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It was not a proud day to be an American. As our CH-46 Marine helicopter lifted off the roof of the American Embassy in Saigon at 5:30 a.m., April 30, 1975–taking the last of the Americans, except for the Marine guards, to USS Okinawa and safety–the full extent of our betrayal struck home. The 420 evacuees below, whom we had given our solemn promise not to abandon, began to press at the Marine guards then withdrawing into the embassy.
But it was too late. America had not only fecklessly abandoned its erstwhile ally in its time of most desperate need but also had shamefully abandoned the last several hundred of those evacuees who had trusted America to the very end. Included were the local firemen who had refused earlier evacuation so as to be on hand if one of the evacuation helicopters crashed into the landing zone in the embassy courtyard; a German priest with a number of Vietnamese orphans; and members of the Republic of Korea (ROK) embassy, including several ROK Central Intelligence Agency officers who chose to remain to the end to allow civilians to be evacuated ahead of them and who would later be executed in cold blood by the North Vietnamese invaders.
The worst of it was that it was all unintentional, the result of a breakdown in communication between those on the ground running the embassy evacuation, those offshore with the fleet controlling the helicopters, and those in Honolulu and Washington who were making the final decisions. In short, it was the Vietnam War all over again.
My return to Vietnam in July 1974 had begun on an entirely different note from my earlier tour in 1966-1967. The contrast with my first tour, when I was the battalion S-3 (operations officer) of the 1st Battalion, 2nd Infantry, 1st Infantry Division, and later, after being wounded for the second time, as a G-3 operations officer with II Field Force Vietnam, could not have been more stark. In 1975, Vietnam was practically at peace.
It was so peaceful that my wife and 18-year-old younger son accompanied me to Saigon, joining a number of other families of the U.S. Mission–i.e., the U.S. Embassy staff; the 50 military members of the Defense Attaché Office (DAO); and the small U.S. delegation of the Four-Party Joint Military Team (FPJMT), to which I was assigned as chief of the negotiations division. The embassy was located in downtown Saigon, but the DAO and the FPJMT were located at the old MACV (Military Assistance Command, Vietnam) compound at Tan Son Nhut Air Base in suburban Saigon some miles away.
Thomas Polgar, who was the CIA station chief at the time, commented in an article in the August 1989 Vietnam Magazine ('Managing the Company Store'): 'In 1973-1974 I routinely drove from Saigon to My Tho in the Delta…and let my people drive to Da Lat. The principal roads throughout the country were basically safe for daytime travel.'
When my older son, then a cadet at West Point, joined us for Christmas vacation in 1974, the two boys wanted to join an embassy group driving to Vung Tau to go swimming. I refused, remembering the two U.S. divisions that had been needed to open that road less than a decade before through what was then extremely hostile country.
But the Viet Cong had practically disappeared some six years earlier in the aftermath of the 1968 Tet Offensive. From then until the signing of the Paris Peace Accords in January 1973, the war was primarily between North Vietnamese Army (NVA) regulars and the Republic of Vietnam Armed Forces (RVNAF), with the Viet Cong playing almost no role at all. And, after Tet '68, the United States began to disengage as well. Following the Battle of Hamburger Hill in May 1969, all U.S. tactical offensive operations were severely curtailed, and by July 1969 the U.S. troop withdrawal began. By August 1972 all U.S. ground forces had departed.
By March 1973, in accordance with the Paris Accords, all remaining U.S. military forces, with the exception of the 50-man DAO and the members of the FPJMT, had left Vietnam. What fighting there was in 1973 was limited to skirmishes in the hinterlands between the RVNAF and the 15 NVA divisions, including 149,000 combat troops and 71,000 support troops, which were allowed to remain in South Vietnam under the terms of the Paris Accords. Many would later blame those accords for the collapse of South Vietnam.
Interestingly enough, CIA station chief Polgar did not agree. As he said in his August 1989 interview with Vietnam Magazine, he 'considered the Paris Peace Treaty a reasonable and honorable compromise as written and signed….The problem was that as the North Vietnamese sensed and observed a weakening of American will and commitment to continue the support of South Vietnam, the Communists became increasingly contemptuous of the letter and spirit of the Paris Treaty. Had the provisions of the Paris Treaty been enforced as, for example, the provisions of the 1953 Korean Armistice Agreement were enforced, the continuity of an independent, if feeble, South Vietnam could have been assured over a period of many years.'
