After rising above a snowbound Detroit airport in mid-winter and flying to the California coast, Bill Filbin boarded a military command flight in San Francisco. He had 32 hours to his final destination, but as the only passenger not dressed in a military uniform, he knew much more than he could talk about on the long flight back to Vietnam.
The year was 1971, and Bill was no stranger to Asia. He had already served a year in Korea after the Pueblo spy ship was captured by the North Koreans, and continuing his career in naval intelligence, he volunteered for another year in Vietnam. His present journey to Indochina, however, was in civilian clothes and as the airliner would travel to Hawaii, Guam, Bangkok, and ultimately Saigon, Bill would have time to speculate on the shroud of secrecy that led to his return between the many visits from his fellow passengers who were also headed for Vietnam.
“You’ve been here before—right?” the questions would always begin. “I mean, your tan, it’s winter, and you have the military buzz cut. What I want to know is, do they really put ground glass in your dinks if they don’t like you? And do the M-16 rifles jam when they get dirty or wet?”
Like a priest in a confessional, Bill would sit in his airliner seat and listen as many of the young first-timers to Vietnam would slip into the seat beside him and voice their fears.
The mysterious passenger in civilian clothes had his own questions for the future, but until the airliner landed in Saigon, Bill could only reflect on the series of events that led to his departure from a snowy winter home in Michigan.
A few years earlier in 1967, Bill Filbin became the youngest U.S. Customs Broker licensed by the treasury department. To obtain this position, Bill’s background was investigated thoroughly. Not only were his records from school scrutinized, but his family was checked out, his neighbors were asked about his habits, and the friends of his friends queried clandestinely. The treasury department checked everything.
To become a U.S. Customs Broker—an inspector of items shipped into the United States requiring overseas duty tax—a top-secret security clearance was required. When Bill joined the US Naval Reserves, he was extremely well received as he was already vetted with a top-secret security clearance.
After his naval assignment in Korea and his subsequent first tour of serving on and supplying US naval riverboats in Vietnam, Bill was excited to return home after over eleven months in Saigon. The ribbon on his beret was already cut indicating to everyone that he was a short–timer and would soon be headed stateside. After almost two full years in Asia, Bill had no idea what was coming next, or that his most interesting, exciting, and dangerous experiences in Indochina were just about to begin.
During a hot a steamy morning on the Saigon River, Bill was at work at the naval shipyard when an American stranger approached wearing dark glasses, an Australian bush hat, and civilian tropical khakis.
“Mr. Filbin,” the stranger began with a statement that was not a question. “I’m with the US embassy.”
“Who died?” Bill’s response was ordinary, as the deaths of family members stateside were reported by embassy staffers.
“No one,” the bush hat tilted. “I’m here to ask if you would like to work for the US embassy, here in Saigon.”
“Are you kidding? Filbin looked to the stranger with the dark glasses. “I’m a short–timer!”
“Yes, you have seventeen days left. That’s why I am here. I know that you have two years in Asia. You have a top-secret clearance, you’re single, and you fit the profile perfectly for what we need at the embassy.”
“I don’t think so—I’m just really ready to go home.”
“Right now, you make $500 a month, take home. If you accept this offer, I can triple that money with an extra five hundred in Vietnamese currency every mouth.”
“That sounds tempting”
“Let me buy you dinner, and we can talk about it.” The dark glasses came off and the staffer looked sincere. “What do you have to lose? It’s only dinner and I’ll send a driver. By the way, my name is Mr. Smith.”
Later that day, when the sun was low over Saigon, Bill was waiting as instructed when a black Galaxy 500 approached with purple privacy curtains covering the rear windows.
Before the driver could hop out and offer assistance, Bill’s arm was in for a shock when he tried to open the back door. The black Galaxy had heavily armored bulletproof doors, sandbags to sit on, and a steel–reinforced roof. This was in case of driving over tossed hand grenades or having one land on the top of the sedan.
After a drive through the old city, Bill arrived at a walled French Villa and once again met Mr. Smith. Dinner was a seven-course meal served by elegant servants with Mr. Filbin and Mr. Smith the only guests.
“In addition to the extra pay,” Mr. Smith indicated the elegant surroundings and the efficient staff at the villa. “There would be many benefits to the type of job we would be offering. You don’t have to say yes right now, but let me give you a billet card. You can go back to the states, see your mom and dad in Detroit, and think about it a while.
“If you decide you don’t want the job,” Smith continued. “Don’t worry about it. If you do, call the telephone number on the card and identify yourself with the number on the back. You have 30 days after you land in Michigan.”
After another ride in the armored Galaxy, seventeen more days in Saigon, and 32 hours to Detroit, Bill was up to his boot-tops in snow and looking at the billet card every day. After arriving in San Francisco, the first American he saw spit on his uniform and after a visit to a local bar in Detroit, a fistfight erupted over his being in the military.
The next day—the 29th after landing in Detroit—Bill called the number on the card from his mom and dad’s snow-covered home.
“Good Morning,” a cheerful voice answered, “Central Intelligence Agency.”
After believing he had the wrong number, he tried again but when the same voice answered and then asked for the number on the card, Bill was transferred to the Indochina desk and asked how soon he could be ready to return to Saigon—this time in civilian clothes.
To be continued next week. . .