Saturday, March 2, 2013
Phil McCombs Remembers the Fall of Saigon
"NOBODY KNOWS WHAT THE HELL'S GOING ON"
Phil McCombs, Washington Post
I had been a sergeant in the Army in Vietnam in '69 and '70. I spent a year there as a reporter and Saigon bureau chief for Stars and Stripes newspaper, and so I got around the country a lot, and I saw a lot of what was going on. But nevertheless I was covering--in the Army-- I was covering the American military pretty much, and didn't have much contact with Vietnamese people.
After that I went to work for the Washington Post. Covering the war in Vietnam was a big career break for a young reporter, then. So I sought that assignment and got it. It was the biggest story going and so if you're a journalist you want to get on a big story. I knew it was a good story and I was a journalist and I wanted to get there and report.
The second time when I went as a reporter for the Post in 1973 until the fall of Saigon, I had a great deal of contact with the Vietnamese people, and therefore it was a totally different story. The Americans were pretty much fading out of there and the American point of view was the aid question, whether or not Congress would continue the aid.
I was sort of a standard American type, in the sense that I thought the communists were bad, and thought that the South Vietnamese were fighting for their freedom, and I thought that America was trying to help them. It was just that simple.
But as a reporter I did a great deal of reporting on the terrible corruption that was going on, the nightmarish corruption, the fuck ups, the American military and the stupid god damn things they did. So in other words, I was professional about the whole thing, but my attitude I think was pretty standard. I wasn't a hawk or a dove. I was sort of just observing.
I visited the Viet Cong for two weeks in Spring of '74 and I carried with me a copy of the Post that reported Nixon resigning. I remember that.
They had a delegation at Tan Son Nhut. I arranged to go into a Vietcong controlled zone, as many reporters had done. I spent two weeks in the jungle with them, the jungle of central Vietnam south of Da Nang. It was a fascinating experience. It was interesting to tell them that I had been a former soldier. They were very shocked and the question about my attitude was examined in great detail. They told me about how their families had been killed by the Americans and how much they hated the Americans. I tried to get all this information out of them, and told them that I'd been a soldier although I hadn't been in combat, I had been a reporter, and I sympathized with them as human beings, because they had lost their families. It was terrible. All this firepower had been brought to bear on them and they were still there.
But, you know, you go in with those guys, and you also notice that they were authoritarian. They were trying to pretend they were the Viet Cong. Well, they were the Viet Cong, but there were also all these fucking North Vietnamese main force units moving down the road and I'd say, "What's that?" there'd be these columns of soldiers, and they'd say "Oh, that's nothing." They had regular forces, but they played the guerrilla, which was fine.
What interested me was the psychology of the people that I talked to. I don't know if you've ever talked at length with a Marxist-Leninist who's so dedicated he's out in the fucking jungle, but it's an interesting experience. I mean we're Americans. We're not like that. And all I'm saying is, you take a standard American guy like me, set him down out in the middle of the jungle with a Marxist-Leninist guy and the conversation's real interesting. You're under their control.
Their beliefs were simple. They hated colonialism and they hated the Americans and they wanted the fucking country. They operated from passion. They wanted the fucking country.
There was some question about who were the Southerners and who were the Northerners. Some of them were from the South and there were a couple from the North. The political commisars were from the North. But I couldn't evaluate these people. I didn't have enough information to evaluate them. In other words, just like France after the Germans had occupied it. All these elements in the Resistance wanted France back, but the communists in the Resistance wanted to take over the fucking country and there was all that battling going on. You get into the whole question of who's a nationalist and who's a communist. You know yourself that now there have been many defections among those who were genuinely passionate patriots of the country who fought against the Americans and then the communists chewed them right up after the fall of Saigon.
There was a whole period of time I was there, I think, when Congress was arguing about aid, and they'd go back and forth and cut it back and give it back again. So the continuing story you would do would be go out into the countryside and live for a while with South Vietnamese soldiers and interview them and find out how are they doing and do they have enough bullets and tanks and all this kind of shit.
