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A Present for Miss Tu

by John O’Meara

We sat at the dining room table, across from each other. It was December 16, 1967, my last day in Saigon and we were having our last little chat. Miss Tu was our Vietnamese maid, 17 or 18 years old. She, along with her mother, came to our three-bedroom villa in downtown Saigon every day to clean the house and wash the clothes for the six Air Force officers who lived there.

But not any more. The Air Force had decided that living in Saigon was too dangerous for officers and had begun building living quarters for them at the Tan Son Nhut Air Base, the large American base on the north edge of Saigon. The enlisted men had always lived on the base and, for the last four months or so, all Air Force officers arriving at Tan Son Nhut had been assigned to on-base housing. The officers living in the city simply served out their one-year tour there and went home. I was one of the last officers to live in the city. All of my housemates had gone home in October and November.

I was one of the last because towards the end of the next month, the Viet Cong led Tet Offensive hit Saigon; the American Embassy was attacked and parts of the city were under Viet Cong control. I remember standing in front of my TV in Denver watching television footage of a WWII vintage American fighter/bomber (A1E SkyRaider) dropping bombs on a target in Cholon, the Chinese sector in Saigon where I had gone every week to buy groceries for the villa. When the fighting erupted in Saigon, all remaining officers living in the city went to the Base and stayed their – sleeping in the Chapel or mess halls or wherever until permanent quarters were available.

Our villa was at the end of an alley off Tru Minh Ky, a main thoroughfare that led to the center of Saigon alongside the Saigon River. We were about a mile into the city from the base. The six of us were evenly divided – three intelligence officers and three supply officers. My joke was that the intelligence officers supplied the sophisticated conversation and the supply officers supplied everything else. They were the ones that replaced the large drinking water container every week and brought us things like light bulbs and mosquito spray. Every couple of months one of them would bring home a case of steaks or chicken pieces. They knew an alcoholic sergeant who worked in shipping and receiving. When there was an opportunity for a case of steaks or chicken, we would get out our ration cards and someone would be chosen to go to the army liquor store and buy two bottles of Jim Beam. The downside was that when we got one of these cases, that was all we ate for two weeks because the freezer section of our refrigerator could only hold so much.

We lived a kind of strange existence in this city, a life of comfort and danger. It was a city of superb Chinese and French restaurants, some on rooftops. It was a beautiful city, much of it built in the French style, with wonderful open-air markets and shops of every kind. It was a city and a culture that got into your blood and stayed there. It was also, for Americans, the most dangerous city on the face of the earth. A lot of the danger came, not from VC in and about the city, but from Vietnamese criminals who would silently break into a house in the middle of the night and were very dangerous if confronted. All of our windows had bars and each night our bicycles and little Hondas would be brought into the house and the doors would be secured with chains and padlocks. Sometimes at night, before we fell asleep, we would hear small arms fire coming from a nearby street.

Only one of us, Rollie Sterrett, who was General Westmoreland’s Air Force intelligence briefer, had a firearm at the villa. The Air Force didn’t like the idea of officers in the city being armed with pistols or rifles, probably thought there would be incidents where they would shoot each other or some innocent Vietnamese.

Nevertheless, Rollie asked his wife to send him a pistol along with some ammunition. It was strictly forbidden, so he told her to package it in a way that wouldn’t draw attention. So she baked a cake and stuffed it with some bullets and sent it off. After receiving this, the next week Rollie had a note in his mailbox that he had a package to be picked up at the counter. There, an airman handled him a small package, stamped with “Fire Arm” and “Smith and Wesson” all over the outside. Well, even if she only got it half right, he got the pistol and we all felt a little bit safer.

I worked at a photo interpretation squadron at the Base. All of the photo reconnaissance film taken by our aircraft over North Vietnam and Laos came from recon planes stationed at Thai air bases. The film was immediately flown to us in Saigon for processing. The photo interpreters, sitting at light tables would crank through the film until they came to the places of interest, a recently bombed bridge or railroad yard. Then they would write up what the saw. They had been trained at the intelligence school in Denver to recognize almost anything from a high altitude photo.

