Wednesday, March 6, 2013

"I'll Fly Away:" Cornelius O'Leary's Vietnam

"I'll Fly Away"

I went to Vietnam in May of 1973. I came from Defense Intelligence Agency as an analyst and went over as a Signals Collection Officer. A lot of DIA people were in there for three month tour or six month tour and they were rotated in and out just to maintain this transition from all-military MACV to whatever the DAO would be. We were geared basically to provide U.S. intelligence to U.S. people, in other words, take what the Vietnamese were doing in their J2s and in many cases translate that into English and get that to the Americans or to Washington.
I went to Vietnam to watch the country die. My expertise was in China and I wanted to observe Vietnam and to see if there were parallels there with what happened in China in 1948 and 1949. I never expected South Vietnam to survive. Not at all. In fact, I expected it to fall in 1973. I was surprised that it lasted until 1975, really.
I think the Nixon Administration had done the right thing. They took the worst situation possible and just said, "We declare victory. We have a peace treaty, we've won, we pull our troops out. The Vietnamization program works, therefore there is no need for us to be there." They literally declared victory, withdrew, and said the Vietnamese can defend their own country. Obviously, they hadn't been doing to well, not with the aid of the French and not with the aid of the U.S. So I had no misgivings. To me the issue was simply timing -- how long would it take before South Vietnam fell. I was a realist. Many people who were working in the DAO were psychologically committed to Vietnam. Col. Le Gro, especially and General Murray. I don't know how long Murray had been in country, but he was very emotionally involved. They were his people, they were his little brown brothers. Many of the people who were out there were too involved. And everybody who got too involved with the people lost his objectivity.
My beliefs were this: first, that the country would fall and second, there would probably not be a bloodbath. And those were basically my assumptions. Nothing I saw there caused me to change my original assessment.
I thought that the North Vietnamese would continue to press on all sides --and I think a lot of us thought this --in a slow constriction much like the boa constrictor, crush here and then where it's weak, crush somewhere else and eventually a province would be lost here and a province or maybe even half a province. And then the country would collapse.
As an intelligence analyst you normally don't collect information on both sides. You collect against the enemy. In 1973 or '74, I think the Joint Chiefs of Staff stopped their analysis or collection of the ARVN forces and it fell then by default to those of us in country. To make a net assessment you need to assess both sides. It sounds logical, but often times you are blinded and fail to realize that. So you collect on the enemy and you begin to believe your own lies.
Not until near the end did we begin collecting information on the ARVN and then we were appalled to discover that they weren't as strong as we thought they were and that basically some divisions were good and some were bad and that the politics of the President and the Joint General Staff really built or destroyed a division. If the man was good and a good leader, his division was good. If he was a good leader and a threat to the Thieu government, he didn't receive supplies or he got cashiered or was sent someplace else. So you really had the traditional Asian intrigue and politics going on in politics and the military. And that didn't help matters.
But in 1973 the ARVN seemed to be all right. I felt for a time that the only way they are going to have a chance was if the U.S. government gave them more money. But money has got to get to the soldiers, not to the leaders. And in Vietnam that wasn't happening. There was an internal decay. There was a lack of faith among the people and you could feel it in conversations.
Then came the attack on Phuoc Long. That was the hammer striking the anvil making a sound so the people were then aware that the blacksmith was awake.
The fall of Phuoc Luong was the big hammer blow. It came down and people said, "My God, I can't believe it. We've never lost a province. This is it." And that's the climax of Vietnam as far as I'm concerned. That really is it. When Phuoc Luong fell I think people lost confidence. I think they looked around and said, in maybe a very classical Asian sense, "We have lost face. We have lost a province. We have never lost a province before." And I think it broke their moral courage, if that's the proper phrase. I think it broke their back, and from that point forward there was a different tone and a different feeling in the country. There was less confidence. There was less confidence in the Americans and yet ironically more reliance on things like "You'll bring the B52 bombers in, won't you? You'll give us that supplemental aid, won't you?" It became a reliance again on the Americans to do something.
They did not realize that America was out of the war. We were not going to send planes over. The last planes over Vietnam were intelligence collection planes.
I recall two brief conversations about that time that for me summed up the confusion and misunderstanding about us that the Vietnamese seemed to have.
