This post summarizes a PowerPoint presentation that was given at the Summit Square retirement community in Waynesboro, Virginia on May 16, 2015.  Most of the events mentioned are documented elsewhere in this blog.  The PowerPoint presentation focused on humorous aspects having entertainment value for a live audience.  Wording is approximate because no script was used in the presentation.  Duration was about 40 minutes.


With a title like this, I realize that some of you may be wondering, why is he so negative, why can’t he talk about Arctic Accomplishments instead?

I promise you, I will talk about accomplishments, but that’ll only take a minute or two. As for the negativity, that dates way back.  When I was a little fellow, I had lots of trouble trying to satisfy my father with my grades in school. I’d tell him I got 93 on a test, and he’d ask what went wrong.  I didn’t like that.  I wanted praise instead.

So, when I got a grade of 98, and he asked the same thing, I screwed up my courage and snapped, “Nothing went wrong. I think that’s a pretty good grade.”  He answered, “Yes it’s very good. But if you’ll think more about the 2% you missed, then you’ll know it all!”

I still didn’t much like it, but maybe I thought he had a point, because…  Now, eighty years later, lots of my memories are about what went wrong. They don’t hurt much if I laugh at them. I hope you’ll laugh with me.


Here you see downtown Anchorage in 1952. I had gone to work for the Geological Survey a couple of years earlier, fresh out of school.   Now it was time to get some practical field experience.  I was assigned to spend that summer in Alaska, working on several different projects.

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I arrived in Anchorage in early June. Summer was right around the corner, and the city was in festive gear.  I expected to see a frontier town like those of the old West.  No such thing.  It was a modern city with all the latest conveniences – electricity, running water, even traffic lights and parking meters.  Yes, I exaggerate my surprise, but when I saw the first parking meter, I did think it was worth a picture.  The city also had a Piggly Wiggly supermarket, a pleasant reminder of my home in Virginia.

Anchorage was overcrowded by workers who had come for summer jobs. The hotels followed a “hot bed” policy. Day-shift workers rented beds by night, and night-shift workers rented the same beds by day.  Whether bedding was changed in between depended on what class of hotel one was staying at.

I joined with several other geologists in a tour of the Black Rapids Glacier. It had a bad reputation as a surge-type glacier, meaning that it could lie dormant for years, then it could grow rapidly and move forward at a dangerous speed.


In three months of the winter of 1936-37, it had moved forward at the rate of 1 mile per month. A more typical glacier speed would be around 100 feet per month.

The Fairbanks newspaper reported: “Living, Sinister Mass of Ice 500 Feet High and Mile and a Half Wide Rumbles and Crashes Down Black Rapids Valley.”

The ice dammed up a river and came close to cutting off the Richardson highway. The glacier has been wasting away ever since, but could surge again at any time.  The trans-Alaska oil pipeline now runs alongside that highway.

In the front center of the picture above, you can see where the river was dammed. Also, please note the light gray stuff bordering the glacier and extending up the lower mountain slopes.  Geologists have a scientific name for it, “the bath-tub ring effect.”  It is rocky stuff deposited by the glacier, and it shows the highest level the glacier reached in its last surge.

Glaciers are often described as natural highways in Alaska. Where they have a firm, smooth surfaces, they allow easy walking (below, left).

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Where crevasses – deep, open cracks — ave developed, walking is more dangerous (below, right). Many crevasses were much larger than these, but I didn’t have the courage to get close to them for a picture.  They are especially treacherous in winter, when they are hidden beneath the snow.


The feature above is known by the French name “moulin,” meaning “mill.” It is a seemingly bottomless hole where meltwater from the surface drains into the depths of the glacier.  It got us thinking seriously about safety.   We asked if anyone had brought a rope for safety.  No.  Did anyone have crampons, which were sets of sharp spikes that could be attached to the boots?  No.  From here on we moved very cautiously.

The Black Rapids glacier presented other dangers. This photo shows where an earthquake caused parts of the nearby mountains to collapse onto the ice. Their debris suddenly covered 5 square miles of the glacier.  This was not a good day to be walking on it.


Luckily, we had already finished our walk, almost exactly fifty years earlier.

The Army Corps of Engineers had problems with frozen ground in Alaska. At shallow depths, the soils freeze and thaw with the weather, just as they do in Virginia. But in many places beneath that, there is a zone where the ground stays frozen all the time.

We call this permafrost. It’s a few feet thick in some places, hundreds of feet in others.  Beneath a construction project, over time it can shift or melt away and the structure may collapse. Permafrost also makes it hard to find water sources for wells.

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The Engineers were charmed with a new product called the Porta-Drill (left), mainly because Porta meant that it was portable by only two men, while most drill rigs were much larger. They thought it might be the perfect gadget to explore permafrost and take samples of it, and even to find underground water sources.  They asked us to buy one and field-test it in Alaska.

As the new kid on the block, I got to run the tests, which were expected to take all summer. Nobody in Washington knew any details about the drill, so I had arranged to stop by the factory where it was made, on my way up to Alaska.

Soon after I got to the factory, I got the bad news. This was a diamond bit coring drill made for mineral prospectors. It could drill through hard rock and take samples to show if there were any valuable minerals there. It probably wouldn’t do anything worthwhile in permafrost. As for finding underground water sources, the advice was, “Well, you might put a soda straw down the hole and see what you can suck up.”

I told the boss all this and he said to keep an open mind. After all, anything that could drill through hard rock could surely get through permafrost.

I met with a field assistant who would help me haul the thing around, and we started drilling. I named the project Soda Straw.WbRszaAK 1_0014      WbRszaAK 1_0012

The boss’s advice wasn’t quite right. Below, you see two diamond drill bits.  The left one is brand new.  The one on the right has drilled through only 5 feet of frozen soil.  As we drilled, the soil thawed and slumped against the side of the bit.  Each particle of sand and gravel in the soil wore the bit down until diamonds in the lip began to fall out.  If there were any core samples, they turned into muck and got lost.  We never did manage to stick a soda straw into the hole.

There was another problem. When the drilling stopped, the soil quickly froze up again and trapped our drill rod.  We had to call a wrecking truck to pull it out.

It took only ten days to show that the Porta-Drill was useless for what the Engineers had in mind.

Now for the rest of the summer. Before I got my next assignment. I had to wait two weeks in a dreary town, in a dreary hotel where the best entertainment was a juke box playing Jalousie and Blue Tango.

My next assignment took me to into the mountains of the Alaska Range. Spectacular scenery.

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This was supposed to be another shot of those beautiful mountains, but a Smart Alec kept poking his face in front of the camera. Oh, well…

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Road maps at that time showed symbols looking like towns every 30 or 40 miles along the highways. These weren’t towns, but simple lodges such as the one below, which also had a nearby gas station with a few groceries, and a well-stocked liquor store.  Nearly all the roads were unpaved.  What we see here is the Richardson Highway, at what later would become the entrance to Denali National Park. On this road, driving a jeep at more than 25 mph would bump one’s head against the ceiling of the cab.

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I lived mostly in this log cabin (below) at Mentasta Pass. The shovel I held was a substitute for an outhouse.

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For whatever the cabin lacked in conveniences, it compensated with beautiful mountain views.

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My main work that summer was an engineering geologic survey along 50 miles of the Glenn Highway. I turned the report over to my party chief, a university professor who’d been hired for the summer. He was expected to publish it along with other results of the party’s work that summer.  I saw him a few years later. He had never gotten around to publishing the results, and he had somehow lost the only copy of my report.


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In the mid-1950s, the US and its allies were busy building a ring of airbases around the Soviet Union and China — large airbases that could handle nuclear bombers. NATO wanted to fill a gap in the ring, in the Norwegian territory known as Svalbard.  This included the Spitsbergen island group, only 600 miles from the North Pole, and Bear Island farther south.  Svalbard was close to several parts of the Soviet Union: Franz Josef Land, Novaya Zemlya, and the Murmansk coast.

My job was to find and survey sites in Svalbard where an airbase could be built.

Norway governed Svalbard under a treaty that allowed no military use of the land. So I had to work in secret.  Things like that often happened in the Cold War.

We sailed aboard the Godønes, a seal-hunting vessel that was built to handle pack ice and powerful storms on Arctic voyages lasting several months at a time. I learned after boarding that it had been outfitted as a spy ship to detect and study Soviet radars.  This gave us even more need for secrecy.  We were warned: If the Soviets suspected what we were up to, they could easily board our ship and send us off to Siberia.SvGodønes

There were 15 men aboard. Five Norwegian intelligence specialists.  Five Americans, including four intelligence specialists and a geologist (me).  And a Norwegian skipper and crew that totaled five.

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Leiv Isaksen, the skipper (left), was an outstanding seaman and navigator, famous for having made many rescues at sea. Sailing in the far north was a dangerous business.  In a storm just the year before, five ships went down with all hands aboard.  We were glad to have him with us.

The five Americans included some oddball types.  The electronics technician, who SvJRBinstalled our spy gear and kept it running, always turned the back of his head to a camera, and never told any of us who he worked for.  I’ll pass over the next two because I’ve told some really awful tales about them. At sea, they ignored their duties and preferred to hunt seals and polar bears, for the money their skins were worth.  While ashore, they hunted other species, to the point that one of the two got tied up in a paternity lawsuit.

After speaking of so many oddball Americans, I added this picture (right) to prove that at least one of them was, well, normal… Actually, he sort of looks like the Smart Alec we saw in Alaska….

Our first views of Svalbard didn’t promise much in the way of sites for airbases. Bear Island presents these thousand-foot cliffs (below left), populated by so many birds that they darkened the sky when someone fired a rifle.  But parts of the island are lower, and there we found cliffs only 100 feet high. We clambered up on all fours, dragging our camping supplies behind us.


 The islands of Spitsbergen, farther north, are dominated by mountains and glaciers (below right). But here and there we found level areas on raised beaches, as in the foreground of this picture.  Places like this gave the best prospects for airbase sites.




This is Ny-Ålesund (below), one of the few towns in Svalbard – a coal mining town in 1955, and now a research center. It has an established port facility that is warmed by the Gulf Stream and usually remains ice-free all year.


Svalbard dominates the sea lanes that were used to supply the Soviet Union during the Second World War. The Germans attacked Allied convoys by both sea and air.  They left behind many artifacts.  Shown below are a battery-powered robot weather station, and a cabin built by a German pilot.   He used it for shelter while he repaired his plane after an emergency landing.  The timber had to be air-dropped to him — he couldn’t have found so many neat boards there, although many large cut logs are found on the beaches of Svalbard.  Ruts left by the plane were still visible ten years after the war.

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I’ve mentioned American oddballs. The Norwegians, too, included at least one of these. A young military officer took a stint as guest at the ship’s wheel.  To see what this baby could do, he slammed the ship at full speed into a huge slab of ice.

The collision disabled the ship. We can only thank the good Norwegian shipbuilders that it didn’t sink right then and there. But we faced a long tow back to Norway — 600 miles, taking 10 days, and every day either in sea ice, or in rough seas under gale or storm conditions.

We saw the damage in a shipyard in Norway: The collision had bent the propeller shaft, and a propeller blade is lodged against the rudder.


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This damage ruled out what would have been the major success of the electronic intelligence mission — a sweep along the Soviet shores of Franz Josef Land, Novaya Zemlya, and the Murmansk coast

My own work ashore was already done. I had surveyed 8 sites for major airbases.  The one I rated best was a place called Kvadehuksletta, shown below.  It is six miles from the town of Ny-Ålesund.  Access by sea through that port was a major plus for this site.

SvKvadehThe following year, two high-ranking Norwegians visited the site and agreed it was an excellent place to build the airbase. One of the two was a military official, the other represented the Scandinavian Airlines System.  They formally proposed that the airline build an emergency landing field here.  This was, of course, nothing but a cover story.   The Norwegian government debated the proposal for the next two years.  Then the Soviet Union protested that it was a military project, which was forbidden under the Svalbard Treaty.

And so the project died, and it remained secret until 1996, when a new Norwegian administration apparently decided to embarrass its predecessor by revealing the whole story.


In 1977, the Federal government was moving to put a lot of Alaskan public lands into the National Park System. Private companies stood to lose mineral leases in those areas.  If they had done any work on a lease, the government would reimburse them.  If not, they would not be paid.

Shell Oil held a lease in the Samovar Hills, a small area completely surrounded by extensive glaciers. Shell had never worked on the lease, but now saw reasons to get started.  For any plan they proposed, my office would have to prepare an Environmental Impact Statement before the plan could be approved.

This map shows a small rounded bump on the south coast, indicated by the red arrow. That little bump is the enormous Malaspina glacier.Alaska77 arrow


In a closer view by satellite, the glacier includes both white areas and most of the adjoining gray areas, where the ice is covered by rock debris. The glacier is about 40 miles wide from east to west.

The Samovar Hills lie near the head of the glacier, where they are surrounded on all sides by ice at least five miles wide.

Seen from a helicopter, the Malaspina glacier extends as far as the eye can see. Light-colored bands of clean ice alternate with darker bands of ice covered by rock debris.RszaSamovar pix 35_0006                  RszaSamovar pix 35_0004

Our helicopter landed in the Samovar Hills. Yes, there is oil here. We saw black tar in the creeks that flowed out from the hills and into a lake that is named Oily Lake.

Shell Oil employs many brilliant scientists and engineers, but they weren’t going to waste their time discussing environmental impacts with government employees. They sent their rookie team to deal with us.

Our first question was, “How will you move the oil out of here?”

(I must admit, the next three pictures of plans to cross the ice are fakes.)

They answered quickly, “By pipeline. We’re going to build a pipeline across the ice.”


Didn’t they realize that glaciers move, and they would tear up a pipeline as they pulled it along?

The team needed a week to think about that.

They came back with the answer – A pipeline on wheels!


We looked at each other in amazement. Don’t these people realize that the glaciers have crevasses and all sorts of other obstacles that will snag the wheels?  If nothing else, the mere drag of all those wheels on a pipeline five miles long, and anchored only at its two ends, would be enough to tear the pipeline apart.  Did they have a solution for that?

This time they needed two or three weeks, and then they presented a wondrously complex plan.

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They would drill a large borehole at an angle beneath the glacier, until the hole was under the glacier’s midpoint. There they would insert a radioactive source.

They would drill a similar borehole from the other side of the glacier. Homing in on the radioactivity, it would come within three feet of the first borehole. Explosives would then be used to shatter the rock between the two holes so that oil could flow from one to the other. Ta da, an underground pipeline!

The Shell people admitted that all this had never been done before in a single project. But each of the critical steps had been done successfully in one place or another.

We had our doubts, but we couldn’t rule the plan out as an impossibility. So we’d have to go ahead with an environmental impact statement.  By the time we gathered a team to do this, word came down from on high in Shell Oil to their rookie team, to this effect:

“This firm will not get involved in such a hare-brained scheme just to get some reimbursement from the Government. Cancel the project.”

No telling how many dollars were saved by the cancellation. We in the government couldn’t take credit for the savings.  Credit goes to Shell Oil for finally displaying some common sense.



These three trips took up a total of eight months, and they were expensive. Now it is time to see what was accomplished, as I promised you.  Most people would weigh this against its cost to the taxpayers. I would also weigh it against the use of eight months of my life.


Project Soda Straw: The Porta-Drill was shown to be useless for its intended purposes.

Black Rapids Glacier: We learned about the hazards of this glacier. We forgot to take any safety devices, but we still survived our walk.

Glenn Highway Geology: Report completed, but the only copy was lost.

Electronics intelligence: The main mission, to detect radars along the Soviet coasts, failed because tomfoolery wrecked the ship.

Airbase construction: I found and surveyed eight sites for an airbase, but the base was never built because of a Soviet protest.

