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This is a heretofore unpublished account of America's secret war in Burma. I am intimately familar with the details of this, until-now, secret war because I was one of the first American soldiers to participate in it.
It all started on November 12th, 1968. I was assigned to the 1st Battalion 69th Armor on Highway 19 in the Central Highlands of Vietnam. My platoon leader, 1LT Howard J. "Stretch" Grohman, and I were summoned to MACV/SOG headquarters in Nha Trang. They sent a Huey slick to pick us up on Highway 19 and flew us directly to the ultra secret SOG compound.
We were informed by unidentified men in civilian clothes that we had been selected, after an exhaustive search of Army records, to particpate in a secret mission. We were asked if we would volunteer for this mission. We were told that unless we volunteered, no details of the mission could be divulged to us. Stretch and I were both patriotic. How could we be anything else after having watched every John Wayne World War II movie, as well as the "Green Beret" twice? Stretch and I immediately said yes.
The men in civilian clothes (we assumed they were CIA because their clothes were really loud and the colors clashed horribly) then proceeded to tell us about a secret resupply route the North Vietnamese were using to smuggle supplies from China into Laos through Burma. It had been nicknamed the "Burma Shave Highway" because of the signs containing Communists slogans which the North Vietnamese had erected periodically along its length.
Apparently our efforts to interdict supplies along the more familiar Ho Chi Minh trail in eastern Laos were so successful that the North Vietnamese were desparate for an alternate route. Their truck drivers on the Ho Chi Minh trail were complaining bitterly about bumper-to-bumper traffic and potholes. Clearly the North Vietnamese needed to do something, so they had opened up a second resupply route through Burma.
Our mission, we were told, was to enter Burma clandestinely, and report enemy troop movements to SOG headquarters in Nha Trang. We were to blow up bridges and supply depots along the route, spray-paint obscene graffiti on walls and buses, and in general cause as much havoc as two guys can cause an entire army.
However, while we were still absorbing these revelations, we were also briefed on a second, far more important reason for the mission. This was the elimination, by any means, of defector Donut Dollies, referred to as bumpyshadows.
We were stunned to learn that American Red Cross Donut Dollies, bitter over our cruel and inhumane treatment of the peace-loving North Vietnamese, were defecting to the enemy in large numbers. With them they took important, classified information on the morale building techniques employed by the U.S. Military in South Vietnam. For example, the renegades were teaching the North Vietnamese how to play dominoes, and the art of creating colorful sand paintings. The latter was especially useful in combating Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. They were also helping the illiterate North Vietnamese soldiers to write letters home to the folks in Hanoi and Haiphong, and they were reading them bedtime stories.
However, an even darker suspicion on the part of the CIA was that the Donut Dollies were providing the NVA soldiers with roundeye boom-boom as a reward for killing American soldiers. I was furious, since even I couldn't get any roundeye boom-boom, and believe me I tried.
Any doubts we had about the mission evaporated like nerve gas in the Mojave Desert and we threw ourselves into the training for the operation, code-named "Breakwind".
Since plausible deniability was crucial, this was to be a sterile mission. Therefore we were given spiffy tiger fatigues made in Mexico, which clearly indicated "Heche en Mexico" on a label in the collar. We also carried Soviet-bloc weapons. We were issued really dirty AK-47s and Soviet Tokarev 9mm pistols (the cool ones with the big red star on the grips). We had to empty our pockets of any and all articles which might identify us as Americans. This included my Mickey Mouse watch, which really pissed me off and deepened my loathing for the North Vietnamese and the defector Donut Dollies.
Our cover stories were given to us and had to be memorized. I was Hans Van Busride, a Dutch tea buyer from Utrecht. If captured I was to say that I made a wrong turn on the way to Ceylon where I was going to buy oolong tea leaves. Stretch was Monsieur Pierre Labull, a tobacco buyer from Rheims, enroute to Turkey to buy latikia. It was at this point that Stretch and I realized why we had been selected for this mission. Since neither one of us had a clue as to how to fight as infantrymen, no one would ever believe that we went on the mission, providing instant plausible deniability.
To cover our absence from our unit, a clever deception was put in place. Orders were cut indicating that Stretch and I were going to Honolulu, Hawaii on R&R. To this day the records still show that Stretch and I went to the Don Ho show at the International Market Place on Ala Moana Boulevard and got stinking drunk. The CIA even found two guys who looked a little like Stretch and I, and had them deliberately get drunk and start a fight so that witnesses would remember them. Here is a photo, which they paid for with my American Express Card, of the two impostors. Our DA-201 files do not mention a word about our being in Burma. Such was the depth and breadth of the deception that lingers to this day.
Since I was afraid of heights and petulantly refused to be inserted into the DZ by parachute, an alternative means of ingress had to be devised. After much research, it was determined that Cathay Pacific Airways (a CIA cover) had a regularly scheduled flight into Bangkok, Thailand. It was decided that we would fly first to Bangkok (coach, which was appalling) and then simply rent a car (Hertz #1 Gold) and drive to the border with Burma, where we would enter silently and clandestinely. It was there that we would meet up with the 200 Samoan mercenaries the CIA had hired to accompany us. It seems that their regular mercenaries, the Montagnards and the Hmong, were overbooked, so the Samoans had been a last minute replacement. This was to prove a crucial error at a pivitol point in the mission.
