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Interview with Herbert Bluechel, 1981

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Summary
Herbert Bluechel served in Vietnam in the mid-1940s. He recalls British General Gracey’s entry into Saigon and describes a meeting between French General Philippe Leclerc and O.S.S. officer Peter Dewey; Dewey would be the first American casualty in Vietnam, prior to the official start of the war. He recounts the events surrounding Dewey’s death in detail. Finally, he discusses the mood of the country and Vietnamese attitudes towards the French, the British, and the Americans.
Topics
Vietnam War, 1961-1975--Personal narratives, American, National liberation movements, Assassins, Colonization, Japan--History, Military--1868-1945, Occupations, Imperialism, United States--History, Military--20th century, United States. Office of Strategic Services
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Transcript

Colonial interests in Vietnam

VIETNAM
HERBERT BLUECHEL
SR 2830
Tape 1, Side 1
Marker.
Vietnam Project. Episode 4. Scene 1. Take 1.
Clapstick.
Interviewer:
Could we, could we start, Mr. Bluechel, does, telling you what it was like in Saigon at the time of General Gracey's arrival. What were your feelings about what you actually saw?
Bluechel:
Well, when we first arrived at uh...the Annamites were extremely happy to see us. War was over, the Japanese confined themselves to their barracks and encampments. Uh, it was great expectancy among the Vietnamese because they had heard and knew all about the four freedoms and the Japanese had told 'em about Asia for the Asiatics so they anticipated their independence. Uh, were especially happy to see the Americans because they knew we were, we were not colonial power right and any colonial ambitions...
Interviewer:
Can we cut for a second?
Marker.
Scene 1. Take 2.
Clapstick.
Interviewer:
If you could just explain to me the feeling in Saigon when you were there and General Gracey’s arrival looked like to you.
Bluechel:
Well, when we arrived the Annamites were in a great mood. The war was over, the Japanese had, were confining themselves to their barracks and encampments. Uh, they were anticipating finally, that they would probably have their freedom, this is what they wanted.
They were happy to see the Americans because they knew we had no colonial ambitions of any kind. We in turn had gotten our freedom from the British in 1776. So, they had listened to the four freedoms as promulgated by President Roosevelt and the Japanese propaganda of Asia for the Asiatics and they believed in all this.
So they were in a happy mood until the arrival of all the British troops. They came in gradually uh, I would say there were probably...15,000 British troops by the time General Gracey arrived.
And when he flew in uh, he landed at the airport and um, I was in a jeep with one of my other officers, we were going out to the airport for something, I forget what it was, maybe gasoline for the jeep or something, and we started out the road to the airport and we looked about every thirty or forty yards there was a Gurkha troop stationed on both sides of the road facing out to the countryside with their rifles...how strange, what's going on?
Ran a little further and a British officer caught up with us in a, in a jeep and said Gracey's, come in, would we please uh, clear the road for him. So we pulled off to the side and uh, here comes a column of troops, full battle gear, marching down the road very smartly, and behind them came Gracey in his limousine, flags flying and uh, it was a, but it was...what it amounted to was a show of power because if there was any movement along the countryside the Gurkha troops would fire their rifles.
But they'd fire 'em high, but they weren't firing into anybody. It was a show of force. After that, things got tense, after his arrival, because the Annamites felt that here's a colonial power coming back. And it was true that Gracey was there to pave the way for the return of the French.
Interviewer:
What about your meeting with Peter Dewey and General Leclerc? What happened at the meeting? What sort of things did you and Leclerc say?
Bluechel:
Oh, I wasn't with um Peter Dewey when he uh, had the conference with General Gracey. I saw him, I saw General Gracey alone later, but uh...
Interviewer:
General Leclerc...I'm not asking about Gracey...it's about Leclerc.
Bluechel:
Oh, Leclerc?
Interviewer:
Yeah.
