Cold War / Vietnam War

Arthur P. Chesley

Cold War / Vietnam War Oral History Interview
US Army Signal Corps, 4th Armored Division
Date: August 23, 2006
Interviewer: Carol Fowler
Summarizer: Joseph G. Bilby
Veterans History Project


Arthur P. Chesley was born in Dedham, Massachusetts in June 1933. He enrolled in the ROTC program as a freshman at Northeastern University in 1951. Chesley recalled that many of his ROTC instructors were Korean War veterans, including one who participated at the Inchon landing. The Northeastern ROTC cadets marched in parades in Boston, including on Saint Patrick’s Day. Northeastern was a Signal Corps branch oriented ROTC program, and the branch color of the Signal Corps is orange. Chesley remembered that Boston Saint Patrick’s Day parade officials, apparently afraid of the implications, requested that the cadets remove their orange scarves for the parade.

After being accepted into the advanced ROTC corps in 1954, Chesley joined a US Army Reserve unit as a signal corps enlisted man, and was assigned the military occupational specialty (MOS) of pole lineman. Following graduation from college, he attended ROTC summer camp in the summer of 1956 at Fort Gordon, Georgia. On completion of summer camp, Chesley was discharged from the reserves as a corporal and commissioned a second lieutenant in the Signal Corps. Most ROTC graduates are commissioned in the army reserves and serve a defined active duty period as reserve officers. Chesley, who was active in the Scabbard and Blade and Pershing rifles, two elite ROTC organizations, as well as serving as cadet battalion commander in his senior year, was designated a “distinguished military graduate” and offered a regular army commission, the same type of commission a West Point graduate is awarded, and which he accepted.

On entering active duty Second Lieutenant Chesley attended the Signal Corps Officer Basic Course at Fort Monmouth, New Jersey. Following completion of the course, he was assigned to the Fourth Armored Division’s 144th Armored Signal Company, which was then stationed at Fort Hood, Texas. The company was upgraded to battalion strength in June, 1957, as part of the ROAD army reorganization, and shortly afterward the division was transferred to Germany as part of the “GYROSCOPE” system of replacing whole units in Europe rather than rotating individual soldiers. Chesley, as a member of the Fourth Armored Division’s advance party, flew to Europe with his wife in September before the rest of the division, which followed by ship and arrived some time later. His battalion was initially supposed to be stationed at Bad Krusnak. Shortly after his arrival however, Fourth Armored Division Headquarters moved to Goppingen, where the division replaced the Eighth Infantry Division.

Chesley’s job was signal center platoon leader of the Fourth Armored Division’s Main Headquarters. He served in this position as a second and then first lieutenant for eighteen months, and then was transferred to Nuremburg as the Division Alternate Headquarters signal center platoon leader. In the field, Main and Alternate Division Headquarters platoons leapfrogged each other as the division moved, so that the division commander’s communications with his three Combat Command commanders were never interrupted.

Due to the ongoing Cold War with the Soviet Union, there were monthly division alerts in Germany. Jeeps with sirens rode through military housing areas announcing the alerts, and every soldier had to report to his duty station fully equipped, “just like it was the real thing,” Chesley recalled.

Chesley enjoyed his time in Germany, and described his work as “interesting.” He also noted that “money went further” in Europe than in the U.S. back in the 1950s. Signs of the destruction of World War II were still widely evident, however, and there was “a mountain of rubble” from bombed out buildings in Stuttgart. His platoon sergeant, who was from Fredericksburg, Texas, an area of nineteenth century German settlement, spoke fluent German, and thus Chesley was able to communicate with the local population.

In 1960 Lieutenant Chesley returned to the United States, where he was assigned to the US Army Security Agency School at Fort Devens, Massachusetts as an instructor. During the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962, most of the enlisted cryptography instructors at Fort Devens were reassigned to work on navy and merchant ships, intercepting coded Soviet messages. A number of reserve officers and men were recalled to active duty during the crisis, and many had to be retrained at Fort Devens. Chesley recalled that one of the reserve officers was the son of famed Native American athlete Jim Thorpe. He remembered the period as a very busy time.

After promotion to captain in December 1962, Chesley was ordered to Vietnam as “officer in charge of cryptological equipment.” He had no idea what he would be doing, but was assigned to the Thirty-ninth Signal Battalion, then the only battalion sized US unit serving in the Republic of Vietnam. After arrival at Ton Son Nhut airport, he reported to battalion headquarters, which had been established in an abandoned rice paddy just outside the airport. Chesley found the battalion commander, Colonel Blackwell, tending a flower garden outside his “hootch.” Blackwell was glad to have a new captain and advised Chesley that he would assume command of the battalion’s 362nd Signal Company, headquartered at Nha Trang. The company provided all the “long line” communications for Vietnam and Thailand, a mission that entailed establishing and maintaining relay stations for an advanced communications system known as “tropospheric scatter,” a system developed at MIT for the US Air Force, which bounced messages up into the “troposphere” and then down to their recipients.