On the moonless night of November 15th, Stretch and I slipped quietly across the Burmese border with the 200 Samoans. We immediately got into one of those pissy little arguments when we realized that neither of us had brought a map. My position was that since he was in charge of the mission and was taller than I was, it was his responsibility to bring the map. His position, totally untenable in my opinion, was that the short guy always brought the maps. I can find no such instructions in any Army field manual. So there.
We stopped at the Burmese equivilent of AAA and bought a Michelin map, which was very expensive and of dubious value, so we were forced to improvise. A big green section of the map, totally devoid of roads and marked "jungle" became our destination. I kept the receipt for the map, intending to expense it when we returned to Nha Trang.
The hardy Samoans were carrying all the heavy gear, such as the 4.2 inch mortors, and the camping equipment. It was incredibly hot. After about 40 miles, I observed them abandoning pieces of equipment to lighten their loads. When they ditched the lawn chairs I became outraged and refused to go another step until Stretch counseled them about deriliction of duty and the fact that I was the one who signed their timecards, and I wouldn't do that sitting on the hard ground. Reason prevailed and we continued to march but I continued to watch the Samoans for a resumption of the equipment abandonment.
The sun was beating down relentlessly and I was about to request a rest halt when the the lead scout, an Apache from Bisbee, Arizona, signaled that he had found something. I moved forward and knelt beside the scout. He pointed to a white brassierre discarded by the side of the trail. I motioned for Stretch to come to the front of the column. Knowing that is was an old NVA trick to boobytrap objects likely to be picked up, we attached a long length of string to the bra, hid behind a huge teak tree, and pulled gently. There was an immediate explosion, about the force of a frag. After the dust settled we examined what remained of the bra, which wasn't much. Surviving the blast however was a scorched tag which clearly said "J.C. Penney".
This was conclusive proof that the white bra came from a defector Donut Dolly. The clincher however was that the tag also said "38-C". What was troublesome however was the realization that since it was obviously left by the trail deliberately, the NVA were probably aware of our mission. There was obviously a leak somewhere in the chain of command. We suspected the Samoans.
We continued the forced march through the jungle, ever watchful for a NVA ambush. Several hours later, the lead Navajo scout, from Farmington, New Mexico, signaled that he had found something. Stretch and I crawled forward to where the scout was and observed what he saw. It was a "binh tram" which is Vietnamese for "Holiday Inn", and it was obviously the site of a large NVA supply point on the Burma Shave Highway.
Wasting no time, Stretch outlined our plan of attack. We would keep one Samoan rifle platoon in reserve, and as security for the mortar platoon, and attack on-line with the other three platoons. I pointed out that someone should stay behind with the reserve platoon, and since Stretch had to lead the assault, because he was the Lieutenant and the tallest member of the team, I should be the one to sacrifice the chance at a medal and stay behind. We got into a minor disagreement over this and after several cruel verbal exchanges and unkind remarks it was decided that we would both stay with the reserve platoon and send in the loyal Samoans on their own.
After a furious, bloody, and damned noisy battle, the Samoans prevailed. When Stretch and I got to the binh tram we saw bodies everywhere. Most were noncombatants, apparently Japanese tourists on their way to Ankgor Wat. It was a pitiful sight, with brand new Nikon cameras strewn about the field of battle, especially around the swimming pool. I began to suspect that this really was a Holiday Inn, until I glimpsed two bumpyshadows running toward a nearby spider hole. I immediately shed my fanny pack and ran after them. I could tell that they were defector Donut Dollies immediately. One was a brunnette, about 38-24-36, while the other was a tall blonde about 36-22-34. They were unrestrained (and braless) and apparently in good health since they beat my wheezing ass to the tunnel where they senuously slithered into the spider hole. Against orders I identified myself. "I am an American soldier" I panted, "I am here to take you home with me". I wanted to give them a chance to surrender, unconditionally, you know what I mean?
"Bite me!" they replied in unison, sounding like the Andrews Sisters. "No, bite this!" I screamed, and began tossing Hershey Tropical Bars into the spider hole.
I must have thrown about a dozen of the harder-than-depleted-uranium Tropical Bars into the hole when the rattle of automatic weapons fire shattered the otherwise peaceful calm of the Holiday Inn. "They're goners, Smitty!" Stretch yelled, referring to the defector Donut Dollies, "Nobody could survive that! March to the sound of the guns!".
We rallied the Samoans, most of whom had shimmied up palm trees in search of coconuts, and began a fighting withdrawal toward our extraction point, the helipad on the Holiday Inn lawn.
It quickly became apparent however that we were facing an overwhelmingly superior enemy force. Most of us were wounded (I got a nasty paper cut from the Michelin map) and we struggled to prevent the NVA from overrunning our perimeter.