The Oil Lease: Oil was never produced. Shell Oil withdrew its proposal, and taxpayers saved, at the very least, the cost of preparing an Environmental Impact Statement.



Vietnam66 Finished CoverThe book titled Vietnam ’66: A Personal Experience of the War, by Jim Burns, contains the complete text and illustrations of the Vietnam postings on this blog.  The illustrations are presented in color.  The book is available in paperback and Kindle editions.  The Kindle edition was temporarily withdrawn and revised to clear up format problems that had developed in the conversion to e-book.


Details of the book can be viewed on the Amazon website at Vietnam ’66, or at Vietnam ’66 Kindle, or at the Author’s Page, where other books by the same author are also listed.

ABOUT REVIEWS OF THIS BOOK: The Amazon website indicates that this book received two unfavorable reviews.  The first review was based on format problems with the original Kindle edition.  Those problems were promptly addressed and have been cleared up in the current Kindle edition.

The second reviewer wrote “Did not find it to my liking.” I cannot do anything to correct this. He didn’t describe what he liked, or what I had done that he disliked.  As the French say, “Chacun à son goût” (Everyone to his taste.)


When the events described here took place in 1955, I realized immediately that it was an unusual story to say the least, and that it deserved to be told. However, I was not authorized to take it public; my last reading from the Pentagon was that it was likely to remain secret for as much as five years.

So I waited five years. I waited ten. Then twenty, and thirty. Finally, after 41 years, the story did go public in Norway, in full detail. Having a keen memory of the events, as well as many notes, records, and photos, I was then able to put together a manuscript, get it reviewed by fellow participants, and finally in 2006 publish a book titled The Cold Coasts.


The star of the show was the motor cutter Godønes, 85 feet long and with berths for up to 19 men. Known as a “polar vessel” or “sealer,” she was designed for expeditions lasting two or three months at a time into the Arctic pack ice to hunt polar bears and seals. Vessels of this type had sturdy wooden hulls, which tended to bounce off ice chunks that would have cut into comparable steel hulls like a can-opener.


During midsummer festivities, the Godønes slipped out of the Bergen navy yard and headed north. For five days she sailed along the spectacular Norwegian coast. The accompanying photo of a globe shows the region where this mission took place.


Near the northern tip of Norway, 900 miles from where she began, the Godønes rolled and tossed at anchor, buffeted by a cold wind and a choppy sea. She was ready to leave the protected coastal waters and cross the open sea, still headed north. In her parting view of mainland Norway, the Lyngen Alps stood bold and beautiful (photo courtesy of Odd Magnus Heide Hansen).


To this point the voyage might have seemed ordinary. Now some remarkable things took place. Electric generators and radio antennas were uncrated. The skipper was allowed for the first time to enter his own cabin, where he saw stacks of electronic equipment. He learned that the ‘scientific expedition’ for which he thought the ship had been leased was, in fact, an intelligence mission. There would be electronic sweeps of Russian coal-mining settlements in the Norwegian territory of Svalbard, and then along nearby coasts of the Soviet homeland itself. While in Svalbard, teams would be put ashore to look into the possibility of building large airfields and developing harbors to supply them.

It was impressed upon the skipper that this was a dangerous mission and that Russians might capture the ship. In such a case, the people on board should expect to end up in Siberia. The year was 1955. The Cold War was in full swing. Remarkable things like this often happened during the Cold War.

Sixty-five days after she sailed from Bergen, the Godønes limped back into the port of Tromsø, mechanically disabled and under tow. The Godønes is shown below in a shipyard for repair, and the photo at right shows the damage – bent propeller shaft, propeller blade lodged against rudder – that made the tow necessary. The distance towed was 600 miles, and it took 10 days. That works out to an average speed of 2.2 knots, or 2.5 miles per hour.

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One might wonder why I called such a serious mission a “caper.” As the word “caper” implies, the story does have some comic elements, including cases of incompetence that were reminiscent of the Keystone Cops. One such incident explains the damage to the ship. The ship got into an “argument” with a huge ice floe 200 feet wide, 7 to 8 feet thick, composed of hard, dense blue ice known by the Norwegians as “steel ice.”

Crewmembers would have avoided such a large ice floe, but one of the Norwegian military people did a stint as guest helmsman. He must have been thinking, “Let’s see what this baby can do.” We rammed the ice at full speed. The ship rode up onto the ice, sat there for a moment, and then broke through. In the resulting turmoil, the propeller stopped turning and couldn’t be started again.


There were 15 men aboard: The skipper and crew totaled five. There were five other Norwegians – military intelligence officers and electronic specialists – and five Americans.

T3sv2F6Leiv Isaksen (left) and Tore Snefjellaa

Leiv Isaksen was skipper of the Godønes. An excellent seaman, he was always alert for things that might go wrong. His eyes fascinated me as they flashed from sky to sea to ship and to each of the people in view. Thanks to this alertness, he survived a hazardous career to die of natural causes at a very old age. He was famed for having performed difficult rescues at sea.

Bjarne Thorsen was the expedition leader and a lieutenant commander in the Norwegian navy. During World War II, he had been a resistance fighter and spy against the Germans in occupied Norway. He also served on the British naval frigate Nene.  After the war, he ran many intelligence operations against the Soviets.

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Tore Snefjellaa was a full commander in the Norwegian navy, a colleague of Bjarne, and with a similar history. He was a last-minute volunteer to come along as field assistant, because he simply loved going to Svalbard.

Frank Arnesen was a lieutenant in the Norwegian Air force, trained as a radio telegrapher and Russian interpreter. He assisted me in field work ashore. We became close friends and remained so for the rest of his life.

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The Norwegian electronic specialists included a leading designer of electronic intelligence gear, and his assistant.

Among the Americans, Bruce Johnson was a marine geologist. We were concerned that any recommended airbase sites should be accessible by sea. Bruce studied navigation conditions and sites for ports, harbors, landing beaches to supply each of the recommended sites.

Bruce Johnson

The three Americans concerned with electronics intelligence, unfortunately, cannot be identified here. Fritz, the technician who installed our equipment and kept it running, never revealed his employer, and never presented his face to a camera. Fred and Doug, captains in the Army and Air Force, respectively, accomplished so many misdeeds in the story I have told that I don’t dare reveal their true names or their pictures.

I was the fifth of the Americans, a geologist employed by the U.S. Geological Survey. My assignment was to locate and describe sites suited for the construction of large airfields. From a study of maps and aerial photographs, I had selected eight study areas where sites might be found for runways of 10,000 feet or more.

Jim Burns

I hiked over all eight areas, making an engineering geologic reconnaissance, and I hauled back hundreds of pounds of soil samples for testing by the Army Corps of Engineers.

The best sites were all on raised beaches that, here and there, fringed the mountainous, glaciated interiors of the islands (a raised beach appears in the foreground of the aerial photograph shown below at left). My top-rated site was at a place called Kvadehuksletta, on the west coast of West Spitsbergen (at right).

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The next summer, in 1956, two Norwegian brothers named Pedersen visited Svalbard and agreed that Kvadehuksletta was the best site for a large airfield. One brother was a military officer, the other an official of Scandinavian Airlines System. They proposed that SAS be permitted to build an emergency landing field there. This was negotiated with the government and various leaseholders for the next two years.

In 1958, the Soviet Union made an official protest, claiming that the landing field could be used as a military airbase. The Svalbard Treaty prohibited any military use of the land.   End of subject; silence and secrecy prevailed until 1996.

The story went public in 1996 through a series of newspaper interviews with the skipper and with Frank Arnesen.

Frank thought that the Norwegian government authorized this release for political reasons, namely to embarrass the party that had been in power in 1955 and had allowed these things to go on. If that was the motivation, Frank provided the bombshell that was needed. He claimed that explosives were aboard, set to go off if Russians approached. This would sink the ship and the secret electronics, and would leave the men to fend for themselves in icy water.

For reasons given in my book, I believe this was a false rumor cooked up by the crew, but I certainly can’t prove a negative. The issue is still being debated in the Norwegian press, about both the Godønes and other ships on similar missions later. This has led to heart-wrenching interviews with seamen, making such statements as “They played with my life, and I didn’t even know it.” And today, nobody really knows.

This posting is an updated selection from my book, The Cold Coasts (Kindle, Paperback, and Hard Cover).


Cast of characters and organizations

Office of the Secretary of Defense/Advance Research Projects Agency (variously abbreviated as OSD/ARPA or ARPA). The government office that sponsored and directed this tunnel research program. Headquartered in Washington, DC. Operated a field office in Saigon.

Research Analysis Corporation (RAC). My employer, a private not-for-profit research organization under contract to ARPA and other defense agencies. Headquartered in McLean, VA. Operated a field office in Saigon.

RAC employees:

Perry F. Narten. Geologist from the McLean office assigned as my partner in the tunnel project.

Dorothy Clark and Harry Handler. Professional staff members on long-term assignment to the Vietnam field office.

Viet Cong (often referred to as VC, V.C., or Victor Charlie). A political and military organization in South Vietnam that fought U.S. and South Vietnamese forces. I understand that this was a pejorative term shortened from expressions meaning “Vietnamese Communists” and “Communist Traitor to Vietnam.” A preferred term in peacetime is National Liberation Front for South Vietnam. The term VC referred both to the organization and to its individual members. It was distinct from the North Vietnamese troops who also entered the war.

Republic of Vietnam (RVN). The government of South Vietnam during the war. Its army was generally designated by the abbreviation ARVN.

(NOTE: You may enlarge pictures by clicking on them.)


As soon as instructions from ARPA were received, RAC began preparations for the tunnel project. The project was too large and complex for one man to handle. Perry Narten, a geologist with whom I had collaborated on many previous projects, and a good friend as well, was assigned as my partner.

Perry and I arrived in Saigon on October 9, 1966.

Known today as Ho Chi Minh City, Saigon was at that time the capital of the Republic of Vietnam (South Vietnam). I understand that it had once been a beautiful city of about 50,000 people.   Since then, it had undergone Japanese occupation, followed by twenty years of war involving French, American, and other allied forces opposing South Vietnamese insurgent groups and North Vietnamese troops. The city had endured war damage and the decay of buildings and infrastructure. With the addition of refugees, other displaced people, and soldiers, the population had swollen to about 2 million.

RAC maintained an apartment in a pleasant downtown neighborhood at 23 Gia Long. Perry and I joined the two occupants, Harry and Dorothy, for the length of our stay. The RAC field office, part of a larger compound of ARPA field offices, was a 15-minute walk from the apartment.

Saigon remained our base of operations, but through short trips we visited other places important to our mission, including Bien Hoa, Tay Ninh, and Cu Chi. We returned for a longer stay at Cu Chi, which became the primary focus of our field surveys. It was located about 20 miles northwest of Saigon.

Cu Chi was strategically significant because it controlled some of the principal land and water routes for infiltration of supplies from the Ho Chi Minh trail. Cu Chi and the Iron Triangle nearby were strongholds for the Viet Cong throughout the war. The accompanying map shows these and other nearby areas, in which were found the greatest concentrations of tunnels in all of South Vietnam.

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In January 1966, about one square mile of land was cleared for the construction of Camp Cu Chi, the headquarters of the U.S. 25th Infantry Division. Apparently it was not fully known at that time that the area was infested with Viet Cong tunnels. In ensuing months, surprise attacks occurred from inside the camp’s perimeter. An eyewitness told me of seeing several VC suddenly appearing in the mess hall, firing machine guns. When Perry and I arrived at Cu Chi, this problem had finally been solved within the camp itself, but tunnels in the general area remained a hot issue. The ARPA officers urged us to concentrate on this area, and we did.

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                    Source: Danny Driscoll


Following the events at Camp Cu Chi, American forces had accumulated a great deal of knowledge and experience with tunnels by late 1966. Under the standard one-year tour of duty in Vietnam, many soldiers who had experienced tunnel warfare were still in country.

The normal procedure, once a tunnel complex had been detected and pacified by a strong ground force, was to search it and then destroy it by shaped demolition charges. At first, regular infantry soldiers were assigned to the search. Many were killed during encounters with enemy soldiers and booby traps. The need for a Military Occupational Specialty (MOS) was soon recognized, and numerous training materials were produced. The trainees under this program, who I understood were all volunteers, have frequently been called “Tunnel Rats.” My field notes suggest that “Tunnel Runners” was the more common term in use among the people I worked with. These runners were acknowledged as major American heroes of the war.

Backing up the above sources of information, extensive intelligence files on tunnels were built up in the 25th Division and in the headquarters of the Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (MACV).

Our ARPA project officer, navy Lieutenant Commander Richard M. Gowing, was quick and thorough in seeing that we made all the informational contacts needed for our project. Among the facts that we learned:

TunnDestryJan68 300bThe greatest concentrations of tunnels were in the III Corps Tactical Zone, extending from the sea, through Saigon and Cu Chi, on to the Cambodian border, as depicted in the accompanying map. I saw the 1966 version of this map, which gave added information on the length of each tunnel or tunnel complex. Most of these were much less than one mile long; only a few exceptions approached or exceeded a length of one mile.

These lengths should be kept in mind in view of statements, partly true but misleading, that suggest the tunnels were much longer and were intended for long-distance travel. Examples of such information are: “they stretched from Saigon to the Cambodian border,” “about 200 kilometers of tunnels were built,” and “they were used to connect villages, districts, and provinces together so the fighters could move between areas undetected.”

Estimating the numbers of tunnels runs into a problem of definition: They ranged in size from major headquarters facilities to “holes in the ground,” and by this definition the number could approach 5,000. By more conventional definitions, such as squad-size tunnels and larger, the count was about 500 in late 1966, and rising each month.

In news accounts and training materials alike, chief emphasis has been placed on the larger complexes, which held such facilities as living areas, storage depots, ordinance factories, hospitals, headquarters, kitchens, and any other facility needed by an army. For these purposes, compartments were built to whatever dimensions the facility required. The largest of them required some form of lining and support.

Connecting tunnels, and those used for such purposes as scout observations, surprise sniper attacks, ambushes, and town control, did not require large dimensions. To ensure stability without lining or support, they normally ranged in width from 0.8 to 1.2 meters, and in height from 0.8 to 1.8 meters. The minimum roof thickness was 1.5 meters.

A diagram illustrating the typical layout of a major tunnel complex was presented in Part I. Another is presented here. Both are from U.S. Army training materials.

Tunnel basics1

No central entity designed the tunnels or oversaw their construction. They evolved in response to local needs and were constructed under the supervision of local Viet Cong leaders. Teams of local residents performed the labor of digging by hand. In many cases, each team worked only in a sector near its home village, and was unaware of extensions into neighboring sectors.

The early tunnels were dug as hiding places for the Viet Minh, a nationalist guerilla force that fought the Japanese during World War II and the French afterward until 1954. More tunnels were built later as pressure increased from American and South Vietnamese troops.

We learned various examples of digging rates, which varied according to the soil, the weather, and the health and skills of the labor force. Some of the rates cited were: one cubic meter per person per day; 50 meters of tunnel length per day for a team of 100 workers. There were often major delays in progress, especially during the dry season, when soils became too hard to dig by hand. I learned of one tunnel, 1,700 meters long, that was started in 1958 and required two and one-half years for completion by a force of 100 workers.

Fortitude and determination were needed not only in the construction of tunnels, but also in their use.

Soldiers had to maneuver through low, narrow passages interrupted by many twists, turns, and trap doors designed to minimize effects of underground blasts. Floors were frequently flooded during the wet season, and snakes and scorpions were also encountered. Trap door openings were tiny; those we observed measured as little as 12 by 18 inches.

Care was needed when moving around booby traps that had been placed to defend the tunnels. Booby traps were responsible for 11% of American deaths, and 17% of all wounds during the war. They ranged from simple punji stakes (sharpened bamboo, often smeared with excrement) and underfoot spike boards to various explosive devices.

