SSGT Lee Bishop
Army Security Agency
I came from a family rich in military history. My family has fought in every war the United States has waged with the exception of the Spanish-American War (no one was the right age, and it barely lasted a year). I am particularly proud of my cousin, George Waterman’s service in the Civil War. He was killed by a Copperhead in Dayton. The GAR Hall in Peninsula, OH was named for him. I had a cousin on the other side of the family (George Fisher or Fischer) who was in Texas on cattle business when the war broke out. He wrote a book, “A Confederate Conscript or Eighteen Months in Dixie” about his being conscripted and then biding his time until he could escape and make his way back to Ohio. Members of my family spoke of their military experiences but never as braggarts or whiners.
I joined the Army in 1965 because of our family’s history of wartime service. Also, I’d lost my driver’s license because I liked to speed, so it made sense at the time.
Shortly after I arrived at basic training at the age of 19, I was called in to choose an MOS. Don’t remember them saying anything about my test scores. I had no idea what I was doing. I put down intelligence research analyst first because they only took one every two years. Then I put down voice monitor; I liked the word “monitor”. Couldn’t decide on a third. The guy said go to language school. I said, “No way. I had two years of Spanish in high school and hated it!” He said put it down anyhow; you’ll get your first choice. Everybody always does.
A few weeks later they pull me back in and said, “Congratulations! You got language school! Geez. “Now pick out ten languages you’d be interested in.” Well, I was going to outfox them this time: Where would I like to be stationed? #1- Italian, #2- Japanese, etc. Do you know how hard it is to pick ten languages? Well, this was roughly March 1965, and by the time I got to choices #9 and #10 I noticed as I reviewed my list that there was a fair number of Asian languages. I’d been hearing something about Vietnam, so I listed that one. Surely I’d get one of my first three. So, comes graduation from basic and I get my orders for Monterey. Included in my orders was a long numerical designation that was something like 1653489845168543456VN0565. Well, by this time I knew a lot about Vietnam. And I was quite sure I knew the Army well enough to know that there was no way that the “VN” in that number stood for Vietnamese. I was wrong.
So, I was trained to speak Vietnamese at the Defense Language Institute, West Coast – Presidio of Monterey 1965-66. My MOS was 98G 4L80, Vietnamese Voice Intercept Operator, Cryptographer, and Traffic Analyst. Army Security Agency. I had a Top Secret/Crypto Security Clearance.
I was sent to Vietnam in May 1966 and remained until May 1967. I did low-level voice intercept work with Detachment 3 of the 3rd RRU (the Lost Detachment, 101st ABN Div.) which became the 406th Detachment of the 509th RRG, TDY’d to the 8th RRU (Phu Bai), then sent to the 330th RRC in Pleiku where I worked as trick chief. I spent my tour in Saigon, Nha Trang, Phan Rang, Dak To, Tuy Hoa, Phuc My, Hue, Phu Bai, Pleiku, Phan Thiet, Kontum, Cam Ranh Bay, and points betwixt and between.
I served with combat units of the 1st Brigade of the 101st Airborne Division and in support of the 25th and 4th Infantry Divisions. After my return, I was with the National Security Agency from 1967-69 with a three-month TDY to Okinawa in 1968 (Operation Purple Dragon – Top Secret/Umbra).
I returned home from Vietnam in a chartered Flying Tiger 707. Flights were coming out of Cam Ranh Bay constantly. In May of 1967, there were roughly 485,000 American soldiers there so, with a one-year tour of duty, you can imagine the turnaround. I smuggled back the .32 Colt my father had given me that I brought with when I first came to Vietnam. It proved helpful on several occasions. It had been given to him by a friend who retired after decades of working Vice for the Cleveland Police Department.
Like other Vietnamese linguists, I was kept over a few days beyond my normal return date; there were less than a hundred of us in-country. Anyhow, I get on the aircraft, find my seat, sit down, turn to introduce myself to the guy on my left, and its Tom Bray, one of 16 guys I graduated with from South Amherst High School! Can the world be that small?
I don’t even remember what city or airbase we flew into and processed at. I do remember steak and real milk. I also remember that I was very impatient to get back to friends and family.
I was so excited at getting home to South Amherst that around eight o’clock I jumped in my new ’67 Ford Mustang convertible and headed out to meet my friends. I went through two red lights in town, a bank parking lot to avoid another light, and was speeding like a fiend. A cop pulled me over. I explained that I was just back from Vietnam. He’d heard that story before and asked for my orders. I gave them to me. He said slow down and be careful. No ticket.
One time I was driving my new ’67 Mustang convertible with a Challenger V8 w/ a 4-barrel. My sister was in the front seat with me, and my parents were in the back. We were going to visit my grandparents. We were in the little town of Tiffin, Ohio when there was a backfire. I downshifted and punched it for all I was worth (instinct). My parents about crapped themselves.
I still remember the strange look I got when I knocked the ashes of the end of my cigarette onto the carpet while talking with my mother in her living room. Having spent so long living in hooches and tents with dirt floors, I had developed some bad habits.
Shortly after returning from Viet Nam I was on my folk’s farm in West Virginia. We heard a horn blaring and blaring, and blaring up on the State Road around dinnertime. My stepfather said it was probably a bunch of drunks from McFarland and to ignore them. Nope. It was the owner of the grocery store (complete with potbelly stove) down the road. He came tearing down our long driveway in his pickup yelling “those bastards stole my car! I cut them off with my truck, but they went high-tailing it into the woods!” I grabbed my .32 Colt Auto jumped in the cab of Mr. McCauley’s truck and said, “Let’s go!” And off we went.