Bluechel:
Oh. Well. We had um, Peter and I had um luncheon with General Leclerc. And during the conversation uh, the General said, what do you think of the situation here? And he said well, it's getting a little, a little tense and...lot's is happening. And uh, the General said do you think that uh the Annamites will uh, get their independence?
And I said, well I don't know. That's political situation with which I'm not too familiar. He says well, I'll be happy to tell you that we will never, never give up Indochina. No way.
Interviewer:
Cut.

Peter Dewey's death

Scene 1. Take 3.
Clapstick.
Interviewer:
If you could just tell us the events as they unfolded on the day of Peter's death.
Bluechel:
That occurred on uh...
Interviewer:
Sorry. I should have told you. If you could just say, Peter's death occurred on...or Peter Dewey's death or...
Bluechel:
Well Peter Dewey was killed on the um, on, on a, it's Wednesday, September 26, 1945. Uh, General Gracey had ordered him out, ordered him out of the theatre. Why, I'm not too sure. But uh, Peter didn't go into too much detail. One thing was that General Gracey ordered us never to fly an American flag on our vehicles because as he...stated it, when a commanding general...
Interviewer:
Cut.
Marker.
Scene 1. Take 4.
Clapstick.
Interviewer:
If we could start again saying the day of Peter's death...
Bluechel:
Peter Dewey was killed on Wednesday, September 26, 1945. He had been ordered out of the area by General Gracey. Why, I'm not too sure; Peter didn't give us too many details.
But part of it was uh the fact that we had an American flag on our vehicles and General Gracey said that's a no-no. Only the commanding General can fly a flag. But there was something else with which I, I'm not too fa, I don't know really.
Anyway, on that morning, uh, I drove him to the airport, the plane was to have come in from Bangkok at about 12:00 approximately. So we took his luggage out and uh, the uh, Lieutenant Rhodes was in, the ATC commander there, so we hadn't heard from the plane yet but we expected it pretty soon. So we stayed there a little while and uh, by this time it's almost 12:00 so we decided to go back to headquarters for lunch.
No, I, I've left some, stuff out, I'm sorry. I'm sorry.
Marker.
Take 5.
Interviewer:
If you could just pick up from the point where you were on your way to the airport after the incident of the flag. Just start with that.
Bluechel:
Yes. We drove to the airport to leave Peter Dewey's luggage and the uh, Lieutenant in charge, ATC commander, Lieutenant Rhodes I believe it was, said he hadn't heard from the plane yet but he expected it a little later so Peter said we'll go back to uh headquarters for lunch, being close to 12:00.
I'd been driving him all morning in the jeep and uh, so we got to the jeep to go back, Peter says, Blue, I'll drive. And uh, I said, That's all right, Peter, I'll drive you. He said, No, I wanta drive...Actually, I didn't...
Take Six.
Interviewer:
If we could just start up from the time at the airport when you were saying you were going to drive...
Bluechel:
Yes. We um, Peter decided we'd, we'd have time to go back to our headquarters for lunch, so uh, I’d been driving him all morning and uh we went out, out to the jeep and Peter said, Blue, I'll drive. And says, that's all right, Peter, I'll drive, I don't mind driving.
He says, Oh no, I'm going to drive. And, as a matter of fact, I didn't want him to drive 'cause he was a pretty lousy driver. So, but he's the commander so, okay.
So, instead of taking the main road back to Saigon we took the back road which is a little shorter and uh, I said to Peter, Uh, why're you taking the back route, road? And he said, well it's...daytime. And I said, it could be a little dangerous because it's unprotected, but he said, Aw, nothing'll happen. Okay.
So we reached a point where we had to make a turn and uh as we made...the turn to the road leading to our headquarters we encountered a road block two logs across the road, a little brush and to get through it we had to make a sort of an inverted 'S'.
This was alongside the golf course, Saigon golf course. Alongside the road there was quite a deep ditch, maybe five, six feet on both sides of the road. And uh, I left out Coolidge.
