A publication of Vietnam Veterans of America, Inc. ®
An organization chartered by the U.S. Congress

August 2001/September 2001

Rendezvous With War Symposium

The Fall of Saigon and Phnom Penh

The End of Folly

photo by Michael Keating
"The Fall of Saigon and Phnom Penh" panel was moderated by William & Mary's Michael Finn (front row, left).

In April 2000, Vietnam Veterans of America and the College of William & Mary sponsored Rendezvous With War, a three-day symposium that examined multiple aspects of the Vietnam War. The symposiumís second panel looked back at the warís bitter end in April of 1975.

William & Mary Physics Professor Michael Finn, who served with the Armyís Fourth Infantry Division in 1969-70, moderated the panel. The panelists were AP correspondent Peter Arnett, who briefly remained in Saigon after the communist takeover; Herbert Fix, who commanded U.S. helicopter forces in Indochina in the spring of 1975; journalist Joe Galloway, who covered the fall of both Saigon and Phnom Penh; Sydney Schanberg, who reported from Cambodia from 1970-75 for The New York Times; and Russ Thurman, a retired Marine Corps captain who participated in the evacuations of Cambodia and South Vietnam.

Michael Finn: We have a distinguished panel of eyewitnesses to the climactic events of the Vietnam War: the fall of Saigon and Phnom Penh. Thirty years ago I was a rifleman serving with the Fourth Infantry Division in the Central Highlands of Vietnam.

photo by Michael Keating
Panelists Peter Arnett, Herbert Fix, and Michael Finn.

In April of 1975, I--like millions of other Americans--watched, horrified, as the final act of our Vietnam misadventure played itself out on national television. American troops were gone by then. We gave the South Vietnamese no help in their final hours. Gerald Ford was only a caretaker president in the wake of the Watergate scandal. The Case-Church Amendment of 1973 effectively prohibited our further involvement in the conflict. As the last Americans were being airlifted from our embassy, Saigon fell. Our involvement there had ended as shamefully as it had begun.

That same month, Cambodia fell to the Khmer Rouge. Three decades of folly in American policy had borne bitter fruit. The names of 58,000 American war dead are inscribed on a long, black wall in our nationís capital. Another 153,000 were wounded severely enough to be hospitalized. One to two million Vietnamese died in the conflict. Another one to two million human beings died in the killing fields of Cambodia. No one will know the final body count.

Let me begin by introducing our panelists. I will ask each of them to begin by setting the scene for us. Peter Arnett, the Cable News Network correspondent and author, was the longest-serving reporter in South Vietnam, having covered the war for the Associated Press from 1962 to 1975. His awards include the Pulitzer Prize and the George Polk Award. His Vietnam War experiences are the subject of the 1994 memoir, Live from the Battlefield.

Herbert Fix retired as a colonel from the U.S. Marine Corps in 1982 after 25 years of service. He served three tours in Vietnam and commanded American helicopter forces during both the fall of Saigon and the fall of Phnom Penh.

Joseph Galloway, the veteran journalist and author, served as a war correspondent in Vietnam for United Press International. He is the co-author with General Hal Moore of the best-selling 1993 book, We Were Soldiers, Once, and Young.

Sydney Schanberg covered the Vietnam War in Cambodia from 1970 to 1975 for The New York Times. He won the 1976 Pulitzer Prize for his reporting on the Cambodian conflict. His 1985 book, The Death and Life of Dith Pran, is his account of the events portrayed in the film The Killing Fields.

Russ Thurman served two tours in Vietnam and then returned, in 1975, for the evacuation of Cambodia and South Vietnam. He retired from the Marine Corps in 1985 with the rank of captain, and he launched a career as a technical adviser on several major Hollywood films, including Born on the Fourth of July and Jacobís Ladder.

Peter Arnett, letís begin with you. Where you were in 1975 and what did you see?

Peter Arnett: It was 25 years ago, but it seems just like yesterday. In fact 25 years ago this day, Iíd been in Saigon for two months covering the fast-approaching fall of the whole country. But I was brought to New Orleans by the AP where the annual conference of AP publishers was being held in a beautiful hotel ballroom. I was trying to answer questions about Vietnam and what would be happening there.

It struck me--having spent two months in Vietnam, having watched the fall of Danang, having seen the growing chaos, the great needs of the Vietnamese, the panic setting in--to come back to the United States to a place like New Orleans where everything seemed to be functioning very normally. Even though I made the most dire predictions at this conference, no one seemed over-concerned. I think that set the pattern for me.

While Vietnam was collapsing--and it was a terrible historical moment for the United States-- back home there didnít seem to be great concern. There were no demonstrations on the streets. There seemed to be no feeling--maybe numbness would have been it.

I returned to Vietnam a few days later and decided--as the month went by and as the country was being rolled up with increasing rapidity, town after town, province after province--to stay as a witness to what was going to happen, a witness to Vietnam under the communists. A terribly dire prediction had been made in various forums and by various people, including three or four American presidents, numerous generals, and many patriots, about how terrible it would be if South Vietnam ever fell to the communists. I determined to stay and watch, and thatís basically what I was doing.