But that was not to be, for at the critical moment the United States reneged on its word. Not only did the Congress, as General Homer Smith has noted [in the April 1995 issue of Vietnam magazine ('Final Forty Five Days in Vietnam'), fail to appropriate the $1 billion in U.S. military assistance authorized by the Defense Assistance Vietnam program, but the U.S. government went back on its security guarantees as well.
'You have my absolute assurance that if Hanoi fails to abide by the terms of this agreement, it is my intention to take swift and severe retaliatory action,' said then President Richard Nixon in a note to South Vietnam's President Nguyen Van Thieu in November 1972 on the eve of the signing of the Paris Peace Accords. But less than two years later Nixon was out of office, brought down by the Watergate scandal.
At a meeting of the North Vietnamese Politburo in October 1974, Le Duan, Ho Chi Minh's successor, took note of that fact and 'drew an important conclusion that became a resolution.' Having already withdrawn from the South, he said, the United States could hardly jump back in, and no matter how it might intervene, it would be unable to save the Saigon administration from collapse.
Phuoc Long province northwest of Saigon was to be the test of that resolution. Relatively isolated, its defense consisted primarily of four 340-man Regional Force (i.e., local militia) battalions and a number of Popular Force (i.e., homeguard) platoons. Fire support consisted of four 155mm and 16 105mm howitzers employed in two-gun platoons throughout the sector.
Far outmatching these defenders was the attacking NVA 301st Corps, consisting of the newly formed 3rd NVA Division, the veteran 7th NVA Division, a tank battalion of Soviet-supplied T-54 tanks, an artillery regiment, an anti-aircraft artillery regiment, and local force sapper and infantry units. Launching its attack from its Cambodian sanctuaries on December 13, 1974, the 301st picked off the South Vietnamese outposts one by one, then concentrated its attack on the airfield at Song Be.
The garrison there was reinforced by the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) 2nd Battalion, 7th Infantry, which was helicoptered in from its base at Lai Khe. Six additional 105mm howitzers were helilifted in as well. Later, two companies of the ARVN 85th Airborne Ranger Battalion were also flown in.
But they were no match for the NVA, whose artillery was particularly devastating. By January 3, 1975, the NVA's rate of fire had increased to 3,000 rounds per day. 'Finally, on 6 January, the province chief realized that he could no longer influence the battle,' notes the official historical account of the battle.
'Under direct fire from four approaching T-54 tanks, and seriously wounded, he and what remained of his staff withdrew from Song Be,' the report reads. 'The NVA had captured the first provincial capital.' South Vietnamese losses were staggering. Over 5,400 ARVN and Regional and Popular forces were committed to the battle, and only some 850 survived. The province chief never made it to safety. About 3,000 civilians out of 30,000 or more escaped Communist control. 'The few province, village and hamlet officials who were captured were summarily executed,' according to the historical account. Tragic as those losses were, however, the battle had far grimmer consequences. The little-known battle for Phuoc Long was one of the most decisive battles of the war, for it marked the U.S. abandonment of its erstwhile ally to its fate. Le Duan's 'resolution' had been all too correct. In the face of this flagrant violation of the Paris Accords–and it was deliberately designed to be flagrant so as to clearly test U.S. resolve–President Gerald Ford pusillanimously limited his response to diplomatic notes. North Vietnam had received the green light for the conquest of South Vietnam.
As NVA General Van Tien Dung, who was to lead the final cross-border assault to overrun South Vietnam, noted at a Politburo conference on January 8, 1975, 'It was obvious that the United States…could hardly return….To fully exploit this great opportunity we had to conduct large-scale annihilating battles to destroy and disintegrate the enemy on a large scale.' The groundwork for the final NVA blitzkreig had been laid.
General Smith has detailed the consequences of that betrayal, as in March 1975 President Nguyen Van Thieu made the fateful decision to abandon the Central Highlands, and the whole South Vietnamese defense structure began to unravel. But not all of the ARVN collapsed. The 18th ARVN Infantry Division at Xuan Loc, some 40 miles northeast of Saigon, put up a valiant struggle.
