Wednesday, March 6, 2013
Putting a Nail in the Coffin: Doug Dearth's Vietnam
TAPE 1, SIDE A
In 1972 I was in South Vietnam as an advisor, in the Army. And I'd pretty well decided I wanted to continue to work there. Of course things were going down. My extension was cut off because things were going to end anyway and the military were all leaving. So I had been approached by CIA. They had expressed and interest. And the Agency for International Development (AID) was always an option. But I came back to the states, got out of the army, came to Washington, and started kind of beating around, knowing in the back of my mind I preferred to go back to Vietnam, but on the other hand there was an issue of looking around for a regular job in the system.
I had interviews and applications in at all these places, and I was told by a friend of mine from college days, who was then working as the Defense Intelligence Agency's air force officer that DIA was hiring sort of an executive agent to put together the intel apparatus of Defense Attache Office (which replaced MACV after March 1973). So I found the appropriate place, walked in, said here's who I am, here's what I've done, and they said, good, when can you leave.
By the time we got all this worked out, a set of orders came through and this that and the other, I finally left in again for Vietnam in May '73. I was assigned to the DAO to the intel shop, but what was going to happen was still very much up in the air. They were still putting that staff together. It was staffed mostly with TDY people from DIA at that time with only a couple of people like John Berwin who were permanent. So I showed up and talked about what I'd done, what my interests were, and so forth. They assigned me to a desk and I so sat down, , shoved garbage out of the way and started to work.
General John Murray was the Defense Attache office head at that time. I think we were authorized a good nine hundred people, but I don't think we ever reached more than about six or seven hundred at the most. There were a hell of a lot of people involved that you didn't see on an average day. We had liaison people in each of the corps headquarters as well as Pleiku. We had the army, navy and air force divisions who were worried about the tactical units of the South Vietnamese side. So the intel side was about fifty, sixty people.
Q. What did you find when you got there and started the job?
I've always called the Paris Agreement of 1973 the "so-called cease fire". The situation had not really changed drastically from when I left in January. I'd left II Corps in January. There had been situations in the cease fire, land grab campaign where everybody was making plays for district capitals and trying to control given hamlets. And actually the Vietnamese had held their own very well during that period. The hostiles made grabs here and there but they were rather effectively countered in II Corps. But see the lines were kind of naturally drawn along the landscape. The South Vietnamese owned the coast, by and large owned the major cities. They long since with our advice and assistance had relocated most of the population in the controllable areas around district capitals, around province capitals, along major arteries, places that you could protect with ground forces, with artillery, that sort of thing. So it was reasonably stable.
Q. You were optimistic then?
I think that during '73 having looked at some of the performance in '72 during two offenses, and the events of the first half of '73, I was getting the sense that the South Vietnamese just might be able to pull it off. It was hard to assess how much impact the American forces were having. I think there was a time, certainly in the sixties when the American forces were the war's bulwark of the war. We were carrying the load when the South Vietnamese forces couldn't do it. The idea was that behind the shield of American activity, we were training and building the South Vietnamese forces. And I think to a fair degree that we were successful. It was spotty. There were excellent divisions, there were pretty good divisions, and there were a couple here and there that really weren't worth the price of admission. That changed over time. The 22nd Division in Binh Dinh which had had a bad reputation over time, but a new commanding general took over the division in 1973, and he turned that thing around and made it one of the best fighting units in the South Vietnamese army.
It had been pretty obvious I think, that the VC element had its back broken by Tet '68, and in the subsequent years was just basically hanging on as an annoyance, a local threat here and there, would always be a problem, but was in many ways was degenerating into banditry. Never quite sure what the program was. They knew they couldn't win, per se, and so they would keep up the harassment, the intimidation, the extortion, and so forth, but there wasn't much of a sense of a military program there from what I was seeing of it.
Steady infiltration was the problem. By the late 60s, certainly the early 70s it had become a main force war. And it furthermore had become a North Vietnamese war. And that buildup continued. They had some noticeable results in '72, even after the South Vietnamese counter offensive. Yeah we got back Quang Tri but the thing was like a cratered moon. We walked the forces back behind B52 carpet bombing. So yes you owned the real estate, but what the hell good is it? There had been losses in the highlands, but things weren't looking all that bad. But I think certainly the American aid cutoff in '74 made the difference. That's when you could tell the morale of the South Vietnamese --
Q. You visited Pleiku, Na Trang, etc. How did you find morale for Vietnamese troops when you first went there?
When you walk in as a representative of the American government to corps headquarters or division headquartaers, there's always the dog and pony show aspect. They drop things out, they have the uniforms pressed and they look kind of sharp and they give you a briefing that sometimes it's okay and sometimes you could tell that they were kind of going through motions. I think morale at II Corps was generally was as good as could be expected. Certainly the 22nd Division was on the spot. They had a damn fine fighting colonel who insisted on competent staff and commanders. He took care of his troops in a way that was unusual for that kind of system. He was not committing graft to the system and the troops responded accordingly. On the other hand the 23rd Division that never had a terribly good reputation, they did well from time to time. In other words, there were campaigns in '74 in Southwestern Pleiku in which they did quite well. But the division commander was not generally known as a solid soldier. I don't remember his name.
Q. What did you think of General Nguyen Van Toan?
I had had a chance to observe Toan while I was up there. Very imposing guy, big fellow. Taller than the average, heavy built, barrel chested fellow. Very much a sense of who was in charge. He took himself pretty seriously. He knew he was in charge. He acted like a general. He had the character of a general. And I think he was -- some of his personal associations and his conduct was criticized in certain quarters, but there was not, as I recall, serious questions about his ability.
From what I could see he had a proper professional relationship with his staff. I had the sense, as I recall they were getting a good assessment of the situation. I think that Toan probably knew the shortcomings of some of his tactical units and he knew a lot of things were endemic to the system and were not readily changed. There were at least two distinctive areas in II Corps. There was the Pleiku-Kontum frontier if you will, a main force standoff between the tenth division and the 23rd and rotated elements of the 22nd in and out, and so forth, rangers in and out; and Binh Dinh which had always been a beehive of activity. Binh Dinh and Quang Ngai. That's where all the pirates came from. That's where all the insurrectionists came from back in the dynastic period? Qui Nhon is in Binh Dinh province.
There were periods when if you looked at the VC province party committees throughout south Vietnam, a hell of a lot of members were from Binh Dinh or Quang Ngai....
Q. Why that rather than somewhere else?
It had always been an area -- I would really leave this to a Vietnamese historian or sociologist, but it had always been the the area that produced the rebels, the area that produced the pirates, produced the resistance to central authority.
It never really had been in our hands. It was always a very uncertain kind of thing. It was a very densely populated area. Binh Dinh province, particularly the southeastern corner, but really along the entire coast, was a very densely populated area, unlike most of II Corps which was great expanses and very sparsely populated.
In tht northern tier you had sort of a main force standoff. And then really from Tuy Hoa on the coast, and Dar Lac in the mountains, from that area south, to III corps, you really had an entirely different situation tactically. Rarely main force engagements. Rarely major units involved since about 1970. Very rich area in natural resources. That entire area was really kind of the duck farm of Vietnam. Tea plantations, coffee plantations, fruit farms, vegetable farms and so forth. Of course the seacoast very rich, the central seacoast, rice grown, fruits and vegetables, and so forth. . Nha Trang was bustling commercial town, governmental center, and of course there was Cam Ranh Bay.
Ban Me Thuot was the capital of Dar Lac which was kind of the -- to the extent that it meant anything -- sort of the capital of the Montagnard. The Rade were preeminent in that area. They were generally known as the more advanced and progressive.
Then of course there was another difference. Tactically the difference is cut north and south. Main force engagements in the north and more local force activity in the south. Intensity varying from place to place and over time. There was also the difference between the coastal war and the highlands. The coast of course Vietnamese ethnically whereas the highlands were first the native montagnard, with a sort of Vietnamese overlay, if you will. They were all imported. The Vietnamese were not a significance presence in the highlands until about the 20s or 30s. As a start, and then really nothing significant until the 60s.
Q. Any difference in the areas in their loyalty to the Saigon government? Was the Montagnard allegiance to the Saigon government firm?
No. There had always been a problem going back to before the rebellion in late 60s. The Vietnamese were exploiting the Montagnards. They were taking their land, treating them abysmally, had a generally low regard for their overall social status, and so the Montagnards had always resisted -- that's why the Montagnards took so well to the French. Here was an outside power who ran things and basically kind of protected them from the Viets. The Americans took on that mantel later, perhaps for different reasons. I think the French did it in their typical kind of way -- go toward a sort of a -- depend on a rather vigorous minority as a counter to the majority which you know you really can't control very well.
I think the Americans did it, one, kind of inheriting the French role of military function, and of course there was this great appeal for a lot of Americans who worked up there, Special Forces, USAID, and so forth, that kind of a noble savage, and they were being screwed around by the Viet system. So it was a sort of natural influence.
