In mid-April 1970, President Nguyen Van Thieu told his secretary and nephew, Hoang Duc Nha, to order the Director of the Vietnamese Central Intelligence Organization (CIO) to select an English-speaking intelligence officer to work with the International Press Association, which was trying to locate foreign journalists missing in Cambodia. I was selected for the job.
My first step was to visit the offices of Time/Life Magazine, which was located on the first floor of the Continental Hotel. There I met Mrs. Nga, the office manager for Time. Mrs. Nga was wearing an ao dai, the traditional Vietnamese dress. I was a little surprised because I thought that the office manager of a large media organization like Time would be more stylishly dressed. But she was very polite and efficient.
She summarized the situation for me as follows: A number of foreign journalists, including Americans, Frenchmen, Japanese, and Germans, had flown to Phnom Penh Airport and had then traveled by car to the Cambodia-Vietnam border.
Their goal was to report on the cross-border operation soon to be conducted by the South Vietnamese and American armies. For the first time in the Vietnam War, the Americans were set to invade Cambodia. Information about this operation was very “hot,” both in U.S. political circles and in the international community as a whole.
Some of the journalists had lost contact with their home offices. The International Press Association considered them to be missing in action. They had dispatched a special reporter to investigate their disappearance.
Mrs. Nga told me that Mr. Pham Xuan An, a Time/Life reporter, had the files on the missing journalists. I quickly met with Pham Xuan An. He was thin and a little taller than most Vietnamese. He spoke very confidently, and seemed like an easy man to get to know.
After a few minutes of friendly talk, he began to “tutoyer” me in an informal manner. It turned out that An had attended the College of Can Tho, south of Saigon, at the same time as my CIO commander. He was also a former student of my father who once taught at the Can Tho College.
An said, “I was the one who spoke to Hoang Duc Nha by telephone to request that the Office of the President send someone over to assist in the search for the missing journalists. This is a humanitarian mission that will make the Republic of Vietnam look good politically. Hoang Duc Nha approved my request immediately. Time magazine has long supported the position of the Government of Vietnam, unlike Newsweek, which constantly criticizes us.”
I asked to read the files on the journalists. An said, “Don’t worry. I have prepared you a set of files on each missing individual, including photographs, physical description, a brief biographic sketch, and the circumstances under which each man disappeared.”
He pulled a large brown envelope out of his desk drawer. “Take this file to your office and study it. Tomorrow, when we meet again, we will discuss our work plan, and I will answer all of your questions.”
[I had asked Marsh Clark, the Time Bureau Chief, to arrange a meeting with Hoang Duc Nha. Clark knew President Thieu quite well. An simply phoned Nha on Marsh's orders to set up the appointment. He did not go with us when we talked to Nha who in turn talked to President Thieu. Thieu agreed to send someone to work with me. An did not create the journalist file—I did, with the help of Louise Stone. But this is a good example of the way Pham Xuan An operated as a spy for the communists. He later confessed to one of his biographers that he had told so many lies as a spy that he no longer remembered what was true. ZG]
I then asked to meet the representative of the International Press Association. An walked me to the next office, but no one was there, so he took me down to the lobby of the Continental. He looked around in the bar where a few Europeans and Americans were drinking beer.
Suddenly An yelled, “Over there! Zalin is sitting by himself at a table in the corner.”
An waved to Zalin and told him loudly in English that the person he wanted to see was here, pointing at me as he spoke. Zalin, an American of average height, stood up and motioned for us to join him. After An introduced us, he invited us to have a “Beer 33” with him.
I began by asking Zalin about his past activities and present assignment. I learned that he (his full name was Zalin B. Grant) had formerly been an advisor to the ARVN Military Security Service in Saigon.
[As a first lieutenant, I was then promoted to chief of U.S. Army Intelligence in Danang and Hue with a staff of eight.—ZG]
When his tour ended, he had returned to the U.S. and had gone to work as a correspondent for Time/Life. The International Press Association had selected Zalin to travel to Vietnam and Cambodia to look for the missing journalists.
Zalin mentioned two American journalists. One of them was Sean Flynn, the son of the famous movie actor Errol Flynn. Sean Flynn had disappeared in Cambodia near the Vietnam-Cambodia border while working as a photographer for Time magazine. The second was Dana Stone, who worked for CBS television and had disappeared with Flynn.
