Leaked: The Secret History of Operation Hollow Men (Part 1)

Here is a story that has waited patiently for many years to be told. Nearly one year after Saphan Loy was launched, complete with the breaking of a champagne bottle over an antiquated hard drive, we are honoured to present an exclusive feature story that has been years in the making. With the sad passing of one of Saphan Loy’s dearest drinking companions and confidants over at the Madrid Bar in Patpong (we’ll call him “Mike”), and the modest Buddhist ceremony at a small temple in Kanchanaburi that marked his entry into the next world, we can “safely” begin to tell it here for the first time without fear of compromising “Mike’s” identity, his extensive network of contacts, or his activities prior to passing away.

Like any complex narrative, the story itself unfolded over many nights at the Madrid and in the strictest of confidence. There was, however, a tacit understanding that by hook or by crook, Mike wanted the story to be known for whatever personal reasons. Occasionally told in a drunken haze or two, with a moll or two straddling his lap, and at other times retold soberly over cups of coffee at out-of-the way cafes during the monsoon rains, Mike animated the story for Saphan Loy with the conviction that its complexity would be unraveled before esophageal cancer got the better of him. It is in his memory and honour that the story of Operation Hollow Men is hereby recounted.

In 1964, Mike, an intelligent young American graduate student, a bit idealistic but studious and quite obviously smart, and well on his way to earning  a PhD in applied statistics, was approached to join a company of CIA officers and US military servicemen in developing an extension of the program called the Psychological Operations Group, or OP 39, for the dissemination of “black psychological operations (or psy-ops)” within the Southeast Asian theatre during the lead-up to the Vietnam War. These operations fell under the umbrella of the semi-mythical Studies and Observations Group (SOG), a covert effort that coincided with increases in military presence in Indochina. He explained,

When they approached me about the job, I was really just a kid. I told my father about it, and he was all gung-ho, but that was just his generation talking. So I took the job. It beat the prospect of teaching at a university. It allowed me to travel. Because I didn’t have too many contacts anyway, no girlfriend at home, it wasn’t too difficult to explain away my sudden disappearance. My folks just told everyone that I was doing missionary work, or something like that, which seemed believable enough, I guess. My parents were both active in the local Presbyterian church, although certainly not zealots or anything. And by ‘active’, I mean they brought a pie or cake to the Sunday morning bake sales and made significant donations at Christmas time.

Mike, who was fully supportive of US efforts at the time from a political standpoint (having come from a conservative and relatively wealthy family in New England), agreed to offer his services and was therefore sent to an intensive language training program maintained by the US government in Montana, where he breezed through his coursework in Thai, Laotian, Hmong, Lahu, Khmer, Vietnamese and Mandarin Chinese. His facility with difficult and obscure Asian languages attracted the attention of the top brass at the CIA, and, although Mike never confirmed it, it seems his work on OP 39 became more complicated: although he wore the uniform of a serviceman, his checks would come from Langley for the rest of his natural life.

In Montana, they actually imported all of these Asian teachers. It was kind of funny to see them out in God’s country and dealing with the harsh winters. But the agency provided them with meals, lodging, healthcare, you name it. They even had their own cuisine whipped up in the mess hall so they wouldn’t get too homesick. The smallest town was like 45 minutes away and we were out on this ranch in beautiful country surroundings. The trout fishing and the fresh air were incredible. The place had its own electrical generating system and telecommunications capabilities, water filtration system, the works. There was nothing else to do out there other than study languages. Because I was pretty good at Hmong, I thought I’d end up in Laos up in the hills. But no dice. 

Mike seemed to enjoy his senescence in Thailand, like the scores of government pensioners and retirees who find themselves in Pattaya, Chiang Mai, or even Bangkok today. He maintained a modest home on the Thonburi side of the Chao Phraya, and, while he had a Thai wife several years ago who since returned to her native village to take care of an ailing mother, Mike had a series of “girlfriends” (all of whom he called “Lek”) who would tend to him, cook his meals, do his laundry, take care of the house, chase away monitor lizards, pick the mangoes. Typical arrangement found anywhere throughout the Kingdom. “All on the US taxpayer’s dime,” he would sometimes say, chuckling to himself.

