Cold War covert activities on Saipan, elsewhere in the region

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Posted on Dec 21 2004

First of a two-part series

By William H. Stewart
Special to the Saipan Tribune

I have been interested in the history of the Northern Marianas and especially a period in the ‘50s and early ‘60s for which very few specifics are known. This was the period on Saipan when the Central Intelligence Agency under the cover of the U.S. Navy operated a facility known as the Naval Tactical Training Unit or NTTU. Physical verification of their presence is still very much in evidence on Capitol Hill (then known as Army Hill) such as the administration building, service station, staff housing, bachelor officer quarters, snack-bar, barber shop, post office, a theater—auditorium and the recreational facility “TopaTapi” night club.

The entire Marpi area from what is now the vicinity of the Nikko Hotel northward and the Kagman Peninsula were among the areas on Saipan where access was restricted to only NTTU personnel and their trainees. At Kagman the organization operated its own airfield for transporting personnel to be trained. Portions of the landing strip can still be seen in the vicinity of the Lao Lao Bay Golf Course.

The cost of this infrastructure in 1951 dollars was approximately $30 million. The replacement cost today would exceed $221 million. With the exception of the housing—all serve different uses today from those of the Cold War/NTTU era.

If you were born after 1950 and lived in the United States you probably recall the survival drills conducted at your school. It was a time when the Cold War turned hot with the conflict on the Korean Peninsula, with saber rattling extending throughout that decade and into the ‘60s when, in 1961, President Kennedy inherited the CIA’s planned invasion of Cuba. It was a period when the Berlin Wall was erected and when the U.S.S.R. detonated a hydrogen bomb. By 1962, the Cuban missile crisis had brought the world to the brink of atomic war and elsewhere in Southeast Asia the number of U.S. military advisers to Vietnam was rapidly being increased.

The United States was involved in unconventional-warfare (UW) in Southeast Asia and the training base on Saipan was vital for that mission. This is evident in excerpts from a memorandum (1) from Brig. Gen. Edward G. Lansdale, Pentagon expert on guerrilla warfare, to Gen. Maxwell D. Taylor, President Kennedy’s military adviser, on “Resources for Unconventional Warfare, SE. Asia.” Copies were sent to Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara, Secretary of State Dean Rusk and his brother Allen W. Dulles, Director of Central Intelligence. The memo was in response to a request for information on unconventional-warfare resources in Southeast Asia and was compiled within the Department of Defense and the CIA. It stated: “CIA maintains a field training station on the island of Saipan located approximately 160 miles northeast of Guam in the Marianas Islands. The installation is under Navy cover and is known as the Naval Technical Training Unit. The primary mission of the Saipan Training Station is to provide physical facilities and competent instructor personnel to fulfill a variety of training requirements including intelligence tradecraft, communications, counter-intelligence and psychological warfare techniques. Training is performed in support of CIA activities conducted throughout the Far East area.

“In addition to the facilities described, CIA maintains a small ship of approximately 500 tons displacement and 140 feet in length. This vessel is used presently to provide surface transportation between Guam and Saipan. It has an American Captain and First Mate and a Philippine crew, and is operated under the cover of a commercial corporation with home offices in Baltimore, Maryland. Both the ship and the corporation have a potentially wider paramilitary application both in the Far East area and elsewhere.” (1)

Long time Saipan resident and former NTTU employee John Wilson recalled the vessel, Four Winds, was eventually sold to one of Saipan’s leading businessmen.

At the height of the Cold War, the United States constructed military bases extending from South Korea and Japan through Taiwan, the Philippines, Thailand and throughout Europe. The United States had thousands of overseas military installations, which circled the Soviet Union and China.

Considering the confrontation and clash of national objectives between the differing ideological participants of the Cold War during the ‘50s and ‘60s, it’s not too difficult to look back at what might have transpired in the region from the point of view of covert activities—at least on the part of one of the national competitors. Saipan provided the United States with an ideal location for covert training in the black art of sabotage and insurgency. The island was isolated and access was easily controlled and limited only to the military—plus the island was close to Asia—the region of interest and the source of recruits to be trained. These elements made the island a natural choice for locating the secret training activity. One couldn’t ask for better circumstances from which to carry out a covert project away from the prying eyes of any adversary, the media and Congress. Saipan’s extreme distance from the United States in the 1950’s was a mind numbing, bone crushing propeller flight of 9 and 1/2 hours from San Francisco to Honolulu; Hawaii to Wake: 9—1/2 hours; Wake to Saipan: 8 hours.

In those days the local population was exhausted by war and had little interest or knowledge of the world beyond the horizon. This added to the attraction of the island for NTTU’s clandestine purpose. Short wave radio and the Voice of America were the principle windows on the world for the local population. Indeed, less than 10 years after the NTTU packed up and left the island in the early ‘60s, black and white taped CBS coaxial televised news with Walter Cronkite was still 10 days late in reaching the island by air.

While I have no proof of the following, it has been alleged that during those uncertain years Washington was accused of supporting a revolution that brought the authoritarian regime of General Sukarto to power in Indonesia. The Agency helped break the power of the leftist Huks and was successful in helping elect Ramon Magsaysay president of the Philippines and later embrace Filipino dictator Ferdinand Marcos. During the Eisenhower administration, a puppet government was established in South Vietnam. After Mao’s revolution it was alleged the CIA trained rebels to infiltrate China, Manchuria, and Tibet in an attempt to destabilize the region.

Paraphrasing John Prados’ comments in his book, President’s Secret Wars (2), the United States provided military aid to French Indochina and placed Diem in power and ran operations in the Far East in the 1950s which involved covert operations against communist insurgents in Thailand and the Philippines.

To be continued

Sources: (1) “The Pentagon Papers”, Gravel Edition, Volume 2; (2) Prados, John, “President’s Secret Wars”, William Morrow Company, New York, 1986; Mr. John Wilson, Sr., NTTU-1959—‘62 and various unidentified sources from internet web sites including: http://www.cia.gov/csi/studies/winter99-00/art7.html; http://www.mtholyoke.edu/acad/intrel/pentagon/pent1.html

Editor’s Note: During the 1955—‘67 period of the Cold War, the author studied the “economics of national security” at the Industrial College of the Armed Forces (now National Defense University) and is the recipient of the Cold War Certificate of Recognition from the Defense Department for service with American embassies in Africa and Asia. He later served with the Trust Territory and CNMI governments and is an occasional contributor to this paper.

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