The other missing journalists were French, Japanese, and German. Zalin asked me to read the files An had given me. After a round of beers we made an appointment to meet again the next morning at the Time office to discuss our search plan.
I returned to the CIO, met with the Director of Personnel, and received a Special Mission Order. Then I took the files to a “safe house” to study. Each missing journalist had a 4x6 inch ID photograph pasted on a white sheet of paper on which were typed in Vietnamese his biographic particulars (name, nationality, date of birth), physical description (height, weight, hair and eye color), press card number, and contact address of a relative or loved one.
I still have this file, along with several photographs I took during our trips in Vietnam and Cambodia, with dates, times, and circumstances of each photograph noted on the back. I even have a copy of Zalin’s report, dated 27 April 1970, sent to Colonel Joseph F. H. Cutrona, Chief of the Information Office of MACV.
The missing journalists were: American: Sean Flynn, photographer for Time magazine, and Dana Stone, cameraman for CBS Television; French: Claude Arpin, photographer for Newsweek Magazine, and Gilles Caron, photographer for the Gamma Agency, Paris; Japanese: Akira Kasuka, photographer for Fuji Television, and Fujiro Takagi, also an employee of Fuji Television; German: Dieter Bellindorf, reporter for NBC Television.
PLANNNG THE OPERATION
The next day, An, Zalin, and I met at An’s office. We agreed to the following method of conducting our work: First, we would go to Tay Ninh Province Headquarters to learn about the military situation. The journalists had been captured not far from the border in Cambodia.
We were to send our reports to the U.S. Military Headquarter (MACV) and to the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN), with a request that they search areas in Cambodia where we suspected communist forces might be holding the journalists.
The broad nature of my Special Mission Order from CIO gave me hope that we would be able to locate the journalists. I had already found my own humanitarian course in this terrible War. I had conducted my work as an intelligence officer in a way that I might help avoid further bloodshed of ARVN troops and innocent civilians, while damaging the material resources and combat capabilities of the VC.
Rescuing international journalists missing in Cambodia was exactly my kind of mission. This was a task I believed I was capable of performing.
On 18 March 1970, General Lon Nol successfully carried out a U.S-backed coup in Phnom Penh, while the Cambodian Chief of State, Norodom Sihanouk, was visiting Moscow and Beijing. The collapse of the Sihanouk government was a signal to the VC that a new pro-Western government would permit American and Vietnamese forces to conduct cross-border operations to destroy the communist bases that used Cambodia as a sanctuary.
The VC hurriedly moved their weapons and food caches deep into Cambodian territory. The communist headquarters, called COSVN, was moved north and established in Kratie Province on the Mekong River. The captured journalists were also moved toward Kratie City, which remained in communist hands for the rest of the war.
In late April 1970, Pham Xuan An, Zalin, and I, hired an American Plymouth and drove from Saigon to Tay Ninh. Zalin and I hurried to visit the Surrender Centers for interviews with recently captured VC.
Pham Xuan An came along passively and acted like an observer. He never asked a single question to a VC rallier. When we gradually shifted our search to outposts along the border, he remained in Tay Ninh rather than accompanying us. Finally, when we started crossing the border, An stayed in Saigon, leaving Zalin and I with the task of looking for the journalists.
I thought a great deal about An at the time and pondered on what caused his attitude. I did not come up with a satisfactory explanation. It was not until after the communists took over South Vietnam in April 1975 that An’s mask as an honest journalist dropped. And I finally understood his real motivation for avoiding contact with VC ralliers and refusing to cross the border with us.
Zalin and I hired a driver named “Ut” for our trips. He was tall and rather thin. His friends called him “Tall Ut.” Ut and Zalin agreed on a price of 8,000 South Vietnamese piasters per day. If the car crossed the Cambodia-Vietnam border, the price increased to 15,000 piasters.
The International Press Association paid all expenses. I asked Ut why he had set such a tremendous disparity in the price for crossing the border, almost double the regular price. Ut answered straightforwardly that it was very dangerous to enter Cambodia. Our car might be hit by gunfire or run over a mine, to say nothing of the risk that the Khmer Rouge or the VC would stop us, burn the vehicle, and kidnap or murder us.
