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Phuoc Long province northwest of Saigon was to be the test of that resolution. Relatively isolated, its defense consisted primarily of four 340-man Regional Force (i.e., local militia) battalions and a number of Popular Force (i.e., homeguard) platoons. Fire support consisted of four 155mm and 16 105mm howitzers employed in two-gun platoons throughout the sector.
Far outmatching these defenders was the attacking NVA 301st Corps, consisting of the newly formed 3rd NVA Division, the veteran 7th NVA Division, a tank battalion of Soviet-supplied T-54 tanks, an artillery regiment, an anti-aircraft artillery regiment, and local force sapper and infantry units. Launching its attack from its Cambodian sanctuaries on December 13, 1974, the 301st picked off the South Vietnamese outposts one by one, then concentrated its attack on the airfield at Song Be.
The garrison there was reinforced by the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) 2nd Battalion, 7th Infantry, which was helicoptered in from its base at Lai Khe. Six additional 105mm howitzers were helilifted in as well. Later, two companies of the ARVN 85th Airborne Ranger Battalion were also flown in.
But they were no match for the NVA, whose artillery was particularly devastating. By January 3, 1975, the NVA's rate of fire had increased to 3,000 rounds per day. 'Finally, on 6 January, the province chief realized that he could no longer influence the battle,' notes the official historical account of the battle.
'Under direct fire from four approaching T-54 tanks, and seriously wounded, he and what remained of his staff withdrew from Song Be,' the report reads. 'The NVA had captured the first provincial capital.' South Vietnamese losses were staggering. Over 5,400 ARVN and Regional and Popular forces were committed to the battle, and only some 850 survived. The province chief never made it to safety. About 3,000 civilians out of 30,000 or more escaped Communist control. 'The few province, village and hamlet officials who were captured were summarily executed,' according to the historical account. Tragic as those losses were, however, the battle had far grimmer consequences. The little-known battle for Phuoc Long was one of the most decisive battles of the war, for it marked the U.S. abandonment of its erstwhile ally to its fate. Le Duan's 'resolution' had been all too correct. In the face of this flagrant violation of the Paris Accords–and it was deliberately designed to be flagrant so as to clearly test U.S. resolve–President Gerald Ford pusillanimously limited his response to diplomatic notes. North Vietnam had received the green light for the conquest of South Vietnam.
As NVA General Van Tien Dung, who was to lead the final cross-border assault to overrun South Vietnam, noted at a Politburo conference on January 8, 1975, 'It was obvious that the United States…could hardly return….To fully exploit this great opportunity we had to conduct large-scale annihilating battles to destroy and disintegrate the enemy on a large scale.' The groundwork for the final NVA blitzkreig had been laid.
General Smith has detailed the consequences of that betrayal, as in March 1975 President Nguyen Van Thieu made the fateful decision to abandon the Central Highlands, and the whole South Vietnamese defense structure began to unravel. But not all of the ARVN collapsed. The 18th ARVN Infantry Division at Xuan Loc, some 40 miles northeast of Saigon, put up a valiant struggle.
From March 17, 1975, to April 5, 1975, the 18th ARVN Division held its ground, virtually destroying the 6th, 7th and 341st NVA divisions in the process. Only when the NVA brought in its 325th Division and also began moving its 10th and 304th divisions into place did the 18th ARVN Division finally give way. But it was too late, and by the last week in April NVA divisions were at the gates of Saigon. It was obvious to all that the end was at hand.
At the time the only open channel of communication between the United States and North Vietnam was through the FPJMT, which had been given diplomatic status by the Paris Accords. Regular FPJMT liaison flights between Saigon and Hanoi had been conducted since 1973.
Using out-of-country PACAF (Pacific Command Air Force) C-130 transports, the flights would include members of all four FPJMT delegations–the U.S., North Vietnamese, South Vietnamese and Viet Cong, officially the 'Provisional Revolutionary Government of South Vietnam,' or PRG. Just such a flight was scheduled for April 25, 1975, with the full knowledge that the North Vietnamese government in Hanoi was prepared to give its position on the U.S. withdrawal.
Having diplomatic status under the Paris Accords as the chief of the negotiations division of the U.S. delegation, I was ordered to make the trip, accompanied by my translator, Specialist 7 Garnett 'Bill' Bell (who after his retirement would remain active in POW/MIA affairs and for a time head the U.S. POW/MIA office in Hanoi).
A remarkably dedicated soldier, Bell had just returned from accompanying the bodies of his wife and children, along with his sole surviving daughter, to the United States. They had died in the crash of the C-5 'baby lift' evacuation aircraft on April 3, 1975 (see the Personality department, P. 10), a crash that also took the life of Barbara Kavulia, the Negotiation Division's civilian secretary. Although he had been told to remain in the States, Bell returned, for he knew he was our most qualified U.S. interpreter.
