"Everything Will Fall In On You About Twenty-Four Hours Before You Think It Will "
There have been all these stories about the evacuation and they always focus on the evacuation of Saigon. The fact of the matter really was that from the very beginning when the NVA cut off the passes up to the highlands and isolated what they intended to make the battlefield there, we started being very active in that whole region because we had all our staffs out in all the provincial capitals. So we were really in an evacuation mode for a month or so before Saigon actually fell.
It was an intensely active period for us as we tried to get our people out. We had large numbers of them in that tragic convoy that tried to come down Route 7B and was decimated before it finally made it to the coast. Almost none, or very very little of that story appears in print. It always focuses right on the lost battle of Xuan Loc and then the evacuation of Saigon.
Beyond the distortions that appear in Frank Snepp's rather self-serving book, Decent Interval, it just seems to me that there's a whole lot that went on that people don't seem to be aware of. I think it was partly because there weren't very many correspondents around while a lot of this was going on. Once America left Vietnam it ceased to be an American news story. Until of course the fall, then they started coming up there just about a week or so before the end. But I think they were just interested in the disaster picture.
Admittedly we didn't see many correspondents up there until things started going very bad. I guess, as a matter of fact, the thing came up so suddenly that a lot of them only got in country as things began to fall apart.
I had served with Graham Martin as his special assistant out in Thailand, so I knew that part of the world. I arrived in Nha Trang in September of 1973 and served there as consul general.
When I arrived there was great haste to get me out there as soon as possible because heavy fighting had just broken out in Kontum. This was the first real breakdown in the peacekeeping effort. Our whole mission when we went out there was to monitor the peace arrangement and that's what we expected to do. The hope was that the Kontum thing was just a flareup. And as a matter of fact, the II Corps forces under General Nguyen Van Toan did proceed to take back the territory around Kontum. And shortly thereafter we got a period of the high point, if you will, of the peace when there were some exchanges of prisoners on the part of the two Vietnamese sides. I remember great efforts working with the ICCS people and others on that. That was probably the high point of the peace effort.
Then there continued to be these incursions and and the two sides would lash back and forth at each other in MRII.
Up in MRII the South Vietnamese had gotten a particularly energetic general, General Phan Dinh Niem, in command of the ARVN Twenty-second Division, which I must say, was one of the few outfits that really did acquit itself very creditably during the whole final campaign there. They had really given the NVA Third Division a thrashing up in Bin Dinh Province. And they were more than holding their own.
Then of course the cutbacks began. But they still had the 22nd Division still had the NVA well bottled up. Eventually, however, those cutbacks really shot the hell out of the morale of the South Vietnamese forces. You could see that clearly.
We were affected by the fall of Phuoc Luong in early January because there were large numbers of refugees who fled north out of the province into Quang Duc, which was our neighboring province. I had a lot of my refugee advisers out there working with the Vietnamese and I must say they did a very good job in trying to get those Montangnard refugees resettled. We had a particularly good Vietnamese province chief out there and they were working very hard on that. Also they were working very hard to try to locate some New Zealand nuns who had been fleeing from Phuoc Long. There was an effort out to try and locate them.
When that congressional delegation showed up I was called by Wolf Lehmann and I met them in Saigon. It was a funny group and I know Phil Habib had a hell of a time trying to get them assembled even to go out there. So I guess they sort of had to settle for what they got. Bella Abzug came out there with nothing more in mind than confirming all of her prejudices. All she wanted to do was go around and see prisoners in jails. Millicent Fenwick I will give credit for this. She sort of came out in Bella's tow, but by the time she left she allowed as how things looked very different on the ground in Saigon than the did back in Washington. McCloskey was funny. He was just raving about the bravery of the Vietnamese marines and the 22nd Division he'd visited, and then he'd apparently gone to visit a jail and some woman got him aside and said they beat her terribly, with tears, and I remember I was at a reception and Wolf Lehmann was the charge because Martin was back in Washington working on the Congress and McCloskey was absolutely irrational on the subject.
He came out with one view and the next thing, some little incident and he completely flipped and changed. I worked with him on that select committee on missing in Southeast Asia a year or two after I came back here, and McCloskey's a flake, that's all.
As the ARVN forces were thrown out of Ban Me Thuot in March they retreated down toward the coast and they were unable to stabilize a defense line and as a result the Airborne Division which was enroute south by ship from ICORPS, one brigade was split off and set up there to try to hold the line and let some of these defeated forces out of Ban Me Thuot pass through and regroup down in Cam Ranh.
Well, I think when the retreat of the column out of Kontum and Pleiku simply became a rout about the time they were passing through Cheo Reo. It was obvious that here was a major force that was going completely to hell. All of this was mixed with the hope that somehow as their line shortened they might be able to establish a defense and hold it. But I remember all sorts of senior officers at the II CORPS headquarters, which of course had moved back from Pleiku down to Nha Trang then, kept asking, "When are we going to get the word from the President and the General Staff as to where we should establish a line? When are they going to tell us what to do?"
