Joe Boslet chose an unusual method of avoiding the draft: he enlisted in the Army.
“No one in my family has ever been drafted,” he explains. “All the way back to the Civil War, every war, all volunteers. I wasn’t going to be the first.”
A college graduate with a degree in engineering, Joe hoped that by enlisting he could get into military intelligence. Willing to serve, he hoped he could avoid going to Vietnam.
The Army sent Joe for 16 weeks of counter-intelligence training, but when they sent him to the Defense Language Institute to learn Vietnamese, he knew the game was up. They also promoted him to Sergeant and offered him the chance to attend Officers Candidate School. He declined.
“I’d rather be a smart sergeant than a dumb lieutenant,” he says. “I didn’t know enough to be an officer in the Infantry, which is where I would have ended up. I didn’t want to be responsible for other people’s lives in a place where bad decisions could get someone killed.”
Joe flew into Saigon in October 1970. “We arrived about 30 minutes after a rocket attack and saw all this smoke and confusion, and I thought ‘Holy cow, what am I doing here?’”
Joe was sent to a tiny base near Cambodia and several outlets of the Ho Chi Minh Trail. “I was assigned to MACV, Advisory Team 67 in Phuoc Long Province, Bo Duc District in III Corps, about a 100 miles north of Saigon. We worked with Special Forces out of Bu Dop. We briefed ‘black pajama Delta’ and LRRP (Long Range Reconnaissance Patrols) who moved through our area into Cambodia (and would never be seen again by us). But this was not our primary mission objective, which was to get information on what the ‘bad’ guys were up to in our area.”
Joe also did some work for the Phoenix Program. “We weren’t conducting assassinations. Maybe that stuff was going on elsewhere, but not where we were.”
Joe describes his work as straightforward counter insurgency work. “When the VC (Viet Cong) and NVA (North Vietnamese Army) came through an area, they would set up a shadow government to operate in the area to control it and undermine the legitimate government. My job was to gather intelligence and conduct operations to neutralize that government. As part of that, I ran a network of informants all the way up into Cambodia.
“People gave us information because we paid them in food and other goods,” he adds. “But they wanted us there. They hated the Russians and Chinese and were afraid of the NVA. We treated them OK and gave them stuff. They could engage in commerce because of us. Without us, the NVA would come through on recruiting drives and take their kids, 15-year-old kids. They feared that, they feared the area becoming a combat zone, and they feared a return to the feudal system that existed before we got there, that we discouraged.”
Joe rated the reliability of the informant from A to E, and the quality of the information from 1 to 5. “1A info was really good stuff you could act on. 5E was junk. The C3 info is tricky, and you have to look for corroboration.”
Sometimes Joe had trouble convincing his superiors to trust his information. “One officer didn’t believe me until I told him ‘If I give you bad information I die first.’ He replied, ‘That’s a hell of a good answer.’”
Joe trusted the abilities and intentions of his commanders in Vietnam, especially Gen. Creighton Abrams, the overall commander in Vietnam from 1968 to 1972. But he worried about elected leaders back home who were making decisions based on politics, not sound military strategy. “I wasn’t afraid to die,” he said. “I was afraid of dying stupid.”
Because he spoke the language and respected local customs, Joe got on well with the local population. “I had a good Christian upbringing, so I tried to treat everyone with respect. The folks there appreciated that. I was friends with the district chief, and I even got invited to some Buddhist ceremonies. No other Americans got that.”
Joe work out of a field base with six U.S. Special Forces operative and Vietnamese troops. He lived in a bunker 8 feet underground, a necessity because the base was shelled 8-10 times a month. The Vietnamese troops fell into two categories: Regional Forces/Popular Forces, which he refers to as “Rough Puffs” and Provincial Recon Units, or PRU’s.
“I didn’t think much (of) Rough Puffs,” says Joe. “They were like a local militia. I could go to downtown Carlisle and pick 50 random people and get better soldiers than these guys.”
The PRU’s were a different story. “They were pretty good; I could use them for serious ops. In any other circumstances, though, I wouldn’t advise you to turn your backs on them.”
A “typical” day for Joe began around 4 a.m. “You got up early because the enemy liked to attack early.”
Joe and another NCO, Sergeant First Class Yearman, first saw to the generators and radios, critical gear for the small force given that the nearest U.S. forces were 25 miles away through unsecured territory. They would conduct the morning radio check and sort through the latest intelligence reports.
Then they made breakfast for the troops. “We had C and K rations, but we had some #10 cans of other food, and we traded for local food because the Army rations were pretty bad. I still love Vietnamese food to this day.”
After breakfast, the team would meet to plan the day. Joe was in high demand on field operations because of his ability to speak Vietnamese. The Green Berets did not fully trust their local translators. In fact, when Joe first arrived, he was told not to let them know he spoke Vietnamese so he could listen without their knowing to see if their translations were accurate. “They weren’t always,” Joe says, “and after that they wanted me along a lot to keep tabs on the translation.”
“I saw a fair amount of combat,” he adds. “My CO, Capt. Brian Roberts, taught me what to do, which was first get down; second, say a prayer, but not too long because then you had to get up and do the third thing, which was shoot back.” Joe left Vietnam with two bronze stars, one for valor in combat.
After lunch the team would head out to work on local infrastructure projects. “The business about hearts and minds wasn’t a joke,” he says, “it was real. It felt good to be part of an Army that tried to make people’s lives better. And it was a good way to get their cooperation.” He estimates they spent about 30 percent of their time on operations and 70 percent of their time helping people.
At night, Joe would sometimes go out on operations for the Phoenix Program.
“We didn’t do assassinations, we did raids. We’d go to the village around 2-3 a.m. and roust the guy out of bed and bring him in. I’d sit him down, give him a cigarette and a Coke and talk to him. We wouldn’t hit him, thought the Vietnamese would, but I got my information just talking to them. I could learn a lot from the questions they wouldn’t answer. After a while we sent them up to higher headquarters.”
Joe saw a side of the war that few people saw. “Once a month a yellow airplane would land at the airfield and a guy in business clothes would get out with a briefcase. He was bringing money to bribe the VC to leave the rubber plantations alone.”
Another time, while out doing a damage assessment for an artillery barrage, Joe discovered a bag of white powder in a dead North Vietnamese’s backpack. “It was 99 percent pure pharmaceutical grade cocaine, manufactured in China, sent south for sale to U.S. troops. Anything to undermine our efforts.”
The shadow government operated much like a legitimate government. “We found logs for the timber industry that had Viet Cong tax stamps on them. The VC levied taxes to fund their government just like any other.”
After a year, Joe’s tour of duty came to an end and when he returned to the U.S. Landing in San Francisco, he had his first encounter with anti-war protests. “Things were said to us. We had to be in class A uniform to buy our tickets, but we changed out of uniform as soon as we could.”
Joe got out of the Army. He got job offers from the CIA and DIA, but decided to return to the private sector. Looking back he says, “I’ll never forget how noisy combat is, and the feeling of being angry at the people for shooting at me. It took me about six months to readjust to civilian life. It was easier for me than some guys. I think it helped that I was older than most guys, and that I was deployed with experienced guys who really helped me cope.”
“I had a good term of service,” Joe says. “I worked hard and did my best and got appropriate recognition for my efforts. I loved the guys I was with and still stay in touch with some of them. I drew on my experience throughout my life, and I still do. Sometimes I say, ‘This isn’t bad. Imagine if someone was shooting at you and you hadn’t eaten in two days. That’s bad.’”