My Vietnam, an Advisors Story and the Beginnings of an Unknown War
Da Nang, Vietnam 1964-65
By John A. Palmer, SK1, USN
Formerly MACVSOG, U.S. Naval Advisory Detachment, Danang
Cover Story: Civilian Advisor
In April 1964, with no known war on the horizon and believing as a sailor I would serve aboard ship, I reenlisted in the Navy for six years, never to serve aboard ship again. It never crossed my mind in 3 months, I’d be in a War. My orders were to Vietnam, a place few Americans had ever heard of. Only 16,000 Americans were in Vietnam at the time, all advisors and not allowed to fight. I flew out of Travis Air Force Base, on a 727 Aircraft, a very comfortable flight with movies and everything, in those days you got a huge seat, to Honolulu, Guam, the Philippines and after only 27 hours and I arrived in
The first thing a sailor would expect. Upon landing in Saigon, I realized I was the only sailor there. A brilliant Army Sgt. looked at his clipboard and said, “you must be SK3 Palmer, get on the Army Bus.” After short ride into Saigon, we stopped at an Army Hotel, I was told to check in and someone would come for me in the morning. I was given a room with two soldiers. A soldier picked me up and took me to the Navy office, where they took my orders and told me to fill out a stack of forms, and said, “Sailor, you are in the Army Now.” I was taken to an Army admin office and worked as clerk typist for the Army. The Army housed, fed & paid me. All my friends were soldiers. People coming into the office, would see the sailor in white, among the khaki and I got the strangest looks. Yes, there were a lot of Navy jokes. I was one of them. And THEN, and THEN, and THEN. On August 2, 1964, I awoke, in Saigon on a historical morning in History. The Gulf of Tonkin incident. America, we have a problem. America began to awaken to the fact Americans were in Vietnam. The Army had a new mission for me. Typing up paperwork to help get the Army dependents out of Saigon. Yes, up until this time some of the Soldiers had their families with them. The stack of papers the Navy gave me earlier now made sense. They were a request for a SECRET security clearance. I was going so deep in Black ops, even I was not told what was going on. Shortly after the Gulf of Tonkin incident, I was off to Danang.
My Flight Saigon to Danang
Before taking off from Saigon, I was given a carbine with one 10 round clip. I asked the Army Sergeant, what am I supposed to do with this, make the enemy mad, then surrender? He said, “I agree but, that is all you are allowed.” In event of an airplane malfunction, I would be a sailor, roaming around the jungles of Vietnam in his white uniform, completely untrained, never having fired a weapon in my life, with 10 rounds of ammo. This would be the last time I wore my uniform for 14 months. In the front of the plane was what appeared to be Marine Captain talking to the pilots, I could see he was armed to the teeth a rifle, a pistol, and many extra clips and other equipment. So, I thought in event of any problem, he is my best buddy. As the flight takes off from Saigon, I’m seated in a strap seat along the side of the plane, looking at the cargo, just a foot away. Below are the mountains & jungles of Vietnam. It’s 1964, and few Americans had heard of Vietnam. Eight months before I walked the streets
of Barcelona, Naples, Athens, the Rivera, and I stood on the Acropolis, now I’m in a war. Not bad for a 20-year-old Ionia, Michigan boy. I really had no idea what was going on, heading to a city in the North called Danang, a place few have ever heard of, one I know nothing of, where it is, or why I’m going there. It was called the U.S. Naval Advisory Detachment, in Saigon they couldn’t, or wouldn’t, tell me anything, It was like it didn’t exist. My vague orders said: Activity to which transferred: HEADQUARTERS SUPPORT ACTIVITY, SAIGON, REPUBLIC OF VIETNAM, purpose of the transfer: FOR ADMIN PURPOSES & FURTHER REPORT TO COMUSMAV FOR DU SPEC OPS GP IN A NEW BILLET. After a month in Saigon, I heard the name for the first time just days ago. My security clearance has finally been approved. SK3 John A. Palmer, was disappearing into a world described in the book, “Black Ops Vietnam, MACVSOG, operations known only to the US Embassy in Saigon, the highest military authorities and President Johnson. Everything we did was denied. Upon landing we were picked up by a civilian, myself & the Marine Captain. The Marine Captain turned out to be our units new Doctor. Who says there is never a doctor when you need one? I guess as usual the joke was on me.
The Military Assistance Command Vietnam (MACV), Special Operations Group (SOG) Aka MACVSOG was the U.S. Army, Navy, Marine Corps, & Air Force, the CIA, the U.S. Embassy, Navy Seals, Green Berets, all twisted together, operating under deep cover, attacking North Vietnam by inserting South Vietnamese special forces, trained & equipped by the above into North Vietnam.
