Saturday, February 2, 2013
Richard Baughn: An Old Fighter Pilot Remembers Vietnam
A Lost Cause Waiting to Happen:
An Old Fighter Pilot Remembers Vietnam
The Grade School Teacher and the Edsel Genius
Richard Baughn began piloting F-105s over North Vietnam in March of 1965 as part of Operation Rolling Thunder. He flew out of Thailand from both Korat and Takhli. During the early days of the operation, he recalled, the North Vietnamese defenses were restricted to automatic weapons and AA, but in a short time American pilots spotted missile sites and heavy gun positions under construction. They sought permission to go after those sites, but the requests were never approved by higher headquarters. This struck the pilots as an ominous oddity. In fact, they all agreed, “it made no damned sense at all to let the North Vietnamese improve their defenses while we were forced to wait and watch knowing full well we would soon be facing them. But that is exactly what happened. The North Vietnamese soon developed a fully integrated radar-controlled gun and missile system, which soon included MIG aircraft,” Baughn recalls.
Once the Air Force began losing more aircraft, higher headquarters declared the missiles sights a high priority target and directed the pilots to knock them out. “Of course,” Baughn says, “this was before we were provided with the essential electronic radar detection and warning systems and adequate weapons to do the job properly. We had to depend on our Mark VII eyeballs for warning and protection. As a result, American losses were unnecessarily high and our results disappointing. It was the most asinine thing I had ever witnessed,” Baughn recalls, “and a criminal waste of American lives.” It didn't take Baughn long to realize the military was not calling the shots in Vietnam. “The decisions were coming from the White House and the civilians in the Department of Defense.
Before the Air Force was turned loose on the defensive systems of the North Vietnamese and before Baughn took command of the 44th Tactical Fighter Squadron in June 1965, he was assigned to the Headquarters, PACAF Standardization and Evaluation Group, which was responsible for monitoring all the flying units in PACAF and members of the Group flew with every unit, including those flying over North Vietnam. It was during this period after flying a number of combat missions with F-105 squadrons at Takhli and Korat that Baughn suggested to USAF headquarters in Saigon that the Air Force obtain radar-jamming pods (QRC-160), which had been tested and developed as part of the F-105 program. The jammers would have helped to protect the planes and pilots from the radar-controlled defenses. Baughn was familiar with the jammer, since he had been Tactical Air Command's and then later the Pacific Air Command’s operations project officer for the F-105 program during the testing, procurement phase and unit conversions.
But his suggestion was turned down by some staff officer in Saigon, who stated the jamming pods “would be requested when they were needed,” Baughn was told. As it turned out, not until eighteen months later did the Air Force finally get the jammers to the F-105 units in Thailand. During this period many good fighter pilots were needlessly shot down.
Eventually, in the summer of 1966, the F-105 units started receiving the radar, homing and warning (RHAW) equipment for their aircraft, which warned the pilots when the radars were looking at them, told them what kind of radar it was and the general direction of the radar sight in relation to the aircraft. It also provided a warning when the sites were tracking and ready to fire or launch missiles. Without this equipment, pilots never knew the location of the missiles sites or when the missiles would be launched. Some pilots were shot down by missiles without any warning. Consequently, the fighters were forced to fly low, where automatic weapons and small arms shot many aircraft down.
“Without the warning gear you tried to avoid the missiles by flying low, which was deadly, because most people in North Vietnam had guns,” Baughn remembered. “And once we were forced down and they saw our direction of flight, they would start firing where we were about to pass and we had to fly through it. With so many small arms and the high rates of fire of the automatic weapons, they literally set up a wall of lead. Even at very high speeds it was difficult to miss us. If we tried to go above the effective range of these weapons, a guided missile might fly up our tailpipe. And something like that could ruin your whole day. RHAW was a good and relatively simple device and had it been provided sooner many pilots would not have been killed or shot down only to spend years in the hell of a North Vietnamese prison camp.”
In June of 1966 the U.S. Air Force activated a new squadron, the 13th Tactical Fighter Squadron and all of the officers, men, aircraft and equipment in the 44th were assigned to the 13th TFS and sent permanently to Thailand. “None of us were happy about the change. We had flown combat over NVN as the 44th and had tremendous squadron spirit”
As the commander of the 13th Tactical Fighter Squadron, Baughn was also assigned all of the F-100 and F-105 Wild Weasel units located at Korat. The Wild Weasel fighters had two seats and carried a highly trained Electronics Warfare Officer in the back seat to operate the radar warning equipment. In the early summer of 1966, the F-100 WW were operating at night, protecting the B-52 striking targets near the DMZ while the F-105 Weasels protected the F-105 fighters in North Vietnam.
The F-105 WW’s went in ahead of the main strike force to suppress or destroy missile sites with their radar homing missiles, rockets and aircraft cannons. They remained in the target area until the fighters had dropped their bombs and started home. The Wild Weasels were very effective and helped save many lives, but also experienced high losses themselves. Baughn flew about half of his combat missions with his Weasels and the other half with his fighters.
