Senator Nhuan Tran
"We Were Your Friends, Your Best Friends"
The collapse began right after the Paris Agreement. That means after the agreement was signed by my colleague, Foreign Minister Tran Van Lam, and the morale of the troops and the morale of every person in South Vietnam declined quickly.
The agreement was forced upon us by the Americans, of course. The Paris Agreement brought us nothing. Even after the agreement was signed by the US, by Viet Cong, by North Vietnamese, and by force by the South Vietnamese, the peace did not come to the people of South Vietnam. We were still fighting. And finally after two years, you know what happened.
Beginning in 1972, after the withdrawal of American troops, and the fighting was given back to the Vietnamese troops, the ARVN did very valiant fighting. During the great offensive of 1972, in Kontum and Quang Tri in the first and middle region and in Binh Long we did well. We had heavy loses, but we inflicted on the NVA more damage than we were given by them. We almost wiped out the NVA armed forces then. We wiped out most of 18 divisions that came south. In the great offensive of 1972 we lost about 75,000 men killed and wounded in that. We did have big losses, but we wiped out about 180,000 North Vietnamese troops killed and wounded and wiped out equipment that they brought South. All of the forces of North Vietnam were destroyed.
The Paris Agreement did affect the morale of the troops and of all the leaders in the South. From the enlisted men to the corps commanders the morale was affected. The Americans gave us equipment before the signing, and we did receive in 1970 and 1971 weapons loaned to us by American troops. We did equip our regional forces with M16 weapons and we did have some tanks and some artillery and some ammunition and we did have and receive about 300 helicopters and we built up our air force to more than 2000 aircraft, from helicopters to jets. But much of it was not new. And the fancy equipment needed to have spare parts and needed maintenance. And during the offensive of 1972, we used a lot of them. I can tell you frankly that in quite a few artillery units the material we received from the US was inferior to that received by the North Vietnamese from the Soviet bloc. We mostly used World War II artillery. We did not use it too lavishly. It is not true. We did not have supplies like the American troops. We had to restrict our expenditures of ammunition. So that in the middle of 1974, one piece of artillery had a normal allowance of three shells per day. Only three. And for the individual soldiers and the infantry, 15 rounds of ammunition per day. Because we did not have any more. The US did not supply us enough at that time.
Our men were as good as their men. I'll tell you the truth. A lot of soldiers who stayed after the collapse and were punished by the Communist regime and escaped. Now they say when they saw North Vietnamese troops come into Saigon, they were crying because they were angry. If they were big and if they had high morale, if they were skilled it would have been different. But the South Vietnamese troops saw that they were defeated by kids, only kids, 14, 15 16 years old. They knew nothing. They were far inferior to our troops. But they kept fighting until victory. They had superior armaments and supplies and they were superior to us in artillery. They could reach us and we could not reach them. Their range was twice that of ours. A 155 mm gun fired only 15 or 16 kilometers. But the Russian guns reached 32 kilometers. They could reach us and we could not reach back far enough. And second they had a lot of SAM missiles that we did not have. We had superiority in aircraft, but they had sophisticated missiles, they could shoot any kind of missiles. And their AK47 was far superior to our M16 or M14. The M 16 looks like a beautiful gun, but a beautiful gun that is always sick. It looks good but it cannot do much. But AK46 or AK 47, it looked ugly. But if you dip it in the mud and come back and retrieve it, it is still firing. The clip of the AK, they had 32 or 64, better than 14 or 28 clip of the American weapon. The AK fired slower than the M16, but the M16 consumed a lot more ammunition than the AK. And the basic armament of every North Vietnamese was an AK 46 or AK 47. And they had big anti-tank weapons. And they had T54 and T60 tanks, the newest tanks, and they had tanks like T74 and T76 too. They were far ahead of us. We could not match them. Even though we had one million men, we needed better weapons. They had half a million but they had half a million fighting men.
Also, they had superior tactics. We fought only a defensive war. We learned that from the Americans. Defense. It is impossible to win a defensive war. Because of the no win policy of the Americans, that is the reason why we lost the war. And the Americans adopted the defensive no-win policy war. General Ky always wanted to invade the North, but he was just a pilot. But the best military defense is an offense, and General Vinh when I spoke with him, and General Westmoreland, during the time I discussed it with him, both of them tell me that we cannot even prevent them in the South, but how can we prevent them is to stop them in the North. We had to prevent them in the North.
In late 1974 and early 1975 the communists seized Phuoc Long. After signing the Paris Agreement the NVA prepared for the last offensive against the South. They trained their troops and equipped their troops with superior weaponry. And Van Tien Dung wrote that the attack and the occupation of the province by the NVA was a test of the NVA as well as of the US and the communist bloc, including the Soviet Union and China, too. Naturally, the North Vietnamese was backed by the Soviet Union and China. It was a test to make the measure of the South and to see what the reaction of the Americans would be at that time -- the American people as well as the American armed forces.
