You Go to War When Politics Fails
Profilers: Chase Cohen, Russell van Ruitenbeek & Jamie Takayesu
Getting into the War
Interviewer: What year did you go to Vietnam?
Hoffenblum: The first time was 1965, August of ‘65, it was my 25th birthday, and there was only about 35,000 GI’s in Vietnam at that time. In fact, I remember how surprised I was. We landed in Tan Son Nhat airport, we went up and the sergeant says okay go get a taxi, go downtown and get yourself a hotel. And sure enough we went down and we got a flea bag of a hotel called the Saigon Inn or something, but eventually I ended up staying at some hot hotel in downtown Saigon that was run by a Chinese man and run by a bunch of Chinese teenagers. It had a sign outside, “No Vietnamese allowed.” And actually had somewhat of an enjoyable time. I mean we were able to be with the economy. I understood the seriousness of the war don’t get me wrong, and I did not take that lightly, but I lived on the economy. We had some great French food and what have you. And then the second time I told you when I came back the following year and that was down in the Mekong Delta. The city, the capital was called Can Tho. The air base that I was, was Binh Thuy. It was also a Green Beret air base and there was a Navy air base in close proximity. But there I was there for nine months and there I was the base intelligence officer. I was making sure the base commander and the pilots were properly briefed as to what the dangers were and what have you.
Interviewer: What would you say your attitudes were about the War before going to Vietnam?
Hoffenblum: I was very supportive of the war. In fact, I went over the first time by assignment, it was at March Air Force Base and they needed an airman intelligence officer, who would be able to annotate photographs for bombing missions. When jets go over bombing missions, they don’t just drop bombs here and there. They have photographs in their cockpit with the buildings annotated where the anti-aircraft guns might be and surface to air missiles. And so they would have a photograph in their cockpit that usually was no more than 24 hours old and my first job in Vietnam we’d be there getting the photographs and annotating them and being prepared for the Air Force officers and their strikes on North Vietnam. Then, I came back after three months and back to March Air Force Base and then they sent me over to Bangor, Maine to be a bomber intelligence officer up there. A very very boring job. So the first thing I did was volunteer to go back to Vietnam because it’s like there is a war going on. If you’re in the military, you know, get there. Remember, I’m not an infantryman, I’m not being shot at, I’m an Air Force intelligence officer. So I did some pulling of the strings and persuasion and letter writing, so I was sent back to Vietnam and they stationed me again in Saigon, but then I got myself down to the Mekong Delta, where I was the base intelligence officer. But I was very supportive of the war during the war and very supportive of the war for the most part after the war, which is what got me involved in politics, was the war in Vietnam.
Interviewer: How did you get involved in the war?
Hoffenblum: You gotta remember back then, the Army was the only service that drafted and if you got drafted you only had to spend two years. Now, if you volunteered, you had to spend four years. If you got drafted into the Army, they didn’t send you to intelligence school or anything. I mean you got the artillery, you got the infantry, or you became the cook or something like that. But if you volunteer and of course you volunteer to the service you want and more often than not you had to volunteer what field you wanted to go in to. But for some reason when I went into the Air Force they sent me to armed forces air intelligence school and I became an intelligence officer and I was in the service for quite awhile before. When I was first in the Air Force, there was no war in Vietnam, we always talked about the war in Laos. So there were no real ground troops, that was the first time I went over there, there was only 35,000. Now when I came back a year later, there were 250,000 American GI’s that were in Vietnam at the time.
Interviewer: Did the soldiers ever talk about the French involvement in Vietnam prior to 1965?
Hoffenblum: Not anymore than I guess you all would be today talking about what’s going on in Crimea. If it was concerning, we’d be discussing it. I remember we were thinking that there would be no need for tanks and conventional military because the terrain would not allow it and we talked about it. None of us ever thought we’d be sent over there.
Interviewer: What were your daily duties?
Hoffenblum: Well the first one I would just say was routine. I had a commission. I was lieutenant, but the job was very routine, annotating photographs, not the most exciting job in the world. Most of the excitement was in the off hours when people would be down in Saigon. Now in the Mekong Delta, I was the base intelligence officer. In fact, at one time because of the information I got I probably predicted that the base… there was going to be a Christmas recess and I predicted and I said I believe we are going to be attacked some time before the Christmas recess, which was going to be like midnight after Christmas eve. And people started harassing me as the base wasn’t attacked. I remember they walked in, it was Christmas eve and said where is this attack? Well, it was right at midnight and the base was attacked, but the pilots were quite prepared because I briefed them on that and they were really in action. Very little damage was done on that attack. But my job was to keep them informed. We had over 200,000 Viet Congs throughout the Mekong Delta surrounding us and Can Tho was secure. Again, in Vietnam it is very interesting. Unlike the Iraq War where everybody was scared to death to go outside their compound, I had no trouble walking around Can Tho, I had no trouble walking around Saigon. I lived in downtown Can Tho, but that was the GIs, and same way in Saigon. We felt very secure. It was only when we got outside the parameters that you know, you better be careful.
