-constructed runways closer to the action. Chu Lai was one of the first, located in CTZ I on the coast of the northern sector of South Vietnam, fifty miles south of Danang.
Repositioned from carrier-based Yankee Station in the South China Sea to Vietnam’s east coast helped protect bases like Pleiku in CTZ II near the Laos border. In fact, the Marine A-4Es would quickly cover the ninety miles southwest and, once in the air, reach the besieged central highlands base in about seven or eight minutes at 600mph. Confidence ran high that they’d keep the enemy from overrunning the important base once they unleashed their superior firepower.
Pleiku bordered the Ho Chi Minh trail winding south through Laos’s triple canopy rainforests and jungles to Cambodia. Both were designated “over the fence” in military jargon. The base provided Military Advisory Command Vietnam (MACV) reconnaissance and strategic information on the trail’s traffic, which included intelligence vital to the conduct of the war.
Delivering close air support on short notice worked for the Marines. That’s what they did—tactical support from short airfields, designated “SATS,” at Chu Lai.
“Let’s shoot for wheels in the well at o-five-fifteen, ten minutes from now. Hustle up, Charlie’s doing a number on our guys. Green ’em up.”
That statement, which they knew meant to turn on armament switches, created a buzz of animation. The squadron commander sensed the wave of excitement sweeping through his fighter pilots as they scrambled to their planes, ready for action.
“Beats the hell out of training drills. This is what it’s all about, guys. Live fire in a hot zone, the real deal. FAC will be limited, as I said, so be real careful of friendly fire. This will be a major encounter. Control your altitude, speed, and attack angle. Don’t want anyone stitched by ground fire, fragging themselves, or auguring in. Got it?”
All wing and squadron commanders have three ambitions: achieving Ace status, which is five or more kills; making his star, aka brigadier general; and protecting his pilots. The last ambition distinguished Colonel Ruey. His sincere concern for their safety was not lost on them. Flying close air support at 400 knots with someone shooting at you while monitoring multiple channels of communications required remarkable skill… a professional exercise not for the lighthearted.
“Yes sir,” came the collective response. This standard operation procedure had been drilled into them. Marines believed in repetition until SOPs became ingrained, discipline reigned paramount in the Corps.
Colonel Ruey smiled with anticipation. “Let’s show ’em what we got, fly boys.”
They picked up on the subtle Marine swagger in his carriage as he hastened to the hot pad. Ruey’s confident attitude pumped up his squadron. His calm leadership dispelled any fear they might harbor regarding the danger of a combat sortie.
Ruey climbed into his lead A-4 fighter jet as if no hazard existed, just like he was going out on another routine flying day.
No “oo rahs” necessary, his cool manner said it all, inspiring them to do their thing—close air support.
“You got it, Colonel!” his hotshot wingman shouted, definitely jacked up at the prospect of a major engagement. He flashed a thumbs-up as he hustled to his aircraft, a sleek Skyhawk with nose art: “Scooter” painted colorfully on the A-4 fuselage.
Josh Neelson had already distinguished himself in sixteen combat missions since he arrived a month prior from carrier duty aboard the USS Constitution, operating off the coast in Yankee Station. The kid could fly.
The fighter jock hoped for a MiG kill, but would be disappointed. There would be only one A-4 kill during the ten years of war in South Vietnam, while F-4s claimed 164 MiG kills over Laos and North Vietnam later in the war. MiG-21s or 17s rarely ventured into South Vietnam airspace.
Quintessential fighter jocks are always primed for missions. And, they loved to fly into battle with this commander, proven to be one of the best. You wouldn’t hear it from him, though. Readily acknowledged the top gun, Ruey could fly circles around anyone. The squadron would chase the enemy into Laos, if necessary, to make this sortie a success, despite the restrictive rules of engagement.
Minutes later, JATO tanks propelled the aircraft into flight off Chu Lai’s short aluminum plank runway, each fighter hit the afterburners as the jet took off loaded with 8,500 pounds of ordinance: iron and cluster bombs, Zuni missiles, napalm, plus two 20mm cannons on each fighter jet. In combat pilot jargon, “Twenty mike-mike, nape, and CBU.”
Captain Roe MacDonald
Tan Son Nhut (TSN) AB Flight Line
MACV Command Post, 7th Air Force HQ
CTZ III, 0540 Hours
With the rising sun, the stifling humidity picked up at the strategic airbase four miles north of Saigon. Steam rose from the Tan Son Nhut (TSN) tarmac. Soon, it would be like a sauna on the flight line. It was already ninety-two degrees with eighty-eight percent humidity.