Noteworthy among the explosive devices were Claymore Mines, a particularly deadly type of antipersonnel weapon. They consisted of round flat pans filled with plastic explosive, packed with nails or other small pieces of metal to serve as shrapnel.  From a mine mounted in an upright position, this shrapnel would shower a large area forward.


The goal of our project was to contribute to a multi-part study titled “A Systematic Approach to the Detection of VC Tunnels.” Part I: Strategic and Tactical Factors was in preparation by Major H.W. Newbigin of the Australian Army, assisted by Lieutenant J.D. Harden of the U.S. Navy. We would prepare Part II: Environmental Factors. The two teams cooperated closely and exchanged information freely.

In Part II, our task was to match the information we had on tunnel locations with detailed descriptions of the environment, primarily geology, soils, and subsurface moisture and ground water conditions. We had two goals. One was to seek any association between tunnels and specific environmental settings, which might then guide search efforts. The other was to compile information on the properties of the natural materials and their changing moisture conditions, as an aid in the design of detection equipment.

Tunnels in the III Corps Tactical Zone were exclusively located in certain higher terrace levels of the geologic unit known as Old Alluvium. These were old floodplain deposits formed during previous higher stages of sea level. They were now elevated to several elevations up to about 70 feet above the current sea level.

They could readily be recognized by land use patterns on the uplands, consisting either of woodlands or of cultivated fields and hedgerows.

In soil science terminology, these materials were identified and mapped as grey podzolic soils and low-humic gley soils. Tunnels could be located freely anywhere in the first type, which lay at higher elevations. In the second type, at lower elevations, tunnels could be located only at selected sites on high ground. In lower areas, the ground water table was too shallow.

The soil materials were mostly clays with some silt and fine sand. They were “lateritic,” meaning that iron content, leached from the upper layers, had accumulated in the lower layers as a cement. When thoroughly air-dried, those soils took on properties close to those of concrete, and were resistant to ever becoming soft and moist again. Finally, near the ground water table, still higher concentrations of iron produced layers of laterite pebbles and rocks, highly resistant to digging even by mechanized equipment. This set the depth limit for digging tunnels in the usual fashion, by hand. The limit typically varied between 10 and 20 meters.

TunnExpos1The soils were highly stable without lining or support, depending, of course, on the size of the excavation. After drying out, they were known to withstand 40-pound cratering charges, hand grenades, and other explosives without collapsing. Their stability is evident in these photos of a tunnel from which the roof had been removed.

Vietnam has a tropical monsoon climate. The south monsoon, May through September, features the single rainy season, with annual rainfall exceeding 1000mm almost everywhere. The north monsoon, October through April, brings dry and sunny weather to southern Vietnam, while rainfall is infrequent and light. In the Saigon area specifically, the rainy season tends to persist later, tapering off during the October-November period when we were there.

The rainy season was the best time for tunnel construction. During the dry season, the soils often became too dry and hard to be dug by hand. Along the interior tunnel surfaces, many areas of soil were thoroughly air-dried so that they were more or less permanently hardened and unlikely to regain moisture and softness. Trap doors in tunnels were normally built up of layers of wood and soil; even though they were exposed to seasonal rains, soldiers sometimes mistook the soil for concrete.

As our study progressTunnExpos2ed, it became clear that tunnel locations in III Corps Tactical Zone were strictly confined to certain suitable soil and geologic situations as described above. Nevertheless, we were unable to meet our first goal. The suitable conditions were so widespread that they did not provide any guidance for organizing a search effort. We did succeed with our second goal, providing detailed data about ground conditions to assist in the design of sensing systems.

These widespread conditions were not only suitable for hand-dug tunnels; they were pre-eminently suitable in comparison with other situations around the world. This suggests that tunneling may have been an established tradition of Vietnamese culture through previous centuries. It would explain the speed and skill with which they employed it in times of occupation and war.

To support this speculation, it is worth noting that China once had such a tradition, taking advantage of widespread deposits of loess (windblown silt and clay). Loess was well suited for digging artificial caves, though it lacked the cements that gave the Vietnamese soils added stability. The Shaanxi earthquake of 1556 was the deadliest earthquake in history, owing to the fact that millions of people were living in caves dug in the loess. Many of the dwellings collapsed, and the toll was estimated at 830,000 deaths.


Note: An account of this event, in a letter dated November 3. 1966, is presented in Part III: Letters from the Field. The purpose here is to summarize that account and to fill in some of the gaps.

*     *     *

Camp Cu Chi, headquarters of the 25th Infantry Division, was approximately one square mile in area. It was largely surrounded by hostile territory and was aptly termed a front-line camp. Its perimeter was lined by barbed wire, machine gun bunkers, and artillery emplacements. Every night the guns were fired repeatedly, flares were dropped, and in general sleep was frequently interrupted.

My longest visit to the camp began on October 31, when the 25th Division had scheduled an operation to check out the report by a VC prisoner about a tunnel located near Ap Cho, about 3 miles southeast of the camp. The operation would be carried out by Charlie Company, 1st Battalion, 5th Infantry Regiment (Mechanized), under the command of Captain Blair. When I arrived, six armored personnel carriers (APCs) were lined up ready to make the trip. A helicopter waited nearby for Capt. Blair, who would lead the operation from the air.

VN Field_0001

Soon the VC prisoner was brought forward. He was a young man, neat and clean. He wore the black pajama uniform that I had heard of but had never seen. His hands were tied behind his back, and while in Camp Cu Chi he was blindfolded. He was docile. His face never showed any emotion.

VN Field_0002The prisoner was interviewed through an interpreter. At the site we would visit, he had been foreman over a work force of 100 diggers using picks and shovels. A North Vietnamese army officer had given him plans for his sector of the tunnel complex. From 1961, some digging was done each wet season, normally at a rate of 50 meters per day. The ground was too hard for digging in the dry season. The entire complex was unlined, except for the room just inside the main entry, were the roof was only about 1 foot thick. He claimed that the entire length of the tunnel complex was about 1 kilometer, which would be one of the longest on record.

Proceeding from the camp, our column crossed paddy fields (flooded fields where rice is grown). Here we avoided the small roads on the dikes because they might be mined. Instead, we plowed through the rice in a scene very similar to that shown below, which came from a picture post card. The soldiers mostly rode on the top decks of the APCs, while I chose a bench seat in the interior.

PostCdBoys_0001 1119

On the roads, a sizable group of Vietnamese civilians moved along with us, frequently cheering and waving. Soon a brisk trade was set up in refreshments for the troops, mostly soft drinks and bananas. I wasn’t sure where these people came from; a large area here had been cleared of all inhabitants the previous February.

The most comic scene occurred when we had left the crowds and moved into a deserted area. Along came a boy riding a bicycle on the cart track. He and the soldiers struck up a conversation, and it soon developed that he had a bunch of bananas hidden in his basket. So the bargaining started. For a can of C rations and 20 piastres (17 cents) he waded over and gave us the bananas. We all enjoyed them because we were parched.

Presently, I heard the sound of gunfire. As I quickly learned, we had encountered two VC in a sampan in a canal. One was killed, the other captured. The captured one was tied up and dumped unceremoniously into the APC, where he sat staring at me from about three feet away. He wore no uniform. I asked one of the officers how they knew he was a VC. “Because he tried to get away when he saw us coming.”

Meanwhile, the prisoner leading us to the tunnel was lost for a long time and we went in circles. I was beginning to wonder whether they might punish him for leading us on a wild goose chase. But finally he recognized a familiar tree and led us right to the tunnel opening.

The trap door at the entry was wide open, as were two others inside the tunnel. This indicated that we had probably surprised someone inside. The entry door closely resembled the one in the picture. When I approached it and noted the size of the opening, about 12 by 18 inches, I declared, “I’m not going in. This tunnel isn’t built for a man of my caliber.” Of course, I already knew that Capt. Blair wouldn’t allow me to go in.010TrapDoor1 copy

Those who went in were a couple of young soldiers, trained as tunnel runners,who seemed absolutely fearless. They went far into the tunnel, digging their way through a collapsed area. Movements by an APC caused a repeat of the collapse, which they protested, using their only contact with the surface – a phone on a long line. They found important items in the tunnel. At one collapsed place they found large amounts of ammunition, Claymore mines (round pan-shaped objects in the photo), and many maps and documents, which included names of VC living in a nearby village. Chances are that those people were forewarned. Little boys kept hanging around the tunnel site. When soldiers chased them, they climbed a tree to watch. The accompanying photos show the soldiers displaying their “loot.” VN Field_0004

There was an abandoned well nearby with fresh footprints on the clay walls, about 20 feet of murky water in it. The brave tunnel runners went all the way to the bottom, seeking additional tunnel entrances. No diving apparatus – fully clothed, they just took a deep breath and jumped in. They tied telephone wire around their waists so that we could pull them back up if necessary. Only one went in at a time, since the well was only about 2½ feet in diameter. Like many wells, this one was connected with chambers of the tunnel. Sometimes this presented the hazard of enemy troops in hiding, but not this time.

VN Field_0005013VN Field_0006

A couple of days after this operation, Captain Blair invited Perry and me to go out with his company on another operation, into the Iron Triangle. The area was of great interest, but we declined because (1) The operation would last 3 to 5 days. (2) The area was so infested with VC that the operation was preceded by heavy B-52 bombardment, very likely having destroyed tunnels and near-surface soils. And (3) the danger was still so great that they wanted us to work separately so that we couldn’t both get hit at the same time.

That did it! We said thanks but no thanks.


As previously mentioned, Perry and I were unable to meet the first goal of our study. The soil and geologic conditions most favorable for tunnel construction were so widespread that they offered no useful guidance for planning search efforts.

We did accomplish our second goal, to describe the properties of earth materials that would be useful in the design of detection systems. We had in mind various techniques of exploration geophysics, including seismic methods, ground-penetration radar, remote sensing, and several others.

This goal was a limited one, however, because two men without laboratory support can do only so much in two months. We had done the basic work, but we realized that more detailed follow-on surveys would be needed before final designs could be made.

On October 26, I was pleased to learn that the follow-on surveys were in the works. A team would visit the ARPA field office in December to arrange for the next phase, beginning in January 1967. The Air Force would make flights to test remote sensing techniques. A ground team from the Waterways Experiment Station (WES) of the Corps of Engineers would conduct field surveys for three months, traveling widely throughout the study area, the III Corps Tactical Zone.

I knew these people from WES. I had recently completed a year working with them in Vicksburg on a joint research program. I knew that they had the backup of a state-of –the-art soils analysis laboratory, and that they had developed brilliant techniques for mapping soils, portraying a variety of their quantitative properties. They were well qualified.

The ARPA project officer and I were much concerned about one problem, though: Traveling in the back country. Perhaps they didn’t know what they were getting into. One didn’t wander around the countryside here as they had done in Thailand. And in the hottest part of the year yet, poor fellows.

There was no further news of the project until several months later. In January, I learned that the Air Force mission was “curtailed,” and the ground mission was delayed. Some time later, I learned that the field team had arrived, had traveled to Camp Cu Chi, and then never managed to get outside the camp’s perimeter. With the failure of this work, it was clear that any design of detection systems would not move ahead. I was distressed to hear that we were moving into a new phase, called The Final Solution.


By 1969, the tunnels had made significant contributions to the communist cause. In that year, they were finally destroyed for all time by B-52 carpet bombing raids. The first photo below shows a B-52-D dropping a string of 750-pound bombs. The second view, unfortunately of poor quality, shows the crater left by the detonation of just one bomb. From these photos, one can judge the extent of environmental destruction. Carpet bombing was used in every area where there was any suspicion of tunnels.

CarpBomb1   CarpBomb2

As presented by Ramon W. Almodovar and J. David Rogers in their training materials on The Tunnels of Cu Chi, General William Westmoreland is quoted as saying “No one has ever demonstrated more ability to hide his installations than the Viet Cong; they were human moles.” And the authors conclude:

The VC demonstrated resolve by outlasting the Americans. Although no American unit of even squad size or greater ever surrendered to the Viet Cong or North Vietnamese during the entire Vietnam War, they still managed to prevail.

The training materials have been of great value in the preparation of this posting.


My thoughts about the Vietnam War are not those of a political or historical expert. I am a career geologist who, through many years in the Civil Service, tended to avoid political involvements. My work brought me into contact with American military operations in several parts of the world, including Vietnam. I believe that the Vietnam experience carries powerful lessons concerning the unilateral initiation of wars by our political leaders. These lessons had not been learned by 2003 when the United States invaded Iraq. They deserve the raising of many voices, not just those of the experts.

*     *     *

Until 1966, like many middle-class Americans, I accepted the justification for the Vietnam War that our leaders gave us: a defense of South Vietnam against aggressive expansion and control by the major communist powers. That threat seemed to be supported by the words of Nikita Khrushchev, Premier of the Soviet Union, when he hailed the development of such “Wars of National Liberation” as the new model for spreading communist doctrine and control, and for overcoming resistance by the capitalistic nations.

This justification seemed to make sense. Through the decade following World War II, the devastated countries of Eastern Europe, one by one, had fallen under Soviet control, enforced where necessary by troops and tanks. China had replaced its former government, our wartime ally, with a communist dictatorship. When forces from North Korea invaded South Korea, we rose to its defense. A victory there seemed within our grasp until Chinese forces entered the fray, ultimately producing a stalemate that persists to this day. No wonder, then, that Mr. Khrushchev sought a newer, fresher model for expansion.

I assumed that the people of South Vietnam wanted, needed, and deserved defense against communist aggression. Without defense, they would succumb to it as the North Vietnamese had already done.

Dissenters held that the major goal of the Vietnamese people, north and south, was national independence, following many years of occupation and colonial status. Communism was a distant secondary issue.

I was mindful of these issues while in Vietnam, but could not make any personal resolution of them. Nevertheless, two letters from Vietnam indicated a first significant shift in attitude:

November 22, 1966

“The people here seem to be happy with very little. The lame (very few of these in evidence), the wounded, and those who are caught in the battlefields are the ones I feel most sorry for. But the general picture is one of “life as normal”, with Americans seeming to take the war much more seriously than the Vietnamese. I suspect that most of the Vietnamese would just like to be left alone.”

November 26, 1966

“Most of the Vietnamese people are poor and have very little, but they do seem to have most of what they need. Their own leaders seem to have just about as little kindness for them as the VC does. So I often think — if we lost this war, a few big shots would suffer but the majority of the people wouldn’t care and would be at least as well off as they are now. Mostly, they need to be left alone to make their living. The only way I can justify the American involvement in my own mind is as an act of pure power politics to define our image to all Asians, an act in which the destiny of the South Vietnamese just happens to be involved.

“So small wonder that South Vietnamese soldiers fight less enthusiastically than the Americans do.”

By “pure power politics” I was referring to America’s need to demonstrate that we would react strongly to Mr. Khrushchev’s new model, the “Wars of National Liberation.” This seemed to be valid in the competition between America and the Soviet Union, but it was different and less “noble” than defending the Vietnamese people. They might well be the victims instead.

*     *     *

Like many Americans, I had a further shift of attitude in 1968, triggered by two events early in the year: the Battle of Khe Sanh and the Tet Offensive. 

The Khe Sanh operation, 21 January to 9 July 1968, was basically a siege operation against a major American combat base by an estimated force of 20,000 troops of the National Liberation Front and North Vietnamese army. The Americans dropped over 100,000 tons of bombs (five times the explosive power of the atomic bomb at Hiroshima), and they conducted an overland relief expedition that finally broke the siege. However, they chose to dismantle the base rather than risk similar battles in the future. It was the first time in Vietnam that we abandoned a major base because of enemy pressure.