The Officer with a Jeep
Interviewer: Did they ever explain to you why these specific targets were chosen?
Hoffenblum: Back in the Saigon, alright, when they annotated photographs, remember the photographs would be no more than 24 hours old. Because mainly… well all of a sudden we’d get the target, this was gonna be a Vietnamese air force and I was gonna bomb this stock, just over the border in North Vietnam. All of a sudden I get the target and it’s not there. It’s been bombed before. It’s been destroyed. And I start going through command saying, “Why are you sending bombers there? There’s nothing there, there’s nothing there! My God we’re going into North Vietnam you’re going to be attacked!” And…but they went ahead and sent them anyway. And then I read in the paper, the Stars and Stripes, the military paper, that those planners got awarded the meritorious service for doing such a good job for picking out that target, and the target wasn’t even there. I had no idea. There was a lot of friction by the way, and competition between the Air Force and the Navy: which targets the Navy would hit, and which ones the Air Force would hit. You know this was called “Rolling Thunder”, was the term that was given to the air strikes up in North Vietnam. If you remember I was concentrating on air strikes only in North Vietnam. But I sometimes wondered why they picked this target or that. I didn’t have the foggiest , I didn’t know why the targets were picked. And when I saw they were actually sending people in harm’s way to drop bombs on a target that wasn’t even there, I became somewhat cynical.
Interviewer: How did you interact with you superiors and the pilots to whom you gave information?
Hoffenblum: Interaction with the pilots was paramount. The air force was run by pilots. And you can’t become a four star general unless you were a pilot, unless you were a doctor or lawyer or something like that. To be a general officer, you pretty much had to be a pilot. And in the air force, the pilots only listened to two men: their crewmen of course, but besides your crewmen, the maintenance officer and your intelligence officer, and the interaction between the two was very important because we used to give them information that would save their lives. And I had a very close relationship with the pilots there in the air force. And then of course, because I was the base intelligence officer, I was second to the base commander, who was a full colonel. I was a lieutenant most of the time. I became a captain thirty days before I left. But I had my own Jeep. Because of the position I had, my office was air conditioned and I had my own Jeep, where everybody else did not have air conditioning and they had to take a bus to go from the base to Can Tho. So there was a lot of jealousy among majors and captains and second, first lieutenants, who used to run around with his air conditioned office and his Jeep. But the key thing was that I had to get along with the base commander and the pilots, and that I did very well.
Interviewer: What was your interaction with the Vietnamese like off the battlefield?
Hoffenblum: Well when you were a young man and you were in Saigon…and by the way only those of us that were stationed in Can Tho, and had business in Saigon were allowed to go into Saigon. Most of the GIs you interviewed were in the infantry or artillery were not allowed to go into Saigon. They didn’t want to have a city full of suits. And more often than not we wouldn’t be wearing our uniform inside downtown Saigon. Sometimes we would, but not always. And there used to be these women. You buy what’s called Saigon tea, you go into a bar and they would be there. And there was a place called Cho Lon, which was the Chinese sector of Saigon, it’s where all the Chinese lived, which is no longer there, by the way. And uh, if you went into Saigon and you found a pretty young girl and you bought her some Saigon tea, she was probably Chinese. And when you went to Cho Lon, they were probably Vietnamese. They didn’t want to run into family or something, seeing them. But we visited some restaurants. It was not a stressful…it was not stressful in the city, Can Tho. So we’d go out to eat and do things, and we also had television by that time, and some of the guys would just watch tv, movies and things such as that, but I never really bothered. And also, by the way, it usually was pretty late by the time I got to Can Tho. It would be 8, 9, 10 o’clock by the time we get there. More often than not, we’d just chitchat and go to bed.
Interviewer: What was on everyone’s mind at base?
Hoffenblum: Oh no business. No business. I mean depending on… I mean I remember we had a good time…I remember we used to have entertainment, the USO tours would come through. And they were good by the way. You did not go, well the government did not send you to Vietnam…you didn’t have to be famous, but you had to be good. I remember one time we were at a staff meeting, and we found out that Roy Rogers and Dale Evans was coming. Do you know who Roy Rogers is? Let’s put it this way. He was one of the most famous movie cowboys of his time. Most of us grew up watching Roy Rogers and Dale Evans and his horse Trigger. And everybody laughed about it, but when they arrived on base, my God, I mean everybody came out, cameras were blaring or what have you…But I would say when you get in on base, for the most part it was not stressful, except when the pilots… the pilots went on those 50mm gun and that was stressful-people would shoot at them. But for most of us, we felt very secure, and lived on the economy. So much different from the GIs who were stuck out in the boondocks, and maybe got some R&R in the cities, or I forget what they call them, but there was a few.