From March 17, 1975, to April 5, 1975, the 18th ARVN Division held its ground, virtually destroying the 6th, 7th and 341st NVA divisions in the process. Only when the NVA brought in its 325th Division and also began moving its 10th and 304th divisions into place did the 18th ARVN Division finally give way. But it was too late, and by the last week in April NVA divisions were at the gates of Saigon. It was obvious to all that the end was at hand.
At the time the only open channel of communication between the United States and North Vietnam was through the FPJMT, which had been given diplomatic status by the Paris Accords. Regular FPJMT liaison flights between Saigon and Hanoi had been conducted since 1973.
Using out-of-country PACAF (Pacific Command Air Force) C-130 transports, the flights would include members of all four FPJMT delegations–the U.S., North Vietnamese, South Vietnamese and Viet Cong, officially the 'Provisional Revolutionary Government of South Vietnam,' or PRG. Just such a flight was scheduled for April 25, 1975, with the full knowledge that the North Vietnamese government in Hanoi was prepared to give its position on the U.S. withdrawal.
Having diplomatic status under the Paris Accords as the chief of the negotiations division of the U.S. delegation, I was ordered to make the trip, accompanied by my translator, Specialist 7 Garnett 'Bill' Bell (who after his retirement would remain active in POW/MIA affairs and for a time head the U.S. POW/MIA office in Hanoi).
A remarkably dedicated soldier, Bell had just returned from accompanying the bodies of his wife and children, along with his sole surviving daughter, to the United States. They had died in the crash of the C-5 'baby lift' evacuation aircraft on April 3, 1975 (see the Personality department, P. 10), a crash that also took the life of Barbara Kavulia, the Negotiation Division's civilian secretary. Although he had been told to remain in the States, Bell returned, for he knew he was our most qualified U.S. interpreter.
From start to finish the whole journey was a surreal, Kafkaesque affair. For starters, there were my negotiating instructions. The FPJMT had dual chains of command. One was through military channels through the DAO in Saigon and Pacific Command in Honolulu to Roger Shields, assistant secretary of defense for POW/MIA affairs in the Pentagon. The other was through diplomatic channels beginning with James Devine, the political/military officer in the embassy in Saigon. Since this was to be a diplomatic mission and I was a representative of the U.S. government, I sought out Devine to receive guidance on what terms the United States proposed.
But with then U.S. Ambassador Graham Martin, who had lost a stepson in combat in Vietnam, on the edge of physical and emotional collapse and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger in Washington reportedly in a blue funk over his 'betrayal' by North Vietnam's Le Duan, Devine was evidently as much in the dark as I was.
'What are my negotiating instructions?' I asked.
'Damned if I know,' he replied.
'But what am I supposed to do?' I said.
'Do the best you can,' was his answer.
If I had revealed those ad hoc instructions to the North Vietnamese, they would have thought I was trying to trick them, for everything they did, including specifying where we parked the C-130 at Gia Lam airport in Hanoi, had a political purpose. The C-130 had to be parked so that the passengers on the Chinese commercial flight to and from Canton had to walk under the wing of the U.S. aircraft to get in and out of the air terminal, evidently as a form of humiliation.
Hanoi, as might be imagined, was jubilant, with crowds thronging the streets. After years of struggle they had won on the battlefield what they had failed to win at the negotiating table.
'You know you never beat us on the battlefield,' I said to Colonel Tu, my NVA counterpart.
'That may be so,' he said, 'but it is also irrelevant.'
As expected, the North Vietnamese gave me the terms of the U.S. withdrawal. The DAO, which North Vietnam's propagandists falsely claimed numbered in the thousands, had to go in its entirety, they said. The FPJMT (whom they had been trying to involve in negotiations over reparations for war damage in return for information about POW/MIAs) had to stay, and the U.S. embassy could work out its own future.
Returning to Saigon, I was met by Eric von Marbod, then Secretary of Defense James Schlesinger's personal representative. 'That was the most screwed up situation in which I had ever been involved,' I reported. 'I could have given them a nuclear ultimatum and they would have believed me!'
'Why didn't you?' he said, only half in jest. I have since often wondered what would have happened if President Ford, then reportedly busy playing golf in a tournament in California, had done just that. But, like Pontius Pilate, both he and the Congress had washed their hands of Vietnam.
In the meantime, the NVA had continued to close the ring on Saigon. Sixteen NVA divisions were now poised for a three-pronged attack on the southern capital. The bitter end was at hand.