If you had Montagnard troops to work for you, they were very dependable and resourceful, and so forth. Now, the Montagnard, of course, were on both sides. There were Montagnard units in the opposition. We often had the sense in working closely in a province for instance, that when you look at defections, either way, either a guy coming in from the bush or perhaps somebody all of a sudden left a hamlet and you start checking around as to why, and well he's gone with the VC. Well, I was never really convinced that he went with the VC per se. He kind of went to the bush. He kind of got fed up with what was going on. You would find also that young boys, teenagers, would go out to follow some guy, basically because he had quite a reputation as a fighter, sort of a macho thing, and they would want to follow him. He was someone to be with.
We had Montagnard troops in the Regionalforces, the Popular Forces. Entire units were Montagnard. And --
Q. No Cham units?
Well, there weren't many of them. They were kind of scattered around. There was a sort of animosity -- the Chams had literally been wiped out by the Viets over time, over history, and so as I recall there were just a few living in maybe the area around Nha Trang, certainly around Phan Rang and Binh Thuan and down into Long Khanh province was really about all there was left.
Q. Why your animosity towards the missionaries?
I resented this sort of Christian missionary approach that they're somehow bringing enlightenment to people who are doing just fine. The Montagnard were animists, spirit worshipers, ancestor worshipers. They seemed to be perfectly in tune with their surroundings. They seemed to be quite happy with their lot spiritually, and I really resented somebody going in there to introduce some concept of original sin. I just don't see the point. Then you have this lot going in on the pretext of conversion which I find despicable, education and medical services, which is kind of okay, but then getting involved with political issues. They would get involved to the point of openly sympathizing with the more rebellious or resistant Montagnard ideas. The to say that the Montagnard didn't have a point, it's just that I found it rather interesting that the American government would put up with the situation --they're faced with the embarrassing situation of having a senior official of the host government come to you and say "Your foreign nationals are screwing up". Well, we had policies in place. We forced policies down the Vietnamese government's throat to protect Montagnards, to protect their land, their civil rights and stuff. We would do that, but I don't see why we should put up with this embarrassment of having a bunch of god damn civilians running around inciting rebellion. I mean the Montagnard rebellion had no prospects of winning. All it could do was basically screw up the war. And certainly they had no prospect of winning and what was going to be the result when the Vietnamese government took retribution.
The missionaries were accused of inspiring rebellion. The commanding general of the province felt or was getting reports that these missionaries were giving legitimacy or encouragement to Montagnard grievances against the central government. This only became a big deal because the general made the point, as I recall, to Moncrief Speer, who was the Consul General , then CONGEN turned around and I suspect told the embassy and in some way got to Col. Le Gro at the DAO and Le Gro was meant to kind of sort out why this was the case and what should be done about it. And when it came to me as the MR2 enlisted man and they asked me the question of what to do about the missionaries and I said I think we ought to line them up and shoot them. He didn't like that suggestion.
Q. You trusted that everything would be okay, --
It was obviously very nip and tuck and very dependent on American support. American resolve was very clearly questioned by the terms of the cease fire, the terms of the agreement. Thieu knew it was a bad deal for him. He didn't have a choice. Then when Congress cut the aid funds, then it was obvious that not only the material wherewithal would not be there, but that certainly said something about American intentions. And I think at this time, the South Vietnamese were, militarily becoming more self-reliant, that is they were carrying the fight themselves, and we were doing the supplying. We even were out of the tactical advising game. We're on our own, we have these irritating advisers out of our way now, we don't have to put up with all that shit. It was really the best of worlds for them, as well they could get in South Vietnam. They would do the work, we'll make sure they get the supplies and we won't bother them very much. It was clear though I think, to senior officers at that time, that probably the handwriting was on the wall, and of course once the final NVA offensive kicked off, the whole situation was made worse by military ineptitude, primarily on the part of President Thieu.
Q. Let me ask you about Thieu, the effectiveness of the central government. Back here the feeling was that this was a corrupt government which was unpopular and was imposed by the Americans on the Vietnamese and the reason why it all fell apart was because of corruption.
No, I would say the reason it came together was because of corruption. South Vietnam had no ideology. Anti-communism is not an ideology. There has to be a positive statement of aspiration. Self-determination--yeah, okay. I don't think there was any doubt that South Vietnamese of every stripe wanted to be independent of Foreign control. That had not been an issue. There was the general aspiration of self-determination. That does not say how you run your internal affairs. It doesn't really. It just says, don't you do it, but it doesn't say anything about this nation's values. Of our aspirations, of where we are going, how we intend to do this, what are the values that people should hold. Anti-communism is not an ideology. It simply isn't.
There was not the true concept of democracy as you might think you understand it. They had the trappings, they had the parliament, they had this, that and the other elected governments, but that really wasn't the way the society was used to doing business. And I think Thieu's contribution over time, was one of stability. If nothing else, he got the corruption organized. He made it pretty clear that everybody would get their cut, not their cut plus. And that was kind of the glue that held it together. What we call corruption, we put a pejorative sense to it. In many Asian countries, the Middle East, South Asia, Southeast Asia, a little graft is the way you get things done. It is literally the due of someone in a position of authority to do this sort of thing. Now obviously the farther down the system you are, the less shot in the ass you are with it. Because you are the one that's ultimately paying and not having anybody pay you.
What Thieu did was create truly a hierarchical system. And at least it added dependability. This was one of the problems in the military and the government. People paid for their positions, very often. The province chief would pay, I don't know, five or ten million piasters for his job. Well you don't pay five or ten million dollars or five or ten million piasters for what is on average a very tough job just out of the goodness of your heart. You do it because you expect some sort of reasonable and reasonably timely return on your investment. And this was the case with the senior positions. You don't like it, but it was something very much endemic to their system.
In terms of it being an unpopular government, I would say that you could not get a popular government in Saigon.
The elections -- they went through the motions. It certainly was a heavy handed system. It was in many ways a police state. But on the other hand it was a nation with a million men under arms. It was a nation mobilized. Our country has done some rather questionable things in periods of national mobilization. I guess every government does.
It wasn't a saintly operation by any means. It was often heavy handed, often arbitrary. Unpopular? Yeah in a lot of ways, but it is interesting to think that that opposition could be expressed to some degree. Now I'm not defending Thieu and I'm not defending the South Vietnamese government per se. I'm saying just kind of look at it. There was dissent. It wasn't tolerated very far, but you wouldn't necessarily get your ass thrown in jail for voting against the government or voicing some opposition to specific policies.
I think it was a very natural situation for that society to be in at that point in time. Thieu I think had the sense that as long as it wasn't taken too far, as long as it was properly organized, and people weren't gouging beyond the limits of reasonableness, things basically hung together.
In both government and appointments -- people paying for their jobs and tried to get the pay back for it, there was a great sense of unease, of uncertainty. One never knew how long he would live, literally, if you were a military officer. If you were a government official you were subject to assassination. So the sense is one of, certainly not one of well being, there's a sense of constant tension, of not only how long would I have my job, which is often and issues when you get into political infighting, but how long am I going to live, how safe is my family? So the object of course was to try to hedge in what way you can, like that little extra source of income. You never live on a government salary. You know what a Vietnamese colonel made? Legitimately, less than an a US army private, for god's sake.
So how does he drive a Mercedes, and -- the big house is given to him, and he has soldiers for servants, and all that, but how does he get his five thousand dollar gold Rolex? There was a sense of wanting to try to maintain some sense of stability, some sense of normality, some sense of expectations, get your kids educated, that kind of thing, in the midst of a country torn apart by war.
And look at all the money floating around. The average army private hits Camp Alpha, and the son of a bitch makes more than the legitimate pay of a Vietnamese army colonel, there is one hell of a lot of extra money floating around. Forget stealing stuff off the docks. Look at how much money the American forces in private funds were throwing around. Much less the development funds special operations, and all this sort of thing. The place is torn apart by war, and all the social effects that has, psychological effects, and there's all this money floating around. Christ, anyone would take a cut.
Q. Reports on the news would show corruption in 3 minutes, 4 minutes of the evening news. What was your experience with the newsmen and their intent? Was it malicious intent or -
How did you think the newsmen were doing? Did they understand how the system worked?
There were journalists who had been there for a number of years, who were keen observers of their surroundings, and I think were quite professional. There were those who were kind of in and out to get their time. There were those who were probably sent there, and it wasn't really their idea of perhaps the best of professional or personal reasons, who were kind of trying to get along. There was the obvious business of looking for something out of the ordinary, something to sell. I don't know what kind of management policies were really being pushed back here at network headquarters. I don't get as irate about news coverage per se, as a lot of people did. It's something I guess I kind of expect. I have a lot of personal friends in the press.
Q. The corruption got big play back here. Kind of a poison now that I look back on it. Why are we sending supplies and more money? It only goes into the pockets of the generals.
