To the roughly 40,000 people who visit the Lowcountry’s treasured Angel Oak tree each year, Frank deLoach is an approachable artist, sitting beneath the tree’s canopy, hands trained on a large canvas, eyes focused on a centuries-old southern icon.
The friendly 71-year-old man will talk to strangers about the magnificent tree, his artwork, or his passion for paleontology. A self-proclaimed chatterbox, he’ll converse about almost anything. Except for his experiences serving in the United States Army during the Vietnam War.
Much of what he saw and did while in service is sworn to secrecy even though it’s been almost 50 years since he left Vietnam.
In 1968, deLoach had just finished his freshman year at Georgia Tech University in Atlanta when he was recruited by officials from a United States Intelligence agency. While he has no evidence, deLoach said he believes he was singled out because his father was a well-known officer in the U.S. Air Force.
At 19, he found himself at the Pentagon taking tests with five other “boys.” The small group had been chosen in part for their skill with computers and familiarity of cryptography.
“We were clueless as to what we were going to be doing,” deLoach said. “We only knew it would have something to do with communications.”
Soon he reported to Military Assistance Command (MACV) Headquarters in Saigon where he met up with his comrades from training.
“At first it was just us guys together, we ran around town and thought we were hellraisers,” deLoach recalled. “We really weren’t- we were all very nerdy.”
Their headquarters was inside of a French Villa where maids cooked and cleaned for the soldiers. There was also a movie theater on site.
deLoach and the others were tasked with typing, sending, and receiving messages between the United States and General Abrams in Vietnam. As they learned more about their role, the group became serious and more cautious.
“We saw things that nobody saw,” deLoach said. “We were right in the middle of history.”
His group was held to very high standards, they were constantly scrutinized. Officials warned the young men about all the possible ways that the enemy might ambush their covert operation. They were even told to be wary of pretty girls out and about downtown because they might be undercover. deLoach said one of the nicest guys in his group, a sergeant, was sent back to the United States because he talked in his sleep. Everyone feared he might reveal top secret information by accident.
“They took no chances with us,” deLoach said.
deLoach worked with high ranking military personnel. Men who had decades of experience, men who were masterminds of military knowledge. But their success depended completely on the abilities of deLoach and his fellow “computer guys.”
“It was very strange,” deLoach said. “Our position was critical because we understood computers and the old guys didn’t.”
At one point during his 12 months in Vietnam, deLoach was hospitalized for an illness. His weight dropped to 93 pounds and he injured his foot. He struggled to recover and never regained full health while in Saigon. In 1969 he flew back to the United States, landing in Oakland, California, where the anti-war sentiment was very strong. Other soldiers were spit on when they returned. However, nobody harassed deLoach.
“I think because I looked so wretched people left me alone,” deLoach said. “I just walked through the airport, I looked pretty bad.”
Even if he had been targeted, deLoach said he wouldn’t have cared.
“I was (in Vietnam) to do my job,” deLoach said. “I come from a military family, we all served.”
Next he had a choice between staying in the United States or heading to Europe, deLoach chose to go abroad. In 1970, he was sent to Vienna where Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT) were taking place. The talks were made up of conferences and corresponding international treaties between the United States and the Soviet Union. The talks intended to limit the expansion of nuclear weapons and restrain the arms race.
He worked out of the American Embassy in Vienna, where a new communication center had been built, outfitted with the latest electronic equipment.
“Once again, being young and immature, I find myself in the middle of all this,” deLoach said.
He relayed high level messages between Henry Kissinger and President Richard Nixon. Eventually, the United States reached some milestones in its foreign policy efforts when an agreement was made between the U.S. and the Soviets.
Outside of work, deLoach enjoyed exploring Austria’s capital city. And to his dismay, the U.S. ambassador did not care for the opera so he regularly gave his tickets to deLoach. Another perk of living in the embassy was the food. He could eat as much as he wanted, whenever he wanted.
When his work in Vienna came to an end, deLoach stayed in Europe for six months. He hitchhiked throughout Italy, Greece and Turkey.
By 1971 he was back home but he found his country drastically different. So much had happened between 1968 and 1971. Feeling disconnected from his academic start at Georgia Tech, deLoach enrolled in a small liberal arts college in Wisconsin. He was the only Vietnam Veteran on campus. Several of his professors were avowed communists, they didn’t appreciate deLoach’s presence.
“I really didn’t care, I was apolitical at the time,” deLoach said. “When you’re in intelligence, you don’t get involved in politics because you can’t remember.”
He couldn’t differentiate between what he’d read in the news and the messages he had transmitted.
“You don’t talk about world affairs when you do that kind of work because it all mashes together and you don’t want to say something that you’ll regret later,” deLoach said.
Penalties for revealing classified information included prison time.
Partly because of his quietness, he had trouble connecting with his peers.
“I was really old in some ways- I had seen so much and done so much- I didn’t fit,” deLoach said. “I really felt the odd man out.”
For years he grappled with the challenge of integrating back into society. But later he learned that his experience as a Vietnam Veteran gave him an edge over others in the labor force.
In his professional career, deLoach worked for 35 years in education. He created and lead programs that dealt with troubled youth. An odd match for such a tiny man, but his involvement in Vietnam had given him a certain confidence, a particular kind of command. The work was challenging, it was physically and emotionally draining. But he thrived.
“I’ve had some really really hard jobs but I’ve enjoyed every one of them,” deLoach said. “You can’t always choose the job you do but you can choose the attitude.”