Sunday, December 9, 2012

Ken Moorefield Remembers the Fall of Saigon

Kenneth Moorefield.

On the 29th. I was not privy to the planning that set up the various evacuation sites. I only got involved in the evacuation the final day, the morning the Frequent Wind was enacted. By the time that I got to it, I was trying to rapidly catch up on operational details that I had never seen on paper or never heard explained. I was just in the middle of it suddenly. I was out at DAO, I got out there, through the artillery barrage, and after I checked out the evacuation center and I realized that the runway was closed, and we would not be using C130s any longer and we would have to go to a helicopter evacuation, I went to the DAO and essentially volunteered my services to help them take convoys to the various pick up points. And get them to the evacuation sites for the helicopters.
DAO handled the evacuation out of Tan Son Nhut, and that was supposed to be the primary thrust. You had Air America helicopters picking people up off the roofs of buildings in Saigon and taking them directly out to the fleet, but the DAO was responsible for the evacuation plan that included convoys going into various pick up points in the city and bringing people back to the air field. Actually, I think they were using a football field. So I got involved in the middle of that, and ifyou ask me whether or not it was well planned at that point, the answer is no it wasn't. I don't know the reaosns why. I never had an opportunity to debrief the people responsible for it. But when I got involved with it, and I don't even know who was supposed to have the convoy responsibility, but I do know that suddenly the DAO had that responsibility and they were trying to get buses together and drivers and that is precisely the point where I ent4ered the operation and said, "Look, let me help you get to the right pick up points and get through the city and so forth and so on. As it turned out because we got so hammered by the panic and the chaos in the city we got divided and I ended up having one half of all the buses under my control for the better part of the day.
I remember when we had just stopped at one of the pick up sights in the middle of the city, it was right off Hai Ba Trung, if I remember right, and there was a whole entourage of press people there, across from a hospital, and they were kind of standing around gawking and taking pictures in the middle of this total chaos, and myself and one American bus driver trying to control these frantic Vietnamese fighting to get onto the bus, and I think I was yelling, "Why don't you help out instead of sitting there taking pictures."
The Vietnamese who were at these various pick up sightes were either relatives or families of Americans, that particular sight right there had a number of people from apartment buildings from that neighborhood and those individuals were related to or in some cases they might even have been on the staffs of various individuals at the American Embassy. They were not just Vietnamese wandering in off the street, it may seem that way to the newsmen but they didn't know any better at that time.
I didn't go out to the Airport with Martin onthe morning of the 29th, when he came to DAO, Ithink I was already over at theprocessing point over near the PX and bowling alley and gymnasium complext where we had been preparing people to go on the fixed wing flights. I had gone out earlier in the morning to see if we were going to be able to continue.
I had been out at DAO till almost midnight when I finally came back into the city to get some things organized at my apartment for leaving the country. I had one last shot at getting my personal effects out of the country and I had gone back to do that.
I didn't need to hear any message on Armed Forces Radio in the morning to know that the evacuation was on. God, they had been bombarding the city all night long, and it was quite clear that we were in a pretty desperate situation at that point. They had attacked Saigon and it was a matter of hours before we would have to leave.
I was with one of the convoys of buses, we got blocked at one of the entrances in the early afternoon. They wouldn't let us proceed onto the airbase, and that's when I turned the convoy around and went back into the city to find some place where I could depost all of these people. I had three buses at that time.
We were not having an open diealogue at the gate at the time. They had a number of security guards who locked and loaded their weapons and were obviously quite angry and quite determined that we were not going to get back on the Tan Son Nhut airforce base. So it really didn't make any difference to me at that point what their reasons were, they obviously had control of the situatioin, they were not going to let us on the airbase. I concluded that they had received an order from higher up that they were not to permit any further entry onto the airbase. I am not sure that it was necessarily directed at us. I don't know, but we they, this wasn't a sitatuoin where they were saying, let us get our families in there, they were acting in an official military capacity and they were not going to let us on the air base and we were not going to talke them out of it and they were quite angry and resistant to pressure.
I had too many things on my mind to see if they people were orderly. There was no weepoing and wailing and nashing of teeth at that time. There was no alternative to what we were dong at the time in any case. I have a feeling that people who were inside the bus felt a hell of a lot better than people that were on the outside of it.
I didn't know that the port was functioning. Iknew that we had something going down there. I knew we had some barges, but I didn't know who had been directed to go onto them or if they were full or what. To the best of my knowledge it was not an option that I could take. So I finally tried to get my buses to the embassy itself, which was the last place I could find, and the only option left, I couldn't get on the air base and I couldn't get out at the port and it wasn't feasible, so I finally, after several hours we were running out of gas and so I decided to try to make it to the Embassy.