That was something as advisors we were concerned about. There was a kind of a -- and I won't say it's the attitude of everybody, but I'll say that it's my impression, that if you work with extensive funds or goods in the system, if you were at all realistic, you would expect ten or fifteen per cent seepage somewhere. Somewhere along the line a certain amount of this is going to seep out. It was important to try to limit that to a marginal percentage and say the bulk of it will get to where it's supposed to go, to do what it's supposed to do. If it's ammunition and tactical supplies it's meant to get to the unit, it's not meant to be sold to the opposition, or whatever. If it's development funds or foodstuffs, that sort of thing, it's meant to get to certain villages, certain classes of people, or certain programs, and sixty percent of it's not meant to disappear in the system somewhere.
A good case in point showing how the corruption kept a perspective that was not all that bad in context, there was a time when there were these hamlets in MR II where they farmed in outlying areas. They were not able to till the land during critical periods of the crop season. So we had a program of designating rather tight criteria, refugees in place, meaning that though they hadn't been burned or run out of their homes, they can't continue their livelihood. So this was a way of providing foodstuffs to keep them going until the military could stabilize the situation. A friend of mine, was in charge of monitoring the program. And he became very concerned through his own observations and reports he was getting through his contacts that a lot of this stuff hadn't gotten to where it was supposed to go. And this guy was a very conscientious guy, very concerned with what was happening. And he took his concerns to the district -- province senior adviser --and said look, I really would have trouble going to the province chief and being too accusatory unless I've got something to go on, because obviously they are not just going to fess up. So this guy went back and started digging, used his contacts, used a lot of pressure, tried to convince people that they should be forthcoming with information, so he could track what happened. And all of a sudden his investigation showed that one of the civilian province service chiefs, welfare chief, social chief or somebody, had in fact skimmed a good sixty to seventy per cent of this fund. So that went to the senior adviser, to the province chief, and I remember we used to have what's called a province council meeting on Monday morning. That was the province chief sitting as his civilian job of province governor with his civilian service chiefs. And American advisers were invited as appropriate to the job. I had a couple of civilian programs I was working with as well, and I remember this colonel who was up to his elbows in corruption himself, what we would term corruption. He had his hidden concessions, he got money from tea and coffee plantations, and his deputy got it from lumber business, that kind of thing. And the guy went into a tirade, calling this service chief, --this civilian service chief literally standing at attention in the front of the room -- and just brow beat the hell out of him. In effect saying, "You damn fool, don't you understand three into two won't go?" "Don't you understand you have exceeded the limits and I won't have it". Fired him on the spot and sent a nasty letter to the Prime Minister and said "I fired this son of a bitch. I won't have it. Put him in jail forever."
Now, here's a guy who, as I said, widely known, as province chief as one of the devious corrupt son of a bitches you have ever known, but had his limits. He observed certain limits. It's interesting his previous subsequent assignment as mayor of Cam Ranh, he seemed to have overstepped his limits himself and got in a great deal of trouble in about '74. That's kind of an example of how the system works.
Here's a guy, this province chief, that may not have been an admirable guy, but he understood that part of his job that came with the five million or whatever it was he paid for his job, was to protect the citizens. Skim 'em, yes, but still protect them.
So here he's got a military subsector which is insecure. He's got several villages which are starving to death. And that's certainly not in his interest. He understood that. So if the service chief had skimmed fifteen per cent, the aid officer probably wouldn't have known the difference. He could have skimmed the fifteen per cent, the province chief got his five and everything would have been cool. But when he took sixty, and the province chief wasn't seeing his forty, there's a problem here.
Q. How did the corps commanders get appointed? Was there corruption there?
Let's talk about how the system worked in the military. Most officers, make it a general rule, -- general officers, were lower middle class, working class. Now they went to the academy perhaps with patronage, or advanced through the ranks perhaps, went to OCS. They typically married above their station. In other words they would marry women who were the upper middle class, the upper class. The tradeoff seemed to be, the military was a respected profession in the society so these wealthier girls would marry someone who was perceived to be an up and coming officer as a means to reinforce social status. The way to do that and ensure the officer's success is to ensure that he gets the right kind of appointments. The way he gets those appointments is through the wive's social contacts. And this was very common. You saw it certainly among province chiefs, by my observation. You often saw it among the senior tactical commanders. But there was a regular promotion scheme for officers. Reasonably professionally organized.
Toan didn't have a wife. I don't know and I've never looked into this, but I suspect Toan came from a pretty well off family. That would be my suspicion. He certainly knew how to live well. And he was reasonably well educated.
(((end of side A Tape 1)))
((side B, Tape 1))))
. . . all seemed examples of someone who had a job that in a reasonable world that son of a bitch wouldn't have that job. I've seen senior officers and senior civil attorneys servants in this system that I don't know how they got there. I'm not going to say they got it out of corruption. I wouldn't say they got it through mismanagement of the system certainly. In some ways I think it's almost worse than corruption because there's no good reason for it. But I know a lot of officers who probably paid to get where they got, or at least were given a given position perhaps for that help, but say they were selected on the basis of merit. Well that's fine, but we'd like to appoint you to this, but the price tag on that job is -- can you play with it? I suspect there's probably a certain amount of that. Now I don't know. And I mentioned the 22nd division commander, from all I've seen and heard, of the man, he was not involved. I know that a lot of people would say that about their counterparts and I usually choked on that, but I wasn't his adviser, I simply was his friend and associate, and I observed him at rather close range, I had friends who did, and he seemed not to be involved. We talked about it in the past, and I suspect that coming from rangers, that he didn't.
When I first met him he was a province chief. But he was made province chief to fix a really bad problem and I suspect he may have just said, Hey will you go fix this for us. He almost got killed for his efforts in shaking up corruption. He was sent into one province to sort out a situation that had just become abysmal in terms of corruption and inefficiency and mismanagement and god knows what else.
And for his efforts he was damn near assassinated by one of his officers. I was there the day that all this happened.
A guy pulled a grenade and threatened to blow the whole room up. It was an officer who had been removed. Gen. Pham Dinh Niem's tactic was to take all of his officers and reassign them and just shuffle all the positions. So it shakes up everybody's concessions. Nobody knows who's in charge of anything any more. And makes them at least try to re-establish the network, which takes a little time. And one of these young officers had had his standing group and came and threatened to pull the pin on a grenade and do everybody in. I didn't run fast enough. I got caught in the room. Niem was just calm cool and collected and everything finally -- years later Niem always referred to that laughingly as "Grenade Day". After several hours of this, the guy's adrenalin had kind of pumped through and he was getting kind of tired and one of the officers bumped him and the grenade went off. It didn't hurt anybody, I think a couple guys got scratched, because it was sort of the situation where the guy was away from the group and then they promptly took him away and shot him. Niem was really pissed about that. He didn't want that to happen. But a couple of officers were a little overzealous.
He's a guy who's always tried to stay out of the limelight. (((break to order meal through ctr 55)))
Q. When did you start to really worry about it all.
Well once the final offensive started it was bad enough, the debacle at Ban Me Thuot was bad enough. You had to take the kind of long term view that constantly losing more and more bits of the highlands, like we did in '72, two offensives in '72, we kept losing parts of it, '73 they knock off remaining outposts, but those were things that were anomalies anyway. Why they were still maintained was just prestige or honor or something to maintain these cut off outposts, because they were a real drain to resupply and served no particular purpose. They were just sitting out there all bottled up. They weren't really controlling. They were just sort of there.
But the sense of how long can you continue to have things chipped away, where does it stop? There was that problem. On the other hand a lot of this was really very marginal real estate. Yes, it's in the border it's on the map, it doesn't do anything. Northern Kontum was particularly useful for anything. Really if you come right down to it, but it was the sense of territorial loss and people had to kind of ---
In the highlands, let's face it, who cared? Viets didn't really care. In the far reaches of northern Kontum province nobody owned it anyway. Not populated hardly at all. Hadn't been in years. So that wasn't really a problem. Phuoc Long was kind of a psychological problem in the sense that it was in 3 corps, but again not really much -- I think there were some cashew plantations up there that I resented losing. But other than that it wasn't all that big a deal.
Q. Between the loss of Phuoc Long and the Ban Me Thuot assault was when the Congressional delegation came in.
Oh, that was a zoo. We had them around. It seems like they were there forever. I heard that Bella Abzug was there, all she wanted to do was go see the snake pits, the tiger pits on Con Son island. That was all she cared about! She just wanted to see or find something embarrassing.
Q. Were any of them looking for facts?
Yeah. As I recall really didn't have much impact. The guy who really did was Pete McCloskey. McCloskey knew how to really get in your shorts because he was a ex-Marine Corps Reserve officer, so he kind of knew the terminology and the concepts, principles, and so forth, so he knew what to ask. And he used to drive us absolutely to distraction, because he asked good questions and he expected detailed answers. And it got to the point where it was such a load we had to take one guy off a regular desk and have him do nothing but put together the answers for the delegation, particularly McCloskey.