Starting with the arrival of the 13th Tactical Fighter Squadron in June of 1966, the Air Force stepped up operations in NVN and began attacking targets in the high threat area (Hanoi and Haiphong) every day that the weather would permit. “Unfortunately, most of the targets we were permitted to strike were next to worthless,” Baughn said. By now the area around Hanoi and Haiphong were heavily defended by a fully integrated defense system with an extremely high concentration of cannons, automatic weapons, small arms, radar controlled guided missiles and MIGS.
“We were thrown against one of the strongest and most sophisticated defensive system the world had ever seen. We had Wild Weasel support, but for awhile our fighters had very few RHAW sets (one per flight in the beginning) and no jamming pods. Unfortunately, we were still limited to mostly insignificant targets. It was idiotic to attack worthless targets in this heavily defended area,” Baughn continued. “During this time we experienced one of the highest loss rates in air war against NVN, while accomplishing next to nothing. In fact, the loss rate might have been comparable to some of the worst days of the 8th and 15th Air Forces over Germany in World War II.”
There were a number of significant targets in North Vietnam, but most of them had been ordered off limits by the Whitehouse and Department of Defense. Later when they could be attacked, the day and time was specified and if the weather delayed the strike, the target could not be struck until the Whitehouse and DOD approved it again. As a result, the military continued to be left with only insignificant targets to strike in between these times. “Limiting and controlling air strikes in this manner, while suffering extremely high loss rates, made no sense whatsoever.” Baughn continued, “I was 43 years old, had fought in WWII and couldn’t believe that we were wasting such an elite and highly trained force of fighter pilots and electronic warfare officers and their multi-million dollar aircraft on worthless targets. If the American public had known the full story, they would have probably cried for someone’s head or maybe impeachment. During this period of high losses, I couldn’t help but admire the spirit and the motivation of the younger pilots who were getting their first taste of combat.”
To compound the problem, the American mission planners seldom did anything to utilize the element of surprise. The attacks were flown at about the same time each day and followed the same routes in and out. “The North Vietnamese could damn near set their watches by our attack times. Consequently, they were fully prepared and waiting to shoot us out of the sky,” Baughn recalls. “It was very clear to all of us that the grade-school teacher and the Edsel genius [Lyndon Johnson and Robert McNamara] had succeeded in stifling all imagination.”
“On the way in to the target, MIGS would attack first. Then the missiles drove the USAF fighters down to the lower altitudes where the small arms fire and automatic weapons could cut us to threads. When the fighters pulled up to dive bomb, the heavier anti-aircraft cannons opened fire and filled the sky with flak. Coming off the target, radar guided missiles sometimes joined in with the cannons and automatic weapons followed by more MIGs. Our F-105’s were extremely fast, but could not turn with the very maneuverable MIGs and we had to avoid a turning fight with them, which put us an extreme disadvantage.”
“I had flown P-51s over Germany in World War II, and the Germans had some very heavy concentrations of flak,” Baughn remembers, “but the AA was no heavier than some of the highly defended areas of North Vietnam. When you added the missile factor and the MIGSs to the AA equation it was damned tough.”
Baughn repeated, “We squandered some of the best, most highly trained and motivated fighter pilots and aircrews I have known during my then-twenty-two years as a fighter pilot. I finally told the pilots and Wild Weasel crews in my squadron that we would certainly do everything we were told to do, but no more than that. I told them developing a do-or-die attitude when striking a few suspected fifty-gallon oil drums, ten to fifteen miles outside Hanoi, while an airfield loaded with MIGs was a few miles away and left untouched—didn’t make a damned bit of sense. I kept repeating to my guys not to take any unnecessary chances. I said hit your target, do your job and get the hell out. Even following this advice, we still had about thirty percent of our squadron shot down in a four month period.”
A second Wild Weasel unit stationed at Tahkli in Thailand lost all ten of their aircraft in just a few months. Takhli’s WW crews seemed to be unnecessarily aggressive, which resulted in their high losses. Consequently Tahkli’s remaining WW crews came to Korat to fly with Baughn’s squadron until they could get more aircraft and crews at Tahkli.
During this time while we were experiencing some of the highest losses of the war, Baughn says, the media reported the existence of ammunition and bomb shortages, which was denied by DOD. But, Baughn recalls. “We did in fact have severe bomb and ammo shortages. So now we had to fight without electronic jamming pods, were short on RHAW equipment and didn’t have bombs that would do the job. But we were still sent into high threat areas to strike useless targets with weapons that, in some cases, would do little more than chip paint.”
Like many professional fighter pilots, Baughn initially believed he and his fellow fliers were fighting for a worthwhile cause. “But it did not take long for me to become disenchanted with this ridiculous operation. The tight amateurish control by the Whitehouse and DOD civilians resulted in more empty chairs at the squadron dinner table each night, while the agonizing letters to the families back home increased. The aircrews were well aware of the idiotic control, but they never once refused to go on a mission.”