I felt a real need to be able to record the events of the takeover, just as Iíd recorded the previous decade of the war.

Herbert Fix: When the year began in 1975, I was stationed in paradise, in Hawaii, one place a lot of Marines love to go and serve their time. I had the best job a lieutenant colonel could have. I was commanding officer of the helicopter squadron at Kaneohe on Oahu.

I was interested, of course, in watching the events that were taking place in Saigon and in Vietnam. After I talked to a few friends about what they expected, I knew that our sister squadron was sitting off the coast of Cambodia and trying to go into Cambodia. I mentioned to the officers on the staff that if they needed any help, my squadron was ready to go to work.

They took me up on my offer. The 23rd of March we received an order from headquarters of the Marine Corps to deploy aboard the U.S.S. Hancock. The Hancock was going to be in Pearl Harbor on the 26th of March. We got the order to execute our goal on the 23rd. We sailed out of Pearl Harbor on the 26th of March, which is a feat in itself. The squadron was 36 officers and about 270 enlisted, and 16 CH 53D helicopters.

We steamed across the Pacific, and we went through the Philippines where I picked up sixteen 46s that were assigned to me--two different detachments from sister squadrons there and some Cobra aircraft. An entire battalion of the second Marines joined us.

We pulled into Cambodian waters on the 11th of April and went into Phnom Penh on the 12th. We thought the situation in Vietnam was getting a little better; it appeared that the Army troops were going to withstand some of the attacks. It looked like the situation was going to change for a little while, so the Hancock was ordered to go to Malaysia.

We went to Singapore, supposedly for a ten-day port call. We got there on the 16th. Twenty-four hours later, we got notice to sail in four hours. By some act of God, I donít know how, we sailed out of there with all of the Marines aboard the aircraft carrier, but we were pretty frantic trying to find exactly where some of them were.

We arrived in Saigon waters on the 20th of April. We sat there, off the coast of Saigon from the 20th of April until the day we executed and went in and started flying on the 29th.

Joseph Galloway: I was based in Singapore at the time for UPI and was ordered into Saigon in February. Things had gotten very dicey in Cambodia. Because UPI was so desperately cheap, it wouldnít buy the sort of communications that worked between Phnom Penh and New York, and instead found a cheap line that worked between Phnom Penh and Saigon. So weíre desking the story out of Saigon, and they asked me to go in and do that. I was sitting there, working the Cambodian story, when all of a sudden, something started happening in the Central Highlands, which is a place that always--ever since November 1965--made the hair rise up on the back of my neck.

photo by Michael Keating
Joe Galloway: "In ten years of this war, I had never seen an establishment coming apart at the seams like that embassy and that mission did in that moment."

Something started transpiring there, an attack on Ban Me Thuot by North Vietnamese regulars in massive strength. They quickly overran the garrison and started to roll up the South Vietnamese forces, turning from Ban Me Thuot toward Pleiku and the beginning of a panicky withdrawal of civilians and military. Other things started to pop around the country.

Iím looking at this on an hourly basis and suddenly things start rolling up. Theyíre rolling up Hue, Phu Bai. Decisions are being made by President Thieu--we wonít defend Hue; then, yes, weíll defend Hue. It was total chaos, and the panic was building. These were the stories we were writing.

At the same time, itís almost a Catch-22. We would have American businessmen coming in the bureau saying, "What do you think is going on?" Weíd say, "I think the country is falling." And theyíd say, "But I was just at a briefing at the embassy for American businessmen, and they told us everything is fine, and we shouldnít panic, and just keep our money working here, and democracy will prevail." And youíd say, "Iíve got to tell you that things are not looking good. Whereís your plant, Dalat? Okay, I wouldnít go up to check it out."

Other things were happening that I--in ten years of experience of covering Vietnam--had never seen before. Career CIA field agents walked into my bureau and said, "Theyíre all crazy at the goddamn embassy, and I canít get them to listen to me about an orderly evacuation plan."

At Tan Son Nhut, they were flying out bar girls and fishermenís wives. They said, "Iím sitting here with North Vietnamese colonels who have defected, and if you think they arenít going to die when the bad guys come in, along with all of the other defectors, and Iíve got a list here and a prioritized list, and hereís what we need. I go to the embassy, and I canít get anybody to listen. Will you take this plan and write a story about it? Maybe somebody will listen to you."

In ten years of this war, I had never seen an establishment coming apart at the seams like that embassy and that mission did in that moment.

I sat there and worked this story up until early April. Funny things go on in a war. The ambassador had a mobile phone in his car. We had a Japanese radio--it probably cost forty bucks at the PX--that would pick up the frequency the ambassadorís radio phone worked on. So thatís what we kept it tuned to.