300px-TetMapThe Tet Offensive, launched on 30 January 1968, quickly became a well-coordinated, countrywide attack by more than 80,000 communist troops against more than 100 towns and cities. The accompanying map shows some of their targets. Though this offensive was eventually defeated, Americans were shocked. They had been assured that previous defeats had rendered the communist forces incapable of launching such a massive effort.

This was more than a major failure of intelligence. It was also a failure to track the progress of the war in any realistic sense. Our military and political leaders were charged with many things, ranging from malfeasance to stupidity.

The charge that I chose was incompetence, not of persons but of institutions at the highest levels of military management. My experience at the Research Analysis Corporation (RAC), now approaching two years, had opened my eyes to entirely new techniques for planning and executing war, and for tracking its progress. The buzzwords of the time were Systems Analysis, Systems Management, and Operations Research. RAC had a front seat in this development, having originated as the Operations Research Office of Johns Hopkins University. I came to believe that these techniques had much to do with the incompetence I observed.

Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara had successfully developed and used the techniques during his tenure as one of the “Whiz Kids” at Ford Motor Company, and later as the firm’s president. He promoted their widespread adoption at the Pentagon. They were highly quantitative, meaning that factors could not be considered unless they could be counted, measured, or weighed. Other factors, judgmental, had to be put aside regardless of their importance.

One example of this was in a poster on the wall of the RAC field office in Saigon: It tracked progress in the program to win the hearts and minds of people in the villages. The counts of villages won increased steadily over time, seeming to indicate that victory was just around the corner. I never understood how they could deal quantitatively with such matters. Maybe they conducted opinion polls.

As a second example, a RAC analyst lectured us on how he tracked the success of a siege against a VC stronghold in the Iron Triangle. His technique was to calculate a ratio between quantities of ammunition fired into the stronghold, versus the quantities fired back at our troops. While the American firing maintained a steady high level, return fire from the VC dwindled until it became only a trickle of sniper fire. This seemed to indicate an American victory. Shortly afterward, however, prisoner-of–war interrogations revealed that the VC had not been defeated. Understandably, their troops had merely moved back to get out of the range of our guns.

Both of these examples show the types of error that led to the twin shocks of Khe Sanh and Tet.

I based my shift of attitude on the following observations:

During this reign of incompetence, we were conducting brute-force tactics, such as the bombing at Khe Sanh and the destruction of tunnels by B-52 carpet bombing. The numbers of deaths and the extent of environmental destruction were simply not justified by goals that we were unlikely to reach in any event.

Another factor: Still impressed by the magnificent, brave American soldiers I had seen in 1966, I was troubled now by reports of disillusioned soldiers and “potheads.” Were we degrading our military forces through this ill-advised campaign?

And finally: American unity was seriously threatened by controversy at home. The year 1968 saw particularly violent demonstrations in the streets. Splits were developing between social and ethnic groups, and between generations.

I now believed that, regardless of any remaining justification for the war, we needed to get out of Vietnam, the sooner the better. I still clung to one thin thread of possible justification: as a necessary strategy in our competition with the major communist powers.

*     *     *

Finally, in the very early 1970s, I began to question that one remaining thread. I attended lectures by a number of statesmen and other leaders for whom I had respect. The most memorable was probably Edward Teller, dubbed Father of the Hydrogen Bomb. I had come to expect that he would be hawkish (supportive of war) in his politics. Unanimously with all the others, he insisted that the American performance in Vietnam, from the Kennedy through the Nixon administrations, was driven solely by “domestic political considerations.”

To me this meant: Not for defense of the Vietnamese people, not for a necessary strategy in our competition with the Sino-Soviet bloc. Merely a means of getting out the vote.

I then began digging into the histories of Ho Chi Minh; of America’s relationships with various successive governments in the Republic of Vietnam; and of Vietnam’s conduct since the war – the conduct of an independent nation rather than a communist satellite. The details are readily available. Here I will summarize only that Ho Chi Minh comes through primarily as a nationalist, and only secondarily as a man of communist leanings. In fact, when seeking freedom from France, he turned first to the U.S. for aid, only later to the communist powers.

By the end of this process, I had lost every shred of belief in justification that I had clung to. One cannot overstress the importance of the lessons to be learned from this experience. When George W. Bush ordered the invasion of Iraq in 2003, justified mainly by a network of misinformation and outright lies, it was clear that we had not yet learned them.

This posting is published in my book, Vietnam ’66 (Kindle and Paperback).






A Vietnam Experience: III. Letters from the Front

Cast of characters and organizations

Office of the Secretary of Defense/Advance Research Projects Agency (variously abbreviated as OSD/ARPA or ARPA). The government office that sponsored and directed this tunnel research program. Headquartered in Washington, DC. Operated a field office in Saigon.

Research Analysis Corporation (RAC). My employer, a private not-for-profit research organization under contract to ARPA and other defense agencies. Headquartered in McLean, VA. Operated a field office in Saigon.

RAC employees:

Perry F. Narten. Geologist from the McLean office assigned as my partner in the tunnel project.

Dorothy Clark and Harry Handler. Professional staff members on long-term assignment to the Vietnam field office.

Viet Cong (often referred to as VC, V.C., or Victor Charlie). A political and military organization in South Vietnam that fought U.S. and South Vietnamese forces. I understand that this was a pejorative term shortened from expressins meaning “Vietnamese Communists” and “Communist Traitor to Vietnam.” A preferred term in peacetime is National Liberation Front for South Vietnam. The term VC referred both to the organization and to its individual members. It was distinct from the North Vietnamese troops who also entered the war.

Republic of Vietnam (RVN). The government of South Vietnam during the war. Its army was generally designated by the abbreviation ARVN.

(NOTE: You may enlarge pictures by clicking on them.)

The letters were addressed to family members including my wife, Jaquelin; my sons Jasper (then age 14), David (12), and Philip (9); and my mother, Edith.

 *     *     *

VN III_0001flwrsHd1b

October 10, 1966

Dear Jackie, Jasper, David, Philip, & Mom,

In Saigon the first thing noticed is the heat and humidity. Despite it all, the Vietnamese women dress gracefully and always look clean and fresh; I can’t quite say the same for the men.

The next impression is that of all the military activity. Jeeps with machine guns sat on the runway as we deplaned. Soldiers all over, and the way they are packed in both living and working quarters is incredible. Last evening the sky was full of flares and helicopters, occasional jets. This morning it was artillery rather than the alarm that woke me up just before dawn. I rarely photograph military subjects; it could cause trouble.

VN III_0002coolieVN III_0006BikTrfc





The streets of Saigon are humming with traffic and pedestrians. Americans walk freely at all times except after the 11 pm curfew. The sights are like pictures out of a geography book — the people wear “coolie” hats, operate chicken barbecues in the middle of the sidewalk, etc. It has rained 3 or 4 times since I got here, but no problem — everyone just gets wet and then dries out.

October 20, 1966

Dear David,

This town is full of soldiers — not only traveling around, but on almost every block there is one sitting behind sandbags with a rifle or machine gun ready. Lots of barbed wire barricades on the sidewalk, so we have to walk in the street around them. Last night must have been a bad one outside of town. Around ten o’clock the guns started booming, the pom-poms were chattering, helicopters were buzzing around and dropping flares, and once in while it sounded like VC mortar shells in the distance. Yet everything looks innocent and peaceful by day.

October 21, 1966

Dear Mom,

This city is large in crowds (about 2,000,000), small in conveniences, dirty, and has very much the appearance of war. Sandbags, barbed wire, and armed guards all over the place. Apparently it was a beautiful place once when it held only about 50,000 people. But now it is jammed with refugees, not to mention troops, and little shacks have gone up all over and the original nice big buildings seem to be decaying rapidly.

 Saigon dwntwn

There are some deterrents to roving the town and sightseeing, imposed by (1) poor sanitation and the considerable danger of polluted food and water, except in a few trusted restaurants. (2) the general problem of not knowing a single word of the language. (3) The apparent lack of genteel entertainment places; movies seem real fleabags, and are French & Chinese only; the bars and nightclubs seem to be largely cutthroat joints, and (4) lack of security in outlying areas.

October 23, 1966

Dearest Jackie, Jasper, David and Philip:

While I’m still adapting to the climate, I find it weakening. I’m worn out every night by about 9 or 10. Tonight I could hardly stay awake at the restaurant, and it is not yet 9 and I think I’ll start for bed when I finish this letter.The heat itself hasn’t been too bad the last few days (upper 80’s) but the humidity is unbelievable. The housekeeper washed my fatigue trousers 2 days ago and they’re still on the line (under porch roof), soaking wet. Also all our bath towels are wet, so tonight we have them spread out under a ceiling fan trying to dry them.

Saigon has a new waterworks which promises, according to the paper, “disease-free water in six months”, but meanwhile I drink wine, coke, or beer. At the apartment, the housekeeper boils water, then strains it through cotton for drinking, cooking, tooth brushing, etc.

October 24, 1966

Dear Jasper,

I’m taking pictures whenever there’s an opportunity, but there haven’t been too many. Two problems: The city is so much like a military camp I’m afraid of photographing something I shouldn’t, and either getting shot at or getting arrested. Also,there are so many sights of poor people on the streets. I’m afraid they may be offended.

On the first point, to show you how nervous sentries are around here, two Vietnamese were riding a motor scooter a couple of blocks from here the other day when it stalled right in front of an American BOQ (Bachelor Officers’ Quarters). The MPs (military police) yelled to move on, and when they didn’t move for a few seconds, the MPs started shooting at them. Fortunately they missed, then they found out the riders were two South Vietnamese Army lieutenants in civilian clothes. After that the MPs were so upset that they barricaded the street for the rest of the day.

October 27, 1966

Dear Jackie,VN III_0007Parad

Saigon is beginning to look festive in anticipation of the national day, November 1. Banners all over, military bands practicing. This evening I walked to the PX and almost dropped my teeth to find myself engulfed by hundreds of young men and women, late teens and early 20’s I guess, pouring out of several big open trucks. They all were wearing black pajamas—the customary VC uniform—and to top it off they all were waving red flags. I thought the moment of VC victory had come. Later they paraded down the street. Haven’t figured them out yet, but it was all very peaceful and within 200 feet of the heavily guarded U.S. Bachelor Officers’ Quarters (BOQ).

I’m polishing some of the rust off my French. The Vietnamese are all (as far as I’ve met them) pretty poor in English, but many are fluent in French. So French has gotten me over a few crucial communication problems. There is still a small colony of French business people living here, but I understand the Vietnam govarnment is giving them the boot as fast as it can. They recently revoked licenses of French doctors, even though doctors are badly needed here.

October 28, 1966

Dearest Jackie:

I get an inkling that things are not so good here in the Vietnamese government. No details, except that a bunch of ministers tried to resign just before the Manila meeting. Seems to be trouble between native South Vietnamese and the large number of North Vietnamese (by origin, not politically) that have important posts here, including Prime Minister Ky himself.

Of course all the news here is heavily censored—lots of blank columns in the newspaper, and once in a while American magazines like Time fail to get through, even to the PX. So let me know if you’ve heard more about his than I have.

October 30, 1966

Dearest Jackie, Jasper, David, Philip, and Mom:

It was three weeks aVN III_0008Statugo today when I arrived in Saigon. We have worked every day since then, including Saturdays and Sundays. Today, though, we gave up about 2:00 PM, ate, and took the rest of the day off. This consisted of wandering around town, getting film at the PX; and then I heard a band playing and went to find a US Marine Band concert in progress, apparently dedicatinVN III_0009Natlg a new statue in front of the National Assembly building—a statue honoring the South Vietnamese soldiers.

Tomorrow morning we are driving to Cu Chi again –about 25 mi. NW of Saigon, where we will stay at an Army Camp, 25th Division Headquarters, for 3 to 5 days. That is an area of numerous tunnels and from there they will take us out to do the fieldwork. They are the people who are so experienced with tunnels, the people we met before who had crawled through many of them.

This trip will put us out of Saigon during the national holiday — probably just as well. They have built big grandstands where the dignitaries,Vietnamese and American, will view the parade. We ask ourselves half jokingly how many mines are planted under those grandstands. It may turn out not to be a joke.

Had a scare a couple of nights ago. The VC were attacking a U.S. ammunition dump and apparently the third mortar shell hit home. There was an ungodly explosion. It was 9 PM and Perry and I were walking down the street near here. I could have sworn it was a block or two away. As it turns out, the dump was 11 miles outside of Saigon, at Bien Hoa. Broke windows even in the city.

Please keep your mind at peace about us over here. Even though you may hear of violent incidents, they are probably less frequent here than auto accidents in Washington. And people react to the incidents in about the same way, no more, no less, as Washingtonians react to auto accidents. We are taking every precaution.

November 2, 1966

Dearest Jackie:

This is being written from Camp Cu Chi. We left Saigon 9 am Monday the 31st, arrived here about 11 am. We learned that a VC prisoner had told of a tunnel near here, so we joined with a company that went out Monday afternoon to find it. Did so and returned there yesterday to spend the day.

Today we spent our time within the camp–it had been infested with tunnels before it was occupied, so we went around sampling soils and spent a good bit of time at a well they are digging here.

November 3, 1966

Dearest Jackie:

Camp Cu Chi is the headquarters of the 25th Infantry Division, probably some 10,000 men more or less. The camp is spread out over perhaps a square mile. It is pretty well surrounded by hostile territory, and is aptly termed a front-line camp. It is surrounded by barbed wire, machine gun bunkers, and artillery emplacements.

CampCuChi copy

There were no incidents within the camp while I was there, but every night the guns banged away, flares were dropped, and in general sleep was frequently interrupted. We picked a good time to be there, for as I mentioned I was glad to be out of Saigon on Tuesday, their national holiday. We feared the VC might try something, and they did. In addition to numerous grenades in the city, there were two bombardments by recoilless rifles (something like bazookas or small rockets) that were aimed at the parade area.

Several holes were put in the roof of the Grall hospital across the street from our apartment, and one went through the wall of the building next door, breaking glass in the far end of our building and putting lots of shrapnel holes in cars parked out front, including the one we rent. Our address is 23 Gia Long, and some of the press dispatches made specific mention of it.

Harry and Dorothy were walking to the parade, about 100 yards down the street, when the shells hit and they are still pretty scared. It seems we were much safer on the front lines. Harry and Dorothy have been here a long time, so you can see from their excitement over this that it’s most unusual—probably represents a VC maximum effort for the occasion of the holiday.

When we got to Cu Chi, the 25th Division was planning an operation that afternoon to check out the report of a VC prisoner on a tunnel located about 3 or 4 miles southeast of the camp. The main body of troops, about a company, went by armored personnel carriers (APCs, something like tanks) while a few flew helicopter support. We were in one of the APCs. The only enemy encountered were two VC in a sampan (boat) who tried to get away when they saw us; one was killed, the other captured. The captured one wore no uniform; I asked one of the officers how they knew he was a VC. “Because he tried to get away when he saw us coming.”

During parts of the trip, both he and the other VC prisoner, the one who was leading us to the tunnel, were riding with us in the APC and rubbing elbows. Completely pacified & docile—but hands tied anyway. Our prisoner guide was lost for a long time and we went in circles. I was beginning to fear they might punish him for leading us on a wild goose chase through paddy fields, hedgerows, brush. But finally he recognized a familiar tree and led us right to the tunnel opening. Door was wide open, as were several trap doors inside. Pits nearby with sharpened bamboo stakes in them. The significance of the open doors was that we had probably just surprised someone inside.

Perry and I did not go into the tunnel. This was done by a couple of young soldiers called tunnel rats or tunnel runners who seemed absolutely fearless. There was an abandoned well nearby with fresh footprints on the clay walls, about 20 feet of murky water in it. So our brave tunnel runners went under the water seeking additional tunnel entrances. No diving apparatus—fully clothed, they just took a deep breath and jumped in. Tied telephone wire around their waists so that we could pull them back up if necessary. Only one went in at a time, since the well was only about 2½ feet in diameter. They set some people out on ambush around the tunnel for the night, and then returned to their forward encampment, while we lucky ones took helicopter back to Camp Cu Chi for the night.