“President Johnson and Secretary McNamara had been warned by General LeMay and Admiral Sharp that Johnson’s and McNamara’s very limited and piecemeal air attack plan against worthless North Vietnamese targets would never persuade, intimidate or produce meaningful results. But LeMay’s and Sharp’s advice was completely ignored. Johnson and McNamara were more interested in sending little signals like they used in the Washington political arena. They didn’t seem to realize they had a proven and determined adversary who was familiar with their ways,” Baughn continued. “Johnson and McNamara never came close to unleashing the full power of the Air Force and Naval Air,” Baughn said. “And I would never suggest the use of nuclear weapons. After only few weeks when their feeble air effort produced very little, the Whitehouse, DOD and other airpower detractors were quick to complain about airpower’s limitations and ineffectiveness. (These same half-baked complaints about the ineffectiveness of airpower continue today—even after airpower won the war in Kosovo, without any boots on the ground and airpower gave the ground forces a 100 hour cake walk in the first Iraq war). The priority was shifted to the ground war in SVN and the buildup of ground forces accelerated. Not until December 1972, when President Nixon turned the airmen loose, did the Vietnamese feel the full force of what the US Air Force and Navy were capable, which immediately brought the North Vietnamese to the peace table—when nothing else would.”
Baughn said, “While we were fighting our politically imposed timid air war up north, there were endless rumors and reports about graft and corruption in South Vietnam and the shakiness of their military. “The South Vietnamese government,” Baughn says, “was reported, by our buddies fighting in that area, to be a house of straw that could never stand by itself.” Baughn often thought about the time in 1962 when he was stationed at Headquarters Pacific Air Forces at Hickam Air Force Base in Hawaii. General Emmett "Rosie" O'Donnell, who was the commanding general of PACAF, was being briefed on the situation in South Vietnam. The briefing officer was referring to a map of South Vietnam that was all red except for the areas around some of the cities. The red depicted the Viet Cong controlled areas and the white represented the side the Americans were supporting. After a while, General O'Donnell asked, "What the hell are we doing there? It appears to me that the issue has already been decided."
Concerning the combat and bombing restraints, Baughn says, “We had so many that the pilots said, ‘With one more it will be illegal to take off on a combat mission.’ We spent about as much time memorizing restraints as we did on the more important combat items. The North Vietnamese wisely took advantage of the target restrictions, such as placing defenses in some of our prohibited areas. So in addition to all of the restraints, our government provided havens for the enemy defenses from which they could safely shoot at us.”
“Most pilots knew they were placing their lives on the line for practically nothing and doing it with their hands tied behind their backs,” Baughn says. “I think it was a testimonial to the American fighter pilots and WW crews that they never once refused to go on a mission. You can probably count on one hand the number of countries in the world today where the military would accept such a flawed and asinine military policy. The U.S. can be damned proud of the discipline and the dedication of our Navy and Air Force pilots and EWOs who fought over North Vietnam.”
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 Attaché, 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 the entire 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 Attaché, 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.
The End of the Golden Chain
Baughn also believe that the U.S. set the South Vietnamese up for eventual defeat by teaching them our expensive ways. Then, when Congress dug in its heels on the budget, some Americans kept promising the Vietnamese that more aid would come, while they told Congress the South’s ability to continue would be in jeopardy without more money. Baughn says, “The Vietnamese monitored these discussions very closely and maybe the only people we convinced that continued fighting was not possible with the lower budget were the South Vietnamese themselves. Had we had some South Vietnamese belt tightening before or starting with General Murray's request to the Ambassador, they would have been better conditioned and better postured for the change. (And it’s important to repeat that there was a great deal of evidence that the south always had more of everything than the north during most of the war. They needed more than money).
“I still cannot forget General Rosie O'Donnell's very perceptive comments in 1962. The North Vietnamese were always much more determined than the South Vietnamese and that’s why we had to keep increasing US troop levels to 500,000.”
It was really unfortunate, Baughn believes, that all of the equipment and supplies went for naught during the last days of the war. As it turned out, the DAO Army Division reported that at least 95,000 short tons of ammunition were left behind in MR 1 and MR 2 and was captured by the advancing North Vietnamese Army. And he recalls, another 20 to 30 thousand short tons were held off the coast and never delivered. During some of the extremely heavy fighting in Vietnam, the South Vietnamese used about 60 to 70 thousand short tons per month. So without more supplies they still had about two months of ammunition even under heaviest of combat conditions. But President Thieu's misguided actions forfeited the use of large quantities of ammunition and other military fighting hardware. Baughn strongly suspects that South Vietnam's supplies could have been even larger than those cited above.
There were highly-visible waste at the DAO and other agencies that could have been eliminated to set an example of belt tightening that might have influenced the Vietnamese and led them to see clearly that “the end of the golden chain was near.” One of the most visible of these was the number of staff cars and drivers assigned to individuals. “I had a staff car, an overweight, bullet-proof Chevrolet with a driver who was on 24 hour dispatch. In addition to that, I had six servants. The high number of servants for senior officers had started years earlier. Originally in my quarters there had been five assigned, but my predecessor hired a temporary maid when one of the regular maids had a baby. When the regular maid returned my predecessor didn't have the heart to let the temporary maid go.”
“The pay of these servants had gotten way out of hand by Vietnamese standards. The head maid who worked for General John Murray and later for General Homer Smith had a higher salary than General Cao Van Vien, the Chief of Staff for entire the South Vietnamese military forces. This may sound minor, but these facts were well known by the Vietnamese and I’m certain left them with the idea there was no end to the generous support of the United States. The Americans should have set the example by cutting waste and it should have started at the top in to be effective.”