Earlier, anticipating that we might stay after the fall of Saigon, the U.S. FPJMT delegation had been drastically scaled back. Most of our military personnel had relocated to Thailand to form a rear detachment. And on April 20, 1975, the Pentagon authorized a special flight to evacuate all of our Vietnamese civilian employees and their families to Guam.
Remaining were Army Colonel John H. Madison, Jr., the delegation's chief; myself; my deputy, Army Captain (now Colonel) Stuart A. Herrington; Army Master Sgt. William B. Herron; Marine Gunnery Sgt. Ernest Pace; and Bill Bell.
For the past several weeks we had been busy assisting General Smith and the DAO staff with the fixed-wing evacuation of U.S. civilians, their families and selected Vietnamese personnel. We were constantly receiving priority messages from Washington directing us to pick up and evacuate senior Vietnamese officials and their families whose lives were in jeopardy because of the assistance they had rendered to the United States during the course of the war. Complicating this process was the fact that the South Vietnamese government had forbidden such an exodus, and South Vietnamese security police barred the gates at Tan Son Nhut. But thanks to the ingenuity of Captain Herrington, a superb officer and fluent Vietnamese linguist, these difficulties were overcome.
One of the most poignant moments came during the evacuation of the families of counterparts in the South Vietnamese FPJMT Delegation. One ARVN colonel was tearfully saying what he thought were his final goodbyes to his wife and children at the ramp of the aircraft carrying them to safety.
Suddenly, Herrington said to him, 'Get on the plane!'
In anguish the colonel said, 'I can't. I can't desert my country at this desperate moment.'
'Don't be a damn fool,' said Herrington. 'It's all over. President Thieu has left. The others are leaving. Get on the plane and take care of your family.' The colonel reluctantly complied.
At first I was furious. 'You know damn well Thieu hasn't left,' I said. 'And you know we're forbidden to evacuate any members of the armed forces. How dare you put a fellow officer in conflict between his duty and his family.'
But Herrington was right. It was only a matter of time before Thieu left and the country collapsed. Nothing that officer could have done would have changed anything. If he had stayed he would just have added to the numbers of fellow RVNAF officers in Socialist Republic of Vietnam concentration camps where, if he had not died, he would have languished for the next 17 years, for the last imprisoned ARVN officer was not released until 1992.
But, as General Smith has described, this fixed-wing evacuation came to an end with the NVA rocket attack on Tan Son Nhut that killed two Marine security guards, Lance Cpl. Darwin Judge and Corporal Charles McMahon.
On April 29, 1975, we moved from our headquarters at the DAO compound to the U.S. Embassy in downtown Saigon, fully prepared to remain in-country. No sooner had we arrived there, however, than it was found that Secretary of State Kissinger, reportedly in a fit of pique, had ordered all U.S. personnel out of Vietnam, including the FPJMT and the embassy staff.
While the evacuation at the DAO compound had already begun, the only evacuation from the embassy had been by a few Air America UH-1 helicopters from the roof, shuttling key people to the DAO evacuation point. The plan had called for the evacuation of the 100 or so U.S. personnel from the embassy in this manner. All other evacuees were to be bused or helilifted by Air America helicopters to the main evacuation point at the DAO. But that plan had broken down, and already some 3,000 people, about half of them Vietnamese, had crowded within the embassy walls. With the streets of Saigon becoming impassable, there was no way they could be bused to the Tan Son Nhut evacuation point.
There was a large tamarind tree in the embassy courtyard that made it unusable as a landing zone, and Ambassador Martin, evidently seeing the tree as a symbol of his determination not to abandon his post, had refused to have it cut down. But now the end was inevitable, and the tree was finally felled. The landing zone was still blocked, however, by the mass of civilian evacuees. To alleviate the chaos, Colonel Madison volunteered our services to Wolfgang Lehmann, the deputy chief of mission (DCM).
While Marine Major James Kean and his embassy security detail, augmented by some 130 U.S. Marines from the Ground Security Force at the DAO compound, manned the walls to prevent more people from entering the compound, we set about clearing a landing zone in the embassy courtyard and organizing the evacuees for departure. Uneasiness had begun to spread, as the crowd saw the Air America helicopters lifting off the embassy roof. Our worst fear throughout the evacuation was a repeat of the experience at Da Nang earlier in the month, where panic had taken over and it had become impossible even to land, lest the aircraft become mobbed and be unable to take off.
