The enemy knew me and others as intelligence officers.
American troops in Vietnam were targets for the North Vietnamese Army and Viet Cong, but few faced the kind of threat that Jeff Mandel did. The Army lieutenant had a bounty placed on his head.
Mandel was an intelligence officer who gathered information from a variety of sources to pinpoint the location of enemy forces. But spies on the other side learned his identity, which made the young American a marked man.
After graduating from Rutgers University, Mandel enlisted in the Army in April 1966 and went to Officer Candidate School at Fort Benning, Georgia. Once he received his commission, he was assigned to military intelligence and attended the Defense Language School in Monterey, California, to study Vietnamese dialects.
Mandel arrived at Tan Son Nhut air base, on the northern edge of Saigon, on Jan. 30, 1968—just as the communists were beginning their Tet Offensive throughout South Vietnam.
He served with the 219th Military Intelligence Detachment of II Field Force, the headquarters organization for U.S. units operating in Saigon and other southern areas of South Vietnam. The headquarters was at Bien Hoa, a major U.S. base about 20 miles northeast of Saigon.
In an interview with Vietnam magazine Research Director Jon Guttman, Mandel described the peculiar “seesaw” shadow war he waged with the enemy.
How did you get the intelligence-gathering assignment? I trained to be an infantry officer at Fort Benning. While there, I had the choice to go next to jump school or language school. Earlier in my life, I had studied German, two years in high school, Spanish, two years in college, and ancient Greek, three years in college. Someone identified me as language-capable. My TAC [training, advising and counseling] officer encouraged me to select language school. I studied North Vietnamese. After language school, I went to Fort Holabird in Baltimore [for Army intelligence school].
You studied North Vietnamese, rather than just Vietnamese in general? Vietnam has its various dialects and there was a definite difference between North and South. It was extremely useful for listening in on North Vietnamese Army communications or interrogating POWs, but when speaking to anyone else, it seemed like a Bostonian being in Birmingham, Alabama. When I was in-country, there were 20 GIs working for me, all language-qualified, mostly in the South Vietnamese dialect.
What were your initial duties when you got to Vietnam just as the Tet Offensive was raging? After I checked in at Bien Hoa, I was assigned to Hurricane Forward, a temporary task force set up in Saigon to counter the Viet Cong offensive in Cholon [a section of the city that was home to many Vietnamese of Chinese descent]. I was in Saigon from the first week of February until the end of March.
What did you do after Hurricane Forward? I was assigned to IPW [interrogation of prisoners of war] at Bien Hoa. Later in the year I was assigned to the headquarters staff, in the G-2 [the military designation for intelligence staff] department, in G-2 Targeting [a unit that gathered information on the whereabouts of the Viet Cong’s upper echelon so they could be targeted for U.S. attacks].
Who were your commanders and what was your area of operations? At G-2 Targeting, I served briefly with Capt. John Uecke, who rotated home. II Field Force was commanded by Maj. Gen. Walter T. Kerwin. Our area of operation covered a 100-mile radius of Saigon and included two war zones, C and D [two areas near Saigon with heavy concentrations of VC guerilla fighters]. By day the Americans were in those areas, but they’d be pulled back after dark.
How did you obtain information on VC locations? The Order of Battle section [which kept records on the size and composition of enemy units] collected information on enemy movements in our area. The information came from a variety of sources, including prisoners of war, sightings by friendly Vietnamese, the Signal Corps [which intercepted enemy radio transmissions] and sniffer missions. We’d record the data on index cards, and several GIs would continuously analyze that information to find correlations that could provide the intelligence to authorize Air Force strikes.
What were sniffer missions? Developed by General Electric, sniffer was a chemical detection system based on the fact that the human body gives off ammonia that can be detected. Sniffer devices were made to be carried in an infantryman’s backpack or by airborne means. We carried sniffer equipment on a UH-1 [Huey helicopter]. The devices looked like microphones and were attached to the helicopter’s skids to detect ammonia content in the air at treetop level. A chemical officer managed it in the passenger section of the helicopter, where a G-2 Targeting member also rode. The sniffer system didn’t work all that well, though. Once the VC learned of it, they would take a bucket of urine and hang it in trees, so we’d bomb where those buckets were, instead of where the enemy really was. Sniffer was effective, however, in disrupting supply routes and activities. The enemy constantly had to move around.