When Mike and I would meet at the Madrid, it had at some point become an almost daily ritual. He would order his steak and eggs and nurse a glass of house red wine, and Saphan Loy would order a beer (or two) and simply listen. He rarely allowed me to take notes, so we would have to rush home (traffic permitting) and hit the keyboard quickly in an effort to ensure that all the details were freshly preserved. Admittedly, there were parts of Mike’s story that were difficult to believe, the details really straining the limitations of what I had always assumed was an objectively verifiable “reality”. And I told him so. After all, Saphan Loy enjoyed watching documentaries about the Vietnam War, and none of this stuff was ever included in those grainy newsreels and highly polished productions that appear with frequency on public television stations.

One of the realities of the American effort in Indochina was the logistical complexity that the war really represented. Diplomatically, militarily, culturally, the place was a literal jungle of confusion, conflicting ideologies, divergent loyalties, and geopolitical maneuvering. For the boys who showed up bravely to do their part, the war required an astonishing level of preparation. Even the guys Mike worked with were a bit overwhelmed by the tasks they were assigned. But there was something in the work that Mike really relished. He never shied away from a challenge. And he always spoke glowingly of the guys he worked with at different phases of the operation.

The thing you have to remember about the operation was how the guys came together from different parts of the agency with different skill sets. Our psychiatric team was second-to-none. They were essentially building better mouse-traps. They knew where to put the cheese, and how to ensure that their guys kept coming back for more. It isn’t too hard to manipulate behaviour, but if you want to repeat your success rates, you have to take certain measures, tweak the results ever-so-slightly, measure again, then change it up a bit.

Operation Hollow Men was a spin-off of Operation Humidor (another OP 39 project). Mike reported that the paper trail between the two operations was so thoroughly eradicated that, over time, few people in Operation Humidor even knew of the existence of the Hollow Men team. In essence, Mike’s project had become semi-autonomous. Sure, Langley had a direct say in some of its activities. But for the most part, the Hollow Men team was like an independent cell operating under such deep cover that, according to Mike, at one point he no longer knew what part of the story was true himself. Nor did he care. Living as he did in a world of fiction really suited him. 

Operation Hollow Men was comprised of a team of several men and a few women who specialized in a wide variety of operative tasks. While Operation Humidor worked on spreading misinformation deep inside Northern Vietnamese territory and creating fictional insurrections, Operation Hollow Men had an entirely different set of instructions. The team included clinical psychiatrists, behavioural experts, urban planners, linguists and biochemists. The head of the Hollow Men team was a guy they all called “St. Elmo.”

Based in Bangkok, St. Elmo was the “go to” guy with the Thai government and the local Chinese business establishment. Fluent in Thai, Hainanese and the Teochew dialects of Chinese, St Elmo was charged with the first stages of Operation Hollow Men. The idea was fairly simple. The behavioural scientists and clinical psychiatrists were tasked with a two-pronged objective: first, to alleviate battlefield stress by designing “R&R” experiences in friendly countries (Thailand, Japan and the Philippines) in urban environments that would not have a long-term impact on the American and allied soldiers either morally or chemically; and secondly to recreate similar conditions for the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) regulars and VC operatives at remote locations deep in North Vietnam, with some coordinates placed even in Laos and Cambodia.

St. Elmo is quite a character. He is a cartographer by training. Maps were his bag, before GPS systems and the NGA and all that. He could negotiate with the Chinese Thai community directly. He was shrewd. And of course his budget was limitless. So when he made proposals, they were rarely turned down. Before the US became directly involved in the local markets, these small-time guys were selling cigarettes and cans of Budweiser individually, or taking wagers on the cock fights. Anyway, St. Elmo loved the whole thing. From start to finish. From setting up the first bars once the tactical team decided on placement and design, to hand-selecting the colour of the women’s bikinis and now notorious number tags, he was the guy. The Lahu women would sometimes call him the “Papa Roach”, but why that is, I have no idea.

Throughout the conflict, the NVA and the Viet Cong treated battlefield stress with a potent sedative manufactured in China that tranquilized the soldiers in a “clean” way. Taken with rice whiskey, the medications soothed weary soldiers and allowed them to sleep restfully without any detrimental residual effects. The medication also eased sexual cravings. According to Mike, one of the ideas that they originally floated was a covert attempt to interdict the pharmaceutical supply lines from China that the NVA troops had regular access to. Interrupting this supply with adulterated pills would be a sure-fire way to reduce effectiveness among NVA troops and the VC. While efforts were made during intense aerial bombardments along the Ho Chi Minh Trail to pinpoint the supply lines from the Chinese pharmaceuticals factory directly, penetrating the chemical and pharmaceutical distribution network was (and remains to this day in the region) extremely difficult, labor-intensive, and expensive.

