For many of us in Vietnam, the Special Forces supply network was unbelievable. No matter what they needed, a CV-7 from heaven would drop onto the airstrip, the ramp came down and there it was. Like magic.
Strange as it might seem, the magic started with the Bay of Pigs fiasco and the black eye the CIA got for their part in it. The CIA already had a pretty extensive bag of tricks going on in Vietnam when the fallout hit. Numerous programs were in place under CIA supervision using SF personnel. Most of these programs were small in scope and could be readily absorbed by someone else, but the CIDG program had responsibility for the 700,000 Montagnards spread over 75 percent of the country’s total land area as well as the thousands of Cambodian expatriates in III Corps.
Operation Switchback was the name given for the official handover of CIA programs and throughout 1963 each program in its turn was taken from CIA control. By July 1963, the CIDG program had been placed under the newly minted Military Assistance Command Vietnam (MACV) and the CIA had been taken completely out of the chain of command. But somewhere an unknown farsighted individual realized the logistical depth of the CIDG program and saw to it that the CIA funding and support system remained in effect for all of the Switchback programs under a program called “Parasol Switchback.”
Funds for the CIDG program would be delivered directly to SF in Vietnam. To protect everyone in the pipeline a system of records and internal accounting was established, but all of the red tape could be sidestepped. More importantly, property record regulations of the Army could be ignored in favor of the CIA attitude that once money or equipment was signed for by the end user, it was dropped from the books.
The advantage to SF was incredible. A large Logistical Support Center was set up in Nha Trang. Staffed by Filipinos, the support center could provide any piece of equipment commonly used by CIDG using a simple exchange procedure. Unserviceable equipment was repaired and placed back in the system. All classes of supply for 40,000 men for 60 days was on hand. In one case, a returning patrol brought in over 100 sick and starving Montagnard refugees from VC slave labor camps. Within hours meals and medicine were delivered and within a few days enough building materials had been brought in to completely build a village. Imagine an army doing that.
SF was careful to report every incident of graft or corruption. A shining example was when a SF sergeant bought a Datsun sports car in Okinawa, loaded the trunk with pantyhose, small sizes, and finagled to get it loaded in its own container for transport to Vietnam. The paperwork said, “Upon arrival, contact Sgt. So- and So.” When it arrived in Nha Trang, there was no manifest for the container, so it was opened by the SF port officer. This was against all agreements the SF had with the locals, so the port officer put a bug in the ear of the local Vietnamese port authority. Somewhere in Nha Trang was a minor Vietnamese official with a corner on the pantyhose market and driving a little sports car. Because Special Forces was religious about this sort of thing, the obvious conclusion at MACV was that the only place corruption existed was in the irregular forces.
Because of the size of the average CIDG soldier and the weapons they carried, the Army supply system was largely unworkable. Captured AK-47s were common but ammo was suspect and magazines were scarce, so good quality ammo was bought from Russia through Finland (go figure) and magazines were made in Taiwan. When SF needed claymores or mortar rounds, they put in a requisition at the nearest Army depot and then transferred cash to MACV Logistics.
The SF bought liberally on the local markets thereby helping the economy. Basically, CIDG were fed, clothed, equipped, housed and buried with locally procured materials.
But the real secret to SF success was all the way back in Okinawa at the Counterinsurgency Support Office (CISO) headed by a Colonel, an NCO and staffed by a half dozen DA civilians. Because US boots and uniforms were not suitable, contracts were let all over Asia for boots, uniforms and ponchos at a fraction of the cost of US items. When rucksacks were needed, a VC type was sent to CISO, who redesigned the thing. Within a couple of months CIDG rucks were in the system at a cost of $2.80 each as compared to $35 for a US model. Over 350,000 were made.
A typical development/procurement story of CISO involved the CIDG rations. Strikers were getting tired of 10 day patrols with nothing more then a sock full of rice and cans of sardines. C-rations were too heavy and made them sick, so a request was put in to CISO, who approached the Army’s Combat Development Command for help, but after two months they were told that such an item was not in their field of expertise. Next, they approached the Quartermaster Laboratory only to be told that such a ration would take five years and cost 5 million to develop.
Desperate, the civilian deputy at CISO, a former medic, bought some stuff at his local market in Okinawa and started in his kitchen. Before long, he had worked out the kinks and the meals were being produced in Okinawa and came in five menus, beef, fish-squid, shrimp-mushroom, mutton and sausage. Two packages a day provided 2600 calories. Because the Yards were suffering from various vitamin deficiencies, a vitamin pill was provided with each ration. The Yards were suspicious of the pill until told it would enhance their sex life. They hoarded them until just before the patrol ended then took them all at once. About a year into the program, CISO got a letter from Walter Reed Hospital saying they were working on an indigenous ration and felt the PIR (Package, Indigenous Ration) produced in Okinawa would cause food poisoning. Over the next ten years, 40 million rations were produced saving the government about 20 million dollars over C-rations. And nobody got sick.
On Okinawa CISO had depots staffed by more than a 100 Okinawan civilians. Nine LST’s regularly ran between Naha Port in Okinawa to Nha Trang delivering virtually anything and everything SF needed.
In short, CISO could get anything from anywhere. And if they couldn’t get it, they made it, but sometimes even they dropped the ball. Take, for example, the following requisition placed by the S-4, 5th Group in 1964.
“As a result of your office’s inability to provide urgently needed forklifts to meet the immediate requirements of this command, and in view of the theater-wide shortage of subject vehicles, request you procure from local sources at least four (4) each male-type well-trained elephants. These animals must be capable of lifting 8,500 pounds, must be air transportable, can withstand being painted yellow and have a basic knowledge of Vietnamese and English. In addition, it is desired that 120 days spare elephant fuel and trainer pikes be provided with the major item. We realize that this is not exactly in keeping with US Army MHE Standardization Program Requirements; however, operational requirements warrant such extraordinary actions. Subject elephants, as they become uneconomically repairable, will be cannibalized to make elephant-hide courier pouches for the Group, and elephant-hide boots in sizes 5, 6, 7, and 8, which are also in critical short supply. Coordination has been made with the Indian military attaché in Delhi, who has agreed to provide elephant trainer/tech reps to this group; subject individual’s name is Gunga Din. Request immediate action on this OTR.”
They got the forklifts.
Once in a while, a request simply could not be filled for a variety of reasons.
“Requisition Order Form”
“From: Plei Djerang, Engineer, Det A-214”
“To: 5th SF Group (Airborne) S4”
“1. Crocodile, 10-12 year old, minimum length 8 feet, 20 each.”
“Crocodiles are needed to stock the local swamp as protective devices. Air land at Chu Dron.”
“Action: Disapproved for the following reasons:”
“1. Not available from local or CONUS sources. CONUS only has alligators.”
“2. Local sentry dog school commander refuses to train crocodiles to not eat tender Montagnard babies unless we supply him with fresh live VC to use as bait.”
“3. Air Force won’t fly them anyway.”