(As published Jan. 2009 in the Foreign Service Journal)
An e-mail I recently received recounted a dramatic, indeed heroic, event that took place during Operation Rolling Thunder, which – as older readers may recall – was the code name for our secret bombing of North Vietnam in the early part of that war. The mention of that operation reminded me of a very different experience I had back then; one in which heroism played no role whatever.
My job in early 1965 involved standing rotating watches in the State Department Operations Center, monitoring info arriving from all sources, and making sure the important stuff got to the pertinent senior officials right away. On one of the earliest days of "Rolling Thunder", while being briefed in for the midnight-to-8 a.m. watch, I was told we had lost an aircraft earlier that evening -- the first such loss of this secret operation -- and that the senior watch officer had phoned Secretary of State Dean Rusk at home to inform him. Rusk's questions -- and this was of vital interest to me in case it should happen again on my watch – were:
First – Did the pilot get out safely?
Second – Did the plane go down on our side of the NVN border, where the operation’s secrecy could more easily be protected, or on the enemy’s side?
Third – Precisely where did the plane go down? And don't confuse the Secretary with map coordinates; what he wanted was the name of the nearest town or village.
Somewhere around 2 or 3 a.m., we got word that a second plane had been shot down and, unlike the earlier loss, this one happened in the North. The senior watch officer decided that I, as the junior officer on the team, would benefit most from the experience of awakening the Secretary of State at 3 in the morning with the bad news. I went into the small side office occupied by the bird colonel who was our Pentagon Liaison, and asked him the expected first question. Unfortunately, he said, there was no word yet as to the pilot's fate. Re the exact location of the loss, he started to blurt out a set of coordinates. "Hold it", I said, "the Secretary doesn't do coordinates. He wants the name of the nearest town." The poor colonel didn't know whether to laugh or pass bricks. "Town?” he said, “What town? We're talking boonies here. There ARE no towns."
But I wasn’t prepared to accept this at face value, not with a dead-of-night wakeup call to the Secretary of State about to take place. At my insistence, we went over to his wall map, plotted in the coordinates on its plastic overlay, and there – within a mile or two – was a town. Or a hamlet. Or maybe just a few huts with a name. Whatever, it was a name. And since the Secretary had a map just like it at his bedside, it was a name I could refer him to. There was just one tiny problem. The name, I swear to God, was Phuc Kyu!
“What”, I asked the colonel, “is the correct pronunciation of this name?”
The smirk on his face told me everything I needed to know, but he replied anyhow. "It's pronounced exactly the way you think it is!"
As I dialed Rusk's home phone, I tried to mentally rehearse the way I was going to present this. But all I could hear in my mind was the Secretary thanking me effusively for waking him from a sound sleep at three in the morning just to tell him to go screw himself, and how exactly did I spell my name because he wanted to be sure to get it right.
Well, I can't remember exactly what was said on both sides of that call, but the initial greeting and the passing of my basic report went OK, as did my replies to the first two questions.
Then he asked the third question. I took a deep breath, and said in a firm, clear voice, “Fook KIYyu, Mr. Secretary."
Hey, we can't all be heroes.
Jack St. John, a retired Senior Foreign Service Officer, began his career in Monterrey, Mexico in 1961, and retired as Director of Mexican Affairs in 1989. He was Economic Minister in Geneva from 1980 to 1984, had economic postings in London and Managua, and held two office directorships in the Economic Affairs Bureau of the U.S. Department of State.