Something’s Happening Here
Something's happening here. What it is ain't exactly clear.
I was playing bridge in a duplicate tournament at the Homestead in Hot Springs Virginia. We had taken the train down but dad had to fly back – some kind of emergency at work. Back when he still had emergencies at work before he turned into a drunk. I had a pretty good education in spite of myself that was just waiting on Law School to top it off. Something changed. I don't know if it was me or Beverly my new wife. Maybe it was in the air. Maybe it was fate. I had just got my orders to Vietnam. My family was saying goodbye to me. They expected I would not be coming back.
He had led the last Polish cavalry charge against a German armored regiment. Saber drawn and horse thundering towards a Panzer at dawn over a corpse strewn field. A tank blew him out of the saddle and he was interned in a German POW camp. At 5 p.m. on September 1, 1939 the Polish 18th Lancers of the Pomorska Cavalry Brigade charged units from the German 20th Motorized Division. This incident took place near Chojnice in the Western part of Poland. The attack was meant to be on infantry units marching eastwards. But the Poles were surprised by German tanks and armored cars which appeared out of nowhere. It was a massacre!
He may have been dumb but he wasn't stupid. He knew he had to get out of the German prison camp. He did. I don't think it was a graceful exit. Whatever he did he felt more secure getting out of Europe. Stosh, was his name.
There were Polish people all over the world after Germany marched into Poland. They scattered like a broken piece of crystal on a marble floor. Stosh had gone from Warsaw to Marseilles to French Morocco and ended up drinking in a sailors bar with some Corsicans who were on their way to join the French Foreign Legion in Saigon.
Since he was a cavalry officer he was opposed to being on foot and bribed someone to teach him how to fly. I guess that was part of the reason I ended up in Army Aviation too. It sounded better than the infantry. If you are not ahorse you are afoot. Someone had told me that at Fort Knox what seems eons ago.
Stosh and I were both in a rather unusual Aviation Unit that was a result of the Air Force fearing the Army would resurrect the “Army Air Force” and the Army was afraid the Air Force would steal all its helicopters. The compromise of this fear resulted in 2000 aircraft being assigned to a command whose reporting responsibilities were somewhat vague and whose mission was very flexible. We supported American, Korean, South Vietnamese and a variety of other commands.
Stosh got to Saigon almost 30 years before me and at the same time as the Japanese. It was not a pleasant time although it was an interesting time. He was 26 it was 1941. Stosh was stocky and bullet headed – already a number of scars on his skull and one dueling scar on his cheek. Napoleon was from Corsica and he was short. So was Stosh. He spoke Polish, of course and the Germans had taught him German during his brief stay at their prison camp. The Legion had taught him French and the Corsicans spoke French. Stosh had been flying small lots of opium from Phong Savan on the Plain of Jars, where another Polish friend of his Jerry Labenski managed the Snow Leopard Inn, a hotel that doubled as a warehouse for outgoing opium shipments.
It was supposed to be a milk run but Stosh got thrown in jail again and this time he learned to speak Thai and Lao.
Southeast Asia had only been a minor producer of Opium. No one had wanted to come here to become a drug smuggler. The Golden Triangle had not wanted to become the Golden Triangle. Stosh just wanted to get away from the Germans. The Prime Minister of Thailand wanted a better future for his country. Ho Chi Minh gave golden opium pipes to his generals but he never thought they would smoke them. The USAID and the CIA at Kilo Six in Vientiane did not want to become better known as Opium Asia they only wanted to stem the expansion of communism. A secret Pentagon report put the Defense Department contribution to the war in Laos at a hundred and forty-six million dollars in 1970. But the report also showed that the CIA in Laos was spending up to sixty million dollars more than they were getting from Congress.
“Who is the kid?”
“His name is Kelly.”
“What is he doing here?”
