Monday, February 24, 2014

Bill Applegate's Vietnam

I have a very different perspective because I was in the US at the time of the fall of Saigon. I spent three years in Vietnam from 1969 to 1972 as a naval advisor two of those years assigned to small Marine Civic Action Platoons (CAPs) in the Rung Sat Special Zone. [note: Rung Sat Special Zone (Vietnamese: Đặc khu Rừng Sác) was the name given during the Vietnam War by the South Vietnam Government and American forces to a large area of the Sác Forest (Vietnamese Rừng Sác), which is today known as the Cần Giờ Mangrove Forest. It was also known as the "Forest of Assassins." The name was derived from a misinterpretation of the Vietnamese word Sát to mean "assassin". The actual name, Rừng Sác, is a Sino-Vietnamese word that roughly translated to "salty forest," a reference to its proximity to the saltwater marshes of the delta.). I was language qualified and so forth and did just about everything that CAPs were involved in. We were probably the only Marine Corps teams in the southern part of South Vietnam doing most of this. Most of them were up North in I Corps and II Corps. Bill Collins who was Senator Warren Rudman’s number one guy, was our chief , our team leader when I was there. And Bill and I were much involved out of a refugee camp in Thailand after the war. Tom Green of the Washington Times wrote an article on this. The guy was a hero in everybody’s eyes, a bronze star winner, this Vietnamese fellow, and he had saved American lives and so forth so Bill Cullen went on a real strong drive to shake loose some of the people in the state department to help get somebody out who really deserved to get out. The pressure had something to do with it, I’m sure.

During that time I was involved in a group called The Emergency Committee For Free Vietnam. I was executive director. And we had on our committee, people like Admiral Zumwalt, Admiral McCain, John Chamberlain, William F. Buckley, a whole host of people. We had done some information campaigns up on Capitol Hill and knocked on a lot of doors, had some press conferences, and had some newspaper ads saying, Let’s Not Abandon Vietnam. This was beginning in February/March and went on through April of 1975. And it was kind of a tragic scenario in the sense that we pushed real hard and got a couple of people on the hill to change their votes, everything came down pretty fast. I guess the strongest memory I have of the spring of 1975 is that when we were all in the Vietnamese Embassy in Washington with Ambassador Tran Kim Phuong, we were there for what we called “the Last Supper.” It was the last big official function they had in the embassy here in the US. This was just a few days before everything fell apart, but it was April but I do not remember the exact date. It was a gathering of people who had been up to the last very faithful in trying to maintain interest in supporting Vietnam and not dropping it and so forth. One of the people who gave a talk there was Admiral McCain. His son was not there. McCain gave a very very strong, made a strong statement about the whole scenario when he was commanding the fleet off of Vietnam and how bombing halts were called at very very strange points in time where he thought that a few more days might have made a big difference, or the types of targets people were being asked to hit just did not sit right with him. And we were losing people – American lives – because of it. And he was, as much as he supported the democratic process, he was very critical of how a lot of public pressure and political pressure, much of it naively informed or oriented, resulted in things falling apart.

The tone of the dinner, well, everyone had a feeling that they had done everything they could. And we knew at that point of time things were just getting worse and worse.

When we went to the offices of congressmen and senators, usually we would first have to go through a staffer who would say, “Yeah, yeah we’ve seen that, just give us a piece of paper on it.” The one surprise I had was going in to see the guy from California, he was very very Anti-War. He had been a Marine Corps reservist and originally wanted to go to Vietnam and then was told he could not go to Vietnam. Pete McCloskey. He met with us. We talked with him. He said, I only have five minutes to spend with you. My wife was with me. She is from the Philippines. He thought she was Vietnamese, I think. She didn’t say a word. We went into his office and sat down and we ended up talking for about one hour. At first he did not want to hear anything contrary to the policy of letting go of Vietnam. I thought a lot of the stuff he came up with – I mean he went over there to look for reasons, basically, on why not to support South Vietnam anymore, I thought. I gave my own account of what happened in the Rung Sat Special Zone, and where local troops and regional and popular forces had the Viet Cong and main force NVA on the run, basically, my feeling on the whole thing was that if we had been there in an expeditionary profile, using small teams – there were only seven people on our team – and we wore camouflage uniforms but lots of times we were in black pajamas with the people and spoke the language and mixed with them, they were local troops, who were defending their own home turf and they were tough. And there they were successful. In some areas where we went in in big big groups, although sometimes main force encounters were necessary, our type of an approach might have been much more successful in dealing with the Viet Cong. Dealing with the NVA, the one thing I continuously remember is the Vietnamese waiting for the B52s to come back and wipe out the North Vietnamese Army. I mean they just boldly and without hesitation walked across the DMZ. I was there during the Easter Offensive in 1972 when the B52s just wiped out the NVA tanks by the hundreds. The NVA was the force that eventually in 1975 overran the South.

