Pulling the Plug
Richard Baughn flew his last Vietnam combat mission in October, 1966, just as the radar jamming pods for the F-105s were being delivered. After completing his tour, he was assigned to the "Fighter Weapons Center" at Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada as chief of the Requirements and Concepts section in Center Headquarters. One of the responsibilities of the section was to send Fighter Weapons Center pilots and electronics warfare officers to Vietnam to fly with the combat units and document their tactics, introduce new weapons and weapons modifications and identify weapons and aircraft problems that needed fixing. Upon completing their short tours, the crews gave briefings at the Tactical Air Command and Headquarters USAF covering their activities and concentrating on all of problems especially ones associated with weapons and aircraft in Southeast Asia. It was a way of getting a first-hand report to the highest level in a short period of time so that corrective action could be taken quickly. They also reported new or revised combat tactics to be used in training programs for new aircrews and the information was made a permanent record in USAF tactics manual.
Pilots and EWO’s from the Center were also sent to the early planning sessions for the F-15 and F-16 to provide expertise regarding aircraft and cockpit configurations. This was an invaluable effort and helped the USAF develop these outstanding aircraft.
During the two-year period Baughn held this position progress was made in improving weapons and training programs in support of the war. But the major problem of the Whitehouse’s and DOD’s dimwitted micro management of the war continued. “The administration's no-win concept still prevailed,” Baughn said. “I saw so many body count and bomb tonnage reports that were designed for computer analysis of the war that after leaving the job it felt good not to have read the daily reports from Vietnam.” The one exception was information regarding our POWs and MIAs in NVN. This subject he followed very closely, because many of the fighter pilots he had known over the years that were being held prisoner.
Baughn was commanding an air division with six air wings when he received orders for Saigon in 1974. During his round of briefings at the State Department, Defense Intelligence Agency and Departments of the Army, Navy and Air Force, it was apparent that few people were interested in the Vietnam War any more. When he was shown the budget that had been submitted to support the Vietnamese Air Force (VNAF) for the next year, he was convinced that nothing had changed in SEA since he’d left in October, 1966. “I could not believe it had been prepared by anyone from the U.S. Air Force, at least not the hard-working and dedicated types I had served with during my 30 years of service.” he remembers, “As a wing and division commander, I worked with very tight budgets that we monitored daily and that were closely supervised down through the junior NCO level. This Vietnamese Air Force budget was so obviously full of fluff that it should have been an insult to any reviewing agency.”
One of the more glaring examples, and there were many he says, was a request for a large number of T-29 transport aircraft. “There could be no legitimate justification for this aircraft. When I got to Saigon, I learned why the T-29’s had been requested. One of the Air Force colonels who worked on the budget told Baughn that they had previously prepared a budget that was turned down by the ambassador. They were then given a higher figure and told to justify it and the T-29’s had been added for this reason! According to the colonel, the order came directly from the ambassador.
Another item that caught Baughn’s eye was the size and variety of aircraft types assigned to the Vietnamese Air Force. “I could not believe they had over two thousand aircraft with so many different types of aircraft. It was really a mixed bag of worms. They would need a first-rate supply and maintenance system and many good people to keep all of those aircraft flying,” he said. “It would be one hell of a job for any good U.S. Air Force organization and I wondered how in the world the Vietnamese Air Force was coping. Eventually, I learned that expensive American contract maintenance teams did much of the maintenance for them.”
“We had a lot of very expensive contract programs to support the South Vietnamese military,” Baughn says. “The U.S.had given South Vietnam large quantities of military hardware in Operations Enhance and Enhance Plus in 1972. It was very much like stuffing their mouths full of dry crackers and then telling them to swallow. Smaller numbers of aircraft and other services equipment would have released a lot of money needed for shooting, moving and communicating. The north was doing a lot more with a lot less than the South Vietnamese.
