Cold War Covert Activites
on Saipan & Elsewhere in the Region
(CIA Activities on Saipan and the Period of the Naval Tactical Unit (NTTU))
By William H. Stewart, Military Historical Cartographer & Economist
I have been interested in the history of the Northern Marianas and especially a period in the fifties and early sixties on Saipan when the Central Intelligence Agency under the cover of the United States Navy operated a facility known as the Naval Technical Training Unit or NTTU. Physical verification of their presence is still very much in evidence on Capitol Hill (then known as Army Hill) such as the administration building, service station, staff housing, bachelor officer quarters, snack-bar, barber shop, post office, a theater - auditorium and the building housing the former recreational facility, “Top A Tapi” night club located on the road below the summit of Mt. Tapotchau, the island's highest volcanic peak (1,554 feet / 474 meters),
The houses used by NTTU staff were divided into two areas: 1200 block housing was assigned to civilians and high ranking enlisted personnel while 1300 block housing on the opposite side of the hill accommodated military officers and the location of the chief of station's residence, the largest and most opulent within the housing complex. It is not known if this individual was one of the CIA's "super grades" (the civilian equivalent of a general).
As incongruous as it may be -- tour buses now point out the former CIA facilities on Saipan and describe the agencies activities to the curious Chinese, Japanese, Russian and Korean tourists -- a rainy day day diversion for those with nothing better to do as a alternative to confinement in the island's resort hotels while avoiding rain soaked golf courses.
Today, other than the housing units of which some are used as government offices in addition to housing local government personnel -- many former NTTU buildings are used for administrative purposes by the Northern Marianas Government. Assets acquired at no cost to the local government.
The entire Marpi area from what is now the vicinity of the former Japanese Airlines owned Nikko Hotel northward and sites on the Kagman Peninsula were among the areas on Saipan where access was restricted to only NTTU personnel and their trainees.
After the U.S. invasion in 1944 the Army constructed an air strip at Kagman on the eastern side of Saipan for use by P-38 Lockheed "Lightening" and P-61 Northrop "Black Widow" fighters. In the fifties and early sixties NTTU operated the air-field for transporting personnel to be trained. Portions of the landing strip can still be seen in the vicinity of the Lao Lao Bay Golf Course.
David M. Sablan, a highly respected businessman on Saipan remembers, "the organization that initially set up what was later known as NTTU was known as Far Eastern Foundation. The Naval Administration was tasked to care for the island's civilian population and provide logistical support for NTTU."
"No one from the Naval Administration was allowed to enter the Marpi Point area at the north end of the island except the Commanding Officer, Paul Bridwell. Indeed, no unauthorized personnel was permitted to visit Saipan unless their application for entry was approved by the Commander Naval Forces Marianas, (COMNAVMAR) and the Island Government Officer, Lt. Commander Myles King, USN, of the Admiral's Staff on Guam."
"All applications were first referred to Saipan and if approved COMNAVMAR would issue a Navy clearance to enter Saipan. This process could take two to three months awaiting approval. Even people from Guam had to go through the tedious process. Since my dad was the Mayor of Saipan, I was privileged to move freely between Guam and Saipan while attending school on Guam."
David Sablan remembers after graduation from George Washington High School on Guam in 1952, working for the GM distributors and renting vehicles for $5 a day to NTTU personnel and their families when they flew to Guam in an unmarked DC-6 landing at the Naval Air Station in Agana for purposes of one day shopping trips since in those days Saipan had only a few locally owned stores with very limited inventory.
In 1962 NTTU abandoned their operation on Saipan and the Naval Military Government was also closed down leaving the buildings and homes to support the operation of the Government of the Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands and the area's High Commissioner, Maurice Wilfrid Goding (from 1961 to 1966).
The cost of this infrastructure in 1951 dollars was approximately $30 million.The replacement cost in 2008 would exceed $221 million. With the exception of the government housing -- all serve different uses today for the local government from those of the Cold War - NTTU period.
If you were born after 1950 and lived in the United States you probably recall the survival drills conducted at your school. It was a time when the Cold War turned hot with the conflict on the Korean Peninsula with saber rattling extending throughout that decade and into the sixties when, in 1961, President Kennedy inherited the CIA’s planned invasion of Cuba. It was a period when the Berlin Wall was erected and when the U.S.S.R. detonated a hydrogen bomb. By 1962, the Cuban missile crisis had brought the world to the brink of atomic war while elsewhere in Southeast Asia the number of U.S. military advisors to Vietnam was rapidly being increased, their purpose to halt Communist expansion into South Vietnam and other southeast Asian countries.