The Naval Advisory Detachment, Danang (NAD), trained and equipped the South Vietnamese Navy (SVN) and
their special forces. They conducted missions planned & controlled by NAD. We provided the PT boats and paid
their crews, trained, and equipped them. The SVN would attack coastal targets in North Vietnam or insert their
My Vietnamese Drivers License
My South Vietnamese driver’s license was issued on June 11, 1964, at Danang. I didn’t arrive in Saigon until July 13, 1964.
Military personal drive with their Military driver’s license. No local driver’s license is necessary. But because I was using the cover story that I was a civilian and carrying false i.d., I had to have a license issued by the South Vietnamese Government. This is a Black Ops situation. My license was issued before I left Washington D.C. My Navy I.D. Card was in My wallet, But I could show it to anyone, not even the M.P.’s.
The article on the upper right seems to publish our, “Black Ops”’ just as NAD was getting started. All they left out was the word, “Secret”. Dated June 17, 1964, from the New York Daily News. Sounds to me someone was talking
President Johnson pledges to the UN Secretary General , “that American military might would be used only in self defense and against those would abridge world peace. “
Days after ordering attacks on North Vietnam, the president promises not to attack North Vietnam. These secrets, known by us at USNAD Danang would not start leaking for over two decades. We were sworn to secrecy.
In April 1965 my roommate, Sam Canada RM2 and I went to
the Danang Airport for a flight to Hong Kong for R&R. Upon
arrival we found a large group of soldiers standing around,
many were officers. When an Embassy plane landed, all
they had room for two, embassy personnel first. Then they
called for RM2 Canada & SK3 Palmer. You should have heard
the Senior Officers cussing out the crew of the embassy
plane. That’s how I found out NAD personnel, were
Embassy personnel, which I never even heard before.
It explained a few things. On a prior trip to Saigon, we had
returned on Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge’s private
plane. We sat up front with the Ambassador, who worked
in the rear of the plane. An hour or so into the flight he took
a break and came up and talked to us for a while. I had one
other flight on an Embassy plane without the Ambassador.
The Last month of my tour would be at the future , “Camp
Fay”. It was not named yet, because when I Left Cdr. Fay was still alive. We went from safe house one, then two and ended up the camp above.
MARINES LAND IN VIETNAM
The USS Henrico, Union, and Vancouver, carrying the 9th Marine Expeditionary Brigade , took up stations 4,000 yards
off Red Beach Two, north of Da Nang. First ashore was the Battalion Landing Team 3/9, which arrived on the beach at
8:15 a.m. wearing full battle gear and carrying M-14s, Within two hours, Battalion Landing Team 1/3 began landing at Da
Nang air base.
This is What I saw, behind the Cameras
In more recent history, Danang is best-known for its role in the American Vietnam War. The Danang Airbase was a major
American airbase, used both by the Americans and the South Vietnamese. Nearby China Beach, named after its
beautiful China-white sand, was home to the 510th Evacuation Hospital, where wounded American soldiers would
come to recover. China Beach itself was an American in-country R&R spot, nicknamed the “Five and Dime”. The
Vietcong, meanwhile, had their own hospital surprisingly close by in the caves of the Marble Mountains.
Our China Beach
On the back of the top postcard in 1964 I wrote, “I’ve never
seen more than two or three people on the beach at one
time. I’ve never seen this beach crowded.”
Spanish Beach, NAD’s private beach. It was there in mid 1964. I was told the CIA built it.
Bob Hope’s Secret Trip!
In December 1964 one of the big stories was Bob Hope was coming to Vietnam. He was and then he wasn’t, the story kept changing. Then one day they showed up and as you can see from these pictures, USNAD had almost a front row seat, because of our constant trading with the Air Force Police. I will always be thankful for Bob Hope and his troop for coming almost to the end of the earth to entertain and show their love for those serving their country
These are probably pre-1964 CIA swift boats. When I arrived in 1964, the boats had South Vietnamese crews and flew their flag and they were armed.
During the early years of the Vietnam war, the US denied it had any troops operating outside of South Vietnam. As a result,
SOG operators wore sterilized uniforms and carried weaponry without serial numbers to avoid detection.
A 1964 Trip to the SOG’s ”Secret Paradise Island” the coast of Danang aboard a South Vietnamese swift boat.
