Initial United States interest in Vietnam dates back to the Second World War when the US supported Allied efforts to expel the Japanese occupiers.
At the end of World War II, the French regained control of their Indochinese colonies, today known as Vietnam; however, the restoration of French control was anything but peaceful. Almost simultaneous with the signing of the peace treaty with the Japanese, Ho Chi Minh established the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV). Throughout the late 1940s and early 1950s the French struggled to regain control of their former colony, but the decisive French defeat at Dien Bien Phu on May 7, 1954, marked the end of the French presence in Indochina. Peace accords were signed at Geneva on July 21 of that year, which among other things, partitioned Vietnam at the 17th Parallel. The Geneva Accords also imposed a cease-fire and mandated both the withdrawal of French forces from the North and the Viet Minh from the South. Free elections were to be held in 1956 with the goal of reuniting Vietnam under one government. These elections never happened because Ngo Dinh Diem, head of the South Vietnamese government, refused to sign the Accords, and used this failure as an excuse to cancel the elections in the South.
The US began direct military assistance to Vietnam on January 1, 1955, augmenting the economic assistance provided since 1951. The Vietnamese political situation remained in turmoil throughout the latter 1950s and into the early 1960s, and the US gradually increased its military role.
From the SIGINT perspective, NSA had been analyzing the Vietnam problem since the late 1940s. Agency legend has it that a Navy officer first translated Vietnamese traffic in 1949, during the days of the Armed Forces Security Agency, the predecessor to NSA. Early work was hampered by lack of basic things like dictionaries. Intercepts often had to be translated into French and then from French to English. Differences in the Vietnamese and English alphabets further complicated translation, since additional Morse character combinations were necessary to accommodate Vietnamese diacritical marks.
Gradually, throughout the 1950s the Viet Minh transitioned from a guerrilla organization into a regular, standardized military, and this change was reflected in COMINT. In addition to reflections of rank and proper military terminology, cryptographic systems began to appear, with training provided by the Chinese. In early 1959 the Peoples’ Army of Vietnam (PAVN) 559th Transportation Group was organized as subordinate to the General Directorate of Rear Services (GDRS) in Hanoi; with the purpose of increasing infiltration operations along the western border of Vietnam via the route known popularly as the Ho Chi Minh Trail. GDRS communications became an important source of information regarding infiltrating supplies and forces into the south.
1952 – VQ-1 Started Flying Gulf of Tonkin
VQ-1 had been flying missions over the Gulf of Tonkin since 1952. These early missions were flown in support of the French using VQ-1’s P4M-1Q aircraft, but no spooks were carried on these missions. Spooks did fly on some P4M-1Q missions during the Korean War, and at least one Spook earned an Air Medal during that conflict.
Regular missions targeted against Vietnam started in the early 1960s after the arrival of the EC-121M aircraft. Those early missions were staged from various airfields outside Vietnam. Ron Schneider, an R-brancher stationed at Kamiseya, recalled a temporary assignment (TAD) to Shu Lin Kou AB (Taipei, Taiwan) in 1961. The mission, flown in PR-24, launched 4 January 1961 to fly over the Gulf of Tonkin. In addition to Schneider, the spook crew included CTIC James E. Gerrity, a Chinese linguist (Chiling) as supervisor, and two other Chilings (CTI2 James Plum and one other linguist). The mission proceeded toward the Gulf of Tonkin, but aborted and dove for the deck when Plum detected MiGs launching from Canton, and additionally, one of the electronic warfare operators (EWOP) detected a lock-on. As the plane dove, the top radome was torn off; however, the plane safely recovered at Taipei. Missions resumed January 7, using PR-22, flown in from Atsugi.
Throughout the early 1960s occasional flights continued to be flown in the Gulf of Tonkin. These were staged out of Don Muang International airport in Bangkok, Naval Air Station Cubi Point in the Philippines, and Taiwan.
In early 1964, VQ-1 received tasking to begin developing the electronic order of battle (EOB) for North Vietnam and to look for evidence of MiGs and SA-2 missile sites, neither of which was known to be in North Vietnam previously. To accomplish this, CDR Al Holt, Commanding Officer (CO) of VQ-1, selected a crew especially for these missions. This became known as Crew 21, with LCDR Norm Bull as aircraft commander. In July 1964 the crew deployed from Atsugi to Don Muang International Airport Bangkok, Thailand to fly a series of missions in the Gulf of Tonkin using an EC-121M aircraft.
1964 – First VQ-1 Aircraft Arrived in Da Nang
The first VQ-1 plane to land in Da Nang arrived July 17, 1964 after a 9.1 hour mission enroute from Don Muang. The next day the plane took off from Da Nang but lost an engine shortly after takeoff and had to return to Da Nang. The plane returned to Bangkok on the 20th and flew a 9.1 hour Bangkok to Bangkok on the 21st, also over the GOT. The following day the crew flew 8.9 hours Bangkok to Da Nang (over the GOT), and returned to NAS Cubi on July 23, 1964. These July flights were flown to look for evidence of MiGs and SA-2 missile sites.