We were listening to it one morning, and he had gone out to the airport to see off a C5 baby lift aircraft, which itself was a cover operation. What was really going in it besides the babies were the women employees of the State Department, the CIA, the NSA. All of these people were being evacuated in a non-evacuation. The ambassador was insisting there be no sign of an evacuation. The ambassador had gone out and seen them off. He was on his way back when he received a call--which we heard--saying the plane had just gone into a rice paddy.

Someone said, "You go to Seventh Field Hospital, you go to the rice paddies." I went to Seventh Field Hospital. I was standing there when they backed the first ambulance up and they brought a stretcher out, and they piled on it the bodies of babies. There were 20 or 30 on one stretcher. I looked at that.

Thatís the only time in a long life and long career that the last thing I could think of was to file a story. I turned around and found a taxi and went back to the bureau. I didnít want to see it. I thought to myself, "Even when we try to do something right, we have screwed it up."

I left Vietnam about a week later. I was actually in Bangkok working on the people coming out of Phnom Penh when Saigon fell and a bulletin came across. It was a sad moment. It was, in essence, a betrayal. We had made certain promises to the Vietnamese people that encouraged them to fight on when they might have otherwise found some settlement short of killing a million or two of their own.

We had given them assurances, and we did not live up to them. What we are here, right now, talking about is the 25th anniversary of a very shameful moment.

Sydney Schanberg: I find when people ask me about Cambodia that there is very little known in most circles about the history. So Iím going to touch on some moments of history.

photo by Michael Keating
Sydney Schanberg:"The Khmer Rouge began using the bombing as a recruiting tool saying, "There's the enemy, 30,000 feet up...'and it worked."

Like Vietnam, Cambodia was a French colony. After World War II, it became independent. It was never a democracy. Mostly it was a monarchy. Prince Sihanouk, from the Norodom family, was ruling in, letís say, the 1960s. He was always described as walking a tightrope between the Americans and the North Vietnamese, trying to please them both enough so they wouldnít draw his country into war. He allowed the Vietnamese to use his only deep-water port to bring in supplies and also to set up the Ho Chi Minh Trail through border areas of Cambodia. He allowed the Americans to bomb, secretly at that time. That was between 1969 and March-April of 1970.

In the middle sixties, he broke relations with the Americans. Hanoi was giving him a very hard time about American interference, and the North Vietnamese were the biggest threat, so he broke relations with Washington. In 1969 he restored them. So we set up a very tiny consulate at first, with about five people in it. It had a consular officer and others who pretended to be communications officers. A couple of them were CIA. It wasnít much of an embassy. Early in the next year--March--a junta of four men (the only name youíre going to remember is Lon Nol) led a coup that ousted Sihanouk while he was on one of his annual health trips having his intestines washed out in southern France, which was a custom at that time for the elite in Cambodia.

They took that opportunity to stage a coup. It was bloodless. They closed down the airport so that he couldnít return. He went to the Americans, and then he went to the Soviets, and then he went to what was then Peking, now Beijing, and they said they would help him out. Meanwhile, he couldnít get back into his own country.

In Washington, an opportunity was seen. That was, now we have an ally, a pro-Western-type person, Gen. Lon Nol, and now we can do some of the things weíve been trying to do for years--one of which was to invade those North Vietnamese sanctuaries inside Cambodia that were at the bottom of the Ho Chi Minh Trail.

So we told Lon Nol that he was our ally and that made him feel so brave that he gave the North Vietnamese 48 hours to get out of his country. That was like a traffic cop telling a tank to leave the city. Of course, they didnít leave the country. They came further inside, and on April 30th, President Nixon went on television and announced that he had sent several tens of thousands of American troops into Cambodia to disrupt the sanctuaries. At some of those press conferences, Melvin Laird held up a piece of pipe and said it was their oil supply line. We learned later that it was just a piece of pipe that looked like it might be an oil supply line.

We captured a lot of weapons. The war spread into Cambodia. Mostly we were still fighting the Vietnamese there. But now we turned to the Cambodians who had a kind of army, but for the last several decades had only been repairing roads. There had been no war for them. They knew how to fill a pothole, but not much about warfare.

We eventually began shipping in captured AK-47s and some M16s, and we sent some T28 trainer planes that could be equipped to drop bombs. The idea was to develop a light infantry army that could distract one or two North Vietnamese mainline divisions so that we could withdraw from Vietnam more quickly and with fewer casualties.

This sounds okay on paper in terms of the American self-interest. In fact, the first head of the American military equipment delivery team told me one night that the policy went as follows: "We hired them to fight the Vietnamese, and for every Vietnamese they pull away from battlefields in Vietnam, thatís a plus for us."

And when I asked him, "Didnít that sound like we were hiring mercenaries?" he said, "Yes, you could call them mercenaries." We really didnít have much interest in Cambodia; we had no national security interest there certainly. It was a country of seven or eight million people.

