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Looking Back: SA rekindles his Vietnam experience

  • Published
  • By Robert Vanderpool
  • OSI Command Historian

On March 29, 1973, after more than 11 years of combat operations, the last American combat troops officially departed Vietnam.

During 2012, as part of commemorations marking the 50th anniversary of the end of the Vietnam War, the United States conducted its first observance of March 29th as National Vietnam War Veterans Day. That date was codified into law in 2017, formally recognizing the bravery and sacrifice of all American military veterans who served during the Vietnam War.

Thousands of personnel served in many different countries and in a variety of roles supporting Office of Special Investigations operations during the Vietnam War. OSI is very fortunate to have at least one Vietnam War veteran still serving with the organization today.

Special Agent Charles Ashe, who is currently assigned to Detachment 217 at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, Arizona, served with OSI in Vietnam between June 1971 and June 1972. Ashe was stationed at Tan Son Nhut Air Base, which was located on the edges of the southern Vietnamese capital city of Saigon. During the Vietnam War, Tan Son Nhut was a major United States military installation which was home to units from the Army, Navy, Marines, and Air Force. OSI District 50 Headquarters was first established there on December 31, 1962.

Ashe joined the Air Force in 1968 right after graduating high school. He comes from a military family with his father serving in both the Army Air Forces and the Air Force. He also has two brothers who served in the Air Force and another brother that served in the Army.

Born in North Carolina, Ashe also lived in Wyoming, Idaho, Indiana, California, and Japan while growing up. After completing basic training, he was trained in administration. His first duty station was at the now former George Air Force Base, California. While there, his supervisor, who had recently just returned from an overseas tour with OSI, convinced him to apply for duty with the organization. Ashe applied and after five months, which included an extensive interview and background investigation process, he was accepted into the command as administrative support or as he refers to it, one of the ‘admin troops.’ His first duty assignment with OSI was in New York City, followed by a stint at McGuire Air Force Base, New Jersey.  He was serving at McGuire when he received his orders for Vietnam.

After arriving in Vietnam and walking off the aircraft, Ashe was greeted by his new supervisor who instructed him to toss all his gear into a jeep. They immediately drove off base and Ashe was provided a daylight tour of Saigon showing him various parts of the city and the location of the U.S. Embassy before they returned to base and Ashe was dropped off at his barracks. 

“Saigon was less of a battleground than other places,” Ashe remembers. “During that day, I heard different alarms go off and things of that nature. I was kind of worried but my supervisor, said don’t worry about this and don’t worry about that. The biggest thing you’ve got to worry about is at nighttime.”

Ashe’s impressions of his first day in country centered on his observations of the culture and the people of Vietnam, but also on the hustle and bustle of what was a very busy and very congested city.

“When we got back to the barracks later that night, sirens went off,” he recalls. Ashe’s living quarters on base were within the Security Forces compound which was located near a very active helicopter operations field. During the overnight hours, enemy forces would frequently attempt to try to destroy the helicopters with indirect fire.

“We could hear the rockets go over our barracks and into the helicopter field,” Ashe remembers.  “The first night I was there I was scared as hell but that went away fairly quickly.”

Ashe’s primary responsibilities while serving overseas as an admin troop included personnel, finance, and the mail. He spent regular overnights throughout his tour billeted at his desk in order to monitor the teletype machines and relay any incoming messages to special agents in the field as quickly as possible. His duties also included frequent round trips off base to the U.S. Embassy in Saigon. Overall, Ashe’s duties in Vietnam kept him quite busy, and because of this, he attributed his time there to have passed fairly quickly.

When asked what was his most memorable experience in Vietnam, Ashe recalls a particular event which can be best described as very atypical of what most OSI personnel experienced while there.

“I'll never forget I was sitting in my office one day and it was my birthday. Two pilots walked in and they said ‘We fly weather planes out of California. We met your mom over at the cafeteria and she baked a cake for your birthday and a couple of sweet potato pies and we're here to deliver them.’ I said you have got to be kidding me!” 

The pilots handed over the boxes containing his birthday surprise which Ashe later shared with his fellow admin troops.

“I'll never forget that,” Ashe recalls. “We shared that birthday cake and just had a really good time that day. That stands out in my mind as one to the greatest things that happened to me while I was there.”

Ashe’s service in Vietnam, which also included a 30 day temporary duty assignment in Bangkok, Thailand, lasted for one year. He returned to the United States in June 1972; however, his personal involvement with the Vietnam War did not end there. He spent two years stateside working at OSI Headquarters, which at that time was in Washington, D.C., before being reassigned to duty on Guam.

Ashe was in Guam on April 30, 1975, when Saigon finally fell to enemy forces. Guam served as one of the many relief areas for personnel who were being evacuated from Vietnam. One day Ashe answered his office phone and the voice on the other end said, “Hey bonehead!”

“Bonehead," Ashe remembered. “There's only one person I knew that ever called me bonehead.”

As it turns out, Ashe’s former supervisor, the one who picked him up in 1971 and gave him his introductory tour in Saigon, had returned to Vietnam for another tour of duty and was one of the evacuees from Saigon as the city fell. Ashe spent the rest of the day with him.

“We sat there and talked for a number of hours,” Ashe recalled. “I met his family and we just talked about the whole thing about them being evacuated.”

While still on Guam and continuing to serve as an admin troop, Ashe volunteered for additional duty during an undercover criminal investigation. His role during the investigation was to go incognito and attempt to purchase illegal contraband. It was this experience that prompted him to apply for duty as a special agent. He was accepted and graduated from the Special Investigations Academy in December 1976. Between 1976 and 1992, his duty assignments as a special agent included units in Texas, California, Korea, the Netherlands and Ohio. He retired from active duty with OSI in March 1992.

Ashe spent the next decade plus working in the mental health field for Ohio. In the aftermath of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, he felt a calling to return to service with OSI and rejoined the organization in 2003. Since then, he has served as a special agent with duty assignments in Texas, Georgia and Arizona.

Collectively, during his ‘two careers’ with OSI, Ashe has spent more than 40 years of his professional life on active duty and as a civilian with the organization. 

Looking back on those decades of service, he was asked what is the one thing he remembers most about his time with the organization.

“It's the ability to network and establish relationships with people,” Ashe said. “That makes it special for me. I'm a people kind of a person. I look back at all the people that I've met during this extended stay with OSI and all of them have had a place in my life. It’s good to look back and see all the relationships that have been built. That's the thing that sticks out the most for me. It is the people I've met along the way.”