Interviewer:
Cut.
Okay. We're just going to Camera Roll #2.
Scene 1, Ta...
Wait, wait. We just switched to Roll #2?
Yes.
Marker.
Scene 1, Take seven.
Clapstick
Interviewer:
If you could just pick up from the time when you first went to the airport and what happened after that.
Bluechel:
We dropped his luggage off at the airport and um, then Peter suddenly discovered that he'd forgotten his dog tags and they're in his room at the Continental Hotel, so we went back and picked those up and while we were at the hotel we were informed that Captain Coolidge uh, had been badly injured. He'd, he had gone upcountry with uh a small contingent of British to bring some French families out from uh Da Lat.
And they had been ambushed uh while there and during the fighting he had his throat cut. So we rushed to the British field hospital to see how he was and he was in good hands but he was pretty badly injured.
And uh, Peter Dewey was mad as hell about that, to think that would happen to one of us. So, we stayed with Coolidge a little while, then went back to the airport and got there about noon. The plane still hadn't arrived and Lieutenant Rhodes said he still hadn't heard from the plane but he was sure it would arrive sometime.
Peter said, Okay, gets here, just hold it, we'll back. We're going back to our headquarters for lunch. I'd been driving Peter all morning, so we got into the jeep, he said, Blue, I'll drive. I says, That's all right, Peter, I'll, I'll drive it back. He says, Oh no, I wanta drive. I says well, fine. I really didn't want him to drive, because, frankly, he was kind of a lousy driver.
So, we took off and instead of taking the main road back to Saigon he took a back road which was a little shorter uh, a shorter distance uh to our headquarters. But it was out in the wilds a little bit and I said to Peter, Why are you taking this road? And he says well, save some time.
And I said, it could be a little dangerous. He says, Oh well, nothing's going to happen. So we uh reached the corner to turn down the road that faces uh our headquarters and as we turned the corner there was a roadblock set up, some logs.
Interviewer:
Cut.
Marker.
Take eight.
Interviewer:
So if you could just start from the roadblock.
Bluechel:
So if you turned the corner uh to take the road leading to our headquarters, parallel to our headquarters, we encountered a roadblock and uh consisting of some logs and some brush and, in order to get through the roadblock we had to make a sort of an inverted "S".
As, all this time we were driving, Peter was talking about Captain Coolidge and how unhappy he was that he'd been hurt so badly, and whatnot. So, as we went through the roadblock, we noticed three Annamites standing in the ditch to our left. And, Peter shook his fist at 'em and yelled something in French. And what he yelled, I don't know because I don't, I don't speak French.
Well, with that, we were just on the spade edge of the "s" heading for the ditch and machine gun opened up, and the burst caught Peter in the back of the head, on the left side. The jeep continued and tipped on its side.
And um, I grabbed a hold of Peter but...he was dead, 'cause machine gun burst had hit him, exclusive, didn't hit me at all and there weren't even any, as I recall, no bullet holes through the windshield, so he caught the full burst.
Well the ditch was about four or five deep 'n, four or five feet deep and next to the ditch on the other side it's a hedge, hedge is about three feet thick, maybe six, eight feet high. Uh, firing continued, rifle fire, but the chassis of the jeep protected me.
I had a forty-five in my holster and I had three clips, total of twenty-one rounds of ammunition. Peter had a carbine, thirty caliber carbine in the jeep. I grabbed that. It jammed right away, it was, I don't think it'd been fired in months and months and months. So I, I had to get, get out of there.
I went back to the jeep again and checked on Peter and nothing I could do for him. So I made my way around the hedge to...the other side of the hedge is a golf course. So, the hedge protected me too and I made way down the hedge. People came around the end of the hedge and started firing at me. There were about fifteen or twenty.
And there's firing coming through the hedge, too, but I slowed 'em down with the forty-five and uh 'till I got down to the edge of the hedge, then there was no more protection and they were still coming and I had two rounds left, so I took off across the golf course, I had to run about roughly five hundred yards to our headquarters.
