The Helicopters That Never Came
Col. Harry G. Summers, Jr
My second tour in Vietnam was from July 1974 until the 30th of April 1975. I was Chief, Negotiations Division of the United States Delegation to the Four Party Joint Military Team(FPJMT), which was set up by the Paris Accords and consisted of a delegation from each of the four powers in Vietnam, that is, the United States, North Vietnam, South Vietnam and the Viet Cong. We met in Saigon and Hanoi, ostensibly to negotiate the POW and MIA issue.
On the 25th of April in 1975 we had a liaison flight scheduled to take the North Vietnamese delegation to Hanoi. The previous liaison flight had been cancelled by Ambassador Graham Martin for diplomatic reasons. So, on this one, as we started out it became obvious that the Vietnamese wanted to talk about the evacuation. We flew up to Hanoi and on the way up, in Hanoi itself and on the way back the North Vietnamese essentially made three points: one was that the Defense Atache Office(DAO) had to go in its entirety; the second was that the U.S. FPJMT Delegation had to stay; and the third was that the Embassy had to work out is own future. In negotiating with the Communists, it is very obvious when they make a "teaching" point. They'll carry on a normal conversation, but when they get to the teaching point, the level of their voice rises; they put out a great emphasis and it then drops back off again. And this happened from three different sets of people, so it was obviously the message they were trying to get across. When I cam back from Hanoi that day I had to call the Secretary of Defense right away. So, we put a call through the Commander-in-Chief, Pacific Command(CINCPAC) in Honolulu, and CINCPAC monitored as they do, and because it was in the middle of the night then in Washington, I had an admiral in the National Military Command Center(NMCC) take the message. I essentially passed on the message that I had gotten from the North Vietnamese. One of the things that disturbed me about this is the fact that we had the only open channel with the North Vietnamese then available. Yet, when I went to the Embassy, to the Political-Military(POL-MIL) Division -- we were part of POL-MIL Division(we had a very odd organizational structure, which I'll come back to in a minute -- and when I asked for guidance on what I should talk about in Hanoi, I did not receive any guidance, not even the "no no's" that you normally get, at least in discussions with another country. The basis of my discussion with the North Vietnamese was a newspaper account in the Stars and Stripes that just happened to be on the airplane, of a conversation that Henry Kissinger had. So, one of the things I did on my return was send a back channel(a telegram sent through intelligence channels) to a friend of mine in the NSC, Colonel Clint Granger, because I was due to go up the next week as well. I told him, "For God's sake, give me some guidance on what to talk about," because I could have given the North Vietnamese a nuclear ultimatum and they could have believed it because I was the negotiator for the United States. As it turned out, I was negotiating totally on my own. Well, the only good thing that fell out of it was I got a Legion of Merit for it, but other than that it was a very disconcerting experience to be suddenly the negotiator for the United States of America and not know what the hell your negotiating stance is. So, I was struck with the haphazard way that we do business. If I had told the North Vietnamese the truth, they would not have believed me. They'd have thought, "Oh, these clever Americans are trying to mislead us."
So, anyway, as a result of this, the Defense Department in the person of Dr. Roger Shields, who was the Assistant Secretary of Defense(ASD) for POW-MIA Affairs, gave us authority to remain in-country after the fall of Saigon. It meant that on the final day instead of staying at Tan Son Nhut and being evacuated with the rest of the Defense Attache Office, we moved down to the Embassy with the object of staying in country. It was only at noon on the 29th of April when the decision was made in Washington that all Americans would be withdrawn. So, because we were there and because of the chaotic situation at the Embassy, essentially the situation was that the plan called for the evacuation of about 200 people who would be evacuated from the Embassy to Tan Son Nhut and go out through there. INstead, they had about 3,000 people jammed inside the walls of the Embassy, and the Embassy's Deputy Chief of Mission(DCM), Wlfgang Lehmann and my boss, Col. Jack Madison, got together and we took over the responsibility for handling the evacuation of the Embassy. By we, I mean Colonel Madison, myself, Major Stuart Herrington, and three enlisted men: Army Master Sergeant Herron, Marine Gunnery Sergeant Pace, and Army Specialist 7 Bill Bell. Pace, Bell and Herrington were all Vietnamese linguists of varying abilities that really paid off because they were able to calm the crowd, which for two reasons was almost at the point of panic at noon on the 29th. One was that the crowd broke into the liquor supplies at the State Department Club and that was being passed around. One of the first things that Herrington did was to lock up the liquor supply, which was a very fortuitous move. The second thing was, as they were beginning the evacuation as planned -- that is, taking people from the roof of the Embassy out to Tan Son Nhut -- Air America helicopters were shuttling them back and forth and all of the people inside the Embassy walls could see this evacuation taking place -- they had the feeling that they were about to be abandoned, so they were really just about to get out of hand. So Herrington and Herron, myself and the other two enlisted men -- Bell and Pace -- went through the crowd trying to tell them that everybody was going to get out. We were going to be the last ones to leave and everyone would get out. We convinced them of it and started then organizing people into 70 person packets. Well, back up a minute. In the meantime, the Marine guards had succeeded in taking a tree down in the middle of the Embassy courtyard and preparing a landing zone for the Marine helicopters, the large helicopters. So when they started coming in, we fixed a load of 70 people and we loaded them onto helicopters -- except for the