When we began to bomb, the bombing that was secret now became public. The Khmer Rouge, we have learned from their documents, used the bombing to recruit. Thereís one thing you have to keep in mind that Henry Kissinger would rather you not be told. At the beginning of the war, the Khmer Rouge, a revolutionary band of guerrillas led by Paris-educated visionaries or madmen (depending on which words you want to use) had been active for several years, disrupting commerce and stopping a train, blowing up a bridge, and generally being a nuisance but not a major threat in Cambodia.

In 1970, when we sent our troops in and stirred the pot and spread the war, the Khmer Rouge numbered perhaps 3,000, maybe 5,000 maximum. Thatís the highest figure anyone has ever estimated: 5,000 bandits running around the country, occasionally trained by the Vietnamese but not heavily armed.

The Khmer Rouge began using the bombing as a recruiting tool saying, "Thereís the enemy, 30,000 feet up, B52s, theyíre trying to destroy you," and it worked. They began to gather adherents in the deep villages, tribal areas, far from towns and cities.

In 1973, the bombing was intensified. Thatís because we had pulled out our combat troops from Vietnam, and all the B52s from Guam and Thailand that were being used to bomb in Vietnam could now be directed at Cambodia. There were more bombs dropped in Cambodia in a six-month period in 1973 than in huge segments of Europe during World War II.

More than once, the capital and the country came close to falling. The bombing was ended by congressional edict on August 15, 1973. The last I heard from an American fighter bomber was the voice of a pilot speaking to one of his squadron colleagues, as noontime approached, the cutoff hour: "See you in the next war."

Things went downhill after that. The countryís economy had been disrupted since 1970. A lot of starvation set in. Children began dying in greater numbers. Middle-aged people were stronger and, therefore, their physical health allowed them to last a little longer. The Khmer Rouge now numbered 70,000 to 100,000, had been fiercely trained and fiercely indoctrinated, and had done a lot of murdering, slaughtering, and massacring in the areas they controlled, which was by then about 80 percent of the country. All that was left was a few provinces, towns, and the capital. They started an offensive on New Yearís Eve of 1974, and from then it really went downhill.

As the circle closed around Phnom Penh in late March, early April, the embassy began destroying documents--not just shredding but burning. The ashes would come out of a chimney at the top of the embassy and would scatter down into the embassy yard. So it was always filled with black remnants of burned paper.

April 12 was evacuation day, and weíd been expecting it for several days. The embassy had a plan. They were going to notify everybody on the morning of the day it was to take place. So on the morning of April 12, there was a knock on my hotel door from a colleague saying, "Todayís the day." Iíd been up until about 3:00 or 4:00 filing copy, so I said, "I donít know if I can pack in time." That was the first irrational thought I had.

Then I sent someone to get my Cambodian friend-colleague-brother, Dith Pran, and he came running in. We had about 15 minutes to talk about this. We had already had some conversations. We both desperately, irrationally, obsessively wanted to stay, because weíd been there--Iíd been there for five years; he, his whole life. We wanted to see what was going to happen.

The entire population of this city, pretty much, engaged in some wishful thinking, including the press corps, including me. It was a triumph of hope over experience. We all came to hope that when the Khmer Rouge came into the city, since they were Cambodians and the population was Cambodian, there wouldnít be a need for any more massacres or killing. Although some officials would be killed, the population would not be slaughtered. That was complete wishful thinking.

But we wanted to stay. So Pran and I were sitting in my hotel room, and I say, "What do you want to do?" And he says, "What do you want to do?" Here was the long-nosed white man being asked by his brown friend. I didnít want to be responsible but, obviously, if I was going to stay, I would want him to stay, and he knew that. All of those vibrations were in the room.

Pran said, "We agreed that if we didnít feel personally in danger, that weíd stay. Do you feel in danger?" I said, "No, not at this moment." He said, "I donít feel in danger either," taking us both off the hook. I said, "Go home and get your family," because weíd already arranged with the embassy that theyíd be evacuated when the evacuation happened.

I went to the embassy and checked them in. There was no panic at the embassy, unlike Saigon. People came, curious, wondering what was happening. The embassy had alerted some 300-plus Cambodian officials, telling them that on the day of the evacuation they would be notified early in the morning and taken out with their families. Exactly two of those officials showed up. One was a retired general; another was a low-level cabinet minister, the minister of mining.

That was it. Every other Cambodian official chose not to leave his country, which tells you something about the pull of homeland and also something about how little we knew about these people. We assumed they would come, just to save their lives. They didnít.

Down the road in a soccer field next to a middle-class housing project, with an island across the river from which, eventually, the Khmer Rouge began sending in either mortars or recoilless cannon fire, the helicopters were landing. Pranís family, his wife and four children, were the last people on the last helicopter because they came late to the embassy, and I was going a little berserk, doing something unimportant when they got there. They went out on the last flatbed truck.

A defense attachť at the embassy was a gun aficionado, and he had a sawed-off shotgun he was taking out that had been tooled especially for him. This was something he loved, something he valued. He saw Pran and I. He got stunned and startled and said, "Youíre staying?" I said, "Yes, donít make a fuss," because I didnít want to make the family think we were at risk. He said, "Take this." He tried to hand me this sawed-off shotgun. I said, "Look, Iíll blow off both feet. You know that, donít you?" We made a joke and waved and then drove to the landing zone and saw the family off.