Q. Dewey Bartlett, Don Fraser, these people were no problem?
Q. They were out there to assess the need for more money.
I think they were out there to put the nail in the coffin actually. That was my impression. I had the sense that -- of course I was out there, not back here -- that the Congress pretty well decided they were amenable to this idea and probably a bit of political foot dragging, well let's study this, investigate this, make sure we know what we're doing, and so forth -- how you get from the findings of that delegation to a cutoff in aid, because there's no logical connection there.
Q. Were you aware how important the antiwar sentiment was in this country? Were you in touch with it at all? Did anybody appreciate it or did it come thundering down on you?
I think it was there. I think there was certainly a sense in the military of not having popular support. I think there were some officers who basically didn't care. They were mechanics who were charged to do a job and that was their job and it doesn't really matter what the American public thinks about it as long as a duly constituted authority tells you to do it, you do it.
Q. When the Congressional delegation left -- the attack on Ban Me Thuot then. When had Thieu replaced Toan.
Must have been late '74.
Q. If you were a betting man, would you have bet on Ban Me Thuot in March, or not?
Well, no, in the absence of indications, no. In a sense it was kind of a marginal exercise. But of course once you get into this gamesmanship it really is the opposition betting on response. Getting Ban Me Thuot, what do they do? First of all, they hit us where we weren't. Second they took over the Montagnard capital but that's all the farther it went. You could make some political hay and declare a Montagnard democratic republic or something -- I don't know if they had that planned out.
Q. Weren't you privy to the same intelligence reports that the Vietnamese were getting. Saw the captured documents from the North Vietnamese artillery officer and --
Yeah, but we were really not well served at a critical juncture by the lack of information on North Vietnamese troops moving down and the status of the NVA strategic reserve.
Q. Were you surprised by the size of the assault?
Yeah. See this mob had moved tail, we found out later. They had moved three divisions in extremely short order, trucked them the whole way. They weren't picked up on the trail. They apparently didn't come as regular combat troops.
Q. You had somebody up there didn't you?
We were told by technical sources that the NVA strategic reserve was in place and that the 10th division was in its normal areas in Kontum. And the 320th in Pleiku. When in fact both of those mobs had pulled out of the line and pulled an end run, plus all this mob from North Vietnam. So technical intelligence really failed us at that point.
Q. Were you surprised at how quickly it fell or by the lack of effectiveness ofthe defending forces?
No. The forces that were there and could be gotten there were really not adequate for counter offensive.
Q. Did you lose anybody up there? I know a lot of people were captured. Was there someone from the DAO?
No. There were some AID people who eventually got back.
Q. What were your meetings like when Ban Me Thuot was under assault? Was there message traffic coming down from Pleiku? How was the communication at Pleiku and General Pham Van Phu at that time?
We did not get direct reporting. We had our own people in Pleiku. They'd done a clever thing. The 10th division left its communication structure intact, had people passing false traffic that would lead us to believe they were still deployed in their normal areas. Meanwhile there were reasonably consonant but low grade artillery attacks by fire all along the northern provinces, so that would lead one to say yes, they're still there, and second they may be getting ready to do something. As I said, technical sources really nailed us on that one.
Q. What did you expect to happen in the next couple of days? You certainly didn't expect to happen what did happen.
Again, the problem of gamesmanship, I don't think anybody expected one, the order for the pull out of the ARVN forces and second the complete abdication of authority by the corps commander.
Q. Are you aware that Thieu had flown up to Cam Ranh -- were you aware only afterwards or when it was happening?
I guess we were aware, as I recall, we were certainly aware immediately afterward.
Q. When you started hearing about withdrawal?
Through our liaison sources.
Q. Before General Phu started pulling back you knew he was going to do it? What did you think of that?
It was obvious that it was going to be a terribly difficult operation. Just the extraction out of KonTum and some things began to happen immediately that did not bode well. Undisciplined withddrawal, troops cut and running, officers deserting their units, . . .
Q. Everybody has an excuse for that. Do you believe it in that flat of terms? Officers abandoning their units, period?
And then of course once they cut and run from Pleiku, then it was definitely all over. They couldn't go down Highway 19 because that was blocked, so they took 7 Bravo which hadn't been used in years.
Q. Why hadn't 7B been cleared earlier just for resupply?
It was in bad condition. It wasn't a matter of being cleared. It was a matter of its being used for heavy transport. Well that would have taken a hell of a long time.
Q. Would it not have been worth it?
Well, I think rather than provide that kind of loophole the idea was to concentrate on opening 19. Every time they went against it they got thrown back.
Q. I know from Murray that Tom Polgar [CIA Station Chief] had bugged the presidential palace & was privy to all the conferences going on. Was the withdrawal plan kept so secret that you really didn't know about -- did the CIA share their intelligence with you?
Well I think we often had some suspicion about the completeness of the cooperation. There were regular links. There were regular discussions. I think there is just always a suspicion that's sometimes fostered by agency people that they know more than they are letting on.
Q. You were not shocked when you heard of the withdrawal?
No, I figured once that started that things were going to be very bad. The debacle on Route 7B was at least as bad as anyone suspected. I had a personal friend who was in that gaggle. You really ought to talk to him. Nguyen Din Tam. He was my interpreter back in the old days. He's in Missouri. He was a signal sergeant in Pleiku when this whole drill went down. He went down Route 7 and he has a real story that you ought to get.
Q. Did you fly up to see it?
No, at that point I was talking to Tam in Pleiku regularly and once it started my job in Saigon was kind of the focus of attention. So we had to kind of sit tight during that period.
Q. What was the story with Phu fleeing down to Na Trang? Was that a legitimate move? Some said he was sick, wounded, scratched, afraid.
Well, he'd always been sick. He was not really in good health. As far as I could tell it was just a total abrogation of his responsibilities.
Q. Who was in command? Anybody?
Yeah, the ranger commander. He was put in overall command. It was probably under the circumstances the best choice you could make. It just became a total route.
Q. Who was the intelligence analyst for MR 1?
Bob Edison. He's here in town. Works for DIA.
Q. Is he accessible?
I don't know. The guy you ought to talk to is Neal O'Leary. Neal was very heavily involved in what we called the "Black" operation. Getting all the Viets on the planes. He's here in town. I'll put you in touch. He's really got the best look you'll get at the evacuation.
Q. What was happening at DAO at this time? Was anybody saying circle the wagons and call for the B 52s?
Yeah. Bill did.
Q. What about the abandonment of MR 1?
I think once the Route 7 thing went down, nothing surprised me.
Q. Did you fly out of Saigon up to Nha Trang?
No, I was supposed to go to Danang the day it was evacuated.
Q. What did you foresee? Did you have any prognosis in your reports where this would end? with partitioning? Am. intervention?
I didn't expect American intervention. There was talk about maintaining coastal enclaves and sort of drawn along across northern 3 corps, keeping those for pockets of resistance. And I guess by that point I didn't see the point. First of all it wasn't militarily viable. And why bother? From my standpoint, it just didn't look at all practical. It would prolong the agony. But in the end it would be at least as bloody as it had been.
Q. You didn't foresee yourself leaving though -- Saigon with the North Vietnamese rolling in in April?
No. It was very much a question how that was going to work out.
Q. When General Fred Weyand came out, what did he find?
As I recall he came out with George Carver, and of course they were both old hands and quick studies. They read the situation pretty quickly. I've never bothered to follow up on what it is they recommended when they came back, but I think we gave them a pretty unvarnished look at the whole thing.
Q. Weyand then met with Ford and Kissinger when he got back. Were you in communication with Brent Scowcroft too, at the White House?
Q. MR 1 when General Ngo Quang Truong was withdrawn was that any surprise?
Q. When they come down the coast, did you expect any type of regrouping? It all seems to be just logistical problems, strategic problems.
It reached the point by -- let's Nha Trang went on the first of April as I recall, Phan Rang and Phan Thiet couldn't have been that far behind, just a matter of days. I think that something that could have reasonably been expected was that the North would have to consolidate, pause and consolidate, but really once they got past Tuy Hoa it was pretty much of a cake walk. It was just a matter of keeping things caught up.
Q. Henry Hicks told me about looking at the B-52s . . . .
Henry Hicks is an idiot.
Q. When did you start worrying about your personal safety?
Well, I don't know. This was really very much of an extension of the whole time I was in the military. Once you get kind of busy you don't focus on things quite that way. We had been working since early March getting people out. Of course we lost a lot of people in the C 5A crash [April 4, 1975. 153 people died in the crash and 175 survived]. I was on the first helicopter out to the crash site. The aftermath of that was quite devastating. So many people that we worked with. All these people just all of a sudden gone. Plus being involved in the mechanical aspects, of going out and "scarfing" up the survivors and so on.
The only thing I really got concerned about and it wasn't especially concern, just getting mad, was the Ambassador would not declare an emergency, so he couldn't order anybody out and couldn't invoke some emergency action plan ordering anybody out. Saigon was full of contractors, retired military, retired contractors, and general riff raff. These people often had local ties, local families, businesses, etc. I remember telling some of these people, hey look you really ought to get your ass in gear and get out. No, they worried about the money they got invested, worried about their semilegal families that they couldn't justify getting papers for them. And finally the point was, look you son of a bitch, get going because I don't want to compete for the last airplane. You don't have a reason to be here any more, so go.