Not knowing if they were armed or not, I entered the woods cautiously then just hunkered down figuring they’d make some noise. They did. I fired a shot in the air and said in a booming voice, “Gentlemen, I’m just back from Vietnam and as you heard I am armed. You can come out quietly, or I will kill you.” Out they came, hands in the air. From the looks of things, I was glad I was the only one with a weapon.
I had them squat down on the road between pickup and car and kept them at gunpoint until the state police arrived. I was enrolled at Ohio State, but I came back for the trial. Those boys were sent to prison for 3 – 5 years.
Those were the days…
Everyone acted as though I was home from college. No questions about the war or anything related to my service. No one wanted to hear it, and in time, it became a priority to simply ignore my service in Vietnam. I put memories and photos away for thirty years and felt despised by my country for those three decades because of the way we were portrayed by the media, Hollywood, and the political left. In roughly 2002 a fellow vet managed to track me down, and I began interacting with other veterans on the Internet. That was good.
My friend, John Clark had picked up on a program at Fresno State that would pay linguists to teach English to Vietnamese engineering students of the campus. Plus John also knew about the early out program if we were accepted to a college. Through his efforts, we both were discharged in January 1969 and were offered positions. That sounded good to me. I left the Army in Maryland, drove home to Ohio for a few days with my family, then to California in 3 days. Got to about 30 miles east of St. Louis the first day, Gallup NM the second day, and Fresno the third. Slept about 5 hours each night in the car. The only place I can remember stopping was the Meteor Crater in AZ for about an hour. Now that’s a big hole.
The program we were hired into was terminated while I was driving west, so I supported myself as a laborer (Donald Fantz’ Solid Waste Disposal Company). But that worked out fine.
I ended up at Fresno State College (now UC-Fresno) for a semester in ’69. I was walking on the campus wearing my field jacket one morning when a female voice shouted, “Are you a Vietnam veteran?” I turned, and it was like the clouds parted, the sun shined down, the angels were singing, and I was looking at one of the most beautiful girls ever. Cat had my tongue, but I said, “Yes, I am.” She asked, “How did it feel to kill little babies?” I was stunned and abruptly turned and walked on.
When the North defeated the South in 1975, one million South Vietnamese were executed…a minor event that the American press did not bother to report. As a college dean, I had befriended a Vietnamese engineering student. She told me that ten of her closest relatives were among those who were slaughtered.
It has been my observation that Vietnam Vets who came back and got active on the left were guys who didn’t fit very well in Vietnam and who were desperate for approval back here in the States. Kent State was a terrible mistake for both sides. When I left the army, after some time at the University of California, I returned to Ohio and finished my degree at Ohio State. I was president of the OSU Veterans Assn during the riots of 1970; my friends and I took rocks away from protesters (one of whom, Michael White, became mayor of Cleveland) so that they couldn’t throw them at the Guard.
During all of this, I observed a leader of Vietnam Veterans against the War, who wore an old army blouse (shirt) with a 101st Airborne patch on the sleeve. During a lull I figured everyone has a right to his opinion, we’d still served together, so I went up and introduced myself. He told me he had served with the “Lost Detachment,” probably the smallest unit to serve in Vietnam (roughly 30 men doing radio intercept work, code breaking, and translations; the linguists and directional finding guys were going out with combat units). When I heard that, since that was the unit I had served with, I got really excited and asked if he knew Wild Bill Cody, Shaky, Buddha, Rooster, Cherry, Lt. Castleman, and some others. You should have seen the look on his face. Turned out, he was a cook in Saigon. Not that cooks weren’t important (my Dad was one in WWII), but I couldn’t believe that he would try to promote himself by stealing the reputation of heroes. I turned on my heel and left. I’m sure he understood my contempt for him.
One thing led to another, and I ended up spending an afternoon at the White House with Charles Colson discussing perceptions of the war. I was in DC originally to appear with Senator Taft (the governor’s father) on John Gardner’s Common Cause to debate the subject of amnesty for draft dodgers. Senator Taft supported me in my opinion that those who fled the country should not be allowed to return. We all had to make decisions and certainly we veterans had to live with the consequences of those decisions (death, loss of limbs, malaria, Black Water Fever, Dengue fever, dysentery, etc.). The cowards should have had to live with the consequences of their decisions. Of course, Presidents Ford and Carter let them return to the US with no consequences.
I was visiting at the Pentagon when a major protest occurred and so had access to information as it was being given to the commanding officers. There was a very impressive picture published nationally in newspapers of “veterans” in wheelchairs throwing their medals over a fence (as did Kerry, one of the most despicable people on the planet). I don’t know if they were actually handicapped, but I seriously doubt that many of them were veterans, and I’d bet money their “medals” came from pawnshops.
Agent Orange was far more insidious than the government has ever let on. I can trace my family back several hundred years on both sides, and no one ever had a heart problem except an old lady in the 1800s that had to chew digitalis for an irregular heartbeat. Ischemic Heart Disease was added to the AO list in 2010, and I was rated at 30% disabled (now 60%).
In November 1995, I went Code Blue; then suffered another heart attack a month later. The first angioplasty required my wife to refinance our home to pay the hospital $68,000 in cash; don’t know details of the second experience, but she had to refinance again. We had to pay for open heart in 2001, and then for a coronary ablation a few years later. So, the government’s decision to use us as guinea pigs cost my family and me, and I’m sure many others, hundreds of thousands of dollars just to serve.
Today they cover all expenses related to IHD. But they will cover nothing that was done before 2009 to keep me from dying because of Agent Orange exposure.
Looking back, I would have to say that I value my experiences in Vietnam as much as I value any of my experiences. I would not give it up.