VN Field_0003Returned next morning, spent rest of day sampling soils and finding new tunnel entrances. Where the vehicles went over a tunnel they collapsed it . Unfortunately this happened while the tunnel runners were in there, but they dug out successfully. At one collapsed place they found large amounts of ammunition, “Claymore” mines, and many maps and documents, including names of VC in the nearby village. Their goose is cooked; chances are, though, that they were forewarned, because neighborhood kids kept hanging around—when soldiers chased them they climbed a tree to watch.

The area was once heavily settled but is now like a no man’s land — no idea where these kids came from. One of the funniest episodes: We were plowing through flooded paddy land, avoiding the small cart tracks on the dikes because these might be mined, and seemingly miles from nowhere, when along comes a boy on a bicycle on the cart track! He and the soldiers strike up a conversation, and it soon develops that he has a bunch of bananas hidden in his basket. So the bargaining starts. For a can of C rations and 20 piastres (17 cents) he waded over to us and gave us the bananas, which we all enjoyed because we were parched. Talk about the Good Humor man at the front lines!

Yesterday we sampled soils around Camp Cu Chi, while the troops we had been with finished exploring the tunnel. Today we were invited to go out with them on another operation. The area was of great interest, but we chickened out because (1) the operation would last 3 to 5 days. (2) The area was so VC–infested that the operation was preceded by heavy B-52 bombardment, which we saw from the camp early this morning, and (3) the danger was still great enough that they wanted us to work separately so we couldn’t both get hit at once.

That did it! We said thanks but no thanks.

November 6, 1966

Dearest Jackie,

You remember we were invited to go along on a second operation out of Cu Chi with the same people we accompanied Monday and Tuesday. I understand they are having a rough time on that operation—one armored personnel carrier blown up the first day. Tay Ninh, the place we visited Thursday, had a big attack Friday morning.

This war is terribly deceiving because one moment all seems peaceful, the next all hell breaks loose.

 VN III_GirlHding3


October 9, 1966

Dearest Jackie:

It is 6:30 Sunday morning here in Hong Kong, and I figure it is 5:30 Saturday afternoon for you. The sky is just beginning to turn pink in the east. I try to picture what you are doing, and can imagine you are putting away some shopping bags while Jimmy is reading, David working in the basement, and Philip outside riding his bike!

October 11, 1966

Dearest Jackie, Jasper, David, and Philip,

Went out to one of the offices near Tan Son Nhut airfield — that’s the main Saigon airfield, where I arrived — to see some American military intelligence people.

Their office is a building about the size of our local firehouse, but over 500 people work in it. An old warehouse; no windows, but a few window air conditioners have been stuck through the wall. They make it just bearable inside, but the air is still warm and humid enough that the cold blast from the units makes a fog like your breath in cold weather.

When I left the office, I asked the Vietnamese driver to take me by the main terminal building at Tan Son Nhut airfield, so that I could see whether our footlockers had arrived.

The office and the terminal building weren’t far apart. They were in view of each other. But the main runway stood between them. Going around the runway would add a couple of miles to our trip, and the driver would have none of that. He drove up to the runway at a point where an American soldier was on guard, manning a machine gun. With gestures, the soldier made it clear that we were not to cross the runway.

Well, the driver waited and waited until the soldier was distracted, and then he gunned the auto for all it was worth. We practically flew across to the terminal. The whole way, I wondered what a machine gun bullet in the back would feel like. But I guess my American presence made the guard think twice before shooting.

There are little lizards (geckoes?) here that would remind you of the “chameleons” (anolis) in Mississippi, only grayer. They live in the house with us. Some on the ceilings, one behind the bathroom mirror, etc. Each one seems to have his permanent territory and nobody bothers them because all they do is eat insects — a good thing!

VN III_0010GiaLng

On the street corner beneath our veranda are a couple of sidewalk stalls where they sell food — there are always 20 to 50 people gathered about, standing or sitting on the sidewalk, eating. We call it the local Howard Johnson’s. Big fight there this evening between two women. They never came to blows but the shrieks could be heard all through our apartment. Across the street from “Howard Johnson’s” is the Grall Hospital. A couple of wagons sell food and it is cooked right there on little buckets of charcoal.

It seems wherever there’s a muddy pond — something you wouldn’t put your toe in — there are several little boys swimming, diving, and splashing. They must have antibodies for everything. But they do seem to be learning to boil their drinking water. I often see men pulling water carts, and occasionally at Howard Johnson’s they seem to be boiling it and selling it to people who come with thermos jugs.

October 13, 1966

Dearest Jackie,

I believe yesterday was our hottest day so far — 95 degrees F. And, as you’ll recall from Vicksburg, that can be fierce when the humidity is high. It cools very little at night, and as a result the air conditioner sort of lost the battle last night. Rain showers this afternoon helped a good bit.

VN III_0012AiLChldn      VN III_0011AiLin

Our housekeeper, Ai Lin, had a fall a couple of weeks ago in the market — slipped on a banana or something. Has been feeling poorly since. Worked as usual yesterday but got in a bit late this morning. She sent two of her daughters to get breakfast, but she was on the job when we came home for lunch. Dorothy Clark talked privately with her a while and came out with the news that she’d had a miscarriage at 3 months — presumably last night! She asked Dorothy to get her some champagne to make her feel better — she has to pay $15.00 for it on the black market, but we can get it for about $1.00. The average Vietnamese income is about $200.00 per year. Here are pictures of Ai Lin and two of her charming children.


October 14, 1966

Dearest Jackie,

Tomorrow morning we are driving out to Bien Hoa — I guess 15 miles or so from Saigon — to a military field headquarters to see about likelihood of fieldwork. It’s a busy 4-lane highway from here to there, but I believe we’ll have armed guards for the trip anyway. Several others, including 3 officers, will accompany us.

October 16, 1966

Dear Philip,

TrapDoor2I took a long trip today to visit an Army camp (Cu Chi) up near the front lines. We drove through many little villages that were interesting. At some of their houses the whole yard was a pond where they grew rice, kept ducks, fished, and swam.

At the Army camp they had some big guns that kept firing every few minutes at something about 5 miles away. Every time they fired the ceiling and the lights shook and rattled. I talked to many soldiers who’d had bad times with the Viet Cong. Some of them had gone into tunnels to catch enemy soldiers. The VC are small men and I understood that I was too big to go in. I am glad of that because they said there were snakes and lots of ants and scorpions in them.

Some of the tunnels are inside the Army camp, and until they found them, enemy soldiers used to sneak right into the middle of the camp. It is a nasty war here and our men are very brave. They do many things, like crawling in tunnels, that many South Vietnamese soldiers are unwilling to do.

We came to a place where a bridge had been blown up several nights before, and there was a great big traffic jam to get over a pontoon bridge they had built; the new bridge was being guarded by two tanks.

October 16, 1966

Dear Jackie,

The account of my trip in Philip’s letter may cause you some concern, but I really feel we were in safe hands. The road was crawling with U.S. soldiers the whole way, and the camp was a large Division Headquarters, not a little outpost. They have a “demonstration” tunnel up there — one that is captured and safe and is used for training new soldiers. We’ll probably go up to have a look at it when (and if) our field equipment comes, but this body size restriction is real and I fully expect to work only on the surface. The Vietnamese are tiny people and only the smaller U.S. soldiers — volunteers — go into the tunnels.


October 19, 1966

Dear Jackie:

We are making progress thanks to the help and information we’ve been getting in Saigon. I don’t think we’ll come up with any startling conclusions because the problem is a very difficult one. These tunnels can be built in too many different kinds of places. And with the dense vegetation, the problem of the soldiers is that they are practically standing on the things before they realize it — and then all sorts of nasty things happen to them.

October 20, 1966

Dear David

Mama asked about evening entertainment here, so you can tell her about this. One night recently I went to a cocktail party, which I told about. Every other night goes like this:

There are four of us in the apartment. We get home about 5:45 PM. We sit and read for about an hour until supper is served. Then we sit down again for the rest of the evening and either read, write letters, or stare into space. Hardly anyone ever says anything the whole time. Once in a while when I get bored and want to make a really gay night of it, I sit alone out on the veranda and look down at the people on the street. Then somewhere between 9:30 and 10:30 I decide it’s time to stop all this dissipating so I take a shower and go to bed.

The sound of “fireworks” then lulls me to sleep. Don’t you envy me? All the movies here are either in Chinese or French. Frankly, I don’t want to go into a theater. I think they’re good places to pick up lice, bedbugs, thieves, and everything else. One of these evenings I may try a real night on the town, provided I have enough safe company, but somehow I don’t think I’m missing much.

October 21, 1966

Dearest Jackie,

The last time I checked at the airport about the footlockers, I learned something about “personal space” differences between Vietnamese and Americans. When I got in line, there were about 100 people ahead of me. Gradually I worked forward, and just as I got to the head of the line, the man had to leave his post briefly. I leaned forward, resting my elbow and forearm on the counter.

When the man returned, I opened my mouth to say something, but heard only a squeaky little voice that seemed to come from my chest. I looked down, and there was a tiny Vietnamese woman who had broken in ahead of me by moving into the crook of my elbow! So I waited for my turn, and learned once again that the lockers had not arrived.

October 24, 1966

Dear David:

In answer to your questions on Vietnam:

Things are still pretty messy in Vietnam, but you’d never guess it to look at the people on the streets of Saigon. They have had this kind of war for 20 years now, and they have just learned to live as normally as possible despite it.

I have not ridden in a rickshaw. They are called pedicabs here, and all are VN III_0005MotPdcbdriven by a man riding behind on what resembles the back half of a bicycle. (Some are motorized, as in this picture.) For this reason, the passenger sits out in front, and with the heavy traffic and crazy driving here, I’m scared to get in one. The regular rickshaw, which is pulled by a man on foot, is not seen here but I did see a lot of them in Hong Kong.

The lizards have not shown any dewlap (the neck swelling that we’ve seen on anolis “chameleons”), but they sometimes do make sort of a chirping sound—“chin-chuck”, and that’s their name. I just checked one on the bathroom ceiling, and he’s grayish brown. Sometimes they turn to a light gray. They are just about the size of the green anolis and about the same shape.

The war sounds at night are not very scary because they sound far away, like distant thunder. They never seem to miss a night, but some nights are worse than others, and the windows rattle. We can hear one bang when a cannon goes off, then another bang when the shell hits.

October 24, 1966

Dear Philip:

You asked how we fitted into that building with 500 people. The answer is: Very tightly. It was a 1-story warehouse but they put in an extra floor, so now there are many places where tall men can’t even stand up straight in it.

Children start to school here at the age of 5. They seem to have great big classrooms. We were walking on the street yesterday and had to wait while several classes walked past us in column. Each teacher must have had about 75 children. They are dressed just like kids at home, and they act just like them too.

You would really fit right in place on your bicycle here. The streets are full of thousands of people on bikes. Most of them are too poor to have a car. A good many have motorbikes (Hondas) and motor scooters. They are “oil-burners” and the streets are always full of heavy smoke.

November 5, 1966

Dear Mom:

We aren’t allowed by the U.S. authorities to have any U.S. money except pennies. Had to turn it all in at the airport on arrival, in exchange for military currency, which is used in all U.S. establishments here and can be converted into Vietnamese money (piastres) as well. The military currency is all paper in denominations from 5 cents up—so the wallet gets awfully fat.

The apartment has a bathroom, kitchen with refrigerator & range, 2 bedrooms, living room and dining room. On 4th floor (actually, the fifth; by French custom, the ground floor isn’t counted). The address is 23 GIA LONG.

The bombing you heard about, 11 miles from Saigon, was the explosion of an ammunition dump at Bien Hoa. It wasn’t bombed from the air — apparently either was hit by mortar fire or somebody carried in a package of explosives. I was walking on the street at the time and could have sworn it was only a block or two away. I was told that the door of our office flew open. I went over the site Thursday by helicopter and took a picture of a tremendous crater, 30 ft deep and over 150 ft wide.vnalbum2

The enclosed picture isn’t a very good one, but I guess the best that can be expected. Dorothy Clark is the one on the left, and I suppose you recognize Perry on the right. Taken today at lunchtime.

November 7, 1966

Dearest Jackie,

The Navy Lieutenant Commander who is our project officer here has sort of a miserable routine. He eats breakfast and lunch at officer’s mess, which is nothing but an overcrowded snack bar. Then when he gets home in evening — his room on sixth floor walk-up — he takes a can of something to eat alone in his room because he’s too tired to go back down again. He’s in for a full year of that; has been here since early June.


November 9, 1966

Dearest Jackie,

VN III_0014 TayNinhApparently the fighting that started near Tay Ninh the day after we were there has resumed again. It went on about 3 days, then the tide turned and the VC ran away. Now it seems the Americans have caught up with them 17 miles from town and are giving them a bad time.

One bright side—the VC seem to be defecting at about a rate of 500 a week. And those who are captured don’t seem fanatic like the Japanese of World War II. Once captured, the VC give in and sometimes even seem helpful afterward. Gives one the feeling that the situation could be brought under control if we could only stop the endless in-pouring of men and supplies from North Vietnam, much of it through the back country of Laos and Cambodia. By the way, I saw a bit of Cambodia in the distance as we flew over Tay Ninh.

November 10, 1966

Dear Jackie,

There is a big fuss in Saigon because the government is clamping down on the black market. Sidewalks on the main drags are cluttered with little stands selling all sorts of PX-type stuff stolen from the ships. They’ve been given 10 days or so to close up. The poor peddlers say they’re in heavy debt for the merchandise and they need two months to sell it; they say they had no idea it was illegal, and I can believe them. The big shots who stole the stuff and sold it to them, of course, aren’t touched. I suspect some of the big shots are French. There are still a number of Frenchmen around here—they mix with Americans like oil and water, and the Vietnamese are plenty anxious to get rid of them. A decree just came out closing some public schools that are still operated by the French.

November 11, 1966

Dearest Jackie,

vnalbum3The writing is still proceeding but it is painfully slow because we have so many bits of data—well logs & like—to check, compare, and correlate before making a statement. One other thing is worrying me a bit. I’m afraid some of the writing is going to have to be heavily edited and maybe even partly rewritten and I may have to do it. I’ll have to feel my way slowly on this one. This stage of the work is certainly trying my patience. It’s something I never had to do on my other field assignments — where I pushed through the fieldwork but didn’t worry about a report until I got home.


November 14, 1966

Dearest Jackie:

VN III_0003PoolOnly one new impression of the place recently—the boys will get a kick out of it: Right in the heart of town, by the waterfront, there is a traffic circle with a beautiful big pond full of fish and tropical water plants. There are always people fishing there (tiny black goldfish!) and a dozen kids or so splashing around the way they do in front of the Union Station. Well, usually at least one or two of the kids is completely bare—about the ages of Philip & David. I’ve taken a picture or two of the pool, but I haven’t had the nerve to aim at the nudies what with all the people around as in a public park.

The black market people got the delay they asked for. They have two months to sell out. Also, the day after the government announced closing the French schools, they took it all back. Crazy doings. Now Prime Minister Ky is blasting corruption in the Port authority. Chances are he’ll shoot some corrupt official to set an example.

November 17, 1966

Dear Philip:

The area around here is one of the world’s big rubber producers. There are immense plantations of rubber trees. They cut big gashes in the bark of the tree and collect the milky-looking sap that runs out. When that is heated over a fire it turns into latex, which is the main ingredient that the different kinds of rubber are made from.

November 19, 1966PostCdBoys_0001 1119

Dear Boys,

If I didn’t know otherwise, I’d say this picture on the post card was taken on my field trip out from Cu Chi. Looked exactly like this.