And -- through DAO efforts, efforts of the military, with no help from the embassy, we had things pretty well in hand. Eventually sitting there with some 10 NVA divisions ringing the city, and they're popping SA 7s off the end of the air strip, and the possibility of SA 2s set up at Bien Hoa, you begin to wonder about the viability of the whole thing. But I recall everybody I dealt with being pretty well consoled about it. I think the worst part for many people was this uncertainty about being able to get certain people out, whether it be local wives regardless of legal status in American terms, or girlfriends or close friends, or whatever. This idiot drill we had to go through, ultimately cut through very nicely by the "Black" operation.
What happened was, March and April the air force assembled all its planes with emergency replacement equipment for the evacuation. The commander allegedly called or sent a message to Homer Smith who was the Defense Attache at that time, saying Hey, Homer, I'm not sending these planes in any more if you don't send them back full. Let's get a move on there.
The ambassador hasn't declared -- so they basically said screw the ambassador, we'll just start moving people out of Tan Son Nhut. He's bottled up downtown, he won't see that. So we were literally using the supply planes coming in to send people out.
Q. No papers, no problems?
Oh, there were stamps on things here and there.
Q. General Richard Baughn?
He was canned. That was a put up deal. There was a -- as I recall, Baughn put out a message that had to do with the requirement for Marine security guard replacements. As I recall that was the issue. And it really said some bottom line things about how important this was. The message was coordinated with the guy who ostensibly was the embassy liaison, I don't recall his name. But as I understand it, when the message was received in Washington, it was about the fastest turn-around response you can imagine. And I was told that it went literally from Kissinger to the SECDEF to JCS to CINCPAC boom boom boom right down through the system. I didn't even know the son of a bitch was gone until I'm sitting in the office one afternoon or evening and get a call "How are you doing? This is General Baughn." I think why is this ass hole calling to pass the time of day. He says, "I'm in the Philippines. Anything I can do for you? I got plenty of time on my hands."
He had his bags packed and gone in a heartbeat. And it was really a shame because he was really suckered. I think one, I would probably agree with his assessment he sent out. Second this embassy puke chopped on him. And then of course the people in Washington get all wound up. Why fire a key officer at that point in time? I couldn't understand that at all.
Q. Snepp, Polgar and CIA?
I think Polgar was clearly taken in by the Polgarians --the Poles and Hungarians who were in Saigon with the ICCCS. As I understand it he was actively using the Hungarian representatives as credible sources. And I think they were feeding him a line of shit.
Now Snepp at this point, the only real problem I had with Frank is, -- I always kind of liked Frank. He had a great deal of ability. But he used to -- he was basically the personal boy of the ambassador and station chief. And he was spouting the party line right down -- yeah, everything's under control.
Q. They'll never be able to coordinate their armor, artillery and ground -- that's exactly what it was.
The interesting thing is that it was only after he got back that all of a sudden he discovered the emperor didn't have any clothes on and he really got himself in a tangle at headquarters. His book's okay.
Q. He believed what he's saying? These assessments or was he just spouting a line, not thinking what he was saying?
I don't think he was. I know in his book he gives Bill LeGro short shrift. Which I don't think is at all warranted. I think some of the sources he relied on are suspect. In all fairness, some of us didn't do him any favors. I remember calling wanting to talk and at a time when I didn't have a job, and was rather uncertain about my immediate future, seemed to me being unduly associated with a guy who was obviously going to get taken to the cleaners, didn't seem like a great idea. And I certainly didn't feel strongly enough about the issue. They were going to rake his ass for good.
Q. What's happened to him?
Q. I feel kind of badly because the book "Decent Interval" did so well and he didn't get anything out of it. And in addition to not getting anything out of the book.
He was railroaded by the CIA though. He really was. Stansfield, Turner really did the job. And there was no call for it. I may disagree with Frank on certain substantive issues, but there was absolutely no good reason for what the CIA had done.
Q. You mean in depriving him of any profit from the book.
He should have recouped that long ago. He quit the agency long before the book came out. So he should have been able to take his retirement out, which should have reasonably been a decent amount given his time and his rank.
Q. Xuan Loc is held for a while by General Le Minh Dao in mid April.
It was a real cat fight.
Q. Did you watch Thieu on tv when he resigned?
I don't remember if I saw it or not.
Q. Did you help coordinate his exit, or Cao Van Vien's exit?
I suspect if anybody was involved, probably CIA.
I don't know that we had any involvement.
Q. When Tran Van Hung was named prisdent what were you thinking at that time?
There was talk about a provisional coalition government. I saw little likelihood of that and why the opposition would buy that, I mean, Christ, they had the whole thing sewed up. Why go through that farce? Ultimately of course they just kind of pushed right in . . . .
(((((end of side B, Tape 1.)))))
(((begin side a, Tape 2)))
Q. . . . we you aware of the backup plans they had at the embassy?
Q. The only problem was just when they would be invoked? The evacuation of Phnom Penh must have made you feel relatively good about it all, it came off without a hitch, everybody got out, no shooting, nothing.
I remember those last few week as really being a very surrealistic period. A couple of things strike me from this much time. Two impressions stick with me. First of all was walking through Saigon during those last few weeks, very few weeks, and I remember bright clear sunny days, beautiful days and having the sense -- I don't know if it was my own perception or what was really kind of going on -- walking through downtown Saigon, now this should have been kind of a rat hole by this time, but they were consciously keeping refugees out, maintaining a cordon around the city so that refugees didn't filter in and cause all kinds of mayhem. I remember there being an eerie sense of quiet yet things were still going on. There were still people around, mopeds going by, things being sold, and so forth. I remember the sort of eerie sense of quiet and this very sunny day. It was just kind of spooky.
I also remember once 2 corps was gone I really didn't have a lot to do. And so I used to take aerial recon flights with Air America up over the central coast just to kind of see what the hell was going on in Nha Trang, Phan Rang, Phan Tiet and get a sense of how the communists are moving, how are they consolidating, and so forth. And I remember we were buzzing along just me and the pilot, and we started taking 57 millimeter fire, ground fire. And of course it's rocking this little plane around like crazy because they start going off and causes air turbulence. And I think really for the first time in four years it just kind of occurred to me that this would be a silly time to die here. It was really as simple as that.
I remember going through the whole military time and some of the other stuff, Niem's copter coming down in the An Khe Valley -- and all kinds of things, and just not being -- General Niem, the 22nd division guy. His helicopter got hit one time in the An Kay Valley -- and I remember that generally sort of being, first kind of exciting, then just kind of part of the show and really not -- I guess you get a certain fatalism as well. But I never remember it really bothering me in any real sense. And I don't remember it bothering me that day. In a sort of a weird calm way I just felt, "bloody silly at this point". I would really like to survive this one. This is going to be part of history. So we took it up, banked, and turned around.
My real concern toward the end was getting a friend out. Of course I was worried about Tam, my interpreter, the guy who came down Route 7. Incredible story. You got to talk to the guy.
I'll give you a thumbnail so you know what it's about.
He was up at Pleiku as a signal sergeant in the corps headquarters microwave station and we're talking on the phone back and forth very cryptically about "how's it going?" The airfield is being shelled like crazy at that point. Then I knew that the plug had been pulled and I was talking to him on the phone and I said "What are you doing"? and he says, "well, I think we're going to bug out of here pretty soon. I don't know." And I said, "Well listen, you get to Nha Trang. Tam, I'd come up but there's no way of getting up. So you make your way to Nha Trang however you have to do it. You know Mr. Mayfield. He was our rep up there, Steve Mayfield. And I said, you latch up with him and stick with him and everything will be cool. Just keep your head down and take life easy."
Well he came down that debacle. He's got an incredible horror story about that. A very brave kind of guy. Got to Tuy Hoa and by that time he was on some hook. Everything had come totally apart. And so he got to Nha Trang, and bigger than shit, he calls me from I think Mayfield's house. He's out in Hawaii now. So he says, "Guess what, I found my sister."
Now his family's from Lam Dong Province. So he had a younger sister, twelve, thirteen maybe, certainly no older than fourteen. She had come with a family friend who was like a major in the local forces there, down through Da Lat, down the gap to Nha Trang, and they literally ran into each other on the street. The rest of Tam's family, the brothers are in the armed forces, God knows what's happening to them. The old lady's there, but the sister came alone. He takes the sister and they hop a boat out of Cam Ranh. They make their way from Nha Trang to Cam Ranh. They hop a boat and I mean this is real grab ass show now. Everybody getting on anything that will float. Gets on a boat. Don't know where they're going. I think the story was they were supposed to be going to Cap St. Jacques or something. By this time I think the Vietnamese navy took over and I don't know what's happened to them. He's left Nha Trang and so he ends up on Phu Quoc? and I don't know this. I've already written him off once. I figured Route 7, I knew what was happening on Route 7 and I thought, oh, shit he'll never make it. Then he calls me from Nha Trang and then all of a sudden disappears.