I was an air intelligence officer, not a photo interpreter even though photo interpretation was part of my seven-month training program. I was successful in staying away from photo interpretation. It was tedious work where you looked at the photos, identified small details, made measurements, and made conclusions. You went from the particular to the general. My mind naturally worked the other way, from the general to the particular – a deductive mind. I was in air intelligence. What we did was take the photo interpretation reports and tried to make sense of them in a larger context.

My specialty was the North Vietnamese railroad system that was in the Air Force’s area of control in North Vietnam. I was the first to have this job because the bombing of targets in North Vietnam began at about the same time that I arrived at Tan Son Nhut at the end of 1966.

If you look at a map of North Vietnam you will see two railroad lines coming from China that join to make a V at Hanoi. The one on the right was called the northeast railroad line and the one on the left was called the northwest line. The northwest line didn’t have as much train traffic as the northeast and we had few worthwhile targets on it because there were few railroad yards and the bridges were so short. The probability of dropping a span on a railroad bridge increases in direct proportion to its length. The Navy had target control over the railroad that ran west to east from Hanoi to the port of Haiphong and the railroad that went south from Hanoi. The railroad to the south had largely been obliterated by artillery from U.S. battle ships.

When I began this job, I put a large map on the wall in the office where I worked, showing the upper half of North Vietnam with the two railroads under Air Force jurisdiction. I wrote the target number next to each railroad yard, bridge and siding. Anytime we received a photo showing that we had been successful in dropping a span on a bridge, I would put a piece of colored tape across the rail line at that point. We always waited for the photos, because the after-mission pilot reports always said that the bridge or part of it had been destroyed. Part of this was due to the compulsive optimism of the pilots who always believed that their dangerous mission had been a success, but another reason was that when they pulled out of their bomb run, their look at the target showed huge showers of dirt and debris that blocked out the target. Reasonably, they concluded that the bridge had been hit, but often the photos would show bomb craters 50 yards or so from the target and the bridge intact. So, I never used pilot reports.

I also put together two large notebooks, one for each railroad. In the notebooks I put a divider for every target with its number. An airman who worked for me went through all of the photo interpretation reports each day and when there was an after-mission photo report of a target he would copy it and put it behind the corresponding divider. That way we would have a running history of every railroad target.

Not long after setting up these notebooks, I was reading the photo report of a recently bombed railroad yard on the northwest line. It read something like this: “48 rolling stock – 16 destroyed, 20 damaged, 12 not damaged.” Then I turned the page to the next report, a couple of weeks before. It read: 48 rolling stock – 15 destroyed, 18 damaged, and 15 not damaged.”

If the damaged/destroyed rolling stock, i.e. railroad cars and engines, in the two photos were not the same, then there was no problem. But I suspected that some or many of these cars hadn’t changed position from the first strike to the second. If this was true, then we were reporting some of the damaged/destroyed cars twice – which meant double reporting. The difference in the numbers of damaged and destroyed rolling stock could be the result of additional damage inflicted by the second strike. Also, some of the differences could be attributed to different conclusions reached by the photo interpreters. In a photo taken from 10,000 feet, there isn’t a great deal of difference between a damaged and destroyed railroad car, or between a damaged and undamaged railroad car. If there was a difference in the total, it might be because a couple of cars had been obliterated, or maybe some had been moved in or out.

I went to a friend, a lieutenant, who was a photo interpreter and asked him to review the two photos of this target. He triangulated the cars in each photo and it was clear that none of the cars had moved since the first attack. So we had been double reporting the status of rolling stock at this target, and had probably been doing the same thing for other railroad yard targets.

But there was another problem. This may have been a false target in the sense that all of these cars may have been inoperable for one reason or another and placed at this particular railroad yard to invite an attack. The reason to bomb a railroad yard was to destroy rolling stock, not to interdict the rail line. A railroad yard by definition is the worst place to try for an interdiction because there are multiple rail lines in every railroad yard and you would never hit them all. Also, a railroad yard was the most convenient place for the North Vietnamese to make repairs because of the ready availability of labor and supplies.

