Thursday, July 13, 2006

Chico author recalls naval intelligence work during the Vietnam conflict


Douglass H. Hubbard Jr., born in 1945, joined the Naval Investigative Service Office in Washington, D.C. and became an agent. With dreams of catching spies, he volunteered for service in Vietnam. "I was 23," he writes. "The world was my apple." It was 1969; that year U.S. troop strength would peak at more than half a million. He chose Da Nang.

His story, and that of many of the two dozen Naval Intelligence civilian special agents who also served in Vietnam, is told in "Special Agent, Vietnam: A Naval Intelligence Memoir" ($26.95 in hardcover from Potomac Books). Hubbard stayed in Vietnam for three year-long tours, the most of any Naval Intelligence Service (NIS) agent.

Hubbard notes the passage of time has taken its toll on the agents who served there. Some have died, memories have clouded; he writes that "it fell to me, more than four decades after the first agent deployment (in 1962), to tell as much of that story as possible."

The Navy refused "to confirm or deny the existence of all the documents and photographs that we had written and submitted," so Hubbard has instead relied on interviews with surviving agents, his own memories and publicly available information. The book includes helpful maps, photographs of the agents and a glossary of seemingly numberless military acronyms. The result is a careful study of the role of NIS agents in South Vietnam until the fall of Saigon in 1975. Hubbard's language is measured, but there is passion behind the words.

He investigated allegations of drug use among troops, suicides, rape, mail fraud, smuggling, spying and the death of Australian entertainer Catherine Ann Warnes (whose stage name was Cathy Wayne) in 1969. She "had been shot while performing with her troupe at the staff and officers' club" at a base in Da Nang. (A Marine sergeant was eventually arrested.)

Then there was "fragging," the use of a fragmentation grenade to cause mayhem or settle personal scores. Hubbard writes that "the small M26 frag packed a huge wallop. Its high-explosive charge was wrapped by strands of serrated stainless-steel wire, fragments of which traveled at several thousand feet per second on detonation -- providing a kill radius of about 15 meters."

Some cases were motivated by racial tension, such as the one in 1970 involving Pvt. Ronald McDonald, USMC, who, Hubbard writes, "may well have been a product of Defense Secretary Robert McNamara's social engineering plan to fill vacancies in the armed forces by lowering entry standards." McDonald managed to obtain a British 36 "Mills Bomb" fragmentation grenade to use against an officer he felt had insulted him. The grenade went off, the officer survived, but McDonald got 80 years. One of the agents who worked the case told Hubbard in an interview, "They led this guy away in handcuffs, but he was still giving the black power salute."

After his time in Vietnam, Hubbard left the NIS to explore business ventures. He returned to Vietnam in the late 1990s and found much of the destruction had disappeared. "A visitor to Vietnam who knew the country during the war will probably at some point ponder about what difference America's brave attempt to rescue South Vietnam made. As I stared out over the verdant rice paddies in the former demilitarized zone ... I was prompted to think that, despite a preponderance of altruism, we had mattered very little in the context of Vietnam's two millennia of history."

Dan Barnett teaches philosophy at Butte College. To submit review copies of published books, please send e-mail to Copyright 2006 Chico Enterprise-Record. Used by permission.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Having been one of the Agents with Doug in Vietnam his book hits the spot and really drives home the condictions that we lived and worked. The book brought home many memories of out times together in beautiful downtown saigon and the Cholon district and the great comradery that we all experienced. It was a great adventure for all of us.

John W. Morgan