Chesley’s company was large, with 309 enlisted men, seventeen master sergeants, and six lieutenants. It was dispersed over sixteen sites from Soc Trang in the Mekong Delta to Pleiku in the Central Highlands, and west to Ubon and Khorat in Thailand. He spent a lot of time in airplanes visiting his widespread detachments. One station, high in the mountains at Da Lat, had to be moved because South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem’s politically powerful sister-in-law, Madam Ngo Dinh Nhu, wanted to place a religious statue on the site. The Da Lat station had to be moved to Gia Nghia, which involved transporting its expensive and sensitive equipment fifty miles over a dangerous road, with the possibility of Vietcong ambush along the way. Chesley decided not to wait for the regular supply convoy from Ban Me Thuot to Gia Nghia, and ran the equipment through alone the day before. He made the right choice, as the regular convoy was ambushed the following day.

On a visit to his detachment at Soc Trang, Captain Chesley noticed that the sergeant in command had a pocket patch on his left breast pocket. At that time only the Air Force wore pocket patches, none being authorized for army personnel, but the sergeant had designed his own for his detachment. Chesley, thinking it was a good idea to foster morale, got a patch from the sergeant and wore it back to battalion headquarters at Saigon, where the battalion executive officer told him that it was unauthorized and that he should take it off. Colonel Blackwell liked the idea, however. When Chesley returned to Nha Trang, he had his company clerk design a pocket patch for the whole company, and had them locally made. The patches bore the company motto “hang loose with the deuce,” and provided the men with a sense of unit cohesion and raised morale.

Brigadier General Joseph W. Stillwell was also interested in troop morale. Stillwell, son of the famed General “Vinegar Joe” Stilwell who served as advisor to Nationalist Chinese leader Chiang Kai-Shek, and led US and Chinese troops in the China-Burma-India Theater in World War II, commanded the US Army Support Group, Vietnam, and was known by his staff as “Cider Joe.” He was insistent that American soldiers should always have access to ice cream, and units would deliberately keep ice cream, uneaten, on hand in mess hall freezers, to show him they had it on hand when he was on an inspection tour. Stillwell also delivered short wave radios to be used for entertainment purposes to the troops. Chesley recalled that the general was an eccentric character, who would publicly berate an overweight Quartermaster Corps lieutenant colonel on his staff if he did not find ice cream at a post he was visiting. Stillwell gave his Finance Corps staff officer the nickname “cheap shit,” because the captain would not authorize all of his planned expenditures.

After seven months’ service as company commander of the 362nd, Chesley was transferred to Saigon at Brigadier General Joseph W. Stillwell’s personal request, to serve as assistant signal officer for the US Army Support Group, Vietnam. He had known Stillwell while at Fort Devens, where he had supplied radios to the general’s parachute team, and the general thought he had done a good job with the 362nd and wanted an experienced signal officer at headquarters. Chesley was serving in this role on November 1, when South Vietnamese army generals launched a coup to overthrow South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem’s regime. He recalled that although they had not anticipated the coup, he and other officers could tell “something was going on,” when they returned to headquarters from lunch that day. A large number of trucks were lined up on Kong Le Road, adjacent to the Vietnamese General Staff headquarters, and the headquarters gate guard positions were sandbagged and manned by soldiers with machine guns.

Shortly after Captain Chesley and his fellow officers arrived back at their offices, the attack on the presidential palace began. He recalled that it was “like watching a World War II movie,” with propeller driven B-25 bombers, F8F Bearcat fighters and T-28 trainer aircraft strafing the Presidential Palace, as antiaircraft guns responded by firing from the Palace grounds. A major who came in late from lunch said the Vietnamese army was attacking the National Police, and started rummaging around for a rifle. The staff all armed themselves.

General Stillwell was living with his family in downtown Saigon. Stillwell had enough soldiers with him for personal protection, but his FM radio, an old PRC10, was unable to communicate with Ton Son Nhut, although he could, at least for the moment, get through on telephone lines. Stillwell complained vigorously to his G-3 (operations officer) about his radio situation. The larger and more effective PRC25 radio was being tested in Southeast Asia at the time, so Captain Chesley grabbed one and, with a volunteer jeep driver and guard, brought it down to Stillwell’s residence, where he encountered Cider Joe out front shaking his fist and cursing at South Vietnamese planes flying overhead. Chesley looked up and saw bullet pockmarks in the top of the building, where strafing intended for the Palace hit the residence.

