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had been forced out after eight years of fighting and scores of thousands
of deaths. Left as a reminder was a ragged demilitarized zone (DMZ) that
cut across the narrow middle of the country like a haunting dead zone; a
no-man's-land separating the pro-Communist forces in the North from


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the pro-Western forces in the South. Six hundred and eighty-five
American advisers were now in Vietnam and the financial commitment
since 1954 topped $2 billion.
Pressured by the Pentagon, which was concerned over growing reports
of Communist infiltration into South Vietnam, Kennedy ordered a few
helicopter and Special Forces units to the area. Then the Army began
lobbying to also send signals intelligence assistance. For years South
Vietnamese officials had asked for NSA's help in locating and eliminating
Ho's infiltrators from the North, the Vietcong. But Eisenhower had long
rejected the requests, considering the information and techniques far too
secret.
Kennedy reluctantly gave in to the Army's pressure. During a meeting
of the National Security Council on April 29, 1961, he authorized NSA to
begin providing Sigint support to the South Vietnamese Army. Sharing
such sensitive information with a foreign government was highly
unusual, as reflected in the Top Secret/Codeword "Communications
Intelligence Regulation" that authorized the transfer. Because "the
current situation in South Vietnam is considered to be an extreme
emergency involving an imminent threat to the vital interests of the
United States," said the order, dissemination of Sigint to the South
Vietnamese military was authorized "to the extent needed to launch rapid
attacks on Vietnamese Communists' communications."
Vice Admiral Laurence H. Frost, the director of NSA, ordered his
military arm, the Army Security Agency (ASA), to begin immediate
preparations. Within weeks the 400th ASA Special Operations Unit
(Provisional), using the cover name 3rd Radio Research Unit and the
classified NSA designation "USM 626," was airborne. On May 13, 1961,
the spit-shined boots of ninety-three Army cryptologists stepped from a
silver C-130 transport onto the tarmac of Saigon's Tan Son Nhut Air
Base. It was the Year of the Buffalo, symbolizing patience, fruitful toil,
and peaceful contentment, concepts that would be difficult to find in a
country on the precipice of all-out war. Green to combat, the Sigint
experts would have a difficult time hearing the enemy.
Ho's twenty years in the underground taught him not only the art of
guerrilla warfare, but also how to keep a secret. Within days of his
declaration of independence, officials of the rebel government began
addressing the issue of codes and ciphers. "In the first days of the
revolutionary regime," said a North Vietnamese document obtained and
translated by NSA, "an urgent requirement was to research methods of
using cryptography so as to ensure communications security." Ho
himself warned a class of budding codemakers: "Cryptography must be
secret, swift, and accurate. Cryptographers must be security conscious
and of one mind."



242
By the time of the war with America, Ho was calling his code-makers
"cryptographic warriors" and ordering them to prevent loss of their crypto
materials at all cost. He would give examples of heroic deeds to emulate.
In 1962, they were told, Petty Officer Third Class Bui Dang Dzuong, a
cryptographer on a small ship, ran into fierce weather. Nevertheless, as
the boat was sinking he "destroyed the entire set of [cryptographic]
materials. . . . Big waves, heavy wind, and sapped of strength”Comrade
Dzuong gave his life." In another example, two cryptographers were
injured during an attack; one stepped on a mine "that snapped his leg"
while the other's "ears deafened and ran blood." Nevertheless, they
"calmly preserved the cryptographic system," and only after they were
relieved by a replacement did they go to the hospital. Following the
lectures, the youthful codemakers were sent "down the Ho Chi Minh trail
into the South to strike America."
The Vietcong cryptographers learned their lessons well. While
throwing an electronic fishing net into the ether, they regularly reeled it
back in bulging with American communications; but they seldom used
radios themselves. While they listened to broadcasts from Hanoi on
inexpensive transistor radios, they sent messages back to their
commands with couriers, except in dire emergencies. For local
communications, they often used radios with very low power, frustrating
American eavesdroppers.
From dusk to dawn, the Vietcong ruled, in varying degrees, more than
half of the South. They marched over, under, and around the DMZ like
worker ants. In the South, supporters were recruited and resisters often
shot.
Locating the guerrillas so they could be killed or captured was the job
of the radio direction-finding specialists. Another operation, code-named
White Birch, involved eavesdropping on the nests of Vietcong infiltrators.
A third, dubbed Sabertooth, trained the South Vietnamese soldiers to
intercept, locate, and process plaintext voice communications.
The art of codebreaking, however, was considered too sensitive to pass
on to South Vietnamese students.
Home for the 3rd Radio Research Unit was an old hangar within the
South Vietnamese Army's Joint General Staff Compound at Tan Son
Nhut Air Base. Temperature inside the un-air-conditioned building
regularly exceeded 100 degrees, and when a monsoon downpour came,
the water would rush in through the front door and flood the space
several inches deep.
Separating the various sections were walls made of stacked C-ration
boxes. The analysts worked on long tables constructed of plywood and
scrap lumber, but because there were so few chairs, the table was made
about four feet tall so they could stand up while working. The NSA