“Keeping a flow of parts for so many different aircraft was a real nightmare. But again, an American contract effort, along with almost continuous help from the U.S. Air Force Logistics Command, was the only reason the system functioned at all. “In my opinion,” Baughn says, “the Vietnamese Air Force had too many aircraft and far too many types of aircraft given to them. It had been a mistake to do this. If the other services had followed a similar course of action, then it was not only a huge waste of money, but it would also certainly detract from their primary requirement of defending their country. This course of action would guarantee the continued presence of expensive American contractor support well into the future.”
Baughn says that his first thought upon looking at the makeup of the Vietnamese Air Force--and he became more convinced of this with the passage of time--was to give back a large portion of the aircraft or at least stop flying some types and to store them. The savings from this would have paid for a lot of ammunition, fuel, food, medicine and other supplies. Secondly, he thought, if this were done the Vietnamese Air Force could concentrate their efforts and do a better job. Many of the aircraft were World War II and Korean War vintage that the Untied States Air Force had taken out of the bone-yards and modified for a counter-insurgency mission, he said. Like any old aircraft, they were hard to maintain and to do so was an expensive proposition. But to discuss giving back or storing equipment “was not part of the party line,” he found. “It was not until we were well into the budget cycle that we were permitted to selectively store aircraft.” Of course, by then a great deal of money had been wasted.
Baughn was visited by retired U.S. Army General Hamilton Howze on 4 July 1974, who was then working for Bell Helicopter. Howze was inquiring about problems concerning the Vietnamese Air Force helicopter force. They had 900 helicopters, which was probably one of the largest helicopter forces in the world. Baughn told Howze the main problem concerning helicopters was the large number the VNAF possessed and the sloppy control of them. He said that about half of them should be returned to the U.S. Army. This would allow South Vietnam to concentrate on the smaller number and improve the quality of maintenance and the command and control of them. In addition it would free up a lot of money for ammunition and other critical supplies without actually degrading the ARVN fighting ability. Baughn told Howze that due to the lack of positive command control and judicious scheduling the helicopter force, they were probably losing more helicopters to careless accidents than combat. But, as Baughn reported after Howze’s visit, “This was not the thing that General Howze wanted to hear and he wasn’t the least bit impressed with my comments. Such a proposal was not good for business.”
South Vietnam had the 6th or 7th largest air force in the world and most of the assets were divided between and controlled by the Army Military Regional commanders. These commanders were like independent warlords and all had different ideas of how THEIR air force should be employed. Baughn said, “The regional army commanders were politically connected and as a result, the Vietnamese Air Force Commander, General Tran Van Minh, had relatively little say or input into how his Air Force operated or was employed (He probably had none in the case of helicopters).”
One of the largest air forces in the world was represented by a colonel on the Vietnamese Joint General Staff, which was headed by a four-star army general. The VNAF colonel was rarely consulted on air force matters. Due to this lack of central air control the Americans learned of cases where the Vietnamese Air Force in one military region might be overcommitted or in need of additional air strikes or other air support and the adjacent military region commander would refuse to release his air force units to help. This sort of thing continued to happen as South Vietnam was nearing its defeat in the spring of 1975.
The division of the Vietnamese Air Force degraded its effectiveness in other areas. Baughn found flying safety and aircraft accountability completely unsatisfactory. One of the first things he inquired about was aircraft losses due to accidents and combat. The U.S. Air Force Division in the Defense Attaché Office was manned primarily by maintenance and supply people who were working full time on these problems. As a result, Baughn requested a team of operations and flying safety people be sent from the 7th Air Force to review the Vietnamese aircraft losses since 1973.
Their findings were, in Baughn’s words, “truly startling.” They accounted for over two hundred and twenty losses or major accidents that had occurred in the past 12 months. There were numerous cases of gross lack of supervision. One case involved a young helicopter pilot who had been drinking and without authorization tried to fly an unserviceable helicopter. He got it a few feet into the air and then crashed into three or four other helicopters parked on the ramp. There were many cases where aircraft had been reported as destroyed but were still actively flying and some reported as serviceable that had been destroyed. “I briefed General John Murray, the Defense Attache, on the team findings and he was shocked,” Baughn says. “He could not understand why losses of this magnitude had not been brought to his attention before. When Murray rotated back to the states he requested the survey information from me. I gave it to him and he published it, as I recall, in the Air Force Magazine.” I often wondered why Murray, after learning what the USAF survey had revealed about the VNAF, hadn’t requested something similar for the Vietnamese Army. They were many times larger and had much more equipment then the VNAF.”
