Old French Indochina was noted for large expanses of rural farmland, rice paddies and rough mountains, with a single, large capital city in each country.
In North Vietnam there was Hanoi. South Vietnam – Saigon. Cambodia – Phnom Penh. Laos – Vientiane. Thailand – Bangkok.
In the 1980s there were things happening out in the hinterland that could not be followed by the CIA from the ivory towers of the capital cities.
A small base was set up near a rural intersection where a wide variety of people passed overland; some legal and official… though most travelers were without papers – traders, refugees, crooks and soldiers of shifting alliance.
I was chief there for a couple of years and came to know and, to some extent, understand the Indochina citizenry and their capacity for good and for bad.
I had a CIA communicator, couple of case officers and a military linguist attaché, plus a local staff of maybe 30 intelligent, English speaking interpreters and intel collectors. We knew what was going on. Because we monitored a variety of nationalities and ethnics, my staff was made up of former South Vietnamese, North Vietnamese, Cambodian, Cham, Khmer Krom, Thai, Lao, Malay, Lao Tueng, and several brands of Chinese.
Staff near the end of my first year. We would add another dozen locals over the next few months
It was a rich, robust work environment. There was always more work to do than we had time. More rumors to run down… more pending crisis… more new developments. More and more requirements from CIA headquarters in Langley.
While there may have been some suspicion early on that we were just too far from any flag pole to report information of interest to the US intelligence community… we quickly put that fear away by producing more intelligence than most any other CIA installation in the region
Our staff was organized so that most Asian field collectors reported to one of my CIA case officer, who effected some field analysis - comparing the new information to other reporting in our office and if it was significant, then typed it up in official intel reports.
My work day varied, though usually I was out travelling or at meetings during the day, saving my reports writing for early evening hours.
There was no week-end breaks. We worked seven days a week.
And we had visitors by the dozens… a delegation, it seemed, every week. This was because we could brief with considerable authority on the present day trends and realities in all southeast Asia, post-Vietnam. Plus when VIPs came from the states, our base was a place they could get out in the real smells and sounds and sights of Asia.
Over time, we developed our compound, which was called “Hilton” into quite a place. We had two caged tigers, peacocks, a fish pond, a swimming pool, German Shepard dogs, a cage with maybe 10 monkeys… ruled by the ill-mannered Zimbo. We were nestled in the jungle, and there was always fresh fruit and cold beer, a slow turning fan in the screened-in main room. Unique. A melting pot of people. A small American place on the other side of the world from Washington where a newcomer could meet some English speaking Asians who had intriguing stories, every one.
One of our two tigers. At this point, Doc, the military linguist, was able to go in the cage and play with them, but they got older they became aggressive and he had to stop his playtime with the tigers.
Of the US visitors, our all-time favorite was Bill Casey, who came with a large entourage, but who made personal contact with each one of us, telling us he read our mail back home, that we were doing a fine job, one greatly appreciated. I think he must have used 3 x 5 cards to keep up with people he met, either that or he had a spectacular memory, because he and I had met a couple of years before and he remembered more details about that contact than I did. Just saying good bye, he shook the hand of every American on the staff – and many of the locals – and took an extra second or so to thank each for their hospitality and their service. Maybe there’s a book he studied on how to develop the respect of people… I don’t know, but I think he was an exceptional man of the people, unpretentious, personable. We held him in the highest regards.
Director of the CIA, Bill Casey, me and to the right the future Thai Prime Minister Chavalit Yongchaiyudh
Of all the Senators who came out, Senator Bill Bradley made the poorest impression. He did not speak personally with anyone. Did not make eye contact, had nothing to say at the end of my briefing… although his staff asked naive questions… which led us to believe these particular people didn’t know what part of the world they were in, or its recent history… they had no ideas of the local personalities or what was at play. Bradley was just an amazingly pompous sour puss with a bored, impenetrable visage. When I addressed him he would usually look in my direction but would not always answer.
But mostly our visitors were working stiffs from Washington bureaucracies who had some dealings with post-war southeast Asia. We were at the headwaters on a number of issues. Some of the US gov’t staffs were enormously arcane, but brief them all we did.
And we usually fed them lunch.
Local delegation visiting and if memory serves I asked that the fixings be American. Notice the fries.
Ah, the lunches at “Hilton.” We had one cook, and I’m not sure her ethnicity, I think Thai. And she had two or three other girls she would get to help when we had visitors. Sometimes I would give her suggestions as to what to prepare. Sometimes not. Didn’t matter, meals were always exotic and flavorful – sometimes with a northern Thai taste, sometimes Cambodian, sometimes Chinese, sometimes Kansas City. It was served family style and to my memory always well received.
