George H. Wittman
Publication Date: 28th November 2021
Publisher: Casemate UK
Page Length: 312 Pages
Genre: Espionage Thriller
It is the summer of 1945, the last and very dangerous days of World War II. The Office of Strategic Services is in close, cooperative contact with Ho Chi Minh and the fighting cadre of the Viet Minh, working against the Japanese. In the closing months of the war, the OSS parachute a team of special operations soldiers into Tonkin, northern Viet Nam. Based on the little-known true story of American and Viet Minh collaboration in 1945, this novel challenges the later-accepted dogma of both those supporting and those opposing the American role in the Viet Nam conflict.
It’s not unusual for there to be a story behind the story with fiction, but with “fact-based military fiction” as my Dad described his book, how much of that origin story can actually be told?
My father, the late George H. Wittman, was often described as a “Renaissance man”. It was an accurate description, as he wrote both fiction and nonfiction prolifically. He had an encyclopaedic knowledge of history and international affairs. He was an expert analyst with a lifetime of highly specialised on-the-ground expertise. He was a brilliant raconteur – a natural storyteller and will always remain the guy who was able to make me laugh more than anyone in the world, He was also an intelligence officer.
I’m allowed to say that now, as the statement sits in the Author’s Note at the beginning of “There Was a Time” published just eight months after his passing. In keeping with what has become family tradition, I can let that statement stand, but not much more.
My dad grew up on Army bases around the United States and was directly inspired by his father Col. George H. Wittman Sr. who landed on Omaha Beach on D-day Plus 6 and was awarded the French Legion d’ Honneur, Bronze Star, Army Commander Ribbon, 2 Croix de Guerre with Palm and 2 Battle Stars in the European Theatre. Dad joined the Army reserve in the fall of 1950 with the intention of working towards his commission. He was instead recruited into intelligence work. As his career developed, he undertook extensive sensitive assignments across the world.
In his Author’s Note, he explains his relationship to the story;
“I was assigned to the Indochina Branch after returning from Europe on my first assignment as an intelligence officer. I was supposed to go directly to the Far East in the summer of 1954 but was assigned to the Vietnam desk and subsequently the newly created Cambodia/Laos desk. About a year later, I went out to the field in covert operations for the Indochina Branch. Not once did I hear from official sources of the extensive contact that Office of Strategic Services (OSS) had had with Ho Chi Minh and other leaders of the Viet Minh. I learned about that years later. It was a matter never discussed during the 1950s and never taken advantage of in the 1960s.”
My siblings and I had always been instructed to say “Foreign Affairs Analyst” should anyone ask what our father did. We didn’t know much beyond that anyway, having been kept in the dark as much as possible. In seventh grade, my Social Studies teacher went around the room asking each student to tell the class what their father did. “Foreign Affairs Analyst” I mumbled. “Oh, and what is that - what does he do at work?” Silence. “So he’s like a doctor – A psychoanalyst? I nodded no, then spluttered “well, um…I mean…uh, yes. I guess…” realising I shouldn’t and likely couldn’t say any more. I was massively relieved to leave it at that as she moved on to the next kid, whose dad worked for the Post Office.
It was only in later years that Dad began to use the phrase “intelligence officer” in the bylines or brief biographies that followed the innumerable expert and insightful weekly articles on a vast array of international topics and events that he wrote for thirteen years for “The American Spectator” and later for “The Washington Times” and “AND Magazine”, among others. And then only when the subject of the article fully warranted it.
There Was a Time is not autobiographical as such. It is based directly on the stories, exploits and information shared with my father by the people directly involved in the activities of the OSS in Vietnam and their contact with Ho Chi Minh and the Viet Minh during the spring and summer of 1945. Dad’s friendship with these men - and the stories - continued to be shared down the decades that followed.
However, I certainly recognise many aspects of the various characters’ inner journeys, the relationships between them, and the situations and struggles as stories my father may well have fervently wished to tell – perhaps even from first-hand experience.
But he was far too legitimate an artist to simply write a thinly disguised autobiography. As fascinating a story as that surely would have been, it was one he had refused all this life to write down literally or in full – though some suggested he should.
Agreed by many colleagues and foreign correspondents such as David Halberstam, Donald Wise, John Bulloch and John Tiffin, to name just a few, as the most ethical of men – and often described as a true American patriot, even a hero by some, my father also steadfastly resisted any political allegiance throughout his life.
Despite the secrecy, he did have just a few stories he loved to tell us when we had matured enough to appreciate them. One involved a nondescript briefcase, expertly pilfered from his room when he was staying at a hotel overseas. It had contained nothing more than a box of very nice cigars and, hidden in a secret compartment, a report on “The Effects of Methane Gas in Lake Kivu”. This document had nothing to do with the business at hand. He’d recount how he was still angry at the loss of those nice cigars – but delighted at the thought of someone earnestly poring over, perhaps even trying to decode the substantial Lake Kivu Methane report in search of non-existent covert meaning.
I was fortunate to have had so many amazing conversations, indeed heated debates with him down the years – as we did not always hold the same views. Sometimes he would win the argument with a wry smile; “Just read my stuff!” I had that emblazoned on a t-shirt for him one Christmas.
Now he is there within the lines, or perhaps between the lines of There Was a Time. Just read his stuff.
And to those guys still working hard on decoding “The Effects of Methane Gas in Lake Kivu”…I think you can stop now.
The sound of heavy fire reverberated through the stone walls of the church. A small group of men dressed in traditional, working-class, civilian clothes huddled against the protective sides of the ancient walls. Each man was wrapped with bandoliers of ammunition and carried a rifle. Some had German “potato masher” grenades attached to their belts. They had made their way down from the Vosges Mountains to a small town southeast of Nancy as soon as they had heard the Americans were close. The Germans still put up a serious defense as they withdrew in order. This group of maquis eagerly looked forward to greeting their liberators. It had been a long and bloody fight between the elusive maquisards and the relentless Germans. No quarter given—none asked. The American tanks had to be just a few blocks away. The tallest of the men, speaking French with an unmistakable American accent, shouted above the din of the exploding tank shells that everyone should stay where they were. The old church shook from the impact of the firing on nearby buildings. The tall, gaunt American looked around the doorway to see exactly where the tanks were. They could all hear the rumble and metallic grinding of gears in between the noise of the detonations. One of the maquisards, an older man with a large grey mustache typical of the region, disregarding the advice of the American, dashed around him with a white flag made of a dingy grey scarf. The old man was oblivious to the voices screaming at him as he joyously jumped up and down with the rag attached to his rifle. A Sherman tank turned the corner. The machine gun mounted on the turret sprayed down the street as the gunner swept all moving objects in range. The old man died instantly as the tank rolled on, unmindful of what had just happened. The gunner thought he was taking fire from one of the roofs and directed his weapon upwards. Another tank followed and blew away the entire tile roof. The little town was completely “liberated” within the next 15 minutes. 2 Slowly townspeople appeared from the rubble of their destroyed homes and the cellars of those left standing. They cheered the infantry that followed the tanks. No one blamed the Americans for what had happened to their town. They were liberated now and that was all that mattered. The American dragged the body of the old man to the side of the road and, with the help of one of the maquisards, carried the corpse back into the church. No one said anything. The rifle with the scarf still attached was laid by the old man’s side. The American untied the scarf and slipped it around the dead man’s neck. They all crossed themselves—even the American, who wasn’t even Catholic. Their war had ended.
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