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Saturday, April 30, 2005

Our last day in Vietnam

America's legacy in Vietnam: an Agent Orange victim

America's Bitter End in Vietnam

It was the Vietnam War in microcosm....Good intentions marred by fatally flawed follow-through.

By Col. Harry G. Summers, Jr

It was not a proud day to be an American. As our CH-46 Marine helicopter lifted off the roof of the American Embassy in Saigon at 5:30 a.m., April 30, 1975--taking the last of the Americans, except for the Marine guards, to USS Okinawa and safety--the full extent of our betrayal struck home. The 420 evacuees below, whom we had given our solemn promise not to abandon, began to press at the Marine guards then withdrawing into the embassy.

But it was too late. America had not only fecklessly abandoned its erstwhile ally in its time of most desperate need but also had shamefully abandoned the last several hundred of those evacuees who had trusted America to the very end. Included were the local firemen who had refused earlier evacuation so as to be on hand if one of the evacuation helicopters crashed into the landing zone in the embassy courtyard; a German priest with a number of Vietnamese orphans; and members of the Republic of Korea (ROK) embassy, including several ROK Central Intelligence Agency officers who chose to remain to the end to allow civilians to be evacuated ahead of them and who would later be executed in cold blood by the North Vietnamese invaders.

The worst of it was that it was all unintentional, the result of a breakdown in communication between those on the ground running the embassy evacuation, those offshore with the fleet controlling the helicopters, and those in Honolulu and Washington who were making the final decisions. In short, it was the Vietnam War all over again.


On April 29, 1975, we moved from our headquarters at the DAO compound to the U.S. Embassy in downtown Saigon, fully prepared to remain in-country. No sooner had we arrived there, however, than it was found that Secretary of State Kissinger, reportedly in a fit of pique, had ordered all U.S. personnel out of Vietnam, including the FPJMT and the embassy staff.

While the evacuation at the DAO compound had already begun, the only evacuation from the embassy had been by a few Air America UH-1 helicopters from the roof, shuttling key people to the DAO evacuation point. The plan had called for the evacuation of the 100 or so U.S. personnel from the embassy in this manner. All other evacuees were to be bused or helilifted by Air America helicopters to the main evacuation point at the DAO. But that plan had broken down, and already some 3,000 people, about half of them Vietnamese, had crowded within the embassy walls. With the streets of Saigon becoming impassable, there was no way they could be bused to the Tan Son Nhut evacuation point.

There was a large tamarind tree in the embassy courtyard that made it unusable as a landing zone, and Ambassador Martin, evidently seeing the tree as a symbol of his determination not to abandon his post, had refused to have it cut down. But now the end was inevitable, and the tree was finally felled. The landing zone was still blocked, however, by the mass of civilian evacuees. To alleviate the chaos, Colonel Madison volunteered our services to Wolfgang Lehmann, the deputy chief of mission (DCM).

While Marine Major James Kean and his embassy security detail, augmented by some 130 U.S. Marines from the Ground Security Force at the DAO compound, manned the walls to prevent more people from entering the compound, we set about clearing a landing zone in the embassy courtyard and organizing the evacuees for departure. Uneasiness had begun to spread, as the crowd saw the Air America helicopters lifting off the embassy roof. Our worst fear throughout the evacuation was a repeat of the experience at Da Nang earlier in the month, where panic had taken over and it had become impossible even to land, lest the aircraft become mobbed and be unable to take off.
But that never happened at the embassy. For one thing, the Marine security guards were able to secure the walls and prevent the thousands in the streets outside from overrunning the compound. For another, Captain Herrington, Sergeants Herron and Pace and Specialist Bell (all of whom spoke Vietnamese) were able to assure the crowd that they were not going to be abandoned.

The first task was to clear the embassy courtyard. Under the control of Gunnery Sgt. Pace (our "inside man"), most of those in the courtyard area were sent into the embassy itself, later to be evacuated from the roof as CH-46 Sea Knight helicopters began arriving from the fleet offshore. The rest were herded into the CRA (Combined Recreation Association) compound next door. Site of the embassy club and swimming pool, it was separated from the embassy itself by the firehouse and a chain-link fence.

With the help of a local missionary, Reverend Tom Stebbins, who spoke Vietnamese, I circulated among the crowd in the CRA compound, assuring them that all would be eventually evacuated. Meanwhile a loading zone for the larger Marine CH-53 Sea Stallion helicopters was laid out in the embassy courtyard. Even with two landing zones operating simultaneously, the evacuation began slowly and sporadically, for the main evacuation point at Tan Son Nhut had priority. By midnight some 1,800 people had been evacuated from the embassy, but then the helicopter flow came to a temporary halt as the choppers refueled aboard ship after completing the DAO evacuation. Panic began to spread among the evacuees still in the CRA compound.

The Marine guards securing the gate between the CRA compound and the embassy courtyard were becoming hard pressed. Captain Herrington came to their rescue, entering the CRA compound to restore order, followed by myself and Sergeant Herron. "Khong ai se bi bo lai!" Herrington said. "No one will be left behind!"

Over and over again he reassured them, "I'm in here with you, and I'll be on the last helicopter. They will not leave me behind. No one is abandoning you. In a little while the helicopters will begin arriving again." Finally the panic subsided. As soon as it did, we moved the 1,100 remaining evacuees from the CRA compound through the gate and onto the roof of the firehouse, where they could see what was going on.

At about 2 a.m. on April 30, the helicopter flow resumed. After forcing them to abandon their luggage, we found we could put 90 Vietnamese on board the CH-53s. At 4:15 a.m. Colonel Madison informed Wolfgang Lehmann that only six lifts remained to complete the evacuation. Lehmann told him no more helicopters would be coming. But Colonel Madison would have none of it. We had given our word.

Madison and his men would be on the final lift after all the evacuees under our care had been flown to safety. Lehmann relented and said the helicopters would be provided. That message was later reaffirmed by Brunson McKinley, the ambassador's personal assistant. But McKinley was lying. Even as he reassured us, he knew the lift had been canceled, and he soon fled, along with the ambassador and Lehmann, his DCM.

It was the only time in my 38-year military career that I had been lied to on an operational matter. For a military officer such an act would be unthinkable. But the State Department obviously had different standards, and McKinley later became a high-ranking officer at State in charge of refugee affairs

The end of the Vietnam War came quickly. It was a surprise that the ARVN collapsed so quickly and anyone alive then cannot forget the sea being littered with helicopters. It was the final tragic act of a tragedy. It was a sad, shameful end to a horrible policy

One hopes when we abandon Iraq, the same story will not be told again.

posted by Steve @ 12:47:00 AM

12:47:00 AM

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