Our longtime contributor and man about town, Chuck Pfeifer, has penned a memoir that is out this month from Amazon and deserves to be on every Quest reader’s shelf. “Daiwi” means “Captain” in Vietnamese and aptly captures the heart of Pfeifer’s story.
The book starts by recounting a privileged childhood in New Canaan and New York City, and Pfeifer’s adventures and many misadventures at Culver Military Academy, Dartmouth and West Point. That chapter, “Privilege and Heartbreak,” is excerpted nearby.
Thereafter, the book recounts Chuck’s distinguished service in Vietnam, the scars from which were forever burned into his psyche. After ’Nam, Pfeifer had a long and highly successful career in advertising and as a model-—not to mention with the ladies, as a New York City boulevardier extraordinaire at Elaine’s and, ultimately, his own bar.
As he mellowed and was able to put to rest some of the worst of the demons of war, his love of the land on his Montana and Dakota ranches deepened. As did his love for Lisa, his beautiful and supportive wife.
The book closes poignantly:
In 1969 or 1970, if anyone had posed the question to me, “Do you think you will ever be normal again?” I might have answered, “I do not know. I do not know how normal feels or looks anymore. If how I feel now is normal, then no, I will never be normal again.”
If that same question were posed today, I would probably answer, “sometimes.” I am learning to be content. My journey that began uncertain early on has become certain. Fraught with love, anger, hate, sorrow, fear, despair and, sometimes, downright stupidity, it has returned to love.
CHAPTER 1: WATERBIRD
Hanoi 1993. The best and the brightest were in Vietnam again, and so was I.
Twenty-five years earlier, in some ways, this phrase described me. In 1968, I may not have been the best or the brightest, but I was certain I stood next to them. Not because I was a Special Forces Captain, a West Point graduate, football player, Ivy League dropout, or that I came from a Park Avenue penthouse. It was because in Vietnam I was free. In 1968, virtually without constraint, I roamed the jungles, cities, and mountain towns of Vietnam and Laos for nine months. I picked up scraps of newspaper in Da Nang whorehouses or the Saigon Bachelor Officers Quarters and read about the Summer of Love in the USA, about this or that—lib and laugh.
I spent years earning the right to be there. Airborne, Ranger, and Pathfinder schools, at Fort Benning, and with the U.S. 10th Special Forces in Bad Tolz, Germany. I trained alongside the British Special Air Service (SAS), French Marine commandos (the equivalent of U.S. Navy SEALS), Deutsch Kampfschwimmers (German Special Forces), Special Forces Legionnaires (French Foreign Legion), Danish Jaeger Forces (Elite Special Forces Unit of the Royal Danish Army), and the Hellenic Raiders (Elite Greek 1st Raider/Paratrooper Brigade). These were the killer elite of every western war from Hitler on. For me, freedom came down to one word: meritocracy. It made every human construct from politics and economics to ethics and metaphysics seem pale and powerless.
When I finally arrived in Saigon and went to war, the campaign that America called the “Tet Offensive” was winding down. Vietnam called it “The War Against Americans To Save the Nation,” or the American War. The Communist Tet Offensive was two-fold: To create unrest in South Vietnam’s populace and to cause the U.S. to scale back its support of the Saigon regime or cause complete U.S. withdrawal. In an attack planned by General Vo Nguyen Giap, over 100 cities in S. Vietnam were attacked by over 70,000 Communist troops.
Militarily, Tet was a failure for the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) and the rebel Viet Cong guerillas, although it was a strategic victory for them. The media in America wrongly portrayed the Tet Offensive as a Communist victory. Liberal propaganda was instrumental in turning the American populace against the long and bloody Vietnam War. Tet was not just about winning a short-term battle. It proved to be an American political turning point in the war, leading to the slow withdrawal of U.S. troops from the region.
Warfare had gone from permanent (Uncle Ho’s) to ugly (ours) to unconditional. There is simply no greater meritocracy. I was headed to the very unconditional I Corps, a member of SOG: the Project. SOG was a typically polite acronym (Studies and Observation Group) for a network of reconnaissance, saboteurs, and assassins led by Colonel (later Major General) John Singlaub. The Joint Chiefs of Staff implemented the Project in 1964, as a subsidiary command of the Military Assistance Command (MACV), during the secret war against Laos. The enemy terrain, and the obscure nature of civil war made it clear we badly needed covert activity. SOG had since become one of the backbones of the official war as well (it was a SOG operation, for example, that precipitated the Gulf of Tonkin), with Vietnam as our official mandate. To bastardize Melville, it was always Laos, though, that was my “Yale and Harvard.”