After installing Stillwell’s radio, Chesley allowed the two enlisted men with him to drive downtown and check on their Vietnamese wives and children in Saigon and Cholon. After they were found safe, the party returned to Ton Son Nhut. It was a dangerous journey. At one point they saw several Vietnamese Navy LST landing craft firing from the Saigon River down the main street at the Palace. The LSTs were equipped with two sponsons, each holding twin 40 millimeter guns, and some additional 20 millimeter guns. At another point Chesley and his men had to cross a broad street that was being raked by fire and saw “about nine” Vietnamese soldiers blown up in the air by fire from an armored personnel carrier. In reflection, Chesley humorously speculated that bringing the radio to Stillwell might well have been “the dumbest thing I ever did.” In the end, both Diem and his brother, Ngo Dinh Nhu, were captured and killed by rebellious South Vietnamese officers, who took over the government. Thus began rule by a series of Vietnamese general officers ending with President Nguyen Van Thieu in 1967. Thieu was subsequently elected president of South Vietnam and remained in that office until the country ceased to exist in 1975.

On November 22, 1963, President John F. Kennedy was assassinated, and Chesley recalled that General Stilwell asked one of his staff to write, in the general’s name, a letter of condolence to Mrs. Kennedy, but was dissuaded by other staff officers who pointed out that it would be inappropriate to send such a letter from his level of command. His tour of duty completed, Captain Chesley rotated back to the United States in December.

On his return Chesley was assigned to attend the Company Grade Officers’ Associate Course, where officers were taught to be company commanders. Since he had been a company commander in a combat zone, he found the course, which was at Fort Monmouth, New Jersey, relatively easy. Following graduation he was assigned as an instructor on the “Wire Committee” dealing with wire communications, at Fort Monmouth.

The 595th Signal Company was also assigned to Fort Monmouth, and had been alerted to participate in the April 1965 intervention in the Dominican Republic, but was not ready in time. The Signal School lost many experienced noncommissioned officer instructors who were reassigned to the 595th, and the post commander was eager to see the unit moved to another post before he lost more men to it. The commander worked out a deal to send the unit to Fort Devens in September, 1965. Captain Chesley, who had previously turned down an offer to command the company, accepted it, because his wife wanted to return to Massachusetts.

The 595th was a large company, with 357 men, 103 vehicles, and two observation planes and pilots. In March, 1966, the company was ordered to Vietnam. Captain Chesley went first, with an advance party of nine officers and men, and was followed by the rest of the company’s personnel. The 595th was the first unit moved to Vietnam by the then new US Air Force C-141 Starlifter transport planes. Three planes moved personnel to Bien Hoa. The 595th’s heavy equipment was loaded on a World War II era C-2 cargo ship at Boston Army Terminal, and proceeded to Vietnam by sea. Thirty men from the company were detailed to ship out with the equipment as guards for sensitive cryptograph equipment.

On arrival in Vietnam, the 595th was assigned to the Sixty-ninth Signal Battalion and stationed at Long Binh, where the company set up camp in an open field. Chesley’s men had to build most everything they used, including their mess hall tables, which were fabricated out of packing wood salvaged when the equipment ship docked.

One Platoon of the 595th was assigned to provide base camp communications for the First Infantry Division headquarters at Di An, and another to the division’s artillery base camp at Phu Loi, which freed up the division’s 121st Signal Company for other duties. Chesley also provided signal support to the signal company of the 173rd Airborne Brigade, as the brigade cleared areas near Long Binh for incoming units like the Eleventh Armored Cavalry Regiment, then launched two separate search and destroy operations, one of them in the infamous “Iron Triangle.” In addition, the 595th supplied assistance to allied Australian troops who set up camp at Bear Cat. The road from Long Binh to Bear Cat was dangerous, so signal equipment was shipped there by boat. Chesley recalled that he used an Australian armored landing craft of some sort to go to Bear Cat via the water route.

As the platoon assigned to assist the First Infantry Division’s 121st Signal battalion at the division’s Di An base camp was setting up tents around dusk, the camp was hit by small arms fire. In response, an officer in the division began to call in artillery fire from eight inch guns located at the division artillery camp at Phu Loi, some miles away. The rounds went over the camp, landing in the tree line several hundred yards away, but one fell short during the adjustment process and exploded in the Signal Battalion area. One of Captain Chesley’s men, a radio relay sergeant, was killed. His platoon sergeant was severely wounded — a piece of shrapnel destroyed his left shoulder joint — and several other men were wounded as well. Chesley was at Long Binh at the time, and met the helicopter bringing in his wounded sergeant. New Jersey National Guard Militia Museum Assistant Curator Joseph Bilby, who sat in on Chesley’s oral history interview, remembered the incident as well. Bilby was, at the time, a second lieutenant in the First Division’s First MP Company, and the rounds flew over his head, as he speculated to his platoon sergeant that firing over the camp was not a good idea except in an emergency, as a short round might prove disastrous. The next round was the short round that hit Chesley’s platoon, falling several hundred yards from Bilby’s location.