There are a lot of other things that happened in the next five days before the Khmer Rouge came. The highest casualties of the war--civilian casualties and military--occurred on the last day of the fighting.

The night before, at the entrance to the city, a big battle took place. You could see flames rising into the night sky. I saw them from a building which housed a Chinese radio transmitter (the main telegraph office had broken down, so weíd gone to this other place). We got it working for a while, and then it conked out. When we left, the sky was lit up.

Five days later, on the 17th, the Khmer Rouge marched into Phnom Penh--which was a city swollen with a million and a half refugees, to a total of more than two million people. Weíd never seen anybody like them. They were rigid, cold, dead behind the eyes. You could tell immediately that to them we were just insects. We didnít mess with them; we took sanctuary in the French Embassy.

We were evacuated early in the morning on May 1st. We could hear planes overhead; those were the planes of pilots fleeing Saigon because Saigon had fallen.

It all came together in that dawn of May 1st. Indochina had fallen, and three days later, we reached Thailand and safety. But our Cambodian friends had been forced out of the embassy because they had no passports, and we had to watch them march up the road to God knows what and for most of them it was God knows what. And Iím one of the lucky ones, because my best friend survived, and that was my miracle.

Russ Thurman: Itís a real honor to be here. In April 1975, I was a gunnery sergeant assigned to Third Marine Division headquarters. I was tougher than Chinese arithmetic. I had also broken my collarbone in a touch football game in December of 1974, which I kept a secret because it would prevent me from participating in the shipping, or the mount-out, of one of the military expeditionary forces which was being sent.

photo by Michael Keating
Russ Thurman: "Saigon was significantly surrounded. We were significantly outnumbered. It got very close, very scary."

While thereís always a Marine unit at sea in that area, we knew our primary purpose was to evacuate Phnom Penh and later, Saigon. The only questions to us were when it would happen--not if, but when--and what options we would use. There were several options.

We also knew that when it got down the wire, in Saigon, that the probability of us getting involved in one hell of a fight was very high. The city was significantly surrounded. We were significantly outnumbered, and for whatever reason we didnít have to make that fight. It got very close, though, very scary.

We shipped out of Okinawa in January. I was aboard the U.S.S. Okinawa. We sailed around; we drilled night and day for all the options that we would have. Meanwhile, back in the United States, no one cared. Life was normal, people went about their lives just as normal. Yet in Southeast Asia, things were going to hell.

For those of us who fought in Vietnam--I was there in 1966, pulled a tour, pulled a double tour in 1967--some of us invested an awful lot of our lives there. A lot of us made a lot of investments. So in 1975, there was no way that I was not going to be involved in the final days.

We shipped out, and we drilled, and we drilled, and we drilled. Quite frankly, the evacuation of Phnom Phen was textbook. It was in and out. The helicopters came off the Hancock and the U.S.S. Okinawa. It was precision. Ground security force landed and secured the airfield where there was nothing going on. Mortars started popping into some of the buildings on the sites, but the evacuees were in and we were out. A few rounds were hitting in the LZ when we left, but it was just like they wrote it in the book.

We went back to the Philippines for a couple of days. We figured we were going to be there two weeks, but we were there less than 24 hours. We pulled back, took station off of Saigon, and went to drills. Up early in the morning, draw your weapons, draw your gear, go to debark stations. Stand down. Get up early in the morning. Draw your ammunition, go to debark stations. Stand down. And we did this day after day after day, and tensions were building.

We had parties going in, working very closely with the evacuation forces. The thing that overwhelmed the evacuation force was the number of people. It wasnít supposed to be that way. We expected pretty much the same way as Phnom Penh: get in, get out. I think we had designated about six hundred people, maybe a thousand.

It didnít work that way. A lot of people wanted to come out, and as long as we could fly birds, we were going to fly birds.

We had one pilot who spent over 18 hours in a helicopter in a 20-hour period. Most people donít know that. Iím very proud to be part of that operation--not because of what I did, but because I was standing alongside these people. I saw what they went through. In 1975 the military services, including the Marine Corps, were experiencing whiplash from the sixties. Not always the very finest Marines who ever pulled on a pair of combat boots were in the Second Battalion, Fourth Marines, the ground security force at the evacuation of Saigon.

Let me tell you something: There was not one accidental discharge, not one, when we were surrounded. We knew that we had a chance of 80 to 90 percent casualties in the first wave of helicopters. And we still went. You donít think Iím proud to have been part of that organization? Most Americans donít know this.

On April 29th, early morning hours, Lance Corporal Darwin Judge and Corporal Charles McMann, two embassy guards guarding alongside the fence at Tan Son Nhut were killed in a rocket attack, and we knew that was it. The next day, though, was a massive operation. Iíve never seen so many ships in one place in my life. I mean the U.S.S. Okinawa and three other ships had been bobbing around out there like lonely corks. All of a sudden, youíve got ships on the horizon, everywhere.

