4 January 2012  
French, 1st ITT, SHUFLY, & Decision

                                               Anthony F. Milavic                                                Major, United States Marine Corps, Retired 


As 1961 was drawing to a close, I began wondering what would be my next assignment. Stopping by the S-1, the First Sergeant, Master Sergeant Everett "Ed" Harmon, asked if I would like to put in for language school. Sure, I told him; and, having spent two years in Japan, I made Japanese my first choice and Chinese my second choice. When the word got out, about a half-dozen applied from the Marine Corps Cold Weather Training Center (MCCWTC), Pickel Meadow, California and we all drove down to Camp Pendleton to take the Army Language Aptitude Test. This resulted in my being selected to study French. Typically, there was no explanation from Headquarters, USMC why I was assigned French instead of one of my choices: Someone mentioned that it was all about the “needs of the Marine Corps.”  After hearing of my assignment, I asked if this would lead to . . . a trip to Paris or a new Military Occupational Specialty (MOS)? The First Sergeant told me to forget about Paris and it would probably result in a secondary MOS to my primary of 0369 (Infantry Unit Leader). I reluctantly accepted his explanation . . . well, Paris was hard to delete from my fantasies folder.

In early 1962, the United States Army Language School, Presidio of Monterey, California was a dramatic departure from Pickel Meadow. (It is now called,
The Defense Language Institute Foreign Language Center (DLIFLC)”.) Located on a hill overlooking the city of Monterey and a bay of the same name, it was literally surrounded by civilization, contained enlisted living quarters with central heat and air-conditioning, and the head was inside the barracks (the Army called it, "a latrine"). The chow was excellent in quality, but I can’t say the same for quantity when the breakfast ration consisted of one-and-a-half eggs. All told, this place was "Fat City" after Pickel Meadow.  

During our "Welcome Aboard" speech, we were advised that, “It takes 50,000 mistakes to learn a language; so, hurry-up and make your first thousand so you can start on your second thousand!” As an infantryman turned aspiring linguist, those were encouraging words.

The French curriculum was a total immersion course of six months duration structured into six class hours a day—three in the morning and three in the afternoon: as a total immersion course of study, this meant that the use of the English language was banned from the classroom. The instruction centered around something called, “a dialogue,” or if you prefer, a skit, performed by two students from rote memory. These were situational dialogues requiring the student to act out getting a haircut, ordering a meal in a restaurant, taking a trip by train, etc. During the sixth period of the day, the teacher would present the new dialogue to the class. That night, we were expected to put it to memory. The first class the next morning was “truth time.” Pairs of students were brought to the front of the class and, without notes, called to perform the day’s dialogue. After the first performance, students switched roles and did it a second time.
The other four hours of the day were spent on drills and exercises related to the dialogue. The fundamental corrective teaching technique exercised by the teachers during these classroom hours were the commands, «
Non! Répétez après moi!» i.e., “No! Repeat after me!” and «Une fois de plus!» i.e., “Once more!” Reportedly, this technique stems from the way people learn their native languages--by ear.

In spite of the best efforts of
les professeurs who were all native speakers and dedicated superb teachers, I could not memorize a dialogue. This difficulty was exacerbated by the fact that each subsequent dialogue was longer than the preceding one. Morning after morning, I would step up to the front of the class and stammer, mumble, stumble, and incur a barrage of, «Non! Répétez après moi!» It had been so easy to pick up Japanese while in Japan: why was I having so much trouble with French? I concluded that I had learned Japanese through “pillow talk” and French pillows were not part of this school's total immersion curriculum. 

On the Friday before spring break, we were assigned a dialogue for presentation on our first day back from the holidays. My classmates went far and wide to celebrate the break. I stayed at the Presidio and practiced that dialogue. Morning, noon, and night, I practiced that freakin’ dialogue! Walking the streets of Monterey, having breakfast, doing laundry, whatever, I practiced that FREAKIN’ dialogue! The Monday back from spring break, I was called up to the front of the class and paired with our class leader: I aced that ^&*#$%@ dialogue and my partner sounded like me in weeks past! My classmates and the teacher were stunned! I was smug!