Then they fired everything, shot my hat off, went through my trousers, but they didn't hit me. Just lucky. Hmm. So I went to the, arrived at headquarters, and um, Captain Frank White was there and he had two war correspondents, guests for lunch. Sergeant Wicks was there. And we broke out our arms and uh we had a pitched battle for about an hour or so. Turns out that Peter Dewey was the first American to be killed in Vietnam. Huh.

Consequences of Dewey in Vietnam

Interviewer:
Okay. If we could go on from there um to what you recommended to the army about getting involved in a land war or... cut.
Marker.
Take Nine.
Clapstick.
Interviewer:
Can you give us an idea of what you reported back after you left the arena, or the area, back in Washington?
Bluechel:
When I came back to Washington? Well, I was debriefed of course on...military situation, the political situation especially. And I don't know if I had written in my reports or whether I gave it verbally, but I informed them that it was my opinion that in no way should we become involved in a land war in Southeast Asia...in...in Indochina, the terrain being too difficult for one thing and the fact that we would be restricted to operating to below the sixteenth parallel.
It would be a guerrilla warfare situation and I just I couldn't see any way we could win. And I was quite vehement about it. But nobody listened. (Laughter)
Interviewer:
Let's go back and just for the, for insurance sake, let's go over the incident with Peter Dewey starting from the roadblock just...
Bluechel:
From the roadblock...?
Interviewer:
Yes. Could you explain what was happening?
Bluechel:
All right. As we were driving along we had to, we had to, we came to a corner, we had to turn to the right and oh about ten yards further down as we turned we found we encountered a road block consisting of some logs and a little brush, nothing formidable, but it necessitated for us to make a reverse "s" to get through.
Uh, this road paralleled the golf course. Each side of the road had a ditch, the road was quite narrow and the ditch was three or four feet deep and on the right side, the golf course side, there was also a hedge. The hedge was about three feet thick and six or seven feet high.
Peter'd been, still been talking about Captain Coolidge and how concerned he was about his well being and what a shame that it happened to one of our members. So as we're going through the "s" part of the road block we saw three Annamites in the ditch to our left. Peter shook his fist at 'em, he yelled something in French. What he said, I don't know because I don't speak French or understand it.
At that point a machine gun opened fire...and the burst hit Peter Dewey right in the head, in the back of the head. It looked like part of his lower jaw was, had been shot away and, and uh, the jeep continued and uh towards the ditch and rolled over on its side. The firing continued but the chassis of the jeep protected me. The machine, I didn't uh, machine gun burst didn't touch me. Just lucky. I don't know how, why it didn't.
So, I uh checked on Peter and he, he was dead, there was no question about it, blood was streaming out of him, back of his head had been shot off. So, um I had a forty-five pistol with twenty-one rounds of ammunition and Peter had a, his carbine in the jeep, so I grabbed the carbine 'cause people were coming around the other side of the jeep by that time starting to fire.
And the carbine jammed, couldn't get a shot off. So I had to depend on that and I took my forty-five and fired and drove them back so that I could make my way around the hedge. Before I, befo—before doing that I checked on Peter once more to make sure there was nothing I could do for him.
So then I got to the edge of the hedge and got around the other side and about fifteen or twenty Annamites were coming after me, and they were firing. But I slowed 'em down with the forty-five. I know I hit five which gave me some time to get down to the edge, end of the hedge which was about maybe a hundred yards distance.
When I got to the end of the hedge I had two rounds left and being the golf course was flat, there was no protection so I had to take off and run for the headquarters which was about 500 yards further. That time they opened up with everything they had, shot my hat off, bullet went through my trousers, they didn't touch me. I was very lucky.
So then I arrived at the headquarters, I alerted our...
Interviewer:
Okay. We are changing to Magazine #3.