When Baughn arrived the entire DAO was working seven days a week and most of the work days exceeded the normal eight hours. With only about 50 military people the bulk of the American work force were civilians. They had to be paid time and a half for overtime. In addition, many received a monthly bonus as an inducement to work in South Vietnam. “When you tallied their monthly pay and overtime,” Baughn says, “Although General Murray, General Smith and myself were in charge of DAO we far from the top wage earners in the DAO.” Baughn points out that a reduction in the DAO 40 to 50 million dollar budget would have been small in relation to the total aid budget, but a few million could have been easily saved.
Colonel Richard McMahon's July 1974 end-of-tour report for the DAO also covered in detail what he believed to be overstaffing through the American Mission. McMahon said the DAO was only paying lip service to the objective of turning things over to the Vietnamese. He cited cases where one agency might reduce their work force; the people would then quickly be rehired by another agency. He said it was a case of "Let's find a job for good old Charlie." He pointed out that in some cases American numbers had been increased. McMahon said, “My observations in the DAO did not indicate this was an agency that was trying to eliminate itself. It appeared to be flourishing.”
McMahon also said that many of the contractors hired to train and assist the Vietnamese were not interested in working themselves out of high-paying jobs. He said most of the employees had "vested interests." They were married to Vietnamese and they wanted to live in Vietnam. With their high incomes and the low cost of living in South Vietnam, they could maintain a very high standard of living.”
Overstaffing in the provinces was yet another example of waste of the taxpayer's money, according to McMahon. Citing a case where six different agencies of the American government had one or two representatives in each of the four regions and most of them were collecting the same or similar information. He believed that two good people, with proper supervision, could have done the same job as well if not better. He said that a few of the more candid DAO representatives had admitted to working no more than two or three hours a day. Of course, they wouldn't admit this to their bosses. Naturally, the bosses voiced strong disagreement with McMahon, but, Baughn says, “I sincerely believe he was absolutely correct.”
McMahon presented an excellent case for eliminating the entire Attaché Office in the Embassy to which he and four or five other senior officers were assigned. He pointed out the Chief of the DAO was the military man the ambassador talked to and McMahon said that his office had been allowed to go its own way with little if any guidance from the Embassy. “If my memory serves me correctly,” Baughn says, “the replacement group of officers in the Embassy's Attaché Office agreed with McMahon.”
McMahon maintained that the large DAO intelligence staff and field representatives could be cut back by relying more on the CIA. He said, “The CIA appeared to be very objective and the overall quality of their information was outstanding.” McMahon wrote that with the exception of NSA assets and aerial photography, all intelligence came from the same source--the Vietnamese themselves. He said that a few of the more dedicated and experienced Americans in the field were able to make valuable assessments of their information, but they were rare exceptions.
“Colonel McMahon sent his report to me and to General Murray. General Murray was very upset by it because McMahon had not brought these comments to him earlier,” Baughn said. Baughn was not sure what action Murray took as a result of the end-of-tour report, but some time after Murray departed, Lieutenant General Daniel Graham, who was placed in charge of the Defense Intelligence Agency called Baughn about it. He asked Baughn if he had seen the report and wanted to know his reaction to it. Baughn told him he had read it very carefully and then passed it to General Murray. Baughn told Graham of Murray's reaction. He said that based on his own observations to date, the report was very objective, had foundation and that Baughn had not found anything in it with which he could disagree. Baughn also said that some of the agencies that McMahon was pointing the finger at would probably disagree strongly with it. That was the last time McMahon's report was ever mentioned to Baughn.
Changing the subject, Baughn recalls an interesting incident that occurred within a week of his arrival in Vietnam. General Murray asked him to sit in for him at the Mission Council Meeting, which was the Ambassador's staff meeting with the heads of the agencies. When the Ambassador arrived and saw Baughn, he immediately introduced Baughn as his very good friend. He said that they had served in Thailand together. Baughn said he was taken aback since he’d had never met Martin before. “I had heard his name mentioned when I was flying combat over North Vietnam from Thailand,” Baughn says, “but I had never seen the man.”
Baughn later mentioned this to Murray. Murray just smiled and said that the Ambassador was a master at dividing and conquering. "You have just had some distance put between you and the other agency heads and everyone else. They'll figure you're too close to the Ambassador and they will be very careful in what they say to you."
Baughn received a warning at the Pentagon as to how the State Department jealously guarded its prerogatives where the U.S. military was concerned. Since South Vietnam was run mostly by former military men, there was a natural tendency for them to be more at ease and open with the American military. “But after the US fighting forces had departed in 1973, the State Department wanted no mistake to be made about who was in charge,” Baughn recalls. “Martin, of course, was a natural for following this policy. But Martin did not limit it to just the military—he maintained an iron fist control over all of the other agencies in the U.S. Mission.”
One of the functions assigned directly to Baughn when he arrived in Vietnam was Operations and Plans. During his review of the plans he came across a document entitled "Evacuation Plan." Colonel Paul Siegmund, USMC, was in charge of the plans office and was with Baughn during this review. In paging through the Evacuation Plan Baughn noticed that one of the assumptions was that the Vietnamese military would provide the security, in most instances, if the Americans were ever to evacuate. The first thought that came to Baughn’s mind was, "Why would we want to evacuate if the South Vietnamese are in control of the situation?"