But that never happened at the embassy. For one thing, the Marine security guards were able to secure the walls and prevent the thousands in the streets outside from overrunning the compound. For another, Captain Herrington, Sergeants Herron and Pace and Specialist Bell (all of whom spoke Vietnamese) were able to assure the crowd that they were not going to be abandoned.
The first task was to clear the embassy courtyard. Under the control of Gunnery Sgt. Pace (our 'inside man'), most of those in the courtyard area were sent into the embassy itself, later to be evacuated from the roof as CH-46 Sea Knight helicopters began arriving from the fleet offshore. The rest were herded into the CRA (Combined Recreation Association) compound next door. Site of the embassy club and swimming pool, it was separated from the embassy itself by the firehouse and a chain-link fence.
With the help of a local missionary, Reverend Tom Stebbins, who spoke Vietnamese, I circulated among the crowd in the CRA compound, assuring them that all would be eventually evacuated. Meanwhile a loading zone for the larger Marine CH-53 Sea Stallion helicopters was laid out in the embassy courtyard. Even with two landing zones operating simultaneously, the evacuation began slowly and sporadically, for the main evacuation point at Tan Son Nhut had priority. By midnight some 1,800 people had been evacuated from the embassy, but then the helicopter flow came to a temporary halt as the choppers refueled aboard ship after completing the DAO evacuation. Panic began to spread among the evacuees still in the CRA compound.
The Marine guards securing the gate between the CRA compound and the embassy courtyard were becoming hard pressed. Captain Herrington came to their rescue, entering the CRA compound to restore order, followed by myself and Sergeant Herron. 'Khong ai se bi bo lai!' Herrington said. 'No one will be left behind!'
Over and over again he reassured them, 'I'm in here with you, and I'll be on the last helicopter. They will not leave me behind. No one is abandoning you. In a little while the helicopters will begin arriving again.' Finally the panic subsided. As soon as it did, we moved the 1,100 remaining evacuees from the CRA compound through the gate and onto the roof of the firehouse, where they could see what was going on.
At about 2 a.m. on April 30, the helicopter flow resumed. After forcing them to abandon their luggage, we found we could put 90 Vietnamese on board the CH-53s. At 4:15 a.m. Colonel Madison informed Wolfgang Lehmann that only six lifts remained to complete the evacuation. Lehmann told him no more helicopters would be coming. But Colonel Madison would have none of it. We had given our word.
Madison and his men would be on the final lift after all the evacuees under our care had been flown to safety. Lehmann relented and said the helicopters would be provided. That message was later reaffirmed by Brunson McKinley, the ambassador's personal assistant. But McKinley was lying. Even as he reassured us, he knew the lift had been canceled, and he soon fled, along with the ambassador and Lehmann, his DCM.
It was the only time in my 38-year military career that I had been lied to on an operational matter. For a military officer such an act would be unthinkable. But the State Department obviously had different standards, and McKinley later became a high-ranking officer at State in charge of refugee affairs.
In spite of our assurances that we would not abandon them and that we would be the last to go, Colonel Madison had no choice but to do just that. He gave the terrible order for his team to withdraw. When we arrived at the fleet, Madison berated the helicopter squadron commander for his perfidy. But he, too, was appalled. Everyone believed they were dealing with a bottomless pit, and no one realized they were but six lifts from success.
The epitaph for the U.S. involvement in Indochina had been given earlier that month before the fall of Phnom Penh in neighboring Cambodia. Just days before his execution at the hands of the Khmer Rouge, Cambodian statesman Sirak Mitak penned a final note to the U.S. ambassador refusing his offer of evacuation.
'I cannot, alas, leave in such a cowardly fashion. As for you and in particular for your great country, I never believed for a moment that you would have this sentiment of abandoning a people which has chosen liberty….You leave and my wish is that you and your country will find happiness under the sky.
'But mark it well that, if I shall die here on the spot and in my country that I love, it is too bad because we all are born and must die one day. I have only committed this mistake in believing in you, the Americans.'
The article was written by Col. Harry G. Summers, Jr. and originally published in the April 1995 issue of Vietnam Magazine.
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