The ever-present smell of freshly burnt JP-4 aircraft diesel permeated the mugginess with a smell of kerosene. The pungent odor competed with the strong smell of mosquito repellant recently sprayed near Papa San’s flight line café. Neither smell encouraged an appetite. Fortunately, pleasant whiffs of breakfast cooking on Papa San’s grill made it tolerable for the flyers short respite.
It made Captain Roe MacDonald long for a breath the fresh salt air, the aroma of the Chesapeake Bay where he’d grown up. Though humid in August, it never got this uncomfortable back home. Not even close. He fought back a brief wave of nostalgia. Reverie must wait.
The captain had a job to do, with no time to reminisce. He wiped the sweat from his brow. His olive-drab nylon 86th MAC flight suit was already damp from perspiration, and salt stains caked the armpits. The flight surgeon had just joined his crew for breakfast at Papa San’s small flight-line café… nothing fancy, but suitable for a quick bite for those on a tight schedule. No time to be picky on short breaks between missions. He’d be back in the air in an hour or so. Time to chow down.
Loud Beatles music blared from Papa Sans’ radio tuned to his favorite station. The AFVN “Goooood Morning Vietnam” station pumped out GI favorites. He tried daily to drown out the sound of ramp compressors. They continuously pumped air to assist the APU’s cranking up the engines of large United States Air Force (USAF) transport planes parked nearby. The rotary-prop whomp-whomp of choppers coming and going overhead added to the constant noise. TSN was a busy 24/7 operation, and the racket on the ramp drove Papa San crazy.
Roe’s squadron’s C-130 aircraft had landed forty minutes before, arriving from the Philippines’ Clark AB loaded with ammo and 81mm mortars. The loadmaster and his airmen busily reconfigured the cargo turbo jet for air evacuation missions after unloading the munitions. A normal routine for the military airlift command (MAC) crews: flying back and forth to the war zone, ammo in, wounded out, a day-after-day grind encountering just enough VC ground fire to break the tedium. Vietnam was a lot of things, but never boring.
Making that case, the sudden squawk of the café’s walky-talky intercom suddenly interrupted their meal and animated chatter.
“Attention all crew members, Pleiku is under siege. Hundreds wounded. Half of base hospital blown up. Your new 86th MAC orders are to proceed immediately to Pleiku with as many medics and medical supplies as possible. Assault-landing precautions advisable. Stay above fifteen hundred feet on approach to avoid small arms fire. No known enemy anti-aircraft capability. Pleiku’s runway intact, but many aircraft disabled and on fire. Take due caution. Out.”
“Jesus! No fucking let-up in this Godforsaken place,” one pilot bitched.
“Let’s roll guys. Move it out,” another said as he took a last gulp of coffee, crushed his cigarette, and rushed to file the new flight plan at base ops.
After drafting anyone around the flight line with a modicum of medical experience available on such short notice, the crew was airborne in less than thirty minutes.
They did not request F-100 Super Sabers from the 531st Squadron stationed at the nearby Bien Hoa AB’s Third TAC Fighter Wing to escort their C-130 Hercules turbojets full of medical supplies and personnel. They were assured of a safe arrival at the besieged recon base in the northern highlands. The nearest MiG was 500 miles away in North Vietnam, and there were no VC anti-aircraft guns reported en route. They would face no danger until descending under fifteen hundred feet on approach to land at Pleiku, then ground fire might get dicey.
CIA Deputy Station Manager Biff Roberts
U.S. Embassy Saigon
Later the same morning, 0600 hours
Biff Roberts’ secure line rang loudly, jarring him half awake. Bushed, he’d fallen asleep well past midnight slumped over his desk littered with official paperwork, mostly highly classified documents.
Biff was the CIA’s new deputy station manager under diplomatic cover at the Saigon Embassy. His posting involved coordinating a vast network of clandestine ops for the “Company,” the CIA’s affectionate nickname in intelligence circles, and his demands could become mindboggling at times.
