My Vietnam Experience and the Vietnamese Language By Robert D. Farmer, Major, USMC (ret)

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DLIAA Newsletter VII (July 2005)

My Vietnam Experience and the Vietnamese Language
By Robert D. Farmer, Major, USMC (ret)

After graduating from the Defense Language Institute in 1969 I received orders to the 1st Marine Division in Vietnam. I arrived in November 1969.

I was assigned initially to the 5th Marine Regiment based at An Hoa, located about 30 miles southwest of Da Nang. Although I had an Infantry MOS, I was assigned to the Regimental S-5 shop because of my language training. I became the Psychological Operations and Civic Action NCOIC. The S-5 was also responsible for Civil Affairs and managed all the Vietnamese workers for the Fire Base. Most were daily hires and a few had civil-service type jobs.

From the first day I arrived in Vietnam, I spoke Vietnamese daily until I left some 19 months later. I acted as an Interpreter for the Regimental Commander and the Regimental Staff numerous times.

The S-5 worked in the villages and hamlets on a daily basis. Our mission was to win the hearts and minds of the local populace in our area. Some of the methods we used were pro-government, pro-US leaflet drops, movie-teams, culture teams, and loudspeakers from both aircraft and ground broadcast. I flew on several of the aerial broadcast missions with the Air Force PSYOP aircraft. I took my loudspeaker team on operations with line companies and we were involved in numerous firefights. I also interrogated detainees and prisoners.

I also was responsible for the Chieu Hoi program. Chieu Hoi was a defector to the Vietnamese government. I interviewed the Chieu Hoi and on occasion would escort the Chieu Hoi back in the VC controlled areas to get his family out.

If civilians were killed or property damaged we went out and paid retribution to those involved. The worst case I remember was when I had to go to a village that had been hit by 11 rounds of 155mm HE killing 42 villagers. The village was isolated and they had never met an American that could speak Vietnamese. I believe that is helped the situation a great deal.

We also were involved in Civic Action, e.g., building new schools, medical aid stations, clinics, scholarships for school children, etc. We worked at resettling refugees from free-fire zone areas to areas under government control. I established several unique programs distributing milk to children and a food for work program in cooperation with the Internal Rescue Committee.

I became known in the areas where I worked and the Vietnamese people would pass intelligence information to me not trusting the ARVN. I picked up information on American POWs. I also worked with the Phoenix Program operatives in my AOR several times. I helped identify members of the VC infrastructure in the villages and hamlets.

After six months in Vietnam I was meritoriously combat promoted to Gunnery Sergeant.

In June 1970 I requested to be transferred to 3rd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment as the S-5 replacing a Captain. I was the primary staff Officer S-5 to the Battalion Commander. I continued to perform the same S-5 responsibilities as outlined above with 3/5 at Hill 65, LZ Baldy, LZ Ross and the Queson valley among other places.

I extended my normal 12-month tour twice because I felt that I was doing a worthwhile job and there was no one who could speak the language as well – had the contacts among the Vietnamese and do the job I was doing.

On my second extension I asked for and was transferred to a Mike Company 1st Marines. With a primary MOS of infantry, I wanted to be a rifle company Gunnery Sergeant and I became the Company Gunny of Mike Company. We were an outstanding company with experienced SNCOs and Officers. I obtained intelligence from the local villagers and Mike company executed the last successful ambush for the U.S. Marines in Vietnam killing 6-10 North Vietnamese regulars near Hill 190 north of Da Nang.

After the regular Marine units left, I was transferred to Force Logistics Command because they wanted a Vietnamese linguist. I ran all over the area trying to find and pay the Vietnamese who had worked for the Marine Corps on the various firebases around the Da Nang area. I was one of the last Marines to leave Vietnam on 22 June 1971.

In 1972 I was selected for Warrant Officer and promoted in Feb 1973 as an Interrogator/Translator Officer and received orders back to the Defense Language Institute at Monterey to study Arabic for one year. After graduation I became the OIC of all the Interrogator/Translator Teams at II MEF, Camp Lejeune.

I was promoted to 1st Lieutenant from CWO-2 in June 1977. I became the S-2 of the 1st Marine Regiment. In 1980 I attended the Defense Intelligence College graduating in 1981.

My second experience with the Vietnam language was in 1987. I was a Major and the Intelligence Operations Officer for the 1st Marine Division at Camp Pendleton. The Defense Intelligence Agency requested that I go TAD (TDY) on a special assignment to Southeast Asia to work MIA/POW matters and investigate reports of live sightings of Americans still in Vietnam. It was called Operation Stoney Beach. This was before Operation Full-Accounting and Diplomatic relations with Vietnam.

I worked Stoney Beach for seven months working in several Vietnamese Refugee Camps in the Philippines, one on Palawan Island and one camp on the Bataan peninsula. The UN High Commission on Refugees ran the camp on Palawan Island. I interviewed hundreds of Vietnamese refugees for information on live sightings of Americans in Vietnam. Many of the refugees were former South Vietnamese Army Officers who spent years incarcerated in Re-education camps. They told me that a number of Vietnamese that I worked with in Dai Loc, Queson and Duc Duc districts had been killed or died in the camps. In the Palawan Camp I literally was screening “boat people” for information as they were landing from the sea. I recovered a skeleton of an American from a Vietnamese refugee in the UN Refugee Camp on Palawan Island. I sent the remains to the Central Identification Lab in Hawaii.

When it was learned in the camps that I was looking for missing Americans in Vietnam, I became a bone collector. The refugees would give me bones and claim the bones were American. I also picked up hundreds of “dog tags”. It was frustrating work to say the least. I returned to CONUS in 1988.

I never worked in the language again except for my trips to Orange County, where I tasted the best Vietnamese food in the world, including Vietnam.

R.W. "Dick" Gaines
GnySgt USMC (Ret.)
1952 (Plt #437)--'72
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