1st MIBARS In Vietnam!

 A Retrospective:

LTC Anthony F. Matta

01 June 1929 - 22 February 2014

Building Upon American Military History

In the Vietnam War

Photo Credit: MIV

Above:  MAJ Anthony F. Matta, commanding officer of "B" Detachment, 1st MIBARS, at his desk in the Detachment's operational area on the I Corps Compound, Spring 1967.

LTC Matta In Saigon, Fall 1967

Photo Credit: MIV

Above:  Lieutenant Colonel Anthony F. Matta, commanding officer, 1st MIBARS, presides at an awards ceremony on the roof of the battalion's headquarters in Saigon. 

In mid-December 1966, a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Air Force, a Forward Air Controller (FAC) with the 20th Tactical Air Support Squadron at DaNang Main Air Base in what was then the Republic of South Vietnam, brought his jeep to a screeching halt on the parking pad of "B" Detachment, 1st Military Intelligence Battalion (Air Reconnaissance Support). The 1st MIBARS, tasked with supporting the South Vietnamese military forces and their American advisors, was located in the southeast corner of Fort Phuong Tri Nguyen, headquarters of the commanding general of Military Region I of the Army of the Republic of Vietnam.

That morning the FAC, while on patrol just outside of DaNang, had observed a large number of individuals on the ground, clad in the black pajama-like garb often associated with the Viet Cong, scattering at his approach. Before considering an air strike on presumed hostile forces, this FAC wanted to ensure that the area represented a bona fide military target, so he came to meet with the Commanding Officer of the local 1st MIBARS unit, "B" Detachment, to learn what he might about the location in question.

MAJ Anthony F. Matta, the "B" Detachment CO, was only recently assigned to DaNang. He escorted the FAC to the unitís tactical imagery interpretation facility where imagery interpretation staff searched for existing photographic imagery or analyses of the area that had been overflown. None were found and monsoon weather made the timely receipt of imagery through normal air reconnaissance sources unpredictable. So MAJ Matta immediately proposed that the FAC fly back to the area with a member of "B" Detachment who would take photographs of any activity and ground features. Two volunteers, CWO4 Walter Dierks, an Imagery Interpretation Section lead, and 1LT Jeff Walker, the Reproduction Section Chief, were scheduled to fly with the FAC the following day.  Despite low clouds and intermittent rain, pictures were obtained of apparent civilians fleeing a palm grove, the trees of which obscured entrances to underground bunkers. "B" Detachment was not equipped by its mission to process conventional photography, so the film was developed by hand in a trash can by Reproduction Section Sergeant Hideo Shimazu using developer and fixer intended for use with large format aerial film.  Prints were made using a hobbyist photographic enlarger of Japanese manufacture that MAJ Matta hurriedly authorized Supply Sergeant Walter Ayers to purchase from the post exchange. "B" Detachmentís analysts identified the location as a probable Viet Cong indoctrination center where local populations were pressed into service as guerrilla fighters, subjected to Communist propaganda during the evenings after day-long labor in the rice paddies, made to provide food and forced to store cached weapons, ammunition and other war materiel.  All of this, from start to finish, was accomplished within 24 hours of the FAC's landing from the second mission.  The "probable" assigned by the Imagery Interpretation Section was confirmed by a ground force that soon destroyed the facility and, one must assume, dispersed or disrupted the VC cadre at the site.  