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official assigned to the unit did little better. "As a civilian from NSA," he
said, "I was fortunate. They made me a desk”two stacks of C-ration
boxes with a piece of plywood laid across them”and gave me a folding
chair." Living conditions for the NSA chief were much more comfortable.
First assigned to the Majestic Hotel in downtown Saigon, he was later
moved to a two-bedroom villa he shared with an ASA officer.
Within seven months the Sigint force more than doubled. By
December 1961, the secret organization had grown to 236 men, along
with eighteen intercept positions. Listening posts stretched as far north
as Phu Bai, near the DMZ, a choice spot to pick up valuable cross-border
communications. The school for training South Vietnamese soldiers was
set up at the South Vietnamese Army Signal Compound.
In the field, the work was nerve-racking and dangerous. It was, said
President Kennedy, a "war by ambush rather than combat," one made up
of "guerrillas, subversives, insurgents, assassins." Among the first Army
cryptologists to arrive in Vietnam was twenty-five-year-old James T.
Davis, a pharmacist's son from Tennessee whose words rolled off his
tongue with a honey-coated twang. Based at Tan Son Nhut, the
specialist-4 was assigned to search for Vietcong guerrillas in the tangled,
overgrown jungle of giant ferns and dirt paths near Saigon. Traveling
with heavily armed South Vietnamese soldiers, he needed to get close
enough to the rebels so that his PRC-10 mobile radio direction-finding
equipment could pick up their short-range signals. But if he got too
close, he would become the hunted rather than the hunter. It was a
deadly game of hide-and-seek, in which the loser was attacked and likely
killed and the winner survived for another day.
Three days before Christmas in 1961, Davis climbed into his jeep and,
accompanied by his team of South Vietnamese soldiers, set off for a new
location to the west of Saigon. But about eight miles from the air base,
muzzle flashes from automatic weapons cut across his path and he
zigzagged to avoid the fire. A split second later he heard a loud boom and
was thrown to the ground as a powerful land mine blew his jeep apart.
Davis grabbed for his M-l carbine and he and the others opened fire.
But by now they were surrounded, and within minutes nine of his South
Vietnamese troops had been killed by machine-gun fire. A bullet crashed
into the back of Davis's head and he collapsed on the ground. The
Vietnam War had claimed its first American victim”a Sigint specialist.
Two weeks later, the 3rd Radio Research Unit's secret headquarters at
Tan Son Nhut Air Base would be named Davis Station. Eventually, a
barracks at NSA headquarters would also bear his name.
In Washington, that remote wave was beginning to swell and head
toward shore. Kennedy further Americanized the civil war, ordering the
CIA to beef up its covert operations far above the DMZ. Late at night, out



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of carbon-black skies, billowing parachutes glided gracefully to earth.
But the missions, to infiltrate heavily armed South Vietnamese
commandos into the North, were doomed before they began as a result of
poor security. Automatic fire instead of friendly faces greeted most of the
teams as they touched down at their landing spots in the northern
regions of North Vietnam.
Soon after President Johnson moved into the White House, following
Kennedy's assassination in November 1963, the once far-off swell
became a tidal wave about to crash. By mid-1964 there were 16,000 U.S.
troops in the country and the war was costing American taxpayers about
$1.5 million a day. Giving up on the disastrous CIA infiltration scheme,
Johnson instead ordered the Joint Chiefs to develop a much more
aggressive”but still "plausibly deniable"”operation that would convince
Ho to give up his war for the South. The answer was Operational Plan
34A”OPLAN 34A, in Pentagonese”an ill-conceived CIA/Pentagon
scheme for sabotage and hit-and-run attacks against the interior and
coast of North Vietnam.
For a quarter of a century Ho had fought for an independent, unified
Vietnam, successfully driving the heavily armed French back to Paris.
Even Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara thought OPLAN 54A
made no sense. "Many of us who knew about the 34A operations had
concluded they were essentially worthless," he recalled years later. "Most
of the South Vietnamese agents sent into North Vietnam were either
captured or killed, and the seaborne attacks amounted to little more
than pinpricks."
Just as U.S. and South Vietnamese forces fought back against the
guerrillas from the North, the North Vietnamese fought back against the
commandos from the South, on both land and sea.
Into the middle of the fighting sailed NSA. According to an NSA report,
"By midsummer of 1964 the curtain was going up on the main event,
and no single element in the United States government played a more
critical role in national decisions, both during and after the fact, than the
National Security Agency."
For several years NSA's seagoing eavesdroppers, the Naval Security
Group, had been searching for ways to conduct signals intelligence along
the coastal areas of their high-priority targets. Long-range high-
frequency North Vietnamese naval communications could be collected at
large, distant listening posts, such as at Kamiseya in Japan and San
Miguel in the Philippines. Other medium-range signals could be
snatched by the large NSA listening posts at Davis Station in Saigon and
at Phu Bai, near the DMZ. But to snare short-range signals, such as
walkie-talkie and coastal communications, the antennas and receivers
would have to get close to the action. Off limits were the large