They had plenty of shit, I guess. Sometimes you got the impression they had plenty of stuff and they were just fucking around, cowards and all this stuff. Other times you'd get the opposite impression. Here they were valiant and fighting for their country. So it would go both ways. But I can remember early in January of '75 taking a trip that did, in fact, change my mind about things. That was a trip to the Mekong Delta, which is the big region south of Saigon. I took a trip, my interpreter and I just got in a car and drove through the Delta on the main roads and came back and filed a two part series, couple of big pieces. You drove around the Delta and you just realized that it wasn't secure you'd get shot at. You'd be driving down the fucking road in a place that should be secure and there'd be bullets pinging off the highway and this kind of stuff. Or you'd go to an area where a battle was going on and the South Vietnamese were retreating and being creamed. This was in January. The whole fucking Delta, which I spent a lot of time in over the years, maybe I'd been in Vietnam a couple of years as a soldier and a reporter, and I'd been all over the Delta and never seen it this bad. It was just a feeling. But by that time I was an old enough reporter to trust my feelings and instincts, so I wrote that way, that there was a big fucking problem down there. It happened a lot. You'd go to areas where you really shouldn't be shot at and you were being harassed or people were saying don't go there or there. Areas were closed off.
So you got the real impression that this huge and important area -- important because that's where they grew their food, a very rich agricultural area, was just in deep shit. The infiltration and the power and influence of the VC was all over.
It surprised me. You know you're not under fire all the time. You're just driving along and somebody snipes at you. It's no big deal but you do notice it. It's reportable. I'm talking about your instincts about things. Your driving in areas where it really shouldn't be happening. It happens once you don't think anything, it happens twice, three or four times during the course of a three or four day trip, that's significant.
Then this Congressional delegation came in to have a look around. And they went over to Cambodia. I went with them. Bella Abzug was along. It was surrealistic. They went to Phnom Penh and they all fanned out in jeeps to see different things. And I suppose they learned something. I don't know. What do you learn? I'm there as a reporter year after year and I don't know what the fuck is going on. You talk in these political concepts, but when you're there it's an existential experience. You don't know what the fuck is going on. You're just trying to get a handle on things all the time.
Everything's fluid. Nobody knows what the hell's going on. You go talk to these Embassy and ask them what's going on. You know writers who write for newspapers are always trying to formulate things, appear authoritative. Only give me a break. Half the time it's bullshit. Where do you think reporters get this stuff? They go and interview people from three or four different embassies, political analysts. Well where do they get their stuff? I'm just telling you it's not clearcut to figure out what's going on.
By that time it had all turned to shit. We were just writing up a storm. I couldn't get to Phuoc Long, and then there was this long lull and then I guess they zapped Ban Me Thuot. Then there was the whole withdrawal from the Central Highlands. I went up to see the convoy of tears out of the highlands -- I think I described that as a movement of people of Biblical proportions. They were just pouring out of there.
Anyway we flew up there, light plane, tried to see this thing. Somebody started shooting at the plane so we went back and landed. The pilot wouldn't go any farther. We landed at Qui Nhon at the airstrip and half tracks were racing by us. It was chaos. Soldiers were jittery and you didn't know what would happen next.
But then after that I think I stayed in Saigon and made day trips out to various places in a car. There was a lot going on. At a certain point it became clear that the shit was over. I think it became clear to me that things were over, it's amazing what happens to people, the denial that takes place in the human psychology. You can't comprehend your own demise, so you deny. So a lot of the Vietnamese officials and so on I think they really believed it was going to be okay. The thing would be saved. Then something happened. I don't remember exactly the time, but I was standing in line at the airport waiting to mail a letter and the guy in front of me was I guy I had known, and he was mailing out a bunch of his personal effects. He was fluent in Vietnamese, and he said to me, "You know the Vietnamese are just panicked out of their minds."
I didn't speak Vietnamese. Most reporters there didn't. And my employees would often tell me things, but I guess they must have been too scared to -- well it wasn't the kind of thing that they would say -- the Vietnamese are panicked out of their minds. That's news, right? So I went and reported it, and I found out indeed, -- you report something like that by talking to three or four people and suddenly you realize it's true. Everything immediately took on this look -- the ballgame was over. And a lot of American officials didn't know that. A lot of Vietnamese officials especially didn't know that. Because it's not knowable. It's only knowable in an instinctive sense. But you know the shit is over.
And then I start reporting it that way. This ship is leaking and we're on a countdown. Then somewhere around Ban Me Thuot, I can remember Jim Markham of the New York Times came running out of his office. Ban Me Thuot had fallen. I just remember Markham screamed in my face, "That's it. It's over." I was just strolling out to have a cup of coffee. The fall of Ban Me Thout just sent him over the edge. Markham left the country soon thereafter and abandoned his post. He wasn't there to cover the fall of Saigon, the biggest story in the world at the time. And the BBC was spooked away too right after that.
