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 and eyes focused on a centuries-old Southern icon.
The friendly 71-year-old will talk to strangers about the magnificent tree, his artwork, or his passion for paleontology. A self-proclaimed chatterbox, deLoach will easily converse about almost any topic—except for his experience serving in the Vietnam War.
deLoach has sworn to secrecy much of he witnessed and conducted during his time in the U.S. Army, 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 U.S. Intelligence agency. While he has no evidence, deLoach said he believes he was singled out because his father was a well-known Air Force officer.
At 19, he found himself at the Pentagon taking tests with five other “boys.” The small group had been chosen, in part, for their computers skills and familiarity with 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 the Vietnam city of Saigon, where he met up with his training comrades.
“At first it was just us guys together," deLoach said. "We ran around town and thought we were hellraisers. We really weren’t—we were all very nerdy.”
His unit was headquartered inside 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 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, and everyone feared he might accidentally reveal top secret information.
“They took no chances with us,” deLoach said.
He also worked with high-ranking military personnel. They were men who had decades of experience and 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 he said the anti-war sentiment was quite strong. While deLoach was never personally harassed upon his return to domestic soil, he revealed other soldiers were spit on.
“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,” he said. “I come from a military family; we all served.”
When given the option to remain Stateside or return to Europe, deLoach traveled back overseas. In 1970, he was sent to Vienna where Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT) were taking place. The talks, which consisted of conferences and corresponding international treaties between the United States and the Soviet Union, were intended to limit the expansion of nuclear weapons and restrain the arms race.
DeLoach primarily 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,” he said.
DeLoach explained that 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 the country made an agreement with the Soviets.
Outside of work, deLoach enjoyed exploring Austria’s capital city. Luckily for him, he said his U.S. ambassador didn't care much for the opera and often handed over his tickets to deLoach.
Food was another perk of living in the embassy—deLoach allowed to eat as much as he wanted, whenever he wanted. But when his work in Vienna came to a close, deLoach remained in Europe for six months, hitchhiking throughout Italy, Greece and Turkey.
By 1971, he had again returned home; but he said 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. In addition, several of his professors were avowed communists and didn’t appreciate deLoach’s presence.
“I really didn’t care; I was apolitical at the time,” he said. “When you’re in intelligence, you don’t get involved in politics because you can’t remember.”
DeLoach couldn’t differentiate between what he’d read in the news and the messages he had transmitted. Also, penalties for revealing classified information included prison time.
“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.
Partly because of his quietness, he also had trouble connecting with his peers.
“I was really old in some ways," he said. "I had seen so much and done so much; I didn’t fit. I really felt (like) the odd man out.”
For years deLoach 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 led 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 and a particular kind of command. The work was challenging, it was physically and emotionally draining, but deLoach thrived.
“I’ve had some really really hard jobs, but I’ve enjoyed every one of them,” he said. “You can’t always choose the job you do, but you can choose the attitude.”