Another area that Baughn found to be grossly mismanaged was target selection--or rather the lack of target selection. When briefed on the North Vietnamese fuel/oil line that was being laid and the all-weather road that was being built, Baughn asked why the Air Force was not bombing them. “I was told that some of the Military Region commanders did not want to provoke the North Vietnamese and that besides the roads and pipeline were well protected by missiles and heavy AA,” he said. “Neither of these reasons made sense. In the case of the missiles and the AA, I knew there was no way the road or the fuel/oil line could be protected over their entire lengths.” But since Baughn was a new to the job and had been instructed by the Pentagon to stay out of “the tactics business,” he did just that for the time being.
The Vietnamese Air Force, he found, had many other problems, too. For example, the contractors had difficulty in getting the VNAF students to attend training classes. There were numerous cases where the local Air Force commanders did not provide adequate support for the maintenance program. Graft and corruption remained huge problems.
One noteworthy case of the latter occurred just a few months before the fall of Saigon. A retired Air Force colonel Baughn had known in the past was working for one of the contractors. Baughn and the colonel got together periodically so Baughn might be briefed on the effectiveness of contract support of the VNAF. “One day the colonel came in unannounced and was fuming,” Baughn recalls. “Some urgently needed and very expensive helicopter parts that had been flown in high-priority from the States on C-141s and had immediately turned up missing. The former colonel said that the parts had all disappeared shortly after they were removed from the C-141 and the former colonel was mad as hell about it. He wanted something done, so I called the CIC office and one of their agents came up. It was decided that the CIC agent and the colonel would meet the next day and an investigation would be started. I checked with the CIC agent in a day or two and he said that they were conducting the investigation but that they had not had much luck because most of the people they needed to talk to would not cooperate. We never found the parts.”
During Baughn’s Pentagon briefings he had several candid discussions with Major General George Keegan, the U.S. Air Force's Chief of Intelligence. “Keegan had a very good feel for what was going on in Vietnam and he knew all of the players and the pitfalls,” Baughn found. “He stressed the point of not trying to advise the Vietnamese Air Force on tactics, which would be in violation of the cease-fire agreement [The Paris Agreement of 1973].” Keegan said, “The politicians will throw you to the wolves if you’re caught giving tactical guidance.” “Keegan’s parting comment to me was that the politics of the job and the state of affairs in Vietnam made my job a no-win situation and it would be difficult to come out of this tour unscathed. This same warning was repeated by the Navy admiral in the Pentagon who discussed the Vietnamese Navy with me. My briefers also told me in so many words that I was to try and work myself out of a job. In other words, they wanted to see the day--and soon--when the vast majority of the American civilians and contractors in Vietnam could come home and let the Vietnamese take care of themselves.”
While Baughn was in Washington almost everyone with whom he spoke “wanted the US’s participation in Vietnam War to end.” “Everyone wanted to get on with the other problems and programs at hand,” Baughn found. “Most tried to be helpful, but there was no mistaking the fact that Vietnam had a very low priority.”
Yet Baughn made up his mind to do everything possible to help the Vietnamese. “I wanted, at the same time, to do it at a minimum cost to the American taxpayers,” he says. “It was obvious that the state of our own economy was the number one concern of the American public and Congress.” Baughn’s visit to the Pentagon demonstrated that the military shared this concern. “No one wanted, nor would they support, a freewheeling spending binge in Vietnam,” he added. “I firmly agreed with that sentiment and I was determined to do everything within my power to follow it.” In his own small way, Baughn hoped to make sure that American dollars were being properly spent and that what might be saved was in fact being saved.
During a stopover in Hawaii to visit with the three service commands and the Headquarters of the Pacific, Baughn found more Vietnam interest shown on the part of each of the staffs in all of the headquarters than what he experienced in the Pentagon. But there was concern about the forthcoming budget and some of the irrefutable waste in Vietnam.