At this time there wasn’t much military presence in Da Nang, and so both officer and enlisted crew were billeted together off base in an old French Batchelor Officers’ Quarters (BOQ) located one block over from the Sergeant’s Club in downtown Da Nang. The BOQ was in a walled compound and painted white, earning it the nickname of the “White Elephant.” Although the war hadn’t started in earnest, there was a bit of internal unrest within South Vietnam, which required the crew to maintain some sort of security watch. The missions were somewhat shorter, and two missions per day were not uncommon. When not flying, Doug Stenzel recalls drinking a lot of beer, playing poker, and TAP (a VQ version of blackjack).
Similar to the VQ crew, the Spook crew was probably hand-selected as well. Larry Brosh, the Airborne Electronic Supervisor (AES) on Crew 21, remembered GySgt Frank S. Sutherland, Jr. USMC as an “I brancher” who flew all the missions, and CTC Thatcher, who normally sat Position 7 on the Willy. At least one additional CTI2 flew with the crew as well. The NSG officer and linguists came from Naval Communications Station Philippines (San Miguel). Other CT crew included CTR2 Doug Stenzel from NSGA Kamiseya) and CTT2 Marvin ‘Mac’ Metheny (also from Kamiseya), who was assigned to search for non-Morse signals.
Although the accommodations were rather nice (compared with what was to come), some kinks had yet to be worked out with the equipment on the plane. The CTR position consisted of an R-390A receiver secured to a piece of plywood, which was in turn clamped to a table. Unfortunately since the installation was not grounded, the operator needed to wear some sort of gloves while operating the receiver to avoid being electrically shocked.
1962 – EA-3B (Skywarrior) Started Carrier Ops
Aerial reconnaissance by VQ-1 was not limited to the EC-121M. Preparations for carrier operations had begun in late 1962, using the EA-3B Skywarrior, a converted light bomber. The first actual deployment was on board the USS Kitty Hawk (CV-63) in May 1964.
DESOTO Mission and Gulf of Tonkin Resolution
Intelligence collection against North Vietnam also included ship-borne patrols, under the cover name DESOTO, which conducted freedom of navigation and intelligence collection along the coast of China and in the Gulf of Tonkin starting in the early 1960s. Many of these units had embarked CDSEs. Although the CDSEs received advisory and technical support from NSA, they remained under control of the Navy. USS Maddox was on a DESOTO patrol with a CDSE when attacked on August 2, 1964. This attack, and another possible attack two days later, became known as the Gulf of Tonkin incident which culminated in propelling the United States into its undeclared war with North Vietnam.
As a result of the North Vietnamese attacks on the DESOTO patrol, the US retaliated with an air strike against North Vietnamese naval targets. VQ-1 provided support for this strike with an EA-3B from the USS Oriskany (CVA-34), but apparently without spooks. During this strike, two US aircraft were lost to North Vietnamese AAA. No MiG reaction to these strikes was noted. On August 9, MiG 17s were detected flying from Hanoi in a defensive patrol. Things in and about North Vietnam remained relatively quiet for the remainder of 1964.
The August 2, 1964, attack on the USS Maddox in the Gulf of Tonkin marked the start of the active war in Vietnam. Prior to that time, the US presence had been largely advisory, and in some cases, military personnel assigned to Vietnam were accompanied by dependents. To this day the Gulf of Tonkin Incident is shrouded in controversy, but without a doubt it marked a fundamental change in the nature of the US presence in Vietnam.
1964 – Naval Communications Station Philippines (NCSP)
For the US Navy’s cryptologic community, this meant the establishment of a permanent collection site in Vietnam itself. This unit, administratively designated Naval Communications Station Philippines (NCSP) Detachment Alfa, was established August 15, 1964 at Phu Bai near Hue, Vietnam. Later on NCSP would establish other detachments in Vietnam, two in Da Nang (Bravo and Delta), and one short-lived detachment (Charlie) in Saigon.
Even before the establishment of NCSP Det Bravo, NSG personnel were flying with VQ-1 during missions targeted against North Vietnam. Initially these missions were more strategic in nature, aimed at collecting EOB information together with any supporting communications signatures. Once the air war started in early 1965, the mission fundamentally became one of direct support to the air strikes. Simply put, using the information detected onboard, VQ-1 aircraft (radio callsign DEEPSEA) broadcasted warnings of enemy air and SAM hostile intent to Navy and Air Force strikes over North Vietnam. We successfully did this until the end of the war. Though largely unheralded at the time, many of us have received a quiet “thank you” years afterward from a pilot who was warned in time by DEEPSEA.
By LCDR Robert E. Morrison, USN (ret.)