I lived in a compound and the owner of the compound was the Vietnamese Public Health Director for MR3. I would sit and talk with him, and he was somewhat anti-government --in the government but at the same time anti-government. One day during a conversation he said to me, "If you want to win this war, if you want to make us safe for democracy, just make us the fifty-first state." And he was dead serious. No smiles. He was dead serious. "Just make us a state." No one invades the United States. Wonderful logic.
I remember also talking to a driver who spoke relatively good English and he was talking about the French. He said, "I always felt comfortable with the French. I knew where I stood. When I did a good job they patted me on the head and when I did a bad job they kicked me in the ass." He said, "The Americans don't do that. I just never know where I am. I don't know if you are helping me or hindering me. I need you to tell me what to do."
In early 1975 after the loss of Phuoc Long, this Congressional delegation came through. Bella Abzug was her usual wonderful self, obnoxious. I guess Pete McCloskey was out there, too, to find the "truth". In something like that you don't need congressmen there making fact-finding tours. You really need help. You don't need hindrances. And they created an immense amount of security problems, demands on a very small staff that we didn't need.
Shortly after that the situation deteriorated rapidly and then all of a sudden collapsed--"collapse" is the most wonderful word, because that's what it did--it collapsed like a pricked balloon. It was obvious the U.S. was not coming back and there was going to be no supplemental aid. There was no desire on the part of the U.S. government to do anything about Vietnam.
The attack on Ban Me Thuot threw us. We figured they would push on the highlands, kind of a classical push down through the higlands, out to the ocean, cut the country in half at MR2. That's the scenario I was seeing. Of course our intelligence -- I guess it wasn't bad, but it really didn't have that fine-grained intelligence that you want. Intelligence is a large jigsaw puzzle. You have certain bits of information you put in, and you have large areas that you have no pieces for. So you continue to collect and try to fill the puzzle. And then certain times you're asked to make judgments on that puzzle and you make them. If you have large open spaces, obviously your judgment isn't as good as if those spaces were filled and you had the picture.
After Ban Me Thout things just fell apart. It was crazy. I remember particularly what happened at Nha Trang. The South Vietnamese withdrew quickly because "the North Vietnamese are Coming." And some security captain walked into headquarters in Nha Trang, picked up the phone and called us and asked, "Hey, who's in charge here? I'm standing here all alone. Where is everybody? Where are the North Vietnamese? There aren't any. There's no one here, just me."
At that point we all started packing. And as it all started to go to hell we even stopped reporting. The Americans I saw became more interested in getting out and getting things squared away in country than in doing their job.
They were making sure that they got the gold that needed to buy downtown at a good price and get out of country. Making sure that their household effects were shipped or on their way rather than doing intelligence analysis.
Then you've got another problem. The Vietnamese see other Vietnamese come and pack your goods. They ask, what is going on? At that point it got to be for me a very emotional thing. Because now I'm not just an observer. All of us are no longer observers, or collectors or analyzers. We became involved in not only making sure that we got out of the country but that the people that we worked with and those that we loved got out of the country as well.
Homer Smith, the Defense Attache, ordered a partial evacuation, really a surreptitious evacuation. There are C130s going back empty. There are C5As going back empty and we wanted people on them.
The reality of the whole thing came with the C5A crash on April 4th because surreptitiously the people on the C5A that were holding the babies were DAO secretaries. We moved our secretaries out and kept a very small staff.
It was devastating. I lost two secretaries. I lost my secretary, Martha, and I lost a secretary from the C&L Division. So that was trauma to me. And that, to me was the climax to the American involvement. That, to many of us, brought Vietnam very close to home. No longer were just the Vietnamese bodies being torn apart. All of a sudden, you know, we didn't have the image of the GI lying in the trenches, but you did have the image of a person you knew and talked with and worked with being carried on a stretcher with half her head gone. And you look and say, "Jesus Christ I know that person," or "that's Martha," or "that was Martha." So the emotion hits hard there for a lot of people. You're not quite in a daydream, because you are doing your job and trying to get other things straightened away, but basically that, at least to me was the start of the end.
Emotionally it was a real shocker. And also maybe there was a little realization at that moment in the back of all our minds that maybe we won't get out either. Because I think we all really felt that the cavalry's going to come in and take us out and we're going to fly away and leave this country. The communists won't get me because my forces will be here, the guys in green. I'll fly away and leave my troubles behind. And all of a sudden the reality is there that maybe you won't fly away. Maybe you won't make it. I was thirty years old. I was a hot stuff, I had a car, a driver, a villa with a swimming pool. Hot stuff. And all of a sudden it really comes home quickly. I might die here!