He said he was someone who “was willing to go all out,” and that’s the reason, he said, why he dared to travel with us. I found Ut’s explanation quite logical. But while I was talking to him I was thinking that, with just two days of work crossing the border, he could make more money than my entire monthly salary as a high school teacher, which was my job before I joined Intelligence.
Considering the danger I faced, I was a little angry at Ut’s demand for so much money. However, I had a mission. I was used to the sound of gunfire, and even if I was killed my death could help prove that the Republic of Vietnam was following humanitarian policies, respecting international traditions and obligations, and that our cause was just.
The U.S. contracting firm RMK had widened and modernized Route 22 from Saigon to Tay Ninh, turning it into a large highway, comparable to Route 15 from Saigon to Vung Tau. Prior to 1970, Route 22 was only secure during the day, while at night the road past Cu Chi to Tay Ninh was dangerously insecure.
We drove many times from Saigon to Tay Ninh in the morning and returned before nightfall. The Surrender Centers were overflowing with VC ralliers. The families of the VC guerrillas had persuaded them to give up before they got killed in the invasion.
On 27 April 1970, we crossed the border for the first time. And on the first day, I had a surprising incident. Our car was moving slowly through the open-air market when a man suddenly began to pound on the rear window.
He shouted, “Brother Tu! Brother Tu!”
This was a name I used with VC ralliers at our CIO safe house. After looking to see if he was carrying a gun, I rolled down the window.
He said, “Brother Tu, what are you doing out here?”
I suddenly remembered him. He was a VC rallier that I had debriefed a few months before. I replied, “I left my previous job and have now gone to work as a correspondent for the foreign press. It pays better!”
As I said this, I pointed to Zalin’s camera equipment and asked, “What are you doing out here?”
“I returned to live with my family near here,” he replied. “I come to the open-air market to conduct business.”
I remembered that he had surrendered in Tay Ninh with Dong Van Sua. Both of them were VC border guards assigned to protect COSVN, the communist headquarters.
Dong Van Sua told me that a high-level VC female, Nguyen Thi Dinh, had just arrived from communist headquarters and was lying in a hammock that soldiers had slung for her that night.
A security border guard saw her and got angry. He cursed loudly, “Motherfucking Revolution! It’s still the same thing—exploiting the people!”
Nguyen Thi Dinh heard him. She called him in for criticism. Then he disappeared and was never seen again.
In this war without front lines, South Vietnamese Intelligence was forced to deal head-to-head with the slippery VC. Who could you trust? Nobody! This guy could still be a VC and get me killed.
I hastily said, “I've got something to do right away!”
I got back in the car and told Ut to drive away as quickly as possible. I told Zalin that we shouldn’t go any farther and so we returned to Vietnam. This ended our short exploratory visit to Cambodia.
On 29 April 1970, with support from U.S. Cobra gunships and transport helicopters, ARVN and the U.S. launched a multi-pronged attack into Cambodia.
We got behind the troops conducting the invasion. Following them, we began to advance further and further into Cambodian territory. We frequently stopped to check with the local civilian population to find out if anyone had seen the journalists. But wherever went, we only saw destroyed villages. Most of the houses along Route One had been burned.
Ut complained that he was so scared that his foot trembled on the gas pedal and the car sort of jerked along. Zalin, on the other hand, wanted to go farther in order to get to Chipou as soon as possible. He showed me a photograph of Sean Flynn standing next to a Honda motorcycle, with a notation on the back that the photo had been taken on Route One, six kilometers east of Chipou.
Zalin was eager to get there. But I told him and Ut that we had to be extremely cautious, because the land ahead of us was empty and deserted. There were no tire tracks from military vehicles, and there was no sign of ARVN or U.S. soldiers.
If we went any further, I said, I was afraid we would run into an enemy checkpoint and that would be the death of us all. It would be better to go back to Saigon to find out how the invasion was going.
The next day we stopped at the compound of a large building with a tin roof that had collapsed on top of some machinery. The building was charred from a fire. On the building floor were a few clumps of curly black human hair, with pieces of broken dishes and partially burnt chopsticks. A stench, like that from a dead rat, filled the air.
We had entered a death zone!