"Get on the horn, Smitty" Stretch yelled, "And call for the Bad of the Bad, danger close!".
I wanted to discuss this further with Stretch, given that the Air Force Guys weren't always really careful about where they dropped things, especially napalm, which is what I assumed he meant by the "Bad of the Bad". I was going to question his decision to ask for an air strike danger close, which meant within 100 meters of our position. However, Stretch disappeared in a gaggle of little NVA guys and I assumed he was a goner, so I got out my cell phone and called 911.
"Nha Trang emergency" the voice on the other end said, "Please state the nature of your emergency".
"Uh, yeah, ah, we're about to be overrun by a horde of dope-crazed NVA and I need an air strike right now!" I yelled into the experimental Motorola Microtac.
"Roger that" the Nha Trang operator replied, "Give me your location".
I scrambled to find the Michelin map and locate our position. "Uh, we're right under the em in 'Burma' on my map" I said, sweat stinging my eyes, and running down my face, making my camouflage paint streak. I was a mess.
"Roger that" the operator replied, "Are you using the nineteen sixty-seven Michelin map?, over".
I checked the copyright date. "That's affirm, Herm" I replied, "Bring in the bad of the bad, danger close".
There was a gut-wrenching pause. "Are you sure you want this danger close?" the operator asked, "You know those Air Force guys aren't real careful about where they drop this stuff."
"Drop it now!" I screamed, "Or drop body bags later!".
"Roger that" the operator replied. "If you look to the west you should see the fast movers rolling in now, over". I looked to the west and immediately regretted it. The sun hit me dead in the eyes and I was momentarily blinded. I had lost my Ray Bans in the heat of battle.
The F-4s screamed in at treetop level and dropped four CBU-15s filled with mustard. I immediately determined that it was Frenchs and not the lethal Spicy Guildens. With the NVA gunners temporarily blinded by the pungent condiment we headed for the LZ. I once again called the Nha Trang 911 operator and advised her to send in the Jolly Green Giants to extract us.
We heard the unmistakable roar of the CH-53s and prepared to board when suddenly my sinuses acted up and I became incapacitated. It was ragweed-pollen season in Burma and I had failed to bring my Allerest. Ignoring the heavy automatic weapons fire that was raking the LZ, Stretch Grohman, appearing from nowhere and covered in blood, half-dragged, half-carried me towards the waiting chopper. On the way he stopped to inject me with Atropine which probably saved my life since people have died from exposure to that much ragweed pollen.
We struggled up the ramp of the CH-53 as the now-recovered and even more determined NVA renewed their attack. They shouted uncomplimentary names at us when they realized we were going to make good our escape. As we climbed into the azure sky and headed east for Nha Trang they actually gave us the finger. I was appalled by their savagery but resisted the urge to reciprocate their one-finger salute. After all, I was an American fighting man.
When we returned to Nha Trang we were debriefed at length. The guys in civilian clothes kept asking me if I was sure that the women who senuously slithered into the spider hole were defector Donut Dollies.
"They were definitely roundeyes", I told them, "I've never seen any NVA with hooters that big."
This seemed to satisfy them and we were told to write up our after action reports. However, I was told by an unnamed Colonel, who is now deceased, to remove the reference to tossing the Hershey Tropical Bars into the spider hole on the defector Donut Dollies.
"Son, if word gets out you killed American Donut Dolly defectors with Hershey Tropical Bars" he said ominously, "There will be hell to pay with the Hershey people, and all them damned Amish that work for them". I obediently removed this reference which is why to this day there is no official record of the incident. The paper trail points to a clear-cut forest in Oregon.
Stretch was nominated for a Distinguished Service Medal for his uncommon valor during this mission, but because of the black nature of the operation it was downgraded to a Good Conduct Medal. He subsequently refused to accept the award.
For my modest contributions I was nominated for the Good Conduct Medal, but because of the compartmentalized, secret nature of the mission, it was downgraded to an Oak Leaf Cluster for my National Defense Medal. Since I was always on the lookout for flashy stuff to hang on my uniform, I accepted it. Proudly.
We were sworn to secrecy after our debriefing. We had to pinky-swear that we would never, ever, under any circumstances divulge the real purpose of this mission. I realize that I am betraying my solemn oath by recounting the ugly details of this mission, but I think that history demands no less. April Oliver's assurances that I would make a bundle from a combined book/movie deal had no bearing on my decision. Honest. I pinky-swear.
I had suppressed this memory for more than thirty years and it only surfaced while I was being interviewed by April Oliver and Peter Arnett. They mentioned "Burma" and it all came back to me in a flood of recollection. It explained my lingering sinus condition which was no doubt caused by exposure to mustard danger-close. At least that's what my acupuncturist thinks. I have filed a VA claim for a service-connected disability but the churlish VA denied it.
I think CNN plans to air a special about the secret war in Burma and I think I will be featured prominently, along with Stretch Grohman, who hasn't returned any of my calls. You might want to check your TV listings for the time and channel. Did I say "Time"? Maybe I'd better call Walter Isaacson and bring him into this.
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