Wednesday, April 9, 2014

"Terrible Unfortunate Times": General Homer Smith, America's Last Defence Attache, Remembers Vietnam

General Homer Smith.

Starting around the middle March when the evacuation began out of the highlands, I remember telling the General who was the head of the joint general staff, Cao Van Vien, on the Monday after I found out about that, and I asked him if he knew what a debacle was. And he said yes and I said well good because you've got a debacle on your hands. It was proven then by what happened up in the Danang area. It was sort of a classic problem in its self. And it didn't stop ever. I didn't have big hopes that anything much could be saved. But people came over from the US and had consultations, and there was some discussion about saving a truncuated South Vietnam, from the third military region South, but that never worked out either, because by that time the morale was broken. But there was a hell of a fight put up by the 18th division at Xuan Loc (April 9-21, 1975) in the last days. But they couldn't get it together again no matter how hard anybody tried.
I always felt that had we the US done our part, had we supported them the way we said we would, then Then might have had a chance. But I think the nation blinded itself to the fact that there were regular North Vietnamese troops in the country who were not supposed to be there, that the war went on after we pulled out. And because we did not provide them with the wherewithal to fight that war, the whole thing eroded.
You cannot ration individual soldiers so many rounds per day and so many grenades and hold back on artillery and expect to have a fighting force that is effective.
They learned from the Americans to use up supplies lavishly, I am not a combat arms man, I am a logistician, and I never heard from my people who were there, Albert Hodges was Col. Le Gro's deputy, Le Gro was pretty well into intelligence.
After the Paris Agreement, and that wasn't the problem. It was the failure of the US congress to provide the funds necessary to provide the material necessary to run that war.
The generals and politicians were not handling money. We were handling the money and we were placing orders in the US to provide material for South Vietnam. The only problem we had with corruption we had was an American trying to steal some money.
General Fred Weyand came out and we were at the first of April when he came there. The highlands were gone and Danang was gone and we were beginning to lose control even as far as Cam Ranh Bay.
Ed Daly was a pain to some extent in the last days, because he was as my people told me, he was not paying attention to the Vietnamese authorities. He was a self appointed individual who was out - in his words - to save as many people as he could. I had a very fine Air Force Col. by the name of Garvin McCurdy and he was watching the whole thing for me. Daly was just one of those aberrations that came along when we had a lot of other problems.
On the orphans, there was nothing organized on that. Certain American sponsored orphanages sent in people to get their orphans out, and they saturated the available aircraft, and some of them got to high people in Washington and the next thing you know they were on that C5A. Actually, it delivered artillery pieces, and it left on the same day that General Weyand went back to the states, and we put those orphans aboard, and I lost between 30 and 40 of my American ladies who were working for me there at the attach office, and we put them on to watch those little kids that were strapped on board.
Thieu's resignation was too little too late. All that could have happened then was just some high level negotiations. Ambassador Martin always felt that there was an opprtunity, and he was led to believe, that there was an opportunity to negotiate. And I am sure that he planned to do that. He never really planned to leave the country, in my judgement, and he planned to move over to the French embassy.
We had a guy there who worked for the CIA named Tom Polgar, and Polgar was a Hungarian, and my best advice is that Polgar in dealing with the Hungarians was passing word back to the Ambassador. And we had Harry Summers there, as a Lt. Col., Harry was up in Hanoi the Friday before everything fell apart, and he was told by the North Vietnamese not to worry because nothing was going to happen.
We knew that the North was at the outskirs of the city. The morning of the evacuation, the night before we had a bombing run on Tan Son Nhut by two aircraft that to the best of my knowledge were flown by North Vietnamese. That left us apprehnsive, of course, and as a result of that the South Vietnamee put a 24 hour curfew on, which meant that nobody was supposed to move. The next morning we got six rockets. Two outside my window and blew my wife and I out of bed, two near the gate that killed marines, and 2 where we were staging people. Then we began to take, as soon as we got out of bed, we went over to my headquarters, just a half a block away on the base. And we continued to take incoming rockets then. Earlier that morning a rocket had knocked out a C130 that brought in some armaments. The VN Airforce got a little nervous and as soon as daylight came a lot of them scrambled to get up in the air, and a lot of ground crews were left, and they became pissed off so they got a lot of ground equipment out on the