In the days and weeks that followed, I memorized every one of them. In learning that dialogue during the spring break, I had gained the confidence that I could do it. I then approached a new dialogue with a sense of ease as opposed to my previous, “I WILL LEARN YOU!” attitude. Oh, I still put in the hours studying and talking to myself as I walked about the campus or in Monterey; but I was no longer tense and I took regular short breaks from study. By extending the total immersion process to all my daily activities, French became my default language. As a consequence, during a visit by some cousins from Chicago, I unintentional entertained them by repeatedly groping for English words to express myself.

On the morning of graduation day, I was sitting in my room waiting for the afternoon ceremony when a messenger came to say that the head of the French Department wanted to see me. I headed to his office thinking the worse—not graduating. On entering his office, I was met by the entire faculty of the French Department. Monsieur Hall asked for everyone’s attention and read the following letter:


After reading the letter, he looked up and said, Sergent Milavic, when you started the course, it was the consensus of les professeurs that you would not finish it. The fact that you came from such a position to graduate in the middle of your class prompts all here to commend you for your achievement.”

They all applauded. 

This presentation caught me completely by surprise and I awkwardly went from teacher to teacher shaking hands and humbly expressing my best, «Merci!»

On the way back to my quarters, Marine-speak bubbled-up and got entangled with French-speak when I thought aloud, «Est-ce que cette grenouille m'a appelé une merde stupide? Eh bien, à la fin, il a dit que j'ai bien fait.» (
“Did that frog call me a ‘dumb shit’? Oh well, in the end, he said I did well.”) It took awhile before I was able to stop talking to myself.

The next stop was the Prisoner Of War Interrogation Course, U. S. Army Intelligence School, Fort Holabird, Baltimore, Maryland. There was a fundamental difference between what we taught back at the MCCWTC in the Evasion, Escape, & Survival (EE&S) Course and what was taught here for U.S. military prisoner of war interrogations. (The term EE&S has been changed to SERE (Survival, Evasion, Resistance, & Escape).) 
Communist interrogations emphasized the acquisition of propaganda and U.S. military interrogations are focused on eliciting what is now called, “actionable intelligence.” Put another way, the Communists wanted the subjects to say what they, the interrogators, knows or believes and the U.S. military interrogator wants the subject to tell him what the
subject knows or believes. This difference in focus, in addition to its illegality, rules out the use of torture. In fact, we were explicitly taught at Fort Holabird that torture was both illegal and ineffective. During my years as a tactical and strategic interrogator, I found this to be true. In any case, my experience as an Instructor-Guide in the EE&S Course gave me a leg up on my fellow students and, on 20 December 1962, I graduated at the head of my class. As the First Sergeant back at Pickel Meadow had predicted, I was assigned a secondary MOS of 8631 (Translator-Interrogator), and ordered to the 1st Interrogation-Translation Team (ITT), G-2, Headquarters, Fleet Marine Force (FMF), Pacific, Camp H. M. Smith, Hawaii.

In January 1963, I stepped off a plane in Hawaii and members of the 1
st ITT were there to greet me. Staff Sergeant Thomas Pentony gave me a Hawaiian lei and a sergeant, whose name I can’t recall and who was French Canadian by birth and education, greeted me in French: I didn’t understand a #@%$ word he said and could not muster a single French word in reply! It had been some four months since I left the language school and I had neither spoken nor heard a French word spoken since then. I would later learn la vérité for linguists: language students who do not go immediately to the country of their studied language lose a huge amount of that learned capability. The degree of that loss grows exponentially as the time away from using the language grows. This phenomenon gave rise to the caution among linguists, “Use it or lose it!” In the years I was associated with linguists, I observed this repeatedly. A first fix for translator-interrogators is to reverse the sequence of how I was trained: the interrogation course first, then language school followed immediately by in-country language employment to fortify that newly-learned language.

Never the less, I joined the French-Vietnamese Sub-Team of 1st ITT and had to wait over a year before I got a language employment assignment. At Camp Smith, we had a language lab for language maintenance training. This amounted to sitting at a tape recorder with earphones and listening to and repeating the recorded drills. Fortunately, I was able to establish a friendship with two Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) captains who were teaching Vietnamese at the U.S. Army’s Schofield Barracks. In addition to Vietnamese, their French was superb and they, in turn, introduced me to the Alliance Française, a worldwide French cultural society. Those associations permitted me to regain and enhance my French capability. Note: this was done on an extra-curricular basis. The only on-site language maintenance training available to the Team was the language lab.

