Contrary to the term, it obviously wasn't that cold.
Upon completion of my command tour on the minesweeper USS Peregrine, I received orders to a nine-month intelligence Post-Grad course in Washington, D.C. There were some great jobs available upon completion of the course. The “plum-jobs” were as Naval Attache at various Foreign
Embassies. Near the bottom were requirements for in-country Vietnam billets. I was offered an Embassy, but I felt if you're in the military you should be where the action so I volunteered, to the ire of my mother-in-law.
Prior to climbing aboard the big iron bird for the 22-hour flight to Vietnam, I was sent to a 3-week survival school with the Marines at Camp Pendleton. We shot every hand held weapon that would be used in Vietnam, plus 30 and 50 caliber machine guns. I even got to toss hand
grenades and got so good at it I was allowed to throw all the left-overs at the end of the day (big boys with bigger toys). We went on forced marches, which the drill sergeants enjoyed as wimpy Naval Officers huffed and puffed.
The flight over was boring and uneventful. Hour after hour of brilliant sunshine on blue water 30,000 feet below. All that changed as we turned into our landing pattern at Tan Son Nuet airport. It was about 3am, very dark. Out-going artillery fire illuminated the darkness.
Immediately around the sandbagged and barbed-wire periphery of the airfield there were flares constantly following each other, as one burned out and a follow-up flair “popped”.
Then I was thrust into my Vietnam saga at the height of its most intense turmoil (1967-68). Can you imagine a sea going sailor on the ground serving with the South Vietnamese Army (ARVN) out in the boonies? I don't believe I'd volunteered! What was I thinking?
My job was to serve as Military Assistance Command, Vietnam intelligence advisor - separated from U.S. Forces with my “home base” at the South Vietnamese Army (ARVN) Compound. My ARVN boss was the infamous Gen. Loan, who is most remembered for executing a Viet Kong gorilla
fighter in front of TV camera during the height of the battle for Saigon during the Tet Offense of 1968
My job was to analyze the problem for their failures at the most troubled and failure-prone Vietnamese Army outposts and see if we could affect a turnaround. My first mission kept me in the boonies about 8 days – of which I never undressed or bathed. I came back with a good
beard growth – smelling to high heaven, so full of dirt and mud, you couldn't see the pattern on my camouflage uniform. I still had my flak jacket on – carrying an AK-47 (we used these as we went out of friendly control and our most available resupply of ammo was for the AK).
My combat boots were caked with mud.
Having to report immediately to my superior, I strolled into the intensely clean US Army headquarters where officers wore starched and ironed uniforms with combat boots were so polished that you could see your reflection.
As I stumbled through the polished corridors, I was accosted by an Army Colonel. You could not see my rank for the mud all over me. He said “Hey Soldier! Brace! What the hell are you doing in HQ looking like that?” I ignored him, kept walking. He was right on my heels, barking
at me all the way to the General's office. The General ushered me in and told the Col. to back off. After that, every time I had to report to Davidson, even if I wasn't dirty, I would throw water and mud all over me so I would look just as bad as the first visit. I never had so
much fun with Army Colonels!!
With hundreds of post to inspect, I was bounced around on a variety of missions from the DMZ down to the Ca Mau peninsula, from the coast to the Laotian & Cambodian borders. I went everywhere in VN. I was in more parts and diverse environments (dry rice paddies to jungle,
mountains, and swamps) than anyone that served in VN. My duties sent me to the most remote and hostile areas – several were nominally in control of the VC.
I more occasions then I care to admit I was shot, taking hits on the aircraft en route and back. Not intense fire, but several “plinks” and “twangs” resulting in holes in non-sensitive parts of the aircraft, mostly Hueys, plus several firefights on the ground.
I quickly learned to keep my head down and ass up, (hoping for a simple wound in my ass to send me home). Others saved my ass, I was no hero. I have the greatest respect for the combat marines and army grunts. I know they were exposed too much more danger than I ever
Try as we might, I'll confess now, our efforts were a complete failure. The Vietnamese didn't have their hearts in the war. One Vietnamese officer told me “You are here for 1 year and you want to go in harm's way and win as many medals as possible – jeopardizing me and my men.
I have been here fighting for 20 years. Why should I die for your glory?”
There was blood spilled and I lost some of my team to wounds – no deaths. While I ended up getting the Bronze Star and combat action ribbon fro my efforts, I often found myself asking myself “What the hell are you doing here?”
On on the 4th of July, 1968 I finished my tour of duty and departed Vietnam for the United States or the “big PX” as we called it. (PX being the abbreviation for a commissary on a base where you could by just about anything – the ‘Big PX” thus was the US, were you literally
could by anything!)
As we taxied for take-off one engine started making funny noises with lots of smoke and little spurts of flame. We limped off the tarmac to a repair shed, shut down all power, sat in the hot sun for five hours as they repaired the engine, We then had a normal takeoff.
As we crossed the VN coast-line, the pilot banked the aircraft into a turn as he announced “Well, fellas, we gotta go back”, awful groans throughout the cabin. Then he banked back towards the Pacific, and continued “Yep, back to the good old USA.”
If you're a Cold War Veteran and have stories you
feel safe to now share, send them to us at firstname.lastname@example.org
Read other articles by Commander Mike Cuseo
Read other Cold War Warrior