runway to keep these guys from landing back in And that immediately wiped us out as far as fixed wing aircraft ws concerned. And I had Air Force guys over there and we looked at it and there was no way we could clear the area. I had not enough people to do that. I had orders to move 10,000 people out of there by fixed wing aircraft that day. And we were set up to do it. But we couldn't get the aircraft in. After making a couple of surveys I called in the Ambassador and told him that we were not going to get any people out of there that day. And he came out and looked himself. And he told me again that that was what his orders were. And I called Admiral Noel Gayler in Honolulu, and I said there is no way we can do this. So he said, Well, I'll call the president. Or maybe he was going to call the Secretary of Defense. And I said, "Well, let me tell the ambassador. So I called the Ambassador again and I said ther is no way we can get out of here by fixed wing Mr. Ambassador. We had also been exploring the idea of moving a lot of people downstream by ship. But we couldn't get out hands on the shipping at that time. There wer a lot of plans, Christ, we worked plans to take as many as half a million people out of there by ship. But then it all just fell apart, all of a sudden, just crumbled. And then when the Ambassador saw the situation he said, all right. And that was when he called for the helicopter evacuation.
No, there was no international agreement. As far Ias I knew the NVA moved into the outskirts of Saigon, they became aware of the fact that we were going to get out of there. It would at that time have been embarrassing for them to show themselves since they were not supposed to be there anyway, and 2 I don't think they wanted to inhibit our getting out. Because the terms of the treaty was that the NVA regulars were not supposed to be in the country.
My wife left at 10 am on the morning of the 29th on the first helicopter I could get my hands on. I was there until about 20:30 that night. I went out on the same aircraft with Col. William Le Gro.
As we left, Bill Le Gro was in tears, he really was. My only feeling was that it was the saddest day of life. And I still hold to that, I still feel that way. It was the saddest day of my life. I was quite frankly, I was ashamed of my country. I was ashamed in my simple way of looking at it, we made some promises and we didn't carry out our promoises. And I was there with my guys, all of them great, to witness the death of a country because we didn't do what we said we would.
I went out to the Midway. I went that same night and I flew over to the Blue Ridge because my wife was on the Blue Ridge. I did see General Cong Van Khyuen. He was the chief logistician and the last acting chairman of the joint general staff. Ngueyn Cao Ky and Cao Van Vien had left before then. I had moved Vien out a week before when Theiu resigned, Tran Van Huong came on and then he retired, so I moved Vien out several days before this happened. Then Khuyen was the next senior man and he was the one that I dealt with.
Even before I got to the fleet at noon that day I got word that we had air cover. There were wild weasles and everything else and from that point on I quit worrying. I never worried about getting out of there because I knew that between the Navy and the Marines we were going to get out of there if they had to blow the whole damn place up.
When early on when we began to make plans, I asked the Marines to send in some explosive ordnance disposal teams, and I had them wire that place also my quarters, which had been Gen Weyand's quarters before me and John Murray, and Creighton Abrams. Abrams was my hero. I worked for him in the Pentagon in 1966 and 1967. I was determined that the North Vietnamese were not going to have that house, which was really a wing of a prefabricated hospital. So I had them come in and wire that one and also the DAO headquarters. And then also you talked about the money. Because we had the payroll money and we had to put it some place, so we set it into one of the atriums and put it in containers that were already fixed to destroy classified documents. We got that all set up to go up. Plus we had a magnesium dish satellite terminal there. And we set that thing ready to go. So when the Marines left that night about some time after midnight, they left the Tan Son Nhut area, the DAO area, this was before they left the Embassy, they turned that all on. It looked like a Bessemer converter, according to a guy named Al Gray who was then a Col. and is now a general out on the east coast.
As to General Tran Van Minh of VNAF, I never called for him to come over to the DAO. He did come over with his staff and they did have their guns. He did not demand to be taken out of the country. In fact, I had my assistant Air attache, whose name was Mitchell go in and we put them into our little conference room, and I asked him to go in and ask for their weapons and he did and they gave them to him. Without any problem.
And then I simply told them that they would have to wait until I got an aircraft and they did. I was getting Hueys from Air America, and when I got a Huey I sent them out because I didn't want them around there. They may have been the second one I sent out, because I sent my wife and bunch of high powered Americans out and another lady on the first Aircraft in the 10 in the morning.
