Authors: C.R. Ryder
Senior Airman Khoa Tran
USAF Air Traffic Controller
Tinker AFB, Oklahoma
I was an US Air Force air traffic controller when V2 began. The war started for me when I got called into work by my squadron commander on a Saturday afternoon. He met me at the door in civilian clothes and led me to the commander’s conference room. My shirt (First Sergeant) and the Chief were there too.
My first thought was that I was in big trouble. I drank even though I was only twenty and I often drove drunk, but I had never been stopped by the cops. I had banged my supervisor a couple of times and she was married. Maybe that was the issue. Seems like that would come down on her though. If I was in trouble for anything I certainly hadn’t gotten wind of it.
All I knew was that I was going to keep my mouth shut until they played their cards. No sense in confessing to anything they don’t know about yet.
“There are some men in that room that want to speak to you.” Lt Col Jones told me.
“Am I in trouble, sir?”
“Just relax and answer their questions.” He smiled like he was worried about me.
The commander opened the door for me. Inside the room were three men sitting at the table. They were dressed in civilian clothes. My first thought was that they were shaggy looking. Their hair was longer than I would have expected. Two of them had beards and one an out of regulations mustache.
I expected my commander to come in with me. I was surprised when he shut the door and left me alone with them.
“Khoa Tran? But you go by Kevin is that it?” The guy nearest the door stood up and shook my hand.
“I’m Todd. Have a seat.”
I did. Neither of the other two offered their hands or their names. One of them stared at me while the one with the mustache stared at the wall like he was bored already.
“Do you know why you’re here?”
“Am I in some kind of trouble?”
“No. Nothing like that. You’re Vietnamese right?”
“I’m an American.”
“Right enough. You were born in Vietnam though right? You and your mother escaped with the boat people in 1978?”
“You play any sports in school.” The other guy with the mustache asked out of nowhere. The other man remained silent.
I wasn’t sure who to answer first.
“Yes I was born in Vietnam. We escaped when I was a kid.”
“You play football in high school?” Mustache guy asked.
“Track.” I told him.
“Your father in the picture.” Todd asked.
I didn’t like all the questions about my family.
“He joined us later.” I told them. “After he was released from prison.”
“How fast can you run a half mile?” The mustache guy interrupted again.
“Your dad worked for the CIA?” Todd asked, but I already knew he must know a lot about me. I thought for a moment I was some kind of security risk with the build up against Vietnam. Thoughts of Japanese internment camps passed through my brain.
“He was a university professor.” I said.
“Yeah but he also informed for the CIA.”
“I don’t know much about that.” In truth I didn’t. My father had mentioned it rarely, but he mentioned it enough that it was probably true.
“How much can you bench press?” Mustache guy asked still worried about my body. I ignored him.
“You got family in Vietnam?” Todd asked.
“Cousins. An uncle I have never met.”
“How good can you shoot?” Mustache man asked.
“I am an expert marksman.” I was proud of that one. I got the ribbon and everything. Only one of three airmen in my basic training flight who did.
“Air Farce standards,” He looked unimpressed.
This was about Vietnam. The POWs had been in the news almost nonstop. My mom talked about it every week when we spoke on the phone.
“You like being an air traffic controller?” Todd asked.
“Yes I do.” It was the truth.
“You speak Vietnamese?” Todd asked revealing the truth of the matter.
“Fluently?” Todd asked.
“Read this.” The man who had not introduced himself passed a book over to me. The other man, who was slightly older than the other two, had not said a word.
I picked up the book and looked at it. It was a Vietnamese cook book that was from the sixties. It looked like they had picked it up in a paperback book store. Its cover was brown and it was hanging by a thread. The pages were yellowed and it had water stains.
I opened it to the first page and started to read.
“Out loud,” The quiet man with no name said.
“Toi hy vong ban thich gao. Banh mi la gi?”
“Stop.” The quiet man said.
“Jesus Christ that language is like fucking nails on a chalkboard.”
“No offense.” The mustache guy offered.
“Why didn’t you go into linguistics?”
“I didn’t want to be stuck in some embassy somewhere listening to a radio.”
“You wanted to be a Combat Controller though. Didn’t make the cut in basic.” Mustache guy said.
That had been three years ago when I first enlisted. Combat Controllers were the special forces of the Air Force. They came to each basic training flight and show a video of what they do. Everyone is invited to try out. I had gone for it. You got to spend a day running around an obstacle course and swimming in a pool. It was better than getting ripped by the MTI all day. I had always been athletic, but I had not really taken it seriously.
“You almost did though. Did they tell you that?” Todd asked.
“How fast can you run a mile?”
“5 minutes 34 seconds.”
“How much can you bench?”
“Christ! My mom can do more than that.” Mustache man sneered. “Look at those tiny arms.”
“Give him a break.” Todd said.
“Think you can carry a fifty pound ruck?” The Quiet man asked.
“Yes,” What the hell was I getting myself into?
“What do you say Jeff?” The Quiet man asked the Mustache man revealing his name at last.
“Won’t be much of a load if we have to carry him at least.” Jeff answered.
“He’ll do.” The Quiet Man said. “My name is Scott Walters. I intend to put you in harm’s way.”
“We need a translator. The personnel computer came up with your name on a very short list. If you accept you will be deployed in the field with us for a period of a few weeks.” Todd explained.
“Where?” I asked.
“Thailand and then possibly into Vietnam.” Scott Explained.
“Everything from this point forward is classified. That means keep your fucking mouth shut. Don’t tell your mama or your girl.” Jeff said giving me a hard look.
“Are you guys Green Berets?”
They ignored the question, but stopped to look at each other and smile.