The “Hilton” cook in her kitchen. This is where she created her magic. She could – starting from scratch – fix a meal for two dozen in a short afternoon.
Pigs on a spit. Generally the good meals, the special stuff, was served at night for staff parties.
When we had visitors we laid out tables in the screened-in main room. When we had office parties, we usually had the food on side tables that people ate like finger food.
But during the work week – we would eat lunch and supper around a round table in a corner of the main room near the monkey cage. Zimbo was always a subject of conversation, because he would take the occasion of our gatherings near his pen to show off, or hit one of the smaller monkeys, or to show his teeth… or just scream to get our attention.
While Asian have the reputation for being serious eater, head down, spoons working feverishly ladling food into their mouth holes. Not so much at our place. There was always conversation about something. Maybe world news. Things happening around us. Coming events.
The North Vietnamese might have been the brightest among us. He had deserted the North Vietnamese Army – where his father was an infantry General – because of film he was shown during training in Russia about the decadent USA… hell he thought, I want some of that!
I asked him once at the meal table, if he thought the North Vietnamese released all the American POWs… and he said no, that didn’t sound like his old government. They would have kept some behind for use later as bargaining chips. When that never came to be, he shrugged his shoulders as if no answer was necessary.
He had a great sense of humor, always reminded me of the POW in McHale’s Navy… me being the Tim Conway character.
There were some on the staff who had survived the Pol Pot regime in Cambodia. One was Ros Sophan, who I had hired soon after taking over the base. Almost ten years before, under Cambodia’s pro-west Lon Nol, he had been selected out of the Cambodian Air Force to go to four years of college in southern California as part of a DoD program. He went on to English Language School at Lackland Air Force base in Texas, and was teaching English at the Cambodian Air Force academy in Phnom Penh when the Khmer Rouge came to power… he E & Eed into the heartland far from anyone who knew he spoke English, and survived in the killing fields by not making eye contact with anyone for years while doing filthy fertilizer preparation work in an obscure village near the Vietnam line. After Pol Pot was ousted he spent more years in a regular prison because he was accused by the new Vietnam friendly gov’t of supporting anti-communist resistance.
Ros was a quiet, soft spoken man who had endured years of hardship at the hands of anti-Americans… and was to some extent more blindly American, and more dedicated anti-communist in his beliefs, than any others. In addition to Khmer and English, he spoke Thai and Vietnamese and he and I spent days together out roaming the country side.
Ros Sophan sitting at his desk outside my office.
A subject of continuing conversation at the lunch table was religion. At most meals, there were up to eight different religions represented; Hindu, Buddhist, Muslim, Animist, Atheist, Jewish, etc. In time most everyone had their say about what they believed in, and it always came down to a single God – or nature that God created – who wanted us to be good to one another. And if we were, we’d get rewarded after death. With some reservation we all pretty much bought into this one God idea… except for a Mormon on my staff. He didn’t budge an inch, saying the only true religion was the Latter Day Saints’. We were individually and as a group misinformed. Never a very popular guy, his staunch dedication to Mormonism just didn’t fit.
Our staff lived out on the economy, but tended to group together, regardless of their home country. For one thing their salaries at “Hilton” were ten times the going rate in the area, plus we gave them a housing allowance, so they picked some mighty nice digs by local standards. Their kids could have any religion they chose, but my bet is they all thought Christians had the boss thing going… what with Christmas and all. Had two Christmas parties with the families of all my people, and they were both great… and at both every kid got a toy… which I think is the reason most would opt in their tiny 8 and 9 and 10 year old hearts to praise Jesus.
Another great thing about an organization that includes people from various religions, is that there were a lot of occasions for parties. Plus we monitored activities from about 5 countries, so there were national holidays that usually required a party. We’d have great international eats, cold beer and liquor, including usually a bottle or two of good cognac. Some of the local staff had never had access to free bars like that, with all the munchies his family could eat. One of our biggest personalities was a guy we called “PT.” Big smile, white teeth, tanned complexion – he was a Pancho Villa look alike, always joking, always upbeat. We had this party coming up and I told PT that I didn’t want any man in my staff to leave sober. I was joking… but PT said, OK I’ll spread the word. Wives were pissed at me for weeks, because every time at that party they told their man to slow down on the drinking, they’d say, Nope, Orders. Gotta drink.