He asked Colonel Siegmund about this and, as Baughn recalls, he said that there were a number of inconsistencies in that document. Colonel Siegmund indicated that attempts to make changes and improvements were never received with much enthusiasm at the Embassy. The reason given for not changing was that” it might alarm the Vietnamese!” Baughn thought that if Martin was so concerned about alarming or panicking the Vietnamese, “then it appeared that withholding corrections to glaring flaws in the evacuation document was very incongruous. The prudent and logical thing would have been to modify the evacuation document as we identified problems requiring changes during a period of relative calm. As it turned out, several of the major flaws were not acted upon until a week or so before the final evacuation of Saigon.”
Baughn also noticed Embassy estimates of how many people -- Americans along with third-country nationals -- would be evacuated. The estimates were low, especially regarding loyal Vietnamese. The estimates also centered on Saigon and its environs and did not include people who were located throughout the rest of country. Of course, later it was found that the embassy estimates were far too small. “Unless we had some kind of idea of the total number of people to be evacuated from the provinces, as well as firm estimates of the numbers and locations of people around Saigon—then we did not in fact have a plan—but only a concept,” Baughn says. Colonel Siegmund, agreed and he tried to rectify this deficiency, but to no avail. Colonel Siegmund never received the necessary cooperation from the Embassy before completing his tour in March of 1975. Since the Consul Generals located in the various Military Regions were the only ones with the authority and the capability to determine the numbers of Americans in their areas, Baughn says, “we needed the Embassy's full cooperation. Again, the reason given for the lack of cooperation was that it would probably alarm the Vietnamese.”
“Until sometime in April of 1975, we had for the most an evacuation concept but no evacuation plan—and the omissions made it a highly flawed concept,” Baughn said. “We knew how the evacuation should be handled, but without a valid head count and knowledge of where these people were located, we could not turn the concept into a final plan. In addition, we were never allowed to plan a worst-case situation where security would become a problem, although this would more than likely be the situation if an evacuation became necessary.”
As Baughn recalls, there was very little consideration made for evacuating the loyal Vietnamese employees—the ones who had performed so ably in very sensitive jobs for the U.S. Government. Had any serious attempt been made to address this problem, he says, old Vietnam hands would certainly have highlighted the problem of trying to evacuate Vietnamese without their families.
In November of 1974, Colonel Bud Day, USAF, and Commander John McCain, USN, both former Vietnam POWs, came to Vietnam on official visit. They were briefed by the Embassy on the Vietnam situation and, as usual, were given the story that everything was going well. Colonel Day and Baughn had been acquainted for a long time and so they dined together during Day’s visit. During the course of the dinner the two men discussed how the war was going for South Vietnam. Day said to Baughn that he was happy to hear that they were doing so well. Baughn then gave his version of how they were doing -- a version that followed more along the lines of what the DAO had been reporting, which pointed out that the morale of the South Vietnamese was dangerously low, corruption was taking a huge toll and degrading their fighting capability and the balance was shifting dramatically in favor of the North Vietnamese. “Needless to say, Day was shocked,” Baughn remembers.
“I also told him that the people who were working on the MIA problem in Vietnam were not getting full support from the Embassy and that this had been upsetting me for some time. The US MIA people were denied one of their most effective tools—access to the press. The Embassy would not grant them the freedom they needed with the press when significant information that should have gone out. This was just another indication of Martin's press paranoia,” he observed.
On March 26, 1975, Baughn invited the Deputy Commander of the Vietnamese Air Force to accompany him on a visit to the Phan Rang Air Base, where General Pham Ngoc Sang, the 6th Air Division Commander from Pleiku had just escaped to after the SVN Army had cut and run from MR II without warning. “When we arrived, general Sang met us and immediately asked if he could get some supplies of bombs, fuel to fight the communists. He was mad as hell at the Vietnamese Army because they had evacuated Pleiku and never told him or his people anything about it. He said, “The Vietnamese Army had cut and run and left the highlands without a fight. They just ran away with no enemy in sight and never told any of us in the Air Force they were leaving.” Sang wanted to fight and ask us to help him get some army troops to protect his base while he bombed and attacked the communist forces. There was no doubt about his and his forces willingness to fight and it came as a breath of fresh air after so many stories of the South Vietnamese Army. We visited his airman and their families and they voiced their utter and complete contempt for the Vietnamese Army.
On the same visit Baughn also went to Nha Trang where the MR II headquarters was located, “to see if any of the command elements were still there.” He had been there a few months earlier and it had been a bustling place. “But now I didn’t see a single person. It was like a ghost town and reminded me of the movie Gunga Din when Cary Grant, Victor McLaughlan and Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., entered a recently deserted outpost and village.” Nha Trang was occupied by the NVN a few days later.