You should get ahold of Hoang Duc Nha, President Thieu’s nephew. He is a very bright guy. I know sometimes he can rub people the wrong way.

Anyway, McCloskey seemed like he had an agenda on Southeast Asia. I was surprised because he listened and we had a healthy exchange on things. He did give us more time that I expected but he was adamantly opposed to any more aid and assistance for South Vietnam. I thought he was wavering a bit. My experience has been with some of the Congressional delegations that came out to Vietnam that they were not really well informed.

We met with Millicent Fenwick, smoking her corn cob pipe in DC also. And we didn’t approach Bella Abzug, That would be a waste of time. We walked into one Congressman’s office and all of the staffers were wearing “Ho Chi Minh is Going to Win” buttons. They were that open about their support or opposition.

I really didn’t give up hope until the very very end. You could see that things were coming undone faster and faster and faster in late April. There were last minute efforts to do things. But until it was totally over I was not going to give up.

I was home after the fall watching it all on TV news. I felt pretty bad. I felt badly for Vietnam. I can remember walking into the Washington Star office with an editorial we wanted to submit for printing, and this is when the highlands had just fallen, the news had just come across about the withdrawal from the Central Highlands and the retreat of the South Vietnamese Army, and everybody in the Washington Star office was cheering and dancing around. They were so happy. And all I could think was, My God, is this really what these guys wanted to see happen all along? Years later with people still coming out of Vietnam I wonder how they felt, if they were happy about that? You could tell that everyone in the office was ecstatic, keyed for this, hoping for it to happen. Happy now. It was a self fulfilling prophecy and it made me sick.

It was very difficult to relate my experience to my friends when I got back here. I had several friends who were strongly anti-war but when I would sit down with them and I had photographs and stories of what went on, and one of them said to me, finally, “Well, Billy, I guess if all the soldiers over there were like you, it would be different. But they’re not.”

That was his summing up. I can also remember some Vietnamese telling us the same thing.

Col. William G. Applegate USA (Ret) After a long and courageous struggle William Applegate, Sr. passed away peacefully, surrounded by family and friends on May 27 2009 at the age of 90. Bill was a devoted husband and dedicated father, beloved grandfather, and cherished great grandfather. He is preceded by his loving wife Dorothy. He is mourned by his son Bill and his wife Conchita, son Robert, and daughter Mary (and partner Christopher); his grandchildren Kenneth (Clarice), Michael, Paul, Marie (Mikie), and James; and his great grandchildren Keilani, Natasha, Vivien, William Kalel and Anthony Zane. Bill is also mourned by his loving sister Buddy Rowley and her daughters Susan and Sally. His family and friends will greatly miss his gentleness, kindness, generosity, great patience and his special compassion for people. Colonel William "Bill" Applegate was a 32 year veteran of the U.S. Army, with service to country spanning three wars: WWII, Korea and Vietnam. Bill was a soldier's soldier, respected by his troops and superiors alike. He received numerous awards and citations. His resilient yet gentle character harkens to his pioneer-like upbringing in Montana. He was a great " ambassador "for America in his many overseas tours. Bill was an avid outdoor sportsman and had great respect for the environment. Bill was actively involved in family, church and community. He was a Scoutmaster, a member of the Knights of Columbus.

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