We thought about staying on, but then the Post ordered us out. Now from a personal point of view, I was exhausted, to tell you the truth. Totally exhausted, going for months with practically no sleep, and I probably would have gone out anyway. But in fact the Post editors -- I mean, we were working for them and they ordered us out. They may have done that just pro forma. We knew it was over. And we were exhausted.
We'd file, I guess, two or three stories a day at that time. Don Oberdorfer was there, and Dave Greenway, and we'd divide up, we'd write a lead every day, a main story, that would rotate from one to the other on a daily basis, and then the other guys would do feature stories. I remember what I did. I did a big takeout on the human dimension. I interviewed a lot of people, Vietnamese people. So I left the main story to the other reporters and wrote this huge thing about the human drama of the South Vietnamese people. And so I interviewed maybe a dozen different families. The Vietnamese people themselves were always divided. Families were broken up over this. You had families on different sides. Mothers and fathers split over this, and children on different sides. I knew some of these people, and wrote about all this stuff. It's just not the kind of thing that can put into an easy category. You talk about a nightmare. It was a nightmare for every individual human being who was trying to struggle with what was the right thing to do and how they could hold their families together, and the forces of history were just coming down and crunching them. First the French and then the American war and the divided ideological loyalties, the Marxism-Leninism, Fascism.
But I ought to say right here, there were a lot of Vietnamese who hated communism and hated the communists. Maybe this wasn't reported or understood as much. The fucking communists did a lot of bad shit up there, and they killed a lot of folks. They regimented everyone's lives. You could talk to people and hear stories about this. It wasn't just an abstraction to a lot of these people about what Marxist-Leninists do when they get control of you and your life and your family and how they make you live your life. You're interviewing people, all right they hate the French, maybe they don't like the Americans, but they're also thinking about what is their life going to be like when the Marxists-Leninists take over. It's a complicated thing.
On the other hand, some of these Marxist-Leninist might be from their own families, you see. They might love them.
But anyway, I did this thing about these people. It ran. It was a big piece.
When we left the office, there was a guy there, James Fenton -- this guy is a fucking British poet, globetrotter, wanderer. And Fenton was designated the Washington Post bureau chief -- I mean we gave him the keys for the office and we gave him the car keys, and there's Fenton, mad man, crazy British poet, sitting there in charge of the Washington Post.
Then I just went over to the Embassy and walked in. No problem.
I had no prior experience in the fall of a civilization, and Greenway did. At least he seemed to know -- Greenway is one of these incredibly brave people who go under gunfire and all this stuff, but he simply knew -- I don't know how he knew-- that there was going to be a big crowd and that things were going to turn to shit and that it would be a good idea to be inside the Embassy before that happened. So we went in.
The helicopter that took us out one of those big ones -- CH-53. I think there were a lot of selected Vietnamese aboard that chopper also. It was evening. It was Greenway who finally said, "Let's go." We were hanging around reporting, because we wanted to stay as long as we could. Then Greenway sort of just said, "Time to go. Let's Go." You've got to understand, you've got the fucking CIA station chief standing there scratching his head saying, "Why aren't they blowing us to shit?" I mean, you're in a situation where you could be dead at any moment. Greenway was smart about this. He had covered Hue, Tet, he'd been under fire a lot, and he knew -- it's deceptive to be standing there, everybody's there, everybody's fine, but in any second you could all be dead. They could shell the thing.
I didn't feel any danger -- the adrenalin is pumping, and I was reporting the story. It takes a wiser head to say, "It's time to go." Somebody with some wisdom has to say, "This could turn to shit. We got the story, let's go."
We slipped up over Saigon and I remember I looked out and saw my apartment building and then the Cathedral, and I was crying.
You could see smoke at the edge of the city and fires. And you knew it was all down the tubes.
It's difficult to vocalize it. People were left behind. Our country was fucked up, right? It was just a bad scene.
Greenway said something. I can't remember what he said. You could see a lot of shit going on. It was getting darker and darker as we got further out. And you could see a lot of fire. I remember the fire.
I felt horrible, ashamed, and yet glad to be getting out of there, too. It's a personal experience, a very personal experience; a stage of your life is ending, your career and so on. And there were friends still there. People we left behind.