Saigon To Pleiku by David Grant Noble

David Grant Noble’s Saigon To Pleiku: A Counterintelligence Agent in Vietnam’s Central Highlands, 1962-1963 (McFarland 204 pp. $29.95, paper; $13.49, Kindle) is a compelling memoir about his work in Vietnam during the Kennedy years. With candor and humility, Noble illustrates the challenges of gathering usable intelligence and realizing the true nature of the war. Drawing from detailed letters to family and friends, Noble has created an engaging, often dreamlike, account of what he saw when the facts were not always clear. 

In 1961, David Noble trained at the Army Counterintelligence Corps school at Fort Holabird.  When he received his orders to go to Saigon, he had no idea what country it was in.

Arriving in May, 1962, Noble found himself poorly prepared for his assignment. He was a tall, blonde kid with a Yale degree in French Literature. Speaking no Vietnamese, he was stunned to learn that no else in his department did either. That situation reflected the low status the war in Vietnam warranted at the time in the U.S. 

Despite this, Noble’s resolve was firm. Committed to the ideal that South Vietnam was a young democratic republic struggling to survive, he would see that it did. The issues seemed clear, and to suggest otherwise was heresy.

Even though he was a Private, Noble enjoyed the privileges of an officer with the 704th Intelligence Corps Detachment in Saigon. After months of barracks living, Noble found himself quartered at the Continental Palace, one of the city’s finest hotels. The ironies abounded, with more to come.

Posing as a civilian worker for the Army, Noble began traveling around Saigon, then to Pleiku in the Central Highlands, gathering information simply by talking with South Vietnamese and foreign officials. He became a good dinner companion and a respectful guest in their homes. 

Gradually, and reluctantly, Noble realized that America’s perception of the Ngo Dinh Diem administration was false. Far from helping the people of South Vietnam, Diem cared only for his family and friends. While ruthlessly suppressing the Buddhist and Montagnard populations, Diem ordered every report sanitized, declaring every operation successful, and every one of his actions just.

The façade weakened for Noble after a carefully planned Viet Cong attack on a Central Highlands village. With help from collaborators, the VC drew away Montagnard defenders and several Green Berets. With the village left poorly defended, the Viet Cong overran it, killing many villagers, burning houses, and seizing stocks of weapons and food.

The next day Montagnards suspected of collaborating were arrested, but getting useful information from them was difficult. Interrogations required three translators to convert questions from English to French, then to Vietnamese, and then to the tribesmen’s dialect. Often the questions were incomprehensible to the prisoners, and their answers were opaque. 

Having never used maps, calendars or clocks, they couldn’t provide specifics about the Viet Cong. They had collaborated simply because they were treated better by the VC than by their own government. They had never heard of Ho Chi Minh or Ngo Dinh Diem or the principles each professed to uphold. 

David Noble

Noble came away deeply shaken. It was the bitterest example of the absurdity of his nation’s cause. The implications were anathema to his superiors, but for Noble the conclusions were clear.      

By the end of his one year tour of duty he had become a valuable asset to the Army. Because of the many skills he learned and contacts he made, Noble was offered a reserve commission. But he refused it.  The gulf was too vast between what Noble was told to believe and what he had learned.

Wistful, bittersweet, at times despairing, Saigon to Pleiku is a sobering meditation on the dawn of America’s entry into the Vietnam War. For readers seeking a personalized insight into these formative years, Noble’s memoir is well worth the read.

The author’s website is davidgrantnoble.com

–Mike McLaughlin

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