In Vietnam, he directed the agency’s Special Activity Division—an elite paramilitary unit, little-known except to those with a need to know. “Covert” hardly described the SAD. They could go deep dark, and did on many occasions. They spread disinformation, performed psychology operations (psyops), and undertook clandestine tasks… some distasteful behind enemy lines, some unmentionable, and some never forgotten. The latter included dark missions involving targeted and political assassinations. Basically, the SAD conducted a secret war within a war, sometimes referred to as a “shadow war.”
Based on his exceptional talents and performance at “The Farm”—the CIA’s training center in Virginia—Langley posted Biff to Saigon. He had become the youngest operative ever to assume such an influential position, which was especially noteworthy in wartime. The Director of Central Intelligence, or DCI, conferred this unusual accolade despite Biff’s youth and limited field experience. Recruited only a little more than a year out of Yale, his trainers at the Farm praised him as a “once-in-a-decade graduate with an uncanny talent for operating in the clandestine world. A ‘natural-born spook,’ they dubbed him.”
That last reference was all the DCI had to hear, “Natural-born spook.” That rare designation had never failed him or the CIA in assigning exceptionally challenging tasks to prospective undercover field officers.
Few possessed his coveted trait: combining an inborn proclivity to endure with an innate tenacity to stay alive in the dark shadows of the clandestine world. Only the fittest survived the Darwinian challenge.
CIA tapped Biff Roberts for their operative position in Saigon, covering him with a diplomatic post at the U.S. Embassy. They deemed him a perfect fit.
Given the awesome responsibility, Biff was dancing as fast as he could to adjust to an ever-changing drumbeat in this new role. There appeared to be no rhyme or reason for many orders coming down from MACV. No amount of training at the Farm could have prepared him for the unknown challenges. He wondered if the assignment was an honor, or the ultimate test of his survival skills in a war zone. He strove to master the tasks, pushing himself to the limit, often forced to wing it in an uncomfortable on-the-job training role requiring weighty decisions, many on the spur of the moment.
Vietnam—a hotbed of undercover activity, stealth, intrigue, and bureaucratic nightmares complicating a nasty war—demanded extraordinary resilience. Less than three months into his assignment, the young operative often toiled late into the night trying to get the job done in the complex environment.
Already a particularly rough week, with never enough hours in the day to accomplish his mission, he was dog-tired. When the phone rang, he dreaded to pick it up, anticipating the message would simply pile on more responsibility and make his tension headache worse. He hoped they’d call back and give him time to collect himself. He stalled. Maybe they’d give up and try again later.
Most of the time he functioned on overload, often feeling like a dog chasing its tail. Though frustrated, he fought not to form a negative attitude regarding his Vietnam mission like the inept senior operative he’d recently replaced. The task presented too many Whiskey Tango Foxtrot propositions, no-win situations, and circumstances out of control. How could he succeed at this assignment where others had failed? What had he gotten himself into? Had the Directorate of Operations, the DO, set him up? Perpetrated some kind of cruel joke? He didn’t recall pissing anyone off. Why subject him or anyone to this bedlam?
The phone continued to ring. He checked his watch: 0600, with dawn breaking. Yet he was still not fully awake… still collecting his wits.
His predecessor burned out in record time. He never really got to know the cynical old honcho, since he wasn’t much help in the acclimation of a newcomer to the challenge. Rather than serve as a mentor, he was anxious to return to the States to retire. In fact, he couldn’t wait to get out the door.
Following his brief last handshake, he had sardonically remarked, “FIGMO, I’m outta this fucking boondoggle. Good luck, Biff. You’ll need it.”
Quite obviously, he didn’t give a rat’s ass about giving a heads up to the newbie, and Biff soon learned the acronym’s meaning. “Fuck it, got my orders.”
So much for the buddy system. Pretty much on his own, he’d reconciled to suck it up as a “FNG.” He’d discovered that acronyms and slang were common military forms of expression in Vietnam, another language in fact. That’s the way they talked over there, like in some kind of code. FNG meant “friggin’ new guy.” This new military language would require him to develop a whole new vocabulary. His Yale education seemed a century ago. Vietnam presented a whole new learning experience in more ways than one.
What the hell, he resolved to adapt. This FNG was wired differently, dedicated to persevere and make things happen. He strove to avoid a jaded FIGMO mindset. Not into pissing and moaning, he resigned to tough it out, deal with it… starting with answering the damn annoying phone. He rubbed his sleepy eyes, recognizing the caller would not give up. No fucking way. The persistent bastard was determined.