To understand the events precipitating the United States involvement in covert activities and the use of Saipan then under the authority of United States as administrator of the area for the United Nations Security Council it is necessary to understand the period of global competition which developed between the United States and the Soviet Union and mainland "Red" China following the Second World War.
In 1946, following the conclusion of hostilities in World War II, civil war broke out in China between the Nationalist faction under Chiang Kai-shek and the Communist leader Mao Zedong. The Communists were victorious in 1949 in forcing Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek, head of the Kuomintang Party of Nationalist China, to flee the mainland and his Communists adversaries for nearby Taiwan (Formosa). Remnants of his army followed him and he soon established a government in exile and, with U.S. support eventually obtained a seat in the U.N as the Republic of China (ROC) which it held for the next 25 years until 1975.
At the time of Chiang's flight from the mainland it was thought that as many as a million nationalist guerrillas remained behind in the Communist led Peoples Republic of China (PRC) who would rise up to join him should he return to the mainland.
When the United States and the Soviet Union forced Japan out of the Korean peninsula at the conclusion of World War II hostilities and established a temporary presence, within two years each nation left the peninsula after instilling within the society of each the economic and political philosophy of the two super powers.
The Soviets left behind a Communist country in the North while the U.S. left a democratic nation in place in the South. The dividing line between the two diverse surrogates as established in 1948 was the 38 parallel. Both countries soon wanted to unify the entire peninsula under their preferred, although conflicting, political system of each of the opposing governments. This conflict resulted in a war when the North invaded the South in June 1950 in an attempt to impose a Communist controlled government on the South. This was the first clash of the surrogate nations of the two titans of World War II, the United States and the Soviet Union.
The Democratic Peoples Republic of Korea, also known as Communist North Korea, invaded the Republic of Korea (South Korea) on June 25, 1950. Each side was supported by external powers and the conflict became a proxy war in the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union and the Peoples Republic of China. True to ancient Asian wisdom, "When two elephants fight the grass under their feet is trampled." Thus, for the two belligerents it's always better to wage your battles in someone else's country.
The U.S. intervened on the side of South Korea on July 5th and China moved to assist North Korea on November 1st. On the Chinese mainland the conflict is known as the "War to Resist America and Aid Korea." After three years of fighting the conflict resulted in a stalemate with a cease fire on July 27, 1953. No peace treaty has ever been signed.
One of the Cold War clandestine objectives of the CIA's covert facility on Saipan was to thwart communist expansion in Asia and to train and infiltrate the Communist China in support of Chiang's threat to unleash his army and return to the mainland and overthrow the Communist government. When it was pointed out that the army which had fled the mainland with him for the nearby island of Taiwan was -- by the early sixties as someone remarked, -- "old tigers without teeth", the effort lost much of the support of the United States and the invasion to reclaim the mainland never happened.
Author Tim Weiner in his book "Legacy of Ashes" writes, "the CIA's classified history of the Korean conflict reveals that many of the CIA operatives on Saipan didn't know what they were up against as they tried to infiltrate North Korea and China ostensibly to obtain intelligence and organize underground resistance among those opposed to the Communists.
Thousands of agents who had been trained on the island and who later infiltrated the two countries were never heard from again -- presumably killed or imprisoned and were written off as the cost of covert warfare during the Cold War period.
The United States was involved in unconventional warfare in Southeast Asia and the training base on Saipan was vital for that mission. This is evident in excerpts from a memorandum (1) from Brig. Gen. Edward G. Lansdale, Pentagon expert on guerrilla warfare, to Gen. Maxwell D. Taylor, President Kennedy's military adviser, on "Resources for Unconventional Warfare, SE. Asia.” Copies were sent to Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara, Secretary of State Dean Rusk and his brother Allen W. Dulles, Director of Central Intelligence. The memo was in response to a request for information on unconventional warfare resources in Southeast Asia and was compiled within the Department of Defense and the CIA. It stated:
“CIA maintains a field training station on the island of Saipan located approximately 160 miles northeast of Guam in the Marianas Islands. The installation is under Navy cover and is known as the Naval Technical Training Unit.
The primary mission of the Saipan Training Station is to provide physical facilities and competent instructor personnel to fulfill a variety of training requirements including intelligence tradecraft, communications, counter-intelligence and psychological warfare techniques. Training is performed in support of CIA activities conducted throughout the Far East area.
“In addition to the facilities described, CIA maintains a small ship of approximately 500 tons displacement and 140 feet in length. This vessel is used presently to provide surface transportation between Guam and Saipan. It has an American Captain and First Mate and a Philippine crew, and is operated under the cover of a commercial corporation with home offices in Baltimore, Maryland. Both the ship and the corporation have a potentially wider paramilitary application both in the Far East area and elsewhere.” (1)
Long time Saipan resident and former NTTU employee John Wilson recalled the vessel Four Winds was eventually sold to one of Saipan’s leading businessmen.
