When I was assigned as the head of the NSA covert operation in South Vietnam in 1974, I knew very well that the war wasn’t over. The notion that the assignment was, as my predecessor called it, a “gentlemen’s tour,” struck me as wrong-headed. I was surprised that he gave so little attention to classified information that made clear North Vietnamese intentions to conquer the south.
But I didn’t realize how serious the situation was. The U.S. had withdrawn all military support and most of its financial support from South Vietnam, while North Vietnamese forces remained in place with the plentiful support of both China and the USSR. Moreover, the war had never ceased. The North Vietnamese continued their probes, both large and small.
I chide myself now for not seeing that South Vietnam was no place for a family in 1974. It quickly became apparent to me, and I began to look for ways to move my family and the families of my subordinates out of the country.
The North Vietnamese conquest of Phuoc Long Province and the seizure of its capital, Phuoc Binh, in January 1975 confirmed my suspicions that the war was entering its final phase. Through signals intelligence, I saw that the enemy was preparing a major offensive designed to take the northern half of the country. That offensive came in March. Not only did the North conquer the highlands and the northern provinces, but it also killed or captured the vast majority of the South Vietnamese military forces ranged against it in those areas.
It was time to get all the families and my subordinates out of Vietnam. But the ambassador forbade me to evacuate my people.
I can’t tell you the name of my predecessor as chief of the NSA covert operation in Saigon—it’s still classified. But I can pass on his advice to me. He told me when I arrived in Saigon in 1974 with my family that an assignment in Vietnam was now “a gentleman’s tour.” The war was over. The job of us NSAers was to advise the U.S. Ambassador, Graham Martin, and to work with the South Vietnamese government to monitor the North Vietnamese.
Assignment to Vietnam no longer meant an unaccompanied tour. We were now encouraged to bring our families. Many of us, including me, did. For three of my children, it was their first time in Vietnam. For my eldest, it was her second time—she’d been with her mother and me from 1963 almost to 1965.
But Saigon, where my family lived, had changed. When I first arrived in 1962, Saigon really was the Paris of the Orient. Half the signs on shops and the street names were French, the French population was still large, and French was as commonly spoken as Vietnamese. The city had a leisurely feel. No one seemed to be in a hurry. The cafés, bistros, and night clubs were full.
By 1974, war had scarred Saigon. The French were gone. Disabled soldiers, dismembered and disfigured, begged on the street corners. Poverty, well hidden in earlier years, was now on full display. Terrorist incidents were on the rise, and the sound of shelling sometimes echoed over the city.
I blogged here some weeks ago about my encounters with corpsmen in Vietnam. I explained that “these men were not Marines but enlisted men in the US Navy. I knew that other services have medics on the battlefield—they’re called field medics or combat medics—but I learned that the Marine Corps does not. Navy corpsmen fill this role.
“Over the years in Vietnam, I learned more about corpsmen. They are officially referred to as US Navy Hospital Corpsmen. My understanding is that there are no officer corpsmen. All are enlisted. Because of the urgent work they do, corpsmen are the most decorated rating of all branches of the service. And the US Navy has named fourteen of its ships after corpsmen.”
What prompted my reflections on corpsmen was meeting one some months ago at a gathering celebrating Vietnam veterans. When one of my fellow vets introduced himself as Doc Noah, I knew immediately that he had been a corpsman—all corpsmen are called “Doc.” A few weeks later, he came across my review of J.M. Graham’s Arizona Moon (you can read the review at http://www.washingtonindependentreviewofbooks.com/bookreview/arizona-moon-a-novel-of-vietnam). Graham was also a corpsman, and Doc Noah remembered him. He asked me if I knew how he could get in touch with Graham. I contacted the publisher and asked that Noah’s email address be sent to Graham, but Noah never heard from him.
Further email exchanges led to Noah recommending the Viti book I blogged about in my last post. Since I felt the urge to write a novel about a corpsman with Post-Traumatic Stress Injury (PTSI), I bought the book. Noah is prominently featured in the story. My comments on the book resulted in Noah putting me in touch with the author, Lucia Viti. She has offered to help me with my research on corpsmen.
I don’t yet know if all this will lead to a new novel. I don’t choose what I write about. The impulse to tell a story takes me over, and I can only find peace by writing down what my imagination dictates. That’s how Last of the Annamese came to be written. It looks like the pattern will play out again.
I’ve written several times in this blog about corpsmen I encountered in Vietnam and the two former corpsmen I met recently. One of the two, Dennis Noah, recommended that I read Lucia Viti’s Dr. Tom’s War: A Daughter’s Journey (Rogue Books, 2011). I’m now in the middle of it. This is a book I want everyone to read. It speaks unflinchingly about the grim and grisly truth of combat.
The book is Ms. Viti’s paean to her father, a navy doctor who cared for wounded Marines in Vietnam. Dr. Tom (Gaetano) Viti was courageous, funny, and creative. He took great risks to his own safety to help the Marines operating out of An Hoa in the central section of Vietnam. He and his corpsmen were greatly admired for their devotion and bravery.