Who knows. I know what gaggle is going on up there. He calls me from Phu Quoc. They've literally been interned and they -- all the boats that arrived there, they just lock the people up. What the hell you going to do? Being kind of a personable guy, and know how to bull shit about communications, things like that, he ends up conning his way into some kind of a comm center and calls me at my home in Saigon. Terrible connection. "I'm on Phu Quoc". And I thought at least he's out of the line of fire for right now.
He says, "I'm coming to Saigon". And I said Tam, you'll never make it. They've got a cordon around the city and there's about to be a second ring by the hostiles." And he says, "I'm coming to Saigon. I'll figure out a way." The next thing I know, he calls me from Vung Tau. He says, "I'm coming to Saigon". I said, "Tam there's no fucking way." He says, "Don't worry about it". And I'll be damned if next day he knocks on my gate.
This kid's been gone now for thirty days from the time he left Pleiku, down Route 7 to Tuy Hoa, to Nha Trang, to Cam Ranh, around to Phu Quoc back to Vung Tau, and back to Saigon. Thirty days. He's got the same uniform on he's had for thirty days. No bath, no shower. This poor little waif, I remember his sister being a somewhat younger child, she looks like a real refugee.
We got them inside. The houses were -- the billets in Saigon all had these fences with barbed wire and all that bullshit. That's just the way they were built. Got them inside and Tam didn't really drink, and boy he sucked down two cold beers just like that, of course it kind of went to his head, he hadn't had a proper meal in thirty days. And my girlfriend took his sister, and I said two things. One, take her and clean her up. I mean she looked like hell. So Di took her off to the shower and I told Tam, "Take the uniform off" and I called the maid in and I said, "Burn it". I said "Tam where's your id card? Do you still have it?" Right here. So I was going to keep that, never know when it might come in handy on the other hand he might not want to be caught without it. We talked about it. And he basically said something to the effect of "You know it strikes me that I've really worked far too long for the wrong people in the wrong business. What happens now?" And I said, "Tam I'll get you out".
I don't know how, but I'll get you out. I knew the black operation was going and we'd figure out something. Meanwhile we talked about well, should your sister go or not? She doesn't speak English, she's very young, you're going to have a very hard time. She's not in trouble. You're in trouble, she's not. So we agreed that she should leave and go stay with some friends in Saigon and kind of ride things out. And I made contact with Neil O'Leary and the people who were running the black operations and I rigged up a deal, Tom was going to be the interpreter for this army colonel who was Neal's boss who was running the -- was a key cog of the black operation. You stick with him, you interpret for him because we'll move the Vietnamese like crazy.
And this was going just great. And I said, "Tom, we'll stay in touch." Snuck him over to Tan Son Nhut in the trunk of the office car, this big old ford or Chevy, or something. Put his ass in the trunk, drive past the Vietnamese guards, and once he was on Tan Son Nhut he says What about my ID? I says, Burned, it's gone. The Vietnamese army never heard of you. Don't worry. From here you're home, somehow.
About two days later, I run into Neil and I said, "How's Tam doing?" He says, "Tam's gone". What do you mean he's gone? He says, "Well, the white mice came snooping around. The Vietnamese police." Here's the guy who's obviously military age and he looks younger than he is. I haven't seen Tam in several years. We talk on the phone all the time, but I haven't seen him in several years, but he's either--depending on which set of documents you want to believe--either a year older or a year younger or the same age as I am. And he probably looks like he's about twenty-eight. So, white mice came snooping around and he said "Screw this", and put his ass on the next flight and he was gone to Clark in the Philippines. They just laughed at the white mice, slipped the son of a bitch on the next airplane, and he was gone.
So several days later I left. On the 27th.
Q. His sister is still there?
Q. And your house, you maid, your cook and everything?
No I got my girlfriend out. And I paid the maid the equivalent of about three month's wages which wouldn't disturb your lunch tomorrow or mine, for the kind of wages that we were paying. And I think she was really happy to get the money. She was certainly glad to see me go. She was a country girl. So several days later, I'm in Clark, and I hadn't had a chance to talk to him because he left so precipitously but I felt, okay he's out of here, there will be a system, however dicked up, there will be a system and everything will be okay.
So, by god, I'm in Clark, and I literally run into the son of a bitch, in a cafeteria. What we had done was, Bob Edison gave him two changes of clothes because they were about the same size. And I gave him about twenty bucks in green and I said, "Now if I don't see you, things will be okay. I'll catch up with you. I will be able to find you, guaranteed."
So the son of a bitch left with two changes of our clothes and twenty bucks green. That's all he had in his hands. So I literally ran into him at Clark in the cafeteria or one of the soup kitchens that was set up. "How you doing?" and all this, "What are you doing?" He says,"I'm working". What are you doing? "Working for the Red Cross." He was working for the Red Cross as an interpreter.
Now, Clark Air Base could really be an entire segment in your book. I don't want to tell you how to do your business, but the performance of the American military families and base infrastructure in Clark was truly exceptional. The work of the SeaBees in Guam was just something to behold. I can give you a rundown on that if you want.
We went to Clark. They were shoving everybody out at Clark. Clark is the big air base. But all of a sudden it's just American, Vietnamese, everybody, just running around all over the place. As I understand it, Ambassador Sullivan had told President Marcos that --"Look, you understand our situation in Vietnam. We have a few senior officials and wives and families and things like that, kind of moving through Clark. But we're just staging here, we're going to move them out." Okay fine.
The next thing you know, spies on Clark, which is probably every charwoman, cook and bottle washer on Clark, tell him this place is crawling with Vietnamese. And I think we had about 8 thousand by that time, so he ordered us all out. We're starting to process, figure out how people are going to get to the states, where and how and all this. Next thing you know he shuts it down and says I want them out and I want them out now. So those of us who were in line thinking we are getting processed for the states are in fact told, well, you're going somewhere, we're not quite sure, but not the mainland yet. And they just put us on a plane, World Airways, I think, and we don't know where in the hell we're going. And we go to Guam.
The story is it's kind of going to be a transit thing, don't worry about it. The plane's going to stop here and get processed and get going. Next thing you know they push us to the other side of the island to a god damn abandoned world war II air strip. As we arrived, night time, hundreds of SeaBees all over the place, these Navy construction battalions, they are erecting a tent city for thirty thousand, and they did it from start to finish in twenty-four hours.
When we got there, these guys were still driving tent pegs in the tarmac and they had been working nonstop for twenty-four hours. Just truly amazing. We arrived -- now, shitty situation, basically, but we arrived at a deserted air strip, and as far as you could see in every direction are these big GP tents, tent pegs driven in the tarmac, cots being delivered, blankets, sanitary facilities already set up, kitchens being set up, medical dispensaries. They had done things like, little practical embarrassing things, like they had literally somehow scarfed up every available box of Tampax in the entire pacific. Everything that you could reasonably anticipate was there.
And so you got all these Americans, Vietnamese, women, kids, babies, you name it, and they've got it all squared away, everybody's got a rack, there's a soup kitchen. Maybe it's not great, but you're not going to starve. And as long as the Navy was running the operation it was marvelous. Within about a week they turned it over to the army and it got all fucked up. God was it bad. Then the INS moved in. They were there for days and days and days, and there was nothing happening. We're getting fed, latrines are filled up. All the Tampax are getting used. Strange things are happening.
You know, this was really kind of a grab ass operation. Not a lot of screening in terms of who got out on this black flight. There was a lot of talk about corruption, the Americans semi-involved in the operation who were taking money per hed to get people on to Tan Son Nhut and out. I know American GS-15s who were repeatedly taking a hundred bucks a head knowing the son of a bitch had no option but to pay it.
And so we get there and we got this huge gaggle and most were just trying to take care of themselves, keep themselves psychologically balanced and try not to panic. Meanwhile a couple of former bar girls are setting up operation in a couple of tents. Meanwhile what was worse by far, some of these Vietnamese toughs, rougher teenagers, draft dodgers, whatever, are going around starting to shake people down.
Well we got to solve this problem. It's obviously one of those things not best handled by an American security force, so we put together from the Vietnamese guys who worked for DAO, particularly in our liaison and our field offices, the guys were pretty savvy, they had some military time and they really kind of understood what they were doing. We put these guys in as a deputized force, gave them batons and keep this fucking place straight. So they go around, find these guys with knives, "Okay you going to give up your knife or you going to have your head split open?" And they'd shake these guys down and say "Okay, the next time we see you shaking people down you're in real trouble. And they had it all running just fine.
