Photo of USTDC courtesy of Les Duffin

Monday, December 15, 2008

The Latter Days of USTDC

I’ve mentioned several times that I’d be interested in seeing comments from anyone who was at USTDC during and after the time that President Carter announced the establishment of diplomatic relations with the PRC. I’ve written previously about some of the turmoil during that period, but didn’t have much in the way of eyewitness accounts.

I recently heard from Les Halfhill, who was assigned to Det 3, 7602nd Air Intelligence Group, from early May 1978 to April 1979. Their offices were on the 2nd floor of the TDC building. Here’s his story:

When I arrived in Taipei, I had my ex and my five-year-old daughter with me. We were put up in a “guest house”/hotel just a block or so south of East Compound. I can’t, for the life of me, remember its name. We had a room on the top floor (4th or 5th) and ended up living there for a couple of weeks (maybe even three or four).

One of my earliest strong memories was waking up at around 3am, realizing that there was a small earthquake happening. There were several more while I was there in the guest house. But later during my tour, there were two that each measured 7.6. In one, I was in a taxi and didn’t even feel it, but the other one happened when I was at home. I was sitting on the floor in my living room, and a sound like a train going by started. But of course, there were no train tracks nearby. Just as I started to get up to go look, the quake hit and knocked me back down. Being in a quake is a strange feeling.

One of the most obvious things I noticed those first couple of weeks, as my sponsor took me around to show me the ropes, was how few people there were for the size of the facilities. Whether it was going to the commissary, to a movie at the compound, or the China Seas Club, everything was so quiet, with so few people. I think Shu Lin Kou was closed by then, and a lot of the staff was gone, compared to its peak.

I recall, in those first couple of weeks, going to the Housing Office, while first being told by my sponsor that a bottle of Johnny Walker Red would help get me into Tien Mou quicker. But I didn’t have a car, so I got an apartment within walking distance of East Compound, on Minzu East Road. From the apartment, I would take my daughter for a walk up to the Grand Hotel, then down the hill to a little park next to the China Seas Club, then on to the club for lunch or dinner. We did that regularly.

I was an Air Force E-5 at the time. I was on a “special duty assignment” to Det 3, 7602nd Air Intelligence Group. There were only four of us in the unit: A Major in command (Melvin Rooch), an E-6 Intel Specialist (Bobby Carter), me (Les Halfhill, an E-5 Admin at the time), and a GS-12 Intel type (Funston Chan). The three of us military types wore civilian clothes. I remember (faintly) that our offices were in the TDC Hq building, on the second floor. We were at the end of the hall near the TDC Commander’s offices -- seems like it was a Rear Admiral, down to the right as you faced the CO’s office.

One time [while copying some classified material], I got part way through and the copier jammed! Badly! I got out most of the pages, but some I couldn’t. So Bobby comes in to help, and we end up using a straightened-out wire coat hanger to try to hook out the pages we couldn’t get to. Then the coat hanger gets stuck! We can’t get it out! So we have to call in a copier maintenance guy, who is a Taiwanese civilian. First of all, we’re busted with a coat hanger sticking out of the machine. Then we have to worry about him seeing this classified. Well, we somehow managed to pull it off without getting burned, but it was an interesting day.

We had two Taiwanese civilians (man in his fifties, woman in her twenties), who worked in a small building behind the TDC building. I don’t remember their names, but they once took my daughter and me out to a huge dim-sum restaurant. Delicious!

I remember the Chinese typewriter they used. It had a horizontal drum a few inches in diameter and 15 inches long. In front of it was a tray with lead type (like the old-time newspapers would use to set the type for their printing presses). So the typist would have to use an arm on the typewriter to pick up an individual piece of type, which contained a single Chinese character, and then position it over the piece of paper lying around the drum, then press a button to stamp it onto the paper. They had multiple trays of type, each with a couple thousand pieces, because of the nature of [their work]. A normal Chinese typewriter wouldn’t need that many characters, and could get by with a single tray. Rather laborious, compared to even our manual typewriters, let alone our electrics.

Through my ex, I became friends with a very nice, well-to-do Taiwanese couple. I remember visiting them at their house, and them taking us to a park on Grass Mountain, and the National Palace Museum, and a resort down-island (where we had rabbit for lunch), and a beach house on the northern shore, and an authentic Japanese restaurant with great food. There were a lot of very nice people in Taiwan.

One morning (I think it was mid-December 1978), I was watching local TV at my apartment. There were crowds of people in the streets, showing obvious signs of anger and fear. I didn’t speak any Chinese, so I didn’t know what it was all about. I then got a call from Funston. He told me about President Carter's announcement of "normalization" with the PRC, that there were some problems around the city, and that I should stay home until he gave the “all clear.” That didn’t come for three days.

I heard that a mob crashed the gates of both compounds, tore down and burned US flags, broke windows, etc. Also, there was a ruckus outside the embassy/consulate and an incident at the China Seas (63) Club that I commented on earlier.

