Major General Pham van Phu

I wrote months ago in this blog about my trip to II Corps Headquarters and my courtesy visit with Major General Pham van Phu, the commander of II Corps, in March 1975. Phu, like so many South Vietnamese generals I met, was condescending to a fault. I described my visit in Last of the Annamese in the scene where the protagonist, Chuck, meets with Major General Tri—the character based on Phu—during his stopover at II Corps headquarters:

Standing smoke blurred the room. Cigarettes, two of them still burning, littered the deck. The snake-like man behind the desk, a lit cigarette in hand, gave no indication that he knew eight people were standing before him. He went on reading, smiling at the document in his hands. Without looking up he made a single sound, and the officers sat in a row of chairs facing the desk. Chuck hurriedly joined them. The adjutant served tea.

Chuck squinted through the smoke at the man reading. His fatigues’ name tag read TRI, and his shoulders bore the two stars of a major general. The slant of his egg-shaped bald head drew the eye to his mouth, the lips closed, the corners turned up. Something about his smile activated the tingle low in Chuck’s spine. It was a sardonic smile, a sneer.

End of quote. General Phu continued to smoke throughout our visit, throwing his half-finished cigarettes to the floor, still burning, and lighting new ones. He treated me and the South Vietnamese general by my side with disdain bordering on rudeness. I remember that I was unable to avoid coughing from the cigarette smoke.

Shortly after our visit, the North Vietnamese conquered II Corps. General Phu escaped to the coast and later made his way to Saigon. He committed suicide on 30 April, the day the North Vietnamese completed the seizure of Saigon.

April 1975 in Vietnam (8)

I resume my reminiscing about the last days in Saigon. On this date 43 years ago, the U.S. Embassy in Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia, was evacuated. Here’s the story as told in the internet’s This Day in History:

At 8:50 a.m. on April 12 [1975], an Aerospace Rescue and Recovery Service HH-53 landed a four-man Air Force combat control team [at the embassy] to coordinate the operation. Three minutes later, it guided in a Marine Corps helicopter with the first element of the Marine security force. Marine and Air Force helicopters then carried 276 evacuees–including 82 Americans, 159 Cambodians, and 35 foreign nationals–to the safety of U.S. Navy assault carriers in the Gulf of Thailand. By 10 a.m., the Marine contingency force, the advance 11-man element, and the combat control team had been evacuated without any casualties.

End of quote. In the days that followed, as I hunkered down, isolated in my office on the northern edge of Saigon waiting for the North Vietnamese to attack, I waited for Phnom Penh to fall to the Khmer Rouge, the Cambodian Communists allied to North Vietnam. It happened five days later. I heard press reports of the beheadings of Cambodian official by the Khmer Rouge. For the first time in my life, I learned what terror tasted like.

Veterans Resource Fair

Yesterday afternoon and early evening, I participated in the annual Howard County Veterans Resource Fair, a gathering of organizations who provide services of value to veterans attending. I offered my books for sale and gave a presentation on the fall of Saigon.

I was struck by the number of Vietnam veterans I talked to. They told me when and where they had served in-country and listened wide-eyed as I told the gathering of surviving the fall of Saigon.

Among them was a man who served with me in Saigon in the days before the fall of the city to the North Vietnamese in April 1975. He reminded me, in a public exchange following my presentation, that he had refused my order that he depart Vietnam. He didn’t want to leave me alone to face the end. It took a direct order from me, reinforced by language I can’t use in this blog, to get him on a plane out of the country. He awaited me in Honolulu and saw firsthand the desperate shape I was in when I arrived.

He has stayed in touch with me ever since and still calls me “boss.” I couldn’t ask for a more faithful friend.

April 1975 in Vietnam (7)

On 10 April 1975, President Ford addressed a joint session of Congress asking for $722 million for South Vietnam. General Weyand, the Army Chief of Staff, had just returned from a fact-finding mission in Vietnam. The president’s request was based in part on General Weyand’s findings.

I had briefed General Weyand while he was in Saigon. In Last of the Annamese, I described the briefing, attributed in the novel to the protagonist, Chuck Griffin, based on my memory of what I said:

The northern half of South Vietnam is lost. The southern half could survive temporarily under three conditions: (1) the government is able to extract its forces from the north intact, (2) the North Vietnamese do not increase their forces in the south, and (3) the U.S. immediately resumes the air war and delivers essential ammunition, equipment, and supplies.

As this is written, it is clear that none of these conditions will be met. Casualties in the north have been overwhelming, and the remaining troops are in rout. Meanwhile, the North Vietnamese are infiltrating the southern provinces at an unprecedented rate. And the U.S. has ceased its matériel and air support. In short, what is left of South Vietnam will fall within weeks.

In the long term, the only option available to avoid capitulation is the reintroduction of U.S. forces—ground, naval, and air. President Nixon promised to bring U.S. military strength to bear if North Vietnam violated the Paris Agreement. Gross violations by North Vietnam are now legion. Failure to rescue Vietnam will be recognized world-wide as evidence of bad faith.