General Fred Weyand came up to MRII and along about this time General Phu's leadership began to look pretty shaky and Weyand asked me whether I thought that a replacement of Phu would make any difference. By that time I had to tell him that it seemed to me if you pulled him out it would just bring all the cards down. The man obviously wasn't up to it, but to replace him at that late stage of the game would be more disastrous than things were at that moment.
The way in which the evacuation of the Highlands was done was with no planning at all. None. There was no effort made to leapfrog in reverse and send people down to establish a line of defense and then pull back behind that and then send somebody farther down. Everybody just kind of jumped in his vehicle and headed down the road. No thought was given to the civilian refugees, the soldiers' families who had followed them and how to get them down, and so forth. And after all, this is the job of a military command. Of course, towards the end I think General Phu had a nervous breakdown and the story I got was that he committed suicide after he was relieved of command and put under house arrest pending court martial.
In Nha Trang we found out about the withdrawal from the Central Highlands on the morning of the fifteenth of March. I believe that was the day after the Cam Ranh Bay meeting between Phu and President Thieu. Then Phu briefed his staff we got word of shortly thereafter.
Before that we had been working very hard, because Paul Struharick, our consular representative, and his staff had been captured at Ban Me Thuot. We didn't know that, but we had been flying flights over there trying desperately to get communication with them for a week or more. Then there were a group of American missionaries there and some of the ICCS people were also captured. We had been working very hard in trying to find out what was happening to Paul and get him out. Then of course also we had been doing our normal job of trying to report what had been going on up there. But once we got word of the withdrawal we immediately got hold of our people and started to carry out our own evacuation plans and started getting people out of there.
We ran into terrible problems up there at the airport in Pleiku. The usual people mobbing things and so forth. By the end of the first day I remember being appalled -- I really chewed out my province rep up there because we had these planes and helicopters flying back all day and brought out hundreds of Vietnamese and we still had half a dozen Americans left up there by the end of the day. We were learning and having to learn fast, but the fact of the matter was, if you didn't have a few Americans around there to hold the whole thing together you would have had just a bloody riot and we wouldn't have gotten them out either. But we did. In fact, they simply got orders to get themselves out by the end of the day, so they gave up everything, including the wrecker, which we had sent up from Nha Trang to tow back a broken truck. We gave them that and told them to join the convoy and get the hell down the road.
The following day we sent people back up because there were still forces there. We had word that it still seemed safe to get in. In fact we sent people up to Kontum as well which is farther up the line. They were able to bring out even more people. In fact when I think how close we skated to the edge of thin ice by sending people back, it still scares me.
We were using Air America to get these people out. I can't speak too highly for those Air America pilots. They're all heroes in my book.
These were our province representatives, agricultural experts, AID mission people we had up there, the various liaisons with the provincial staffs there and people who were simply reporting on what was going on up there. We were trying to evacuate them, but of course, for every place where we had a half dozen Americans, we might have a support group including the cooks and the guards around the compounds and so forth of maybe thirty or forty people and they each seemed to have about a hundred relatives. And so it went. They were able to get out the first day, but they all very much wanted to go back and get people, so they went back the second day.
Then we kept trying to get helicopters to land along the retreating column as they were coming down out of the highlands and pluck our people off there. We succeeded in that to a fairly substantial degree. But we also had all sorts of problems. We had this happen when I went up there one time. We'd no sooner landed, in fact one of the correspondents that I had with me wanted to go off and take some pictures, and we were trying to get in touch with somebody who might be in charge there to see if we couldn't set up some kind of arrangement to do medical relief and helicopter in food supplies and so forth, and suddenly this great big gang of GIs, obviously totally out of control came roaring up with guns to try to get the helicopter. At that point we grabbed up our correspondent and took off as fast as we could. That was one of the problems about trying to help this column. Unless you had armed guards along with you, which we didn't have, you were in great danger of losing your helicopter.
One of my people, my guy in Cheo Reo, in effect had to hold his compound under siege for one night as this column was passing through. When a helicopter came to get him somebody put a gun to his throat and threatened to shoot him if he didn't let him aboard the helicopter. Well, he told him that the second helicopter that was hovering up there would come and get him and apparently the guy believed him and so he jumped in the first one and got away. But they had a perfectly ghastly time there. Ghastly.
We'd been evacuating fairly regularly, getting people out, but we were suddenly told to knock it all of and send everything north to Da Nang as quickly as possible, because they were on the verge of collapse up there. So we did that and then we had hoped to get started on our own evacuation.
I had seen Al Francis, the consul general in Da Nang a when he came through. He had to swim out from the the beach at Da Nang along with General Ngo Quang Truong, the MRI commander, and then he came down by ship to Cam Ranh and I picked him up there and made arrangements to fly him on to Saigon. And he and I had about an hour back in my office before he went out and he gave me a lot of good advice, hints, tips on things that worked well for them and things that hadn't. One of the things that he said to me was, "Everything will fall in on you about twenty-four hours before you think it will." And that's just exactly what happened. I had thought probably about the second of April we would be having to evacuate, the way I saw things. Of course we had to get out on the first.