Meanwhile INS has taken over. And it's all kinds of rumors and misinformation and no information and all this. So the processing is going in some kind of weird fashion. You got to have marriage licenses, visas, -- nobody has any of this shit. And so it's really got kind of bad, and a bunch of us Americans got together kind of bitching and moaning about the whole thing. And I don't remember who all these people were. I think some of them worked for the embassy and some of them worked for relief service, and a couple of DAO people, just a whole gaggle. I never really knew any of these people before. In that huge few thousand member American community. So we decided once we checked things out, things were not moving well in the processing center, on the little refugee base there. We heard that outside the base at some headquarters building halfway across the island was where the head of the whole operation is. "Let's go see that son of a bitch". Well, they don't let you out. I mean, you're in. So we E and E W -- I mean it wasn't real tight security, just some numb nuts at the guard gate saying no, stay here. So you just go under the fence and off you go. There was about eight of us. Men, women. And we're trooping halfway across the island, pick up a couple of rides, grab a couple of taxis, and we go up to this headquarters. I think it was some kind of a Navy headquarters, where reputedly the head of this INS operation is, has got his office.
So we barge in and say we want to talk to him. He has us all in his office and we're saying, "Hey, look, nothing is moving, criteria makes no sense. What do you mean 'adjudicate'? What are you going to do with these people now? You got them out of Vietnam. Guess what, they're really all going to the states. Come on. We don't care if you do it in alphabetical order. We don't care if you do it in reverse alphabetical order. You can do it first come first served. I don't care. Just What is the System?
And he's going through all this bullshit about, "Look nobody's got visas, thank the ambassador for that. Marriage licenses really aren't terribly relevant here. And besides we've got friends, interpreters, servants. Okay, fucked up? Hey I'm sorry. Here they are. And we want to move.
And some people are saying, well I do have this and I do have that. Can you pass on this? The guy says, "Hey, look, I can't solve any of this stuff. I assure you that we're moving forward apace, and it's really all going to be okay. We'll have you all out of here in three days, and all that bullshit. And he kind of does this bureaucratic shuffle. This guy's in from Washington. He's the number two or number three guy in INS, and so he kind of does this bureaucratic shuffle on us, and everybody starts going out. And I'm kind of tagging along at the end, and he turned around, and he says, "You, come here. You're no happy are you?" I said, "No." He says,"You're going to be back tomorrow, aren't you?" I said, "Yep". He says, "Okay, what is your problem?" I said, "Well, I have these two people and I know where they're going in the states. They have people who will sponsor them." And he says,"What's your cut out of this?" And I said, "I'm just getting them there. They had no other way of doing it. I'm not going to abandon them."
I said, "I've got orders for CINCPAC. I'm on per diem right now, so that's kind of okay, but I really should be on my way to CINCPAC. But I'm not abandoning these people in this god damn rathole the way you're running it."
So he says, "Okay, come here. And he turned over a piece of paper and he just writes his name, a signature, and he says you take this to Joe Doakes, whoever in the hell he was, whose running that snake pit out there in the camp and you show him this. He used to work for me. He recognizes my signature. You just tell him that I said to take care of you."
I said, "Just like that?" He said, "Just like that".
So we make it back to camp. It's kind of fun, we see no point in E & E ing into the camp. We're already out, why should we sneak in? So we just walk up to the gate and say we want in. Well you don't belong in. Well we were in and we got out. And that's really kind of hard to explain to some E-4 who really isn't signed for the problem.
So I went up to this gaggle. This thing is now running about eighteen hours a day, with lines from here to hell and back, and a bunch of very hairy people filling out forms on typewriters, fans going, people sweating like pigs, flies all over the place. I went around to the back door, and kind of begged my way in and got a hold of somebody, this little pudgy American who kind of looked like he was in charge. "Are you so and so?" "Yep". "I was told to show you this." He says,"What's he want?" I says,"He wants me and my friends out of here." "How many?" I mean because we got people with sixteen, extended family group, the entire cast of some hoofer heaven in Nha Trang, all kinds of groups. And I said it's very simple, I've got two people, a woman and a small child. And I know where the sponsors are in the states. And I just want to get them out of here.
Stamp, put in their names, fill out all the forms, and said, Okay, report to somelplace eight o'clock in the morning bag and baggage. Bigger than shit we got out. Got on the bus to the air strip, on the plane, give the pilot my pistol, and off we go.
Of course if you've ever made that flight from Guam to Honolulu, eight hours under the best of conditions, and the longest eight hours in captivity. I've done it in military craft. I've done it in civilian craft. I've done it a dozen times, and it's just a bitch any way you slice it. Eight hours to Hawaii, stop, refuel, get off, stretch, and off to El Toro. Not even fessing up where we are flying. We don't know if we're going to L.A., San Francisco, Travis, what's going on? So we go to El Toro Naval Air Station. They bus us from there down to Pendleton which isn't too far away I guess. And May first, my birthday, Southern California and it is about twenty-five degrees, colder than a son of a bitch, and we've got nothing but
??unclear??ctr 406. This time the Marine Corps, tent city is up, mess hall, medical, passing out parkas. They'd broken out field jackets. You got five foot two Vietnamese with a size large field jacket hangs down below the ankle, but really super. Had it all well organized. So here we are again in refugee tent city, still not quite sure what the hell is going on but at least we are back on continental USA.
Processing again. The next point is, now where is everybody going? Well if you have some sort of what is considered valid destination, the government's going to pay for it. But that was the day and a half of screwing around. And luggage, that's always a marvelous story. Luggage gets off loaded. It doesn't go with you. You don't pick it up at the carousel, it's all loaded somewhere, so you got these huge tents that are filled with luggage and of course if you know how Vietnamese travels, with everything except live chickens, shit baled together. Just a real zoo. So you're in there rooting around looking for luggage. Well we think there's another truck someplace we'll have to make sure, and all that shit.
And finally got processed, airplane tickets. They did a marvelous job. Airplane tickets, green cards, social security cards, the whole schmeer. Everything but a Virginia driver's license, all issued by INS. I remember -- I hadn't thought about this in ten years -- going up in the line, all these four or five queues and all these INS pukes are behind the counters, and I was trying to time it. I'd been watching how things were going, and this thing still isn't going real super. Because people are asking for documents, and asking questions and all kinds of things. And I've got no documentation at all on anything except me. I've got a passport and some orders I keep flashing around saying I'm supposed to go to CINCPAC and that's not impressing too many people. So I'm watching this line and I have a choice of going to this guy or this guy, and I see this crotchety old bastard and he's just really putting people through the mill. It's one of these lines, first come, first served like banks do, get in the queue and whoever's open next you get. And I'm watching this thing to try and time it. I don't want this old bastard, because he's putting people through the ringer and all kinds of weird shit. Right next to him is a young tall blond haired kid who looks like he's about twenty-three years old and seems like he still has some faith in human nature. And so I wanted a young kid. I didn't want the old bastard because by this time -- actually I think my pistol was in my suitcase, but I didn't want to mayhem on U.S. soil because it wouldn't be good for him at all. So luck out, get the young kid, he asks a minimum of questions, and starts rubber stamping things and that's when all the green cards, important permits, social security cards, and all this shit appear.
And by that time we're all set. Airplane tickets, the whole schmeer. And another three or four hours dicking around, moving luggage and all that kind of stuff. On a bus to L.A. International, and put my charges on a plane to where they are supposed to be going in Texas, and I flash my orders and get a GTR up to Travis and I'm all set.
Q. Who were their sponsors?
She had some friends in Texas willing to take this thing on.
Q. What about Tam?
Go back to Clark. Tam, he's working with the Red Cross in this big gymnasium set up as a kind of flop house. Cots set up, four basketball courts and they've got a little Red Cross thing in here that's kind of running the thing and kind of taking care of temperatures and snotty noses and all that kind of thing. And Tom was the interpreter. He's calming the old Vietnamese women, hugging the kids, and kind of joshing them through this whole thing. And so Tam introduces me to this woman, -- this gets me back to what I was saying first about the military families who staffed this facility. This woman was local Red Cross. She's probably some major's wife, I don't know. And so she's running this little gaggle, in this gymnasium. He introduces me to her and he goes running off on his appointed rounds. And she says, do you know this man? I said Yeah, known him four years and he's just a super troop. And I'm really glad that he's helping. She says, "I'm really concerned. He's a very nice man, very helpful. He speaks excellent English and is so good with the kids and all, but I'm really concerned. He tells some of the weirdest stories."
And I said,"listen, this guy has been through sheer hell the last month and a half. He's lost his family. He's had to do some terrible things to survive this. He's okay, just keep him busy. Keep him doing something practical. He's doing a great job. Just keep him busy and this thing will all get settled down."
The next thing I know, he's on a plane directly to the states, to Fort Chaffee, out of Clark. Meanwhile I'm going through all this bullshit on Guam, El Toro. Straight to the states, and I said, "Don't worry about it, I've got to go to Hawaii for a couple months. I know where you are now. No problem. Let me do this thing and I'll come and sort this out. Meanwhile you got to get a place to live, three squares a day, and everything's cool nowadays." So after going through all this bullshit in L.A. and so forth, we got back in Hawaii, we were at Shafter doing the final operational reports, and so forth. And I get a call over there, AUDUBON call, from Fort Chaffee. This is Lieutenant Colonel so and so, we need a security verification on one each. And one for Nguyen Dinh Tam.