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eavesdropping factories owned exclusively by NSA, such as the USS
Oxford. And far in the future were the smaller, Navy-owned Sigint ships,
such as the Pueblo.
The only alternative was to build Sigint shacks inside large steel
antenna-sprouting boxes. These shipping-container-like huts would then
be lowered onto a destroyer and sealed to the deck. The ship would then
cruise close to a shoreline, like a spy at a party with a bugged olive in his
martini glass.
They were far from ideal. Unlike the dedicated Sigint ships, which
were virtually unarmed and unthreatening in appearance, the heavily
armed destroyers were designed to be threatening and their presence was
provocative. At the same time, the amount of signals intelligence that
could be collected in the steel box on the deck was minuscule compared
with what the dedicated ships could gather.
The Naval Security Group began conducting these Sigint patrols,
codenamed DeSoto, in April 1962 with missions off China and North
Korea. In January 1964, as they were planning the OPLAN 34A hit-and-
run operations, the Joint Chiefs ordered additional DeSoto patrols off the
North Vietnamese coast, in the Gulf of Tonkin. The signals generated by
the surprise coastal attacks, they assumed, would be a good source of
naval intelligence for the Sigint collectors. In addition to voice
communications, the locations and technical details of coastal radar
systems could be captured.
The first mission was conducted by the USS Craig in late February
1964. Resting on the ship's deck were both a Comint van for
communications intelligence and an Elint van for radar signals. But
upon spotting an American warship idling suspiciously a half-dozen
miles off their coast, the security-conscious North Vietnamese navy
quickly switched off virtually all nonessential radar and communications
systems. Thus the Sigint take was poor.
At the request of U.S. officials in Saigon who were planning the raids
into North Vietnam, another DeSoto mission was scheduled for the end
of July 1964. It was felt that if a DeSoto mission coincided with coastal
commando raids, there would be less chance of another washout.
Chosen to host the electronic spies was the USS Maddox, a standard
Navy "tin can," as destroyers were known. But whereas other ships had
been ordered to stay at least thirteen miles off the coasts of such
countries as China, North Korea, and the Soviet Union, the Maddox was
authorized to approach as close as eight miles from the North
Vietnamese coast, and four miles from offshore islands.
Like itinerant seamen, the Sigint vans would bounce from ship to
ship, sailing off the coast of China on one tin can and then off the coast
of North Korea on another. The crews also would change. One month a


246
van might be filled with Russian linguists and the next with Chinese.
"Home" for the vans was the port of Keelung in Taiwan. Because there
were only a few available to cover a large area, they were very much in
demand. The one lowered onto the deck of the Maddox had earlier been
lifted from the deck of the USS MacKenzie, where, loaded with Russian
linguists, it had eavesdropped off the Soviet coast.
As the Maddox was about to enter the Gulf of Tonkin, tensions were
very high. At My Khe, a gritty stretch of coarse, hard-packed sand at the
base of Monkey Mountain, U.S. Navy SEALs were teaching South
Vietnamese marines the science of inflicting the maximum amount of
death and destruction in the minimum amount of time. The main base
from which the raids to the north took place, the My Khe compound was
made up of a series of "compartmented" camps divided along ethnic
lines, and long wooden docks. Secretly run by U.S. forces, it was a land
of white phosphorus rockets and black rubber boats.
Late on the night of July 30, 1964, as moonlight rippled across the
choppy Gulf of Tonkin, a raiding party of South Vietnamese commandos
climbed aboard four large, fast patrol boats. Several of the type known as
PTFs”or, appropriately, Nasty-class boats”were powered by diesel
engines. The others were standard American-made, gasoline-driven PT
boats. The vessels were armed with 57mm light infantry cannon. Bluish-
gray exhaust gas shot from the rear of the guns, rather than the muzzle,
to reduce the amount of recoil so that they would be steadier when used
out of their mounts.
In the early morning hours of July 31, about halfway up the North
Vietnamese coast, the boats blasted away at two offshore islands, Hon
Me and Hon Ngu, in the most violent of the South Vietnamese”U.S.
raids thus far.
As the boats were returning to My Khe later that same morning, their
wake passed within four miles of the Maddox, then just north of the

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