The next morning the sky was absolutely black with helicopters. Everything that flew, flew. Some of you have seen the pictures. We pushed hundreds of them off our deck--hundreds-- because we were a reload ship and we needed to have the deck space. We took them off, we threw their weapons overboard, we searched them, we tied up the cowboys. The operation was only supposed to last a couple of hours, but it just went on and on and on, and late that night a helicopter off the Hancock, a CH-46, was lost at sea. The last four Marines were drowned.

It was one of the toughest operations I ever was part of. It was the hardest day of the war for me--not the biggest battle, not the longest battle, not the one with the most casualties. It was the toughest day. Because at that moment, as good as what we were doing--and we were doing good--your mind canít help but go back to í66, í67, í68, Tet Offensive, and all the enormous things that happened, all that long line of energy.

The worst was, we didnít keep our word. Thatís the worst part. There was no high-fiving when that operation was over. In fact, one of the quietest ships Iíve ever been aboard was on April 30 when I stood on the deck of theOkinawa and took a picture of the last 11 Marines to come out of Vietnam. There was nothing happening on that ship. No one was bragging, because all of the officers on that unit--almost all of the staff and COs and some of the younger ones--had actually fought in Vietnam. We had retreated in style, but we had retreated.

Let me tell you something: We didnít keep our word. Thatís probably why the war still goes on for some of us and maybe always will. How emotional was it in those last days? After the Ambassador left, and that was a tough situation (some of you know more about that story than I do), and the Marines were pulling off, and the last 11 Marines were on top.

Thereís a myth going around that we didnít know they were there. Itís not true. We had to get those last 11 guys off. There were tense moments. Let me tell you something: The bad guys were already there, it wasnít like they were down the street a hundred miles. They were there. So it got a little intense. It would have been one hell of a fight if they had popped one of those helicopters.

Michael Finn: Itís very hard for people who have not served in Vietnam or covered the war to understand the depth of passion that the war still evokes in peopleís memory. Iíd like to ask Joe Galloway a quick question. You talked about the total denial that the embassy had at the end of the war. Werenít we totally in denial during the entire war?

Joe Galloway: Tough question. You know, as Gen. Moore said, there were different armies and different wars that were fought in Vietnam. I came in in March of 1965 right behind the first battalion of Marines to land at Danang. You come into a situation like that, and what you know about war maybe you picked up from John Wayne movies. You have the impression that youíve got to get there in a hurry, because itís going to be over quick. And it takes you a week or two to figure out that thereís going to be a lot of war, and itís going to last a long time. So illusions tended to die quickly there.

All war is insane, but that was a special brand of insanity when you have an ambassador in total denial at the end, an ambassador who refuses to believe that whatís happening is happening and wonít pull the chain on an orderly evacuation when he should have done it 30 days before or 45 days before. A lot of people get left behind and pay a hell of a price for it.

Peter Arnett: There was a very good book written after the fall of Saigon called Decent Interval, by Frank Snepp, a CIA operative. He meant Kissingerís decent interval.

The peace agreement of January 1973 pulled America out of the Vietnam War, leaving a handful of diplomats and Marines in Saigon, a considerable amount of aid but no firepower, no bombers. Every Vietnamese in the South said without American planes, without B52s, without American forces, weíre lost. What had happened in the preceding decade, the U.S. had built up a half-million-man army, and the North Vietnamese had built their forces to match that army. You move the Americans, what have you got left? Youíve got a strong North Vietnam a weak South Vietnam that just was not able to rebuild.

So it was a losing war. Most Americans by 1974, from what I could see, had written it off anyway. The last act was brutal and terrifying for those who participated, but there is an aftermath. We had the dramatic account, and it was truly dramatic--the radio message of the 11 Marines leaving the embassy.

I had the pleasure, and it was a pleasure, in 1995 to take eight of those Marines back to Saigon on their first visit. Thatís 20 years after the war. I was with CNN. Not only did we go back to Saigon, we went back to the roof of the American Embassy, from which they had so dramatically departed 20 years earlier at sunrise on the morning of April 30. Amazingly enough, there were still sandbags on the roof that they could recognize. There were still markings of ammo cases. It hadnít changed much. It was weathered, the bags were rotten, but it was pretty much the same.

What was interesting to me about those Marines was that they had accepted the fact that the war had been lost, that they had played a role in it. But theyíd come back to Vietnam. They shook hands with a lot of North Vietnamese, and they were willing to try to come to terms with what had been a losing war and with those last dramatic days of that war.