Vietnam presented a stream of emergent situations. He’d learned that nothing remained constant in Vietnam’s dynamics, except the ever-changing circumstances. You could count on unexpected situations cropping up at inopportune moments. Exigency seemed an ironic “given” of sorts in Vietnam, an observation fellow field officers joked validated Murphy’s Law.
At this hour, it had to mean an emergency call. Maybe SAD had run into another snag in their new Phoenix program, a tactical plan plagued by fits and starts. They called him day and night for advice.
On top of all his major responsibilities, Biff integrated intelligence among the various agencies and the military in South Vietnam involved in this complicated program. In fact, he’d passed out at his desk late last night studying current intelligence reports from the local field of battle. He’d also decoded cables from Langley and Commander in Chief, Pacific Command (CINCPAC) designed to establish the Phoenix program. That was an intelligence-based program designed to eliminate VC infrastructure in the vital Saigon sector.
The first thing he saw though his bleary eyes as he decided to answer the phone was a large white board on the wall opposite his desk posting current, known, VC threat locations in MR IV, the Saigon region in South Vietnam. Startled and disoriented at first, the board reminded him he was safe in his Saigon Embassy’s office. Still groggy, he got his bearings and groped to find his phone across his littered desk in the dimly lit room. It also jogged his memory to get a stronger watt bulb for the old gooseneck lamp he inherited from his predecessor.
In the past three months out on SAD missions, he’d awakened in some strange locations, disoriented and tense: nasty places without walls or roofs, weird places with annoying insects and creepy, crawly creatures. The threatening Southeast Asian jungles didn’t leave a light on for you, much less a comfy bed. It seemed the enemy always lurked behind the next vine-entangled rock or stand of bamboo… not conducive to a good night’s sleep. Vietnam had a tendency to make you jumpy. He welcomed the sight of the white board, confident the VC couldn’t get to him here.
Keeping track of VC guerilla activity was nerve wracking. The National Liberation Front, or NLF—the official name of the Viet Cong—kept on the move with their hit-and-run tactics, and put his SAD recon missions at risk. The white-board positions changed a dozen times a day. Changing conditions kept his staff hopping and analyzing intel reports from assets in the field. This human intelligence, or HUMINT, involved daily tracking of the enemy in the Phoenix tactical area of responsibility.
Still not fully awake, he reached to pick up the Embassy red phone. It sat at the far end of his large desk, next to his EE-8 field phone, satellite phone, AN/URC-10 survival radio, and his PRC-FM radio. Communication devises in Vietnam were vital. He was well stocked for every eventuality but an atomic bomb attack. Finally, he answered on the twelfth ring, and inadvertently knocked over a vial of his “daily-daily” anti-malarial pills.
“Shit,” he muttered as the pale blue capsules scattered across the desk. “Hello, Roberts here.” He wished for a cup of coffee.
“Brace yourself, pal.”
Biff recognized apprehension in his fellow field officer’s voice. A call from the night operations desk downstairs was usually never a good sign, especially from a persistent caller. His headache was about to get worse.
“How’s that, Jim? What’s up? I’m braced.”
Now fully awake, he expected bad news.
“Bad sit-rep, Pleiku is getting pounded big time by the Viet Cong. Not just the usual boonie-rat skirmish. VC launched a massive predawn attack in battalion strength including heavy arty 105mm Howitzers, they think. They staged the attack from the rainforest just six klicks north of the base over an hour ago, can you believe that?”
He successfully deciphered Jim’s jargon… the new language. “No fucking way, battalion strength, including heavy artillery from a position so close by the base?”
“They probably captured the arty from the ARVN, my guess,” Jim ventured.
“That’s really a bad situation report, Jim. Got any further details? Zulu?”
“Yep, reports say an estimated fifteen hundred VC reinforced with North Vietnam Army regulars launched the assault from a position right in the airbase’ own backyard. Bastards inflicted a lot of serious damage. Zulu high, estimated a hundred or so casualties, planes on fire, base hospital partially demolished by mortars and artillery. Fortunately, they missed the ammo dump. Reports keep piling in as we speak. Let me tell ya, this is a BFD!”
“Holy shit. Heavy losses, tell me more. We’ve got a major frontal offensive on our hands, a huge departure from the routine VC hit-and-run skirmishes.”
“Right on, got that right, boss. Fortunately, Colonel Ruey’s A-4s scrambled from Chu Lai and the sortie’s currently bombing and rocketing the hell out of the VC, kicking some serious ass, FAC reports.”