Bluechel:
But I hadn’t been home in four years. And, and out, they were going to send me right back to China. And I said no, no...I wouldn't have any family if I did. [Laughter]
Interviewer:
Do you have any feeling how the involvement in Vietnam changed between '45 and when the United States came back in after the French?
Bluechel:
No. Hmm.
Interviewer:
That was the most fascinating period...
Bluechel:
Yeah, that's right.
Interviewer:
That whole segue from the French to the United States and how just a series of whatever...
Interviewer:
1950. Yeah.
Interviewer:
Yeah. Do you think anybody knows how that, all that came about?
Interviewer:
Yeah, I think...
Interviewer:
Okay. A little bit of wild sound, rolling and I hoped that we're gonna get something significant. Uh, we didn't.
-->
Marker.
Scene 1, Take 10
Interviewer:
Can you give us some of the details about the search for Peter Dewey's body?
Bluechel:
Well...his body had been spirited away by the Annamites.
Interviewer:
I'm sorry, can you say Peter Dewey's body?
Bluechel:
I'm sorry. Peter Dewey's body had been spirited away by the uh, Annamites. Also took the jeep, of course, and we were never able to find where he was buried. Uh, even though I uh got a Japanese company of uh, enlisted men searching, searched that area, I'd say an area of at least two or three square miles for two weeks, looking for it.
Interviewer:
Excuse me. Cut.
Marker.
Take eleven. Clapstick.
Interviewer:
If you could just tell us about what happened after the incident and the search for his body.
Bluechel:
Yes um, after the fighting was over, it, the Annamites had retreated, we went back to the road, up the road to recover Peter's, Peter Dewey's body, but it was gone and the jeep was gone. And uh, we were never able to, to find him, even though I got a Japanese company, men out to search that area.
We searched, they searched for about three weeks or an area of at least two or three square miles. Had no luck. We did find his ammunition belt and canteen. That's all. They'd been buried.
So, in the meantime we uh checked the morgue everyday and uh, morgue was doing a pretty good business, especially with the French people. We had 'em break open the boxes to salute, look at the bodies, see if we identify one of 'em as Peter.
It was amazing, most of 'em had their hands cut off, their feet were cut off, their throats were cut...and I would say there were these were French people, planters, from upcountry I would say there were, we saw at least twenty-five like that during the two weeks we went to the morgue checking for Peter Dewey's body.
Interviewer:
Maybe I, I can also ask you at this point about the, relationship between the British and the uh, Vietnamese. Did you notice any deterioration in the uh, relationship? Did you notice any more tension in the late September period?
Bluechel:
No. The British uh, they had no dealings with the Vietnamese at all, that I know of. You know. They were just uh, they were there primarily to get all the Japanese together and, and ship 'em home and uh maintain political power, I guess or uh, I guess you'd call it political power waiting for the French to come in and take over.
Interviewer:
And during this period were the French more and more assertive or what was the French people's attitude towards the Vietnamese, that you could see, what was their relationship?
Bluechel:
Oh. Well, of course, they were very uh, extremely disturbed about all the fighting going on, the sniping, the shooting and the killing...And ah, they stayed pretty close to home.
Interviewer:
So you did, what was the, what were the streets like, did you see many French people on the streets?
Bluechel:
Oh yeah. Oh sure. Not too many, but they were still doing business.
Interviewer:
And what, what about the um the mood of the Vietnamese people in this period. Was there any change when they could see that the British were there to stay until the French...
Bluechel:
Oh sure, because they uh, they maintained, they had political rallies...
Interviewer:
I'm sorry, could we say the Vietnamese had political rallies?
Bluechel:
The Vietnamese had political rallies, they uh, before General Gracey arrived they had taken over the places of government like the post office and the uh police stations and so on. But the British pushed them out after they arrived, so they were um pretty upset, might say.
Interviewer:
Okay. Cut.
Okay this is going to be about one minute's worth of room tones starting now.
Enter the timecode: