A Novel About the First American Soldier Killed in Vietnam — in September, 1945
(Available for Adaptation)
In the summer of 2004, I spent a month traveling throughout France. A last-minute decision to visit Normandy led me to discover Lt. Colonel A. Peter Dewey. Investigating his death became my obsession for the next ten years. This novel is about him, the OSS mission he led into Vietnam, and the unusual circumstances surrounding his death.
My visit to Bayeux began with a trip to the Cathedral of Notre Dame, the home of the world famous Bayeux Tapestry. Before viewing the Tapestry, I took a short tour of the Cathedral. Churches in France invariably contain plaques inscribed with the names of soldiers from that parish, who had been killed in both World Wars. The surnames on these plaques are always French. However, in the Cathedral of Bayeux I discovered an exception. There in a side altar was a plaque dedicated to an American. The soldier’s name was Lt. Colonel A. Peter Dewey. He had been an infantry officer and a paratrooper in the United States Army. Later, I learned Dewey had also been a member of an elite military unit, the Office of Strategic Services (OSS). He was also the first American soldier killed in Vietnam.
To understand how this plaque had found its way into the Cathedral of Notre Dame, I looked for connections between the Dewey family and the Normandy region of France. I found out Peter’s mother, Suzette de Marigny Hall, had been descended from a Norman family, the de Marignys, who had lived in the village of Longues-sur-Mer, a short distance from Bayeux. In the late 1920’s, Longues-sur-Mer became the location of the Dewey family’s vacation home, a converted twelfth-century abbey they visited every summer. I was curious why the plaque had been placed the plaque in the Cathedral in the first place. Initially, I speculated that a former lover had arranged for its installation. However, I was wrong. The responsible person was Dewey’s father, Charles S. Dewey.
Peter Dewey, like the other members of the Dewey family, was a Francophile. Even in early childhood, he was fluent in French. His fluency progressed during elementary school at the French boarding school, Institut Le Rosey, in Switzerland. When he returned to America, he enrolled in St. Paul’s School, a preparatory school both his father and grandfather had attended. There, he excelled in French Language and French History. He also made the football and crew teams as well as honing his writing skills as an editor of the school newspaper. At his graduation, he received the award as the top student in both French Language and French History. Once high school had been completed, he again followed in his father and grandfather’s footsteps and matriculated to Yale University. At Yale, he majored in French History and was an editor for the Yale Daily News. In June 1939, he graduated from Yale, Cum Laude, and was selected the outstanding student in French History.
In August of 1942, Dewey entered military service as a second lieutenant and was assigned to the U.S. Air Transport Command. After being promoted to first lieutenant, he was sent to the French and British Colonies in both North and West Africa, as an intelligence officer. Benefitting from his French contacts in North Africa, he was asked by the Commander of the Free French, General Henri Giraud, to be Giraud’s interpreter for his upcoming visit to Washington, D.C. Dewey accepted and in late June through early July of 1943, he worked as an interpreter for the Giraud’s mission to the U.S. In late July of 1943, Dewey applied for and was granted a transfer from the Air Transport Command to the OSS.
Dewey’s training experiences with the OSS received mixed reviews. Although intellectually he was judged to be “intelligent, cooperative and capable”, his social skills were sometimes critiqued. One evaluator stated Dewey was “somewhat arrogant and irritating in manner”. However, a different evaluator countered and wrote; “He has an excellent sense of humor, a very keen, analytical and imaginative mind and plenty of guts. He was very well-liked by his fellow students and instructors.” It seems Dewey’s biggest hurdle after joining the OSS was he didn’t fit the organization’s stereotype. He lacked the brash, outgoing personality possessed by many of its recruits. His physical appearance was also deceptive. He was slight in stature, wore glasses and had a noticeable stutter. Nevertheless, Dewey was not dissuaded in his quest to become a member of the OSS, which he did in July 1943.
In late May of 1944, Dewey was assigned to the OSS Headquarters in Algiers to serve under Colonel Ellery Huntington, as his executive officer. This assignment proved to be a turning point in Dewey’s OSS career. Huntington took an immediate liking to Dewey and made him privy to Mission Etoile, a planned parachute drop of an OSS team into the Midi-Pyrenees of Southern France. There, the team would link up with the Maquis operating in that region. However, the sticking point in the plan was neither Huntington nor Dewey had received parachute training. They were not dissuaded. After overcoming numerous administrative roadblocks, both men successfully completed jump school and won their parachute wings. As fate would have it, at the last minute, on August 5, 1944, Huntington was ordered to Yugoslavia. By default, Dewey took over command of Etoile.
In the late summer of 1944, Major A. Peter Dewey returned to France, this time as an OSS commander. It was his first assignment leading an OSS team. His team was named Mission Etoile and it was composed of ten French and American soldiers, divided into three separate groups. Dewey and two French officers made up the first group. They were inserted into the Midi-Pyrenees of Southern France, in a “Blind Drop”, from a B-17, on the night of August 10th. They landed at a location called Castanviel, thirty-five kilometers off target. Since the parachute drop was off target, Dewey’s group had to hike more than twenty-five miles through the rugged mountains of the Midi-Pyrenees to reach the village of Laprade, their base. All of the hiking had to take place at night to avoid German Army units.
The task of Mission Etoile was to set up observation posts from Langogne and Montelimar, in the north, to Narbonne and Carcasonne, in the south. These observation posts were to monitor the movements of German Army units within German Army Group “G” before and after the amphibious invasion of Southern France by Allied Forces, known as Operation Dragoon. However, the Germans decided to escape north rather than fight. Therefore, the static observation posts became useless to the Allied Forces. So, Dewey dramatically altered Etoile’s plan. Dressing up as German officers, he along with two of his men drove a captured German staff car, mixing in with the fleeing army as they attempted to reach the Seigfried Line. For his bravery and courage in leading Mission Etoile, the American and French governments honored Dewey with the Legion of Honor and a second Croix de Guerre, with Palm and Star.
In the summer of 1945, the war against the Japanese was still raging. The OSS, along with the Army’s Air Transport Command, were the only American units fighting in Southern Asia. The turning point in the war against Japan came in early August. The first atomic bombs were dropped and shortly thereafter the Japanese surrendered. In the spring of 1945, Dewey was assigned to lead the first OSS team into Saigon, Cochinchina. The mission was named Operation Embankment. It was anticipated it would be a typical OSS operation, involving behind-the-lines ambushes and sabotage. However, when the war abruptly ended on August 15th, a power vacuum developed in Southeast Asia.
The primary task, once the fighting stopped, was the disarmament of the Japanese Army. The British Army was designated to head up this process. While the bulk of their forces were located in India, Burma and Malaya; they had insufficient military units available in Thailand and Indochina to expeditiously carry out the disarmament. To make matters worse, there was a shortage of air and sea transport to move troops into the areas to be disarmed.
Although there were French military units present in Indochina, they were all imprisoned as a result of a Japanese coup carried out in March 1945. Therefore, the only credible military forces belonged to the Vietnamese Liberation Front, commonly known as the Viet Minh. The leader of the Viet Minh was Ho Chi Minh. On September 2nd, he declared Vietnamese independence. With neither the British nor the French Army to restrain them, the Vietnamese nationalists quickly consolidated their power in Hanoi while making similar preparations to do so in Saigon.
On September 1st, the first contingent of Operation Embankment, led by Lieutenant Emile Counasse, arrived in Saigon. They were overwhelmed by the rampant disorder and random violence they witnessed. Attacks against the French Colons occurred daily and the majority of French citizens were terrified. Dewey’s team arrived on September 4, 1945. They hit the ground running. Within days, Dewey and his team were sending reports back to both the OSS Headquarters in Kandy and to the State Department in Washington, D.C. Most of his information came from French and Vietnamese informants, especially the Viet Minh. When the French discovered Dewey was meeting with their mortal enemies, the Viet Minh, they were furious. They felt betrayed. After his heroics in Southern France, they had considered Dewey to be one of their own.
Into this explosive atmosphere a new element was added, General Douglas Gracey. On September 13, 1945, Gracey, along with a small expeditionary force, landed in Saigon. Gracey was a believer in “Old School” military discipline. Almost immediately, he clashed with the much less formal OSS and its leader, Peter Dewey. Gracey wanted to crush the Vietnamese independence movement and restore Indochina to French colonial rule. Dewey, on the other hand, realized the British and French would never be able to regain control over Indochina. He presciently described the futility of trying to restore French colonial rule when he stated, “Cochinchina is burning, the French and the British are being destroyed here and we should stay out of Southeast Asia.” In their ongoing duel, Gracey was continually frustrated by Dewey’s intellect and razor wit. After a particularly rancorous conference with Dewey, Gracey decided he had enough. On September 23rd he ordered Dewey out as a “persona non grata”. He was ordered to leave on September 26, 1945.
On the morning of September 26th, after waiting several hours for a flight to OSS Headquarters in Kandy, Dewey and his executive officer, Major Herbert Bluechel, returned for lunch to Embankment’s villa adjacent to Tan Son Nhut Airfield. As they were approaching the villa, they were ambushed at a roadblock less than five hundred yards from their destination. In the ambush, Dewey was murdered, but Bluechel managed to escape back to the villa. A three-hour skirmish ensued between the OSS members trapped in the villa and the assailants, who had killed Dewey. Finally, British Ghurkas broke the siege of the villa and rescued the Embankment team. However, Dewey’s body along with his jeep had disappeared. They were never found nor were the group responsible for Dewey’s death ever identified.
Mystery surrounds the death of Lt. Colonel A. Peter Dewey. Despite an exhaustive search for documents directly associated with Operation Embankment, few were found. This lack of documentation contradicted normal OSS practice. Mission commanders were expected to keep detailed daily logs of all mission activities. In his transmissions to OSS Headquarters in Kandy, Ceylon, Dewey made three separate references to having sent them Embankment’s weekly logs. However, none of these logs have ever been recovered. Overall, there is a paucity of documentation regarding the activities of Operation Embankment. This puzzling absence of factual information was a critical factor in my decision to write this story as historical fiction.