The place was Vientiane. The bar was filled with Thai mercenaries drinking away their danger money, non existent American flyers in Hawaiian shirts, ex Legionnaires, Corsican mobsters from Bangkok and Vietnamese hookers. Business was booming in the bar. Down the street USAID was calling in bombing strikes from bases at Long Tieng Thailand.
“You go down he pick you up.”
“What frequency is he on?”
“You have to call on a land line.”
“What good does that do me?”
“Beats sharp stick in eye.”
“Guess you are right.”
Who's he work for?
“He's the Command Sergeant Major's boy.”
“Oh, that Kelly. I thought he'd be bigger.”
Eastern Laos had been infiltrated by the North Vietnamese military, many of them engineers. They had cleared a north-south corridor along the border that was known as the Ho Chi Minh Trail.
Small landing strips carved out of the jungle by the US Seabees provided the landing strips to move the men and equipment to combat this phase of the Vietnam War.
Laos was neutral since 1954. There were representatives of at least 10 foreign countries fighting in Laos. There were more than 10 different armies in Laos. They had one thing in common. They were all fighting for opium even though they all didn't know it.
In a quiet moment, “Chief, unless I miss my guess we are not in Vietnam. We are at a place called the White Rose Bar. There was a sign at that hotel next door that read, “No opium smoking in the lobby.” I don't think any of these people here work for the Army. I don't even think most of them work for the United States. It is so damn dark in here I can hardly see anything anyway but I think that guy next to us is getting a blow job. I don't pick up people in Laos. I don't pick up people who don't fly for the Army. Occasionally we might snag an air force or Navy guy but that's it. And that better be a girl unzipping my fly or I am really going to get angry.”
“Who do you work for Kelly?”
“The US government.”
“Who pays you?”
“No Kelly but that is true on the surface. Your government money goes to your lovely wife back in the States. Your combat pay and flight pay goes to your lovely wife as does her allotment. Where does your money come from here? Like the Kobe beef for the BBQ money? Like the dragon lady money?”
“No body is supposed to know.”
“Who pays for your momma sans?”
“The company fund pays for the momma sans.”
“Kelly, have you forgotten you don't live in the company barracks?”
“No body is supposed to know that either.”
“Kelly, everybody knows you work for the Sergeant Major. What do you think is in those briefcases?”
“I have never looked but I assumed, documents.”
In a quiet reflective moment. “Chief, how did we get into this?”
Of course I could answer my own question. I was working 16 hours a day, seven days a week. It wasn't hard work as combat goes but it was long. Up at 5 AM for a cold shower and mamma san dresses me and puts the final touches on my custom tailored fatigues and gives my boots one more shine. It is not hot yet and the mist is still on the ground. Run across the helipad to the office and grab any messages off the teletype. Type a few quick notes for the morning briefing. Save any pilots that are still down. Grab a hit of a special cigarette and head for the motor pool. The girls are polishing the Generals jeep when I pick it up and off to the little French restaurant for his breakfast sandwich and espresso. Try to sober the General up by the time we get to the briefing and give him a couple of pills. If he can do the briefing I only have to point with a pointer. If he is still in his cups I have to do the briefing. Back to the office and give the General enough paper to play with till lunch time.
Miss Dip gets in with my breakfast, feeds me and I give her a list of things to do to keep the war running. I go outside speed read and burn the top secret trash and have another hit on a special cigarette. By now the General is sober enough to make an inspection and we hop a fixed wing aircraft and cruise off to an airfield. I give him the inspection forms and catch 20 winks under the plane while he is playing General. Back to the office where I read the accident reports Miss Dip has typed up and make any corrections that are necessary. 5 pm drive the General to the General's Mess. Back to work where I write a story for Stars and Stripes or Hawk or some other military publication about the wonderful job Army Aviation is doing. Finish the accident reports and head to the NCO club for a steak and a bottle of wine by 9:00 PM. Bernie the medic should have hidden at least one lady for me in the Flight Surgeons office and get a quick screw before going off to bed. Set my German alarm clock that plays “Oh what a beautiful morning” and get up and do it again.