And you know what happened. The American government did nothing and the American people then were tired of the long war in Vietnam and they did not have the conscience and the patience to support any war in Asia any more, especially in Vietnam any more. It was a test and the North received the answer clearly.
Phuoc Long brought a crisis in the government and to the entire population. I think then the biggest mistake Mr. Thieu made was not to try to reoccupy Phuoc Long. I talked with a lot of generals and commanders of units in the field during the time that Phuoc Long was occupied by North Vietnamese troops and I asked why the ARVN did not take the counterattack and occupy Phuoc Long again and they said that every big operation like that had to be given orders by President Thieu. I have feeling that Thieu wanted to gamble with the US government and to show the American people the serious situation in Vietnam. After the Paris agreement Mr. Thieu would like to show to the entire world that the North Vietnamese violated the agreement by attacking Phuoc Long province. For that reason he gambled with the province. Then we had the ability to counterattack and reoccupy Phuoc Long but he chose not to do that.
Ban Me Thuot is more serious. In Ban Me Thuot, General Pham Van Phu, a classmate of mine at the military academy and a friend of mine, sometimes asked my advice during the time he commanded the second military region. General Phu knew in advance that the attack was coming as well as President Thieu and his aides. They knew ahead of time that the NVA was coming and our intelligence network knew that they were preparing a big offensive. I remember in 1974, in October, or even September, we had a wedding party of General's Phu's son, and we had a lot of government officials who came including Prime Minister Tran Thien Khiem and General Nguyen Van Toan and a bunch of generals and the president of the Senate and President of the House and a lot of big wheels. I sat beside Prime Minister Khiem and General Dang Van Quang and General Phu and we talked about what would happen in the near future. And General Quang, who was President Thieu's advisor, told me that we must prepare for the big offensive and this time the offensive would be bigger than the spring of 1972. That means that they knew in advance, five or six months before, that the NVA were preparing. Van Tien Dung said that nobody knew he was preparing and he went to the South to lead that offensive. But we knew in advance. And the high officials knew in advance. On paper we had almost a million troops, but in reality for combat troops we could count on 11 divisions, just 11 divisions infantry and the other was an Airborne Division, and the rest, almost half a million, were reserve forces. And about 300,000 we called the Popular Forces. They were very ill equipped with carbines and weapons left over by the ARVN troops before the Tet offensive in 1968. So we were not match for the NVA divisions at that time. And we knew that we lacked supplies. We could blame the US for that. That affected the morale of the troops at that time.
After the Ban Me Thuot battle General Phu came back to Saigon and he talked with me about the situation and he asked my help, and he asked me to express to the Senate his difficult situation. So I knew the situation in Ban Me Thuot. Before that time, in March of 1975, aerial reconnaissance pictures showed long convoys of troops coming from the North on the Ho Chi Minh Trail. And before that, since the beginning of 1973, right after the Paris Agreement, the NVA started to build up the pipeline system to fuel from Ben Thuy so they could pump gasoline and fuel through the pipe line. Their second line was right to Danang, through the Ho Chi Minh trail. The South Vietnamese Air Force had no bombers at that time. We had only smaller aircraft, fighters. They could not attack like a bomber to destroy the convoys and the trail system and the pipeline and we needed big bombs and these could only be carried by big bombers like the B52. Most of the Air Force craft we had were helicopters and observation craft and this type of fighter bombers. And we did not have enough fighter bombers. We knew in advance they were moving troops and ammunition to the South. But I think then President Thieu gave a warning to the American government, to President Nixon and then President Ford. But the American government could not do anything.
We expected them to attack Kontum. Ban Me Thuot was too deep in the highlands. If you occupy Ban Me Thout and Pleiku and Kontum are still in our hands, then from those cities we could use our troops to cut up their supply roads and then cut them off and their divisions would be at the mercy of us. But it is a sort of unkind destiny. First Phu thought they would attack Pleiku. During 30 years of war Pleiku was always a prime target of the communists. Ban Me Thuot was too far away. Secondly, Ban Me Thuot was the kind of area that was very very open, so it is very easy target for the airforce and for artillery to attack them there. So, you know, that is the reason why Phu made the decision to reinforce Kontum and Pleiku, thinking they would hit there. We had a big airfield at Pleiku and that airfield was very vital to us. We can carry troops and reinforce troops with helicopters and we can use fighter bombers from there and go to targets and get back faster from there. But it was the destiny of South Vietnam to lose. Ban Me Thuot can not and may not be captured or occupied so easily by NVA. I knew the colonel who was the province chief of Ban Me Thuot and he had about a regiment of regional forces under his command and one regiment of the 22nd division infantry was there. So I think even if the NVA let one division or two divisions attack it should take time. Militarily if you attack you must you at least three times the number of men as the defensive force. We had a regiment plus the air force and the regional forces. But unfortunately, right at the start of the fighting, one airplane, a fighter airplane, making a close support bombing dropped a bomb right on the headquarters of our Ban Me Thuot military command. And that was it. That was a large bomb. Nobody knew about this for a time. Nobody knew what happened.