“We cannot guarantee your safety, but you will be with the three of us and some of the best operators in the world.”
“You will be doing your country a great service.”
“I guess I’m in.”
“You guess? Are you in or not?” Jeff asked.
And that is how I joined Black Ops.
Lieutenant Colonel Paul Adams
The thing may have died then and there. At least it would not have come to violence. Seeing how things turned out it would have been better if it had.
Oil prices were rising with Iraq’s refusal to retreat from Kuwait. Americans were feeling it in their wallets. The protesters in September thinned out to about half the number of the month before. The cable news, which was new to all of us, was the only thing keeping the Thailand Box story alive.
We started to get the feeling that the whole thing was going to go away. It’s not like we had not rattled a hollow sabre before.
We still would have looked for the POWs. If they were found the military would have slipped some operators across the border and like many of the hotspots in the world it would have been a Spec Ops show. Using Big Green and Big Blue and Big Navy to solve this was going to leave a lot of people dead and broken hearted.
I could feel it.
It was our old enemies that hammered the final nail in the coffin for Vietnam. Poor Vietnam. With a friend like Russia who needs enemies like America. Out of some kind of ill executed Glasnost the Russian ambassador showed up at the White House on September 11th.
He brought with him what would be known as the 1205 Document. From the bowels of some shitty archive in Moscow a Soviet researcher found a report by a senior Vietnamese military officer. Addressed to the Vietnamese Communist Party, the 1205 document claimed that in September of 1972 the Vietnamese were holding 1205 US POWs. This was five months before Operation Homecoming where 591 POWs were released.
Simple math revealed that the 1405 Document claimed that 614 other living US POWs were still alive as of 1972.
This document gave Congress, the President and the public the war they ended up with.
The next day the WAR NOW group was made public. All of the protestors had been united and now marched under one flag. They were led by a lot of the activists that protested the first Vietnam War. Former antiwar advocates, retired military and former POWs were seen in their ranks.
It was Goddamn bizarre.
CIA and military said POW existence “questionable” based on the evidence up until the 1205 document. With Russian ambassador revelations, the status was changed to “probable.”
Two days later it was C-day.
Lieutenant Colonel Carol Madison
Air Force Intelligence Officer
Defense Intelligence Agency
C-Day was the day that the President committed forces to the recovery of American POWs in Vietnam. I was in San Antonio on leave when the announcement was made. Every television in every bar and restaurant on the Riverwalk was tuned to the President’s address.
“Is Cuba or North Korea next?” The cable news channels asked.
Listening to the President lean the country forward for another armed conflict in Indochina made me think of a conversation I had sat through the week before. We were briefing some NATO officers who were interested in the POW issue.
“Are airstrikes next?” the NATO representative asked.
“Beyond the embargo we have no plans for any military action at this time.” My commander explained.
We might not have any plans, but it was on everyone’s minds.
It felt like the Cuban Missile Crisis all over again. We were back to the John F. Kennedy rules of projecting national power. His best move was embargo. Worked beautifully against the Cubans. Against North Vietnam, not so much.
And here we were doing it again.
Vietnam was a hard country to threaten. We already had a trade embargo against them and they were pretty poor to begin with. It was difficult to take something away from someone who didn’t have anything to begin with.
They told us to blow off when we wanted to send in inspectors. It was not so much that we wanted to send in inspectors. We’d done that before. We wanted the inspectors to have unlimited access to the country and their own government records.
They said no way.
That night there was the speech. It must have gotten Vietnam’s attention.
The Vietnamese government capitulated the week after my two kids went back to school. United Nations inspectors were allowed into the country.
Major Timothy Sullivan
United States Air Force Combat Controller
Hanoi was a relatively modern city by Asian standards. It was the capital of the Communist government and center of business for Vietnam. Downtown was a series of office buildings and city parks. Dominating all other structures was the Ho Chi Minh tomb. It was a concrete monolith in the center of the city. The lights were on there day or night. The building supposedly had three backup generators.
I got off the plane with the rest of the American delegation wearing a suit and tie. We were greeted by representatives of the Vietnamese government as soon as our feet hit the ground. I was there officially as one of five military advisors to the secretary of state. In my briefcase I carried a GPS transmitter/receiver.
For their part the Communists were being fairly accommodating. This was before the shooting started though so I could not tell you what their state of mind was. I don’t think they saw us as a threat yet, just an inconvenience. We weren’t the first official US group to come to Vietnam looking for the lost. Certainly public outcry in the states was at a frenzied height that had never been seen before. There was more clamor for action than there had been during the entire all of V1. Still the Vietnamese had being the winners on their side. They felt safe. At least they felt like America would not go down the same road twice. Not a road that had been built on blood.
I had one mission and one mission only on the trip. When we got to the hotel I got it done.
The hotel had a small courtyard. I took my briefcase with me as I went for a stroll. When I found a bench I sat down. I opened the briefcase, took a GPS reading and then put the machine back into the case.
The rest of the visit was uneventful. We were taken out to prearranged inspection sites to look at empty camps and prisons.
The GPS receiver stayed in my briefcase for the rest of the trip and the briefcase never left my possession. I took it with me to every meal, every meeting and even the toilet. When I got back to the states I took the GPS receiver out again and I handed it over to an intelligence agency in Langley. From that one reading, the exact coordinates of that courtyard were determined by aerial photography and cross checked to my GPS reading. Then that position served as the origin of a coordinate system used to determine targets all over Hanoi and the entire country of Vietnam.
When the plane departed for home I remember watching the city from my window. It was lit up at night and you could mistake Hanoi for any midsized city in the states. The next time I saw it would be after and it would be in ruins.