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"Are you there?" Chapin asked.
"Yes. Put him on."
"Ah, no. I mean he wants to speak to you here in New York.
Would you come up here at your earliest convenience, say, tomorrow?"
Though taken aback, Whitey agreed and was told to show himself at the security desk at the president-elect's transition headquarters at the Hotel Pierre in New York.
Clean-cut young men monitored security cameras in the reception area just off the elevator on the 39th floor. One of the most clean-cut and youngest greeted Whitey and said he was Dwight Chapin. He looked as if he wanted to ask Whitey to bare the contents of his old leather briefcase, then decided against it.
He escorted Whitey to a living room in the suite overlooking Fifth Avenue and brought him coffee. After ten minutes Richard Nixon walked in. He wore a dark suit and appeared to Whitey to have just shaved. His face was clear and jovial. He carried a yellow legal pad with many scribbled notes.
"Ah, General, what a pleasure, sir. Be seated, be seated."
Chapin brought coffee without being asked. Nixon sat on a silk sofa with his back to a window.
"I am," he said, "preparing to build a new government. I want to be perfectly frank with you. We met only briefly when I was vice president for General Eisenhower, but I remember quite well your insistence with General Ridgeway we not involve American forces on the ground with the French at Dien Bien Phu. I am aware also of how you stood up to Johnson and McNamara to stop them from picking air-strike targets in North Vietnam at their Tuesday lunches. And I know why you have resigned from the Air Force. You are a man of integrity." He sipped his coffee incessantly. He continued.
"Now, I want you to know how I feel, and what my aims and goals are. I have little or no confidence in the State Department. The Foreign Service didn't see fit to include me in their briefings when I was vice president. Unlike Johnson, I intend to run foreign policy from the White House. And I do not intend to let those Ivy League liberals from the CIA figure in my plans for foreign policy. Also, unlike Johnson, I do not intend to ignore the military while making tactical decisions for them. I do intend to rely on your experience and what you have to say."
He wet his lips. "Now then, my plan for the Vietnam War is threefold.
First, I want the military to turn over combat responsibility to the South Vietnamese.
There must be a training, a phase-in period, to accomplish this. During this time I want us to provide air and logistical support. In the second phase, I want us to help the South Vietnamese develop their own support capabilities, factories and the like, with our training. Lastly, US forces would revert to only an advisory role, as when we started over there in 1961.
Throughout this plan, which Mel Laird calls Vietnamization, I will gradually reduce the amount of our forces in Southeast Asia." He regarded Whitey. "If you are at odds with these ideas, I wish to hear you say so now, For if you are, I would like for you to take a few days and tell me what it might be you would change."
Whitey leaned back. "Mister President, I am no longer in the Air Force, hence not privy to inner council happenings. I am not qualified to say one way or another on Vietnamization except perhaps to ask if you have consulted the Vietnamese."
"Not to the extent I will once in office."
"Mister President, there is something of the utmost importance I wish to bring to your attention. You did not mention it in your campaign, therefore I feel you must be made aware of a most serious problem."
Nixon looked puzzled and waved him to continue. Whitey dug into his briefcase and produced his most current "black. board."
MIA/KIA ---EQ_W AIRCRAFT.
USAF 452 240 1054.
USN 253 132 448.
USMC 81 20 247.
USA 179 59 544(Helios) TOTAL 965 451 2291 Nixon frowned an instant, then lit up. "Oh, yes, I've heard about your famous board and how you won't let the Commander in Chief forget his men for an instant. Very commendable.
I shall want you to keep that up for me."
"I beg your pardon, sir, but I no longer work for the government."
Nixon gave a short laugh. "I have already spoken to our mutual friend John Duchane, and he informs me he will be happy to see you once more in government service and will certainly hold your job for you should you decide to return to the military."
Nixon leaned forward. "I would like to recall you as a lieutenant general, effective my inaugural Day the twentieth of next January."
At that moment one of the men White had noticed earlier in the hall entered the room without knocking. Whitey guessed he was in response to a pressed b.u.t.ton.
"Oh, yes, General," Nixon said in his deep halting voice, "this is Bob Haldeman." A green-eyed slender man with a crew cut stood before them.
Whitey had read up on Nixon's aides and future chief of staff. H. R.
"Bob" Haldeman, a former very tough Los Angeles advertising executive, was the keeper of the gates. He controlled all access to the president-elect. He had said in private to close friends that he was Nixon's "no-man," that Nixon had to have an SOB in his entourage, and he was it. He was going to be a very important staffer in the White House.
Staffers did not require Senate approval, nor did they have to answer to Congress, as did presidential Cabinet appointees.
"Bob, this is the Air Force officer I told you about. The one who stood up to, ah, Johnson about his targeting missions, and McNamara about the Stennis Committee."
Haldeman shook hands with a firm, dry grasp.
"Sir," Haldeman said to Nixon, "your call to Henry Kissinger is ready now."