The North Vietnamese knew we were going to strike targets in North Vietnam so it was in their interest that we strike targets that weren’t particularly good, and targets that were well covered by surface to air missiles and anti-aircraft artillery. I was also coming to the conclusion that railroad yards on these two lines weren’t very important. The northeast line was less than 100 miles long and the northwest line was less than a 150 and I had the idea that they were running the trains straight through from China to Hanoi. Why leave rolling stock out on these yards when there were safe havens for them in China and Hanoi. The Air Force was prohibited from dropping bombs inside a twenty-mile circle of Hanoi and there was a similar off-limits area along the Chinese border with North Vietnam.

So I took the two photos that my friend had triangulated over to the targets section at 7th Air Force Headquarters, which was next door to the Reconnaissance Squadron where I worked. I showed them to a major who kept them and passed them on. A couple of days later a new photo interpretation reporting requirement was given to our photo interpreters: All photos of railroad yards had to be compared with the most recent prior photograph and the totals for destroyed, damaged, undamaged rolling stock properly distinguished.

So that’s what I did, read the photo interpretation reports and kept track of target results. Sometimes I would be asked to go over to the Headquarters and give a briefing on a particular target strike to the Director of Targets, Colonel Tighe, or the Director of Intelligence for 7th Air Force, General Philpott. A couple of times I gave a briefing to General Momyer, who was the Commander of 7th Air Force. One of these occasions I remember particularly well.

One day, out of the blue, I was handed a can of film and told that it was from the Navy and it covered one of our rail lines. Taped to the can was some paper with the words “Drone Photography – Operation Bumble Bee”. I knew what a drone was – a very small plane that flew without a pilot but I didn’t know that the U.S. had an operational drone capable of taking photos over enemy territory and being recovered.

I took the can of film into the large photo interpretation room next door to my office area and placed it at one end of a light table and cranked the film across the lighted surface. I was amazed. The film began with the drone’s photos of the main railroad yard in downtown Hanoi and then it flew out of Hanoi and up the northeast rail line almost to China where it veered to the right and went out to sea. It was astonishing because the altitude of the drone was no more than 500 or 600 feet and it flew that rail line exactly.

All of the photography that I had seen to that point was take by F4s at 5,000 to 10,000 feet. And our photo reconnaissance planes never flew up or down any rail line, even for a few miles. That would have been far too dangerous because the targets along the rail lines were covered with surface to air missile sites and anti-aircraft artillery sites. When an F4 pilot was assigned a mission to take post-strike photos of a rail target, he always photographed the target by flying across the line.

But here, for the first time, were photographs of the entire northeast line and taken at the incredibly low altitude of 500 or 600 feet. It was also very discouraging photography. We had always assumed that the North Vietnamese ran their trains from China to Hanoi at night, daylight being too dangerous. But here were photos taken in the middle of the day of not one but two trains heading south to Hanoi about 20 miles apart. Most of the railroad cars were covered, but some were exposed showing coal and what looked like telephone poles, probably used to repair railroad and highway bridges.

This film was taken in the infancy of drone development and it was almost certainly a testimony to the unreliability of drones at that time rather than to their reliability. The Navy would never program a drone reconnaissance over an Air Force target area. What probably happened was that the drone had taken off on some other course than the one that was set and through some freakish circumstances flew the northeast line from start to finish.

I marked the best photos and sent them to the photo lab to be enlarged 4 times. Then I mounted a map showing the northeast line on a sheet of wallboard and drew a square with a number correlating each of these wonderful photos to the map. The next day I took the photos and map to Colonel Tighe and as soon as I finished the briefing he took me to General Philpott where I did it again. General Philpott told me to be at General Momyer ‘s senior officer conference at 5 pm where I would give the same briefing.

