Feature: Maj. Peter Dewey, America's First Vietnam Casualty

06 September 2005

U. S. Adolph

Like the last, the first U.S. casualty in Vietnam is shrouded in controversy, mystery and political intrigue. Even the statement "the first," like "the last," is open to question. You won't find his name on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, nor will it appear on any Missing in Action list, even though his body was never recovered.

However, there is little doubt that Major A. Peter Dewey was the first American soldier to be struck down by Communist bullets in what would later become America's longest and most controversial war.

Dewey's main purpose when he arrived in Saigon on the 4th September 1945 was to arrange for the repatriation and evacuation of U.S. POWs being held there by the Japanese. When he landed at Tan Son Nhut Airport on that first day of what were to be the last three weeks of his life, American fighting men had been involved in an air and naval war with the Japanese in the skies and water of Indochina for nearly three years. Even the harbour of Saigon had been raided and bombed by U.S. carrier based aircraft.

The OSS team that Major Dewey headed, code name Project EM BANKMENT, was to locate 214 Americans at two Japanese camps in Saigon. The majority of them had been held in Burma for most of the war and employed, as slave labour building a railroad line that was to cross the Kwai River, later made famous by the movie Bridge On The River Kwai.

Camp Poet in Saigon held five POWs, and Camp 5-E, just outside of Saigon, contained 209. Of these, 120 were from the 2nd Battalion, 131st Field Artillery of the 36th Division, a National Guard antiaircraft outfit from Texas that had landed in Java by mistake and had been captured intact. They would later become known as the “Lost Battalion.” Of the remaining POWs, 86 were survivors of the cruiser Houston, sunk on the night of 28-29th February 1942 off the coast of Java. Their fate was also unknown until Dewey liberated them. The other eight were airmen shot down over Indochina.

Peter Dewey was born in 1916 in Chicago, had been educated in Switzerland, St. Paul's School (London), Yale (where he studied French history) and Virginia Law, and head worked as a journalist in the Paris office of the Chicago Daily News. While reporting on the German invasion of France for his paper, Dewey decided to become more directly in volved. In May 1940, during the Battle of France, he enlisted as a lieutenant in the Polish Military Ambulance Corps with the Polish army then fighting in France.

This was somewhat to be expected for his father, Charles S. Dewey, who was a conservative, anti-New Deal isolationist and former Republican congressman from Illinois, had at one time been an international banker with the Northern Trust Company of Chicago as a financial advisor to the Polish government. After World War I, he had played an important part in the establishment of the modern Polish fiscal system.

After the Petain government capitulated, Dewey somehow escaped to Portugal through Spain where he was placed in an internment camp. Later, when he was released, he returned to the U.S. and wrote a book entitled, As They Were, about the French defeat. Not able to stay away from the action for long, he then joined Nelson Rockefeller's Coordinator of Inter-American Affairs as that agency's liaison to de Gaulle's Free French.

In August 1942, Dewey entered the U.S. Army as a lieutenant and served as an intelligence officer with the Air Transport Command in Africa. Finding that he had been rejected as “unsuitable” in a request to transfer to OSS, he took his case to the head of that organization, an old family friend, General Bill Donovan. After his second try was successful, he lad a parachute team of three Americans and seven Frenchmen in August 1944 in to South Western France. The operation, named ETOILE, was to provide coordination between the Allied commander of the invasion of southern France (DRAGOON) and the left-wing maquisards along the Spanish Republican frontier. These forces, it was known, were under Spanish Republican command and were planning for an invasion of Franco Spain as soon as the Germans left. In circumstances that Dewey would find repeated in Saigon, the political delicacy of the task was compounded by the many different organizations of the region oriented in every which direction. There was even some concern that the Gaullist Etoile mission would be in as much danger from “friendly” forces as from the Wehrmacht.

With Dewey in the B-17 that departed on 10th August 1944 from Blida Airport outside Algiers, was Jack Hemingway, son of Ernest Hemingway. In what must be considered on of the oddities of gear ever taken on a combat operation behind enemy lines, Jack jumped with his trout rod strapped to his leg. However, considering the terrain that they parachuted in to (a thirty mile wilderness at the headwaters of the Loire) perhaps the fishing gear was intended for survival.

At the beginning, the operation started of badly. Dewey and his group landed over 20 miles from their intended destination. Then the linkup with the second drop (consisting of the French contingent for the operation) was not completed until five days later. The linkup problems were compounded by the Gaullist team losing their radio during the jump. It was only after they had “borrowed” a radio from local peasants and arranged for an emergency re-supply that the entire team go together.

