Some (more) Vietnam War Memories from the Early Days

By Lou Rothenstein

Since some of us really old guys are recalling things from the far distant past, I thought of recording a few more memories. Maybe one or two are interesting.

In 61 and 62, I had several TDY trips to Vietnam from KMAG in Korea. There was a ceiling on assigned troops – I think 5,000 so the Army brought in people TDY from several places in Asia. I was promoted to SSG and somewhat out of a job so I was a good candidate. I went from working for the Chief, KMAG as an E5 to document security for Detachment 40, (SF Advisors from 1st SF Group) KMAG, as an E6.

So, the Eighth Army SGM sent me to Vietnam. In 61 there was no MACV. MAAG-V, headquartered in Saigon was the place to be until around February of 62 when MACV cranked up.

I was living sort of in the basement of an outbuilding at MAAG-V HQ. I did odd jobs like teaching motor stables on sedans and packaging items for distribution to advisors in the field and sometimes the mail. It included some SF camps. These were manned by TDY teams from several different groups. It caused a few problems when they changed and not one in the HQ passed on the info. I delivered some newer than French 1:100,000 maps – some 1:50,000s, 1:250,000 around. Sometimes I had to hang out at Ton San Nhut for a ride. Aircraft were not too plentiful in 61. Once I was given a box to deliver to Vientiane. I had cash, bought a ticket on Air Vietnam, a C-46, delivered the package to a Mr. Miller, and immediately flew back to Saigon. I think it contained altimeters/aircraft gauges. We called this Gopher work. I believe that this was a CAT plane as the crew was Chinese. I had to have fatigues with a MAAG-V patch so I didn’t stand out in a crowd. I had to carry other shirts with different patches on them when going to another country. If I went into Laos, I would have to change shirts. There was a lot of this deceptive stuff going on. Apparently a way to get things into Air America or other outfits without the normal procedures.

I recall some advisors in 61 in the field who had little to work with. There was a new Ranger training center not to far from Da Lat that I recall that was the picture of field expedients. They apparently got things started by trading on the OD market. Goods for captured equipment. This was practiced even after we had more than we could use. Col Tom Henry who passed away in 2015 (China Post 1) was setting it up then a Captain. He also set up Delta Force early on.

I was rewarded with a plush job on my second TDY. I drove around an Army Major PAO type. He roomed at the new Caravelle Hotel. So I did also, sharing a room with an AF ATC from Taiwan for awhile. but I think he was a Spook as he didn’t handle a camera very well and was always asking me questions about this or that guy I had a beer or two with up at the Roof Garden (Saigon Saigon)at night. At the hotel, there were quite a few foreign correspondents and several from the U.S. I ended up writing some reports on these folks that were probably sent to ACSI, DA. It may have been the start of my change from grunt/clerk to intel.

About two weeks I spent thumbing rides around Vietnam to deliver things. I always came back to Saigon for a long weekend. I thought that this was the way to be in a war. Not much shooting going on and those weekends were great. After reading the book “The Spy Who Loved Us” (Pham Xuan An) I wondered if I had a beer or two with this chain-smoking guy. Back then, most people smoked so American cigarettes were good trading material at the end of the month when the cash ran out. I still don’t know. I talked with several reporters who bought beer as long as we low-ranking guys fed them information. ABC was more prone to bribe us for info than the other network folks. To this day, I do not understand the question when asked of an Army SSG “How do you think the war is going?” As if I really had inside info. My roommate could quaff some beer. After awhile, we gravitated towards some Aussies and Kiwis who lived in the hotel. Now they really drank beer. Sometimes, a U.S. officer would report me to MAAG HQ for excess beer consumption and other frowned upon behaviors. My Major always intervened – I worked for him and was following orders.

I recall the rooftop bar/cafe Saigon Saigon perhaps more than anything. Sitting at a table with good food, drinks, watching some military actions in the distance at night. I sat there in April of this year and had a couple of beers reminiscing. Also some much modified black B-26’s that flew at night. I discovered much later, they were testing the terrain following radar. Also the overloaded T-28s at Soc Trang. I saw one right after a wing fell off. These trainers were really overworked in ground support missions. And of course, the old helicopters. One can never forget the CH-21.