“Good to know Pleiku’s getting close air support. Thank God.”
“Roger that. Word is a ranger captain by the name of Johansson saved the ground fight by swiftly leading his company into the battle, manning the perimeter breach to prevent a rout. Report says he got wounded pretty bad in the firefight, but kept on gunning VC down. Almost singlehandedly prevented the VC from overrunning the camp. Brown bar’s action report says this captain created his own killing zone. The battle’s winding down, lasting less than an hour, now entering the mop-up phase.”
Biff’s interest soared. Could Johannson be his high school buddy? “How’s that, Jim? Did the lieutenant give any further details on this encounter… this ranger’s action?”
“Early reports say this captain kept rapid-firing his M-16, mowing VC down despite bleeding like a stuck pig. His company lieutenant estimates this guy Johansson must have lit up over thirty bad guys with his sharp shooting. In the after-action report, the lieutenant said it was a fucking unbelievable display of marksmanship, like an out-of-body experience. This guy kept popping one VC after another.”
“Really? Tell me more about it.”
“The company lieutenant claims he’s never seen anything like it in his two combat tours in ’Nam. He likened Johansson’s display to something out of a shooting arcade, an unreal exhibit of sharpshooting, with this ranger swinging his M-16 in wide arcs, only seconds between getting off shots. He said the guy followed the bust caps with brief full auto bursts spraying the attackers’ onslaught. He never saw anyone go through so many clips with such accuracy, called the guy a friggin’ Rambo.”
“Impressive, must have been quite a scene with him rocking ’n rolling.”
“Report said this guy, Johansson, never missed!”
“Good for him,” Biff interjected. “Sounds like Cody.”
“Cody? You telling me you know this marksman Johansson on a first-name basis?”
“Sure do. He’s always been a crack shot, shooting squirrels hopping through treetops at age twelve. Tops in skeet competition in Maryland at age sixteen. That performance doesn’t surprise me a bit. Cody obviously was in a zone. I imagine it was a lot easier mowing down VCs than shooting clays for him.”
“You’re talking a small world.”
“Seems it is, Jim.”
“Other reports coming in from Pleiku go on to say that we’ve got flight surgeons and triage medics flying in from Tan Son Nhut led by Captain MacDonald. Wouldn’t surprise me if you knew of him, too. Everyone’s heard about his heroics. He’s established himself as an accomplished trauma surgeon, got quite an impressive record in ’Nam. Doc fast-ropes out of ‘dust off’ choppers and zigzags through minefields under enemy fire to rescue wounded men with his medics… that kind of gung-ho stuff everyone is raving about.”
“You bet I know him, another fine fellow… excellent air-evac surgeon. In fact, before you ask, I also know the Marine A-4 squadron commander quite well, Colonel Ruey.”
“How do you happen to know all three of those guys involved in this battle, boss?’
“It’s a long story, Jim, goes way back to all four of us playing high school football together.”
“No way, are you putting me on?”
“Nope. Crazy how we all ended up here, huh? It’s a quirk of fate, hard to believe, in fact. Interesting twist, tell you the story later, okay? Let’s concentrate on this VC problem for now.”
“Okay, it can wait, but promise to tell me the connection later on. It’s a fascinating string of coincidences.”
“You got it. A never-ending string, it seems. I promise to tell you the whole story over a beer.”
“It’s a deal. I’ll even buy. What’s our plan now, Biff? What course of action do you want me to initiate?”
“Right now, let’s get our unit to investigate the breakdown in our intel coordination up there in the highlands. How in the hell did a recon base like Pleiku allow an enemy battalion to bivouac that close? Bring in heavy artillery? Six klicks, you said? That’s only a little over three and a half miles. It had to be a breakdown in the system somewhere. Or, maybe some spy set it up. Pleiku is a reconnaissance base keeping an eye on the Ho chi Minh trail, for Christ’s sake. Not a good show by our recon boys. Somebody fucked up big time.”
“No argument there, Biff.”
“Look at it like this, Pleiku is a vital link in our defense of the highlands, especially protecting highway 19. I’m sure we’ll get a load of flack from MACV over this. They’ll want to lay the blame on someone else to cover their sorry conduct of this friggin’ war. They’ll concoct a typical CYA story. They don’t want to face LBJ’s criticism back in DC.”