Chesley also recalled that he received a ticket from First Infantry Division MPs for having a dirty jeep, and that the driver of one of his maintenance vehicles, sandbagged and with machine gun mounted, running a dangerous road to Phu Loi, got a speeding ticket from the First Division MPs as well. Assistant Curator Bilby confirmed that an overzealous Provost Marshal had insisted that speed traps be set up on area roads using “mirror boxes,” a pre-radar method of judging speed, and that he, as a second lieutenant, had questioned the sergeant in charge of the program, noting that the roads were in a combat zone and the order seemed absurd. The program was ended several weeks later, with as little explanation as had occurred as when it started.

Chesley also remembered that he had a dispute with First Infantry Division Headquarters over the policy that all divisional units and attached units provide an ambush patrol on a regular rotational basis. His protest that his men were technical experts and better used in other pursuits was overruled, however. One of his platoon leaders, Second Lieutenant Lawrence M. Fikes led an ambush patrol that killed several VC. Chesley recalled that Fikes was appalled when the bodies of the dead VC were dragged into the Di An base camp behind armored personnel carriers (APCs). Assistant Curator Bilby also recalled that incident as he was, at the time, a second lieutenant in command of the First MP Company’s 81 millimeter mortar platoon, which provided indirect fire support to Fikes’ patrol during the fight in which the VC were killed. The APCs were from the division’s First Chemical Platoon, which had the only armored vehicles assigned to division headquarters. Bilby remembered that the VC bodies were unceremoniously dumped in front of the Division Support Command headquarters, and caused considerable uproar among the Vietnamese civilian workers at the base camp, until someone in authority had them removed and buried. Bilby’s reaction to the incident was the same as Lieutenant Fikes’.

On promotion to major, Chesley was reassigned to the Twenty-first Signal Group as assistant operations officer. This assignment brought him back to Nha Trang, and to the same office he had built in 1963. In November, 1966, he began to experience physical problems, including overall weakness and trembling in his hands, and was medically evacuated out of Vietnam to Camp Zama, Japan. From there he was returned to the United States, ending up at Chelsea Naval Hospital in Boston where he remained as an inpatient for a month, and then as an outpatient for three months. His diagnosis was murky, but apparently involved kidney problems complicated by diabetes and high blood pressure. The diabetes went untreated for the next twenty years, as he had never been informed by the military of this diagnosis.

After his release from Chelsea, Major Chesley reported to the Combat Developments Command Communications-Electronics Agency at Fort Monmouth, where he was assigned as Signal Corps Tables of Organization and Equipment [TOE] Branch Chief. In this job he was responsible for future development of all Signal Corps units in the army. He was a major contributor to the CE 75 Study, which planned Signal Corps unit roles and equipment in the army of the future.

In July 1969 Major Chesley was assigned to AFNORTH, a NATO command located in Kolsas, Norway, as Chief of Communications Infrastructure and Engineering. His job entailed responsibility for all communications electronics equipment, including airfield and naval control, in an area that included Norway, Denmark and part of Germany. The assignment required close liaison with the defense ministries of all three countries. The operation was under the general control of the NATO/SHAPE infrastructure committees. He particularly enjoyed his time in Norway, as his five children participated in skiing and other winter sports, and he had more leisure time than he had ever had during his army service.

On his return to the United States after four years of service at AFNORTH, Chesley was assigned as signal coordinator to the newly formed Headquarters Army Readiness Region II Command. This headquarters was responsible for all National Guard and Army Reserve units in New Jersey, Pennsylvania and West Virginia. He worked closely with Colonel Wilbur Bishof of the New Jersey National Guard during the four years he held this position.

In 1976 Chesley was reassigned to Fort Monmouth, where he joined the Communications Electronics National Inventory Control Point as Assistant Division Chief of the Communications, Avionics and ADP division. During this period he was interviewed by John D. Bergen, an army historian writing an official history of Signal Corps operations in Vietnam, regarding his role in Vietnam with the 362nd and 595th Signal companies in the war. His actions in 1963 and 1966 are noted on pages 76, 78-79 and 194 of Bergen’s book, Military Communications: A Test for Technology, which is a volume in the U.S. Army in Vietnam series. He then served as chief of the Communications High Priority Equipment “GETWELL” program at Fort Monmouth, before retiring in December 1978 as a lieutenant colonel with twenty-four years of service.