When Baughn got back to Saigon he immediately called General Tran Dinh Tho, the Chief of Operations for the JGS, and told him about General Sang and the situation at Phan Rang. “I urged Tho to get some ground forces up there to secure the base, because the army had already evacuated. I also asked him to help arrange to get food and supplies in so the Vietnamese Air Force could fight. I told him that I was going to request some airlift supplies from the U.S. Air Force as well. I felt this might be the spot where the South Vietnamese could hold—but only if they moved fast. My airlift request to the U.S. Air Force was turned down right away. But the Vietnamese did get some army troops and supplies up there. Phan Rang held out until April 16th. General Sang was captured on that day.”
Baughn also briefed General Homer Smith – the Defense Attaché -- regarding his trip to Phan Rang and told him about the South Vietnamese Army “bugging out for no reason at all when the Air Division was ready to fight.” General Smith informed the JGS about the situation. But their eventual support proved to be too little too late.
Somewhere around the time the situation in MR-1 was showing signs of falling apart, an army general from General John J. Burns's Seventh Air Force headquarters visited General Tran Dinh Tho, the Chief of Operations for the Joint General Staff and reported that based on his discussions with Tho, the JGS had a good plan for defending MR-1 and Da Nang. The US Army general was very confident that they could regroup and hold. “It was really a laughable story in view of our minute-by-minute reports coming from Da Nang,” Baughn says. This same general had been trying to computerize the war for some time and one of his findings stated that the South Vietnamese were losing the battles but winning the war. About this time, Admiral Gayler came to Saigon – “Ambassador Martin was still back in the United States and the same Army general came to give Admiral Gayler the computer analysis of the present fighting. DAO intelligence personnel voiced their concerns about the briefing, but the general persisted. It did not take Admiral Gayler long to detect the flaws.”
The SVN military collapse in MR-1 and the resulting evacuation effort in Da Nang appeared to be spawning fears throughout South Vietnam. “Word of the Da Nang situation was spreading fast and many Vietnamese felt betrayed, with signs of anti-Americanism starting to appear. I worried that bringing all of the refugees south might result in more panic and I doubted the ability of the South Vietnamese government to handle the refugees in the face of other security problems.”
Baughn recommended in a letter to the Deputy Chief of Mission (DCM,) since the Ambassador was still back in the States, that the uncontrolled mass evacuation be stopped. It was suggested that if the US were to assist in evacuating anyone from the northern Military Regions it should be military units that could be regrouped and used to defend the rest of the country. At the time Baughn said, “It appeared we were just reacting to situations rather than organizing an effort to salvage some of the fighting forces to defend against the NVN.” Baughn showed General Smith his letter. Smith had many things on his mind and his reaction was polite, Baughn recalls, but he was cool to the suggestion. “I don't know what he did with my letter. I retained a copy in my personal files. Later on Smith wrote in one of his end-of-tour reports words to the effect that he thought the refugee evacuation might not have been in the best interests of South Vietnam.
Baughn met the French Army Attaché shortly after the attaché was assigned to Saigon during the summer of 1974. He was a paratrooper who had fought in Vietnam and had been at Dien Bien Phu. Baughn asked him to give his appraisal of the situation after he had been in country for six months. “I believe it was around January or February of 1975,” Baughn recalls. “The French officer briefed me that South Vietnam had more than enough ammunition, hardware and supplies to fight the war, but lacked the most essential element of a good military organization—the will to win. He also emphasized their weak senior commanders and rampant corruption,” Baughn remembers.
There was a retired U.S. Air Force colonel Baughn had known in the past who had married a wealthy Vietnamese woman. “She was half French with a lot of money and good political connections,” Baughn said. They were living in Saigon and shortly after Baughn’s arrival in April, 1974, Baughn asked the colonel and his wife how long they thought South Vietnam could hold out against North Vietnam. The colonel's wife answered without hesitation, that they would hold out no more than one year. Her husband nodded his head in agreement.
Many of the military people assigned to the DAO could see the end of South Vietnam coming in January, 1975, when Phuoc Long Province fell to the North Vietnamese, Baughn says, “Others had seen it coming for a longer time. After the central highlands debacle in March 1975 a few more doubters became believers and by the time of the Da Nang panic all doubters admitted that the light at the end of the tunnel was all but out.”
Despite Ambassador Martin's refusal to do update the evacuation plan because he thought it would alarm the Vietnamese, he sent a sizable amount of his "personal valuables" back with General Fred Weyand, who was returning to the United States in early April. General Frederick Weyand had reviewed the situation and was going to brief the President on how many American troops would be required to stabilize the situation. Baughn’s Vietnamese maid asked the next morning, after General Weyand had left, when the Americans were leaving. When asked why she wanted to know, she said that the word was spreading that Ambassador had sent a lot of his valuable things back to the States with General Weyand. Many Americans were also discussing it.
“During this period many of the Embassies of other countries started sending their people home. There were other events taking place that were highly visible to the Vietnamese, all of which pointed toward the eventual evacuation.”
On April 1, 1975, CINCPAC sent a message to the DAO stating that the fall of South Vietnam appeared to be imminent and could happen in as soon as five days. They called for a massive reduction in American personnel as soon as possible and outlined other appropriate actions. General Smith requested that Baughn take the action on this message and Baughn assembled the senior military division heads in the DAO that afternoon. He also requested Colonel Wahle and Colonel McCurdy from the Attaché Office in the Embassy, since they had been involved with the recent Embassy evacuation actions. He asked Colonel Wahle to chair a brainstorming meeting to come up with a list of actions that the DAO should take in support of CINCPAC's plans and guidance.