Herbert Fix: There were a few things I wanted to add. In January 1973, I was the executive officer of the Marine Heavy Helicopter Squad 462 in Okinawa. The commanding officer, Lt. Col. Don Webb, was sent to the CTS 78 staff to start for the planning of Phnom Penh and the mine sweeping and the POW exchange.

photo by Michael Keating
Herbert Fix: "Directly below me was one of the largest NVA tank and truck convoys I'd ever seen in my life, sitting alongside of the road going into Saigon. The first thing that crossed my mind was,'What are they waiting for? Fortunately the did not shoot.  They let us do the evacuation."

When the POWs were released and the mine sweeping started, I was the acting CO for the squadron. I was in the Philippine Islands when the POWs were released and came out. That was very dramatic to see the POWs finally being released.

When I went back to Okinawa, I was listening to the planning for the evacuation of Phnom Penh and other cities in Southeast Asia. Routinely for Marine operations, weíd operate for about 20 miles beachhead, and here we were talking about going 130 miles over hostile territory. It seemed to be a completely crazy idea to a lot of us. When I left Okinawa, I was thinking, "Iím glad Iím not going to be going back into Phnom Penh. Iím going back to Hawaii and take it easy."

But two years later, I was back for that evacuation. That was a textbook exercise. We arrived off the coast and picked up what was supposed to be, I think, the last intelligence reports. Of about 561 American citizens and indigenous personnel out of Phnom Penh, we picked up 287. The Second Battalion, Fourth Marines dispersed and went out and held a crowd back. There were a lot of crowds, but they seemed to be there more out of curiosity than anything else.

On the route in I learned something, and I was glad to hear it. A T28 flew by me, and I thought, "Where did that airplane come from?" I had never seen a T28. I knew we didnít have any T28s in South Vietnam. I had no idea until tonight. It didnít belong to Col. King, who was the airborne commander. They didnít know who it was. So we just kept our eye on it and it had strange-looking markings. I donít know what the markings were.

He had several 50-caliber machine guns pointed at us for a period of time. I donít know whether he knew that or not. So we picked them up and went back into the ship, and we went in and picked the people up. It was a very good exercise.

The President of the United States was getting a blow-by-blow description of what we were doing. Immediately after that evacuation, President Ford sent out a very complimentary message to the people who were participating in it.

When we went back and sat off the coast of Saigon, we sat there for ten days. That ten days was just about as interesting as the actual exercise itself because there were hundreds, I mean hundreds, of helicopters that flew out of Vietnam looking for a safe haven and they landed on any place that they could. Theyíd find an open spot. They landed on the Hancock on two occasions. The deck was locked; it was too full. There was not room for them to land.

A Huey helicopter hovered close to the aircraft carrier and the passengers crawled out and jumped to the fly deck. Then the helicopter pilot moved off to the side. In one case, he just landed in the water and got out and was picked up. In another case, he did something I had never seen before. The pilot crawled out of the Huey helicopter, got out on the skids, and jumped clear himself, and the helicopter kind of staggered there for a moment and then went in the water. Fortunately it didnít hit him, but the helicopter came down very close to him.

When the exercise took place, it was trying enough. It was supposed to be a three- or four-hour operation. Between getting prepared and drawing the ammo, rolling the airplanes, briefing and getting ready to go, nobody slept more than one or two hours per day. When we finally went in, we were already exhausted. Then we flew almost continuously for 24 hours.

I do remember very vividly going in, at about 2:30 in the morning, at the defense attachť compound just outside of Saigon. That night there was no moon. It was a typical South Vietnam spring or summer night. The thunderheads rolled in, and we had ceilings at 400 feet. This might not mean much to anybody whoís not a pilot, but the ceiling was low.

There were big thunderhead buildups, and we had to circumnavigate around them. With no navigational aids, it got to be very interesting--especially with as many helicopters as we had going into the same place, trying to land on the same zone. I marveled that we went through the night without a mid-air or without somebody running into one another. We did not. But it was very interesting.

At 2:30 I started to land at the DL compound. I picked up the last of the American Marines who were there out of the defense attachťís office. They told me to hover out there a little ways because the landing zone--the parking lot--was full. I had to wait until the other helicopters moved out of the way.

A couple of bolts of lightning lit up the very, very dark night like daytime. Directly below me was one of the largest NVA tank and truck convoys Iíd ever seen in my life, sitting alongside of the road going into Saigon. The first thing that crossed my mind was, "What are they waiting for?" Fortunately they did not shoot. They let us do the evacuation; they let us get out of there. The next morning, a little after 8:00, a tank convoy crashed through the palace gates, and I would bet just about any kind of money you want that that tank convoy was the one that was sitting off the side of the road there in Saigon.

We went back out to the ship, and then the communications continued. President Ford was still on the line. At 3:30, he called and wanted to know if Ambassador Martin was out yet. Brig. Gen. Richard E. Carey, who was the CG of the amphibious operation, told him no, that Ambassador Martin was still at the Embassy. President Ford told the airborne command center to order the next helicopter to land on the rooftop, to go in and bring out Ambassador Martin, physically if necessary.