While I was waiting to get clearance to go back to the office, a Taiwanese friend stopped by and gave me a brown, silk-looking coat of Chinese style, with Chinese symbols on it. She suggested that I wear it if I went out, thinking that it might help protect me if the mobs saw a westerner wearing something in solidarity with them. I didn’t put it to the test.

Then, a couple of weeks later, Carter send Warren Christopher over to talk to the Taiwanese. It didn’t go well. I remember seeing some of it on TV, with Christopher’s caravan getting pelted with rocks, eggs, and paint. He looked scared s**t-less! I guess I would have been, too.
So the next couple of months, I was busy with preparations for leaving. I had to handle the turn-in of all our government equipment through supply channels, etc.

In March 1979, I got back to the office after a run to West Compound. Good ‘ol Bobby Carter [from the shop] greeted me by saying “Les, your orders came in. You’re going to Mogadishu. Somalia!” My first thought was, ‘What the hell?’ I guess that showed on my face so Bobby then says, “Just kidding! You’re going to Myrtle Beach, South Carolina.” And that’s what happened.

The last few weeks I was there, some of us were put up in a brand new hotel than had just been built a block away from the compound [sorry, don’t remember its name]. It was pretty cool living, and we got a great per diem, so I ate well at the hotel restaurant all the time.

I left Taipei on-or-about April 1st, 1979.


Bill Kling said...

Good article! As I mentioned before I left in Jan 79 and remember many of the things mentioned in the article. I worked with USACC on Grass Mountain on a 24 x 7 shift basis.
Working at night also added to the confusion, concern for safety, etc.
One of our people actually was injured in a fight outside the China Seas (club 63).
I want to thank you for posting all of the articles and documents over the past several months.

sarj said...

Thanks for the history. I was there in a much calmer time, but I know that the peace we felt was fragile and could change if relations changed. I can imagine that this was not a good time , but a dark time to be in Taiwan.
Taiwan could be Dark even in my day, but thankfully I didn't experience much of that.

Anonymous said...

National Grandee Hotel, perhaps. I think the guest house may have been American Guest House or New American Guest House. Hmm...I think there was also a Rainbow Guest House.

Larry Wittmayer,ISC,USN Ret said...

Don, I worked at the Embassy (Defense Attache Office) during that time. After all settled down we moved to the MAAG compound when the Embassy was closed down. I stayed as the last enlisted in our office to transfer everything and then hit the road. I am curious about Bobby Carter. I think he is the same Bobby I knew who was involved with my son's Scout Troop. Correct me please.

Les Halfhill said...

My fingers weren't working so well when I did my original post. The earthquakes were 6.7, not 7.6. Still, strong enough to ring a bell!

Les Halfhill said...

To Anonymous,

Yeah, I think the Guest House WAS the New American. But the hotel name wasn't National Grandee. It may come back to me some day.

Kat Thornton said...

I was 11 years old and living with my family in Kaohsiung at the time. We were also told to stay inside during that 3-day period. We got word of the embassy flag burning and the riots. Rumors were flying about more riots. Even after the "all clear" we were not treated with the same friendliness or courtesy as before. It was a dark time, true. I remember the absolute panic of the Taiwanese and our fear of being killed. We stayed in Taiwan for another year and a half before returning to the US.

Bfamily96 said...

I was stationed with a small Army Finance detachment in Taipei from January, 1976 to March, 1979. This was the best assignment in my twenty-year career. Our unit was a detachment from the Finance Office out of Camp Zama, Japan. We had a six person military office with three ROC civilian employees. With just six military members we had just enough to put together our bowling team. We were always good enough to vie for first place. Even though I was a mediocre bowler at best, I recall having one night where I could do no wrong, and I ended with a 300 game. Our Finance Officer was a Captain, and he was one of our best bowlers. Over the years I progressed from Staff Sergeant to Sergeant First Class. So initially I was the second ranking enlisted person to finally being the ranking enlisted person. After the draw-down began, all our personnel were gradually disbanded and withdrawn except for myself. I moved to the Navy Disbursing Office on West Compound where I performed as the lone Army liaison between Navy Disbursing and Camp Zama Finance. In addition to payroll processing, my expertise was travel reimbursement. I computed all Army travel payments, and the Navy Disbursing Officer reviewed them for accuracy. Occasionally I would make minor mistakes in computation of travel, and the Navy Disbursing Officer would point them out. This p-ssed me off no end. An Army Finance Officer would never have had enough expertise to do so. I had vast respect for him. I met my future wife at the China Seas Club. I recall very fond memories of this time. After dating her for more than two years, I finally convinced her to marry me. Unlike most tales, my Mother-in-Law is great as she helped convince her daughter to marry. We were married in Taipei only a few weeks before I was finally one of the last military members to leave in early March, 1979. We had our Honeymoon in Hawaii. We have been happily married for 35 years. Although I recall a few incidents of locals protesting the U.S. recognition of the PRC, I don't recall them being really dangerous. What I do recall is that the punishment for robbery with or without a weapon was often death, so the ROC government kept the protests in control.