The buses were military buses.
The Embassy was surrounded by hundreds and hundreds of people by the time we got there. I would say it was fairly well mobbed, that would be a good description of it. We didn't make it to the front gate. It's hard to describe it. The streets were jammed and there was no normal flow oftraffic or anything, it was just people driving around in thousands of vehicle trying to find a way out of the country, I guess. The chaos, I actually got separate about twoblocks from the Embassy from the buses and I had a lead car at that point that I was trying to lead the buses through the city with. We got separated. The buses then went across the street from the Embassy where theBritish Embassy was located. They had a parking lot there. From there by foot all of us tried to get into the Embassy itself. They went around to the backside of it and tried to get over the wall. That was the only way you could get into the Embassy at that point, you had to be pulled up over the wall by the Marines. The embassy itself was closed, was shut.
I considered going over the wall at the back, but finally decided I could get in more easily from the front because I was easily recognizable as an Embassy officer, so I waited and finally got the attention of one of the Marine guards and showed him my credentials and three or four marines opened the gate and forced the crowd back and I was able to slip into the front gate there.
The Embassy was sealed off into various compartments at that point. The Embassy grounds proper had been sealed off from the CRA compound, so it was fairly orderly within the Embassy itself, they hadn't begun the helicopter evacuation sowe were in theproces of preparing for that and we had Marines around the entire perimeter.
It was very hard for us to tell how much pressure we would ultimately be up against. Obviously we were quite vulnerable and anyone could have thrown a handgrenade over the wall or a molotov cocktail, and you had crowds, frantic people, around the gates trying to get into the Embassy. It was a life threatening situation and obviously it was extremely tense. As far as our own maintenance and control within the Embassy, it was well managed.
At that point the mission warden officer, who worked for the security officer of the embassy, and the marines who were there, were primarily in charge of perparing for the Embassy evacuation. They were preparing the courtyard. But there were many people on the Embassy staff who were somehow involved in that process ofmaintaining order and administratively had a role to play.
Mission Warden Office provided security, we had installations all over the city, it was like a special police force.
Martin felt the tree in the courtyard of the Embassy was symbolic of American power, I believe.
The degree of surrealism had to a certain extent was related to the extent to which someone was able to have an effect on the outcome or to make apositive contribution. I had been very much involved and responsible for certain aspects of what was going on and I was completely involved in that, I had worked day and night and I had gone several days without sleep by the time we were finally evacuated from the country. I think I was numb from fatigue and driven with a certain desperation to try to help as many people as we could. Given the fact that time was running out at that time.
It wasn't until the final hours of the morning when I was sitting up on the room when I for the first time, it really hit me with full force that we in fact had truly lost and that the South Vietnamese had truly lost. And that all that effort and striving on our part had not succeeded.
We all hoped that we all hoped that we would be able to evacuate everyone we had within the Embassy at that time, because obviously we didn't want to leave anyone. And within that group were a number of people who worked on the staff of the Embassy in some capacity. Obviously, they were people that we had every intention of getting out. If we had enough time. We ran out of time. We ran out of resources. And obviously at some point the president decided that the helicopter fleet ws just incapable of sustaining further that operation. Which they maintained for an incredible length of time given their normal maintenance requirements and given the hazards of the operation. By that time, I believe they had already lost two helicopters.
Martin's helicopter came, if I remember correctly, about 4 or 4:30. I went after the Ambassador. I put him in the helicopter and several other of his top staff. As I was working up on the roof there, I was the one putting people on the helicopters, and preparing them to get on just before they did get on, and after the Ambassador and his staff left I waited and the next helicopter came about 45 minutes later, it seemed, and we had only a couple of people left from the Embassy staff at that point. And I put them on the helicopter and there was no one left, so I got on myself, because I just thought that my job was completed by then. The Marines had not gotten up on the roof of the Embassy. They were probably somewhere within the building making their way up.
Dawn was just breaking at that point. It was sort of at that lull between night and day. There were so many emotions racing through me at that point. I remember, perhaps one of the strongest thoughts that I had at the time was that as we pulled up off the roof of the Embassy and got altitude over the city and I could look out in the distance and the city was so incredibly calm and peaceful at that point. And it really to me seemed awesome that the North Vietnamese Army I knew would be in inner part of the city within a few hours and that literally the whole country was , as a country, about to cease to exist. And again it was so calm and so peaceful at that particular moment, there was no ground fire and aside ffrom the fires that were burning out in the distance, which I took to be in the distance to be Bien Hoa, it was so incredibly quiet and calm just before just a major irrevocable turning point had been reached in that poor country's history.