All of this was a good outcome from a snap decision to engage an unexpected target of opportunity.  But in a broader view, on this day MAJ Matta extended the 1st MIBARS into a very unique and adjunctive tradition of military intelligence data-gathering that  had existed for 150 years.  Military services have sent men aloft to gather information on opposing forces since the French launched balloons in the 19th Century.  During the American Civil War, observers in balloons, trailing telegraph wires, keyed observation reports to the ground.  In the same tradition, during the conflicts of the 20th Century -- aircraft have been fitted with cameras for service in World War I, World War II and Korea.  In Vietnam, the US Army established Reconnaissance Airplane Companies to maximize forward air controller capabilities and put trained eyes above the battlefield, but no provision was made to afford imagery interpretation specialists the opportunity to observe first-hand what they were responsible for identifying from photographs or to use their interpretative skills in ongoing operations.  So, MAJ Matta took the 1st MIBARS beyond its assigned mission in order to respond to a USAF attack pilotís need for information before deploying deadly force that may have harmed innocent civilians. He helped to establish the fact that no force of enemy combat troops was closing in clandestinely on DaNang, he helped close a VC propaganda center that pressed villagers into guerilla warfare service, confiscated their food and subjected them to peril through military action in the countryside. But more broadly, he demonstrated cooperative possibilities where 1st MIBARS elements could work effectively and directly with local air resources and ground troops to promote success in offensive and defensive operations.  This operation marked the beginning of what MAJ Matta called the "Hand-held Camera Program."  To support this initiative, he worked with ARVN authorities on the I Corps Compound and a Naval Construction Battalion in nearby Red Beach to construct a facility for processing conventional film.  He was soon promoted to lieutenant colonel and was assigned to be battalion commander of the 1st MIBARS where he established hand-held camera programs in the battalionís other detachments.  Some 40 years later, a document entitled Monthly Operations Report For April 1970 was posted on the World Wide Web.  It reflected -- in part -- the following mission activities:  Number of Hand-held Missions Flown:  136, and Number of Hand-held prints made: 18,906.  This would have been at least two years after LTC Matta left 1st MIBARS, so it seems clear that the program and associated operating relationships with air and ground operations in the Republic of South Vietnam thrived well beyond his departure from "B" Detachment and the battalion.  His accomplishments after leaving "B" Detachment for Saigon must be left to others to chronicle.

The text of Colonel Matta's obituary, excerpted below, reveals that he entered the US Army in the enlisted ranks, being accepted to, completing and graduating from Officer Candidate School shortly thereafter.  This varied background undoubtedly accounted for his ability to communicate and act productively across ranks and services.  At a "B" Detachment picnic on the I Corps Compound in early 1967, then-Major Matta was publicly and loudly challenged to a drinking contest by a characteristically outspoken SP5 Imagery Interpreter.  MAJ Matta unhesitatingly filled his cup when the 3.2 percent beer being served was replaced by a bottle of hard liquor.  A scant 20 minutes later, if memory serves correctly, the SP5 was losing his lunch over a G.I. can while MAJ Matta sat smilingly from a folding chair at a portable olive drab field table finishing up his cigar.  Every eye in the detachment was on him.  Leadership in a war zone takes many forms.        

Did the work of the 1st MIBARS impact the conduct of the war in Vietnam?  Who can say, but the Battalion did reach out to -- and work with -- other organizations and services to assist in the conduct of the war and support American fighting men.  Was Anthony F. Matta a hero of the Vietnam War?  No, of course not.  But he was an effective officer who, without portfolio, went beyond the stated mission of his command, worked cooperatively and productively with other organizations, and challenged the skills and creativity of his troops.  For that he is worthy of remembrance and respect.  

In Memory Of Anthony F. Matta

"Anthony Matta, age 84, of Nanuet, died Saturday, February 22, 2014 with his family by his side.  Anthony was born on June 6, 1929 in Mount Vernon, New York to Anthony and Loretta Frances (Thompson) Matta.  He attended school in Mount Vernon and entered the United States Army in 1951 during the Korean conflict.  He graduated from Officer Candidate School in 1952 and retired as a Lt. Col. after serving for 29 years.  During his Army career, he served as an exchange officer with the British Army of the Rhine.  He was a battalion commander of an intelligence battalion serving in Vietnam in 1966 and 1967.  Anthony is a recipient of the Legion of Merit, the second highest award of meritorious service.  He is also a recipient of the Bronze Star and Army Air Medal.  After retiring from the Army, he was employed by Allstate Insurance Company for 20 years.  He is survived by his wife, Lorene Allen Matta and was the father of Robert and Paul Marinello.  He was predeceased by his brothers James and Frank and is survived by his brother Richard Matta and three grandchildren Joseph, Laura, and Francesca Marinello.  Mass of Christian Burial will be [was] held on Thursday, 10am, at St. Anthony's Church, Nanuet, NY" 

Michael J. Higgins Funeral Service, Inc., 321 South Main Street, New York, NY 10956



"The Mission - Then Some More"

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