Those We left Behind

I still grieve today over the 2700 South Vietnamese soldiers we abandoned when Saigon fell. These were men who worked with the NSA organization. I knew them. During my thirteen years on and off in Vietnam, I had traveled with them in the field. Some had invited me to share a meal with their families. Some I knew well enough that we used the familiar form of Vietnamese (anh and em instead of tôi and ông). Just as veterans everywhere are my brothers, so were these men.

And yet, at the end in Vietnam, we abandoned them. We left them to the tender mercies of the conquering North Vietnamese. Some were killed outright; others were incarcerated in “re-education camps,” really concentration camps, where the death rate was high.

We forsook them at the end for a variety of reasons. Among them were that the Ambassador, Graham Martin, never did call for an evacuation. He believed that North Vietnam would not attack Saigon. He had been assured by the Hungarian member of the International Commission for Control and Supervision (the ICCS, established in 1973 to monitor the supposed cease-fire) that the North Vietnamese had no intention of attacking Saigon. That gentleman represented a communist government allied to North Vietnam. By the time the ambassador was countermanded in the predawn hours of 29 April 1975 and an evacuation was ordered, the North Vietnamese were already in the streets of Saigon, and we couldn’t get to those soldiers.

Another reason that these men were left behind was that the soldiers’ commanding officer, a South Vietnamese general, was safely evacuated while the soldiers remained in place awaiting his orders. They were still awaiting his orders when the North Vietnamese took them.

But the principle cause for our desertion of these men was the shameful way we ended the Vietnam war. First we cut air support, then financial aid, to South Vietnam. Those cuts were the death warrant to the Republic of Vietnam. We Americans no longer wanted to be involved in what we considered a shameful war. So we withdrew and left our allies behind.

It’s clear that we didn’t learn from our mistakes, we did the same thing in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Are we Americans really unable to learn from our shameful errors of the past?

3 thoughts on “Those We left Behind”

  1. Tom, I served in the Marine Corps from 2002-2008. I listened to your podcast at the International Spy Museum from 2012 on eavesdropping in Vietnam. You mentioned that the Marines had a better grasp than the Army on the politics and economics of the Vietnam War. This is an interesting statement. Can you explain this theory in further detail? Thank you for your service in Vietnam, and welcome back!

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    1. Tom, I never knew why the Marines understood Vietnam better than army soldiers. My guess is that they spent more time in the villages and hamlets with the Vietnamese. And it was the Marines who several times pushed to change the tactics from seek-and-destroy with large units to small unit operations close to the people. I loved working with the Marines. They were professional and dedicated, and the best military linguists I came across during my thirteen years, on and off, in Vietnam were invariably Marines. But I have to admit a bias. In the early 60s, while wandering around the battlefields in Vietnam, I ran into a Maine captain named Al Gray. I kept stumbling across him all over South Vietnam. Then in April 1975, Al, now a colonel, saved my life when Saigon fell. I stopped calling him Al when he became Commandant of the Marine Corps. Now I address him as “sir.” He’s been kind enough to stay in touch with me all these years. On his ninetieth birthday, a couple of weeks ago, I sent him an autographed copy of my novel, Last of the Annamese, which tells the story of the fall of Saigon. I autographed it with the words, “I’m alive today because you saved my life on 29 April 1975.” The retired Marine lieutenant colonel who took the book to him said the autograph brought tears to his eyes.

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      1. Powerful stuff. My Mom’s cousin, PFC John O’Connor USMC 3/9, was killed in action in the Quang Nam Province in September 1966. From what I’ve gathered, his platoon was ambushed by an NVA unit far superior in numbers. From what I’ve read, prior to 1968, a lot of Marines had issues with their rifles jamming during combat due to bad ammo. I hope that wasn’t John’s situation. Needless to say, I still keep his legacy alive.

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