Our Supply Chain, August 1964
“Accountability for material was almost impossible… Probably the worst problem was the fact that from bottom to top the distribution of items to friends for favors was condoned, permitted, or indulged in by numerous personnel in SOG.” It sounds to me the LT was trying to put square pegs in round holes. NAD Danang is started with almost nothing, making DO as best we could, with no supply chain and he can’t get his requisitions signed.(Lt. Terry Lingle, Supply Officer, MACSOG, 1964-65 from, “Draft MACSOG Documentation Study, Comments on Logistics”, TAB D to Annex S, to appendix B, page B-s-7).
Below our improved supply chain a few months later. Our supply channel was yet to be established and we had poor
communications with Saigon or anywhere.
Our Safe Houses
Former CIA Safe Houses
Old French Villas, enclosed inside high walls and locked gates. The enlisted Army, Navy, and Marines, about 16 of us lived
together. As an SK3 (E-4) I was low man on the totem pole. Most of my housemates were E-6 or above. We called everyone by their first name, or nickname, no military titles, even with the officers. Remember our cover story, we were civilians.
The officers lived two to a house spread around the city and the senior officers had their own houses. I always appreciated
having other Americans around and it was safer. We had a full-time cook, maid, & laundry service. When returning in the evening, a hot shower & throw the dirty things in a corner and the next evening, everything would be washed and on the bed.
22 Lei Loi Street, Danang. Former CIA Safe House and NAD’s safe house. We moved on to 6 Bai Dinh on 29 December 1964.
My half of the room shared with RM2 Sam Canada at our first Safe House at 22 Lei Loi Street, Danang.
Nothing is more clandestine than 14 Americans, living in an old French Villa, driving 10 or more unmarked army green trucks & jeeps, living in a city almost devoid of Westerners, on an all-Vietnamese Street, where few had vehicles. With one-armed guard outside our gate. Americans would not start flooding in until March. Who would notice?
For over a year this was my barbershop, when we arrived
in July 1964, MACVSOG & NAD had no support, no supply
chain, and very poor Communications with Saigon.
(From left) (Navy) HM1 Vaughan (Robert?) from Hawaii –
(Navy) Gilbert Unknown QM1 from near Grand Rapids,
Mich.) – (On right) two unknowns, one believed to be a
On China Beach
Our Navy Doctor, the brunt of the joke.
Because I was sworn to secrecy as a member MACVSOG, I let the reporter from Ionia, MI answer her own questions. I Just smiled and answered yes. I knew Secrets only President Johnson and few others new. Questions Congress was trying to answer, the Administration was lying about everything.
HOME AFTER VIETNAM
Ionia County News, October 7, 1965 Four years ago, John Palmer was studying among other things, current events at Ionia high school. For the past 15 months, until September 30, he has been part of one of the most current events in today’s history. 14 of these months he was stationed in Danang in Vietnam with the U.S. Navy. One of the months were spent in Saigon.
The 21-year-old Palmer smiles easily as he talks of his recent tour of duty but his eyes, express concern when he reluctantly talks of the fighting and the people in Vietnam. Home on leave until October 12, visiting his wife and his parents, Mr. and Mrs. Harold Palmer, he said the general feeling of the servicemen in Vietnam is we must stay. We are gaining by slowly winning the will of the people thru economic aid and thru their efforts in pointing out the Vietcong we are making progress in the guerrilla
John, a Navy SK3, graduated from Ionia high school in 1962 and then enlisted for a four-year period. When his enlistment was up, he signed up for another, six-year hitch. Before going to Vietnam, He spent nine months aboard the U.S.S. Casa Grande. Six of which were spent in the Mediterranean. John, who received his basic training at Great Lakes Illinois. Will leave next week for Little Creek Virginia where he will be assigned to Inshore Undersea Warfare Group Two. Morale of the American in Vietnam is
extremely high, Palmer said, and added the Vietnamese people want the Americans to stay to help defeat the Communist.
I was one of the first Vietnam Veterans to return home, we received no thanks. The Vietnam veteran was spit on, cursed
at, and even assaulted at times. We weren’t allowed to wear our uniforms with pride. In fact, it was recommended we not wear our uniform off base.
While walking alone on the back streets of Saigon in 1965, I was thanked. An old Vietnamese man approached me and said in broken English, “I Vietnamese, you American, thank you”. What better thanks could you get for your service.
It is disappointing I was not able to attend this ceremony, especially because I lived on Raleigh at the time which is only 50 miles away. But of course, they had no way to contact us.
I’m Proud to have served with those who earned this
– John A Palmer