That was until I told the General he didn't need a weather report. I still remember it like yesterday because it shocked me so completely. The General wanted his own weather report fresh every morning. There was of course a weather report given by the Air Force metrological officer each morning. That would have meant me getting up at 4 AM instead of 5 AM to go to the airfield for the report. I told him it was either raining or not raining. Those are the only two weather reports I had seen in 6 months. Everything else was the same. It was hot and raining or hot and not raining. One day you had dust and one day you had rain. If you didn't have dust when you took off you might have dust when you landed. If you didn't have rain when you took off you might have it when you landed. It was Vietnam. It had a dry season and a wet season.
The General pre dated orders for me to be a tunnel rat. He was upset. It was a death warrant. I was short so no one questioned the orders. They didn't make guys who could type 100 wpm, with a Masters Degree tunnel rats. The General didn't care.
He had aced me. He predated the orders and I was already AWOL. I had to get there ASAP.
I was sitting on the helipad with my duffle packed wondering at my reception at Can Tho. The line troops would get a kick out of my spit shined jungle boots and custom tailored uniform. I still had a khaki uniform with brass insignia for special occasions
and an Australian uniform for field trips in my kit. My tennis racket was strapped on the outside of the bag.
The Sergeant Major was walking by and enquired as to my well being. I didn't know the Sergeant Major. I didn't think he knew me. This was the first time he had ever spoken to me. But I took a shot. I gave him my whole sob story.
He told me to get lost for two weeks. Now that took a leap of faith. But the he was the Command Sergeant Major.
I walked off the base. There was a group of stoners digging a ditch. GI's rarely dug ditches this must have been a real dead end group of guys. I dropped my duffle and started digging with them. My boots dirtied up real quick. I had some special cigarettes with me. I was well received. Momma San managed to find me and bring me some decent food and keep my clothes washed even though I was billeted with the dead end guys. No body looks at you when you are digging a ditch. I was safe for two weeks. If anyone was looking for me they didn't find me. I was only a half a mile from the Headquarters of USARV.
When I got back all cleaned up and in relatively good shape from digging ditches there was a new General waiting for me.
The Sergeant Major had got my old General assigned to a field command. He had to call me every morning to report the status of his command. Sometimes I could hear shooting in the background when he called.
The new General didn't want a weather report. The new General was also not a drunk. The new General also wanted to do most of his own work. My work load went down to 10 hours a day and I had a lot more time to spend at the NCO club and with Miss Dip. I even got a part time job hiring Korean girl bands for the club. After that Bernie the medic didn't need to hide me any more ladies in the Flight Surgeons office.
The Sergeant Major did have some jobs for me to do from time to time for which I got TDY orders.
It seemed appropriate that Stosh told me the story about Chennault's airline, CAT as we sat in a bar in Laos.
Air America began in 1950 as CAT (Civil Air
Transport), and was the largest CIA proprietary in Asia. CAT itself with roots to the OSS-China and joint US-Kuomintang (the boys from Chiang Rai) operations during World War II. According to Stosh, "the CIA owned 40 percent of the company; the KMT bankers owned 60 percent. The planes had been supplying the KMT opium bases continuously since 1951. Stosh said, "The opium-driven economy of Laos was protected by opium-growing CIA mercenaries, Air America planes and Thai troops." Air America and its personnel also did contract work in Southeast Asia for large oil companies complete with intelligence networks staffed with from veterans of the CIA.
The OSS had turned into the CIA in Bangkok. What the French had figured out (opium pays the bills) it didn't take everyone else long to understand. The Brits had gone from Burma. The French had gone from Laos and Vietnam. Stosh and the Polish boys working for the Corsican mob had stayed. The hill tribe people had grown opium at the higher elevations and tobacco at the lower elevations and the Chinese soldiers (KMT) had processed it and transported it. The markets were changing. China had withdrawn from the habit as had the second leading market Iran. The US had coerced Turkey to stop growing poppies and SEA was becoming the leading producer but without their biggest market, China.
