Tom Poole was a Green Beret, a member of the Special Forces, in Vietnam in 1964. Later he became a Central Intelligence operative in Laos commanding mercenaries along the Ho Chi Minh Trail during the “Secret War” in 1970.
The 62-year-old Punta Gorda, Fla. city councilman’s adventures in Southeast Asia began when he accepted a challenge from newly elected President John F. Kennedy.
“I was a senior in college but wasn’t doing well. JFK had mentioned it was a badge of honor to be a symbol of excellence,” he recalled. “I wanted to see if I was tough enough to go into Special Forces.”
Poole quit school and joined the Army. After basic training at Fort Gordon, Ga., he went to Fort Bragg, N.C., headquarters of the Green Berets. While at Bragg, he injured his knee playing football. He wound up as a medic in the 41st Infantry Division.
When he had his knee rehabilitated, he re-applied for jump school and Special Forces training.
“When I got to Bragg, they asked me if I wanted to continue as a medic. I told them no. I thought I was better at putting holes in people,” Poole said with a smile. “I became a combat engineer.”
After graduation, his first overseas assignment was with the 6th Special Forces teaching the Pakistan Special Forces. While he was doing that, the American 10th Special Forces was teaching the Indian Special Forces the same stuff. A short time later, the Indians and the Pakistanis went to war and wiped out each others’ forces. These were the troops Poole and his fellow Green Berets trained.
About the time of the “Gulf of Tonkin Attack,” in 1964, the 5th Special Forces were deployed to Vietnam. Poole wanted to go, but had to re-enlist for an extra year because his first hitch was about to run out. He was back in ‘Nam by March 1965.
He spent his year in the highlands as an A-Team Camp leader with a detachment of Montagnard tribesmen. They were hill people who hated the Vietnamese. They loved being paid and trained by the Special Forces to kill them.
“I had my own company of Montagnard troops, about 120. We’d go out in the field for five days at a time, interdict the North Vietnam Army and Viet Cong and respond,” Poole said.
When he completed last year in Vietnam, he returned to the United States and went back to school to obtain his degree in mechanical engineering at Virginia Polytechnic Institute. For six months, he worked for a petroleum pipeline firm, but he longed for the action of Vietnam.
“I interviewed with the Agency (CIA),” he said. “They told me they weren’t looking for engineers. My response was, ‘You’re always looking for people who have worked with indigenous forces and know how to shoot a gun.’ ”
They hired him on the spot for a two-year tour in Vietnam.
After CIA training, he returned to South Vietnam as an agent. He was sent to Qui Nhon Province as an advisor to Special Branch, the equivalent of our CIA and FBI combined. He was back in the states by 1970.
After three months home, Poole was asked by the agency to return to Southeast Asia. But this time he was being sent to Laos as a CIA commander in the “Secret War.” He accepted. The “Secret War” was orchestrated by President Richard Nixon and the Department of Defense. It was an effort to rid Laos of Communist North Vietnam troops.
“Because of my Vietnam experience, I was assigned to take command of a Laotian raider unit in Pake, the southern most zone in Laos. Our mission was to interdict the Ho Chi Minh Trail,” Poole said.
“I had a company of these raiders,” he said. “They operated in 10-man teams, much like our Special Forces. They were very good.
“The basic ambush was to have two guys split on the left and right. The other six members of the team would lay in wait with their claymore mines that would strip out the engine, and their M-72 light anti-tank launchers, that would blow a big hole in a truck.
“The enemy trucks would come along and my raiders would fire everything they had at them, shoot a magazine of bullets and haul it. They’d get away from the trail. We’d resupply them and they’d do it again,” Poole said.
He spent ’70 and part of ’71 as commander of the unit. Poole handle the logistics, planning and coordinating the air strikes. Then he was transferred.
“About that time, NVA troops were overrunning our main base on the Plain des Jarres at Long Tieng in the northern part of the country,” Poole said. “I had a friend who was in charge of the Thai mercenary troops up there. He asked me to come up and take control of three Thai battalions.”
The situation was that 15 Thai battalions were facing three NVA divisions. It pitted approximately 15,000 mercenaries against 40,000 communist troops,” he explained. “These were all hard-core NVA troops equipped with long-range artillery and T-34 Russian built tanks.”