I filled-in time during 1963 by attending the 1st Brigade’s Guerilla Warfare School at Kaneohe Bay and giving lectures on Communist interrogation, indoctrination, and exploitation of prisoners of war. These were taken from my days as an Instructor-Guide at Pickle Meadow:  

From 1962 through 1964, the French-Vietnamese Sub-Team provided linguistic support to Marine Task Element (TE) (Initially, Marine Task Unit (TU) 79.3.5) at Soc Trang then Danang, Vietnam. “SHUFLY” was the code name for both the TU and the TE. The TE numbered some 450 Marines and Sailors organized into three components: a headquarters; Sub Unit 2, Marine Air Base Squadron (MABS)-16; and a helicopter squadron. In early 1964, HMM-364 was the resident squadron and had married-up with the personnel of a Vietnamese squadron. The squadron was programed to turn over its UH-34D helicopters and all other squadron gear to the Vietnamese at the end of June when its personnel left country. They were replaced by HMM-365.

On 1 April 1964, I got my opportunity to serve there for four months as the replacement for Gunnery Sergeant William A. O’Leary. As the TE Interpreter, I was involved in everything requiring communication with the Vietnamese, including the management of over one hundred Vietnamese civilians working for the SHUFLY Marines. Since the French language and culture permeated Vietnamese society, I comfortably handled situations as diverse as: teeth extractions on Montagnard children, a gout operation on an African expatriate and former French Foreign Legionnaire, contracts with Vietnamese commercial companies, liaison with ARVN units, resolving disputes between SHUFLY personnel and local Vietnamese, and . . .

Shortly after arriving at Danang, the SHUFLY compound came under “sniper fire” at night and it continued for my entire tour there. Favorite targets of the “sniper(s)” were the Post Office building and the sign in front of the building. Of course, this caused a great deal of concern on the part of the TE commander, Colonel Robert A. Merchant, who tasked me to look into the problem and requested a security platoon from the 3rd Marine Division on Okinawa. I reported the following to Colonel Merchant:

-The Post Office sign faced a Vietnamese village that was separated from the base by a barbed wire fence.  The fence was approximately 10 feet from the sign. On talking to the villagers on the other side of the wire  fence, I was told that it was not the Viet Cong (VC) but U.S. Marines who were coming into the village at  night to shoot at the Post Office and sign. The villagers gave me the expended 7.62mm brass cases from the  shooters’ M-14  rifles.

-More such brass cases were found at other reported sniper firing locations. I recovered only M-14  brass  cases at those locations.

-These sniper events occurred on just six days a month.

-Regulations authorized $65.00 a month enlisted Combat Pay for every one in the compound if the base received enemy fire on six days of the month.

-SHUFLY had no personnel casualties from these "sniper" attacks.

I suggested to Colonel Merchant that the “snipers” were SHUFLY Marines shooting at the base in order to qualify for Combat Pay. He silently frowned; or, did he grimace? During the preparation of this reminiscence, Major Robert Spitze, USMC (Ret.) informed me that during his service as interpreter at SHUFLY during the last quarter of 1964 the "sniper" incidences were complemented by hand grenades being thrown into the compound on 6-7 occasions resulting in no casualties being sustained by SHUFLY personnel.

Another curious event happened at dusk one day that resulted in correcting a "Lesson Learned." The compound went on alert when it was observed that seemingly all the women from the surrounding villages were on the highway bordering the compound evacuating the area. We had been taught that this was a sure sign that a VC attack was imminent. In reaction, Colonel Merchant dispatched me to confer with the 5th ARVN regiment on our flank. To my enlightenment, the ARVNs said that the women were just going to a religious service. When I asked why the men were not with them, they answered that Vietnamese men were not as religious as their women. That sounded very familiar to me.

On 22 May, fire destroyed the homes of 63 families in Au Tri Vien Village, the dependents housing for the 5
th ARVN Regiment, near the SHUFLY compound. It appeared that the fire was started by the charcoal from a clothes-iron being used by a maid that worked on the base. A near by Special Forces B Team gave medical supplies, the TE provided food and medical services, and MABS Marines rebuilt the house of one of their workers who lived there. The house that the Marines built was the best house in the village and the other villagers wanted the TE to build each of them a similar house. I resolved the issue by providing corrugated tin for roofing material---previously all the houses in the village had straw roofs—to the village chief. He then doled it out to the villagers as they rebuilt. The corrugated tin came from, let’s say, “USAF Midnight Building Supplies.”