I enjoyed this briefing. Its always fun to give a briefing to people who are really interested in what you have to say. I got a lot of questions and there was a lot of discussion. I remember how surprised I was when I walked into that conference room to see wall-to-wall carpet. I hadn’t seen a carpet of any kind for months. I also remember some questions coming from the brand new Deputy Commander of 7th Air Force, a general whose name I can’t remember. The next week he went to Danang Air Base, up near the Demilitarized Zone, to fly a few combat missions in an F4. I guess he wanted to get a little hands-on experience, to see what bombing missions in the southern part of North Vietnam were really like. A few days later, we learned that he was dead, shot down by a surface to air missile.

After I had been in Vietnam for eight months we learned that there was going to be a big Air Force/Navy conference in Hawaii, at Camp Smith, a Marine camp above Pearl Harbor. The conference was about interdicting North Vietnamese supply lines in North Vietnam and Laos. It would last for three days and there would be officers from the Pacific headquarters in Hawaii and the Pentagon, as well as Navy and Air Force officers from Vietnam. I, along with everyone I knew, expected that some useless majors or lieutenant colonels would be sent to represent 7th Air Force. Instead, I, a 1st lieutenant, was chosen along with Captain Jack Houlgate (a housemate), who specialized in North Vietnamese roads and the Ho Chi Minh trail in Laos, and a major who worked on target selection at 7th Air Force Headquarters. We owed our selection to General Philpott who apparently decided to send the most knowledgeable interdiction officers to the conference.

There were about 30 or 40 officers at the conference. We sat in a large amphitheater type room, the kind that was similar to college classrooms. I don’t remember much about the conference except that there were a lot of briefings and that those of us from Saigon didn’t have much to learn from the people from Hawaii and D.C. I do remember parts of two briefings because they were so ridiculous, given by two Air Force officers from the Pentagon. The first was given by a major who described some sort of strategy for interdicting the Ho Chi Minh Trail in Laos. He was talking about the Mu Gia Pass which comes through the mountains of western North Vietnam into Laos, not far from Dien Bien Phu, the site of the great French defeat in 1953.

He was proposing some kind of massive bombing attack on the Mu Gia Pass with B-52s. The idea was that this attack would collapse the walls of the Pass and block truck traffic to the south. Jack Houlgate, our roads expert, got the floor in the middle of this briefing and told this dope that the Mu Gia Pass was not like a pass in the Rocky Mountains, it was a wide pass, very wide, in some places a mile to three miles in width. Dropping bombs to close any part of this pass would be a completely hopeless project.

On the last day, there was another briefing from an Air Force officer from the Pentagon. This guy, a lt. colonel, was from the Air Staff, an organization high in the Air Force chain of command. He had a bunch of slides that showed maps and aerial photos of Haiphong, the large North Vietnamese port on the China Sea. Haiphong had always been closed to U.S bombing. The harbor was full of ships from the Soviet Union and eastern European countries.

This officer was proposing a bombing strategy that would avoid the harbor but would interdict the roads, the rail line, and canals in and around the city and harbor. It was called “operation doughnut”. For shear goofiness it was the worst interdiction idea I had ever heard. Recall what I said about bombing railroad yards. There may be reasons to do this, but interdicting the rail line was not one of them because there were so many rail lines at that point and you would never hit them all and there was plenty of readily available skilled labor and supplies to make repairs.

Well, you can imagine the lines of communication (military lingo for roads, rail lines, and waterways) around the port and city of Haiphong. It would be an absolute impossibility to stop traffic on all of these routes. Interdict one and they move their stuff on another, interdict that and they move over to another route, interdict that and they go back to the first route, which has been repaired in a number of hours because of the abundance of labor and supplies in this large metropolitan area. If you want to interdict traffic go out in the country and bomb a road or rail line. It may not last long but, at least for a short time, that route is closed. When the Lt. Colonel finished and asked for questions, those of us from 7th Air Force had our hands in the air.