November 22, 1966

Dear Mom,

The people here seem to be happy with very little. The lame (very few of these in evidence), the wounded, and those who are caught in the battlefields are the ones I feel most sorry for. But the general picture is one of “life as normal”, with Americans seeming to take the war much more seriously than the Vietnamese. I suspect that most of the Vietnamese would just like to be left alone.

A most interesting friend of Harry & Dorothy stopped by apartment this evening. Dick Fisher, former Army engineer, retired Brigadier General. Now is assistant to the president of Air America, a private airline that does contract work for the U.S. military, and I think also the CIA.

He goes all over Southeast Asia building airfields. Told about one place where they built an airfield in 8 days under constant fire from VC. They had to get people in by helicopter, dropping almost straight down but with zigzags. Fifty-six of the labor force were killed and more then a hundred wounded.

He told of one airfield where they had to use the only local labor, the women of the VC, to tamp the runway with sections of logs. Had to pay the VC chief a “tribute” for this service, also a tax or toll on each vehicle that brought in heavy equipment by road. The VC knew the airfield would be used against them, but they wanted the money. Another place where he ran into graft: A Vietnamese province chief wanted about ten times what the land for the airfield was worth, so they didn’t build there.


November 24, 1966

Dearest Jackie,

This morning about 11:30 we finished the report. The secretary still has the better part of a day’s job typing the last few pages, inserting references & figure numbers etc. but at least it was in good enough shape that we gave a carbon of it to the ARPA project officer to read over. He came back late this afternoon to say he thought it was a fine report. So there’s a small something to be thankful for today.

An American outfit, Page Communications Engineers, has offices in our apartment building and in the building next door. They got a direct hit in the shelling of November 1. We heard that, just today, eight of their people up in Dalat were killed in an explosion, presumably set off by the VC. I will certainly breathe easier when I get away from this country. As it stands now, I’m scheduled to be in Bangkok in less than 48 hours—as you see I’m counting the hours now.

November 26, 1966

Dearest Jackie,

Since I should be long gone from Saigon by the time you read this, I’ll admit things have not been very reassuring even in the city itself. Every day’s paper carries some note of bombs or grenades going off right in the city, and generally directed at Americans. A favorite stunt is to catch the Americans where they gather in the morning rush hour to wait for buses or cars. The general rule on Americans congregating on the streets is: Two’s company, three’s a crowd.

Most of the Vietnamese people are poor and have very little, but they do seem to have most of what they need. Their own leaders seem to have just about as little kindness for them as the VC does. So I often think — if we lost this war, a few big shots would suffer but the majority of the people wouldn’t care and would be at least as well off as they are now. Mostly, they need to be left alone to make their living. The only way I can justify the American involvement in my own mind is as an act of pure power politics to define our image to all Asians, an act in which the destiny of the South Vietnamese just happens to be involved.

So small wonder that South Vietnamese soldiers fight less enthusiastically than the Americans do.

November 27, 1966

Dearest Jackie,

Yesterday’s flight from Saigon to Bangkok was two hours late, The contrast of the two cities is extreme. After so many years of war, Saigon is pretty much a hovel whereas Bangkok — what I have seen of it — is full of modern buildings and fine boulevards. Our hotel is new, air-conditioned, and has elevators you don’t have to wait ten-deep in line for. VN III_0015 BnkTmpl

A Thai driver picked me up at 7 AM for a tour. It was called the “floating market” tour, by boat. About 2½ hours in a motor launch, just the driver and I, for $5.00. Toured along the river and through a long canal that people live along just like a street. Made several stops : at a Buddhist temple, at a place where the royal barges are kept, and at the floating market where they sell many foods and all sorts of souvenir items, have a room full of silk looms, and have a pet elephant anVN III_0017 BnkBarged monkeys.

For the first time in my recent travels, I felt the urge to do some shopping. I went through about $20, leaving barely enough Thai money to pay the boatman. We are lucky that they are having unusually cool weather here—normally Bangkok is hotter than Saigon, they say. But the morning air was actually refreshing and I was wearing an undershirt!

I love you with all my heart. Kiss the boys for me. This will probably be my last letter this trip. Till Thursday, then, and I’ll be dreaming of you.

Deepest love, Jim

VN III_0016 Bnk FlMkt

 This posting is published in my book, Vietnam ’66 (Kindle and Paperback)


A VIETNAM EXPERIENCE: I. The Preliminaries

Cast of characters and organizations

Military Geology Branch, U.S. Geological Survey (MGB). My employer in 1954.

Office of the Secretary of Defense/Advance Research Projects Agency (variously abbreviated as OSD/ARPA or ARPA). The government office that sponsored and directed the tunnel research program. Headquartered in Washington, DC. A field office in Saigon.

Research Analysis Corporation (RAC). My employer in 1966, a private not-for-profit research organization under contract to ARPA and other defense agencies. Headquartered in McLean, VA. A field office in Saigon.

Viet Cong (often referred to as VC, V.C., or Victor Charlie). A political and military organization in South Vietnam that fought against U.S. and South Vietnamese forces. A pejorative name shortened from terms meaning “Vietnamese Communists” or “Communist Traitor to Vietnam.” A preferred term is National Liberation Front for South Vietnam. The term VC referred both to the organization and to its individual members.

(NOTE: You may enlarge pictures by clicking on them.)

*     *     *

Easter Bunny

My first brush with Vietnam took place during the weekend of Easter Sunday, April 18, 1954. At that time, we still spoke of the place as French Indochina. The final major engagement between French and Vietnamese Nationalist forces under Ho Chi Minh, at Dien Bien Phu, was underway. It had been going on for three months and would end on May 7 with defeat for the French. They would soon leave the region.

Good Friday was a slow day at the office. Our family was having an up-and-down year of high pressure thus far. My wife’s mother suffered a major stroke in January. Our second child, a son, was born in February. My father died in March. Now, April was bringing a beautiful spring and we were looking forward to a quiet, restful enjoyment of the weekend.

About mid-afternoon, the bosses called us together. We had a “quickie” project on our hands. We needed to produce a terrain study covering most of what we now know as Vietnam. This would consist of several sets of map overlays describing geology, soils, landforms, and water supply and drainage conditions in the region. There would also be overlays addressing military implications such as the ability of tanks and other vehicles to maneuver off roads (“cross-country movement,” we called it), and the suitability of the terrain for constructing roads and airfields.

We were members of the Military Geology Branch (MGB), U.S. Geological Survey, and this was one of the kinds of work that we did. Meanwhile, our colleagues at the Army Map Service would be adMGB EastBun_01ading studies of existing roads and airfields. In our usual whimsical fashion, we named this project “Easter Bunny.”A project like this would normally occupy at least half a dozen people for about two months. We were told on Friday afternoon that we would have to deliver final camera-ready copy by early the next Tuesday morning. Arrangements were made to keep various governmental libraries, map collections, and aerial photo collections open through the weekend, so that they could provide us with the source materials we needed.

We put about 30 people to work on the project. Even so, the schedule seemed daunting. It will suffice to say that very few of the 30 managed to go home for a night’s sleep between Friday and Tuesday. We made the deadline.

About two weeks later, we were invited to what was called a “debriefing” by a joint military team just returned from Indochina. They proceeded to make clear how our effort had fitted into the machinery of presidential decision-making.

In the waning days of Dien Bien Phu, President Eisenhower had requested a briefing on what actions the United States might be able to take that could influence the outcome of the battle. There is no doubt that he considered many factors beyond our purview, but we were kept informed on the particular role that Easter Bunny had played.

This joint military team had been assembled to examine the situation on the ground, and then to report their findings to the President. This had to be done in a few days. They requested a terrain study, among other things, to direct their attention to the principal problem areas quickly and efficiently. In a sense, they would be field-checking our results and determining their implications for national policy.

The primitive condition of the existing road net and airfields, the widespread terrain conditions that would seriously hamper road and airfield construction, and the difficulty of the terrain for any off-road movement, all led to the following conclusions during the presidential briefing: At that time, the United States could not provide the logistical support needed for large military units operating in Indochina. We could support only small units the size of one regiment or smaller.

I have no way of knowing what else the President considered, but the joint military team felt strongly that these conclusions regarding logistical support played heavily into his decision not to enter the fray in Indochina at that time. We took pride in our contribution in the form of Project Easter Bunny.

*          *          *

Unconventional Warfare

Within the next ten years, research into the “art of war” as practiced in the Vietnam conflict had become a growth industry. We used various terms, such as “unconventional warfare” and “remote area conflict.” This research seemed to have a lively future. Nikita Khrushchev spoke of “wars of national liberation,” as the new model for Communist expansion, following the indecisive results of conventional warfare in Korea.

In 1964, after serving four years as Assistant Chief of the Military Geology Branch (MGB), I welcomed the opportunity for a one-year assignment with the Army Engineer Waterways Experiment Station (WES) in Vicksburg, Mississippi. WES was involved in research important to the future of military geology, studying new applications to unconventional warfare, and developing quantitative techniques in preparation for the coming digital age. MGB, in contrast, was pursuing the same applications and techniques it had developed during World War II. It was falling behind both in funding and in attracting bright employees.

During my year in Vicksburg, the Remote Area Conflict Section of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) funded the research at WES. During the same year, MGB acquired a new chief (whom I’ll call George for now, and Nemesis later on), lost more funding, and underwent a major reduction in force.

I made a special trip to Washington to urge George to develop ties with ARPA, hoping to secure new research opportunities. George would have none of this.  He wanted no involvement with ARPA.  But his boss was enthused, and so the three of us went together to meet the director of Remote Area Conflict studies at the Pentagon. The meeting went well, and we picked up a small project for me to carry out after my assignment at WES: A feasibility study for an environmental research project on the salt deserts of Iran. Perhaps Iran was being recognized as a possible future site for a “war of national liberation.” If this feasibility study succeeded, it was expected to lead into the larger study, making MGB once again relevant to the research goals of the modern world.

After I returned to Washington, completed the feasibility study, and submitted the manuscript to George, I saw something unusual for the Geological Survey: a manager making substantive changes to the researcher’s findings. I read over these changes and accepted them. Too bad, for I completely missed the negative implications of one of his changes, to the effect that Iranian salt deserts are unique, and unlike any other deserts elsewhere in the world.  That was true, of course, but I hadn’t considered it particularly relevant to the issue at hand.

It was fully two years before that statement came back to haunt me. I was with a new employer and on assignment in the Middle East when I met one of the old-timers from ARPA. I asked whatever happened to the salt desert study. He said, “It’s your fault. The ambassador killed the project because of what you said in your feasibility study. You and I both know those deserts are unique. That’s why we needed the study so badly, because we’ve never fought in such places and we need to know a great deal about how their environment would affect military operations. But the ambassador doesn’t think a research project is worthwhile unless it applies to the whole world.”

Indeed, since then we have already found ourselves operating in those deserts, and we may not yet have seen the last of them.

In the short term, however, I stayed on with George for another 6 months, and then found employment in the fields I had been seeking – research on applications of geology in unconventional warfare. And, beyond anything I had ever wanted, the new job involved extensive field assignments in Vietnam and Iran.

*          *          *


My new job was with a “think tank” named the Research Analysis Corporation, a private not-for-profit firm supported by contracts with the Department of Defense and other federal agencies. I joined the Unconventional Warfare Department, where they were finding many new applications of geology and terrain science in this type of warfare.

Every new job presents unanticipated problems, but I did enjoy being rid of George. But wait! I soon learned that George and I had changed jobs at the same time. He had moved into nothing less than the position of director of Remote Area Conflict studies at the Pentagon. He succeeded the very man he had been unwilling to talk to several months earlier! I never did figure out the personal politics of all this.  Perhaps he foresaw his move to ARPA, and simply didn’t want any connection with the Geological Survey in his new position.  But it was clear – alas! – that he was now overseeing the contract of the department I worked in.

In me, he apparently saw possibilities for new kinds of projects, and he dealt directly with me while ignoring all the layers of bosses between us.

His first approach seemed innocuous, though unpleasant. He wanted me to evaluate a military environmental research project that had been underway for several years involving faculty and graduate students at a highly respected university. I found that its management had failed in a number of ways. The various parts of what should have been a unified approach had been studied separately, and by now were completely incompatible with each other. I explained my findings to the researchers and considered their points until we reached a conclusion that all of us considered fair. Then I dutifully presented my report to George. He used it as a basis for discontinuing the project. I knew that was his intent all along, and that I was his chosen hatchet man. Such are the humilities we sometimes endure to make a living. By now I was well along in the transition from “George” to “Nemesis.”

His next approach was a bit more troublesome. He discussed the problem of Viet Cong tunnels in Vietnam, and said that a research program was underway to help in detecting  them. The project was now at the point where they needed to have a geologist – like me – look at the tunnels and observe their geologic settings. This could be useful in two ways: (1) predicting where tunneling might or might not be feasible; and (2) determining the types of soils, rocks, and moisture conditions that any detection apparatus would have to be designed for. George reminded me that our contract would soon be up for renewal, and said that I should keep this in mind if I had any problems with the assignment.









I never refused a legitimate project assignment because of reasons like fearing or disliking it. I always pointed out, however, any concerns I had as to whether its goal could actually be achieved.

The problem I saw in this case was one of security. As soon as American forces secured an area and found tunnels, they searched the tunnels and then destroyed them completely. The best opportunities to examine tunnels in detail would be in areas currently being secured or not yet secured. I knew from previous experience that no responsible commander would allow a civilian employee to get on his bicycle and move alone into such places. Military escort would be required.

Which led to a further possibility: A military commander might say to me, “Look, I’ve got a war to fight here. We’re busy, and we don’t want to add to the risks we already have. Your little geologic field trips just aren’t important enough for us to fool with. Go back home.”

I discussed this with George. He sent a cable to Saigon. They replied that I should proceed as planned. End of discussion. I went to Vietnam.

(Only after arriving in Saigon, and getting to know the military folks there, did I learn that I had been a laughing stock even before arriving. George’s cable had asked the question, “Can you guarantee the safety of this geologist?” In a war zone, yet!)

This posting is published in my book, Vietnam ’66 (Kindle and Paperback).



Twenty-five years after Project Soda Straw and the Restless Glacier had faded into dim memories, I found myself once again preparing to go to Alaska. Still with the Geological Survey, I no longer pursued problems of military geology, but was now involved in environmental analyses of mineral resource developments on the public lands.

Since my earliest studies of geology, the Malaspina Glacier had fascinated me. It was a perfect example of a “piedmont glacier,” one that had poured out of high mountain valleys onto the coastal lowlands where it spread out into the shape of a huge circular blob, about 35 miles in diameter at its maximum stage some years ago. It was one of the few Alaskan glaciers large enough to show up on even the smallest-scale maps of the territory.

The proposal —

Near the head of this glacier, surrounded by five miles of ice in every direction, was a small chain of hills known as the Samovar Hills. It was about to be designated as part of a National Park. The Shell Oil Company held a lease on it for petroleum development. It was a promising site – tar could be seen in some of the creeks that drained the hills and fed downstream into Oily Lake.

Federal regulations provided that Shell would be compensated for the taking of this land, if they had done any work to develop the lease. Alas, they had done no work at all, and they stood to lose it without compensation. But it was not too late to file a development plan.

Before any development plan could be approved, an environmental assessment would have to be made.  Very likely, an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) would also have to be prepared and processed under the provisions of the National Environmental Policy Act. I convened a meeting in Anchorage where all the “usual suspects” – representatives of various Federal and State agencies having an interest in this development – joined to discuss preparation of an EIS. The Federal agencies included the Geological Survey, the Bureau of Land Management, the Forest Service, the Fish and Wildlife Service, and maybe more.