And I said Shit, yeah he's handled U.S. secret clearance. He says, put it in a message, send it to this address, and he's all squared away. Whatever in the hell that means, fine. So I went to the message center and said here's his name and here's my association and here's who I am, and he had a U.S. security clearance for eight years. This son of a bitch is out of Chaffee before I'm out of Hawaii.
The bottom line is he's now living in Springfield, Missouri, about to finish a bachelor's degree that he's been working on at night for eight years. Married, two kids, a house with every appliance that you can think of. and just sunk a pool in the ground. And he and the old lady are knocking down forty grand a year. On his own hard work, personality, and the fact that people trust him.
Q. Did LeGro tell you the night before? How much time did you have to pack?
This thing had been coming for a while. It was obvious. People ever since late March had sort of begun to make preliminary arrangements. People were mailing stuff out. All that kind of thing. So I had my house basically -- I had a furnished villa, so I had a lot of personal stuff I had mailed out. And really kind of had it down to stuff you could get in a suitcase. And then a lot of stuff I just left because I was going to -- you didn't know how long it was going to last, so you just say what the hell, I've got to live in the meantime, so you keep dishes and glasses and stuff like that and say the hell with it and walk away from it.
I remember taking an entire cabinet of booze over to the people running the black operation and just kind of shove it in the door and say "Have fun".
Things were still sort of reasonably well organized. Once you got to the point -- you were selectively, each day they were saying you and you are next. Of course this friend of mine I was taking out,-- by this time I think you probably heard the story about the guards, the Vietnamese guards on the gates to Tan Son Nhut getting kind of stroppy. So I got the Australian defense attache, a friend of mine, explained to him the problem, that I really could not tolerate and unsuccessful effort to get her into Tan Son Nhut. I couldn't handle that. It's got to work. They were searching vans and doing all sorts of things.
So he said, "No problem, I've got diplomatic immunity. So he wheels his big embassy staff car with the flags flying up to the door, load the shit in. She sits in the front seat next to him and he's in full regalia as a colonel in the Australian army, and in we go. Dropped off, have a drink, everything's cool.
So we went out on a C-130 which was corkscrewing up with flare guns popping out the door to distract any SA-7s that might be lurking. It was an Air Force plane. The Air Force crew was just super, these had some real pros, out of Clark 13th Air Force. Real pros.
Q. What were your feelings going out to the plane?
Well it was all pain in the ass process by this point. Having to stand in lines, processing, bullshit people for hours by this point, and it was a matter of let's get it done.
Q. Did you have a good-bye to LeGro?
Well, we were all going to meet in Hawaii anyway. There were a few of us who'd been selected to go to Hawaii to help write the final act draft. There were four of us besides LeGro in the intel business. There was Wally Moore, who was the section chief, and there was John Berwin, who was an analyst, who was still there, and then we recruit Joe Kender who had left earlier and was back at DIA in Washington. We cut orders to get him back out to Hawaii. So the four of us, plus LeGro, plus some of the operations guys, General Smith was there, and guys from the Army, Navy, Air Force divisions and all that jazz. Fifty of us, all told. They turned over a couple of buildings at Shafter and they kind of went through all the stuff. They microfilmed all the documents before we left, microfilmed everything in the files and burned it. Threw the microfilm machine into the shredder, fill up bags, take it to the incinerator. Damn near melted the incinerator. That thing was burning white hot three days.
There were a lot of weird things. The black operation was going around picking people at predesignated assembly points, bringing them in in reefer trucks--refrigeration trucks--trunks of cars, anything you could scarf up. Because the guard force was becoming really terribly stroppy . . . . .
((((end of side a, Tape 2))))
((begin side b, Tape 2)))
The embassy of course wouldn't acknowledge its existence, given the approach they were taking.
Q. How did it get that name?
Well it was a covert operation. We were not fessing up to it, we were not even telling the embassy. I don't know how many people in the embassy knew about it but it was not an official sanctioned routine. It was done strictly in DOD channels. And I think that General Smith and some of his staff really deserve great credit for -- he took it on his own responsibility and got it organized. It worked, nobody got hurt. The drawback to the thing was, that there was no screening. So a lot of things happened or failed to happen. In my view there are people who came out who should have been left behind. There were people who should have come who for some reason we couldn't get to, or it didn't work. The general principle we operated on was anybody who worked for Americans and immediate families, plus of course, things like quasi-official families and whatever. I remember signing documents at one stage or another, whether it be in Saigon or in Guam, "What relationship would you like? Father, mother, I don't give a shit. Whatever you buy". It was all a farce. It had no official standing at all. But they insisted on going through these shams.
But there really wasn't much -- as I said, some people cleaned out entire bars in Saigon, and other people were selling access, but in general I think it worked extremely well. It worked the way it was meant to work. God, the figures when all was said and done were phenomenal. Tens of thousands.
Q. Did you have strong personal feelings on leaving? Did you have time to think
It was obvious to me from mid-March that it's all gone to hell, it was only a matter of how long. They could have held on for six months. Maybe they could have held that red line across north 3 Corps. Maybe there would have been a provisional government. Things could have limped along --
Q. You said at one time "I didn't want to die. This was history".
Going up screwing around in an area that was by this time over and done with, had sort of marginal utility. I thought it was great fun at one point, then it was just a thought that sort of came to me. It's not like "I'm not going to do anything else." It was just "I think I would really like to kind of not buy it today".
Q. But on leaving did you have any feeling of this great historical moment you were at?
You have the sense that everything I'd done for four years was turned upside down. Everything I'd worked for was now gone to hell. People I'd worked with are dead. Or are who knows where. With an uncertain future. SO, yeah there was a sense that everything was just gone to hell. And that feeling wasn't helped a great deal when you get back to the U.S. and you talk to people and "Where are you from?" "Not really anywhere right now". "Well where were you before?" "I was in Saigon". And they look at you like that's the strangest thought going. "What the hell you doing there?" and "Gee how long were you there?"
Four years. "Why the hell would somebody do that?"
So it was this whole -- reverse culture shock coming back. It was just kind of a strange place. You don't live behind barbed wire any more. It was nice being in Hawaii for a couple of months??? because ethnically it wasn't such a great shock when you looked around. Still sort of oriental flavor. It's still sort of tropical. That helped buffer a little bit. But you get back here and the stress on commercialism, and the total lack of understanding, even knowledge of what had been happening in the preceding six weeks, People were just not aware of it. Oh yeah it was on the evening news a couple of nights. Gee that must have been kind of bad, huh?
There was this kind of readjustment period. Plus I didn't know what I was going to be doing. I can't really muster any lasting bitterness. It was interesting. Professionally interesting. Personally interesting. I had a chance to meet, work with some very interesting people. Some of them I still work with one way or another. It's kind of interesting, I don't know how many hundreds of thousands of Americans went through Vietnam. It's really only those of us who were there in the last couple of years who really have a proprietary feeling about it. To us it wasn't just some place you got sent. It was a place we wanted to be, a place we identified with, and we find in many ways it's insignificant that some guy whose now a Lieutenant Colonel or full colonel happened to have spent the year 1968 in some bullshit place in Vietnam. So what? It is those of us who lived there who worked very closely with the situation, kind of internalized the thing, and we kind of feel it's ours, in a sense, I guess.
Q. Why did you want to go back after the army hitch?
Well I just kind of got the bug. It was very interesting. I didn't have a sense of going native. It was a very interesting place to be, interesting job, and one we felt somehow worth doing. We all argue about the policy, I didn't think it was very smart, but once involved -- when I first went there when I was in the military, I really went for basically careerist reasons and plus just wanted to do something different. But the feeling if I were going to stay in the Army, get in some time there, because there's liable not to be one for a while. Once I got there, I got kind of involved with the people I was working with. Things they were going through, things they were trying to do. I was a lieutenant.
Q. Had you gone to OCS?
No. ROTC. I had the advantage. I don't blame somebody who was in an infantry outfit slogging through the bush, being undermanned, never having what you needed when you needed it, and seemed like you were getting screwed over every time you turned around -- I don't blame them for not being very interested. But having the opportunity to work with an integrated civilian military team, work out in a place where you get to know the people, because it's your job to work with the people, really fostered more of a sense of identification. The people I worked with, the civilians I dealt with, some of them had been there eight or ten years.
Q. You were born in Ohio, Chillicothe, went to Ohio State, graduated
Twice. B.A., M.A. Political Science.
Q. Do you ever think about what you did, besides when a guy like me comes along?
I was just talking to a friend today. I've been down at this professional association thing all day and spent a lot of time with a friend of mine. And we were sitting talking and I said "It's kind of interesting that well it's ten years now, and I remember when I came back it was not even a subject of polite conversation. And now books are coming out, and people are doing histories and people are writing novels and this sort of thing. It's obviously a renewed interest in it." But it's kind of strange, I don't think I fixate on it, still interested in some of the issues, still an interesting experience, one that I'll always kind of identify with.