War and Peace Corps

    The Commander Wore Civies

    by Leo Cecchini (Ethiopia 1962-–64)

    “Where is your weapon?” the District Police Chief asked as we stood at the base of a moonlight rocky hill watching the provincial force search the nooks and crannies for Viet Cong.
         “In my briefcase,” I replied.
         I was in Vietnam as part of the pacification program or as it was officially titled, “Civil Operations Revolutionary Development Service,” the famous (or infamous) CORDS program that sought to “win the hearts and minds” of the Vietnamese. How did I get there? I was a Foreign Service Officer at my first post, Panama, when I volunteered in 1967 to go to Vietnam. It was a redundant exercise. The US Agency for International Development (AID) had been unable to recruit sufficient people for the CORDS program. The State Department offered to fill the gap by detailing its “best and brightest” to AID. Any junior officer who was unmarried and had a good ear for languages was fair game. I would have gone, as a volunteer or not.
         We were sent to Vietnam in groups, most after a few weeks of area studies, and the rest after almost one year of language study. I was in the language group. The incentive to learn Vietnamese was direct — as long as you progressed in the classes you would stay at the school in Washington. However, if you failed to keep pace, it was early to Vietnam. We all bet on staying in the course with the hope that it would all be settled before actually having to go. We lost the bet.
         I knew that something was wrong with my approach to the matter when I discovered on arrival by plane in Saigon that my heavily laden briefcase, that I had carefully stowed under my seat to protect me from errant bullets, had slid back several rows of seats leaving me totally unprotected. The next thing I remember we were in a briefing room where the instructors told us not to bother to request staying in Saigon; we were all to be sent to the field.
         After that session I told the instructors quietly that I had found a job in Saigon and that my brother, who was an Air Force Officer, was to be stationed at Tan Sha Nook air base next to the city. They told me that if I could get a letter from the CORDS unit in Saigon, which bore the catchy acronym SCAG (Saigon Civil Advisory Group), stating that they had a job for me, I could stay. The letter was on their desk within the hour.
         Sometime later an Army Colonel, whom I had met in the area studies course, came to Saigon for leave. I took him out to dinner. He asked me why I had not come up to the DMZ to work for him, as had been planned without my knowledge. I replied that I had an important job in Saigon. He said, “Too bad, I had to replace you with an Army officer, he was shot and killed.” I then replied, “Great, if I had gone to work for you I would be pushing up daisies.”
         I spent my first year in Vietnam in Saigon as the SCAG District Representative to the First and Second Districts of the City, essentially downtown Saigon. I was busy organizing self defense units in the shadow of the National Assembly Building, the President’s Palace, and all the rest of the government’s edifices. I also had the American Embassy in my turf. My basic attitude toward building self defense units in this area was that, if the Viet Cong got to the heart of the country, the show was definitely over, and no amount of self defense would turn the tide. Instead we turned our attention to organizing a system for detecting clandestine Viet Cong and removing them from the scene.
         The downtown self defense effort did have an amusing face. The Chief of the First District had all the bar girls on the notorious “Tu Do“ street — a collection of bars and dives known to almost all GIs who had passed through Saigon — organized into first aid units. I was not sure how effective they would have been in helping the wounded, but did know that, if they died, they would do so with a smile on their face.
         While in Saigon I escaped serious injury. Sure there were assassinations of people with whom I worked and the occasional bomb like the one left by some kids that blew out the main floor of the central post office killing and maiming dozens of people. There was also the night the Viet Cong lobbed mortar shells into Tan Sha Nook air base where my brother was stationed killing a few of his colleagues. But it was not front line battle work. Perhaps the worse I suffered was when the bad guys dropped a mortar shell on center court at the Circe Sportif tennis club where I played, thus screwing up the playing schedule for several weeks.
         All was going well when, in an effort to show that we were winning, CORDS decided to “Vietnamese“ my job or turn it over to the Vietnamese to do.The theory was that this would show that our side was winning.
         As further proof that we were winning, I was assigned to a district in a seaside province which had had no civilian advisor previously. My going there was to demonstrate that it was pacified to the point that a civilian could work there.
         I wound up in Thanh Hai District in Phan Rang Province. Now Phan Rang and Thanh Hai were different from the rest of Vietnam. Like all the coastal provinces, Phan Rang was directly on the South China Sea, so enjoyed something of a maritime atmosphere. However, it had the distinction of being the home of then President Thieu and thus boasted the only log cabin in Vietnam. It never rained in Phan Rang so when a car was brought to the province the windows were rolled down once, never to be closed again. Water came from a river that ran the entire length of the province providing irrigation for the whole area. It was also the home of the small remnants of the once mighty Cham people living in Vietnam. They ate no pork so we had the only goat herds in the country. I will never forget my first day on the job standing ankle deep in goat crap and discussing shipping breeding goats to other parts of the country.
         I was the only civilian in a 15 man military advisory team and the Deputy Commander at that. All the other members were veterans of front line combat who had, after spending their time in hell, been sent to this less dangerous assignment. You can imagine their disquiet at having an unarmed civilian as their second in command. However, as it turned out I earned their respect by guiding them instead of commanding them. I also was smart enough to stick to doing the non-combat tasks. While the GIs taught the Vietnamese provincial and district forces good defense practices, I worked with the civilian administration to “win the hearts and minds” of the people.
         We lived in a truly spectacular setting, an old country estate 150 meters from the South China Sea. But to get to the house from the water one would have had to get through claymore mines, barbed wire, a 12 foot chain link fence with razor wire on top, searchlights and machine gun emplacements.
         I had three guises.As head of the civic action program I was assigned a white, closed-body pick-up truck. As deputy military commander I was assigned an olive drab “jeep.” Most ominously, as the Phoenix program advisor I was assigned a jet black “jeep.” The vehicle I was in would announce my role for the day — white for the good guy, black for the bad, and green for the soldier. I always let my Vietnamese assistant for each task start the relevant vehicle in the morning, a trick I learned from my uncle Vito.
         The Phoenix program was developed to locate and identify the clandestine Viet Cong, build a case against them, and then bring them to justice where they would be sent to reeducation camps, thus the name Phoenix for the mythical bird reborn from his own ashes. In actual fact most of those identified were simply removed from circulation.
         I did my job, brought water supplies to several villages, rebuilt destroyed homes, supervised local elections, provided material support for local government projects, participated in self defense organization and had the best record in the province for rooting out the clandestine Viet Cong.
         I also took part in the occasional military exercise. I spent one night with a four-man team from my unit in a village which was not accessible by land at night. I was flown in by helicopter. After dinner I was shown to my tent and bed that stood apart from the rest of the team. It took me a moment to understand why, but I saw that by wearing a powder blue shirt and white chino pants in contrast to my military colleagues dressed in combat uniforms and with faces painted black with grease, I was the most visible thing in the whole area and thus the likely target for any intruders.
         I was also in command the night we had our only attack during my stint in Thanh Hai. My superior, an Army major, was back in the USA leaving me in charge. For the first time in my life I was holding a slam hand in a bridge game when all hell broke loose. The radio was crackling with a report that the District Chief and the District Police Chief had been ambushed while returning after dark to Thanh Hai from a night of fun in Phan Rang City. I organized a unit to accompany the Vietnamese forces who went to rescue the victims while I stayed back at “headquarters.” We succeeded, but the District Chief was severely wounded, and spent several months recovering. After the action I realized that I had made a potentially lethal mistake. A favorite trick of the Viet Cong was to lure defense forces out to a location and then attack the base while they were away.Fortunately this was not the case that night but I never saw another slam hand while in Vietnam.
         Then came the night I went with a team from my unit to accompany the Vietnamese provincial and district militia on their search of a rocky hill for Viet Cong. We found some along with some army deserters and other desperadoes. But I didn’t have to get my weapon out for the task. In fact I never carried it with me and never fired it the whole time I was in the country.

