June 15, 2017–Every so often there’s a spy story that brings back the (supposed) romance of the second oldest profession. These are the kinds of narratives that enthrall kids and make them want to grow up to be spies. It may be that the age has passed–the machine spies, the computer hackers, the drone pilots, the faceless bureaucrats of the modern spyocracy do little to evoke the foggy streets and dark alleys of classic espionage. Samuel Vaughan Wilson is today’s story. He passed away a few days ago. For someone who roamed five continents and the seven seas, Wilson made it full circle to die at 93, in the same small Virginia town where he was born in 1923. Wilson was the real thing.
It was 1940, with war clouds on the horizon and Europe already enveloped in World War II, when Sam walked seven miles in the rain to enlist in the Virginia National Guard. Soon enough the Guard were mobilized. Wilson rose to sergeant before he was selected for officer candidate school, from which he emerged in good form. The Army sent him to Burma with the 4507th Provisional Infantry Regiment, famous as “Merrill’s Marauders.” He became regimental intelligence officer to Brigadier General Frank B. Merrill. Wilson personally scouted behind Japanese lines to prepare Merrill’s first attack. When Hollywood made a movie about the Marauders in 1962, Wilson actually appeared in the film, using the name Vaughan Wilson to play Merrill’s aide.
Army troops in Burma had a very close, almost interchangeable, relationship with the spooks of the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), which had a unit there called Detachment 101. Wilson made his first contacts with a number of people he would encounter again later. He spent roughly a third of his career on detached service with the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), starting with four years with a Russian-immersion unit called “Detachment R.” That prepped him for assignment to the CIA base in West Berlin. Wilson occupied a place perhaps just one step below the CIA’s top Soviet case officers, George Kisevalter and Richard Kovich. Wilson became the agency’s first case officer for Igor Orlov, an agent whom people variously view as either an important spy or a Russian mole. There were other espionage assignments too. In 1963 Wilson was assigned to the Pentagon office supporting the CIA and its Project MONGOOSE aimed at Fidel Castro. In his later guise as a college president Wilson recalled browsing book stalls in Paris, Moscow, Beijing, and Tokyo; and strolling through the marketplaces of Baghdad, Marrakesh, Samarkand, and Ulaan Bator.
Then there was the Army. It sent him to South Vietnam. As a colonel when Henry Cabot Lodge was the U.S. ambassador in Saigon, Wilson served as military adviser to South Vietnamese General Nguyen Khanh. In January 1964 Khanh launched a coup that overthrew the junta of the time. Colonel Wilson became the man on the spot, funneling spot reports to Ambassador Lodge on ops of the South Vietnamese airborne brigade, Khanh’s securing of the command compound at Tan Son Nhut airbase, and his schedule. When Maxwell D. Taylor succeeded Lodge, Colonel Wilson became the U.S. military attaché. Over the holidays in 1964-65 Taylor, held in high esteem by President Lyndon Johnson, assembled his country team to consider whether to support the dispatch of American troops to South Vietnam. Wilson opposed that. He returned to Vietnam in 1966-67 as head of pacification under the Agency for International Development. Successes and failures at pacification further soured Wilson on the war.
In 1971 Brigadier General Wilson went to Moscow as U.S. military attaché. Even that late in his career the general is reported to have attempted on-the-street recruitments on behalf of CIA. The Soviets did not ignore him. Wilson is said to have been the target of a Russian “swallow,” a female spy who recruits using her wiles. Returning to the United States in 1973, Major General Wilson won assignment to head the Directorate of Estimates at the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA). Following a year there, in September 1974 Wilson returned to the CIA as Bill Colby’s deputy to liaise with the other members of the intelligence community. He held that job until May 1976, when Lieutenant General Wilson became the director of DIA in his own right. Wilson is quoted as telling his people that Sherlock Holmes had become a better role model than James Bond.
The Carter administration took office in January 1977 and it made a start on new special forces and tactics, in the style of Detachment 101 and Merrill’s Marauders. General Wilson advocated for the initiative and put in the good word. He also furnished valuable advice to Colonel Charles Beckwith, originator of Special Forces Operational Detachment-Delta. That unit, the Delta Force, was in the works as Sam Wilson retired in the fall of 1977. In the Iran Hostage Crisis the Delta Force carried out the rescue mission that failed at Desert One. Sam Wilson came out of retirement to serve on the Pentagon panel that reviewed the execution of Operation EAGLE CLAW, as the mission had been known. Wilson remained in demand as a consultant, and educator, and he circled back to his boyhood town. Altogether an interesting trajectory.