Americans. We put Americans on oin groups of about 40. But with the Vietnamese we could get usually about 70 on. So we worked that evacuation all that day and into the night and up until the next morning and we finally got down to six loads left. Six loads would be about 420 people. We were told by the Ambassador's Assistant, Brunson McKinley, the rotten bastard, that the helicopters were on the way and to hold our position on the landing zone and everything was going to be just fine. Whereupon he went back into the Embassy and went up on the elevator to the roof and left with Ambassador Martin, knowing that the evacuation had been cancelled. It was an absolutely unforgivable act-- to lie about an operational matter at a time like that. So, right after that, the head of the Marine Detachment, whose name I don't recall, told us that the evacuation was over, that we had to get out immediately, and that the Marines were about to secure the Embassy and leave from the roof. So we abandoned those final six loads of Vietnamese. We already had them broken down into helicopter loads, including the Korean CIA detachment Commander, who, I understand, is either dead or still in jail in Vietnam today, a German priest with his refugee children and all the firemen in the Embassy who volunteered to stay until the very end. And, I must say, I'm still disgusted today with it. It still burns me up that we'd pull a stunt like that. When we got out to the fleet we found out that what we were operating on was a misconception. The fleet thought they were operating with a bottomless pit and they had to cut it off someplace because the pilots were all dead on their feet. They had been flying well over the safety hours they should have been flying; they didn't know that all that was left was the six loads. If they had known, they would have pulled them all out. I thought it was all sort of a Vietnam War in microcosm--great intentions and everybody trying to do the right thing, but managing to screw it up at the end because we just didn't communicate very well. As I say, that's my big bone of contention with the evacuation. One of the incidents that was particularly poignant you'll find best described in Frank Snepp's book Decent Interval because he evidently had access to all of the official after-action reports. The USAID had left their "black" operators behind. By black operators I mean the people who were running the broadcasting against the North, the propaganda broadcasts. USAID had just abandoned them. All during the night these people were calling the Embassy trying to find out when they were going to be picked up. And Gunny Pace, who was our inside man, he had to tell them that they were not going to be picked up. He was so broken up by this experience that he came back to the states and got out of the Marine Corps. It was a very, very pitiful experience and it was a terrible thing to go through because we had told all these people and promised we were going to evacuate them. Then we kept them in place while working until the very end. And then we abandoned them. It was just very obvious to me that of the agencies involved, the Defense Attache Office, USAID, the CIA and the Embassy, only the military had their act together. General Homer Smith had laid out an evacuation plan, had followed the plan, had gotten all of his records, people and everything else out, and did a very good job of it. The more I have thought of it the more I have seen that we in the military take contingency planning for granted. We do it without even thinking about it. We back plan constantly without even being aware of the fact that we're back planning. We tend to think that other people do the same thing. But they don't. USAID and the CIA and the Embassy could have certainly used that kind of thinking, but, of course, they're just not equipped for that sort of thing and they're not very sensitive to it. Although, I must say, I was disappointed in the CIA in there especially. From what I've read from Snepp -- and I tend to believe him -- they should have been a lot better prepared. That's sort of their business, too. It's not State's business. It's not USAID's business. But it was their business.
If anyone else over there, other than the uniformed services, had any contingency plan for evacuation, then it wasn't very well thought out and it obviously didn't work. I think the Embassy was caught up in the same thing we were--that is, they intended to stay in country. They intended, as far as I know, to stay right through the end. So they were taken somewhat by surprise. And, of course, they were inundated with these people inside the walls, although they ought to have seen that the American Embassy would be the gathering place for everyone trying to get out of the country. As I said, the plan called for the evacuation of 200 or so people from the Embassy to Tan Son Nhut and from there out with the main evacuation party. Although they did some of that, but with 3000 people inside the walls -- well, they just couldn't do it the way they'd planned.
The DAO plan didn't call for us to assist in the evacuation. We were going to stay in country. The plan called for us to remain and we just happened to be there. Jack Madison had volunteered our services as they came. Wolfgang Lehmann, the DCM, jumped at the offer because he just didn't have the people or the expertise to do it. I mean the little things. They were going to have helicopters coming in and they were on their way and the radio masts were still up at the far end of the LZ with guide wires across the LZ. If those helicopters had come in they would have just dumped right in the middle of the thing and nobody would have gotten out. But then, you know, it just wasn't their business and they didn't even think about those sorts of things. So Col. Madison told them to cut the guide wires and cut the masts down and the first reaction we got was, "Oh, we've got to get authority to do that." He said, "Baloney, cut them right now because the helicopter is on its way in." You know what those wires would have done to a chopper coming in, but, anyway, that type of thing. I think they were glad to have us there because we had a coherent little team and put six people into something that we were all familiar with since we were all combat arms officers and had gone through helicopter operations before.
