The United States involvement in Vietnam began long before the 1960s as most U.S. citizens tend to believe. Most don’t know that at the end of World War II, the United States sent several Office Of Strategic Services (OSS) operatives into then French Indochina, to facilitate the release of American pilots. LTC Peter Dewey was in command of an OSS team sent to Vietnam to repatriate American POWs.
Dewey was killed by Communist Viet Minh soldiers while leaving Saigon in September 1945 after they mistook him for a French soldier. He has never been listed as a fatality of the Vietnam war since according to the government, US involvement didn’t begin until the mid-1950s.
Dewey was born in 1916 in Chicago. He was a distant cousin to Thomas Dewey, the Governor of New York. He went to school in New Hampshire and then on to Yale University and studied French history. He later attended the University of Virginia, School of Law.
After college, he worked as a journalist in the Paris bureau of the Chicago Daily News. He later worked for Nelson Rockefeller at the Office of the Coordinator of Inter-American Affairs in 1940 and met secretly with Charles de Gaulle.
Once World War II broke out in Europe in May 1940, during the Battle of France, Dewey was commissioned as a lieutenant in the Polish Military Ambulance Corps with the Polish Army fighting in France. Following the defeat of the French army, Dewey escaped through Spain to Portugal.
Upon return to the United States, Dewey was selected for OSS.
World War II Service:
Dewey parachuted into Southern France in August of 1944 and radioed reports of German troop movements behind enemy lines for six weeks as part of a ten-man OSS team. OSS operatives were the forerunners of the US Army Special Forces and CIA.
For his actions in France, General William “Wild Bill” Donovan personally awarded him the Legion of Merit while the French gave him the Legion of Honor and a second Croix de Guerre.
Dewey was then shipped to Saigon in September of 1945 to command a seven-man OSS team “to represent American interests” and collect intelligence. Working with and sympathetic to the Viet Minh and Ho Chi Minh, whom he considered a freedom fighter, during an operation codenamed Project Embankment, he arranged the repatriation of 4,549 Allied POWs, including 240 Americans, from two Japanese camps near Saigon. Dewey freed the Americans from two Japanese camps in Saigon. The majority of them had been held in Burma for most of the war and employed, as slave labor 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 anti-aircraft outfit from Texas that had landed in Java by mistake and had been captured intact. These POWs would later become known as the “Lost Battalion.” Among the other POWs, 86 were survivors of the cruiser Houston, sunk on the night of 29 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.
Because the British occupation forces who had arrived to accept the Japanese surrender were short of troops, they armed French POWs on September 22 to protect the city from a potential Viet Minh attack. The French were wanting to re-establish colonial rule in Vietnam, something the Viet Minh were adamantly against and considered themselves the rightful government.
In taking control of the city, the 1400 freed French soldiers quickly ousted the Viet Minh who had just taken power. The British commander, General Douglas Gracey, was firmly against the Viet Minh and only too happy to assist the French in their quest to re-establish their colonial rule.
He established two distinct zones under his authority, the French and the English, and he flew in 300 Gurkha troops to keep control. Dewey who was quite outspoken, and blasted Gracey for his subjecting the Viet Minh to the French again. Eventually, Gracey took exception to Dewey’s objections and declared him persona non grata.
As with military tradition, Gracey prohibited anyone but general officers from flying their nations’ flags from their vehicles. Dewey had wanted to fly an American flag for easy identification among the Viet Minh, who Dewey claimed were only concerned about attacking the French. The jeep he rode in prior to his death had a flag wrapped around a pole that was unidentifiable.
Because the airplane scheduled to fly Dewey out did not arrive on time at Tan Son Nhut International Airport, he returned for a lunch meeting with war correspondents Bill Downs and Jim McGlincy at the villa that OSS had requisitioned in Saigon as well as visit an American who was wounded by Viet Minh soldiers who ironically enough mistook him for a Frenchman. As he neared the villa, he was shot in the head in an ambush by Viet Minh troops. Dewey’s jeep overturned, and Dewey’s subordinate, Captain Herbert Bluechel, escaped, pursued by Viet Minh soldiers. Bluechel informed OSS HQs of the tragedy. “We were returning to the O.S.S. hostel when we passed through a partial double roadblock. As we drive through, Annamese (Vietnamese) in a ditch beside the road opened with a machine gun not ten yards away. The charge caught Peter in the head.”
“The jeep overturned in the ditch. I saw Peter was dead and I couldn’t help him, so I crawled from under the jeep. While the Annamese still were firing, I crawled along a hedge for 150 yards, firing my .45 back at them, slowing them down. When I reached the house I alerted the other offices and we broke out the arsenal. The Annamese besieged the house for about three hours until British Gurkha troops arrived. The natives had cut our telephone wires and I had to radio O.S.S. headquarters in Kandy, Ceylon, who radioed the British in Saigon to send help.”
The Viet Minh afterward claimed that their troops mistook him for a Frenchman after he had spoken to them in French. Bluechel later recalled that Dewey had shaken his fist and yelled insults for some reason at three Vietnamese soldiers in French while driving back to headquarters.
According to Vietnamese historian Trần Văn Giàu, Dewey’s body was dumped in a nearby river and was never recovered. But other reports had Viet Minh troops dumping his body in a well and then burying it elsewhere in a small village after it was learned that he was an American. Reportedly, Ho Chi Minh sent a letter of condolence about Dewey’s death to U.S. President Harry S. Truman while also ordering a search for the colonel’s body. Ho also offered the large sum of 5000 piasters for the return of the Major’s body.
While it may have been another decade before the US was “officially” involved in Vietnam, Dewey was really the first of the more than 58,000 troops who paid the ultimate price there.