Just before the Army sent Lynchburg native Jable Dean to Vietnam in 1954, it outlined a simple emergency evacuation plan: “If we have to pull out, get to the Saigon River,” Dean recalls the Pentagon briefer telling him. “And if we can’t get to you, we don’t know you.”
Dean survived his yearlong mission and became part of one of the most forgotten cadres of the U.S. military: servicemembers who were shot at, bombed, captured and killed in the decade-and-a-half prelude to the official start of the Vietnam War. Rarely are they acknowledged as combat veterans. It’s as if the words Dean heard before heading to Vietnam — “we don’t know you” — still echo.
“They were as dedicated as any soldiers involved in previous conflicts,” says author and retired soldier Ray Bows, who served in Vietnam in 1968 and 1969. “Not only are they the senior class, they are the unsung heroes of the Vietnam War. But their status as Vietnam veterans is totally ignored by the U.S. government.”
The U.S. Military Assistance Advisory Group (MAAG), the Army Security Agency (ASA), the Temporary Equipment Recovery Mission and other groups — official and unofficial — served from 1950 through 1964. They supported French efforts to retake its former colony following World War II and then backed South Vietnam’s efforts to deflect the Viet Minh, Viet Cong and North Vietnamese after the French were defeated in 1954.
A mix of World War II veterans, Korean War veterans and new recruits, they were prohibited from carrying their service weapons and many wore civilian clothes. Nevertheless, they gathered intelligence, trained soldiers, transported Catholic refugees out of the north, flew reconnaissance, took casualties and were sent home with orders not to talk about their time in Southeast Asia.
That secrecy became a curse for many of them, part of the veil that hides their service and sacrifice.
“The thing that bothers me is none of this is out there,” says Wayne “Maddog” McCaughey, who served with MAAG in 1960. “You pick up a book on Vietnam, and it says it all started in 1965. If we had not been there, the South Vietnamese government probably wouldn’t have survived.”
MAAG’s arrival in Vietnam in 1950 wasn’t necessarily remarkable. The United States had more than 40 military assistance groups stationed around the world between 1946 and 1960.
“We had MAAG Laos, MAAG Ethiopia, even MAAG Finland,” Bows says.
The difference was the job hazards that came with Indochina.
“Of all the 44 MAAG groups around the world, the guys who got caught up in the bombings and shootings were those assigned to MAAG Vietnam.”
At least 60,000 served in Vietnam prior to 1965, the majority from 1961 to 1964, says Andrew Birtle, chief of the military operations branch at the U.S. Army Center of Military History in Washington. The United States was allowed to have about 340 MAAG personnel in the country in the early years under the terms of the Geneva Accords, McCaughey says.
When MAAG Indochina became MAAG Vietnam in November 1955, there were 746 U.S. servicemen in the country, Bows adds. That was augmented by the 350-member Temporary Equipment Recovery Mission that primarily served as clandestine reinforcements for MAAG.
All told, nearly 250 U.S. servicemembers died in enemy action in Vietnam prior to 1965, Birtle says. Most were killed in 1963 and 1964, as U.S. troop levels rose from about 16,000 to more than 23,000.
Dean had no intention of going to Vietnam when he joined the Army in 1953 to escape his job at a golf-club factory in Tullahoma. He was approached by “two men with badges” while in cryptology school at Fort Gordon, Ga. They told Dean they were recruiting volunteers to go to Indochina. Dean declined; he had recently become engaged. But the men insisted.
“I just accepted the fact there was nothing I could do about it,” he says.
Dean went to Washington for a two-week briefing. He purchased two alligator-skin Samsonite suitcases, filled them with civilian clothes and headed out.
When he arrived in Vietnam in August 1954, Dean was sure he was in the wrong place.
“It was hot, I was sweating and it smelled terrible,” he recalls — a common recollection among MAAG veterans who arrived in Saigon to find its open sewers, rotting garbage dumps and overpowering smog. He worked rotating shifts — days, swings and then midnights — encoding and decoding messages from around the world.
He lived in a hotel on the Rue Galliéni, and woke up one night in April 1955 to tracers zinging down the street as forces loyal to President Ngo Dinh Diem battled a powerful sect led by a man named Ba Cut.
Dean and a fellow American watched what became known as the Battle of Saigon unfold in the streets below their hotel over the next three days. It seemed harmless until the bullets came their direction.
“We’re standing up there watching guys throw white phosphorus mortars and somebody cut down on us,” he says. “Talk about getting inside quick.”
Even so, Dean photographed the battle and came home with a set of black-and-white images nearly identical to some of the photos that appeared in Life magazine that spring.
“It never crossed my mind I might get hurt,” he says. “When you are young and full of piss and vinegar, it doesn’t bother you as much as it does later on.”
Many soldiers regarded overseas duty as an adventure. McCaughey deployed to train South Vietnamese soldiers in early 1960 after persuading the Army to give him the opportunity to see another part of the world. “My expertise was fields of fire,” he says, born of shooting skills he honed on woodchucks while growing up on a farm in Connecticut.
Like McCaughey, Lonnie Frampton campaigned for an overseas assignment. He wanted to escape the routine of KP, guard duty and other chores that marked his days stateside. He was sent to Saigon with an ASA radio installation team in 1961. He returned for a second deployment in 1967 with an aviation company that hunted enemy positions with radio direction finders. Frampton loved both tours, but is reluctant to share much about his time in Vietnam.
“I’m still in a quandary about what I can and can’t say,” he says. “The ASA wasn’t supposed to be there, of course. And because of the security clearances, we couldn’t travel to Cuba or other restricted countries for 10 years after we got out.”
Looking back as the 40th anniversary of the fall of Saigon approaches, Frampton has mixed feelings about how the Vietnam War ended. “From what I read, we didn’t lose a battle. We just lost the country because we pulled out,” he says. “It’s almost like we wasted all that material and sacrifice and lives for what? But if it was under the same circumstances, I’d go again.”
That sense of loyalty and no regret persists among veterans of MAAG, the ASA and other groups that served without recognition in Vietnam.
“I think it grew me up and made me accept people,” says Dean, who was a schoolteacher and principal for more than four decades after leaving the Army. “I think I’m a better person for being involved.”
Editor’s Note: This story was originally written by KEN OLSON and published in The American Legion Magazine and is reprinted by permission of The American Legion Magazine. It first appeared online on April 1. It has been edited only for length. To read it in its entirety, go online to <www.legion.org/magazine>.