Excerpts from Stephen Maxner's interview with Chad Spawr from the Texas Tech Archives. Spawr discusses combat interrogations, his views on the Tet Offensive, and his respect for the skill and tenacity of the enemy...
SM: Anything that you wish they had discussed and they had taught you at Defense Language Institute that they didn’t when you were in country?
CS: Yeah, yeah. Looking back on it I wish that they had taught us more interrogation technique, how to conduct a proper what we call Order of Battle interrogation. They taught us language, they taught us some military terms, but they didn’t teach us how to really do an intelligent interrogation. I really had to learn to make it up my own, on my own. You know, there’s a lot of misconceptions about what it is to interrogate somebody, I didn’t have a clue and I was never one to get into slapping people around and beating them up or doing torture or that kind of stuff. It just didn’t seem to be, well, it didn’t seem to be effective and it just didn’t seem to be right, so I never did that. But there were a lot of people who thought, “That’s what you’ve got to do. You’re interrogating some guy, you’ve got to beat the snot out of him, and when you’ve got him hurt and scared then he’ll tell you what you want to know.” I found that to be completely untrue. I found that I got a lot out of people just by treating them...by speaking very softly and gently, you know, feeding them if they were hungry, giving them a cigarette if they wanted to smoke and if the guy was hurt, getting a medic on it. I think that caused enough...well, it disconcerted some of them enough because they had been told that as soon as we caught them we’d kill them. So they’re kind of like in panic and shock and all of a sudden they get some big, dumb, ugly American who speaks their language treating them kindly. It was enough of a shock for them that I actually got a lot of good information out of several people.
SM: Interesting. We have to pause just a moment so I can flip the tape.
CS: Yep. I think the expectation was that since I could speak the language that I knew how to interrogate people and I didn’t.
SM: Right, okay.
CS: You know, but the interrogation itself, I mean, the things I had to find out were really pretty straight forward. You know, if we were actually in contact and they brought me a prisoner the first thing I’d determine is what unit they were from. Were they Northerners, was it a North Vietnamese unit, was it a Viet Cong unit. You know, what unit was it, where were they, how many of them were there, how many weapons did they have, how were they deployed, were they a lead element for a larger unit coming through, were they a squad, were they a patrol, were they a company, how long had they been in country, what were they doing, where were they going, and then try and orient them to a map and, you know, show them where we were at the time and then, you know, see where they’d come from.
CS: Try to collect some information because it’s really important, you know, especially if you’re with a small unit in the field, you know, with a company it’s important to find out if what you’re dealing with is a regiment or a platoon or if you’ve got 5 guys in front of you or 500.
CS: So we did what we called Order of Battle Intelligence trying to find out who and what we were facing.
CS: Well see, a lot of the combat interrogations happened in the field.
SM: Yeah, okay. CS: I mean, if somebody snatches a prisoner in contact somebody’s got to be there to find out what’s going on. Again, you know, literally there’s a matter of minutes and inches. You know, there were different kinds of situations where prisoners were captured, you know. Sometimes a patrol would find some poor young kid walking through the woods and just grab him. Other times, you know, the enemy, you know, they’d be in real hot contact with us and somebody would be grabbed. You know, the guy would over run his objective and somebody would nail him. Fly him out or run him to the rear a little bit. And the other times they deliberately went out and snatched a prisoner and the whole thing is to find out what they know right now as fast as possible because, you know, that kind of intelligence, is...it goes cold real quick. So, you know, the expectation I think...I thought the Army was pretty forward thinking about it because I was one of the first groups to go through this abbreviated program. A lot of the guys who’d gone before us had been trained in language and went right over. They had no clue about how to survive in the field.
CS: So I was kind of glad I had it. I didn’t like going through it, I didn’t want to be an infantryman, I figured, you know, I enlisted to get out of that. But in hindsight it made a lot of sense. And that was it, it’s this overpowering stench of diesel fuel, jet fuel, and rotting vegetation, weird food, fish sauce, burning ammunition and burning toilet cans and it all combined into an odor that you just never forget.
SM: Wow. Okay, we’re going to have to pause for a second so I can change my tapes again.
SM: This is tape 2 of the interview with Chad Spawr.