The person he was talking to was a CH-53 pilot. He said he couldnít land on the roof because the roof couldnít hold it. So the next guy behind him was in a CH- 46 did land, and Ambassador Martin was picked up at, I think, 4:58, because the President of the United States had ordered him to leave on that helicopter. Thatís the kind of communication that was going on between the forces.

The nine days that we spent off the coast was quite interesting. Practically every press, every magazine, every network had representatives there. We would go out to the flight deck and look up at what we called Walterís Row. There were maybe fifty correspondents, waiting and watching for the operation to take place. All the news that we would get from home, letters from our loved ones, letters from our families, would have press clippings. Our families knew more about what was going on with the fall of Saigon than we did sitting off the coast. We got most of our information out of the press crew, the news, the regular mail.

Audience Question: The bottom line was, we didnít lose the war. How could we have won the war when the troops themselves could not win the war for their own country?

Peter Arnett: From the beginning that was the issue. From the earliest days when I was there as a reporter in í62, American advisers like John Paul Vann said, "The Vietnamese are not fighting the war the right way. Their heart is not in it. Bring in more advisers." By 1965, the advisers were doing a good enough job.

photo by Michael Keating

Overall, the military command was corrupt, and in 1964, 1965, there were a series of coup díetats. American troops came in 1965. We know how they fought: bravely. When President Johnson decided not to run for office and sue for peace and the American withdrawals began, it seemed clear that that was going to be the end of the war. All that happened in between--President Nixonís secret plan to bring peace and so forth and so on-- was really a prelude to 25 years ago and the fall of Saigon.

I have a note here from a member of the audience: "Tell us what happened when the VC came into your office during the fall." Soon after the communist troops actually drove into Saigon, drove down the main thoroughfares, occupied the city basically without a shot being fired, I was working in the office with two AP colleagues when the door burst open.

One of our photo stringers, a Vietnamese, was standing there, very proudly, and behind him were two machine gun-toting North Vietnamese, dressed in the uniform, looking very stern. We feared the worst, naturally, even though we were optimists. But our photo stringer says, "Welcome. Meet my friends." Iíd been with him for about a decade. Thank goodness. But actually they came, and we interviewed them. We gave them Cokes and some cookies, and we actually interviewed them and typed it out and sent their story by Telex. Many Vietnamese had connections to the other side, and it was something we didnít really understand through much of the war.

Audience Question: I understood that Congress cut off aid prior to the collapse. I wonder if any of you have any awareness of that and the effect it had, if any, upon either the morale or the material wherewithal of the South Vietnamese?

Joe Galloway: Congress did indeed vote to cut off the aid, but as with so many programs, on the day that they voted to cut off the aid, there was something on the order of a year to a year and a half worth in the pipeline. In other words, there was ample fuel, there was ample bullets coming in that had already been bought and paid for and put into the pipeline.

But it was a morale-destructive thing. They knew that eventually that pipeline would run dry. They knew that there was no hope that in a major North Vietnamese, armor-led offensive, that the B52s would come back. Congress had spoken. The American people, through their representatives, had said, "Enough of this war, we donít want any more." And it was done, as far as the American people were concerned.

For the Vietnamese, it was a loss of confidence; it was an ultimate stab, if you will, in the back. And then you had Thieu vacillating on where to draw the line, where to fight, where to defend, and that, itself, further destroyed morale. Then you had the communists moving down.

It devolved into a panic situation. We saw Hue fall. We saw Pleiku fall. We saw the Trail of Tears across that abandoned highway that turned into a disaster, and then here they came to Danang and on down Route One, and it just rolled up. It rolled up and it was over.

Audience Question: Do you think that Kennedy is the one who started it all?

Joe Galloway: Oh no, thereís plenty of blame to go around, and we wonít stop with Nixon or Ford or Lyndon Johnson, although I like to linger on Lyndon a lot. It goes back to Harry Truman and the immediate post-World War II time. The French were determined to regain their colony, and the British were determined that nobody was going to lose the colony. Franklin Roosevelt, who wanted everybody to give up their colonies, got old and tired and was dying. He didnít get to make his vision for the war or after the war stick.

Harry Truman was facing communists in Greece, and he wanted France aboard in NATO. He had troubles in Korea, so we got ourselves sucked into it, even though we should have learned our lessons from Dien Bien Phu, from the French experience. By the time Dien Bien Phu fell, we were financing 70 percent of the French war against the Vietnamese. We paid the tuition; we didnít learn the lessons.

At one point, sitting on Clark Airfield in the Philippines, a few days before the Dien Bien Phu fortress fell, were something like 200 American B 29s. Theyíd already painted French insignias on the tail and the wings, and they were waiting for a go situation out of Washington, a decision to go in and bomb Giapís supply lines out of China. They were also having discussions about nuclear weapons.

Fortunately, Eisenhower wanted no part of it. And there was a senator named Johnson--Lyndon Baines Johnson from Texas--who argued in the quiet councils most vociferously against any nuclear war and any American intervention at all.

But they all forgot the lessons and we were sucked in. And there we are.

   

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