- By Isabella Proia

Founded in 1921 by three brothers, Oscar, Benjamin, and Ralph Lazrus, the Benrus Watch Company aimed to provide affordable American-made wristwatches with reliable Swiss movements. The middle brother, Benjamin, for whom the company was named, served in WWI. The company’s offices, where the watches were also assembled, were in the iconic Hippodrome Theatre in midtown Manhattan. During WWII, Benrus manufactured watches and timing devices for American forces fighting overseas. One of their early successes was with the Sky Chief, Benrus’s first chronograph. Benrus continued to produce watches under contract with the United States Armed Forces, and were one of very few brands producing U.S. military-issued watches in the 1960s, as the U.S. increased their presence in Southeast Asia.

The U.S. had a covert presence in Vietnam beginning in the mid-1950s, far earlier than the large-scale mobilization seen after the Gulf of Tonkin incident which occurred in 1964. The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) in particular had operatives in place starting in 1954. They worked steadily in the region, operating in Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos, until the U.S. signed the Paris Peace Accords in 1973 and began the withdrawal of all U.S. personnel. These CIA operatives were acting as advisors, and they had very few obvious military designations.

Under the guidelines of MIL-W-3818 specifications, released 17 October 1962, Benrus first produced the DTU-2A/P with a parkerized (dulled) steel case, matte black dial with luminous indexes depicting military time, luminous hands, central seconds, and an orange-tipped hour hand. Depictions of this specification even delineate the exact spacing between numerals and indexes and the specific color, black. The Ultra-Deep, on the other hand, is likely a predecessor of the Type I and Type II, with its parkerized monocoque case, rotating bezel, and luminous dial.

Naturally, with both an escalation of U.S. military involvement in Vietnam, Benrus watches were bound to end up in Southeast Asia. The present pair of watches have established CIA provenance, as they are consigned by the daughter of United States Air Force Senior Master Sergeant James J. Stanford, who wore both watches during his tours in Laos in the 1960s and 1970s. According to his Wikipedia page, Stanford was assigned to the Kingdom of Laos in early 1966 to advise General Vang Pao on air operations for the Laotian Civil War.

In the accompanying signed provenance letter, his daughter writes, “These were very special to him, issued by the CIA while working on what is known now (according to the CIA website) as the largest paramilitary operation ever undertaken by the CIA and took place in the Kingdom of Laos in the 1960s and 1970s for 13 years.” She continues, “Each time he volunteered he had a process known as ‘sheep dipping.’ All signs of association with the military and government was removed. This gave the USA plausible deniability as the USA only recently acknowledged we were ever in the country of Laos. We grew up with the stories of Laotian General Vang Po and Tony Poe that were the inspiration for Marlon Brando’s Army special forces colonel-gone-rogue in the 1979 movie, Apocalypse Now. He worked with these guys every day.”

When we saw him packing these watches, we knew he would be leaving us for many months. He told us that these watches were the only ones that would not get fouled in the shroud lines of his parachutes and he could use them underwater because they glowed in the dark. As kids, my brother and I marvelled at the glow-in-the-dark dials and worried that the bad guys could find him. ‘Don’t worry, in the jungle the watch glow looks like fireflies.’”

Stanford flew 218 combat missions in Laos and Vietnam with these watches strapped to his wrist, using them to time the period between bombings. This year, Stanford will be inducted to the Air Force Special Operations Combat Control Hall of Fame for his outstanding service and achievements

These watches, fitted on their original NATO straps, have long been suspected of being used by the CIA for covert purposes, but these are perhaps the first-known public appearance of timepieces that are confirmed to have been worn by a CIA agent during active duty in Vietnam.