Baughn noticed Ambassador Graham Martin [U.S. Ambassador to South Vietnam] was discussed by many people because of the difficulty of getting along with Martin. Baughn also learned that Martin had evidently become very annoyed with Admiral Noel Gayler, the Commander in Chief of the Pacific, “over some rather insignificant thing.” Later in Saigon, a number of times Baughn heard Martin refer to Admiral Gayler “in less than flattering terms. Martin said several times that he did not want that polo-playing Admiral in this country. It was a most unfortunate situation to have the ambassador in a critical country in Southeast Asia being so openly critical of the senior military commander for all of the Pacific.” Baughn believed Admiral Gayler, was one of the most capable senior officers he had ever met and was a man who remained above such pettiness. Baughn added, “To the best of my recollection, until April of 1975, Admiral Gayler only visited South Vietnam when the Ambassador was out of the country.”
Shortly after Baughn’s arrival in Saigon, it became clear to him that the mood of the Americans in Saigon was different from that of the Americans outside Vietnam. It was so different, in fact that many of them, he concluded, seemed to be completely out of touch with the reality of the situation back in the US. A few days after his arrival, General Murray had a dinner party and Ambassador Martin and others attended. The subject of funds for Vietnam came up. Baughn said that in his opinion it would be extremely difficult to get the requested budget out of Congress and it appeared that the people back in the states were more concerned with the economy, because so many Americans were hurting. Then one of the Embassy people snapped back that this was not the case. He said that the budget would be approved--he was absolutely certain of it. Congress would eventually come around, he said, just as they had done so many times in the past. Later Baughn learned that this was the “party line” of the Embassy.
General Murray, Baughn’s superior in Vietnam, understood that funds for Vietnam would in fact be a real problem and he also knew that the Vietnamese were using ammunition and other resources at an extravagant rate. Murray wanted to advise the Vietnamese to conserve ammunition in order to avoid a crisis at a later day. But Ambassador Martin was afraid that they could not stand the shock of cutting back and was adamant in his position that the required aid would eventually arrive. Martin's rejection of Murray's request and his insistence that more money would come, Baughn concluded, was one of the reasons that contributed to President Thieu's precipitous decision to withdraw from Military Region II in the spring of 1975-- a decision that hastened the collapse of the already fragile fighting spirit of the Vietnamese. “At the very least,” Baughn thought, “the so-called crisis that Martin was trying to avoid was minor compared to the actual crisis that eventually occurred.”
When Baughn started reviewing some of the DAO reports that had been submitted to higher headquarters, one of the most significant things he read was General Murray's first Quarterly Assessment of the situation in Vietnam, since American fighting forces had been withdrawn. Murray pointed out that most of the information about the South Vietnamese forces was coming from the Vietnamese themselves, so it might not be as objective or as reliable as it had been when the Americans were looking over their shoulders. He stated that the Vietnamese were not devoting sufficient time or effort towards running their military and the Vietnamese were surprised to see Americans taking so much interest in what they were doing. Murray wrote that the South Vietnamese appeared unconcerned, lacked a sense of urgency, were preparing inaccurate reports, and did very little to correct their obvious problems.
As a result of reading Murray's report, Baughn immediately became wary of the South Vietnamese reports and all of the American analysis that was based on South Vietnamese sources of information. In Baughn’s opinion the Americans had more solid information on the communists than they did on the South Vietnamese fighting forces. The contents of General Murray’s report was either forgotten or ignored, because no one ever mentioned it.
There were other reports from Americans that revealed major problems affecting the morale of the Army of South Vietnam--problems like the lack of adequate medical support, not due to shortages, but due to the inattention or lack of concern on the part of the unit commanders in the army. Many SVN fighting men were not properly fed, even when adequate rations were available. Again, Baughn believed, this was because of the absence of Vietnamese command interest or because unit commanders or others were bleeding off the food supplies for personal gain. Towards the end of the war it was reported that the North Vietnamese in many cases were better fed in the field than was the American-supported Army of South Vietnam. Pay was also a problem. Sometimes soldiers would go for extended periods of time without pay and had to steal or sell their military equipment for money to feed their families.