Things changed a lot with MACV establishing a larger presence in early 62. No Caravelle Hotel this trip. I first lived out of a security unit’s billets close to TSN where I could get my jeep serviced (washed and fueled). I got to know the flight schedules pretty well and drove people to and from the airport and sometimes the closer helipad. One Monday, MAAG HQ (both MAAG and MACV were operating at the same time) sent me on a mission to the Delta. I had to drive a new MACV LTC named Vann to My Tho as he didn’t want to fly. He wanted to look at the terrain. As soon as we left the Saigon area, he gave me his carbine, said I was shotgun and he drove to My Tho. I spent a couple of weeks there until replacements and new personnel came in. It was a bit closer to the action but the action was still sparse. I actually went on a couple of small operations, one that gave a a nice scar. I then went TDY to Okinawa ostensibly to learn how to jump out of planes but got injured inside one of them. That ended my dreams of an extra $55 a month. It left me with a problem shoulder for many years.

I started to worry about my pay. I was getting cash that sometimes I had to sign for, other times it was just handed to me. I found that someone arranged to have my regular but meager Army pay put away for safekeeping. I wonder if this was another way to get around counting all the people in country. But when I was sent back to Korea, it was all OK with the pay. The accumulated pay let me buy a new car at my next assignment. I had nothing much to do so I toured most of the KMAG teams, sometimes with new people, a couple of USO shows, or delivering goods. The G2 Advisor in KMAG had me write up a lengthy report on my experiences. There was also an Eighth Army NCO and a Captain who were also TDY to SEA that did the same. Apparently no one ever read the reports as when I went back to Vietnam in 66, things were worse. I, at times, felt like the VC made me their #1 target. There was a big difference in KMAG and MAAG/MACV. In KMAG, the Army folks were pretty senior.

After I left Asia, Germany was my next assignment. First Heidelberg, putting together message books for the CINC and staff. Pretty uneventful (boring) except one trip as a driver to Zossen-Wuensdorf, GSFG HQ. I ended up in Berlin thinking I would soon be in the Infantry. That didn’t happen. I was reassigned to G2, Berlin Brigade as an assistant to an assistant in G2 Operations. All the officers were Infantry. Working in SMOS. There were only two enlisted there that had any intel experience. The G2 SGM and the Ops NCO, both WWII and Korean Vets. They taught me enough to stay out of too much trouble. As Army Intelligence and Security (later MI) grew, we needed to retrain more enlisted folks into the new MOSs.

Vietnam was heating up and since I was there (short time and lack of significant roles), I became the “expert” on Vietnam. So junior officers and senior NCOs would stop by after patrols to ask questions. I was training a new G2 recruit, SSG Jim Fiske what little I knew of the workings of intelligence. The Vietnam orders started coming in in late 64. Jim was among the first to depart. I told him of my experiences, good times, gave him a few addresses, and he left a happy camper.

Well Jim got into country just before Christmas of 64. The day after his arrival, Charlie blew up much of his temporary billet, the Brinks BOQ. He was due to work at the new Combined Intel Center. I received perhaps one of the nastiest notes ever written by humans from him. He survived and went on to become an MI WO and embassy work. Good troop. I just remembered another one of our trainees. SFC Jim Kinnon. Profiled out of the Infantry, he became one of our collectors. I guess he didn’t want to stay MI as when he went to Vietnam, he told MACV their Drug and Alcohol program sucked, that he could do better. He was given the job which worked but was underfunded and undermanned. His program became a standard used even by fancy places like the Betty Ford Center.

I thought of writing this down as best that my memory could do. I did it previously but it was lost. Not that it matters much in the grand scheme of things, but it taught me not to pay too much attention to people who were “experts.” The world changes too quick. It also taught Jim to never listen to me again.

With the media and press in the news as perhaps not too well balanced in their reporting, I remember very well the situations in Vietnam. What really happened and was told to reporters, they most often reported the facts pretty well, at least in the early years. However, there were several of their stories modified a bit back stateside. Some stories I read later were not near the truth and reporter opinions were often more influential than official government reports. Some of this was our fault. MACV held a 1700 brief for the press. What was being told to reporters about TET-68 was not in line what some reporters were told by troops and they visited battle sites to see for themselves. It led one reporter, the most trusted man in America at the time to state that we were basically in a stale mate. It changed the opinions of many in America from pro to con about Vietnam.

Anyway, it felt good to write down what I can still remember at 78.

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