Suddenly there was a crashing noise. We felt like our hearts had jumped out of our chests! An emaciated wild dog had climbed out of the rubble and run off with a human bone in its teeth.
Terrified, Ut shouted, “My God! I’m having a heart attack! Get back to the car! If you want to stay here, go ahead, but I’m driving back by myself!”
He ran straight to the car without looking back. Zalin was so startled he forgot to take a photo. I shouted at Ut, “Are you going to leave us to walk back? We came together, we have to go back together!”
He waited for us and we returned to Saigon. Later we found out the building had been a rice mill owned by a Vietnamese family. The Cambodians and Vietnamese hated each other. The family had been murdered and beheaded by local Cambodians.
On 8 May 1970, we met for an early breakfast and then set out. We reached the border about 8:40 a.m. This time Zalin urged me to try to make it all the way to Svay Rieng, the Province Headquarters. I hesitated for a moment and then I agreed.
A VC who had surrendered told me he had met with the head of the local communist party committee. The party head said that his guerrilla company had captured six foreign spies in Cambodia. When the invasion started, the VC had moved the journalists north toward Kratie.
Suddenly we saw several men wearing green uniforms and carrying AK-47s. Ut and I shouted at the same time.
“Good God! It’s a roadblock!”
Ut wanted to turn the car around but it was too late. The soldiers aimed their AKs at us and forced Ut to pull over. They motioned for us to get out. I quickly lifted my small Browning pistol out of my pocket and stuck it in my left sock. I kicked Zalin's briefcase under the passenger side seat so it couldn't be seen. Then I slowly opened the door.
Zalin grabbed his camera and long-range lens. Ut stuffed the car keys in his pants. The men motioned for us to start walking, leaving the car behind. When we crossed into the forest, we saw a small, old-style French armored car with a 30-caliber machine gun mounted on top.
I tried to console myself that we were lucky not to have fallen into the hands of the Khmer Rouge. The unit that had arrested us was probably a regular Cambodian unit. We still had a chance to come out of this alive.
After walking about 50 meters, we saw a short, fat Cambodian officer sitting on a canvas folding chair. He wore an insignia resembling that of the French army, with five silver bands.
The team captain saluted him French-style, with palm facing outward, and made a quick report. At the end, he said, "Mon Colonel."
The Colonel asked us in French where we had come from. Zalin quickly replied in English that he was an international journalist who had come from the Vietnam-Cambodia border. The Colonel turned toward Ut and me and asked, “What about these two?”
I had already prepared my answer in French: “I am a Philippine journalist working with the American correspondent and the other guy is our driver.”
The Colonel introduced himself as the Chief of Cambodia’s Svay Rieng Province. That meant he was a high-ranking official who could do anything he wanted to us. He asked if we had any papers granting us permission to be in Cambodia.
I told him we did not. He said that we had entered Cambodia illegally.
I apologized and asked for permission to return to the Vietnam border. He said we had to stay and wait for him to study our violation of Cambodian territory.
He ordered us to stand behind his chair. He then summoned an officer standing nearby and gave him instructions, pointing first to Zalin and then to Ut and me.
Small drops of perspiration ran down my neck. I felt a chill. Zalin seemed calm, as if there was nothing to fear. I guess he had faith in his “magic amulet,” the international press pass that he carried.
Ut's face was green as a leaf but he kept his mouth shut. I was afraid he would say something in Vietnamese and give away my cover. The minutes passed slowly.
I listened carefully to the Colonel's words and watched his gestures as he dealt with his subordinates. I was trying to guess the meaning of what he was saying by watching his body language.
I probably knew more than Zalin about the situation in Cambodia. After the Tet offensive, I had picked up a high-ranking VC officer. I knew he had suffered a serious psychological blow after he was captured and had been treated badly. I made arrangements for the officer to stay with my family. I was using the VC’s own “three together” formula—eat together, live together, work together.
After he stayed with us for two weeks, he recovered his mental stability. Now that we were at least psychologically on equal terms, I persuaded him to talk.
He was a lieutenant colonel and commander of the Capital Liberation Regiment. His unit had operated inside Cambodia for a long time. During the Tet Offensive, his regiment had moved into Vietnam to serve as a reserve force for the local VC units attacking Saigon.
He had a complete understanding of the VC and the Cambodian military situation in the Parrot’s Beak area of Svay Rieng Province, where the journalists had disappeared.