The major from target operations, a pilot, was recognized and he really did a number on this crazy idea. He attacked it not just from the futility of accomplishing any kind of interdiction, but also from the standpoint that the losses of planes and pilots would be horrific. Haiphong had many, many surface to air missiles and anti-aircraft artillery sites. To have planes flying over that area for hours and hours and day after day to attempt to interdict all of these routes would be suicidal. The losses of Air Force and Navy planes would be horrendous. For whatever reasons, I never heard anything more about “operation doughnut”.

So the interdiction conference was something of a bust. But the trip to Hawaii was fantastic. When we arrived in Hawaii in the early evening, Jack met his wife at the air base and went to a hotel downtown. I checked into the visiting officer quarters at Hickham Air Force Base. The next morning at the conference, a marine sergeant told us that we were all cleared to live off base and receive per diem ($16 a day). During the lunch break that day, Jack and I went to base operations at the airfield to book our trip back to Saigon. We were told that the first flight they could get us on was eight days after the conference was over. That meant eleven days in Hawaii at Government expense, living downtown near the beach. So we promptly contacted our squadron in Saigon and gave them the bad news about the delay.

We felt a little guilty about all the free time after the conference was over, so we decided that each day one of us would go out to Pacific Air Command Headquarters and spend some time visiting with our counterparts, junior officers who did much the same kind of work we did, but at a higher level. So every other day I would go out there for a couple of hours.

It was interesting the first time I approached the Headquarters building. It was a masonry building and there were holes in the masonry on the front facade, places where big chunks of the surface were missing. I stopped and stared, wondering what had happened and why repairs had not been made. Then it occurred to me: these holes were the result of strafing bullets from Japanese planes on December 7, 1941. They had never been repaired, left in this state as a daily reminder of that surprise attack, a lesson to be absorbed by everyone who entered the building.

I don’t remember much about what I talked about with the officers I met at this headquarters, except I do remember standing in an office talking to a captain who was also involved with North Vietnamese railroads. We were looking at a map of North Vietnam and there was a piece of red tape across the northeast line at a place where we had dropped a span on a bridge. He was talking about how we had “cut” the line and about how many days in the past year that line had been “cut”.

This particular bridge had been bombed a week before I left Saigon and now, in his calculation, it had been out of commission for about two weeks. The problem was there had been no photography of this bridge since the post strike photo mission, which was a day or two after the strike. I told the captain that at 7th Air Force we assumed that a bridge was repaired and operational a week after the strike. Their assumption was much more generous, albeit misleading, that the bridge was down until there was photography showing that it had been repaired.

It became clear to me after talking to this officer that he and others at this headquarters had a different view about railroad interdiction than I did. It was not just that he had a different idea about how long bridges were out of commission, but he looked at interdiction in a different way then I did. He had a static view concerning the flow of supplies southward. When a span on a rail bridge was dropped, that was it for supplies coming down those tracks and the total amount of supplies coming south was diminished accordingly. My view was different. I had a more dynamic view of the movement of enemy supplies.

Imagine a map of North Vietnam glued to a sheet of ¾ inch plywood. With some kind of tool all of the roads, rail lines, and waterways are scraped down ¼ inch, grooved so to speak. Now lift the board off the table so that it is slanting downward at about a 45-degree angle. Take a pot of honey and at the top of the map pour some honey on to the two rail lines coming out of China. What happens, of course, is that the honey will follow these two grooved lines to Hanoi. But what if there is a bridge that has been put out of commission? Well then take a sliver of wood and put it across the bridge at that point. Now the honey will run into this sliver and spill over to each side and continue south.

Well, this is sort of what happens when a railroad bridge is put out of commission, but the supplies on the train are dealt with in a more intelligent fashion than the honey, which blindly flows around the fallen bridge. The North Vietnamese when confronted with a bombed bridge had a number of options. First they could off-load what is on the train and ferry the stuff on barges across the river and re-load everything onto a train that had come up from the south. Or they could ferry the goods on the river to a road and load everything on to trucks to be taken to Hanoi. Or they could off-load everything on the north side of the river and then load trucks and send them east or west until they connected with a north/south road for the journey to Hanoi. The point is that this idea that a downed bridge means that all rail supplies are stopped until it is re-built is all wrong. The goods kept moving just like the honey, the delivered totals were about the same, although there was some delay.