On 1 June, I began flying with HMM-364. It seems they were having trouble communicating to the Vietnamese troops during support operations. That was corrected by my presence. Also, I had a curious experience during an operation in the Northern II Corps area that month with an ARVN battalion. During a lull in the helicopter operations, I got into a conversation with the Vietnamese battalion commander. He told me that his American advisors spoke neither French nor Vietnamese and, as a result, little substantive advise passed between them. He also confided that there were VC in the ranks of his unit. When I asked why he didn’t purge the ranks of the VC, he looked at me and said, “You tell me which ones are VC and I will get rid of them!” I then, and many times thereafter, thought: if he, a native Vietnamese officer, can’t tell the difference between the good guys and the bad guys among his fellow native Vietnamese, how are we American aliens going to do it? Absent a distinctive uniform, we could not.  

I would be troubled by other experiences during that early Vietnam tour of duty. 

On visiting a Special Forces A-Team base, I watched a U. S. soldier fire 15 rounds of .223 caliber ammunition into a tethered goat from an AR-15 rifle; moments after the last round hit, the goat fell over. Looking at the dead goat, I saw many little bullet entry-holes on one side; and when we turned him over, I saw many little bullet exit-holes on the other side. Over time, those observations were confirmed and reconfirmed revealing that the stories we were told on
the lethality of the .223 caliber cartridge were fabrications. Those false reports drove the adoption of the .223 caliber cartridge as the 5.56mm NATO cartridge and, ever since, Americans have been sent to war with a cartridge deficient in combat lethality fired by weapons, the M-4/M-16, that are inferior to the enemy’s Kalashnikov rifles in combat reliability. 

On Sunday, 7 June, PFC Fred T. Schreckengost and PFC Robert Lee Greer of MABS-16 rented motorbikes and went out sightseeing. Later that day, they were captured by the VC. Days later, we received information from the ARVN that the VC were willing to swap the Marines. I do not remember if the trade was for money, people or what. In any case, Sergeant Robert Slater, a Vietnamese linguist from the 1st ITT serving with me at SHUFLY, was dispatched with the ARVN to assist in the recovery of the Marines. Later Sergeant Slater reported to me that, as the two Marines were being transported in a boat to the waiting ARVN, one of them stood up and knocked the boatman into the water. As he tried to continue the boat on its course to safety, the boat turned around and headed back to the shore from which it had come. Apparently the Marine was not adept at handling a Vietnamese boat. The two Marines were recaptured and killed in captivity. Much later, both were posthumously promoted to staff sergeant. These men have the unenviable distinction of being the first Marines captured by the enemy during the Vietnam War. 

On 20 May, Major Alfred M. Gray, Jr. arrived at SHUFLY with a composite unit made up of personnel from 1
st Radio Battalion and Company G, 2nd Battalion, 3rd Marines. We billeted them in the Mess Hall until the next morning when they were lifted out to a place called, "Khe Sanh" in the North-West corner of South Vietnam where they joined an ARVN unit. Subsequently, the Marines and ARVN established a defensive perimeter around a 5,000-foot peak of Tiger Tooth Mountain north of Khe Sanh and overlooking the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) that separated North and South Vietnam. Sometime in mid to late June, Major Gray requested a Vietnamese linguist and Sergeant Slater was dispatched to fill that need. On 17 July, the Marine sector of the perimeter on Tiger Tooth was probed. The following is a description of that event taken from, U.S. MARINES IN VIETNAM: THE ADVISORY & COMBAT ASSISTANCE ERA, 1954-1964, HISTORY AND MUSEUMS DIVISION, HEADQUARTERS, U.S. MARINE CORPS, WASHINGTON, D.C.:

“ . . . a Viet Cong force of undetermined size probed the Marine sector of the perimeter. An intense exchange of small arms and automatic weapons fire ensued for nearly two hours. Although the Marines suffered no casualties and could find no dead or wounded Viet Cong the next day, it was apparent that their location had been compromised.” 

Days later, Sergeant Slater returned to Danang and said that the “probe” was from rock-throwing apes: Apes that were thereafter called, “Rock-Apes.”