Colonel Wahle’s group worked most of the night developing plans for sea, fixed-wing air and helicopter evacuation techniques for covertly moving people. They recommended actions that the DAO could take immediately on its own and others for the Embassy. On the next day -- April 2nd -- the recommendations were given to General Smith and to Admirals Benton and Oberg. Baughn remembers that” without exception, everyone present agreed with the plans and recommendations.” The same afternoon, Wolfgang Lehman, the Deputy Chief of Mission, was briefed and he agreed that the alert status of the fleet and of the Air Force troop carrier forces should be upgraded and he approved of the holding of two to four MSC ships at Newport for possible sea evacuation. He deferred to Martin concerning a recommendation to order dependents and nonessentials out of the country. Martin turned that suggestion down. Although Baughn and others had discussed withdrawal of some high-value equipment and aircraft, they never brought up the subject because “we simply had to concentrate on people first.”
That afternoon General Smith put Baughn in charge of the evacuation for the DAO and Baughn selected Colonel Wahle as his assistant. Smith also assigned Baughn some young officers to act as a special planning group and to assist in making preparations for security relative to the evacuation of the DAO. “I think it is fair to say that no single group of individuals did more than these young officers in eventually making the evacuation work,” Baughn says. “They were involved in all phases of planning and occasionally they would ask about taking some action that might be too overt for the Embassy. One case I recall was preparing new helicopter landing pads on the roofs of some buildings in Saigon. My response to Colonel Wahle was to do it. I told him to do whatever was required to make the evacuation successful.” It was about this time that Colonel Elmer Graham, a superior army communications officer, suggested that we obtain some satellite communications since we had only communication cables that could be easily cut. I gave him the go ahead and within a week we had satellite communications capability. Colonel Graham was a doer and this was typical of his work.
Baughn was able to determine for the first time how many Americans and third-country nationals were located in Saigon. As I recall, he says, “this was around the 7th or 8th of April and the figure was about seven thousand, which was much higher than the Embassy had been estimating. At last we had one of the critical pieces of information for developing the evacuation plan, but had no idea of how many loyal Vietnamese to evacuate.
The next week was a hectic one, filled with meetings and with frustration, Baughn remembers. “We had airlift capabilities and quotas for moving people out. Despite Embassy approval we started moving loyal Vietnamese, but many of them refused to go without their families. I think that General Smith did more than anyone else in the entire Mission to remove this bottle neck. Most of the American agencies in the Mission soon became aware of the DAO evacuation planning and wanted to follow our lead. On the 9th of April the Ambassador, after receiving recommendations from a number of people, put General Smith in charge of the Mission-wide evacuation planning. Smith again designated me as his agent to accomplish this responsibility.”
The next day Baughn held the first Mission-wide evacuation meeting. A number of high ranking civilians agreed that it was about time that somebody be put in charge of planning. Al Fancis, the Consul General in Da Nang when it collapsed, called to offer his assistance and cooperation, although the Embassy hadn’t included him as an attendee. “He had performed well under the most difficult of circumstances in Da Nang ,” Baughn says, “and saw the critical need to fill the obvious gap in Saigon in order to avoid a repetition of the Da Nang experience—or worse. He recently had been assigned to do some planning on evacuating Vietnamese and had been pressuring the Ambassador on the importance of doing the necessary Mission-wide evacuation planning, which put him out of favor with Martin. But Al continued to work hard and made a very important contribution to the evacuation process.”
At the meeting each of the agencies within the Mission reported what they had done in the way of preparing for an eventual evacuation and what problems they had identified. It appeared without exception, Baughn says, that the other agencies were pleased to hear how much the DAO had accomplished and made them feel somewhat relieved.
Yet, Baughn says, “One thing that startled all of us during the meeting was a request by the Embassy representative (Martin’s DAO monitor), who was observing the meeting. He informed us that the Ambassador would like to have a summary sheet outlining the provisions of the evacuation plan. The DAO monitor had requested a copy of the evacuation plan from us the day before.”
“The inference that Martin was not familiar with a plan that could be implemented within days and that he had no one on his staff familiar enough with the plan to brief him, caught the attention of all of us,” Baughn says. “We also were informed by the monitor that we would withhold further planning actions until Martin had been briefed and put his ‘blessing’ on the plan. We had no time to waste and the request to delay planning action was ignored and the on-going activity by the DAO continued unabated.”
The next day Baughn had a meeting with two Marine officers from the designated evacuation force in Okinawa, who were sent to review the situation, familiarize themselves with the proposed Saigon extraction points, and review the DAO planning actions and to provide further suggested actions that should be taken in preparation for the evacuation. After reviewing the situation, Baughn says, “The Marines were very concerned about the number of Americans still in Vietnam and an unknown number of loyal Vietnamese that would have to be evacuated. They believed that if they had to evacuate such large numbers it would be a high-risk situation for everyone concerned.”
