Saigon to Pleiku by David Grant Noble

The U.S. Army sent twenty-two-year-old David Noble, a recent Yale University graduate, to Intelligence school and then to Vietnam as a member of the 704th Intelligence Corps Detachment in May 1962. At the time, according to Noble, American forces in Vietnam numbered barely 4,000, mainly advisers working with the South Vietnamese to save that nation from communist control. Starting as a believer in the cause, draftee Noble describes his transformation into a dissenter in Saigon to Pleiku: A Counterintelligence Agent in Vietnam’s Central Highlands, 1962-63 (McFarland, 204 pp. $29.95, paper; $17.99, Kindle).

An ability to speak French fluently offered Noble—a photographer and writer—the chance to pass as a civilian translator in Vietnam. More importantly, knowing the language allowed him to converse with many Vietnamese who had learned the language during French colonial times. None of the Americans Noble met, including his detachment head, spoke Vietnamese. And few Americans knew anything about the country.

Noble spent the first half of his tour in Saigon. His description of the city captures its mood and pace, which caused me to recollect and want to relive events I experienced there. He also tells fascinating stories about his achievements as a greenhorn spy. In particular, he developed friendships with a Vietnamese police chief and an Indian Army major who worked for the International Control Commission helping supervise the 1954 Geneva Accords. Information gathered from these sources elevated Noble’s stature with a hard-nosed commander who had initially belittled him.

Accordingly, the commander chose Noble and a master sergeant nearing retirement to start a branch of the detachment at Pleiku, the first of its kind in II Corps. The sergeant turned out to be a homesick alcoholic and soon allowed Noble to run the operation, which he did with enthusiasm.

Noble befriended civilian officials, businessmen, and Central Highland Montagnard tribesmen. He traveled extensively outside of Pleiku. He describes in detail the creation and dedication ceremony of Plei Mrong, part of a new Montagnard Strategic Hamlet program; a Viet Cong attack there two weeks later that killed and kidnapped villagers and burned down their homes; and the interrogation of 21 VC soldiers captured during the attack—another learn-as-you-go task he had to deal with.

Montagnard female militia unit in Pleiku, 1962. Photo by the author.

Timely actions and informative written reports earned Noble a letter of commendation from his hard-nosed commander, who praised him for producing “consistently outstanding results.” He later received the Army Commendation Medal.   

The book’s stories are beyond the norm. Noble leans heavily on about 60 letters he sent home and his mother saved. He uses long quotes from the letters to buttress his storytelling. The quotes often repeat what he has already written. This redundancy is acceptable, though, because the letters are highly informative.

He emphasizes that Saigon to Pleiku is a memoir about “what happened to me” and “not the story, whatever that may be.” He mentions, however, that in the pre-Gulf-of-Tonkin-Resolution days, secrets were secrets, and some are still secret today. The powers that be stymied Noble’s recent searches for reports he wrote.

Noble ends the book with a look at “The War at Home.” The section contains his thoughts about the peace movement, which he presents using newspaper articles, additional personal letters, journal entries, and even a caustic letter he wrote to President Richard Nixon. By then, Noble had become a dedicated opponent of the war and had attended many antiwar rallies and marches.

In my mind, the final section may have been unnecessary. Earlier in the book Noble had declared that Vietnam was “a land of peasant farmers caught in a political drama beyond their control,” and for me that says it all.  

Many excellent photographs Noble took of people and places in Vietnam in 1962 appear throughout the book.

The author’s website is davidgrantnoble.com

—Henry Zeybel