At the end of July, I left Vietnam with a poignant memento. Days after arriving at SHUFLY, I took the below photograph of a little girl holding and staring at a strand of the barbed wire fence that separated us—her village from the SHUFLY compound—and her pained expression over the sight. It seemed as though she saw that barbed wire fence as a metaphor for the war and her pained expression ominously epitomized my own feelings of some of those early experiences described above. During my subsequent two tours of duty in Vietnam, that picture was a recurring haunting memory.

On returning to Hawaii, I noted that new members had joined the team: most notably, Staff Sergeant Anthony Lauretta and Sergeant Robert Spitze, French linguists; and Captain Donald G. Cook, a Chinese linguist. Sergeant Spitze was soon on his way to SHUFLY and Captain Cook served as the Commander, Chinese Sub-Team as he looked forward to a 30-day Temporary Additional Duty (TAD) stint with the Vietnamese Marine Corps. The captain had heard about my Pickel Meadow experience and the EE&S lectures I had given to the command the previous year and borrowed my lesson plans to study. On 31 December 1964, Captain Cook was wounded and captured by VC/NVA forces while serving with the
th Vietnamese Marine Battalion. He reportedly died in 1967 while in captivity and was subsequently promoted to the rank of colonel and awarded the Medal of Honor, For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty while interned as a Prisoner of War by the Viet Cong in the Republic of Vietnam during the period 31 December 1964 to 8 December 1967.”

After invigorating my French capability at SHUFLY, I was hired by the Kaimuki Community School For Adults to teach French at night. When it came time to leave the islands, I had already led my students into a second semester. It was an emotional evening when I turned them over to my replacement,
Mademoiselle Denis,
a native French woman. I have often thought how ironic it was that I started this linguistic quest as a student of French bringing up the rear of a class and finished it three years later as a teacher of French leading a class. 

During the twilight of my tour of duty with 1st ITT, I had two experiences that were, sequentially, comforting and career changing:

In November 1964, the Camp’s namesake,
General H. M. “Howlin’ Mad” Smith, USMC (Ret.), came to Hawaii to serve as the Guest of Honor for our Marine Corps Birthday celebration at the invitation of the Commanding General, FMF, Pacific, Lieutenant General Victor “The Brute” Krulak, USMC. During a radio interview upon his arrival in Hawaii, General Smith was asked how current Marines stacked up to Marines of his day? He said: “During the First World War, we had to kick them out of the trenches; During the Second World War, we had to lead them across the beaches; Today, just show these Marines what needs to be done and they’ll take care of it.” Years later, I was comforted in recalling those observations when I heard disparaging remarks about Vietnam-era Marines from those with shallow experience.

In mid-to-late 1964, the Marine Corps changed the 8631 MOS for enlisted Marines to 0251 and gave everyone in the field an opportunity to accept 0251 as their primary MOS. At the time, the Corps did not offer commissioned officers the option of converting to a comparable primary 0250 MOS. We NCOs were becoming the Corps’ ONLY career full-time linguists. Our ITT leadership would, therefor, continue to be “here-today-gone-tomorrow” part-time linguists. Given that situation, I refused to change my primary MOS from 0369 (Infantry Unit Leader) to 0251 (Translator-Interrogator). I was counseled that in refusing the change, I was refusing permanent Pro-Pay (Professional Pay). My response was the obvious: “I’m not in the Marine Corps for the money.” Then my team commander, Captain Richard K. Biel, said that I would be sent back to the infantry. The only response I could think of was the four-letter word that begins with “F” that I had learned at Pickel Meadow for speaking to officers and civilians, “Fine!” That decision resulted in my being ordered to
 the 2nd Marine Regiment, 2nd Marine Division, Camp Lejeune, North Carolina. I requested to Headquarters, USMC that my assignment be changed to a unit, any unit, in the Pacific area; e.g., the 1st or 3rd Marine Divisions. I sensed that South-East Asia was going to get very active in 1965 and I wanted to be there. Also, I thought it would save the Corps the money of sending me from Hawaii to the East coast of the United States. My request was denied and I received another “needs of the Marine Corps” lecture. As fate would have it, this assignment to the 2nd Marine Division precipitated an even bigger turn in my career than language school had three years before.    


General Holland M. Smith, USMC


1. HQ, SUB UNIT 2, MABS-16; 2. SICK BAY; 3. HQ, SHUFLY; 4. HQ, HMM-364/-365; 5. 5TH ARVN REGT AREA;









Marine Corps Air Facility, Futema, Okinawa  Paper




1ST ITT, FALL 1964