"I'll take it in the other room," Nixon said and rose and said to Whitey, "I'll be back. I have something for you to do. In the meantime Bob here will tell you how we do things around here.
And Bob, fix the General up with a direct phone line from, ah, his house to my office here, will you?" He walked out the door.
"Here is the deal," Haldeman said without warmth or preamble. "I don't want any end runs."
Whitey raised an eyebrow without answering.
"No end runs," Haldeman continued in a crisp voice. "That means no papers go to the President without pa.s.sing through a staffer, and no conversations with the President without a staffer present."
"Staffer?" Whitey said, thinking that this young man was rather full of himself and wondering if this was his personal policy or if he had been so advised by Nixon himself.
"I am the chief of staff. There are others. Dwight Chapin works for me. John Ehrlichman, he, ah, works here too. But not for me. With me, actually, even though I am the one who brought him on board." He p.r.o.nounced the words with some asperity. "There are others. You will get to know them." He got up from the edge of his desk and sat on the leather chair behind it. "Now, I'm not sure just what your job was over there," Haldeman continued. "Special a.s.sistant to the NSC for air power or special a.s.sistant to the President for air power, or something like that. Here you will be a.s.sistant to the President, no special attached."
"If I accept," Whitey said.
"If.? You mean there is some doubt?"
Whitey looked at him. Work with a man like this? -most definitely there is some doubt."
"Even if you are promoted?" Haldeman looked startled.
"Even if I am promoted."
The President walked back in. "Kissinger will be here tomorrow," he said to Haldeman, who nodded and left the room, "Now, then," Nixon said. "I would like you to perform almost the same duties for me as you have for President Johnson. That is, you will be my special liaison with the Department of Defense.
I have a first task for you."
Whitey took a deep breath, ready to say "no." He had made up his mind.
There was nothing Richard Nixon could offer him that would induce him to return to active duty. Of course, the President could always recall him involuntarily, but he doubted if Nixon would do that. There was nothing he could offer to induce him to return. He already saw himself at the controls of Excalibur. Nixon spoke.
"I want you to devote your time to determining how we can rescue American prisoners of war."
1530 Hours LOCAL, TUESDAY 5 NOVEMBER 1, 1968 WATTAY AiRPORT ROYALTY OF LAOS.
Court Bannister and Wolf Lochert climbed down from the Pilatus Porter and reached in for their equipment bags and AK-47s. They were both dirty, b.l.o.o.d.y, caked with old sweat, and staggering from lack of sleep.
They shouldered the bags and silently walked to the Air America flight operations shack.
Their pilot, red-haired Dave Little, gunned the big turbo and taxied down the ramp to load for another run, his eighth of the day.
Inside the ops shack they dropped their gear and got a c.o.ke and a beer from the makeshift snack bar, then stood in front of the floor fan to cool off. Court drained his beer, got another, and finished half before he spoke.
I don't get it. How can we win and still lose at the same time?"
Wolf grunted. They walked to a small wooden table and sat down. I don't know how they pulled it off unless all that fighting at the top was a cover for it." He thought for a few minutes, then told Court about the Spetsnaz code. "They will die just to die," he said. "Their training goes on forever. It is so brutal and dangerous that it changes the man from whatever he was before to a highly trained animal, contemptuous of life. They don't die for Rodina, the motherland, or for communism, or for any way of life. They don't even sacrifice themselves for each other. They have no friends and form no friendships. When they die, they die to show their contempt for whatever is around them.
They use death to prove they don't care about existence."
"Whatever the reason, they got away with three of our men and that big radar tube."
After the battle was over and the Jolly Green had lifted off with the Powerses, Mister Sam had gathered together the survivors for roll call and to determine the extent of the damage.
Pearson, Verbell, and a young technician were missing. When they had gone to the rocks where the severed harness straps hung and had had more time to look around, they had found strange rappelling gear hidden next to the rocks. They had lowered themselves down to the limestone caves and found footprints mixed with blood scuffled in the dirt. More rappelling gear hung from the cave down the side of the cliff to a wide ledge several hundred feet below.
"They made the s.n.a.t.c.h here and were picked up by a helicopter down there," Wolf had reasoned.
When they had returned to the radar van, the technicians had said the big Klystron tube had been taken from the TSQ-81 radar set, and that was really strange, because there was nothing special about the tube. They were even available on the surplus market in the States.
Court and Wolf drank in silence. Jim Polter was scheduled to pick them up in a few minutes. Court was struggling to subdue thoughts both ugly and lonely. He had just shot and strangled men, chopped one with a shovel, lost the girl he loved to cancer and his operations officer to a karst mountain.
Wolf, with a warrior's consummate wisdom, surmised what Court was going through. He looked at him with gentle eyes, knowing what he was going to say, while true, was not enough.
"Time, my friend, time."
Shawn Bannister and Richard Connert stepped down from the ICC plane with several East Bloc journalists and were taken to the one-story cement civilian terminal. The trip had been very hot and extremely b.u.mpy. They had been whisked from the disastrous interview with Flak Apple and held almost under guard for three days until the ICC plane was due out.