    What do I think of Vietnam and the war there? I saw it then, as I do now, being part of the long campaign following the Second World War to “contain Communism.” Vietnam stood at the end of a train of conflicts between those for and those against a Communist regime — Greece, China, Korea, Cuba and then Vietnam.Communism had not gained power in any country without blood being spilled and in copious quantity, as seen in China and Russia. Vietnam was no different. Should we have been there? Well, should we have entered into the Greek conflict or the one in Korea? To me it was the same, and if one saw the merit in stopping Communism in those other places there was merit in doing it in Vietnam.
         Did I understand the reasons for defeat in Vietnam in contrast to stopping Communism in say Korea? Our Achilles heel became obvious to me one afternoon in Thanh Hai while I was in a planning session with the district civilian, military and police officials focused on rooting out the Viet Cong underground.On the table in the middle of the room was a map of a village in which each home was represented by a square. Some of the squares were outlined and tinged in red. I asked what did that mean. I was told that the red tinged homes were homes with members of, or connections to, the Viet Cong. I asked, “Why are they still there in the village and not removed to another part of the country where they would be cut off from their support?”
         The reply I got said all I needed to know, “But this is their home.” It was an epiphany for me. Suddenly all became clear; we were out in front of the Vietnamese, instead of standing behind or shoulder to shoulder with them, as in Greece or Korea. They were not prepared to do the things required to remove the menace, for whatever reason — family ties, lack of conviction, fear, and greed. I concluded the session by saying they could continue this course of action but, when the Viet Cong took over, they would be there and I would be in the USA.

    Leo Cecchini was in the first group of PCVs to Ethiopia and taught geography and coached the soccer team at Haile Selassie I High School in Asmara, Eritrea. He is remembered by that generation of students in Asmara for having led the soccer team to two straight league championships. While in Asmara, he also taught English at the Greek Community School, and during the summer worked at the hospital for mentally deficient children.
         Following his Peace Corps experience he went into the Foreign Service and has worked for the government and in international business ever since. His full resume is at his web site: www.cecchini.org.
         Leo is also on the Board of Directors of the NPCA and active with the very active Ethiopia & Eritrea RPCVs, an affiliate of the National Peace Corps Association.