There are times when Larry Anaszewicz recounts his exploits with the CIA in Vietnam that almost seem comic if it weren’t for the fact they presaged tragic consequences.
Take the time he and other U.S. Air Force airmen spent planting sensors along the Ho Chi Minh Trail to detect Viet Cong movements.
When they were parachuted in, the sensors, which resembled yard darts, were too easily spotted by the enemy.
Camouflaged to fit in the branches of trees, they were efficient up to three miles with batteries that kept them operational for three or four days.
Previously, some were disguised “to look like dog turds," the South Chicago native said. Trouble was, "there were no dogs there (in Southeast Asian jungles)."
Communist forces were known to leave a tape recorder playing a continuous loop of truck engine noise beside some sensors they found. Even booby-trapping the sensors to explode if tampered with didn't change the fact they never helped stop the flow of troops and munitions, Anaszewicz, now of Munster, noted.
“We thought it was fruitless,” he said. "It was like going out trying to get killed."
If that task was folly, other aspects of the cryptographer's involvement also left him largely unimpressed with the Central Intelligence Agency.
The agency made a halfhearted attempt to respect Laotian Prime Minister Souvanna Phouma's wish that no American troops be stationed in his country.
That's why Anaszewicz and his companions were dressed in civvies and carrying carbines when they boarded a commercial airline flight to Thailand, thence to Laos. Their passports were doctored to offer no record of their stay.
To preserve the fiction of Laos' neutrality, it was imperative when the CIA was establishing Lima Site 85, at Phou Pha Thi, that "civilians" affiliated under the cover of Lockheed Aircraft "employees" and Air America, the CIA-front airline, were its operators.
Site 85, just 120 miles from Hanoi, was on a sheer precipice that housed a radar bombing control system allowing pilots to direct airstrikes without seeing their target. It meant bombing runs could be conducted 24/7.
No one wore any insignia, nor body armor, and there were only small arms to fight off an attack. The place was rigged to explode, as Anaszewicz noted, during one of his visits with Air America. It was the agency's way of ensuring the sophisticated radar equipment would not fall into enemy hands.
Critics say it was a shame the CIA didn't show as much concern for the personnel there in the site's brief history.
The force of several hundred Hmong guerrillas the CIA had paid to help protect the base was no match when 3,000 North Vietnamese commandos and Viet Cong forces came calling.
Anaszewicz was on a mission along the Ho Chi Minh Trail when Lima 85 was overrun on March 11, 1968. Eleven U.S. personnel are listed as killed or captured with five extracted alive.
Three survived only because of the heroism of Chief Master Sgt. Richard L. Etchberger, who provided cover fire as a helicopter lifted off. Etchberger was fatally wounded when return fire pierced that helicopter. He received the Medal of Honor on Sept. 21, 2010.
“It was criminal to leave the technicians and other Americans and their security forces stranded (at Site 85),” writes Timothy Castle in his book “One Day Too Long.” The title chides officials who kept the unit in harm’s way past the point of no return.
The site’s vulnerability was underscored when Russian planes previously had attempted to bomb it in one of the few enemy aerial sorties against any target in the war. The planes were so outdated and slow, Anaszewicz related, that two were downed and another chased off by an Air America helicopter.
He and the rest of his team learned of Lima 85’s loss when they returned to their quarters at Clark Air Force Base in the Philippines.
“We couldn’t talk about it,” said Anaszewicz, adding they always wondered the fate of their friends. Etchberger, he recalled, had a deep voice that made him seem rough and gruff, but Anaszewicz remembers him as anything but.
Anaszewicz mustered out of the Air Force not long after. His mother, he said, thought he had spent most of his tour in Hawaii.
On one of his few R&R trips in the mid-1960s, he and his fellows were spat on and called “baby killers” by young people as they wore their Air Force blue uniforms through the San Francisco airport.
A melee ensued. Taken to the tarmac in handcuffs by MPs, they were freed and told to “catch the first military plane back. It was a different country,” Anaszewicz said.
Fifty years later, Anaszewicz, whose entire family has military ties, doesn't hesitate saying Vietnam was not worth the 58,000-plus casualties.
"(President John) Kennedy got me there; (Lyndon) Johnson kept me there; and (Richard) Nixon got me out," he said ruefully.
Of subsequent wars, he believes retaliation for 9/11 was needed, but "Iraq was wrong."
When his nephew entered the Air Force and was about the see action in the current war, Anaszewicz passed along the one bit of advice he found useful:
"If you didn't come with him, he's not your friend."