At this time, Sihanouk was in Beijing and was calling on all forces to remain loyal to him and the royal family by supporting the Khmer Rouge against Lon Nol’s new government. Svay Rieng Province was far from Phnom Penh and a hotbed of VC influence. I wondered whether the Colonel was on the side of Lon Nol’s new government, or whether he had joined the Khmer Rouge as Sihanouk called for him to do. It looked to me that he was right on the verge of taking his unit to the Khmer Rouge.
That made me fear that Ut and I would be killed. The small Browning pistol that I had hastily concealed in my sock now felt heavy and uncomfortable. My left ankle itched but I didn’t dare reach down to scratch it. I pulled my stomach in to let my trousers drop a little to cover the bulge in the sock.
I looked enviously at Zalin's boots and wondered why I had stupidly not worn high-topped boots too. That would have saved me all this trouble. What I was most concerned about, though, was not the pistol—it was my Special Mission Order, printed on paper with a South Vietnamese flag on the letterhead. It was still folded neatly in the wallet in my back pocket.
Zalin’s international press pass was his life-saving magic amulet. The Special Mission Order, on the other hand, was my death sentence. The VC and Khmer Rouge shot spies with no more concern than killing a dog.
The Colonel wouldn't even need to kill Ut and me. All he had to do was turn us over to the VC or Khmer Rouge and they would be done with us. Ut still had a chance to stay alive, but my own death was certain if the communists got their hands on me.
At this dangerous moment, I was rather calm but my thoughts were racing through my mind. I cursed myself for so easily giving in to Zalin’s eagerness to continue onward. Why had I gone along with him, even though I suspected that something would go wrong? Maybe it was my fate and my life was over.
That morning I had left my house very early. I didn't have time to say goodbye to my wife and my two children. They were still fast asleep. Here I was being held a prisoner in the middle of the jungle, in a country famed for its atrocities and massacres. My wife had no idea of what I was doing. I never told Yen anything about my work.
It was around ten o'clock and Yen would have already taken our four-year old son, Tuan, to the Montessori Kindergarten on Phan Thanh Gian Street. Was he sitting at his desk? Or playing with his friends? He was so young and innocent.
Yen Minh, our daughter, was nearly a year old, a chubby, round-faced infant who looked like a little doll. Maybe she was chasing a gecko that had fallen from the ceiling of our house. Whenever she caught one, she would hold it in her hand and stare at it with curious young eyes.
Each morning I had left my family to travel to a country of danger. Was it possible that I would be separated from them forever? No, that was impossible. I was still alive. I still had my wits about me. I had to find a way to save myself.
I thought about Dick, the CIA advisor I had worked with for many years on interrogation missions. We traveled to all four tactical zones in South Vietnam. Dick was eager and enthusiastic, ready to help anyone who needed him.
He had been a U.S. Army first sergeant who fought in Korea. After he was discharged, he volunteered to join CIA and had served a number of tours in Vietnam. During the 1968 Tet Offensive, he frequently reminded me of U.S. Army’s orders:
“Advance boldly to take the objective. If you fail, another friendly unit will support you, while those in the rear will send relief and evacuate your casualties.”
However, he said, the orders from the CIA was: "You must study the situation on your own and be cautious when you act. If you fail, you will have to save yourself.”
I had to save myself. I had been trained that an intelligence officer must always lie to the enemy. Even if tortured to the point of death, you must not disclose operational or organizational secrets. The faster you confess, the sooner they will kill you. As long as the enemy has not been able to obtain any important information, they won't be in a hurry to get rid of you.
We still had time to escape. I prepared myself mentally for the worst that could happen. I had to destroy my Special Mission Order. How could I get it out of my wallet and into my mouth so I could swallow it? The soldiers were watching us closely. If they noticed my actions, the consequences would be difficult to predict.
I might be able to use my pistol to save the three of us. The factors of timing, opportunity, and the coordinated action of all three of us would decide whether we succeeded or whether we failed. If we succeeded, we would live; if we failed, we would be shot.
I could control the factors of timing and opportunity. But as for coordinating our actions, that would be very hard. We were all very different men. It would just be a matter of luck.
I would wait and take action only when I knew that we were about to be taken away. I practiced the moves in my head. I would pretend to need to relieve myself, and then suddenly I would step close to the province chief.
Quickly pulling the gun out of my sock, I would fire a round in the air to frighten everyone. I would keep my gun pointed at the Colonel's head and order everyone to drop their weapons. Then I'd treat him as a hostage and take him to our car, releasing him when we were able to escape.
I knew I could do this. I had practiced extensively at firing ranges. I had won many rounds of beer from American security officers assigned to work with the CIA, beating them on the draw every time.
What worried me the most was the 30-caliber machinegun mounted on the armored car. Next, I was concerned about Ut’s ability to turn the big car around, which was still pointed toward Svay Rieng. And finally I was worried about whether Zalin would help me, whether he would grab one of their AKs and provide covering fire while we escaped.
Luckily, they had not yet searched us or our possessions. Zalin’s briefcase was still hidden in the car, filled with photographs, files, documents, and a large sum of money.
THE CALVARY ARRIVES!
The Colonel was still undecided. Suddenly, a soldier ran into the command tent. He saluted the Colonel and pointed toward Route One while he reported in rapid-fire Cambodian.
We heard sounds from afar, a rumble like many military vehicles were moving closer to us. The Colonel stood up, his face filled with fear. He walked toward us.
He asked me in French to take the American journalist and meet the invading ARVN tank convoy. He wanted me to tell the Vietnamese that his unit was prepared to cooperate with them.
I breathed a sigh of relief and turned to Ut and spoke Vietnamese for the first time without worry.
“Ut we are saved! Vietnamese armored vehicles have arrived. Zalin and I have to meet the convoy.”
Ut seemed to be reborn. He raised his hands in the air and jumped up and down, unable to quit laughing.
The Colonel anxiously waved for us to hurry. We walked quickly out of the forest, crossed Route One, and climbed to the top of a high mound of dirt. The air was filled with dust. A convoy of armored personnel carriers rumbled toward us.
We waved our arms to show that we were unarmed and welcoming them. Suddenly the entire convoy of M-113s halted 300 meters away. Then one of them moved toward us. An officer stood on the turret, looking at us through binoculars.
As he drew close, he pointed at us and shouted, "Motherfuck! It’s Tong. It’s Nguyen Tri Tong! What the fuck are you doing out here?”
He was too far away. I didn't know who he was or why he knew my name. I knew he must be a friend of mine. My spirits soared when I heard his curses.
The M-113 stopped ten meters from us. The commander jumped down and ran toward us. I saw the nametag on his pocket and his sun-darkened face.
First Lieutenant Long! We had been classmates in Class 18 at the Thu Duc Officers School, and both of us had been members of the 4th Cadet Company. He shook my hand while pounding my back.
“Are you crazy?" he asked. "What are you doing out here? Didn’t you know this is enemy territory? We haven't swept this area. Our maps indicate this is still a free-fire zone.
"You are not wearing a uniform or a flak jacket or a helmet! Do you think you’re made of steel and that bullets will just bounce off of you? Or did you want to commit suicide?”
Before I could open my mouth, he spoke again: "It's lucky you had this American with you. If not we would have thought you had deserted and joined the VC!”
“Long, slow down and let me get a word in,” I said. “Why do you keep making accusations against me? You know that interrogating VC is my job. I’m just afraid that you might be the type who doesn’t take prisoners. If you kill everybody, how am I supposed to do my job?
"I am the Chief of the Mobile Interrogation Office of the National Interrogation Center, Central Intelligence Organization," I continued. "Do you want to see my Special Mission Order?"
I felt very proud to have the Special Mission Order, although ten minutes before I had been searching for every way possible to destroy it.
“That’s not necessary,” Long replied. “I believe you. So you came to the jungle all alone to interrogate VC, huh? I’m afraid the VC would have interrogated you and that would have been the end!”
I turned to Zalin and introduced them. They shook hands and I resumed my conversation with Long.
"When I have time I’ll tell you the whole story. Right now, though, the Colonel who is the Svay Rieng Province Chief is waiting with his unit. He asked me and Zalin to come out to meet you and to tell you that he wants to cooperate.”