By now it was 15th August, DRAGOON D-day, and Dewey was to learn that his original mission had been changed due to the undreamed success of the invasion assault ashore. His task now was to concentrate on intelligence gathering on the left flank of the DRAGOON forces in their movement up the Rhone Valley toward the southern German border.

Dewey, with the help of the maquis, was able to find the headquarters of the Corps Franc de la Montagne Noire. As a result, Mission Estoile's first intelligence report was also one of its most important: Information on the details of the Wehrmacht's withdrawal was immediately transmitted to the invasion fleet. U.S. carrier based Hellcat fighter-bombers were able to intercept these forces with devastating results. It was also learned that the Germans would not stand in the French Alps as had been expected, but on the German Rhine.

Soon afterwards, Dewey's team began a 600-mile journey through enemy territory in what was to become an OSS legend. Travelling in two captured German Volkswagen staff cars with an escort of maquisards, they sent back valuable intelligence as well as destroying two German Mark III tanks and capturing one (it was given to the maquis to use) along with nearly 400 German prisoners. It was also one of Dewey's reconnaissance teams that replaced the American Flag after its several years in absence on the American Embassy in the capital of the French New Order, Vichy.

On the 5th September, Dewey and his team met Donovan at Seventh Army forward headquarters. Dewey was greeted with the promise that he would be made a lieutenant colonel, a promise that was to be kept shortly after his death just over a year later.

Returning to Washington in October, Dewey worked on the OSS history project under the direction of New Yorker columnist Geoffrey Hellman. In July 1945, he was selected to head up the OSS team that would enter Saigon after the Japanese surrender. But difficulties arose when British Major General Douglas D. Gracey, commander of occupation forces in Indochina south of the sixteenth parallel (the Potsdam Conference split the reoccupation of Indochina between the British and the Chinese) objected to an American presence and sought to bar their participation. However, Admiral Lord Louis Mountbatten intervened, and Dewey's team of OSS men was allowed to leave Ceylon for Saigon on the 1st September.

Preceding Dewey was an advance element of Embankment, a prisoner of war evacuation team that was parachuted in to Saigon. After stops at Rangoon and Bangkok, Dewey and the remaining members of his team landed at Tan Son Nhut on the 4th September. There they were met by members of the Japanese high command and enthusiastic crowds of Vietnamese. On the following day, the surviving American prisoners of war were flown out of Saigon on seven DC-3's. Until the 12th September the OSS team was the only Allied presence in Saigon. On that day, the first British soldiers (an Indian Ghurkha division from Rangoon) flew in at about the same time as a company of French Paratroopers from Calcutta.

In the interim, the Americans under Dewey's command, made contact with the “Committee of the South.” Set up by the Viet Minh, the Committee advocated “peaceful tactics” in the belief that they could prevent the return of the French through negotiations and with Allied help – Russian, Chinese and American. Opposing the Committee were the pro-Japanese Phuc Quoc Party as well as the United National Front comprised of Trotskyites, Cao Dai, Hoa Hao and other nationalist groups. They maintained that independence could not be supported by negotiations alone and fuelled that contention with rumours that the British planned to bring back French colonial rule. Stirring the pot was the Binh Xuyen (Saigon gangsters), who were taking advantage of the confusion to wreak havoc.

It is anyone's guess why Dewey and his team remained in Saigon beyond the 12th September, by which time their primary goal had been accomplished. That they were OSS, and as such undoubtedly had secondary intelligence type missions, is a distinct possibility. More likely, with the war effort rapidly winding down, no one quite knew what to do with them, as the bureaucracy hadn't caught up to them yet. However, the events on Sunday the 23rd September did catch up to Major Dewey and were to indirectly cost him his life. On that morning, before first light, the French forces under the command of Colonel Jean Cedile took over the control of all the main buildings of Saigon. When the curfew was lifted at 5.30am, the French citizenry bean a day long orgiastic fit of violence in the name of revenge for “Black Sunday.”

As the senior American in Saigon, Dewey attempted to register his complaint with Gracey whose job it was as commander of the British forces in Saigon to disarm the Japanese. It was Gracey's order that released and armed the interned French troops, and it was Gracey who failed to act to prevent the bloodshed. On the next day, the 24th of September, suspecting Dewey of having connived with the Viet Minh and having interfered with British control Gracey declared Dewey persona non grata and ordered him out of the country. Major Dewey had two days to life.