From start to finish the whole journey was a surreal, Kafkaesque affair. For starters, there were my negotiating instructions. The FPJMT had dual chains of command. One was through military channels through the DAO in Saigon and Pacific Command in Honolulu to Roger Shields, assistant secretary of defense for POW/MIA affairs in the Pentagon. The other was through diplomatic channels beginning with James Devine, the political/military officer in the embassy in Saigon. Since this was to be a diplomatic mission and I was a representative of the U.S. government, I sought out Devine to receive guidance on what terms the United States proposed.
But with then U.S. Ambassador Graham Martin, who had lost a stepson in combat in Vietnam, on the edge of physical and emotional collapse and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger in Washington reportedly in a blue funk over his 'betrayal' by North Vietnam's Le Duan, Devine was evidently as much in the dark as I was.
'What are my negotiating instructions?' I asked.
'Damned if I know,' he replied.
'But what am I supposed to do?' I said.
'Do the best you can,' was his answer.
If I had revealed those ad hoc instructions to the North Vietnamese, they would have thought I was trying to trick them, for everything they did, including specifying where we parked the C-130 at Gia Lam airport in Hanoi, had a political purpose. The C-130 had to be parked so that the passengers on the Chinese commercial flight to and from Canton had to walk under the wing of the U.S. aircraft to get in and out of the air terminal, evidently as a form of humiliation.
Hanoi, as might be imagined, was jubilant, with crowds thronging the streets. After years of struggle they had won on the battlefield what they had failed to win at the negotiating table.
'You know you never beat us on the battlefield,' I said to Colonel Tu, my NVA counterpart.
'That may be so,' he said, 'but it is also irrelevant.'
As expected, the North Vietnamese gave me the terms of the U.S. withdrawal. The DAO, which North Vietnam's propagandists falsely claimed numbered in the thousands, had to go in its entirety, they said. The FPJMT (whom they had been trying to involve in negotiations over reparations for war damage in return for information about POW/MIAs) had to stay, and the U.S. embassy could work out its own future.
Returning to Saigon, I was met by Eric von Marbod, then Secretary of Defense James Schlesinger's personal representative. 'That was the most screwed up situation in which I had ever been involved,' I reported. 'I could have given them a nuclear ultimatum and they would have believed me!'
'Why didn't you?' he said, only half in jest. I have since often wondered what would have happened if President Ford, then reportedly busy playing golf in a tournament in California, had done just that. But, like Pontius Pilate, both he and the Congress had washed their hands of Vietnam.
In the meantime, the NVA had continued to close the ring on Saigon. Sixteen NVA divisions were now poised for a three-pronged attack on the southern capital. The bitter end was at hand.
Earlier, anticipating that we might stay after the fall of Saigon, the U.S. FPJMT delegation had been drastically scaled back. Most of our military personnel had relocated to Thailand to form a rear detachment. And on April 20, 1975, the Pentagon authorized a special flight to evacuate all of our Vietnamese civilian employees and their families to Guam.
Remaining were Army Colonel John H. Madison, Jr., the delegation's chief; myself; my deputy, Army Captain (now Colonel) Stuart A. Herrington; Army Master Sgt. William B. Herron; Marine Gunnery Sgt. Ernest Pace; and Bill Bell.
For the past several weeks we had been busy assisting General Smith and the DAO staff with the fixed-wing evacuation of U.S. civilians, their families and selected Vietnamese personnel. We were constantly receiving priority messages from Washington directing us to pick up and evacuate senior Vietnamese officials and their families whose lives were in jeopardy because of the assistance they had rendered to the United States during the course of the war. Complicating this process was the fact that the South Vietnamese government had forbidden such an exodus, and South Vietnamese security police barred the gates at Tan Son Nhut. But thanks to the ingenuity of Captain Herrington, a superb officer and fluent Vietnamese linguist, these difficulties were overcome.
One of the most poignant moments came during the evacuation of the families of counterparts in the South Vietnamese FPJMT Delegation. One ARVN colonel was tearfully saying what he thought were his final goodbyes to his wife and children at the ramp of the aircraft carrying them to safety.
Suddenly, Herrington said to him, 'Get on the plane!'
In anguish the colonel said, 'I can't. I can't desert my country at this desperate moment.'
'Don't be a damn fool,' said Herrington. 'It's all over. President Thieu has left. The others are leaving. Get on the plane and take care of your family.' The colonel reluctantly complied.
At first I was furious. 'You know damn well Thieu hasn't left,' I said. 'And you know we're forbidden to evacuate any members of the armed forces. How dare you put a fellow officer in conflict between his duty and his family.'
But Herrington was right. It was only a matter of time before Thieu left and the country collapsed. Nothing that officer could have done would have changed anything. If he had stayed he would just have added to the numbers of fellow RVNAF officers in Socialist Republic of Vietnam concentration camps where, if he had not died, he would have languished for the next 17 years, for the last imprisoned ARVN officer was not released until 1992.
But, as General Smith has described, this fixed-wing evacuation came to an end with the NVA rocket attack on Tan Son Nhut that killed two Marine security guards, Lance Cpl. Darwin Judge and Corporal Charles McMahon.
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.
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Last edited by Aquina1300; 10-04-2014 at 09:10 AM.