Our mission changed about noon on the 29th. We were no longer with the FPJMT. We switched over for the evacuation. Our last contact with the other delegations was about 9:00 o'clock on the morning when we talked on the telephone. We lodged a formal protest with the North Vietnamese for the attack on the team because we had diplomatic immunity under the Paris Peace Accords. Their answer to us was, "We're in the same boat you are," which I thought was interesting.
Prior to that time we were located at Tan Son Nhut. Let me talk for a moment about the organization now.
The U.S. Delegation Four Party Joint Military Team was part of the POL-MIL Division at the Embassy, and to that degree was party of the Embassy itself. We were also subordinate to the Defense Attache Office and our offices were physically located right underneath General Homer Smith on the first floor of the DAO. General Smith's office was on the second floor and we all lived at Tan Son Nhut in the DAO compound and were part of the DAO organization. As part of that, we reported back to the DAO and back to CINCPAC. But we also had a third channel of communication directly to Assistant Secretary of Defense, Roger Shields. So, we really had three chains of communication and we had to be rather circumspect about the way they were used. But, of course, in our minds at least, the one to the ASD overrode everything else. In the minds of the people in country, though, the one to the Embassy overrode everything else. In fact, I worked on the official after-action report for the Joint Chiefs of Staff under General Cleland. It was made up in the Pentagon and I wrote an annex on the peculiarities of command relationships there in Saigon. General Cleland said he agreed with it because he had been in Cambodia in somewhat the same circumstances. He thought, however, that it was too sensitive to publish; even though it was a top secret publication, he was afraid it would be leaked. We're in a position where we can't even tell the truth to ourselves for fear that it mieght be leaked! That's insane.
Anyway, I took a very active part in the evacuation that the DAO supervised prior to 29 April. Some of our people, most notably a Marine major by the name of Jamie Sabatour, was detached to the DAO to assist the DAO to organize their defenses. He did a magnificent job. I think one of the key men in the evacuation was this Major Sabatour. We recommended him for a Legion of Merit and unfortunately the Marine Corps downgraded it to a Bronze Star, but he was a very active part of the evacuation plan. Also, our translators were used very widely to get this thing organized. Myself, Stu Herrington and other people were working around the clock in shifts to assist the DAO in the manifesting of these people. We were working in the gymnasium area at the DAO. We all took turns going up and working at getting these packets organized and broken down and manifested and all the rest of it. So, for several weeks prior to that, we were very busy with that sort of thing, giving DAO a hand because that's about all that we had going on at the time. I must say, I was particularly impressed with the majority of the Department of the Army civilians -- Department of Defense civilians, I guess, is a better way to put it because they belonged to the Navy-- who really worked around the clock. They did everything that could be done and really put themselves out to make this thing a success, but I think the difference with the DAO was Major General Homer Smith. He had things organized and they were running smoothly and he had things broken down properly and, of course, he had the staff to do it. He had the entire DAO staff and he organized them. Being a logistician, I think was an asset there, because he knew time/distance factors. He knew if you're going to move 10,000 people, you can't do it over night. You've got to start and you've got to back off now and then. I think his awareness of this was a major asset.
He essentially dictated the time table and called the shorts in the evacuation as opposed to somebody from Washington saying, "Now's the time to start and here's how to proceed." I think he must have had some kind of OKs from Washington, but he drove the train and he understood the terrible dilemma that Ambassador Martin was in, that I don't think the other people were fully aware of. That is, Martin had to maintain the US support for the South Vietnamese Government with the idea that they were going to remain in control and the country was not going to collapse. At the same time, he had the back-plan to evacuate all of his people in case they did collapse. The dilemma was that if he started to evacuate openly, it would undercut the competence of the Vietnamese government, which was his other mission. So he was damned if he did and damned if he didn't; it was a terrible dilemma. I think Smith was one of the few people who understood what the Ambassador was going through. So, on his own hook with the Ambassador's tacit approval, he began some of this evacuation and hot a lot of people out of the way before the very end. As I say, Ambassador Martin was in an impossible position.
I saw no evidence of panic other than on the last day of the evacuation. There was the specter of panic, of course, that was constantly over our head. We had two specters that haunted us on the evacuation. One is that the South Vietnamese military would turn on us in frustration because we were leaving and they were staying. As a matter of fact, I told my counterpart at one time in the ARVN delegation that my nightmare was that I might have to shoot him in order to get on a helicopter. I was arguing for him to get his family out now because we evacuated our counterpart's families early on. We did not evacuate our counterparts. As far as I know, most of them are still there, if they're still alive, because they were vociferous in their dealings with the communists in the negotiations. I'm sure they were all marked people. That';s another one of the tragedies, but we were forbidden to evacuate any military people; even at the Embassy the instructions were that no military people would leave. There were some that did, but that was the instruction, so our counterparts were left in place. And, the other specter that haunted us was Danang. If you remember the evacuation of Danang, they had the means and the material and everything else to evacuate everyone, but because panic set in, nobody could get out. And the evacuation -- my wife and younger son were with me in Vietnam, and my older son, who was then a West Point cadet, was visiting us for Easter.