End of quote. Meanwhile, I hunkered down in Saigon. I continued getting my 43 subordinates and their families out of Vietnam any way I could. Most of those who were still in-country were sleeping in the office spaces. We followed the moves of the North Vietnamese as they came closer to Saigon, and I continued to warn the ambassador on their express intent to attack us. He didn’t respond.

April 1975 in Vietnam (6)

More on April 1975 in Vietnam:

On 9 April 1975, my wife and four children departed Vietnam for Bangkok on the first leg of their journey to the U.S. Making that trip happen took some doing.

The U.S. Ambassador, Graham Martin, had forbidden me to evacuate my 43 subordinates and their families. He had been reassured by the Hungarian member of the International Commission for Control and Supervision (ICCS) that the North Vietnamese had no intenti0n of attacking Saigon. The ICCS was a group established as part of the 1973 Paris Peace Agreement; its function was to monitor the supposed cease-fire.

Martin, in other words, was persuaded by a representative of a communist nation allied to North Vietnam that the North Vietnamese would not attack Saigon. Meanwhile, I was daily sending him irrefutable evidence that the North Vietnamese were about to assault the city.

At a coffee for dependents at the U.S. embassy, my wife had been assured that no strike against the city was in the offing. She enjoyed living in Saigon and brushed aside my entreaties for her and children to leave as soon as possible. She finally agreed to go under three conditions: she could choose her date of departure, she and the children would tour the world on the way back to the states, and, when she got back, she would buy a brand-new Buick station wagon.

I got my family tickets out—supposedly for a holiday in Bangkok—on 9 April. The day before that. a renegade South Vietnamese pilot bombed the presidential palace, near our villa. Now my wife was more than ready to leave Vietnam. But on the morning of 9 April as I tried to drive my family to the airport at Tan Son Nhat, we were repeatedly stopped at police roadblocks. The South Vietnamese government had declared a curfew as a result of the previous day’s bombing. I finally had to pull rank to get through the roadblocks and get my family on an airplane out of the country.

As soon as my family was safely gone, I moved out of the villa we had shared. I put a cot in front my desk in the front office of our office suite (my office) in the DAO building at Tan Son Nhat and slept there with a .38 revolver under my pillow.

April 1975 in Vietnam (5)

More on April 1975 in Vietnam:

On 8 April, as the fall of Saigon loomed, a renegade South Vietnamese pilot, later identified as a North Vietnamese infiltrator, bombed the presidential palace, near the villa where my family and I lived. Here’s the Wikipedia story of what happened:

On April 8 [1975], a formation of three Republic of Vietnam Air Force F-5E Tiger fighter-bombers lined up at Bien Hoa Air Base, each armed with four 250-pound bombs, for an attack on North Vietnamese positions in Bình Thuận Province. Before the second aircraft took off, First Lieutenant Nguyen Thanh Trung, who piloted the third F-5, reported his aircraft was experiencing afterburner problems. When the second aircraft departed, Trung also took off, but flew towards Saigon instead of joining the formation. At around 8.30am Trung dived on the Presidential Palace and dropped two bombs; the first bomb landed on the Palace grounds and caused some damage, but the second bomb failed to explode. Trung climbed to over 1,000 meters (3,300 ft) before making a second pass, this time both bombs exploded, causing minor structural damage but no casualties.

End of quote. At the time of the bombing, my wife and four children were in our villa, near the presidential palace. They were preparing to depart South Vietnam at my insistence—I knew the fall of Saigon was only weeks away. My wife had been hesitant to leave—she loved living in Vietnam and believed the assurances of the U.S. Ambassador, Graham Martin, that there was nothing to fear. The bombing of the palace persuaded her that leaving was in her and the children’s best interest.

April 1975 in Vietnam (4)

Remembering the last month in Saigon, April 1975, before South Vietnam fell to the communists, brings back fond recollections of my personnel section, responsible for the logistics of housing and moving my employees. When I decided that I had to evacuate my subordinates, even though the ambassador had forbidden it, I had to use ruses to explain sending my people out of the country. In the beginning, those responsible for planning travel and booking flights resisted my orders on the grounds that I was asking them to do things that violated regulations and were just plain illegal.

I remember a conversation I had with one of my personnel guys. I asked him what locations he could get airline reservations for immediately, then ordered him to book flights out. When he asked for justification, I told him “TDY”—“temporary duty,” meaning business travel. He pointed out that we had no business connections in the places I was telling him to send people and that he couldn’t legally use the TDY justification. I told him to do it anyway. He balked. I finally had to give him a direct order.

We went through the same drill on “home leave” and “vacation.” My crew winced at sending out people on home leave when they had no home leave coming. And booking people out for vacations without requiring them to be on annual leave was against the rules.

As the coming fall of Saigon became more obvious, my team ceased complaining and became quite artful at creating fictitious justifications for airline tickets. Toward the end, when all my personnel staff had been evacuated, I authorized virtually all those left in country to purchase airline tickets with government funds for any location they could get a flight to. Finally, after chaos set in, I took money from my own pocket, bought a ticket on Pan Am, and with no authorization or justification, put one of my comms guys on a flight and told him to go. That turned out to be the last Pan Am flight out of Saigon.

In the end, I got all my people and their families out safely. I rest easy today knowing none of them died during the fall of Saigon.