CS: ...real clearly. They were very passive, they didn’t talk, they were very...they seemed almost sullen. I tried to speak to a couple but they looked at me like I was, you know, like I was weird. And I may well have been, you know, here was this American speaking to them in North Vietnamese, these were Southerners. They thought what had happened to their world that all of a sudden there’s a, you know, American speaking Hanoi dialect? I thought they were stand offish. And after several weeks I thought, well, you know, “Geez, we’re here to help these people, don’t they appreciate it?” I felt kind of unappreciated. I didn’t really realize or think about what, you know, what they were really were going through or what their experience had been. We were just somebody else that’s in their country. So I thought, you know, I thought my first experience with the Vietnamese people it was kind of ambivalent. You know, we were there, they were there, we had something we had to do and that was the way it was.
SM: That brings up an interesting point. Now in your Defense Language Institute training you mentioned that part of that was culture and I guess history and society, politics, what not. Did they discuss the aspect of Vietnamese history, the constant occupation of Vietnam by outside forces, whether it be China, or then the French, and how what the United States was doing now might be viewed in the same context, [?] Vietnamese?
CS: No, not with regard to what we might be doing. Vietnamese history is very, very long and rich in conflict with China. You know, there’s a great deal of Vietnamese history, and myth, and culture, and tradition that deals with Chinese occupation and liberation. You know, the wars of independence they fought to be rid of the Chinese. I mean lots of it, the Chung sisters are great historical figures in that, I’m amazed I can even remember that. I mean, all the battles around...I can’t think of the names, but there’s a tremendous culture and history around the Chinese. Everything else after that is like, you know, second fiddle to the cultural things about China. They have a real preoccupation with China. Like the Chinese occupied their country for so long that anything else; the French, the Japanese, the Americans being there, was, you know, a footnote by comparison. I mean, we were just another one but we were not China. We didn’t really, you know, some of the...I don’t recall any of the language training or the dialogues or any of that kind of stuff involving anything about Japan. I don’t remember any mention of Japan at all. But I remember mention of French, they have a very high regard for the French. You know, French is a second language in Vietnam. I don’t remember it impacting, I don’t remember conversation about the impact of all of that on what we were trying to do there because everybody else had been a foreign occupier and invader, we weren’t an invader, we weren’t an occupier, we were there to help the people of South Vietnam. So I don’t the context was ever created for us to see ourselves as a continuation of foreign domination. I don’t recall getting that sense at all.
SM: I didn’t know if perhaps the stand offishness or the apparent unfriendliness of the Vietnamese may have reflected perhaps that kind of an attitude.
CS: It could have, it could have, but I can’t recall anything I could put my finger on to say that, you know, it was or it wasn’t. I know, I say I know, they’re a very proud people. They have a long history and you know, the Vietnamese are not just one people. There’s lots of different groups of people that form that population and culture and that’s not just counting the Montagnards, you know, the mountain people. They’ve had a long hard time, I mean, there were people that I encountered, you know, who had suffered under the French before World War II, had been guerillas fighting against the Japanese and had fought against the French again. You know, their whole life was constant warfare and we’re just a bunch of other warriors. I don’t think they blamed us for it, they just saw us as, you know, more people there doing more of what they’d always lived with. Probably kind of wishing everybody would go away and leave them alone so they could, you know, have a life.