The Vietnam War, for me, was brief by most standards. I saw active duty from January through August 1968. During this time, I was involved in one of the most written about, and historical, battles of the war on August 23, 1968. I had expected to be in Vietnam much longer, but I contracted life-threatening Falciparum malaria. After making a full, and lengthy recovery, I finished my remaining tour of duty in June of 1969, in Fort Devens, Massachusetts.
A commander was assigned a call name to distinguish him from a radioman. My call name was “Waterbird” from my first mission to my last, no matter my location. I hoped I would not have to use it, but I knew I would. I could not imagine completing many missions without having to call in a “Prairie Fire” or two for emergency tactical support.
February 1968 was the first time I had been called “Waterbird.” I was flying over Laotian mountain passes in an H-34 helicopter with a couple of experienced SOG officers. They loved to show off to new members and subject them to theretofore-unknown fear. I was no exception. I sat with my feet close to the open side of the chopper, watching as tracers the size of footballs flew past. I smelled the trailing phosphorus and watched it disappear into the sky.
“Waterbird,” one of the officers yelled over the roar, “Better get back.” I got it. There was no place to hide, so I backed up and prayed we did not go down. There were just the two SOG officers and me and they had been through it before. They were laughing their heads off. They stopped laughing when a couple of 12.7mm rounds came too close to the chopper. I was genuinely scared, but there was no way in hell these officers were going to know it. Luckily, we landed without injury.
My special role as Captain (“Daiwi” in Vietnamese) was to command a battalion of Nungs. A battalion can be as many as 1000 men, but mine numbered 200. Indigenous Nungs, Montagnards, and Cambodians were CIA-recruited. Many Nungs had come to Vietnam from China’s southern area of Kwangsi Province, around the Highlands area of N. Vietnam. The Montagnards were often referred to as “Yards.” They did not particularly fight for money, but they were well paid by the United States government, under the auspices of the CIA. The Chinese Nungs had been exiled by Mao in the early 1950s, and worked primarily around the Ho Chi Minh Trail. They are sometimes called hill people, or “indigs” and sometimes the “fat ones,” although they were much smaller in stature than most American soldiers. They hated the Vietnamese and the Chinese and were hated in return. As a result, the Nungs were perfect to fight for the United States. Ferocious, fearsome, loyal, clever and brutal, they fought to the death. The bond between us quickly became very strong, due in part by necessity. The United States Army needed their trust, support, and extremely good fighting abilities and they needed my guidance. We had learned to communicate—they in broken English and I in broken Nung, facial expressions, hand gestures and a lot of initial frustration. Most of them could not count beyond three. It amazed me how fast they learned.
The Americans named the Ho Chi Minh Trail after the North Vietnamese president. The Communists called it the Truong Son after the Vietnamese name for the Annamite Mountain Range in central Vietnam. It runs from North Vietnam to South Vietnam, through neighboring Laos and Cambodia. The Trail was a strategic route for enemy communications and the transport of supplies during all wars in Vietnam. Part of what became the Trail had existed for centuries as primitive footpaths to facilitate trade in the region. According to the U. S National Security Agency’s official history of the Vietnam War, the Trail system was “one of the greatest achievements of military engineering of the 20th century.”
I consider myself a “universal” soldier, although, obviously, I do not personally know every solider who served in our wars. But I respect their service more than I can ever express. I identify with their struggle. I’ve had the same experiences, the same gnawing sickness and acute anxiety. I feel the same devouring images and thoughts that sometimes make us nearly strangers to all who love and know us best.
With my eyes wide open, in my sleep and in my nightmares, I still see the faceless men with severed limbs, burns, and mental scars. I have felt the spit of disenchanted and ill-informed American citizens who blamed some of America’s bravest for serving in the Vietnam War. Maybe, I think, this may hurt more than anything else. I suppose they just could not understand or relate to what the soldiers had been through. I fought for their freedoms, or at least thought I did. If there is any fault, it does not lie with brave veterans, but with the government who sent us there. I would fight again if called upon.
My favorite quote about war comes from Nietzsche: “Nothing like a good war to make life so…personal.” My Vietnam was so personal. I wrote my own rules while fighting in my enemy’s backyard. I was a demigod in charge of everyone, already a servant to power. At times, however, I found myself a servant to powerlessness, too.