“You nailed it, boss. So, what do you think is gonna happen now? This is the third serious attack on U.S. military installations in Vietnam in less than six months, with zero response from us. Recall last Christmas? Sappers bombed the Brinks base officers’ quarters (BOQs) in Saigon. Before that, the VCs hit Bien Hoa with a sneak mortar attack from the local rice paddies. We’re taking casualties right and left, and putting up with all the Saigon government’s BS. The friggin’ South Vietnam army can’t get their act together. This is a pathetic show, boss. This is no fucking way to fight a war.”
Biff opted to try for diplomacy and to rationalize the situation. “I agree, the ARVN is often ineffectual, and Washington’s mixed signals further complicate matters. Indecision is a terrible state of affairs, Jim.”
Obviously, one of his best field operatives needed to vent his pent-up frustrations triggered by the tense Pleiku situation. Biff shared his frustration.
“It’s South Vietnam’s war. We’re just advisors” he reminded Jim. “Seems nobody’s on the same page. If I’d seen this movie before I’d know what to tell you, pal.”
The CIA coped with a difficult position. DC ignored most of their intelligence estimates. The vacillation and lack of a coherent policy by LBJ’s administration compounded the messy military situation. Frankly it lacked direction in many cases. It was becoming increasingly difficult for him to manage the CIA’s covert war in Vietnam behind this backdrop of ineptitude. Mixed messages regarding an overall strategy, which lacked definition in the first place, further complicated his job. He tried to figure out why so much muddle? It made no sense to him.
Well-reasoned CIA intelligence estimates and recommendations were often overlooked for political considerations, expediency, or lack of focused commitment to win the war in the shortest period of time. DC typically waffled and constrained the military effort by restrictive policies on rules of engagement, which dictated that Laos and Cambodia remain off limits to counterattacks. That self-imposed course of action provided sanctuaries for the Viet Cong to escape pursuit and regroup. Not a sound prescription for victory. They also prohibited bombing North Vietnam strategic supply depots in populated areas of Hanoi, or blockading their critical Haiphong Harbor. To top it off, they turned down CIA propositions to bomb dams on the NVN border next to China to flood much of the north and critically disrupt hydroelectric power. All three recommended actions may have assured a speedy victory, according to the CIA’s calculations. It seemed so clear to him, why did the strategy elude them?
Biff’s exasperation finally got the best of him. “What the fuck are they thinking back there in DC?”
In his role as deputy station manager, he usually reserved his private thoughts. He typically tried to play it close to the vest, observe protocol, and avoid criticizing superiors or delve into messy politics, let alone blurt obscenities about them. He scrubbed at his eye with the heel of his hand. Apparently, his exhaustion had begun to take its toll.
“Beats the shit outta me, boss. They ignore most of our recommendations.”
Jim knew this. Biff knew this. The CIA’s recommendations generally fell on deaf ears back in D.C. The chain of command channels often ignored.
If that problem was not enough to cope with, ongoing conflicts between America’s MACV and the corrupt Saigon government and its inept army bred another steady stream of frustrations. It was typically, “situation normal, all fucked up.” One SNAFU after another resulted from lack of proper leadership and command structure. Most of all, though, the problem rested on the deficiency of a sound, coordinated strategy to confront the VC’s guerrilla warfare.
Biff had to deal with this annoying bureaucratic BS, the political intrigues and jealousies, and bickering on a regular basis. He’d been in Saigon just over three months and it was already getting old… very old. When things got fucked up beyond all recognition, FUBAR, it had a way of sapping one’s enthusiasm for the task at hand. But, he plodded on. It didn’t fit his nature to give up.
Biff surely understood Jim’s feelings. In fact, he shared many of them. Vietnam was a dysfunctional military environment. No other way to describe it. A war without proper direction fought with irrational binding, self-imposed restrictions, and characterized by infighting among decision makers. This resulted in a war of attrition without a strategy conducive to winning a swift victory.
Jim called it spot on. This was no fucking way to fight a war.
Biff reflected. War is the ultimate zero-sum contest—you win or you lose. What don’t they understand about that axiom? How fucking complicated is that? We can never win with the present strategy, if you can even call it that.
Nevertheless, he attempted some encouragement.
“Hang in there, partner. I anticipate an escalation of the ‘conflict,’ as they call this friggin’ war. LBJ can’t afford to lose what little popular support his administration has in the States. I predict they will up the ante. This sneak attack at Pleiku will force their hand.”