At the height of the Cold War, the United States constructed military bases extending from South Korea and Japan through Taiwan, the Philippines, Thailand and throughout Europe. The United States had hundreds of overseas military installations which circled the Soviet Union and China.
Considering the confrontation and clash of national objectives between the differing ideological participants of the Cold War during the fifties and sixties, it’s not too difficult to look back at what might have transpired in the region from the point of view of covert activities -- at least on the part of one of the national competitors. Saipan provided the United States with an ideal location for covert training in the black art of sabotage and insurgency.
The island was isolated and access was easily controlled and limited only to the military -- plus the island was close to Asia -- the region of interest and the source of recruits to be trained.
These elements made the island a natural choice for locating the secret training activity. One couldn’t ask for better circumstances from which to carry out a covert project away from the prying eyes of any adversary, the media and Congress. Saipan’s extreme distance from the United States in the 1950’s was a mind numbing, bone crushing propeller flight of 9-1/2 hours from San Francisco to Honolulu; Hawaii to Wake another 9-1/2 hours; Wake to Saipan still eight hours further.
For many years following the conclusion of hostilities in the Pacific Saipan was further isolated from nearby Guam as all passengers other than the military traveling to and from Guam -- which was also the air gateway to Saipan -- were required to have a security clearance. It was not until 1962 that the Navy lifted the requirement for security clearances as Mr. Sablan recalls above.
In those days the local population was exhausted by war and had little interest or knowledge of the world beyond the horizon. This added to the attraction of the island for NTTU’s clandestine purpose. Short wave radio and the Voice of America were the principle windows on the world for the local population. Indeed, less than ten years after the NTTU packed up and left the island in the early sixties, black and white taped CBS coaxial televised news with Walter Cronkite was still ten days late in reaching the island of Saipan by air.
It was long ago and the radio frequencies that filled the air waves around Guam and Saipan with invisible signals carrying teletype, telex, radio and to some extent television messages from around the Pacific rim were largely unheard by many of the local people in the villages of Saipan. Satellite and internet communication wasn't even dreamed of by the local residents.
Nationals from several Asian countries were trained covertly on Saipan by the NTTU. The Marianas, as part of Micronesia, was only one group within the eleven United Nations’ trusteeships that had evolved out of the flames of World War II and, as such, technically fell under the purview of the U.N.
Unlike the other ten trusteeship areas, the Northern Marianas and the rest of Micronesia were administered by the United States thru the Security Council where the U.S. not only had veto power but could conveniently observe the Counsel’s monitoring efforts of American stewardship of one of its several wards.
Article Five of the Trusteeship Agreement permitted the United States as the administering authority to "establish naval, military and air bases and to erect fortifications in the trust territory and to station and employ forces in the territory."
It has been alleged that the Agency helped break the power of the leftist Huks and was successful in helping elect Ramon Magsaysay president of the Philippines and later embraced Filipino dictator Ferdinand Marcos.
A former high ranking CIA official, Victor Marchetti, in his much censored book, "The CIA and the Cult of Intelligence" recounts the type of psychological warfare which could be undertaken. Citing one example, an American advisor to then Philippine Defense Minister Magsaysay, became involved in psychological warfare in the struggle against the Communist guerrilla Huks.
One such operation was related to the superstitious dread in the rural ares of the country. A small psywar group would enter a region and spread rumors that an aswang, a ghoul like, mythical vampire, roamed the area where the Communists were based. After giving time for the rumors to circulate among the guerrillas in the area -- it was learned where a Huk patrol would pass through an area. A camouflaged position was selected for launching an ambush -- when the opportunity finally arrived the last man in the column of passing guerrillas was quickly and silently snatched and dragged away. His neck was punctured vampire style with two pricks, his body hung upside down to let the blood drain and the corpse then placed back on the trail. As superstitious as most of the other rural Filipinos, the guerrilla insurgents fled the area.
After Mao's revolution it was alleged the CIA trained rebels to infiltrate into China, Manchuria, and Tibet in an attempt to destabilize the region.
During the Eisenhower administration, a puppet government was established in South Vietnam.
Paraphrasing John Prados’ comments in his book, “President’s Secret Wars” (2), the United States provided military aid to French Indochina and placed Diem, in power and ran operations in the Far East in the 1950s which involved covert operations against Communist insurgents in Thailand and the Philippines.