Did you operate primarily in the field or back at the base? I operated in the field. When I was at G-2 Targeting at the II Field Force base, I worked inside a concrete bunker. The smell of fresh cement permeated the area. The smell of the concrete drove me crazy. So to get away from it, I’d fly out several times a week on sniffer flights. Three helicopters assigned to II Field Force took off, one with the chemical officer, and two gunships in support. There would be ammonia readings and sound detection readings that required correlation. At 4 p.m. we’d brief the commanding general to authorize a B-52 strike. We’d relay the coordinates of enemy gatherings to [Andersen Air Force Base at] Guam, which would send B-52 flights, dispatched as early as dinner time. When we sent in the planes, it was my understanding that 500- to 1,000-pound bombs were used. After a B-52 attack, infantry would go in and do a battle damage assessment.
Was there any target in particular that you sought? One thing we searched for was the headquarters of the NVA/VC’s COSVN, or Central Office of South Vietnam, which was said to be in an 18-wheeler truck that moved daily and had a portable radio tower. During the rainy season, the LRRPs [long-range reconnaissance patrols] looked for tracks. We never did find it—the whole thing turned out to be a myth.
Did the enemy catch on to what you were doing? I am sure the enemy knew what we were doing. I think they knew me and others as intelligence officers in the 219th MID. We used day-workers in the unit to do washing, cleaning, etc. Washing our clothes, they saw our names and designations. They also observed where we went. In February 1969, we participated in Operation Bowie Winter, Col. George S. Patton’s [son of the World War II general] armored operation near the Michelin rubber plantation [about 45 miles northwest of Saigon]. In one bunker, they found an index card with my name and a 200 piastre bounty on my head.
That must have left you a bit unnerved. I was unnerved. But in a way I was a bit chagrined that the price on my head [a small amount in U.S. dollars] was so low. What really scared me once was a captured picture of a sniffer helicopter taken by a VC or NVA photographer. It showed the two gunships and one helicopter with detection equipment. At that altitude, they could easily have shot it down.
How were you able to avoid possible groundfire while still carrying out your mission? We would fly the grids, then go in from another direction to confirm the grid. You were asking for trouble if you didn’t. One day a colleague came back shot through the calf because he flew in the same direction twice and was wounded. We also called in “one drop bombers,” called Sky Spot. This involved one plane, one bomb—usually a jet fighter. We also reconnoitered the Dong Nai River for supply movements. Once we found a sampan garage, hidden under the foliage—a place to rest during the day and not to be caught.
Did you have any close calls? Once, when I flew a sniffer mission. Somebody [in the Viet Cong] had put a Claymore mine up in a tree. The VC identified the lead helicopter and manually detonated the mine. Fortunately for us, there was 1 inch of steel under that Huey. The pilot was excellent. He got control of the helicopter, pulled out before pancaking in the treetops and managed to bring us home. After seeing the ball bearing dents, I wondered why I ever left the safety of my office bunker.
Did you have any other unusual experiences? One time the co-pilot of the UH-1 had a new movie camera. From the chopper he photographed a Vietnamese boy who started wildly waving his hands because we were driving his water buffalo in all directions.
Did you also go on ground operations? Yes. In one instance we were in three jeeps with 155 mm recoilless rifles. We also carried three cartons of menthol Salem cigarettes for the “White Mice” [South Vietnamese police] for trading. In this instance we took small arms fire, and the jeeps fanned out on an embankment to return fire. I said, “Stop, stop,” but somebody smarter than I had a better suggestion: Didi mau—“keep moving faster!”
What did your unit do if it got any downtime? Back at the base camp, on Sundays we barbecued steak and chicken and drank beer purchased from the PX. We’d have a group barbecue on Sundays on a grill made from a 55-gallon drum. We also would trade war trophies [with the South Vietnamese] for whatever others items we needed [for the barbecue]. We got hold of some enemy SKS carbines, which we would trade for steak and chicken.
Were you decorated for your service? I received a Bronze Star from the U.S. government; the Cross of Gallantry from the South Vietnamese government.
Born: April 1, 1944, Newark, New Jersey
Residence: Ashburn, Virginia
Education: Rutgers University, bachelor’s degree, 1966; Rutgers Business School, MBA, 1971
Military service: U.S. Army, April 1966-April 1969; highest rank: first lieutenant
In Vietnam: January 1968-March 1969; 219th Military Intelligence Detachment
Professional career: Sales and management positions in technology businesses, 1971-2015
This article appeared in Vietnam magazine’s August 2018 issue.