The Montagnards at Ban Me Thuot did not betray us. Some did not follow orders to withdraw, since it was their native land and they wanted to protect and defend it. That is why during the withdrawal by the road near Cheo Reo and Thuy Hoa, they made a kind of mutiny. But that was after Ban Me Thuot had fallen.
The question mark in our history is why did Thieu decide to withdraw from the Central Highlands. I don't know. Who can know that?
General Phu was sick at that time. When he received orders to withdraw from Pleiku he was prepared to reoccupy Ban Me Thuot. He had already landed part of the 22nd division about 20 kilometers North of Ban Me Thuot. And it would have taken the ARVN maybe only about ten hours to fight back.
But it didn't happen. So we need to consider why not. Well, we needed to consider first the fact that we did not have enough troops to protect the entire country. The lack of supply was one reason. But even with supplies, even if we had one million soldiers on paper, in reality I can tell you the truth, we did have many "ghost soldiers"() in every unit of the army. But it was not a very serious problem. But it is the truth. Because maybe it is not the intention of some soldiers get killed or wounded, or they went back home without authorization, and the unit commander was afraid to report that, because if he reported then the higher commander would reprimand him for letting his soldiers desert or go home or do something like that. So it is one fact. One million on paper. But we don't have one million, really.
Second, as I told you, lack of ammunition and lack of supply. How can artillery support troops with only three shells and no more shells to fire? And infantry soldiers fire only fifteen rounds and then have no more ammunition to fight. And even though we had 2000 aircraft, we had only about 45 percent that could fly at that time. The rest were grounded because of lack of spare parts, lack of maintenance and even lack of fuel at that time. And we had not had not enough gasoline for other military vehicles.
Not enough troops, not enough supplies, not enough fuel. Think about that for a moment. President Thieu and everybody knew that we could not protect the entire country. So he decided to give up the Central Highlands. And then the retreat from the highlands became a collapse. In military history, every retreat, except for Rommel in Africa, every retreat is a kind of collapse. The military command abandoned their troops in the field, to make matters worse.
The First Corps was under the most valiant general we ever had, General Ngo Quang Truong. He was very able and very intelligent general. He tried to ask General Thieu to let him protect the First Corps, I Corps, the first region, and with five divisions, the first, second and third division, the Marine Corps division and the Airborne division, and I think he could defeat any attack from the North with those divisions. The chief of province in the area received orders to prepare to defend, and he gave orders to his troops to defend, about 89 village chiefs and 8 district chiefs prepare to defend. And the morale was high. They wanted to fight and to die in defense of the land. They were in the command of General Lam Quang Thi. Thi was commander of the forward operation staff in Hue at the time. The province Chief of Thua Thien received orders from Thi and Truong that they could hold back any attack and they were ready for it. The morale of the troops was high and in willingness to fight they were eager.
But after getting orders to defend, then General Thi went to Saigon. I don't know why he did that. It is kind of mysterious. No attack. No defense. No bullet fired and Thi came to Saigon. Then the order came from Saigon to abandon Thua Thien and Hue without fighting. And a lot of outposts, far from the city in the mountains, they received no orders at all. And they were abandoned. This made the soldiers angry. They wanted to fight. That is why they were there. That is why when the soldiers arrived in Danang, they got angry, and they went crazy, they acted like crazy people, not like soldiers any more. They did a lot of bad things. But we must think about their spirit, they wanted to fight.
In Saigon we knew when the news from Danang arrived in Saigon, we knew the collapse was not far away. Because Danang was the big base and the airlift unit of the army was in I Corps, the First Division, Marine Division, Airborne Division. General Thi abandoned his troops there and most of the other commanders abandoned their troops in I corps. But not General Truong. They wanted to save whatever they could save and they wanted to flee to America, I believe.
From the end of March, 1975, Thieu stayed to himself, he imprisoned himself in his Palace. He didn't dare to go out to see anybody, and he made decisions through his aides. He feared a coup mounted by either a party who opposed him or by the air force led by General Ky. That is the reason why he wanted to call the Airborne Division to abandon the First Corps and to come to Saigon to protect him.