There was order in Nha Trang up until about the last week, and at that point it started filling up with more and more soldiers--you couldn't really call them deserters--their units had just completely crumbled, and they were running around the town. I remember we had visitors from the states at that time -- of all things -- old friends. A former Foreign Service couple we'd known came to visit us, and we all went out to a restaurant one evening. And the town was full of what George Jacobson referred to as "rattlesnakes". Of course these guys had no money and a whole gang of them came in with their M-16s and the proprietor of the restaurant, whom we knew very well, went over and in effect bribed them off by giving them money to leave and buy some food or go around to the back door of the kitchen and she'd feed them.
My wife and the drivers and so forth were trying to get all over town to try to tell people to get out to the airport and get evacuated and the place was full of these armed guys -- these "rattlesnakes." It was really getting to be quite uncomfortable. They were desperate. When you look at it from a distance you can sympathize with them. But the fact of the matter was, they hadn't been fed, they hadn't been paid, they were scared and they were running, and you just didn't know what they were going to do. And they were armed and you weren't. Well, of course, some of the things that went on in the evacuation ships were absolutely ghastly.
I'd say we had in Nha Trang itself, about ten families to evacuate. Tey went out from about the 25th of March on. We were having to evacuate by helicopter out of the compound and I was sort of playing traffic cop because we had big mobs in the compound and had had some problems with people mobbing the helicopters when they first came until we were able to corral them and feed them through the building to the helicopters. We had to make them go in single file and we could let out one helicopter load at a time. One helicopter took off and there was a poor woman hanging on the skids as the thing went up. Fortunately somebody grabbed her by the arms and let her back down.
Then there is this famous picture of a guy hitting someone in the face on a plane allegedly waiting to take off from Nha Trang. And I've wanted to write Ira Carr, my administrative officer who was running things for me out at the airport there, because I swear I don't recognize anybody in that picture and I think it took place in Da Nang and not Nha Trang.
It was an American aboard a plane there and so it would have been one of my guys helping him and I don't recognize the man in the picture doing the punching. That was the kind of thing that went on up in Da Nang.
I didn't want to get too many people out at the airport or he was going to have a riot on his hands. On the other hand, we couldn't let them build up too fast in the compound either. We had a parking lot out next to the consulate general building in the compound with a bunch of young palm trees in it and that was picked as the helicopter landing place. We had a good sturdy old army ambulance and we just hooked a chain around the trunks of the palm trees and pulled them all out and that became the helicopter landing pad.
Towards the end the choppers were being fired at as they made their final approach, when they circled in over town, so we had to reverse the route and have them come in the other way. And we had people climbing over the fence, so finally had to give up on getting people out of the compound by the end of the day and move on out to the airport. By that time we couldn't recognize any of them as being our own. They were just piling in over the walls.
I guess there really wasn't much time for retrospection on that. I think we knew we were leaving ahead of an advancing army, and again hoping that they'd stabilize the line, but it didn't happen north of Nha Trang.
After that there were still areas of MRII along the coast below Nha Trang where we had people and so we continued to direct the evacuation from out of Saigon. I was given an office in the Embassy compound there. They gave us an office out by the garage space and it turned out it was right next to the incinerator where they were burning up all the classified documents. Every time we turned on the air conditioner we'd suck great blasts of ash and soot from the burning documents.
At that time some of our people were making flights up over MRII to try and see how far the NVA advance had gone. We were reporting to the embassy which was reporting right back to Washington. And of course we had been reporting by cable out of Nha Trang to Saigon before the evacuation.
In Saigon my wife often went out with Dorothy Martin to the PX and spending just hours and hours, the two of them, shopping, just to show the Vietnamese store clerks out there that the Americans were still there. We had an enormous number of Vietnamese, Lois told me later because I was in the office all hours, who came around to the residence there wanting to see whether we were still there. I remember she went down to Saigon earlier to see friends off who had come to visit us -- this was a week before the evacuation. Then she came back, because she had been teaching at the community college there and had a bunch of finals graded and wanted to be sure the students got them back. A great effort made to give the appearance that everything was normal and keep what little functioning mechanism was in place.
We left the country about the 15th of April. By then all of MR II was in communist hands. My staff had sort of been distributed around and one of the things I discovered in a good evacuation was, the more people you can get out earlier, the fewer you have to worry about when push comes to shove. So having tried to get as many people out as possible, it seemed to me I ought to try to set a good example.
I think the real impact of what was happening for me for me finally came after the plane took off and flew up the coast so we could look off the left wing and see Nha Trang, and we all had lumps in our throats as we went out.
But I think the thing that really pained me was when we landed in Honolulu and we could only get hotel room thanks to a friend of mine who handled our reception center there and was well plugged in with the hotel industry. This is the United States in '75 was going through the worst recession it had experienced since the great depression, and yet the tourist trade in Honolulu was such in the springtime we could just barely get a hotel room. Very frankly I'd never been so ashamed of my country in all my life.