Lessons and Life after the War
Interviewer: How have your perceptions of the war changed over the years?
Hoffenblum: You go to war when politics fails. Vietnam was one of the first wars where we tried to do both politics and combat at the same time. I’ve come to the strong view, I mean if you’re going to go to war, go there maximum force and get it over with as quickly as possible. The American people are not going to put up with any war that lasts any more than a couple, three, four years if they are going to support it at all. And when you drag out to ten years and people are dying, I mean what’s the point? And as a result we lost Vietnam. Not because of the military, but because the military was never allowed to do its job. And if you don’t want the military to do its job, then don’t send the military. Colin Powell and the Vietnam veterans who became generals, you know when we went into Iraq the first time, as you know they built up a huge number of troops. Went in, did the job, and then got the hell out of there.
And George W. didn’t learn that when he went into Iraq. I think they thought they were going to be treated like saviors. Like GIs going into Paris, France at the end of World War II or something like that, and look how horrid that turned out to be in Afghan[istan] and the whole bit. Don’t put American boys, and women now, we didn’t have women in combat but we do now. Don’t put them in harm’s way unless it is in our best interest to do so and we are going to get that war over as quickly as possible. I think most people of the Vietnam generation pretty much believe that.
Interviewer: How did you adjust to civilian life after the war?
Hoffenblum: I got politicized. First of all, I’m involved in politics now. Forty years I was a Republican political consultant running campaigns and what have you. But I knew nothing about politics before I went to Vietnam. Another job I had when I was down in the Mekong Delta, you had these “Foreign Air Control” pilots, “FAC” pilots they were called. Your father would know what they were called. They were like Piper Cubs and they stage managed the bombing run. As I showed you, when jets are going at super sonic, they just don’t willy nilly drop bombs and what have you. Somebody has to manage the whole bit. And they [FAC planes] were very vulnerable, but they would have smoke rockets and what would protect them if they ever got some ground fire up to them, they would throw a smoke rocket where they think it was coming from and then one of the jets would come in with napalm or something and just wipe them all out. And so they weren’t very likely to take a shot at those pilots. But those FAC pilots used to come down to Binh Thuy for a 10-day indoctrination course called “The War in Vietnam.” And I would give a 40-minute classified briefing, but to be able to do that, I would get on a plane, go up to Saigon, and there was a place call “Combined Intelligence Center – Vietnam.” It looked like a big strong, huge building. Nothing but concrete. And that was the Intelligence office for Westmoreland and high command. It was divided into four rooms because there were four corps- I Corps, II Corps, III Corps, IV Corps, and about every four weeks I would fly up there, go in, and I’d get this fabulous briefing on what is going on in the war in Vietnam. These sergeants, and lieutenants, and majors- they’d talk about the battles and everything. And I knew as much about what was going on in the war in Vietnam as Westmoreland did. And I put together this 40-minute briefing on the war in Vietnam and all these FAC pilots would go out throughout Southeast Asia and they would say, “If you really want to know what’s going on in the war, there is this lieutenant down there in Binh Thuy who really understands the war.”
And I did. And I understood the whole idea of the Johnson strategy-remember Johnson was president of the United States at the time-and watching 250 GIs get killed week after week after week, and this idea of a “protracted war” that if they accelerate, then we would accelerate, they accelerate then we would accelerate. And the whole concept that we could out-live the people who lived there or out-stay the people was monstrous. And I became very politicized. I thought Lyndon Johnson was nothing but a war criminal and I came back and I got involved in Republican public politics. And I was very much in favor of the war at the time-I have different thoughts today, but very much in support of it. And then very much involved with Richard Nixon and helping him get elected president because he had this “secret” to end the war. So what happened to the war in Vietnam, it politicized me, it’s probably what got me involved in politics because I just thought what was going on was a tragedy. I mean I’ve only been to the Vietnam War Memorial once that’s in Washington DC. If I wasn’t around friends, I probably would have broken up. That’s very emotional. Have you seen the memorial?
Interviewer: Yeah. My dad took me.
Hoffenblum: Yeah, I bet he broke up. It’s very, very emotional. If you really were there with the pilots, you know friends who were on the wall. Don’t get me wrong when I say I was down in the city we went to the restaurants, we went to the bars, what have you-we knew what was going on. At least I knew what was going on. I was very much aware and I was very much affected by it.