How a CIA operation in Indonesia turned the Vietnam War

A former World War II Dutch resistance fighter played a key role in the US Central Intelligence Agency’s (CIA) theft of Indonesian military secret manuals on the SA-2 surface-to-air missile, allowing the Americans to develop countermeasures against the deadly weapon in the early stages of the Vietnam War.

The inside story of the long-faded episode appears in “In Red Weather”, a new book by Daniel Cameron, a Surabaya-based CIA undercover agent during the lead up to the army’s bloody purge of the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI) in 1965-66 that claimed more than 500,000 lives.

Wim Vermeulen, the husband of a willowy Dutch art dealer, received a commendation from the CIA in 1970 for his covert work in obtaining four manuals and an actual guidance pod of the Soviet SA-2, the first surface-to-air-guided missile system used in combat and which the North Vietnamese used to shoot down American warplanes.

The SA-2 Guideline had proved itself in 1959 when China, in an incident hushed up at the time, shot down a Taiwanese Canberra bomber flying at 65,000 feet. But it gained world-wide attention a year later when a similar missile strike downed Gary Powers’ high-flying U-2 spy plane over Russia.

As part of North Vietnam’s arsenal, it very soon became an effective weapon against high-altitude bombers attacking Hanoi and the nearby port of Haiphong that were out of range of 23 mm and 37 mm anti-aircraft guns.