Thailand had conveniently forgotten they had promised to make opium illegal and that helped. There weren't many addicts in the US as WW II had dried up the supply. But that was about to change.
How Thailand gets in the middle of all these conflicts and comes out smelling like a rose is hard to understand if the Thai's are so inept, ignorant and lazy like everybody says. They must be very lucky. Or the Jatukam's work or something else.
Everyone knows the Army and Police in Thailand don't get paid much. So the inevitable happens. When the monarchy was reduced to figurehead status in 1932 the Army took over. All of the coups since then have been about internal squabbles within the military and/or police. Politics is simply an extension of the military.
From 1947 to 1957 two major groups took over. Colonel Phao the director of the 40,000 man police force and
General Sarit's 45,000 man army.
The illicit opium trade had recently emerged as one of the country's most important income sources.
The first United Nations narcotics conference in 1946, criticized Thailand for being the only country in Southeast Asia still operating a legal government opium monopoly. Far more threatening than the criticism, however, was the general agreement that all non-medical opium exports should be ended as soon as-possible. Iran had already passed a temporary ban on opium production in April 1946 and although the Thai government monopoly was able to import sufficient quantities for its customers in 1947, the future of foreign imports was in doubt.
To meet their projected needs for raw opium, the Thai government legalized domestic poppy cultivation for the first time in 1947.
The new law attracted a growing number of Hmong people into Thailand's opium-growing regions and promoted a dramatic increase in Thai opium production. The Iranian and Chinese opium gradually disappeared in the early 1950s, the KMT filled the void by forcing an expansion of production in the Burmese territory they occupied.
Since the KMT were at war with the Burmese and received their U.S. supplies from Thailand, Bangkok became a natural shipping point for their opium. By 1949 most of the Thai Government monopoly's opium was from Southeast Asia. British customs in 1954 in Singapore stated that Bangkok had become the major center for international opium trafficking in Southeast Asia. The traffic became so profitable that Thailand quietly forgot the anti-opium campaign announced in 1948 (all opium smoking was to have stopped by 1953).
The "opium war" between General Phao (police) and General Sarit (army) was a hidden one, with almost all the battles covered by an umbrella official secrecy but there were many battles. One in 1950 occurred as one of General Sarit's army convoys approached the railroad close to Chiang Mai with a load of opium. Phao's police surrounded the convoy and ordered the army surrender the opium since anti-narcotics work was the exclusive responsibility of the police. The army refused. The police brought up heavy machine guns and prepared for a fire-fight. A tense standoff continued for two days until Phao and Sarit both arrived at the scene. They took possession of the opium jointly, and escorted it to Bangkok, where it quietly disappeared.
In 1951 the CIA front organization, Sea Supply Corporation, began delivering massive quantities of naval vessels, arms, armored vehicles and aircraft to General Phao's police force. These supplies enabled Phao to establish a police air force, a maritime police, a police armored division and a police paratroop unit. General Sarit's American military advisers refused to grant his army the large amounts of modem equipment that Sea Supply Corporation gave Phao's police.
The CIA front organization Sea Supply shipments to KMT troops in Burma were protected by Phao's Thai police. This gave him extensive KMT contacts, through which he was able to almost completely control Burmese opium exports. Phao's economic and military strength also gave him the majority of political power.
Phao and the police took over the vice rackets, and the profitable Bangkok slaughterhouse. He rigged the gold exchange, collected protection money from Bangkok's wealthiest Chinese businessmen, and forced them to appoint him to the boards of over twenty corporations. C. L. Sulzberger of The New York Times called Phao "a superlative crook” and a respected Thai diplomat hailed him as the "worst man in the whole history of modem Thailand". Of course Phao became the CIA's most important Thai client and Phao became Thailand's strongest anti-Communist advocate.