Poole found himself in the middle of the 1972 “Easter Offensive” in Laos. They were surrounded at Long Tieng for more than three months by thousands of NVA soldiers. The enemy’s 130 mm Russian-built artillery piece were far superior to anything the CIA-lead forces had at this battle in the way of big guns. They had a much longer range, 27 kilometers. The enemy’s heavy artillery could sweep the defenders away without being in range of the Thai cannons.
“At one time, we had so many killed they were evacuating them down to a big air force base in Laos and putting the bodies on dry ice in containers until they could sort ’em out,” he said.
“Thai mercenaries were pretty good soldiers. Many of them were veterans of Vietnam. I think the best thing about them was they couldn’t read a map, so they didn’t know which way to run. They had to stay and fight.”
The battle, which ran from January into April 1972, was the largest land engagement the Americans were involved in, in Southeast Asia, according to Poole. The engagement was fought in the ancestral territory of the Hmong and the headquarters of Gen. Dang Pao, their leader.
For some time, the general and his Hmong troops had been facing off against the NVA who snuck over the North Vietnamese border along the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Finally the NVA attacked en masse. That’s about the time Poole arrived on the scene. He and his Thai mercenaries backed up what was left of Pao’s native soldiers.
Over a period of several months, the CIA-led mercenaries, with the help of lots of American firepower, overwhelmed the much larger enemy divisions.
“We fought them off and held our ground until their casualties were so high that they pulled a couple of NVA divisions off to go over and help out in South Vietnam. When that happened, we were able to take back our ground and push the one remaining NVA division out,” Poole said.
The former CIA operative had kind words for Air America, the CIA’s covert air transport system that flew troops and equipment into Long Tieng during the time the village was encircled by the NVA.
“I once saw a Caribou bring in a bunch of Thai mercenaries right under the NVA guns,” he said. “The Caribous would land and pull in behind this big rock formation so the enemy artillery couldn’t reach them. They’d sit there and wait for a lull and then they’d take off again. I was told they had to change tires after two landings because shrapnel on the runway was tearing up their tires. Air America was very special.”
Poole completed his two-year hitch with the agency in Southeast Asia and returned to the CIA’s Washington, D.C., headquarters. After that, he was sent to Morocco in North Africa to train Moroccan paratroopers how to rappel out of helicopters. He went from there to Beirut, Lebanon, but was chased out of the country after six months because they thought he was an Israeli spy.
His next assignment was Athens, Greece, and a “highly secret project.” In 1976, he was posted to Angola during the tail end of the Angola War. He spent two years in Turkey but moved on to the CIA’s language school where he learned Spanish. Then he was dispatched to Argentina for a couple of years.
Poole says he spent the last of his 22 years with the CIA “putzing around” in this country. Eighteen of those years he served with the agency abroad.
“One of my favorite memories (with the CIA) was arriving at American Ambassador G. McCurtley Godley’s headquarters in Saigon to brief him about the Thai mercenaries’ victory on the Plains des Jarres in northern Laos. He was standing in his office door waiting for us with a tray filled with champagne glasses. The ambassador had just learned from covert means that the NVA high command had pulled out two divisions on the plains.”
For his efforts as commander of three Thai mercenary battalions during the “Easter Offensive,” Poole received the Intelligence Star. It’s the second highest medal presented by the CIA to members of the agency for bravery.
The only honors higher are the black stars on the “Wall of Honor” at the entrance of CIA headquarters in Washington, D.C. The 39 stars commemorate agents who have died in engagements with enemy forces while serving their country.
Asked how he liked the decades he spent with the CIA, Poole said, “I loved it. You were living your cover and doing three things at once. But the biggest thing is, you’re doing something worthwhile.”
Tom Poole first came to this area in 1988 at the helm of a sailboat he was sailing from Bradenton to Miami.
“I happened to pull into Charlotte Harbor on my way to Miami. I was fascinated by the fact there were no high rise buildings around the harbor. It was such a beautiful setting,” he said. “I stopped in Punta Gorda later and bought a house in Punta Gorda Isles in 1988.”
He took early retirement from the Central Intelligence Agency and moved here permanently in 1989. He got involved with the Punta Gorda Civic Association and later served as its president for two years.
That got Poole into politics. A friend urged him to run for the City Council last year and agreed to put $500 in the pot to launch his political campaign. He won a seat on the board.
By that time, he had sold his house in PGI and was living in a historic home in downtown Punta Gorda.
This story was first published in the Charlotte Sun newspaper, Port Charlotte, Fla. on Tuesday, Sept. 3, 2002 and is republished with permission.
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