Meanwhile the NVA intelligence collection capabilities were unsurpassed and growing more entrenched by the day. Having infiltrated the highest reaches of South Vietnam’s political and civil structures, the NVA intelligence apparatus made use of a wide range of strategies that challenged St. Elmo’s planning capacities. SOG was left in the intractable position of having to emulate the NVA intelligence-gathering tactics themselves rather than dedicate the necessary resources to effect projects “from scratch”. One of the signature ways that North Vietnam collected intelligence in Saigon was to simply open a go-go bar, massage parlour, nightclub, or a brothel that appealed to American servicemen, off-duty intelligence analysts, and even foreign embassy staff, then make use of dancers, masseuses and other comely bar girls to entice and seduce them. These linguists, hand-selected females who were often trained in Maoist China, used a “broken” English to signify a lack of understanding and to disguise their true identities. The reality was far more complex. Often intoxicated, the off-duty US and allied government personnel in Saigon would talk to each other and share sensitive information under the mistaken assumption that the substance of their conversations was not completely understood by these highly skilled intelligence operatives.

An Image from Saigon in 1972. The Kiwi Club.

By duplicating the North Vietnamese intelligence collection methodology, Operation Hollow Men began to take shape in Bangkok. The team mobilized small entertainment troupes that would set up shop in proximity to NVA and VC troop installations that dotted the Southeast Asian theatre of war. By using simple karaoke machines, basic stereo systems (either cleverly disguised as Chinese manufacture, or “repurposed” war materiel), and a modified rice whiskey that stimulated the libido (as well as the desire to “talk”), Operation Hollow Men was able to beat the Vietnamese at their own game and to achieve a modicum of success for the intelligence community.

While the mobile entertainment units were deployed in the field in Northern Vietnam and elsewhere, St. Elmo was busy negotiating with the Thai Chinese community to set up a “safe haven” for US troops on R&R in Bangkok proper. He scouted desirable locations in what was then mostly rural coconut plantations along the khlongs that spidered out from the city center. Sure, the military had its concessionaires outside of the airfields like U-Tapao, but these were rather simple affairs staffed mostly with young women who wanted to marry a farang. The Hollow Men team’s plans had envisioned an entire district in Bangkok, and later multiple districts, designed by urban planners and behavioural specialists, in which to establish entertainment venues that would ultimately serve several functions. Insofar as the Thais would allow such districting within the city was a different matter entirely. Nonetheless, St. Elmo was instrumental in selecting the Patpong district as well as Soi Cowboy as special economic zones for the purposes of Operation Hollow Men. When the Thai government objected to additional sites and insisted on the reconfiguration of New Petchaburi Road, a small fishing village on the Eastern seaboard was selected as a viable alternative.

It was funny, because normally the US Army Corps of Engineers is assigned to setting up bases and field locations. But the agency saw that as a potential compromise. Too many people to trust, basically. So after the urban planners and behavioral specialists designed these miniature mouse-traps, we had to hand-select a group of guys from the Navy, telecom engineers who were a crazy bunch of guys. They basically would rig up anything, sound systems, radio beacons, whatever, then spend the night drinking. These guys didn’t care what we were doing. They basically set up the juke joints out in the jungles and in Bangkok too, and the agency would do the rest.

First, according to Mike, they needed to create a safe and effective way to deliver sedatives and related psychotropics that the US had designed (and that a large Swiss pharmaceuticals firm [NAME REDACTED] was producing on schedule per a lucrative US government contract.) Second, the US government wanted to ensure that its service members were not lured into similar projects established by the enemy in regions that were considered outside of the military’s purview thus harder to monitor, including remote jungle outposts or Potemkin-like villages nestled near the secret airfields. By staffing these sites with compliant and docile Lahu women under the authority of a Thai “mamasan”, the military ensured that the sensitive matter of “comfort women”, for which the Imperial Japanese had been well-known, was dispensed with out of hand. And thirdly, by creating a revenue stream for the Thai government and its intermediaries, the US was ensuring that its various interests in the Kingdom would be protected. In essence, by converting the US dollar to Thai baht (via private arrangements between servicemen and the Lahu women) in these specially designed military districts, Thailand’s treasury was receiving a generous cash “gratuity.” This cash exchange was entirely separate from the clubs that were directly controlled by the military and that issued its own currency in the form of redeemable “tokens”, usually smaller monetary amounts that could be traded for bottles of beer or cigarettes.

To be continued.

The View from Above


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: