Sunday, May 4, 2014
"Only I Am Left to Tell You This Story." Col. Le Khac Ly and the Fall of Saigon
Col. Le Khac Ly
In 1974 I went to General Pham Van Phu (Military Region II Commander of ARVN) and presented myself. He invited me to his house and Pleiku to sit down and talk about his plans. And the first thing he told me was that he wanted to move the MR II headquarters from Pleiku to Nha Trang. He asked me what I thought about it. I said, “I don’t think that’s a good idea. I have been in this area long enough to understand why we have to have the headquarters in Pleiku. Actually, Pres. Diem created and developed this section and he was right. He wanted to bring the influence of the South Vietnamese Army to the high plateau. It is a key, a very strategic area, with very good soil for agriculture. So when you want to make the country rich, this is an area you can use. And when you move away from this area, the people will move with you. When it is empty the Communists will come in here. When they control this area they will use it as a base and we will lose all of South Vietnam. So you stay here and the people will stay here with you. The Communists, if they come, will have a tough time taking this away from us. So you cannot ever just give it to them.”
MR II is a big area. We had 14 provinces in it. And we only had two divisions, the 22nd and the 23rd, to defend it. The low land area is important too. That is an economic and industrial region also.
But General Phu wanted to move. He said to me, “we are here as a corps headquarters in the front, and we have troops in the rear also.” And I said, “That much is true. But if you make any movement now of the headquarters, people will know that you are the high headquarters and they will become afraid and they will move with you.”
After the 1973 Paris Agreement, the people watched the army, and when it moved they moved with it. The people saw that the Paris Agreement was not an agreement to end the war. Something was still cooking – behind our backs. The people in South Vietnam knew Henry Kissinger’s plan. They knew why he signed the Paris Agreement without South Vietnamese authority. And any higher headquarters location always attracted people. When it moved, even if the lower headquarters was still there, the majority of the people would move with the higher headquarters, and the area would be more or less abandoned.
There was a very big population in the Central Highlands, and if they moved out, the Communist would have a good chance to move in. The people did not want to be abandoned to the Communists. They watched General Phu very very carefully.
Gen. Phu usually stayed in Nha Trang. Some people told me he was scared. I think this is probably true. He had been captured at Dien Bien Phu in 1954. [91 percent of the Vietnamese captured at Dienbienphu in 1954 by the victorious Viet Minh were never seen again.] And whenever he thought about the Vietcong or the North Vietnamese Army he was very scared. I had no faith in him when he came under fire. [The CIA Station in Saigon referred to Phu as “the Barney Fife” of the South Vietnamese Army].
And so General Phu decided at that time not to move his headquarters, but he personally moved and took the majority of his belongings to Nha Trang and most of his staff went there with him. After that I ran the show in Pleiku. That is true. I do not mean to boast. That is true.
Phu had a personal conflict with two other generals: Gen. Tran Van Cam, who used to be 23rd division commander under under General Nguyen Van Toan, and when Toan was transferred, Cam became Phu’s assistant for operations; and a General Pham Duy Tat, who used to be the 21st division commander and had become assistant commanding officer for pacification in Nha Trang.
Gen. Phu liked to neither of these men. And he had no executive officer. General Phu created his own staff. His Adjutant Gen., Lt. Col. Tran Tich, appointed officers two positions and his personal staff and worked with Phu’s wife closely in making these appointments. Meanwhile, I ran the show for operations, intelligence, and logistics in the Central Highlands.
I heard many rumors about Tich’s appointments. Some were true and some were exaggerations. I heard stories about people paying money to General Phu’s wife to buy their positions. This was a very demoralizing, but there was nothing that could be done about it. You could report it to Pres. Nguyen Van Thieu. But that did no good, because he was already bought, too.
I told my officers that I kept my mouth shut, I kept my ear cocked, and I just tried to do my job and do my best. I really didn’t care about those other things.
Now, as for the attack on Ban Me Thuot: we knew it was coming. We did not know exactly where, and we did not know the size of the communist forces. But we knew that something was going to happen in the early Spring of 1975. So my intelligence officer who is now in a reeducation camp in Vietnam, Col. Trinh Thieu, discussed with me the fact that an NVA division was in the Central Highlands area and was on the move. They were going to attack somewhere. We knew that. But when we reported this to General Phu, he thought that they would attack in Kontum or Pleiku, so he concentrated his forces to defend those areas. General Pham Duy Tat, the Ranger commander in II Corps, and my classmate—he too is in a reeducation camp in Vietnam – – was in charge of defending Kontum and Pleiku. Kontum is easy to attack, and Pleiku is the corps headquarters. An attack there would be very good political propaganda.
But my intelligence officer and I had doubts about that. If they wanted to make political propaganda they would attack a province chiefs headquarters, and if they attacked Pleiku they could not attack the province headquarters. If we were attacked we knew we would get reinforcements right away from Saigon. So we put Ban Me Thuot right at the top of our list of probable communist targets in MR II.
Gen. Phu inspected Ban Me Thuot and thought maybe it would hold if it was attacked. The communist North Vietnamese couldn't get into the city he believed. And I didn’t see any fifth column there to help them. The NVA armor was not too important to us because we had airpower and they did not.
But, when they finally attacked in Ban Me Thuot, everyone suddenly panicked. Gen. Phu was in Nha Trang when the attack came [on March 10,1975]. And so I decided to deploy troops to Ban Me Thuot, We had the 53rd Regiment there already and we reinforced it with Rangers.
There was an airstrike by our aircraft, but it accidentally hit on the Advanced Command Post of the 23rd division and knocked out all communication. When we redeployed , we took only half of the city, because the NBA was too strong inside the city. They took the city slowly because they were afraid of an ambush. Then the 23rd division commander used some of his troops to secure a landing zone for a helicopter to pick up his wife and family. That was shameful! He was supposed to command the operation to retake Ban Me Thuuot, and because his wife was on the outskirts of Ban Me Thuot, he feared for her security, so he secured a landing zone and ordered our attacking troops to turn around and hold that zone first. The NVA watched that. When he did that they sealed the city. He had given them more time. He gave them all the time they needed. He gave them a good chance for success. Only then did he advance on them and only very slowly.
That was a punishable offense. He disobeyed a direct order. But who is going to decide what to do to him? That was a punishable offense. He disobeyed a direct order. But who was going to decide what to do with him? Gen. Phu or Gen. Cao Van Vien [Chairman of the ARVN Joint General Staff]? Later on I came face-to-face with him again. He said his helicopter had been hit by a sniper and he was wounded. He said all the troops got out of the helicopters and went to take care of their own families. He told me he couldn't control them. We had been friends for a long time. I said to him, “General Tuong [Brigadier Gen. Le Trung Tuong], you are the division commander; why didn’t you shoot some of them?” He had no answer.
Gen. Phu then flew back to Pleiku to look at the situation. He was in CTOC [Corps Tactical Operations Center] with me. He received a telephone call from Pres. Nguyen Van Thieu in Saigon. Thieu said he wanted to meet with Phu on the next day in Cam Ranh Bay, March 14th.
I prepared briefing charts and a situation report for the meeting. I reported that the situation was a very grave emergency. We thought Thieu wanted to know what the operations were and how they were going. Then, next morning, Phu flew down to Cam Ranh Bay to meet with him.
After he met with Pres. Thieu, General Phu called a meeting that night in Pleiku. At that meeting were General Phu, General Cam, General Pham Ngoc Sang, the Sixth Air Force Division Commanding General, General Tat and myself.
The first thing General Phu said when he came in was that he had President Thieu’s to use approval to promote Tat. He pinned another star on him and we all applauded.
Then he turned to us and announced, “We are going to withdraw from Pleiku and Kontum!”
When he said that, I opened my eyes large, large, large. I thought I was not hearing clearly. But he said we would redeploy in order to take back Ban Me Thuot. Cam, Sang Tat, and I just sat there. We pinched each other. And I said to myself, “Do I ask him how do we withdraw this army?” So, I asked him. He said then, “You use route 7B.” My first reaction was to say, “No sir!” And he said, “It is already decided by Pres. Thieui. We have no choice, because we have to gain the element of surprise on the enemy.”
I told him, “Sir, I have lived here long enough to know this area. Route7B has been abandoned for a long time. The US Special Forces, the Vietnamese Special Forces, and the enemy have all operated in that area, and they have mined the entire area. And if we withdraw with heavy equipment we will have to clear the road of mines. Nobody knows where the mines are. And the road has to be repaired. There is no time to repair it. And when you decide to withdraw from here, everybody will know. There will be no surprise! I suggest if we move, we use Route 19 and go straight. We will have some casualties but we will make it.”
But he said, "No. It is all decided. You have no choice. Tomorrow I will fly to Nha Trang and you have three days to withdraw the troops.” And I said, “General Phu, it will take at least three weeks of planning. We have a lot of troops, a lot of supplies, and a lot of equipment.”
He said, "That is all decided also." Cam and I asked him about the Bao An, popular forces, and the district and the province administrators and the people. He said, “You don’t have to worry about them. Forget them.”
I asked him if he had told the Americans in the area – the DAO in the CIA people. And I will never forget this. He looked right at me and said, “Forget the Americans! Don’t tell the Americans anything!” Those are his exact words. I am ashamed now to tell you the truth of what happened in Pleiku. I couldn’t believe it at that time. He was planning to abandon the Americans, too, without warning them about the withdrawal.
The real orders of course were coming from Pres. Thieu. Everything General Phu told me he said that President Thieu told him. Among the five people who were at that meeting in Pleiku, I am the only one left alive to tell you the story here in America. General Phu committed suicide. General Sang is a prisoner, Cam is a prisoner, Tat is a prisoner – all in reeducation camps in Vietnam today. Only I am left to tell you the story.
General Phu said he had to do this because he was following a direct order. "You don't have to worry about this," he said he was very nervous when he send that but it appeared he had no disagreement with the order.
I was appointed commanding officer of the withdrawal. Tat took care of the tactical forces, all communications, and logistics. So I said to myself, “Oh, my God, I am in trouble.”
The next morning, at 8 o’clock, General Phu left. He flew away. I was left to take care of everything. A short time later, from Saigon, Gen. Dong Van Khuyen, the Chief of Staff of the JGS, called me and asked, “Where is General Phu?” And I had to laugh, it was so ridiculous. So I asked myself, “What should I say? Should I tell him the truth or should I try to cover for General Phu?”
Finally, I said, “I don’t know. I don’t have any contact with him right now.” Gen. Khuyen kept calling. Finally I told him, “Okay, call Nha Trang and talk to him there.”
Gen. Khuyen asked, “What is he doing there?”
I said, "I don't know. Ask him. I have complete authority to run the show here. General Phu is at our new headquarters in Nha Trang.”
More than one battalion commander of armor, artillery, and logistics came to me and yelled, "Why are we withdrawing? We can fight right here! What is going on?”
All I could say was, "I agree with you. But we have the President and the JGS ordering us. We are professionals. What can we do? Disobey them? Of course not. I know it’s wrong. But that is the order. You want to start a rebellion?”
I believed at that time that they must have a secret plan that we did not know about. They couldn't be this stupid, could they? Maybe something was cooking and since we were not at the top levels, we didn’t know about it.
Cam and I were discussing this mad withdrawal from the Highlands. It made no sense. We sat and laughed, and Cam told me, “I’ll bet you they have an agreement and we will have no more war. I’ll bet you the war is over.”
And I told him, "I doubt it." But he said, "I think that we could resist any attack with what we have here for at least three months. And so I’ll bet you they have come to an agreement in this time will have real piece. I don’t know, but I just feel that way.”
General Cam flew away, too. Gen. Tat and I were left in the headquarters, and I said to myself, "The Americans have been allied with us for years. And this is a very important development and they don't know about it. Why shouldn’t we have to let them know?” That’s when I called them and told them that we were withdrawing. They had no previous idea about it.
I told the CIA people in the Consul General of the region that we were withdrawing. When I told them, they did not believe me at first. Then they called Saigon and checked around and found out that it was true. Soon after that they flew out, and I got credit from the CIA in Saigon and my name was put at the top of their list of people to help if Saigon fell.
The beginning of the withdrawal was successful. At the last minute my helicopter broke down, so I stayed with the ground convoy leaving Pleiku. A withdrawal is always a difficult operation. You need detailed, careful planning. I had three days to withdraw 100,000 people, and I refused to abandon anybody. The people who lived around deserved to be taken care of. Even though I could not protect them, they came with us. In a short time, everything broke down and was out-of-control. My battalion commanders could not control all the people leaving the Central Highlands with us. The roads became jammed with people and vehicles. The evacuation simply fell apart on the road to Tuy Hoa. We had no time to do anything in three days. All you can really decide in that short period of time is who goes first who goes second who goes next and so on.
Every night, even now, I still see that convoy. The Convoy of Tears, some called it. Tanks, the APCs --armored personnel carriers-, trucks, and all the troops and their families and dependents just covering those vehicles; the old people on top of the vehicles, and mothers and children sleeping on them and sprawled out on on them. The civilians all terrified. The soldiers all confused. Sometimes the people fell off the tanks and the trucks and the APCs. The convoy kept moving. And those people who fell off screamed and they were crushed beneath the wheels or the tracks of the moving vehicles. I heard those screama. I saw that. I saw a half-ton truck loaded with people tip over and the people were crushed and their bones were broken. I heard the bones breaking! I heard it. We could not help them. I saw them lying there alongside the road, dying. Men, women and children. It was a nightmare. A nightmare!
East of Cheo Reo we were mistakenly attacked by our own Air Force and many more people were killed. My new headquarters was a Cheo Reo and after I got there it was surrounded by the NVA and they shelled it. I had one radio to communicate with Nha Trang while I was being shelved.
My communications unit called General Phu in the Nha Trang but they told us he wasn’t around. I spoke to the second officer on the radio in English. The enemy was only about 1 km away from my headquarters. I told him, “You tell the general the situation here is very critical. And you understand , I think, what I mean when I say very critical. That’s it. I don’t have time to elaborate. I will do my best here. But the enemy is closing in fast.”
He understood and he called me back 20 minutes later on the radio, and warned me about the number of enemy troops in Phu Bon province closing in on us. General Tat was about 3 km away from me with his troops. The air force comander was ordered to extract me from Cheo Reo by helicopter. The armored brigade commander was ordered to open the road and go no matter how many casualties he took, and Tat would support him with his troops. I was supposed to be flown to Nha Trang. Gen. Phu sent two helicopters for me. Enemy ground fire was intense when they landed. There were exactly 27 people in my helicopter, a helicopter that was designed to carry seven at a time. The second helicopter carried 19. They took off and flew to Tuy Hoa. We were just lucky to get away. Gen. Phu was still in Nha Trang at that time.
The next morning General Phu called me and ordered me to Nha Trang. I flew there and we organized the staff. I stayed there 12 days before General Phu abandoned me again – cleaned out his house, moved out his family, and flew away without telling me anything. One day my secretary, a captain, came to my office and knocked on the door and said, “Colonel, there’s just you and I here now. Nobody else.”
And I asked, “What are you talking about?” I had been working on plans to redeploy troops. That was around noon. I was tired and I was lying down. I came out of my office and went downstairs. Two of my staff was still there working. They reported to me that General Phu had left. I went to Phu’s house and found that no one was there. The house was empty. I asked a major who is there where General Phu was. And she answered, “I do not know what has happened. Right now there is nobody in this house, but my troops still keep security around the house. I don’t know what to do now.”
I collected the officer and his troops in five jeeps. What could we do? Everybody was gone. I was told that someone had seen General Phu at the airport. So we drove to the airport. The military police there would not let me in first. Finally, they open the gate. I was surrounded by Air Force troops and met with the Air Force general who was in command. He was looking for General Phu also. He told me, “if General Phu is gone and Col. Ly is leaving also, why do we stay here? Let’s leave.”
Then I got a telephone call from General Cao Van Vien—former chairman of the JGS and now a senior military official in the government of President Thieu – and he asked me “Where is General Phu?” I said, “I don’t know. I’m looking for him, too.” And General Vien said, “Well, you stay there and you find him for me.” I send, “fine. I’ll stay here.”
We waited and we waited and we heard nothing from General Phu. And after seven days of no eating and no sleeping, I finally collapsed. My troops iand my officers and my staff pushed me onto an airplane while the other troops withdrew by land and sea.
My airplane was supposed to go to Phan Rang to establish a new headquarters there. But instead it flew directly to Saigon.
When I got to Saigon General Phu was there. I went to my home. The next day I was urinating blood and was not well. I went to my doctor and he gave me some medication and told me to rest. Instead I went to work again.
I tried to communicate with General Phu again about what to do. And the first thing he told me was, “Ly, we have been betrayed.” I asked, “by who?” He said, “By Pres. Thieu. Thieu has trapped us.. He threw all responsibility for what has happened onto us. He says everything is our fault. He ordered us to his withdraw and now he says the collapse is our fault.’ Fool wanted to prepare a report that would show that the disaster in the Central Highlands was not our fault. He wanted to describe how we had conducted operations, and why we didn’t take Ban Me Thuot, and why we withdrew. He asked me to draw up the report.
So I prepared a very thick report for General Phu.
I’m visited General Phu in the hospital where he was being treated for nervous exhaustion and General Ngo Quang Truong [MR I Commander], was there in the hospital also. Truong embraced me and cried. He said, “Ly, we have lost everything.” Of course general Troung loved his country, and his troops, and his MR I. And now it was all lost.
When I saw General Phu again he was angry. It was a first time I had ever seen him so angry about President Thieu. I preparedthe report for him, and he signed it, and the next day I went to see general Khuyen and gave him a copy of the report and had it sent to President Thieu to and General Cao Van Vien. I never saw or heard of that report again.
I asked General Khuyen, “What should be do next? Have we lost everything?”
He said, “No. We have not lost everything. We will redeploy and draw the line and you will have your II Corps back again.”
But I said to myself, “I think this general is not telling me the truth. The simple truth is now that we can no longer do that. It is too late. If you had said that when I was in Pleiku I could have done that. But right now I can’t command anybody. There is no army for me anymore. And the enemy is everywhere.
He asked me, “If you were in my position what would you do?” The big shock was that I could not think of any solution now to our problems.
When I went home my wife and I heard airplanes taking off every night and we knew that the DAO was flying people out. A lot of information was coming in every day telling us who was leaving. I went to see a friend of mine, the commander of the Second Division. And he and I decided to try to reorganize the 22nd and 23rd divisions and to assemble our men.
Then suddenly we heard the news about all of the big losses. And I visited my good old commanding officer, General Nguyen Van Hieu, who was a real honest officer in the Army. I asked him about the situation in MR III. He said we had to reorganize and try to block the enemy armor advances. And a couple of days later he committed suicide.
I went back and forth between Vung Tau and Saigon and finally I got in touch with my friends in the Embassy to see what what ws going on. They called me back and told me that they had my name on a list of people to be taken out of Saigon.
I went to the Embassy, to the back door because it was so crowded and they let me in. I met with General Charles Timmes, a very good friend of mine. He told me that he had orders from Washington to take me out. My name was on their list right after the name of Cao Van Vien because I had saved the Americans in the Central Highlands before the evacuation.
So I got my immediate family, my wife and my children and I took them to a staging area to wait. We were picked up and taken out to Tan Son Nhut airport on an Embassy bus. We waited there until the next day.
We flew out of Vietnam on an American C-130. We flew to Guam to stay in a tent city. That was on April 25, 1975.
I knew when we left that everything was lost. I thought if there was an agreement between the Communists and the Americans then that was wrong. We heard that the Americans had sold us out in order to get other friends.
I thought that when Henry Kissinger went to China and shook hands with Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai, well, that was the end of South Vietnam. I knew that there was no hope for Vietnam after that. After the Americans had gone to Beijing to shake hands with the Communist Chinese they did not need South Vietnam any more.
To me, that was how they sold us out. We had nothing to say about it. I think that President Thieu should have seen that and prepared for a bad time ahead. But he did not. So to me he was not a good leader.
Now, think about it. If you are Vietnamese and you love your country, then you must ask why the Americans did this. This is my question to the Americans: Why did you do that to a friend?
Many people say we were sold out. And, sadly, I have to agree with them.
Gen. Pham Van Phu [Americans called him the Barney Fife of the Vietnamese Army.]
General Cao Van Vien
General Nguyen Van Hieu
General Dong Van Khuyen
The Convoy of Tears