Phao's National Police Force by 1955 had become the largest opium trafficking syndicate in Thailand, and was intimately involved in every phase of the narcotics traffic; the level of corruption was excessive even by Thai standards. Police border guards escorted the KMT caravans from the Thailand/Burma border to police warehouses in Chiangmai. From there police guards brought it to Bangkok by train or police aircraft. Then it was loaded onto small ships and escorted by the maritime police to a mid-ocean rendezvous with freighters bound for Singapore or Hong Kong.
It all became too blatant when Phao started personally collecting police rewards for confiscation before re selling the opium.
On September 16, 1957, tanks and infantry from General Sarit's old First Division moved into Bangkok's traditional coup positions. Phao flew off to his numbered bank accounts in Switzerland and Prime Minister Phibun (CIA backed PM who had allied Thailand with Japan and declared war on Allies during WW II) fled to Japan.
General Sarit appointed a cabinet of competing military factions and anti-American liberals to take office. Police armored and paratroop units were disbanded and their equipment turned over to the army, and all of the CIA agents attached to Phao's police force were thrown out of the country.
Sarit's only remaining problem was the possibility of a countercoup by the younger colonels and lieutenant colonels whose loyalty to the regime was in doubt. So Sarit obviously had to bribe the younger officers, TIT.
But he needed big money quick for the large initial bribes. Obviously, the fastest way to get this amount of money was from General Phao's opium trade.
In the spring of 1959 the army staged its annual dry-season war games in the North to maximize opium collection. Every available aircraft, truck, and automobile was to be found in the hills of Northern Thailand and Burma. They picked the area clean and soon there were no worries of a countercoup.
In response to international pressure in 1959 Sarit's government passed the Harmful Habit-Forming Drugs Act.
That act stopped opium smoking and started the heroin traffic which the Army wanted to get out of so they turned the trade over to the Chinese merchants and took bribes instead of getting involved directly in the trade.
Who created this mess? Who were the dummies? Who profited?
Stars for stupidity go to the Americans, British and French. Thailand comes out pretty good setting itself up to come out the big winners of the Vietnam war and the Chinese businessmen in both Hong Kong and Bangkok come out smelling like roses. The CIA, of course becomes firmly entrenched in the opium/heroin trade.
Burma's total harvest had increased from less than forty tons just before World War 11 to four hundred tons in 1962, while Thailand's expanded at an even greater rate, from 7 tons to over one hundred tons. A report by the U.S. Bureau of Narcotics concluded: By the end of the 1950s, Burma, Laos and Thailand together had become a massive producer and the source of more than half the world's illicit supply of 1,250 to 1,400 tons annually.
The Golden Triangle had surplus opium and well-protected, disciplined syndicates that with the right set of circumstances could easily become America's major heroin supplier.
But Opium was not the only factor in the equation. In the 1930's there were 100,000 prostitutes in Shanghai. By 1945 they were gone? Where did they all go? Where did all the momma sans go? Where did all the sailors and soldiers and ex pats who liked whores go? Something had to be done and done quick.
A Special Forces team raided a North Vietnamese island in the Gulf of Tonkin while there were American Navy ships close by but who knew nothing of the raid. The North Vietnamese responded by sending torpedo boats against The American Navy. President Johnson had his Gulf of Tonkin incident and Vietnam War and Bangkok and Taipei had R&R. A whole new generation of Americans were about to find out about the joys and trials and tribulations of Yellow Fever. Opiates and orgasms were about to replace mom and apple pie.
Someone once asked an SF sergeant, "How does Special Forces build their fortified camps in South East Asia?” The sergeant replied, “Well, first you select a good spot for a bar. Next, you build the bar and stock it with the best booze and beer that your team can afford. Then you build the rest of the camp to best defend your bar.”
Welcome to my world boys. Stay tuned for the next exciting episode. Chiang Mai Kelly does Vietnam.
I *still* want to know what Princess is up to!