I remember the circumstances under which the guys caught him, I think he was a straggler. Snatched him, brought him back to our TOC our Tactical Operations Unit and asked me to do a field interrogation. He was sick, he had some, you know, he was bleeding from some small wounds, they weren’t life threatening or anything but he clearly was hungry and he was thirsty. I got him some water and gave him a cigarette. He was exceedingly reluctant to accept anything and basically what he said, he asked me several times, “When are you going to kill me?” and I said, “We’re not going to kill you.” I said, “If you try to do something stupid we may kill you but as long as you answer my questions and as long as you don’t try to escape then you will be safe, we will protect you,” and I don’t think he ever...I don’t think he believed me. One of the guys, I had one of the guys break open a can of C-rations and heat it up, I remember it was spaghetti, it was all we could find and I gave him some food and I think he swallowed it down in like 3 seconds; he was hungry. And we had some hard tack crackers, I gave him some of that and we boiled up some hot water and a guy had a tea bag so we gave him some tea. This kid was just falling over dead, he couldn’t believe how he was being treated. A medic came over and gave him a tetanus shot, put some antibiotic on his wounds and cleaned him up, put some bandages on him and the more...the nicer we were, the more things we did for him the more he talked; I couldn’t shut him up. Every time I asked him a question he just blurted out more and more information. I mean, he gave me the name of his company commander, his platoon sergeant, the political officer, told me what weapons they had, the names of the guys in his patrol or in his squad, told me where he came from. We talked about his mother and his father and his sisters. He came from the Red River Delta up near Hai Phong and tried to build a report with him, and as I got the report built I asked more and more tactical questions and it turned out, learned what they had, learned that was the...learned the name of the regimen he was with, I can’t remember the number, I think it was...it was a regimen of the 7th NVA division I just don’t remember which one it was now. But more and more conversation and after a while we got pretty well through it, I noticed he was eyeing my weapon that was sitting off, you know, just out of arms reach and I saw him look at it and I thought I saw him twitch, and I just said to him, “If you move toward that weapon, I will kill you,” and he just looked at me, I think he knew I was serious. And he never moved again, he didn’t make a single move and I think he knew that I’d do it. Now whether I knew I’d do it or not was a different story. But the fact of the matter was that he believed it and I think what made it more powerful is that I said it to him in his own language and I used some language that conveyed the threat. I think he knew it. That was my first exposure.
SM: Wow. And you found that this particular technique of interrogation was effective throughout most of your military experience in Vietnam?
CS: Oh yeah, I mean, I didn’t learn until after I came home when I studied, you know, things like in psychology classes through the use of physical intimidation and violence that, you know, if you scare somebody enough and hurt them enough they’re going to say what they think you want to hear to stop the pain. And I figured, I just figured if you don’t hurt somebody then they don’t have to be defensive or as defensive with you. I just never thought it was important to hurt somebody. You know, if you can get something out of somebody without hurting them, it’s much better. The other side of the coin is that, you know, some guy’s carrying a weapon and shooting at me I’m going to do my best to protect myself but, you know, this kid was unarmed and it just didn’t seem fair. 1didn’t have a reluctance about answering questions honestly. I didn’t find a lot of evasion except among, you know, the more hardened veterans that we came across.
SM: Okay. And most of the information you focused on order of battle type stuff?
CS: Oh yeah, yeah I didn’t, you know, I didn’t care about much else, I didn’t want to know about his mother and sister and that kind of thing.
SM: Except to establish repore?
CS: Exactly. What I really want, especially in the field under fire, I want to know who I’m dealing with, who’s coming, how many there are, what kind of weapons they have because if I’m dealing with, you know, a 51 caliber...a set of 51 caliber anti aircraft machine guns which can be, you know, with the muzzles that can become depressed to become anti personnel weapons, I want to know that. I want to know that before I really care about, you know, what color his ox’s eyes are.
SM: Now were there times where this information obviously was very helpful, in terms of...
CS: Oh yeah.
SM: ...you forces dispositions, and things like that?
CS: Yeah, a couple of times with the information we got we got out of there as fast as we could. You know, we might have come up against a, like a point unit. They might send a squad or a small, like a patrol, out in front of an advancing unit. And they might be, you know, maybe a quarter to a half a mile ahead. Well you take them on, capture a prisoner, if those boys coming up behind you hear it they’re going to be, you know, boogying to catch up. I want to know who’s coming. On a couple of occasions we’d find out, you know, who they were and what they were and find out there’s a company of infantry, you know, a quarter of a mile back, we’re going to pack up and get out of here because 5 of us can’t take on, you know, a company of NVA infantry.
SM: Based on that information and based on you combat experiences up against these PAVN forces, how well equipped were they and how did that meet your expectations going into Vietnam?