“Did that motherfucking village cowboy bring his old armored car out to serve as a target for my M-113s?" Long asked. “He was smart to send you out to meet us. If he hadn’t, all I would have had to do was lower my arm, and the 50-caliber machineguns would have blown away his armored car and him with it!”
“My squadron has a liaison officer assigned to handle contacts with the Cambodians,” Long said. He ordered a sergeant to find the captain who was the liaison.
"When I get back to Saigon, Tong, we’ll get together, get drunk, and tell each other war stories till we’re blue in the face. I’m sure you have to get back now to work on your mission.”
Zalin and I walked back to the Province Chief’s tent. We proudly stood in front of him. He put his hands together in a gesture of respect to us.
"Everything is fine," I said. A Vietnamese liaison officer will be here soon to discuss where you should deploy your troops."
He shook my hand warmly and said we could leave when we wished but he hoped we would wait until the officer arrived. I had never been so proud to be a Vietnamese as I was at that moment. I puffed out my chest and talked to Ut until the liaison officer arrived. Then we headed to the car.
Zalin's briefcase was still where we had left it, stuffed under the passenger seat. My small camera was under a seat cushion. I gave the camera to Ut and asked him to take as many photos as possible of us.
After that, I closed my eyes, trying to imagine the scene as my family sat down for lunch. What I had been about to lose now seemed so much more valuable to me. I was overjoyed. After our troubled but ultimately lucky border crossing, I talked to Zalin about changing our investigation procedures. To avoid any more needless danger, we had to coordinate more closely with the American and Vietnamese headquarters.
During our subsequent border crossings, I made ample preparations. We traveled armed with two submachine guns and a half-dozen hand grenades. I was determined that we would rather die than fall into enemy hands. This led us to meet with the generals and colonels who were the U.S. advisors to the Vietnamese.
We also met Lieutenant General Do Cao Tri, the Third Corps Commander. I remember how surprised I was when we shook hands. I never would have suspected that an Airborne Commander who had spent so many years on the battlefield had hands that were as soft as a woman’s.
We continued to search for the journalists. The work we did includes many details that go beyond the bounds of this article. I will write about what happened to us in the context of a future memoir.
In summary, most of the foreign journalists were first captured by elements of the VC and North Vietnamese. But they were turned over to the Khmer Rouge about three weeks later. During our work, only one person, a French woman journalist (whose name was not on our list) was retrieved. Zalin took her back to Saigon with him. Later this woman accompanied Zalin and I as we searched for the journalists.
[The Frenchwoman had been captured by the North Vietnamese and Khmer Rouge and held for a week, then released. Her name was Claude Boutillon. She later became my wife. After more than forty years, she still is. ZG]
During this time my younger brother, a first lieutenant, was captured by the Viet Cong. Using my time off on a weekend, I went down to the Fourth Corps and visited the Vinh Long Province Military Headquarters in an effort to find a way to rescue him.
My covert effort seemed to have favorable prospects. But Lt. Colonel Cao Van Khanh, the Assistant for Security to the Director of the CIO, found out about it and ordered me to report to his office. He directed me to immediately cease my efforts to find my brother and threatened me with jail if I persisted.
I replied, “If you think it’s necessary, then go ahead and discipline me, Colonel.” I refused to accept this contradiction. I was ordered to risk my life to try to save foreigners while being refused permission to try to save my own brother. I decided to quit with the journalists.
By this time, Zalin was familiar with the search procedures and could make his own contacts without my assistance. He thanked me for my help and urged me to take some of the cigarettes and bottles of cognac he had bought as incentives to recruit secret informants. I refused.
Zalin Grant and I parted as friends who had met on the edge of fate in the most dangerous circumstances imaginable.
In the end, the seven foreign journalists on our list were all murdered by the Khmer Rouge. As for my younger brother, the VC killed him and his body was never found.
When the North Vietnamese captured Saigon, Pham Xuan An stayed behind and did not flee like most American journalists. Time magazine evacuated his family to the United States. The magazine continued to list his name as their special correspondent who had bravely remained behind in Vietnam.
The truth did not come out until Pham Xuan An appeared at a number of communist press conferences wearing the rank of a VC colonel. He formally submitted a request through the Soviet Embassy for the U.S. government to return his wife and children to him. They were sent back to Vietnam via Moscow.
