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Airmobile: The Helicopter War in Vietnam (Vietnam Studies by James Mesko

By James Mesko

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Dien Bien Phu had fallen to Viet Minh forces in May 1954, and the Geneva Conference to end hostilities and temporarily partition Vietnam ended on July 20 of the same year, a month before we arrived. On November 1, 1954, a major uprising occurred in Algeria that opened the Algerian war for independence, which tore apart the French body politic during our entire stay in France. It seemed clear to everyone but the French that Algeria would one day be independent. But l’Algérie française was such a part of the French psyche—especially in the face of the debacle at Dien Bien Phu—that it took several years of bitter, bloody warfare and a political upheaval in France before Algeria was in fact independent.

It was an exhausting trip—the hours were endless across many time zones, and we were constantly “cleaning up” one visit while preparing for the next. Sometimes I traveled with the presidential party (on the second, “backup” Boeing 707), and sometimes I went ahead commercially, skipping the shorter presidential visits in order to prepare for the longer ones. I flew “advance” to Rome commercially. From Karachi to New Delhi, while the president and his closest advisers flew to Kabul for lunch with the Afghan king, I flew with other staff members on the Columbine, President Truman’s official aircraft, a propeller-driven Constellation that had been kept in the presidential fleet as a backup and taken along on this trip in case the Boeing 707s were unable to get into places like Kabul for such reasons as weather or length of runway.

Delegation to Lisbon. The director of the office, Edwin McCammon Martin, a brilliant, tough, unyielding taskmaster, imposed the highest professional standards on himself and on all those who worked for him. In those days Ed Martin was a distant and forbidding figure. In the much smaller, more simply organized State Department of the 1950s, office directors were fewer in number and had greater responsibilities and far greater direct access to the secretary of state than is the case today. Happily for me, as the most junior of professional staff in the office, there were several layers of protective bureaucracy between Ed Martin and me.

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