The Last Tet

(Jan. 1974) I stood outside the hootch bar at Camp Tarbox. The stars were crystal clear in late January of 1974 as a cold breeze from China blew across the Khorat Plateau. I was the coordinator for a South Vietnamese detachment of 20 men at the Royal Thai Air Force Base, near Nakorn Phanom, Thailand. The Vietnamese had prepared for Tet,  the Vietnamese New Year celebration, by fixing a feast, including a pig cooked over a pit. Click image.

We worked in a National Security Agency site where we intercepted intelligence along the Ho chi Minh Trail. Our platform (mission) was called Comfy Gator and the Vietnamese were initially called the Bees and I was the Beekeeper. Later, the names were changed. They were now the Dancers and I became the Dancer Coordinator.

I was leaving for the states in less than two weeks and out of the security service. I was scheduled to go to survival school before being sent to flight duty and I decided that was not a good career choice so I took an early out. This would be one of the last South Vietnamese detachments at Camp Tarbox since the war was winding down for the U.S. But the North Vietnamese army was sending plenty of troops, artillery and tanks to Southern Laos and Cambodia in preparation for attacks on South Vietnam. I once followed a convoy of North Vietnamese tanks heading south for almost 7 hours. I could hear the tank commanders talking to each other as they discussed how to maneuver over various obstacles along the roadway. Click image.

It was just after 20:00. The Dancers had arrived, along with the civilian in charge, James B. and a guest, a naval commander with 6 tours of duty in South Vietnam. We gathered around a long table outside the hootch bar and a few speeches were made. James translated into English since the American commander, who stood about 6-2 and looked like a soldier, gave his speech in Vietnamese.

He spoke like an educated Vietnamese and gave an eloquent speech, fearing that some back home were ready to wash their hands of the war. He praised the Vietnamese people and those who fought and died in the defense of their country. At the end we drank to the long life of the Republic of Vietnam.

After the formalities, I picked up a piece of lettuce and placed several slices of pork and some vegetables on it, then added a Vietnamese sauce that was sweet and a little hot. It was some of the best food I ever ate although it’s tough to choose between that and Thai food. I picked up a Budweiser and sat under the covered table out front.

Hiep, one of the Vietnamese translators, joined me and we talked about the war. Hiep said he was from North Vietnam and his family had a large farm south of Hanoi. When the communists came to their farm with hundreds of people, they demanded that he give the land to them.

He said, “My father told them no and they hung him from a tree and forced us to leave. We went south and started again. Now I fight the communists in South Vietnam. I hope America don’t leave us because we have no where to go.”

We sipped on our beers and I thought, choosing my words carefully. I said, My wish is that the Republic of Vietnam is victorious and your people always live in peace. At that moment I just couldn’t tell the truth.

But I knew when this war started, whenever it started for us (there was no announcement), that it was always a lost cause. I went back to my room, feeling sorry for Hiep and the rest of the Vietnamese people.

The next year the North Vietnamese invaded Saigon and won the war. I heard that the last detachment at Camp Tarbox asked for asylum in the United States.

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