I saw the people still sitting down in the Embassy yard when I was on the roof. How did I feel about them. I saw them and I knew exactly how many people we had down there because I had been counting them off in terms of sticks, a stick in the number of people you put on a helicopter. I think at that point that perhaps my certain sense of futility of leaving those people who were directly responsible for us was tempered by the recognition that we had really slaved day and night for almost two weeks to get as many people as we could out. And it wasn't just the few hundred in the courtyard that I felt badly about. There were thousands of others that I knew we had never been able to get to because of lack of time and resources. They were going to suffer. Tens of thousands I knew would be subjected to every form of oppression. It wasn't just them. I had worked and served with the Vietnamese Army and had had friends in various parts of the country I realized that it wasn't just those sitting right there in the Embassy courtyard that were going to suffer because of the North Vietnamese victory. Although those were the most immediate and apparent and palpable evidence of that.
I can't say that I was deluding myself by that point in time as to what had taken place. I think that I had been well enough versed in the incidents leading up to that. There was a certain sense of, is it really possible that we have been defeated? Is it really possible that we have finally lost? But I was so driven by the recognition that we had been unable to fulfill our commitments to provide the supplies that they needed, more importantly maintaining the political will to continue to support the South Vietnamese. And I had seen so many incidents of that leading up to the actual fall that when the North Vietnamese finally attacked in force and finally won the victories that they won on the battlefield, it seemed to be to me a certain in a sense, a certain inevitability to it given the decisions that we had made, or better said, not made, in the last few years of that country's existence.
There is no question about it. The Paris Agreement was the death notice, it was the turning point. When we agreed to leave the bulk of the North Vietnamese army in South Vietnam, to me that was a critical turning point. I saw that necessitated our maintaining a high level of political and logistical support in order to guarantee the South Vietnamese survival.
I was taken to the USS Okinawa. I went then to Subic Bay.
When I got there in 1973 I had just turned 30. So I was 32 at the time of the evacuation. I went to West Point, I spent two tours of combat there, in 67-68, 69-70. I went to graduate school then in Georgetown University, where I met the Ambassador who asked me to come back as part of his staff.
I was not only exhausted at the end of that experience, but emotionally exhuasted too. I spent about a month trying to pull myself back together. I went down to Mexico for several weeks and rested there. And then by June I returned and went into the refugee camp at Indiantown Gap Pennsylvania and helped with the resettlement of the refugees in the United States.
I didn't leave the country again until I went to Venezuela in 1981. Now I am commercial attache at our Embassy in Lima, Peru.
It seems like such a fleeting period of time since then. I was back in Indochina in 1984. I went back in August and September of 1983. And to do a movie on the Indochina refugees, a documentary film. I was in Thailand and along the Cambodian and Laotian borders. It brought back so many memories. I think one of the things that I realized is that even though the US involvement in the war had ceased, that in fact the war hadn't ended. That is one of the perceptions that I cam away with. And as far as the struggle of the Cambodians and the South Vietnamese people or the Laotions, they continue. And for a long period of time after we left Vietnam, most Americans turned off to Indochina, they didn't want to think about it, they couldn't think about it, it was too painful to consider. But as far as the people of Indochina are concerned, their struggling and their suffering continued. And evidence of that is the hundreds of thousands of refugees who fled those countries and are still attempting to flee to this moment.
I think that the politics of Vietnam have made it very difficult to get a grasp of what it was we were attempting to do. Sometimes I think it seems so terribly callous, but I think it is important to remember there were tens of thousands of thousands of men like myself, and I don't think I was unique in this regard, who believed that we were doing something that was necessary and useful and essential as far as South Vietnam and their desire to have their own country and their own way of life is concerned.
When I went back to Indochina, I saw so many people who were still struggling to escape, and I can't think of any other word to use, it sounds sort of hackneyed, but various forms of oppression. And it is intolerable for them to continue to live in their own countries. And you realize, it brought back to me at least that there was a reasons for our presence there, there was a reasons and it had to do with people seeking individual political and religious and economic liberties. that is very profound. and until you can see, and this is a problem that the younger generation has. Not having seen the direct evidence, the results, of the failure of their system to maintain themselves against North Vietnamese aggression, it is hard for them to understand and appreciate the extent of the struggle that is still going on and what the stakes are and why people are willing to actually give up their entire country to seek a better way of life.
You can go over on the border and stand, and there are hundreds of thousands of people running from the Vietnamese troops in Cambodia and they are escaping into Thailand.