Until about that time I never carried a gun in Vietnam. I refused to carry a weapon, because if you are going to carry it you better be ready to use it, and I was not ready to kill anybody, until about two weeks before the place fell and it really got testy out there. You had a moral breakdown of the society itself, which was odd, because the Vietnamese are really a pretty structured society and crime is done by the lower classes, that's it. But you had incidents of people stopping you at barricades even with your curfew pass, kind of hinting for money. In the final days you had ARVN military officers walking with handguns down the halls of the DAO and you didn't know what the hell they were doing. Normally they weren't there and they were never armed. But they were armed then.
The hooches next to the PX at the DAO were Vietnamese barracks, and they had put a couple guys there as guards and these guys would kind of act offensive, harassing people going between what was "Dodge City" -- a bunch of unusued barracks at the DAO -- and the PX and the gym, which was being used as a staging area for the evacuation. One day this soldier stopped me and said, "Give me your watch." I said, "Why do you need the watch?" "Give me the watch. You're not going to need your watch, you're leaving country." "I'm not leaving country." And he kind of gave me this eye and I looked up on this balcony and there were two guys. I don't remember if they had the machine gun, but they were armed. I just looked and said, "Don't worry about it." And I reached in my shirt and showed him my .38 and reached in my bag and pulled out an Uzzi which I had gotten from a friend. And he just said, "Oh, that's fine." And I said, "You and I are going to fight to the end. So don't worry. I'll be right here. You and I can use the watch together." And that eased, at least for me, that tension.
I didn't know if I was going to be killed, but always in the back of your mind was the question of what were they going to do, the South Vietnamese, when they realized you really were cutting and running?
I left on the 27th. We hadn't slept in three days. We ate sandwiches and this and that, and you're stomach is upset and you've been popping pills to stay awake. All of our personnel were moved. My boss, myself, Harry Johnson, my photo interpreter, we all met with Le Gro and we said, "Boss, we basically have moved all that want to move. There are some that don't want to move and we are not forcing anybody. But basically the bulk of them are all gone. You're going to have some that come in and say, 'I changed my mind', but as far as we're concerned we feel all of our people are safe."
And Le Gro said, "Fine." He had the administrative officer cut us new orders. Then Lt. Colonel Ed Fletcher, myself and Harry Johnson had orders that read, "Go to Guam and go to the Philippines and check for our people and make sure they are identified and make sure they get preferential treatment, if possible."
We took off in the back of a palletized C130, packed with Vietnamese. It was just horrendous. There was no room to lie down, it was that jam packed. They were all sitting cross legged, loaded that way. And I finally just figured I'm going to be the nasty round-eye, I'm tired. I helped move these people. They owe me a spot. And I just kind of leaned back and fell asleep and woke up in Philippines with my good counterpart Harry Johnson talking to me and saying, "Neal, I forgot to get rid of my .45." So I get him and I go up to the crew chief, and Harry opens the bag, and in only that style Harry can do, reaches in the bag and pulls out the .45. The crew chief almost pissed his pants. I said, "No, wait a minute, he wants to give you the weapon. We don't want the weapon. We have no desire."
If there is a lesson to be learned from that experience it is this. In a country that is underdeveloped, or whatever the polite terms are any more, but an economically depressed country, leadership can not isolate themselves from the people.
And that is what the government of South Vietnam did. It didn't really know what it was doing. It played politics for so long it failed to remember that the real game was saving the country. What they did, however, was they very effectively saved themselves, but not their country.
The political scientist in me says what we did in Vietnam has happened over and over again in the world. The Europeans sold out Poland two or three times. But as an American I am not proud of Vietnam because I really think that you can't have an ally for twenty years and then say, "Well the war isn't going the way I like it. I have riots at home and I think we are going to call a cease fire and leave."
You have a whole generation that knows you, depends on you as the round-eyed American, and you have people going back three and four times, so there is more than just a casual military relationship. There is an emotional relationship of a lot of the military, and a lot of civilians in the government that worked there and a lot of the contractors had a commitment to the country. Not just an economic or financial, but a real commitment. I want to make this work and I want them to make it work. And people were proud that the Vietnamese were doing so well with microwave transmission and maintenance and just little things like that. And then it's just, "Bam, see you." And the page closes on the book and there ends the chapter of America in South Vietnam.
A new chapter opens and there is no South Vietnam. And there's fifty-seven thousand dead Americans.

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