“I gave eight years of my life to the Vietnam War, ” writes Frank Tapparo (center in photo) from his home in Arlington, VA, and he regards the first years of his Vietnam service as “…the most interesting assignment in my professional career—and I’ve had some good ones.”
Tapparo is one of the Vietnam Veterans on our January 2018 Tour (50th Anniversary of TET).. Join them for their first hand accounts as they travel through Vietnam. Along with military history, enjoy seascapes, scenery, culture and heritage…of a country rebuilt since the Vietnam War.
Tapparo, who holds a chemical engineering degree from MIT and an MBA from Tulane, entered the Vietnam War in 1967, but his military service began in 1960.
“I was in ROTC in college and was a Distinguished Military Graduate, which gave me the opportunity to accept a Regular (like West Point) commission versus a Reserve commission that was normal for ROTC. I was assigned to the Chemical Corps. After accepting a Regular commission, I had to serve the first two years of a three-year active duty obligation in one of the combat arms—Infantry, Armor, or Artillery. I chose Infantry and was assigned to Infantry basic school at Ft. Benning, GA.
Being a Chemical Officer from a “nerd” school, I needed all the “merit badges” I could get to show I was as much an infantryman as the rest, so opted to go to both Airborne and Ranger schools, which I did. I was at Benning for basic, Airborne, and Ranger schools from September 1960 until April 1961—getting married along the way—before heading to a mechanized infantry battalion of the 4th Armored Division in Germany. I would have liked to have been assigned to one of the airborne divisions, but I wanted more to go to Europe, as did my bride.”
In 1962, stationed in Germany, he recalls first hearing about the escalating tensions in the Vietnam War.
“…a call came to our unit in Germany for volunteer advisors to go to Vietnam. They wanted single guys, and I was married so I did not volunteer. Two years later, in August 1964, I was flying back to division HQ listening to the Armed Forces Radio on my headset when I heard of the Gulf of Tonkin incident.”
A year later, the military buildup in Vietnam began, with 3500 Marines deployed to protect a US Air Base in South Vietnam. In the meantime, Tapparo completed his graduate degree in 1967 and “was looking forward to a Vietnam assignment and was somewhat disappointed when I was sent to Washington instead.”
His eight year Vietnam War experience was about to begin… in a leftover WWII building at the Naval Observatory in Washington D.C.
He was selected to be part of the Defense Communications Planning Group (DCPG), an ace team of scientists and strategists, military and civilian, with an oversight committee that included two Nobel laureates, to design and develop “McNamara’s Wall.”
McNamara’s Wall was not a physical wall, but a “virtual wall” – the first real-time, computer-driven surveillance operation program used in war. Journalists and skeptics of the project dubbed it “McNamara’s Wall” for Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, who had presented the idea to President Johnson in spite of apprehension from the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Nevertheless, Tapparo and roughly two hundred twenty five members of the DCPG were dedicated to bringing emerging computer technologies to the battlefield, in the form of electronic surveillance along the Ho Chi Minh Trail (HCMT).
The HCMT was not a single “trail” but a web of nearly 10,000 miles of footpaths, waterways and truck routes, built from North Vietnam to South Vietnam through the neighboring countries of Laos and Cambodia. The Vietcong and the North Vietnamese Army used the HCMT to move vehicles, supplies and troops, even storing caches of ammunition in hand dug tunnels along the route.
Detecting and destroying even small portions of the trail would interrupt or stop the delivery of supplies and munitions to enemy troops, BUT American forces on the ground were forbidden to cross the border of Laos and Cambodia since those countries were officially declared “neutral.”
However, ground artillery and aerial bombardment could reach the HCMT….. if only the movement of the enemy could be detected. Enter the DCPG!
Tapparo describes the electronic barrier system as two parts… “one obvious, the other clandestine. The obvious part of the barrier was a system of fortifications and detection devices that were to be erected along the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) separating North and South Vietnam. This barrier was never completed.
The second part of the system involved the development and placement of air-dropped (and later hand-emplaced) electronic sensors—seismic, acoustic, and magnetic—to track the movement of trucks and personnel in Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam.”
This latter part, the sensor placement, was to be “installed” along the HCMT.
Tapparo’s responsibility was to train soldiers “in combat units how to emplace the sensors and to operate the monitoring equipment.”
“The hand emplaced sensors ranged in size from a shoebox to some the size of a finger. They were generally buried and covered with surrounding vegetation. An emplacement may have been in as little as a hundred yards for foot traffic or maybe a half-mile for vehicles.” The air dropped sensors “looked like small projectiles, about a yard long and few inches in diameter.”
Sensors were generally placed in three groups. The first group transmitted an alert to the monitors; the second a confirmation; the third was where the artillery would engage the personnel. The same approach was used for truck traffic although the attack on the HCMT would be by air, not ground artillery.
“Most hand emplacements were done at night, or the teams would go into the area at night…. generally part of an operation, so it could be anywhere from a platoon (40 men) to a battalion (900 men).”
Tapparo’s “nerd” job was not without risks, taking him into the jungles and along the dikes of rice paddies.
“On the trips to Vietnam I worked with most major Army, Navy, Marine and special operations units in all four corps/military regions. I went out with long-range reconnaissance patrols, sailed with PBRs (Patrol Boat, River) on the Mekong, and instructed Marine units from Con Thien to Danang on the use of the electronic sensors. “
My final working trip (there was to be one more trip… for another article) to ‘Nam on DCPG business involved finding a spot for a foliage penetration radar near the Cambodian border in the vicinity of the Mekong. This trip, incidentally, occurred at the time of Ho Chi Minh’s death and when there was a short ceasefire.
Flying near the border we encountered machine gun fire that caused me to reevaluate what I was asking the Huey pilot to do. To make a long story short, we did find a spot for the radar, which was emplaced after I left DCPG, although the position was overrun shortly after its installation. Testing that radar had previously involved investigating test sites in Florida and Louisiana, an interesting adventure in itself.”
Reflecting on this first years of his Vietnam service, he muses “I had a lot of control (and money) over my projects, a heady assignment for a captain and, later, a junior major.”
Did he have anxiety or reluctance about being sent to Vietnam, as protest marches against the war were on the rise?
“I was among those, like my officer colleagues, who had no reluctance, particularly at the onset of the conflict. A lot of us began to have doubts about the way the war was being run, but we never doubted our duty to our Country or its leadership.”