One might wonder what the U.N. had to do with the issue since some would consider United States presence in the islands following VJ Day the undisputed privilege of the victor in war. Simply and basically stated -- the U.S. point of view was -- you can’t take something from someone if you never recognized they owned it in the first place.
This reasoning resulted from the fact that the United States Government never recognized the islands as a permanent possession of any nation since they were taken from defeated Germany by the Allied Powers during World War One.
Subsequently assigned to Japan under a mandate from the League of Nations, the islands' status did not change after they were occupied by United States armed forces in 1944. Indeed, since their purchase by Germany from Spain in 1899, and their assignment to Japan for administration in 1920 by the League of Nations, the Northern Marianas had no recognized sovereign political identity among the countries of the world. From the time of Germany's loss of the islands they were never regarded as a permanent colony within the exclusive sovereignty of any nation, except of course, by Japan when it left the League before the outbreak of war -- but the U.S. never acknowledged Japan’s sovereignty.
At the conclusion of the war in the Pacific, the United States, not desiring to appear as having annexed the islands by virtue of "victor's rights", placed the islands under the supervision of the Security Council since the Marianas where considered to be within a strategic area of the western Pacific they were to be overseen through the Security Council where the United States had the power of policy rejection (i.e., interference).
This must not have been not lost on the CIA, also known as the “Company”. It eventually arranged for the construction of a base where trainees were later flown to Saipan at night by aircraft operated by Air America. As John Prados describes in “The President’s Secret Wars” the arrivals were blindfolded before being transported to the base and had no idea as to where they were and therefore could tell no one where they had been trained if captured and interrogated, a high probability known to the trainers if not the trainees.
At the time the accommodations of the NTTU staff on Saipan resembled a transplanted California suburb. These accommodations are still very much in evidence. Compared with the standard of living and style of construction on the island more than fifty years ago, Army Hill’s (now Capitol Hill) facilities of concrete, typhoon proof houses bore little resemblance to the rest of Saipan where the majority of structures were of wood and rusted corrugated metal roofs many of which were situated along pot holed, bone shattering coral roads.
There were occasional crisis for the CIA personnel when NTTU activities had to be temporarily closed or disguised for the visits of United Nations trusteeship’s visiting inspection delegations. When they left, training was resumed and once completed, personnel would be returned to their respective operating stations for mission assignments. These included sabotage strikes at selected targets and commando raids according to what limited information available.
During the 1950’s 300 operators were assigned to Taiwan to provide guerrilla training, engage in radio broadcasts and propaganda. The CIA operated in Taiwan under the cover of Western Enterprises, a front company. Several thousand guerrillas were trained to carry out raids and acts of sabotage in China.
Their aircraft dropped millions of anti-communist leaflets.
It has been alleged that in the early fifties Chinese agents were also trained on Saipan and then parachuted into several Manchurian provinces. The goal of "Team Wen", as it was known, was to infiltrate among the Manchurians and to attempt to encourage them to revolt.
While CIA-trained rebels were believed by some to be operating in China, the agency began focusing its attention on Tibet in 1956 and actively backed the Tibetan cause with arms, military training, money, and air support. The American Society for a Free Asia, funded by the CIA, attempted to gain American support by lobbying against the Chinese occupation of Tibet.
In October 1957 the first of numerous two-man teams of CIA-trained Tibetans parachuted into the mountains of Tibet. After China annexed several Tibetan provinces, an uprising failed in 1959, and the Dalai Lama escaped to India.
What motivated the NTTU recruits to participate in such dangerous covert activities? Did they participate because of patriotism? Were they impoverished and signed up for the money? Or was it the mercenary instinct and the promise of adventure which appeals to youth's sense of invincibility?
We can't pierce time's distant mask to ever know the answer. There is not even a plaque on Saipan to record the period.
In 1993, CIA Director R. James Woolsey told Congress that the files on the agency's activities in Tibet and several other of its covert operations during the Cold War would be opened. But the CIA has so far failed to do so.
In 1997 during the 50th anniversary of founding of the CIA, the organization’s former director, (the former President) George H.W. Bush stated: “To those who say we no longer need a CIA, I say you're nuts. To those who want to dismantle CIA or put it under some other department ... you're nuts, too. And to those who feel the right to know takes precedence over legitimate classification of documents, or over protecting our most precious asset, our people, the same to you. You're nuts, and so's the horse you came in on.”
Secrets Disclosed and Politics Revealed
It can't be reasoned that the above is unknown to the Chinese intelligence service since they probably apprehended and interrogated many of those trained on Saipan even though they may not have had the identity of the island revealed to them by name. The revelation of CIA activities during the height of the Cold War should come as no surprise to the Chinese even though the Agency strives to keep their role a secret under lock and key.