On April 19, I talked with the chairman of the senate and we talked about one hour about the situation. He told me he had just come back from seeing Thieu and had also met in the US with a lot of American government officials, and he told me finally that he believed that the Americans would do something for us. He thought the Americans would send at least a squadron of B52s and then everything would be all right. The reason why he believed this was because, he said, the problem of Vietnam was mainly just a problem of morale. If the House of Representatives in Washington did not reject the request from President Ford to supply to us $700 million that would have reversed the morale and stabilized the situation. That would have made the difference necessary to stop the Northern advance. I know because I was there. I knew that the Pentagon tried to rescue us by sending some C5A and C141 planes to bring some very old artillery, 105s without shells, just bring them in to show the Vietnamese that the Americans supported us. But we knew it was just a show. But Congress would not even do a show. On VOA and BBC and the American media, we heard that the American people wanted to cut off all aid to Vietnam. So Congress did not agree with President Ford not to give $700 million for South Vietnamese troops. But he made no difference.
In mid-April I began looking for some way to get myself and my family out of the country. I was in touch with Alan Carter, who was the chief of the USAID in Vietnam at that time. He notified me that my family and myself, must be able to leave because my tie with the American government as well as during my military period when I was a former intelligence official and I graduated from the intelligence school in Saigon and the US, and so I must be evacuated among those people who were "high risk" people. So on the night of the 21st when Thieu resigned and gave his speech and gave power to vice president Tran Van Huong, we knew that the collapse was near.
I was still in Saigon on the 21st. But then I think really frankly, it is a big mistake of mine, for I was still thinking maybe the Americans would come to rescue us by just making the B52s destroy the North Vietnamese troops. They were exposed and they were a very good target for us. And if we had some bombing and some support from the Americans and any kind of strong warning from the American government the North would stop attacking and then we would have some kind of solution. In my heart I still think that we would have some kind of solution at that time that would satisfy both the North Vietnamese and the South Vietnamese and let the people choose their regime that they want and maybe the South Vietnamese would be a kind of neutralized regime, and then we would have time to reorganize the South Vietnam and we would have time to rescue our people. And in the worst case we would still have time to emigrate to some other country.
But the fall of Vietnam was so fast, in just a week. And it was unconditional. General Minh not supposed to be nominated president. He was not supposed to be the leader of the country. He was unconstitutional. He was appointed but not nominated.
Under the Constitution the vice president was to succeeded the president, and if the vice president was unavailable, then the chairman of the senate, not others, not outside the government, no person from outside of the government was supposed to come into power. The House of Representatives made him the leader of the government unconstitutionally.
One thing General Minh told to one our friends who was a general too, and he told a lot of people who supported him when he was just nominated as chief of staff, he said, "The communists like me. They are very much like me, so we can have some solution to the problem here and reach an agreement." But that was a big mistake. When you are president of South Vietnam and you say something like that, you must be liked by the people, not by the communists. One of the generals who attended the conference told me this. But I think it is a kind of destiny.
Alan Carter notified me that I was able to leave by way of the US Embassy. But the last week of the war was a kind of chaos, and even a lot of senators and big wheels in the government who had ties with the Americans could not escape. So when a friend of mine, the late Ed Daly, brought an aircraft to Saigon, a 727, to fly out some people, I was offered a place on that plane. That too was destiny.
It was a surprise. I had just one half hour to get to the airport and to leave. called and notified me that the plane would depart at 7:30 and he said, "So please bring your family to the Caravelle Hotel." Then he took us to Tan Son Nhut. That was on the 24th of April.
I brought my wife and my children and went to the plane and I brought my briefcase, and saw me and asked where I was going and I told him I was going back. And I said I had just come from work. My dinner was still waiting for me and I was returning to eat my dinner at home. My dinner was still waiting for me. And said shook his head and said, "No, you can't go home now, friend," and he pushed me into the back of the plane. And I had nothing to bring with me. I just had my briefcase with me. So when I came here it was a real surprise.
I was not prepared to leave. I thought Ed Daly would bring us to the Philippines. But it came to San Francisco. And I came out of the plane in my short sleeved shirt and it was cold and that was all that I had at that time. My money was in the bank in Saigon and my belongings were still in my house at Saigon. I came out with my four children and my wife. My mother could not leave Saigon, nor could my sister at that time.
During the thirty years of war in Vietnam I was a colonel in the Air Force and then I served for six years in the Senate. I want to describe to people now what my experience and my conclusions were during the 30 years of war in Vietnam. And I want my children and grandchildren to understand the misery of the war, and the suffering of the people both in the North and the South, during the war, beginning in 1939 up to 1975. And even now they suffer still, since the war is not over yet. I want my children and my grandchildren to be future leaders in Vietnam, and I will tell them that we must try to defend our country but at the same time to be self sufficient. We can rely on friends later. Do not rely too much on friends, even on best friends like Americans. That is what I learned during the war. America is always the best friend to somebody. And I think this is true, somebody, some European leader, told me one day that it is better to be an enemy of the US and the American people rather than to be a friend.
Look at the enemies of the US during World War II. The enemies were Germany and Japan. And what happened to them after the War? We were your friends, your best friends. And look at us.