There was no one escorting Tran Van Minh out. He may have had a note handed to him on the way out. I certainly would not have authorized anything like that.
I think that the lesson of what happened is clear. The first thing, is we never had to find ourselves at that position in the end anyway. But when I go back, I think I don't know how to put it to you, if we are really a big country, and we are, and if we are a national and world wide leader, and we are, then when we give our word, that we are going to do something, then we out either to do it or look everybody in the eye after we've failed to do it. Because there was no way we could have done it. That's where I come along. I just don't think , I think it would have been possible not to put ourselves in that position. Then you go on and say how we would have fought the war. I am a military guy and I would have fought that god-damned war as it should have been fought. You know we didn't win World War II because we were great on the battlefield, we won it because we dried the other guys support up.
I suppose it is true that you can never win a defensive war, unless you have infinite resources, I think that is true.
And the Vietnamese did not have infinite resources. If we gave them supplies they would at least have a better chance. People say they didn't shoot all the ammunition they had. No they didn't because they kept looking as to when they were going to run out, and there was no prospect at that point in time, and we didn't know what the next year's appropriation was going to be if anything. And these guys were hoarding their ammuntion and in the end a lot of it that is what broke their back on that highlands pull out, without any warning that little major general up there, Pham Van Phu, pulled the plug. Because Thieu had given him the authority to do that with his best judgement. So no plan was ever executed to get the material out of there or anything else. Unfortunately, General Khyuen, who was the chief logistition was in Japan at that time. He had gone over there with his father who cancer of the Larynx. he had taken his father over there to try to get treatment. This is another aberation. Had he been there he would have in a position to force Phu to hold on until they were able to start moving some of that stuff out of there. By the time he got back they were able to evacuate some of the material that was up in the Phu Bai area. We got that out and got it headed south, but then things just moved out to fast after that.
What about the press? You're asking a guy that, I'd have to admit, is biased. I wasn't in the US so I don't know what they were saying in the US. They were very cooperative about getting out of the country. And they gave fairly decent treatment to the evacuees and to the loss of the C5A that just about broke out backs, as far as morale was concerned. And but I placed myself in the position where I would not talk to the press in any kind of detail unless auythorized to do that by the ambassador and of course he never would. So I didn't talk to the press and I dodged the issue. I knew some of the press guys pretty well. And I discussed it with them. And a lot of them told me, "Look were doing the best we can to report what is happening, but you have to realize that we work for newspapers and magazines that have an editorial policy." Which tells me that what I interpret that to mean that no matter what they wrote it would go back and be rewritten to fit the policy of the media that was printing their stories.
It was just one of those terrible unfortunate times in the history of the US, maybe the lowest we've ever gotten. And I certainly never want to get that low again. I just happen to be a guy who was there then.
I was amajor general at that time. My official title was Defense Attache, Republic of South Vietnam, but my real job was to manage the material program, which was around $700 million. I am director of logistics for NATO now.

Major General Homer D. Smith Jr.

Born 16 February 1922

Passed away 6 March 2011 at 2200 hours

My Viet Vet Daddy,

Thank you for having been looking after me, your Linh "baby san."
Thirty-five years ago, on the very last fleeting days before you were ordered by President Gerald Ford from the White House to leave Saigon, you had saved thousands of lives, a repeat of the Schindler's List. I was among them.
My journey to America by means of the wings of an angel named C-130 took 20 hours, destination was tent-city, Camp Pendleton.
Thirty-five years later, I took another journey, 87 hours round-trips, on the Greyhound bus not far from the Marines Camp, Pendleton, to your hometown San Antonio, home of the Alamo. Your fatherly love and spirit has stayed with me to the very last minute, making sure your adopted son getting to your funeral service just fine, and fine it was, the cab stopped at the door of Fort Sam Houston's Dodd Field Chapel precisely 3 minutes before the service began. Your beloved daughter Karen E.K. was still standing there for me. I was breathless, feeling the goose bumps, being present to your sacred presence...

Dear Daddy, on that fateful day of April 1975 you blessed me with the journey to a heaven on Earth, the U.S.A. Today, March 17, I made a second journey to see you off to the Heaven of love in the kingdom of God...

Linh Duy Vo

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