Whatever the big event was they had promised Shawn he could cover was never mentioned. And they never saw Thach again, but some thin-faced Vietnamese had taken them once more to the shoot-down museum and to several sites they said American air pirates had wantonly destroyed.
Outside of a five-minute propaganda broadcast he had made for Radio Hanoi, Shawn had shown no interest, and Connert was desperate to get to US soil with the magazine from Flak. Both men elbowed their way to the Thai Airways counter to purchase tickets for Bangkok and were told they would depart in a few Hours. The two men bought beers and sat under the slowly turning ceiling fan.
"I'm still not sure you did the right thing, Connert," Shawn said for the tenth time on the trip. "Pushing those guys so hard for another visit to that awful place." Shawn had made up his mind never to go back to Hanoi.
"I had to make it look real, didn't I? After all, we had a lot of cameras focused on us. As the only Americans, we had to show some concern for one of our countrymen, particularly a black one. You are going after votes, you know, and black votes count just as much as white."
"I suppose you're right." Shawn had never really thought about the hundreds of Americans held in Hanoi.
"And it might just guarantee us a trip back next year."
"Hmmm, maybe." Shawn Bannister had no intention of ever returning to this h.e.l.l hole of Southeast Asia for any reason, votes or no votes. He stood up and paced in anxiety and boredom. "Look, I can't stand this.
Let's get a rickshaw or whatever they have for a ride into the town. I hear Vilay Phone's is a good place to buy gold."
Jim Polter picked up Court and Wolf in his jeep and headed for town, saying he had to make one stop, then they would go to his villa for some refreshments. He said he had been told the Powerses were in Bangkok, where Babs was being attended to in the 5th Field Hospital. He had been well briefed by Mister Sam's radio report, but listened with awe to Wolf and Court's detailed report.
"h.e.l.l of a deal," he said when they were finished. He drove down the road toward Vientiane. The air was cool and humid under an overcast.
The smell of the sewage by the road was p.r.o.nounced. "Now let me tell you about a certain broadcast from Hanoi," he said. "Better bite down on something, Courtyour half-bro really did a number on the United States. Here's a transcript." He produced a paper from a breast pocket that Court took and read as they bounced along.
"I am Shawn Bannister, broadcasting to you from war torn but courageous Hanoi in the Democratic Republic of Vietnam. As an American, I am ashamed of what my so-called countrymen are doing to this small defenseless nation in an attempt to take over and exploit Vietnam, just as the colonialist French did. American Navy, Air Force, and Marine flyers are making deliberate terror raids on hospitals and schools in a genocidal attempt to subdue these gentle people. If you are an American soldier in South Vietnam or a sailor at sea or an airman, lay down your arms and convince your officers that what they are doing is criminal and they will be held accountable. I and the peace-loving people of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam urge you to accept peace as your goal.
This is Shawn Bannister, speaking to you from Hanoi in the Democratic Republic of Vietnam."
Court's face flamed red when he finished reading, and he crumpled the paper in his fist.
"Hang on," Polter said as he spun the wheel of the jeep. "I got to pick up something at the jeweler's." He wheeled in front of Vilay Phone's and stopped, as Shawn Bannister and Richard Connert, arms laden with gifts wrapped in brown paper, walked from the shop.
Totally forgetting his legend, Connert's face lit up as he recognized Court Bannister. Connert had just returned from an extremely hazardous combat mission and was ready for the accolades of his warrior contemporaries. But it was not to be, of course.
Court, his face a raging mask, shouldered by him and grabbed his half-brother, sending his packages flying. Before Shawn could say a word, Court had him in a headlock and jammed the wadded-up Hanoi broadcast into his mouth. Connert stood by, helpless to move. He wanted to cheer, but couldn't make a sound.
"Here, you sorry son of a b.i.t.c.h," Court said, and twisted quickly and flung Shawn into Connert, who staggered back into the wall, regained his balance, and eased Shawn to his feet.
Polter led a furious Court to the jeep, saying he'd pick up his package some other time. Wolf Lochert sat there shaking his head as they drove off.
Connert watched them go. For the first time it truly dawned on him how much he had given up to infiltrate the Movement. He would never, ever forget the look of scorn on Court Bannister's face. He tried to compose a look of concern as he turned to Shawn Bannister. Maybe someday he would be able to tell both Bannisters what his true mission had been. He would like to see Court's expression change, see the recognition on his face of a fellow warrior. And Shawn's face, too. Oh yes, that would be priceless.
Meanwhile Connert knew he would have to continue in his role, content with the expression on another man's face: the one instantaneous look of pure joy he had received from Flak Apple, when Apple realized his country had sent someone in to contact him and his fellow POWs. And he knew that expression made it all worthwhile.
Whistling silently to himself, he took Shawn's arm, nodded agreement to whatever Shawn was muttering, and walked off down the street.