After returning to New York, Zalin published three books on the Vietnam War: “Survivors” (published in 1975), about American servicemen who had been captured and held as prisoners by the VC; “Over the Beach” (published 1986), covering the U.S. bombing campaign in North Vietnam; and “Facing the Phoenix” (published 1991), about the Phoenix Program.
The most prominent character in this last book was Tran Ngoc Chau. But the book also discussed a number of other famous U.S. personalities from the Vietnam War, including Edward Lansdale, William Colby, John Paul Vann, and Daniel Ellsberg. Reviews of this book call it one of the most outstanding books written about intelligence and political warfare during the Vietnam War.
Nguyen Tri Tong
ADDENDUM BY ZALIN GRANT
|Zalin Grant & Nguyen Tong in Reston VA July 21, 2012 (Photo Janice Terry)
Before I left Saigon, I wrote a letter of praise for Nguyen Tong's help. I asked Time Bureau Chief Marsh Clark to make sure President Nguyen Van Thieu got it.
Tong was promoted and put in charge of Thieu's personal security team. He did his usual outstanding work but grew disillusioned with the corruption surrounding Thieu. To get out of the situation, he wangled an assignment to Japan to study communication methods. It was there that he learned about computers and got a preview of his future.
When the war ended he made a harrowing escape to America with the boat people. I was living near Malaga in the hills of Andalucía working on a book, without a phone or any way that he could contact me. He finally found a well-off family in New England who offered him refuge on a work basis. His wife would be the maid and Tong would play handy man.
The owner soon realized that Tong was qualified far beyond such work. He encouraged him to take course in computer technology. Tong excelled and soon found a job that allowed him to move his family into a comfortable home. Later, he invented a computer process that was in wide demand, which led to his fortune.
He brought his extended family to America, purchasing each of them an apartment and helping them find work. He opened a Vietnamese restaurant which became a meeting place for the Vietnamese in the Reston area.
When we ran our investigation in 1970, we were careful not to talk about our previous intelligence work. If we got captured, the less we knew about each other the better. He thought I was simply a journalist who believed my journalist credentials would save me from getting killed.
Actually, I had been the youngest U.S Intelligence Officer of the War to hold a major command position, as chief of military intelligence in First Corps in 1965. It included the two major cities after Saigon, Da Nang & Hue. I was twenty-four.
The CIA's Air America let me use their Swiss-made aircraft that could land on the short airstrip in front of the Hue Citadel. With that, I could supervise my staffers who covered Hue. I worked with the U.S. Consular in Hue, Tony Lake, later Jimmy Carter's National Security advisor, as we covered the revolt the Buddhists were waging against the Saigon government.
I was lucky in my work in Da Nang. Colonel Howard B. St Clair was the Senior American Advisor for First Corps. St Clair was one of the top commanders at Fort Benning when I was undergoing training as a second lieutenant. I had spent many hours at his house talking to his wife about books and writing. When I checked in, he called me by my nickname and told me that he would write B.J.—as she was called—and tell her he was keeping an eye on me.
Lt Colonel Charles (Chuck) Brown was my next-door neighbor in Danang. Like me, he was from South Carolina and a close friend of my Saigon unit commander. I suspect that his presence had influenced my commander's decision to send me to Danang.
Brown was considered one of the best and bravest officers in Vietnam. When a major operation was scheduled, Chuck asked me to join him as his acting executive officer and translator. I changed from my civilian clothes into green army fatigues, grabbed my carbine, and jumped into his chopper which was always ready to lift off. We saw a lot of action, some of it very hot, and I learned much more from him than I had at Fort Benning.
In fact, Lt Colonel Brown taught me how to run a military operation in enemy territory without killing anyone who wasn’t trying to kill you. Later when Michéle Ray, my French girlfriend, became the first journalist to be captured by the Viet Cong, I was able to plan and carry out a successful operation to free her.
This occurred in 1966 when I was working for Time. I tell the story in www.pythiapress.com/letters/war.htm
CBS's Walter Cronkite headed a committee of journalists that was formed in late 1971 to try to free the journalists. I returned to Vietnam and Cambodia for the Cronkite Committee in 1971-1973-2001-2002.
I will eventually put together a book about the many people who tried to help free the journalists. I wasn’t the only one. For anyone interested in reading more please click on
About Pham Xuan An