What I try to point out to people and students, the last couple of years I was working with the Vietnamese Veterans Leadership Program, I was the director of this program before I came here to South America. We had offices in San Diego, Los Angeles, and San Francisco. We were working all over the US to try to bring some of the facts of that experience to light. And some of the perceptions of many of us who fought there and about the validity of our effort. I think there was a very strong sense among us that we were not duped into being there. We fought because we believed it was a fight that needed to be fought. And when you look at the aftermath of the war, when you take a look at what has happened to Vietnam, as a country, what has happened to Laos as a country and to Cambodia as a country and you look a the the million and half people who fled those countries and continue to flee. That is the strongest testimony that one can make about why we were there and what we were trying to accomplish. I think it is in the words and in the eyes of those who have been forced to flee these countries since our involvement in the war ceased. And what has motivated them to seek another way of life since the war. And also though through the words of people like myself who were not uneducated and not unintelligent about the issues that were at stake and who had a long involvement there. And you know how we feel about it in retrospect. Do I feel like I was somehow exploited by my own government? The answer is a resounding no. Do I feel that it was a costly war and a complex war, at times a bitter struggle? The answer is of course, yes. I was there, I am fully well aware. I've had many friends killed, I've been wounded myself. And I think I have some sense of what was at stake there. Obviously, I wouldn't have been willing to consciously throw away my life or risk it for no purpose or for no cause. There are times when you have to be willing to fight for what you believe in. That was one of those times. Even when it's costly. And it was. The price, it sounds trite to say it, but some times the price of liberty, in this case of other people's liberty, can be high. But I don't know how we continue to exist as a country, as a democracy, unless we are willing to provide support to like minded people who also aspire to that. And when I take a look at what's happened to Vietnam since the North Vietnamese Army and the North Vietnamese Communist Party took over, I take a look at Laos and what is happening in Cambodia today I have to conclude that there is some very very strong evidence in the aftermath that supports our rationale for being there.
On the press. It seems to me that on the one hand you a very effective public relations apparatus that the North Vietnamese were able to put out. They very effectively used all the world forums to their advantage. And they were able to do that in large measure because they themselves as a society and as a political system, as an Army, were completely sealed off from exposure to the press. This is not a situation in which they provided equal time. The war was fought in South Vietnam, you didn't have American or other media types traveling with the North Vietnamese Army. It was very difficult to expose the imperfections in their own system. And they wouldn't permit it of course. And there is something actually inherently violent and inherently tragic about war. If you are constantly faced with a spectacle of the results of war , the death, the suffering on your side, and you can't reach a conclusion as to the results, if you don't have the ability to look carefully or microscopically at your opponent, in a situation like that, it is very difficult to sustain positive support for yourself. And I think there is also, my perception of the media, in general, there is a perception, an unfortunate perception, that there is no cause worth fighting for or worth dying for. Only under the darkest circumstances if the US were directly frontally attacked would their conclusion be their assumption be that it's worth expending military effort and life over. There is no cause worth fighting for, almost, that they can see, that would necessitate our commitment or our engagement. And when you start with that perception, it a lot of conclusions naturally follow from that. Those are some of my general conclusions about. I think there were individual reporters who reported it accurately and well. It was a difficult war. We were fighting in someone else's country. the South Vietnamese themselves were not in any sense perfect. They evolved out of a different historical experience and culture. And we were oftentimes attempting to evaluate them by Western criteria at the same time that we were not imposing that same criteria on the North Vietnamese or the South Vietnamese communists. We were not even able to do that. Because they wouldn't permit us to do that.
[ Ken Moorefield graduated from the United States Military Academy at West Point (1965) and took graduate studies at the Georgetown University School of Foreign Service (1972). He has received various military and Foreign Service decorations including the Silver Star, Purple Heart, State Department Superior Honor Award, and two Presidential Meritorious Honor Awards. He was born in Temple, Texas. He was a captain when I came out of the military. Before joining the Office of the Inspector General, Ambassador Moorefield served as senior State Department representative on the Iraq/Afghanistan Transition Planning Group, from December 2005 to June 2007. Kenneth P. Moorefield was sworn in as Ambassador to the Republic of Gabon and the Democratic Republic of Sao Tome and Principe on April 2, 2002.
Prior to this appointment, Ambassador Moorefield had over 30 years of experience in the U.S. foreign, military, and civil services. During his overseas career with the Departments of State and Commerce, he has held political, economic, consular, and commercial officer positions at our Embassies in Vietnam, Peru, Venezuela, the United Kingdom, the U.S. Mission to the European Union, and France. ]

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