All the Federal representatives (the “Feds”) agreed that an EIS would have to be prepared, and that their agencies should participate. I was able, by observing the relative states of alertness and sleepiness among those at the meeting, to nominate a fellow named Peter as the leader of the task force that would prepare the EIS. He was unique in the depth and variety of questions he raised during the meeting.

Before our meeting adjourned, we heard a history of negotiations to date with Shell Oil. A couple of months earlier, after providing a general summary of the development plan, the company’s team was open to questions. First and foremost was:

“How will you get the oil out, given that the hills are completely surrounded by glaciers?”

Several days later, they announced their plan for getting the oil out. The quality of this plan indicated that we were not dealing with the high-powered scientists and engineers known to inhabit the company. Instead, we were dealing with a junior team considered “good enough” to deal with an EIS task force. The plan follows:



Suppressing some humor and astonishment, the Feds calmly pointed out that glaciers move more or less constantly, and therefore a fixed pipeline would not be sustainable.

This time, the company team needed a week or two to come up with a revised plan, as follows:



Again, the Feds were respectful as they pointed out that glacier surfaces can change rapidly, and can present such features as crevasses, meltwater channels, and other kinds of obstruction that could snag wheels and tear a pipeline apart. A pipeline on wheels would not be sustainable.

After several weeks of study, the company team came out with a new plan, really quite sophisticated, as follows:     


xSec2c Smovar copy copy

Boreholes would be drilled at a 45-degree slant from each side of the glacier, with the intent that the two would meet at great depth beneath the center of the glacier. A radioactive source would be placed in the bottom of the first borehole to reach the center. A radiation-sensing device would guide the second borehole to within three feet of meeting the first. Explosives would then be used to shatter any rocks separating the boreholes, so that oil could pass freely from one to the other.

Such a scheme had never been carried out before. However, each of the critical steps had, separately, been used successfully: slant drilling, radioactive homing, and transfer of oil via shattered rock.

Plan C was complex and somewhat dubious, but we couldn’t reject it out of hand as we did with Plans A and B. We would have to take it seriously. The next item on our agenda would be a visit to the Samovar Hills.

The field trip —

Our party of about twelve men flew in a small plane to the airfield at Yakutat, about 400 miles from Anchorage.  Here we transferred into a large helicopter for the second hop, into the Samovar Hills.  That flight covered a distance of 55 miles, 12 of which were over Yakutat Bay.  Water in the Bay was extremely cold, in the temperature range where a human could survive only a few minutes.  As a safety precaution, we all put on insulating suits, which I can describe only as resembling the “bunny rabbit” suits that little boys are sometimes forced to wear during Christmas or Easter parties.  The principal differences were (1) these suits lacked long ears, (2) the facial opening was small, and (3) the suits were stiff and hard to manage in the confines of a helicopter.

RszaSamovar pix 35_0008    RszaSamovar pix 35_0005

As we flew over the Malaspina glacier, we came to realize what an enormous body of ice it was.  At our altitude of about 5,000 feet, there were times when we could see nothing beyond it.  Its surface was striped with bands of moraine (rock debris).

RszaSamovar pix 35_0007     RszaSamovar pix 35_0006

Landing on the edge of the Samovar Hills, we found ourselves in a pleasant green oasis among the vast expanses of ice.  At times, the nearby ice seemed likely to overwhelm the lower parts of the hills, but we soon realized that the ice was losing, not winning, that battle.

RszaSamovar pix 35_0004  RszaSamovar pix 35_0001

Adjoining the hills were extensive areas of level land where drilling operations could easily be set up.  Each man was busy observing features related to his own discipline.  I noted the tar in the creek.  The fish and wildlife expert was studying a large bear turd, which he dissected by hand to learn what the creature had been eating.

After several hours on the ground, we donned once again the “bunny rabbit” suits and made our way to Yakutat and thence on to Anchorage.

The task force —

Several weeks later, the EIS task force convened at Geological Survey headquarters in Reston, Virginia. I now had a better chance to get to know Peter, the man of deep and varied questions. My nomination of him as Task Force Leader had been approved. Now I realized the enormity of my misjudgment. He had only one-way communication valves. He could ask brilliant questions, and could pronounce weighty judgments. But he lacked any attention span whatever, either to absorb the answers to his questions, or to hear the judgments or opinions of others.  He talked incessantly.

I spent a couple of weeks wondering how on earth we could cope with Peter and get anything done on the EIS. And wondering how I had ever managed to be so wrong in nominating him as a leader.

But I must have done something right along the way. The proposed development plan had been working its way upward through Shell Oil, and had finally reached the level of the aforementioned high-powered scientists and engineers.   These were practical people who sought assured results. They did not take well to dubious and experimental ideas like boring a pipeline beneath a glacier five miles wide. The development plan was withdrawn. The EIS was canceled and the task force, Peter and all, returned to their normal jobs.

I had been rescued from the consequences of my own folly. I never again had to don the “bunny-rabbit” costume.

*          *          *

Note: The illustrations for Plans A, B, and C are, of course, fictitious. They consist of “props” in color against the background of a black-and-white photo by the U.S. Geological Survey. When seeking “props,” I started by looking for a suitable soda straw to represent the pipeline, and I used something very similar to a straw. So now the Alaska cycle is complete, having started with Project Soda Straw, and ending with a pipeline project that recalled a soda straw. The two projects shared a common fate: Neither one produced any usable results.

This posting is published in my book, Once Upon a Blog (Kindle and Paperback)


Project Soda Straw

Spring was here at last! The spring of 1952. For our little family, it followed a hard fall and winter, especially for my wife. She had faced the usual problems and restrictions of pregnancy, combined with an emergency appendectomy early on and, for several weeks afterward, disabling pain caused by a nerve pinched during labor. Now these issues were receding and we were enjoying the spring in all its glory and abundant life, made more abundant by the recent birth of our first child, a boy.

We looked forward to a busy summer, introducing the newborn to a large extended family.

Then one day the boss asked me to accept a field assignment in Alaska, running from June 1 to mid-September. Except in the most serious of family crises, I would never reject an assignment for personal convenience. But I always examined an assignment closely, not wanting to waste time and effort on some ill-conceived “boondoggle,” as we called such things. Put to that test, this assignment came up short.

WbRszaAK 1_0008Our Alaska Terrain and Permafrost Section, it seemed, had bought a small drilling rig, powered by a gasoline engine. It could be carried by two men. I was being asked to test it in the field and to prepare a report for a couple of government agencies, recommending for or against the purchase of more rigs. It had a small diamond coring bit, shaped sort of like a doughnut, designed to extract core samples from hard rock for prospectors seeking mineral deposits.

However, our rig was bought to study permafrost, a layer of permanentlly frozen ground that underlies much of Alaska, extending from a few feet beneath the surface to great depths. The area of interest was in sands, gravels, and clays deposited by past glaciers in lowlands and valleys. We wanted core samples of the frozen sediments, and we wanted to explore for ground water resources that might be held within the permafrost.

Yes, the drill was designed for hard rock, but isn’t frozen sediment the same type of thing? Hardly. Drilling quickly melts the frozen material into some kind of muck. The churning of this slop would surely prevent recovery of any decent kind of core sample.  And, when drilling stops, the muck refreezes quickly and can permanently trap the drill.

How can such a small drill-hole (about 1.5 inches diameter) be used to detect ground water? My colleague Paul Johnson, an experienced ground-water geologist, said it best, “Well, you could put a soda straw in it.” And thus was born the name of the project.

From thoughts like these, I decided that the assignment was simply preposterous. But that wasn’t something to tell the boss. The drill had been bought and so, in simple government logic, it would have to be tested.

When I rejected the assignment, I cited other factors. Without experience in either drilling or gasoline engine operation, I would be solely responsible for keeping this piece of machinery in running order. Visiting various field parties, I would have to ask them to help me with all the tasks of brawn that drilling involves – an unlikely hope, inasmuch as they were all deeply absorbed in their own work. And what if I found the drill useless within a couple of weeks? What would I do through the rest of the summer?

After mulling my objections for three or four days, the boss presented me with an offer I couldn’t refuse: I would be supported by a geologic field assistant experienced in engines and in drilling. Also by an experienced ground-water geologist – none other than Paul Johnson of soda-straw fame! And finally, the three of us could conduct ground-water research studies, with or without the drill, for the rest of the summer. And so I made my way to Alaska on the first of June.

*          *          *

Air travel in the early 1950’s was distinctly a different experience from today’s version. Crowded airports were a rarity, and the travelers were shown the courtesies – and the luxuries, particularly in food – that are now reserved for Very Important Persons. Even the atmosphere added to the quality of the experience, much of the time permitting clear views of the beautiful lands beneath. Banks of haze and smog, so widespread nowadays, were seldom encountered. I did my best to get seats by the windows, and my camera was always ready to click.

WbRszaAK 1_0010   WbRszaAK 1_0011

I made a brief visit in North Bay, Ontario at the Longyear factory where our little rig, known as the Porta-Drill, had been produced. Afterward, on the final flight from Edmonton, Alberta, we spanned three time zones and ended early the next morning in Anchorage.

Paul Johnson was waiting at the Anchorage Hotel, an overcrowded place in which he had been lucky enough to find a room. An annex to the hotel, renovated and still standing today, had been opened in 1936. But he was in the original rickety frame structure, built in 1916 and headed toward demolition in the 1960s.

As Paul opened his door for me, I was nearly overwhelmed by a dense cloud of alcoholic fragrance. In the midst of the cloud he stood, his face a brilliant red, showing clear signs of fatigue. Beyond him, I could see a fellow I didn’t know, passed out on a bed. “Good Lord,” I wondered, “what am I getting into?” I saw only one positive sign: Paul was smiling from ear to ear. He seemed very glad to see me.

Slowly, the story emerged. Yes, Paul was tired after a series of flights from Washington, arriving just a few hours earlier and well past midnight. Before boarding that last flight, he committed an error common to inexperienced air travelers. He opened a bottle of whiskey for one shot, then replaced the cork and put it in his suitcase. That bottle found new life in the rarefied upper atmosphere. Now he had all his clothing from the suitcase hung out to dry. Hence the fragrance. As for the other fellow, Paul didn’t know him. The hotel was pairing strangers off in the same rooms. This fellow was on a night shift and had arrived just a bit earlier for his daily snooze. Paul’s red face, I finally recalled, was a permanent fixture. And so, all irregularities were accounted for.

WbRszaAK 1_0016           WbRszaAK 1_0019

Mid-century Anchorage was coming out of its earlier stage as a rough-and-ready frontier town. Perhaps I was naïve, or had read too much tourist literature, but I was surprised to see such modern urban touches as parking meters and traffic lights.

WbRszaAK 1_0017

*          *          *

Most of the camping gear and field equipment that we would need – including the Porta-drill – were in a storage shed in Palmer, a town 40 miles northeast of Anchorage. It served Alaska’s small but principal farming district, noted for its greatly oversized vegetables, the apparent result of endless daylight through a short growing season. The downtown area of Palmer extended a couple of blocks; the town’s one hotel, the Matanuska, stood nearby. All told, my field assistant and I spent 3 or 4 weeks of that summer in Palmer awaiting word from our bosses as to what we should do next. The ground water research that had first been offered had never panned out.  The food was excellent, but the principal entertainment consisted of two pieces of music on the jukebox: Blue Tango and Jealousy.  Tangos were in style that year.

WbRszaAK 1_0004     WbRszaAK 1_0005

One critical item, a jeep, had been shipped to Fairbanks the previous fall for a major engine overhaul. So we took an railroad trip of about 350 miles to pick it up. As the train passed through the Alaska mountain range, fog and clouds prevented any view of the famous Mt. McKinley, North America’s highest peak, at 20,320 feet. But we did see other lesser mountains that were spectacular enough for me, given that I had never before traveled beyond the eastern United States.

WbRszaAK 1_0009

Then we drove the 500-mile trip back to Palmer, via Tok Junction near Alaska’s eastern border. We could have saved 100 miles by using the Richardson Highway, but parts of it were under construction and closed. Much of this trip was over other roads, also under construction and rough, but open, where speeds above 25 mph routinely bumped our heads against the ceiling of the cab. And so this trip required 5 days.

During the drive, we came to know and appreciate the lodges spaced at wide intervals along the highways. WbRszaAK 1_0001They were rustic, usually built of logs, and they featured bars, dining rooms and rooms for overnight guests. Paxson Lodge was strategically located at the junction of Richardson Highway with the road heading into the future Denali National Park, known at that time to us “palefaces” only as Mt. McKinley National Park. The road map showed these lodges as small towns, but in reality there were  few structures other than the lodge itself, a gas station, and perhaps one or two small shops for basics such as alcohol, tobacco, and groceries. I eventually spent a week at Paxson Lodge, but I failed to appreciate it as I should have, because it lacked any postal service, and my wife and I were accustomed to daily exchanges of letters.

During the long drive, it became apparent that Alaska was enjoying spring in June. Some of the major rivers were still covered with ice and snow, as seen in this view (featuring the author as a young man) of the Robertson River from the Alaska Highway.

WbRszaAK 1_0015Arriving back in Palmer, at last we were ready to test the drill! We set up first just outside Palmer, and gradually moved northeastward along the Glenn Highway. Most of the sediments here were sands and gravels, which made one of our dire predictions come true: Drilling melted the permafrost, the coarse abrasive grains collapsed against the drill bit, and a diamond bit was reduced to a useless nub after a few feet of drilling.

The local geologists and soils scientists urged us to return to Fairbanks, where an agricultural research station contained a broad basin of muck showing the classic signs of permafrost: polygonal patterns in the surface soils. This fine material would not cut so quickly into the bit. And there we staged the season’s final performance.

As we passed the depth of 30 feet, progress slowed; we were reaching the maximum weight of drill pipe that we could raise and lower by hand, without a hoist of any kind. Then a further dire prediction came true. During one of the delays, the thin layer of melted muck quickly refroze, and our entire tool assembly was trapped. The situation was rescued with a wrecker of the Alaska Highway Commission. Using its entire lifting capacity until the front wheels rose off the ground, the wrecker managed to jerk the drill assembly loose and retrieve it.

There was one consolation for all this trouble.  We were in Fairbanks just in time to enjoy the Fourth of July WbRszaAK 1_0007 celebrations.

We were in no mood to continue the tests. I had speculated that we might find the drill rig useless in a couple of weeks. Actually, we needed only ten days. The only test not completed: We never found a soda straw adequate for detecting ground water, particularly since the drill holes always collapsed promptly upon removal of the bit.

Now it was time to write the report. With tongue in cheek, made evident through complete truthfulness, excruciating detail, and ample illustrations, I described and quantified the rig’s performance. I showed “before and after” shots of the diamond bits put to short periods of use. In the final evaluation, I was careful to note that the rig was designed for coring in hard rock, not for the uses we put it to. That was only fair to the rig and its maker.

WbRszaAK 1_0014                 WbRszaAK 1_0012

In 1997, the Geological Survey proudly published a listing of the many valuable products of the Military Geology Unit during its period of operation from 1942 through 1975. There, under the heading “Special Reports for Office of the Chief of Engineers, 1942-1963,” this listing is preserved for posterity:

Report on field operations with portable core drill in Alaska
(Fairbanks, Northway, Palmer), J. R. Burns, 1952, 17 p.
RT, Perma, GW.

 This posting is published in my book, Once Upon a Blog (Kindle and Paperback)




During the winter of 1936-1937, alarming news stories began to come out of Alaska. At that time, most Americans knew very little about this territory. Most of us had heard of “Seward’s Folly,” named for the secretary of state who had arranged its purchase from Russia in 1867 for the sum of $7.2 million, or about 2 cents per acre. It would be in the news again in 1959, when it became the 49th state of the United States. In between, most of us visualized the territory, incorrectly, as a vast area of little but ice and snow.