The U.S. bombing missions on lines of communication in North Vietnam and Laos did a lot of damage, but if you looked at photographs taken over time you were always impressed with the terrific resources the North Vietnamese put into not just repair, but also into constant construction of alternate supply lines. You saw it with truck parks on the Ho Chi Minh Trail. We would obliterate a truck park and two weeks later it had been repaired and there were two new truck parks a short distance away. Towards the end of my tour, the North Vietnamese were building by-pass railroad bridges for every bridge that was long enough to be a worthwhile target for the Americans. A few hundred yards before a bridge, a spur would come off the main line and cross a brand new bridge up or down river from the regular bridge and then tie back into the main line. It was hard enough to drop a span on one bridge but to get two bridges down at the same time was practically impossible, given the hazards to pilots and planes.

The point of all this is that the U.S. bombing program over North Vietnam and Laos raised the cost for the enemy to get the supplies south. But they were willing to pay that cost however high it was. They paid it in terms of lives, labor, and resources. But the bombing campaign was not about the expenditures by the enemy in those terms. It was about interdiction of supplies from the north to the south. The supplies always got through; the bombing campaign was a failure.

So there I was, sitting across from Miss Tu at the dining room table on the morning of my last day in Saigon. I had come to the conclusion a few months before that the North Vietnamese would win the war, not because of the corruption in the South Vietnamese government or army or because of the political situation back home. I had seen enough from the aerial photography to know that this was an enemy that would pay any price. We, the Americans, were not willing to pay any price. We wouldn’t go into Cambodia, we wouldn’t go into Laos, we wouldn’t shut down Haiphong, and we wouldn’t bomb the good targets in Hanoi. We were being bled and bled and eventually we would leave. And when we did, it would just be a matter of time before the South Vietnamese collapsed.

These were conclusions I hadn’t welcomed. I believed in fighting communists. Communist governments were (are) the most evil institutions in the history of the world. If you added up all of the people that communist governments had murdered, the Soviet Union, China, North Korea, North Vietnam, Cuba, all of the eastern European countries, it would have to be in the hundreds of millions. And they always killed their own people.

But this was a war we would not win.

I had thought about this and what it would be like for my Vietnamese friends and Miss Tu and her mother when the communists took over. Then I had gotten the idea that I should tell Miss Tu what was going to happen. She was young and she would be making a lot of choices: where to work, where to live, whom to marry, whom to befriend, and many others. I had the idea that if she knew the future as far as the war was concerned, it might help her in making these choices. I decided that I would tell her; it would be sort of a gift, a gift of knowledge about something very important, a goodbye gift on my last day in Saigon.

As I told her what I thought would happened, she sat there holding the cat with a frown and a look of consternation. Periodically, she would interrupt with the words “I don’t understand”. But she did understand. Her English was quite good, one of the officers before my time had spent a lot of time teaching her English. What she was saying was “How can this be?” How can the Americans and South Vietnamese lose to the VC and North Vietnamese? To her it must have been inexplicable – the Americans were from such a big and powerful country, how could they lose?

I just kept saying that we would leave and the VC would win. I told her I didn’t know when, maybe in two or three years. I was wrong; it would be seven years before the North Vietnamese occupied Saigon.

I got up from the table and we went outside and chained the front door. Then we walked down the alley to the main thoroughfare, Tru Minh Ky. When we got there, I turned to her and said goodbye. She stood by the street holding the cat as I hailed a cyclo for the ride to the base and my early afternoon flight to San Francisco.

John O’Meara joined the Air Force in 1964 and completed Officer Training School that November. He arrived in Saigon in the middle of December 1966 and, after his one year tour, was assigned to the Armed Forces Air Intelligence Training Center as an instructor. After leaving the Air Force, John attended the University of Denver Law School. He practiced law for 28 years, mostly with the U.S. Treasury Department. He is now retired and lives with his wife on St Simons Island, Georgia.

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