Colonel Richard A. McMahon, the U.S. Army Attache, in his end- of- the- tour report in July of 1974 mentioned the first Mission Council meeting he attended, which normally included the Ambassador and all the heads of the various agencies in Vietnam. During this meeting, George Jacobson, a key advisor to the Ambassador, said that corruption in Vietnam exceeded all known previous bounds, even by Asian standards. Colonel McMahon said that the comment hardly caused a stir at the table. McMahon went on to say that he could understand the reluctance of Congress to approve more funds with all of the reports of corruption in Vietnam. But he said that nobody seemed to care and the American attitude in Vietnam might be summed up by the comment of one senior official who, when told that a Saigon newspaper claimed that over a billion American dollars had been stashed away in Swiss bank accounts by corrupt South Vietnamese officials. (This figure accounted for only a few people and not the bulk of the corruption). A high ranking American official said after a moment of thought, "Well, after all, that's less than two percent of what we have given them." Baughn said, “We evidently had come to accept these shortcomings of the Vietnamese and eventually lost sight of their potential effect on the moral fiber of the military and the people at large.”
Another report that Baughn read was a 30-day survey of a Military Region, MR II that was made by Rob Schwab in May of 1974. Schwab, was a former green beret, fluent in Vietnamese, and had more than ten years of experience in the country either as a civilian or in the military. He was also married to a Vietnamese woman. General Murray asked him to conduct a country-wide survey on the economic conditions affecting the South Vietnamese military. His report highlighted the following problems, all of which he concluded had sharply eroded the morale of the military.
1. Housing for military families was, for the most part, nonexistent.
2. Most soldiers were not receiving their full entitlements of rice.
3. Pay was inadequate because of inflation and many troops were not paid on time.
4. The commissary was of little use to the lower ranks because prices were too high and each family had only one card. When the husband went out into the field to fight he had to take the card so the unit could use it to purchase rations in bulk for the soldiers, which left the family with nothing.
5. There was a shortage of uniforms, ponchos and boots. This was caused in part, because they had been sold by the soldiers for food.
6. There were many cases of troops not having had leave in two to three years. Schwab said that according to some soldiers this was a major contributing factor to the declining morale.
7. Some medication was in short supply, but many shortages were due to the lack of command attention because adequate supplies were available, but not requisitioned for the troops.
8. Concern for the economic conditions of families was the leading cause of desertion. Schwab did not pursue the "ghost-soldiering" problem, due to time restraints, but he said that the enlisted men reported that the average unit strength in MR II was 65 percent of authorization. Richard Moose and Charles Meissner, staff members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, reported in May of 1974 of finding evidence of at least 100,000 “flower, gold and ghost soldiers” – terms for soldiers who were either nonexistent or AWOL but whose names appeared on pay slips and rosters, with some one in the Vietnamese military keeping the pay.
Baughn concluded, “The number of flower soldiers (nonexistent soldiers—who were paid) was substantial.” Based on discussions with others, who Baughn believed had a good feel for the problem, he estimated that it could have as high as 30 percent. “The figure of 1.1 million men, who were supposed to be in the military of South Vietnam, was a grossly inflated figure,” Baughn said.
9. There were a number of incidents of the Vietnamese Air Force helicopter pilots demanding every tenth bag of rice in payment for delivering supplies to an isolated unit in Darlac province. Reports from all of the other Military Regions followed this same theme and included most of the problems mentioned by Schwab in his report.
Baughn believed that to correct these problems pressure had to start at the top and work on down. It appeared that most Americans accepted the graft and corruption as a way of life in Vietnam and did very little to try and stop it. If only the problem of pay and food for the military had been resolved the morale of the troops and airmen would have been much higher. A closer liaison with President Thieu might have prevented the debacle in MRII (the SVN Army ran away from MRII without a fight) after Thieu had the meeting with the MR II commander, General Pham Van Phu, concerning the withdrawal from the Central Highlands. At the time Ambassador Martin was back in the States and it was reported that he couldn’t be located by either the Embassy or the State Department.