This visualization was consistent with the news of 1936-1937, in which the Black Rapids Glacier, in central Alaska, was described thus: “Living, Sinister Mass of Ice 500 Feet High and Mile and Half Wide Rumbles and Crashes Down Black Rapids Valley.”


As narrated in Time magazine, “Out of Central Alaska last week came an exciting story. The Black Rapids Glacier, long dying in its valley 125 miles south of Fairbanks, had come to life. Its mile-and-a-quarter face was shoving toward the Delta River and the Richardson Highway (sole motor road from Fairbanks to the coast), rearing ice crests to 500 feet, breaking off great land icebergs which tumbled thunderously ahead onto the mossy valley floor. Geologist Ernest N. Patty at Fairbanks declared this week that if the Black Rapids Glacier is moving as reported, it is traveling 220 feet per day, a world record.”

The glacier advanced about one mile each month between December 3, 1936, and March 7, 1937. It is classified by scientists as a “surging” glacier. Some glaciers surge from time to time, others do not. The difference is not fully understood, but appears to be related to a failure of the water drainage system within and beneath the ice.

The photo below shows the glacier on September 9, 1937, shortly after its surge (U.S. Geological Survey, photograph by Fred Howard Moffit). The surge ended just short of the Delta River, but was watched closely because of the potential hazard to the Richardson Highway. Geologic evidence indicates that another surge had taken place 600 years previously, and that one had dammed the river to form a lake.


Now, in the event of another surge, the stakes are still higher. The trans-Alaska oil pipeline was built through the same narrow corridor just beyond the river.

A later photo, made in August 1994, shows clearly the “Bath tub ring” effect – the moraine (rock debris transported and deposited by the glacier) plastered up against the valley wall, reflecting the former high levels of the glacier during the surge (U.S.G.S. photograph by Rod March). The foot of the glacier is now about 3 miles short of its maximum surge point.


*          *          *

In the summer of 1952, the Alaska Terrain and Permafrost Section of the U.S. Geological Survey sent out four field parties, totaling about 15 men, to study the glacial history, engineering geology, and permafrost conditions of several areas in central Alaska. I was a member of the party working along a 65-mile stretch of the Glenn Highway, from the village of Slana to Tok Junction, where the Glenn and Alaska highways meet.

By mid-August, we had all been working hard seven-day weeks for two and a half months, and it was time for a bit of relaxation. The four parties met, and together we toured all four field areas, each party hosting a field trip to show the most interesting geologic features it had found. And, for the party working along the Delta River, the Black Rapids glacier was the prime attraction.

We approached along the Richardson Highway, and then pulled off for a view of the glacier, about 3 miles away, and the heaps of moraine it had left as its forward edge broke up and began to melt away.

Note: You may click on any photo to enlarge it.


We crossed the Delta River on a cable bridge that seemed lightly built and somewhat unstable, so that we allowed only one man at a time to make the crossing.


As we approached the hills of moraine, we soon noted that they were actually detached blocks of ice, covered by only a thin veneer of rocky debris.


After walking about 3 miles, we passed by the ice cliff marking the current foot of the glacier.


The surface of the glacier was touted as a veritable highway through the rugged, forested and snow-covered mountains. Its smooth surface offered what we understood to be a safe and easy walkway. Despite all that, I became slightly uneasy upon learning that nobody in the group had a rope, or a set of crampons  (steel frames with downward-pointing spikes, attached to the boots to prevent sliding on ice).


As our march progressed, I saw features that might justify a bit of uneasiness. First, the crevasses that appeared where the glacier’s downward descent became steeper than usual. A slip of the foot in this area could be decidedly inconvenient.


Next, a spectacular feature that we called a Moulin (French for “mill”), a large and deep hole through which surface melt water drained down into the innards of the glacier, ultimately to its bottom which might be anywhere from a few hundred to a couple of thousand feet deep.


As I felt compelled to include a down-hole shot with the camera, my stomach became queasy with the concern that crampons would nicely have prevented slipping and sliding.


Of course, crevasses and moulins would be most dangerous when hidden beneath a bridging layer of recent snow.   But I still wondered whether similar features lurked beneath thin ice left over from last winter’s snow.

*          *          *

If I had doubts about the safety of glacier-walking based on my own experience there, some years later all my dreams – or, rather, nightmares — were realized when I saw a picture of the same glacier shortly after the Denali Fault Earthquake, a magnitude 7.9 quake that occurred on November 3, 2002. This tremor caused several massive avalanches of rock debris directly onto the surface of the glacier. The debris spanned the one-mile width of the glacier, and covered about 13 square kilometers of its area.

The odds might be against such an event, but this was definitely not a place to be walking at that time.


(The above is a “stitched” image from two U.S.G.S. photos, by R. March and D. Trabant)

This posting is published in my book, Once Upon a Blog (Kindle and Paperback)


When I left the meeting at the Pentagon in late June, 1955, I had everything I needed to proceed to Norway, where I would take part in an intelligence operation aboard a Norwegian sealing vessel, operating in Svalbard, a far northern island group belonging to Norway.  (The operation itself is described in my posting “Spy Ship” dated August 9, 2013.)

“Everything” included military travel orders, a security checklist defining procedures to follow and people to contact, a travel advance check, and a passport of the kind normally issued to tourists, not to government employees on official business.  “Everything” did not include an airline ticket to Europe.  We would be flying on the Military Air Transport Service (MATS).

I had met Bruce, a civilian contractor with the Office of Naval Intelligence.  While I would be investigating potential sites for large military airbases, he would study navigation conditions, harbors, and sites for ports or beach landings to supply these bases.

I had also met the other three Americans who would be joining us – all experts in electronic intelligence:  Fred, a captain in the Army Signal Corps; Doug, an Air Force captain; and Fritz, a civilian technician skilled at installing electronic devices and keeping them running.  Fritz never identified his employer; I suspected either the National Security Agency or the Central Intelligence Agency.  The mission of these three men would be to record signals from radars in the Russian mining settlements in Svalbard and along the nearby shores of the Soviet Union.

Once again, we had been warned of the need to maintain tight security on this mission.  If the Russians suspected our mission at all, particularly its electronic aspects, they could easily board our ship and send us all to Siberia, or worse.  We must appear at all times to be tourists.


The Rhein-Main airport at Frankfurt, West Germany was our point of entry into Europe.  At that time there were two terminals on opposite sides of the main runway.  The German civilian terminal handled commercial flights.  The other terminal, operated by the U.S. Air Force, handled military flights.  It was proudly labeled “Rhein-Main Airbase, Gateway to Europe.”  The five of us were to assemble in Frankfurt and travel together by train to Norway.


As Bruce and I were waiting to board our flight at Washington National Airport, one of our project officers came by and asked me to join him on the aircraft parking apron for a confidential chat.

Word had just been received that Fred, Doug, and Fritz had a disastrous arrival in Frankfurt two days earlier.  The passports of the first two had been stamped ENTERED – U.S. AIR FORCE EUROPE, a brand that would expose their U.S. Government affiliation at every border crossing – including the crossings into Communist East Germany — and hotel check-ins for the rest of their time in Europe.  Perhaps even worse, Fritz avoided the stamp, but only by bolting from the immigration line and disappearing from the terminal.  He was now being sought by the German police.  (As I learned soon afterward, Fritz had dashed across the runway to the German civil terminal, melted into an immigration queue to get the needed entry stamp, and then slipped quickly out of the country and on up to Norway.)

After all this bad news, the project officer was pleased to announce that measures had been taken to make sure there would be no repetition of the fiasco for Bruce and me.  An agent of the Air Force Office of Special Investigations (OSI) would board our plane in Frankfurt to escort us off and make sure that our passports got the proper entry stamps by German civil authorities.

What had happened was perfectly predictable, except that nobody had thought of it.  The bosses in Washington hadn’t foreseen that a MATS flight would arrive at the military terminal, where the military stamp would be applied to all passports.

I was getting the sinking feeling that there would be no end of installments to this one continuing lesson:  Make your own travel arrangements, or beware!  After all the rigid secrecy and expense involved in mounting this expedition, we couldn’t manage to get five commercial airline tickets to Frankfurt that would have allowed our team to travel like the private citizens we were pretending to be.

And now I was further concerned that an electronic spy ship had been selected as my means of transport to Svalbard.  My own work, related to airbase construction, would not pose any imminent threat to Soviet security, but the electronics intelligence most certainly would.  If the Soviets found out what we were up to, they might take drastic measures.

Our flight to Frankfurt lasted 20 hours, including a refueling stop at Lajos airbase in the Azores.  After touching down at Rhein-Main, the aircraft taxied up to the military terminal.  As soon as the portable steps were in place, a man in civilian dress climbed to the top.  When the cabin door was opened, he stepped inside and asked for Bruce and me by name.  We came forward.  He flashed his OSI identification and asked us to follow him.  We moved quickly into the empty special lounge for VIPs (Very Important Persons).  He was curt and appeared tense.  “Give me your passports and baggage tickets.  I’ll be back in ten minutes.”

As we waited, I considered the attractive surroundings and the service being rendered, and reflected that we had “arrived in style.”  Our man returned on the dot of ten minutes.  We checked our baggage and it was all there.  We checked our passports and, yes, they had been stamped.  Stamped ENTERED – U.S. AIR FORCE EUROPE.

I voiced the obvious:  “These passports have an Air Force stamp in them.”

“That’s right.”

“But that’s just what you were here to prevent.”

“No one said anything about that.  I was told to expedite your passage through the terminal.”

We thanked him for his kind efforts and pondered our situation after he left.  It was clearly time to call Mr. Sylvester.  This code name identified us and our mission.  Bill, an Army intelligence agent in Frankfurt, answered our call.  He picked us up within the hour, and together we began a three-day process of figuring out how to resolve this latest fiasco.  Bill decided immediately that we would have to take up residence in the bachelor officers’ quarters at the airbase; any hotel in town would want to see our passports.

This unwelcome confinement was relieved by daily outings with Bill, mostly to the U.S. Consulate where we had repeated interviews and saw much shaking of heads.  We visited the basement room where documents were forged and altered, but even there the man shook his head, saying U.S. passports were too difficult to alter.  An elderly, corpulent German lady at the reception desk quizzed us daily about our evening exploits.  As we shook our heads, she shook hers too in disappointment, admonishing with a twinkle in her eye that Frankfurt was a great place to have a ball; we needed only to name our pleasures.

On one occasion, Bill took us to his office at the I. G. Farben building, the Nazi-era headquarters of the huge chemical concern, and still the largest office building in Europe.  The Allies had spared it during the wartime bombings, earmarking it as a postwar military headquarters and administration building.  In familiar Nazi style, the building dwarfed individual humans and incorporated the latest mechanical efficiencies.

 i g farben 3

One of these was the use, instead of elevators, of endless conveyor chains in constant motion.  I have read of the “Paternoster” cabs mounted on these chains, but my experience was more primitive:  no cabs, only exposed foot-perches and handholds at regular intervals along the chains.  Regular users were rather graceful on these gadgets, but I had to make a nervous leap when a perch arrived, hold on for dear life, and leap off at the desired floor.  I had a nagging fear that this technology had been adapted from the abattoir, and that there could be a meat grinder at the roof or basement level.

On the second afternoon of our stay, Al Nicol came in from a field office of the U.S. Geological Survey near Heidelberg, some 60 miles distant.  Al was an engineering geologist of wide experience, great abilities, and highly acclaimed reputation.  As previously arranged, he would stay overnight to give me an extended tutorial on geologic field procedures that could be useful in my assignment.  But first, Al’s presence with an auto gave Bruce and me our first chance to sample the Frankfurt nightlife.  So Al kindly escorted us through a night on the town that lasted till two in the morning.  In the downtown area surrounding the main railway station, the U.S. forces had commandeered all the hotels and public buildings, and among them had sprung up a string of night clubs, beer halls, snack stands, and assorted dives that catered mainly to Allied military people.  It was a throbbing Times Square atmosphere 24 hours per day.

Frankfurt hauptbahnhof(1)         Frankfurt hauptbahnhof(2)

 Next morning, my first act was to hold my head beyond the edge of the bed as I threw up on the floor.  After a failing try at breakfast, I spent the next three hours flat on my back as Al patiently delivered his tutorial.  I would frequently grunt and occasionally even ask a question to assure him that I was still conscious.  I took in and remembered a lot more of his points than I ever expected.

Shortly after Al left, Bill returned with great news.  The passport dilemma had been solved!  The consulate would issue us new passports and keep our present ones in a safe.  After the expedition, we would exchange passports again and return home on the original ones.  I admired the beauty and simplicity of the solution, and wondered how many high-powered government officials had been needed to think of it.  If it were an option at all, this solution would have seemed obvious from the start, before we wasted several days seeking other means of solving the problem.

Before the day was out, Bruce and I moved to the luxurious Frankfurter Hof hotel where Fred and Doug had been waiting for us.  The tab of 16 dollars per day was way over my per diem travel allowance, but well worth the experience for a short time.  As we stood on the roof garden surveying the city, it really did seem fair now to say that we had arrived in style.  Frankfurt, a sprawling city of perhaps 600,000 inhabitants at that time, was fast rebuilding from the war.  Nevertheless, from our rooftop we could see in nearly every block at least one burned-out building shell or cratered vacant lot.

But we still had lots more arriving to do, specifically in Norway, and there now seemed no reason for any further stay in Frankfurt.  Correction!  Doug had a reason.  Far from his wife and small children, he had named his pleasure in the person of a female roommate whom he was not anxious to leave just yet.  And Fred, the senior member of our group, always seemed most anxious to please Doug.  So we all agreed to round out the week in Frankfurt.  During the remaining days, Bruce was mostly with a flight attendant friend he had met on the MATS flight.  Doug stayed in his hotel room.  Fred and I became tourists and sightseers for real.

Frankfurt was full of fascinating sights and sounds.  Aside from the sideshows around the main railway station, the real spectacle was the German people, endlessly energetic, working long hours six days a week.  Their average personal income was about 100 dollars per month, I was told.  Thanks to a favorable exchange rate of 4 marks to the dollar, Americans could order steak dinner for about a dollar and a half.  But it was obvious that here was an economy on the rise, and that these people would soon work their way up from such low estate.

There was one untoward effect of all this energy and ambition that I found astonishing.  This was the apparently reckless abandon with which German drivers plied the roads.  Bill had introduced me to this on the autobahn, a rambunctious scene of weaving, bumper-riding, and split-second maneuvers at breathtaking speeds.  Bill pointed out that one could easily tell the maximum speed of each vehicle, for that was precisely the speed it was going.  His explanation for this was that an entire generation nearing middle age was now experiencing its first car, hence was only in the teen-age of driving maturity.  (Maybe so, but I didn’t note much change when I came back in 1960.)  The auto accident rate in mid-fifties West Germany was about four times that of the United States, and one motorcycle owner in ten did not live to make the final payment.

One week after Bruce and I landed at Rhein-Main, we gathered with Fred and Doug in the railway station before dawn to board the express to Copenhagen and Oslo.  The trip was roughly a thousand miles and would take somewhat under 30 hours.

Shortly before reaching Grossenbrode, where we would take the ferry to Denmark, we crossed a corner of East Germany with all the train’s window blinds tightly closed.  The conductor warned that peeking could cause nasty problems with the local authorities.  Our second ferry, from Denmark to Sweden, embarked from Helsingør, Shakespeare’s Elsinore.  From the ferry we saw “Hamlet’s Castle”, appearing by its style to be several centuries too young for the sweet prince, but nevertheless picturesque.  The central wharf area of the town was overshadowed by a decidedly un-picturesque ESSO sign, the largest I had ever seen.  We slept through Sweden, and arrived in Oslo the next morning.

This posting is a selection from my book, The Cold Coasts (Kindle, Paperback, and Hard Cover)