In the two years we probably had 20 different parties like that… some bigger than others. Many of the staff said that their family’s time at “Hilton” was the best time in their lives… and with some of the lives these people had suffered through, I think that’s a fair statement.
On the left is Doc, the military linguist. Then my new deputy Jim, standing beside Phong, the North Vietnamese. Staff members are around me and my communicator.
This was early on at one of the parties, because the kids are still there. Also note the guy holding the mike. By evening’s end most everyone, drunked up just a little bit, would spend time on the mike either singing, or just talking ’bout things, though with so many languages spoken, few ever knew what was being said, but then, it didn’t matter.
Staff party. PT is the man in the doorway. The TarHeel wall hanging I carried with me around the world.
Another bit of wholesome fun at Hilton was our regular 4 o’clock afternoon volleyball games. It’d be just us and our staff and we played jungle ball, which wasn’t for sissies. Sam the compound manager was in his 40s and no taller than 5 foot, but I think he could spike the ball. No he couldn’t but there was one of the young handymen who could leap up and with his foot, kick the ball over the net… his feet being up there that high in the air, but he’d always land on his feet. That got a response from everyone like a slam dunk does in American basketball.
Sam, the compound manager, going to make an athletic move on the volley ball despite my probable lesser effort.
Another case officer on my staff was Jewish and while he never was confrontational with the Mormon, they were worlds apart… Back at other CIA installations, the Mormon complained about the lack of civility at “Hilton,” the chauvinist attitudes that permeated all conversation. It didn’t help when the Jew at my base went into a US embassy wearing shower shoes, spandex pants and a tee shirt that said something like “I had my way with your daughter last night.” That’s not exactly what the lettering was, but that’s close. I got a cable in saying that they had thrown him out of the embassy and taken his pass because of “unacceptable attire.”
But that fellow, though he wasn’t always acceptably attired, or politically correct, did a great job as a field case officer at the base. His reports were spot on and well written. He got out on the economy to double check intel reports, and went where no other Americans were seen much, and armed bandits roamed free… but he had good judgment and I let him go. The Mormon rarely left “Hilton.”
Jim Nicholson, a case officer assigned to a CIA station in another part of east Asia came to visit “Hilton” to see if he wanted to considered taking a tour there. At the time of his visit, we were entertaining a high powered group from Washington and he sat in for the briefing and then the lunch… and he ended his visit with very positive feelings about our place. He put in to replace the Mormon, my deputy, and got the assignment.
Not long after Jim Nicholson’s arrived, we went out shooting “Hilton” AKs and shotguns at the compound firing range. I’m kneeling. Communicator is standing to the right.
But after the change, things didn’t necessarily improve. Hard to say why. While the new guy, Nicholson, was a Mormon himself, he’d be your “Jack” Mormon…. he drank and wasn’t as strident about his religion as his predecessor. He had a good head for intelligence and did very good work. Ran good operations. Wrote pithy intelligence reports that got high grades. But we lived together 24/7 and there just wasn’t any after-hours connection. He particularly disliked the Jew, and although he and I often commuted from family visits, I just never had a feel for the guy. He did assimilate into the work force – looked on the local women as eye candy and was giddish around them. Sort of silly, immature. He told me once that his wife was a flake taking courses to become a gemologist… and he had another story about being adopted as a kid… and there were a couple of uninteresting stories about his Army time and why he had a poor Ranger tattoo on one his arms… but he wasn’t a good conversationalist and his stories weren’t particularly funny or entertaining. I heard that he was a fast riser in the CIA directorate of operations, but I never saw the genius you’d expect of someone with that kind of a reputation. Good, but not “fast rising” type of good.
Years later, after I had retired from the CIA, I was sitting at my desk one day in Pinehurst, North Carolina, with CNN on the TV nearby, when a News Flash came on, that the FBI had just arrested a CIA official for spying for the Soviets. Harold “Jim” Nicholson was his name…. and I looked at the TV to see a year book-like photo of my former deputy at the “Hilton.” I was shocked… but as the voice-over went on about him being the highest ranking CIA spy ever caught… I gained my composure and went to a cabinet near the desk to take out some old photo albums.
In one photo book marked “Hilton” was the following picture:
While he didn’t officially cast his lot with the Soviets until sometime after his tour as my deputy, the idea must have been there for some time, don’t you reckon.
Harold “Jim” Nicholson twice-convicted spy for Russia Intelligence. Serving time in a US Federal Penitentiary; he will be released when he is 78 years old.
Just goes to show..