At 9.30am on the morning of the 26th of September 1945, Major Dewey was scheduled to fly out of Tan Son Nhut airport to Kandy, Ceylon. With him on his trip to the airport was his deputy, Captain (later Major) Herbert J. Bluechel. Upon arriving at the terminal it was learned that Dewey's flight was delayed and would not leave until noon. Returning to the Hotel Continental in the centre of Saigon, where he had been staying, Dewey was to discover that one of the members of his team (Captain Joseph R. Coolidge) had been shot and wounded at a Viet Minh roadblock ten miles outside of Saigon on the previous night. Dewey and Bluechel then drove to the British 75th Field Ambulance Hospital and briefly saw Coolidge who was suffering from a serve neck wound. In what was to prove ironic, Coolidge had been shot by the Vietnamese after speaking French and apparently being mistaken for a Frenchman.

After arriving back at the airport at 12.15 pm, the two OSS officers found Dewey's flight had been further delayed. It was decided that they would eat lunch at the OSS headquarters located in the Villa Ferier just North East of the airport. With Dewey driving, they went past the golf course at the end of the runway and left the airport by the rear entrance. In the process, they passed near the spot where the spot where the last American, of many, was to die nearly thirty years later. For the previous several days many of the roads in the Saigon area had been blocked by the Viet Minh in an attempt to stop the movement of Allied forces. One of these roadblocks consisting of brush and tree limbs was a short distance down the road from the Villa. Both officers were familiar with it, having driven around it several times in the previous few days, including once that very morning.

This time it was different. Major Dewey, having reduced speed to about five miles per hour, noticed several Vietnamese hiding in the ditch alongside of the road. Shaking his fist at them, he yelled something in French that Captain Bluechel was not able to understand. At this time he was shot in the head by a burst of automatic weapons fire and killed instantly. After Dewey was shot, the jeep rolled in to the ditch and overturned. Captain Bluechel was not hit in the initial burst of fire and was protected by the jeep chassis from subsequent firing. Crawling in the ditch and running behind a row of hedges while firing his .45 calibre pistol at the Vietnamese, Bluechel was able to reach the OSS headquarters a short distance away. U.S. soldiers that were there, along with server war correspondents, held off the attacking Vietnamese in a battle that lasted several hours.

Accounts vary, but at least three to eight Vietnamese were killed while the Americans suffered no further casualties. In trying to call for help, it was discovered that the telephone lines had been cut. Being unable to contact anyone locally, Bluechel radioed OSS Headquarters Detachment 404 in Kandy, Ceylon, which in turn radioed the British in Saigon. The rescue was accomplished by two platoons of the 31st Ghurkha Rifles around 3.00 pm. Evacuation of all personnel to the Continental Hotel in downtown Saigon was completed by 5.00 pm.

There can be no doubt that the Vietnamese knew that the Villa Ferier was an American compound. However, Dewey's jeep was not marked as to nationality; therefore, upon hearing him speak French it is probable to assume that he was mistaken for a Frenchman. His body was never recovered, making him the first American MIA in Vietnam, even though Ho Chi Minh ordered the Viet Minh to find it so that it could be returned. A reward of 5,000 piasters (an astronomical sum at that time) was offered by them for the Major's body. For a short period, charges of plots and counter plots were raised by the war correspondents in the press around the world.

The Japanese had been providing support to the Vietnamese dissident groups since the early 1900s and had provided arms to the Cao Dai Church's private army in the Saigon area during the war. Realizing this the British blamed the Japanese and placed Field Marshal Count Terauchi Hisaichi, the Japanese commander in Saigon, under house arrest. The French suspected the Americans of being anti-colonialist and the Vietnamese accused the French of creating the incident. The French, of course, said that the Viet Minh were guilty of cold-blooded murder, while some Americans, to complete the circle, pointed the finger at the British SOE claiming that they were attempting to remove their OSS competitors from Vietnam.

The point to realize here is that in 1945, in the southern portion of Indochina, much more so than in the north, there were many diverse political and religious groups. The Viet Minh didn't control the south, in fact no one group did. In truth, the French were probably in the best position to bring everything back together again and prevent massive bloodshed. While there might be some validity to the revisionist argument that the U.S. should not have backed the French in Vietnam, that turning point had not been reached in 1945.

The final chapter of this saga was told in 1981 by a Vietnamese refugee who had escaped from Vietnam to France. In a statement made to the U.S. Embassy in Paris, it was learned that Dewey was ambushed by a group of Advance Guard Youth (military arm of the Viet Minh to Committee of the South). Led by a Vietnamese named Muoi Cuong, the group burned Dewey's jeep and dumped his body in to a nearby well. Later, fearing discovery when they learned Dewey was an American, they recovered his body from the well and buried it in a nearby village of An Phu Dong. Both Cuong and his deputy Bay Tay, a deserter from the French colonial troops, were later killed fighting with the Viet Minh against the French.

This article was originally published in Behind The Lines magazine. VietnamGear.com has reproduced this article with the kind permission of Gary Linderer.

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