CS: Well, I think I was raised like most Americans were, that we were the biggest and the best and we’ve got the best of everything and nobody could come close and how stupid could you be to fight us? I got over there and it was a real shock, you know, I mean those guys lived in the jungle and they lived under very, very primitive and rough conditions, I mean, you know, virtually no sanitation, they don’t get to shower, there’s no electricity, you know, they sleep out in the rain, you know, they sleep on the ground. It was, it was, terrible conditions by western standards. But these kids were tough. These were good soldiers. Now they didn’t have advantage of the high tech stuff that we had, they didn’t have the fire power we had, but they had something we didn’t have and that was a commitment to an outcome. They were committed to throwing the foreigners out, they were committed to unifying their country. They didn’t understand all the geopolitics of it but, I mean, you know, they were Vietnamese, it was Vietnam, and we weren’t. They were dedicated to killing Americans. They trained them well, they were hard, tenacious fighters. I was real surprised at how tough they were and it was a real shock for me to, you know, realize what these North Vietnamese went to coming down the trail, you know, the deprivation they experienced, living under B-52 air strikes, B-52 attacks and air strikes coming down...my God, what they had to go through. I don’t like communists, I’m not a communists, wouldn’t want to be a communist, don’t want to associate with communists; I’ve got to tell you something, those were good soldiers. They were good soldiers. I really respect them.
SM: Do you think it might be that because they were Vietnamese first and communists second?
CS: Absolutely. In hindsight, absolutely. Absolutely.
SM: So these weren’t soviet communist puppets that you were up against?
CS: Well, you know, at the time we thought they were but no, they weren’t. I mean, you know, if we’d had...it would have been nice if at the time we’d had the benefit of the hindsight we have now. We would have not spent 58,000 American lives on a cause that really wasn’t the right cause.
SM: What about the Viet Cong?
CS: Well, again, I dealt with some Viet Cong before Tet. The Viet Cong, you never wanted to get captured by any of them. If you got captured, I guess the rule of thumb was if you ever got captured by the North Vietnamese you had at least a snowball’s chance in hell of being kept as a prisoner and surviving it, maybe. You got captured by the Viet Cong, you were dead. That’s just it. They had no was to keep us or maintain or store prisoners. They just killed you and sometimes, you know, they weren’t real pleasant about it. There were a lot of guys who were captured who either we didn’t find or when we did find them they were just horribly mutilated. These people could kill their own people without remorse, they did a lot of terror against their people. The Viet Cong, I mean, I think that they were as politically attuned and as focused and as committed as the North Vietnamese were but I’ve just always had the mindset or the impression that these guys were just hardened killers. They were just, you know, I can’t put words...they reminded me of hard-core criminal killers. Now I don’t think they were criminal, but, you know, they were doing what they believed to be right and best, you know, trying to restore their country or liberate their country, but they were scary people. After Tet, the Viet Cong changed. We virtually destroyed the Viet Cong with our fire power. They massed their battalions and their regimens in front of us. You can’t do that, I mean, B-52s and airstrikes and helicopter gunships and artillery and automatic weapons take a huge toll on human bodies especially when they run in mass waves and we just killed hundreds of thousands of them. Frankly I think the North Vietnamese did it on purpose. I think they set the Viet Cong up for annihilation during Tet. The reason being that when they eventually won the thing they didn’t want an armed, effective South Vietnamese political force or military force to stand in their way of the reunification that they wanted. There’s always been enmity between the northerners and the southerners and my view has always been that the North Vietnamese set the Viet Cong up for annihilation so there wouldn’t be any potential for a rivalry once the war eventually ended. Because after Tet, it was all a North Vietnamese war. I mean, there were still some Viet Cong guerillas, but they were nothing compared to what they had been. I mean, the 271st, 272nd, and 273rd VC regiments were destroyed during Tet, I mean I fought against all 3 of those boys. I remember those guys, I mean they were just hard, fast, tough trained, vicious killers. And after that the regimens didn’t exist, what we dealt with is some old guy with a 1943 Japanese rifle taking a pot shot from a rubber tree. That was the Viet Cong, I mean, you’d throw a few shots his way, he wets his pants and runs. You know, they were just...Viet Cong were done after Tet.
Interview with Chad Spawr, 16 March 2002, Chad Spawr Collection, The Vietnam Center and Archive, Texas Tech University. Accessed 6 Mar. 2013.