With the lives of so many lives at stake and the military situation deteriorating rapidly, the Marines felt a special security force should be clandestinely moved into Vietnam as soon as possible. They also agreed that Marine helicopter pilots be brought in to augment the small group of Air America helicopter pilots who were already flying nonstop. The Air America people had asked for this, since Air America had one pilot per chopper, half of the normal crew requirement. For safety reasons, more pilots were urgently needed.
The arrangement for the Air America support had been accomplished by the DAO special planning group. “This was just another of the many actions the group had taken,” Baughn says, “despite Martin's business-as-usual policy. I don’t know the exact figure, but over 1,000 people were carried by the Air America helicopters. This would not have been the case if the special planning group had not initiated their planning actions.”
Baughn and the Marine colonel jointly prepared a message with our recommendations. “I asked the colonel to show the message to Martin’s DAO monitor, so the monitor could designate who in the Embassy should see the message before its release. Keep in mind, now,” Baughn says, “the monitor was the person who was supposed to insure that Martin was kept informed of all DAO actions. But for some reason, he did not see fit to show this message to Martin, although it had to be the hottest topic on the embassy’s list.”
Baughn can’t recall exactly who in the Embassy saw and signed message, but he recalls being happy they did not show it to Martin, since this information was something that needed to be released right away. “I would certainly not have sent it over Martin's objections.”
About two o'clock the next morning, Baughn was called by the message center and told that he had an urgent personal communication. The message was from Lieutenant General John Roberts, the Deputy for Personnel at Headquarters, U.S. Air Force, and it stated that Baughn was to depart from South Vietnam on the first available aircraft!
Later Baughn heard from General Roberts that Martin had telephoned the Secretary of Defense and asked him to get rid of Baughn immediately. Martin had read the Baughn message in his file that night and called for his removal.
Baughn concludes, “If I had it all to do over again I would do exactly as I did before. I was determined to avoid any further risk to the thousands of Americans and loyal Vietnamese and I was determined to avoid at all costs grandstand plays for lost causes, bureaucratic face-saving schemes, dim-witted intrigue or senseless demonstrations of bravado. The longer we continued Martin's head-in-the-sand policy, the further we put thousands of Americans and loyal Vietnamese at risk. ”In complete disgust,” Baughn said, “I decided to retire early.”
“Some thought that Martin had a vested interest in hanging on in Vietnam,” Baughn says, “because it would be his last hurrah. Others thought he would try to avoid being chased out of Vietnam at almost any cost due to his arrogance and irrational determination to establish his place in history. Representative Paul McCloskey, who visited Saigon while I was there, said that he thought Graham Martin was demented. General Louis L. Wilson, who was with the Commander in Chief of the Pacific Air Forces, once visited Martin. “As General Wilson and I drove away from the Embassy, Wilson shook his head and said, ‘I have now met my first egomaniac.’" One official, Baughn remembers, who knew Martin well, said that ‘Martin was one of the few men who could stand in the shadow of a corkscrew.’”
Reports show that during the evacuation the Embassy kept interfering with the process. About two weeks before Saigon fell; Martin suddenly expressed a desire to work on a plan to evacuate a million Vietnamese. His eleventh hour grandstanding caused hundreds of Vietnamese to rush to the DAO compound and nearly over whelmed the evacuation process. One attempt by the Embassy on the 21st of April to suddenly restrict Vietnamese evacuees to those of the immediate family nearly caused a riot. Several times they needlessly diverted evacuation buses and Air America helicopters on low priority missions.
When General Smith declared that the fixed wing(C-130) operation could not be continued, Martin refused to accept the recommendation and went to Tan Son Nhut to see for himself, which wasted precious time. “Getting in and out of the Embassy compound was a demanding operation during daylight with fresh crews,” Baughn says. “The Marine and Air America air crews and evacuees they were transporting should never have been put in that hazardous situation. When General Smith declared the airfield unsafe for fixed wing aircraft to continue their operation, the Marine commander should have been put in complete charge of the evacuation and Ambassador Martin should have been on one of the first helicopters out. It was only by the grace of God, the professionalism of the U.S. Marine Corps, DAO personnel and the civilians serving in Saigon that a major disaster was averted during the final withdrawal from Vietnam. In the end, thousands of Vietnamese were evacuated. Unfortunately, many deserving were left behind and many undeserving made it out.”
Looking back now, the American effort in Vietnam appears to Baughn to have been “a lost cause just waiting to happen.” Baughn points out that American military defeated the NVN in battle after battle, but never broke their will to fight. “During most of the war, the map that General O'Donnell was briefed from in 1962 changed very little in relation to the huge American effort in Vietnam. The red and the white would flow back and forth. During the day the white or the SVN controlled areas would increase. But as a rule, at night much of the white turned to red. And in April of 1975 it all became red.”
“I reject the notion that Vietnam was a military defeat. It was anything but that. It was political defeat, lead by a liberal press and timid politicians—pure and simple. The NVN could have been defeated militarily had we chosen to apply our military power decisively. And of course, this could have been done without the use of nuclear weapons. But even if we had defeated them militarily, I am convinced that the NVN’s will to fight would never have been broken. Up to the very end, the NVN had less of everything than the SVN, except their will to win.”