Today, the Peoples Republic of China holds massive amounts of United States Government debt and has become a major codependent financial and trading partner. A former foe -- now a financial backer. Whoever coined the phrase "politics makes strange bedfellows" didn't know how one day the observation would be so very much understated.
The United States has seriously eroded its international financial standing as a result of its trade and account deficit which are sustained only because foreign entities such as China's purchase U.S. stocks, bonds and other assets. In 2008 this imbalance amounted to more than $1.4 trillion and is growing daily by $1 billion. Much of this huge sum is invested by the Chinese government in U.S. Treasury notes and other instruments and stock purchases in some of America's leading financial institutions.
Sources: (1) “The Pentagon Papers”, Gravel Edition, Volume 2 Goerner, Fred, "The Search for Amelia Earhart", Doubleday, 1966 pp. 120-131 Marchetti, Victor,CIA, The Cult of Intelligence, Dell Publishing, New York, 1974 , p. 110
(2) Prados, John, “President’s Secret Wars”, William Morrow Company, New York, 1986 Weiner, Tim,"Legacy of Ashes, The History of the CIA", Doubleday, 2007 Mr. John Wilson, Sr., NTTU- 1959 - ‘62 and various unidentified sources from internet web sites including:
The Northern Mariana island of Saipan is 47 sq. miles (122 sq. km.) in area about 12.5 miles in length and 5.5 miles at its widest point and is slightly larger than Hong Kong. It is 1,275 nautical miles south east of Tokyo; 3,225 n. mi. west of Honolulu and 5,315 n. mi west of San Francisco situated at 15 degrees - 15 minutes North Latitude -- 145 degrees - 45 minutes East Longitude located in the typhoon belt of the western Pacific.
Island weather can be influenced by the Intertropical Convergence Zone
(ITC) and the thermal equator as well as the earth's Coriolis effect. As a result, 40 mile per hour winds are possible at all times within 72 hours.
I have long been interested in the NTTU period and tried to research it -- but hit a brick wall every time. A friend of mine, Lt. Commander James Johnson, (he arranged for the surrender of the stragglers on Anatahan in 1951) was on Saipan during part of the period of the NTTU presence. When I tried to get information about the facility from him -- he told me “Drop it Bill, it’s none of your business.”
Some readers may have known the late Father Gary Bradley, S.J. He once told me of a particular evening at a cocktail reception in Rome -- of all places -- where during the course of small talk a total stranger came up to him and said something to the effect, “So you are from Saipan -- Boy, we swept a lot of stuff under the rug there.”
What did that mean? Father Gary wasn’t interested enough to pursue the matter.
Lastly, I recall sometime ago in the early nineties the Northern Marianas Government was host to the Chief’s of Police for Southeast Asia and the Pacific region.
My wife was assigned to look after the wives of those that accompanied conference participants. The event was held at Coral Ocean Point Golf Club while Ann was hosting a tea in our home when the husband of one of the wives came to our house on Capital Hill to pick up his wife. He was the Chief of National Intelligence for the Philippines. The minute he stepped through the door upon arrival he exclaimed, “I have been here before! Now I know the island where I was taken to receive my training.” Apparently the man didn't know he had been trained on Saipan years before and must have been entertained at one of the Capital Hill houses which he immediately recognized -- since they are all identical.
Author Fred Goerner in his book” The Search For Amelia Earhart” describes his encounter with the NTTU on Saipan.
While I have no proof -- I believe the NTTU’s departure from Saipan was due in part as a result of Fred Goerner, who visited Saipan (uninvited) in the early sixties in search of a local indigenous person who may have remembered seeing, or hearing, of an American aviatrix rumored to have been picked up by the Japanese somewhere in the vast expanse of the Pacific far to the southeast of the Marianas and brought to Saipan after her aborted attempt to fly around the world in 1937.
While on Saipan Goerner met a NTTU official and was invited to their club to speak and later described his encounter in his book. Soon thereafter with the identity of the facilities becoming public knowledge the CIA abandoned the island and the Government of the Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands transferred its headquarters from Guam to Saipan where it occupied many of the abandoned structures. Whether the public exposure of the NTTU in the book actually participated the closure of the Saipan facilities is uncertain. The possibility can't be denied as -- "the cat was out of the bag."
Publisher's Note: During the 1962 -- ‘67 period of the Cold War, the author studied the “economics of national security” at the Industrial College of the Armed Forces (now National Defense University) and is the recipient of the Cold War Certificate of Recognition from the Defense Department for service with American embassies in Africa and Asia. He subsequently served with the Trust Territory as an advisor to the High Commissioner and later to the Northern Marianas Government as senior economist.