One of the aspects that makes the book so gripping is that it is almost entirely in the words of the Marines who were engaged in combat and the corpsmen who struggled to save the lives of the wounded. These men make no effort to pretty up the brutality of combat. They tell it like it really was.
And that’s one of the major reasons I hope the book will be widely read. As I’ve stressed before, I want people to know how gruesome combat is. I want Americans, as a people, to understand the ghastliness of war before they commit to it.
I’ll have more to say about corpsmen, Ms. Viti’s book, and my own involvement in days to come.
Ira A. Hunt, the retired major general who is the author of Losing Vietnam (University Press of Kentucky, 2013), was named the deputy commander of the U.S. Support Activities Group (USSAG), established at the Royal Thai Nakhon Phanom Airbase in northeast Thailand, in the late summer of 1973. USSAG was the replacement for the Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (MACV), which was dissolved coincident with the cease-fire signed by the U.S, and North Vietnam in 1973. USSAG’s purpose was to maintain liaison with and monitor support to the government of the Republic of Vietnam (South Vietnam) in what was expected to be the peaceful period following the war.
As General Hunt points out, the cease-fire required the withdrawal of all but fifty U.S. military personnel but left all North Vietnamese and Viet Cong forces in place. He watched as the North Vietnamese violated the cease-fire almost immediately and continued their campaign to conquer South Vietnam. In August 1973, The U.S. Congress passed a joint resolution requiring the complete disengagement of U.S. combat forces in Southeast Asia. That meant all U.S. Air Force air combat support to South Vietnamese forces ceased. In July 1974, the U.S. Congress drastically reduced the funding for South Vietnam. It failed to add funds in 1975. Meanwhile, North Vietnam was receiving generous financial help from the Soviet Union and China. But the U.S. public, and therefore the Congress, was sick of the Vietnam war. They wanted an end to the war. The end came in late April 1975 when the North Vietnamese completed the conquest of South Vietnam.
General Hunt’s assessment matches my own, that on the whole the South Vietnamese armed forces were an effective fighting force and fought bravely. President Thieu’s poorly planned and executed withdrawal from the northern half of the country in March 1975 hastened the inevitable ending but didn’t cause it. The single greatest cause of the loss of Vietnam was the U.S. decision to withdraw financial and air support.
As told in the autobiographical novel, Last of the Annamese, I witnessed the debacle. I watched as the South Vietnamese government tried to economize, unable to repair or replace damaged equipment and weapons, slowly ran out of ammunition, and, finally, was unable to pay the members of its military forces. I was still watching when I escaped under fire on 29 April as Saigon fell to the communists.
I just finished reading Losing Vietnam: How America Abandoned Southeast Asia by Major General Ira A. Hunt, USA (Ret) (University Press of Kentucky, 2013). The views expressed by General Hunt come very close to my own and to the story told in Last of the Annamese. Tomorrow I’ll recap his report on how Vietnam was lost. In this post, I want to discuss the only point on which we disagree: the performance of U.S. Ambassador Graham Martin.
General Hunt and I both knew Martin and worked with him. The general feels that Martin’s critics were too harsh. My sense is that they were too kind.
I’ve mentioned several times in this blog my warning to Martin that the North Vietnamese were preparing to attack Saigon. He was guided not by my signals intelligence but by the assurances of a representative of a communist government allied to North Vietnam, the Hungarian member of the ICCS (International Commission for Control and Supervision), that the communists had no intention of moving against Saigon. The result was the ambassador’s order forbidding me to evacuate my forty-three subordinates and their families. I blatantly disobeyed that command and got all my people out of the country safely. Another result was my continued presence in Saigon after the North Vietnamese were already in the streets of the city and my escape under fire. And Martin’s failure to call for the evacuation caused many thousands of South Vietnamese who had worked with the U.S. to be captured or killed.
Tomorrow I’ll talk about the consensus between me and General Hunt on the causes of the loss of Vietnam.
Now that most of the facts about my thirteen years, on and off, in Vietnam have been declassified, I’m being asked more and more often to do the presentation about the fall of Saigon. I’ve now done it more than forty times. I’m scheduled to do it twelve more times between now and the end of November.
I very much want people to know what happened during the final weeks of the Republic of Vietnam, that is, South Vietnam. I want them to know that the U.S. Ambassador in Saigon refused to allow me to evacuate my forty-three subordinates and their families. I want them to know that we left 2700 South Vietnamese soldiers who worked with us behind. The North Vietnamese killed or captured all of them. I want people to know that I escaped at the end under fire because the ambassador didn’t believe that Saigon would be attacked, despite the overwhelming evidence I gave him from intercepted North Vietnamese communications.
Every time I give the presentation, I choke up and get tears in my eyes when I tell of these events. I’ll never outlive the shame and grieving. I want people to know and remember. As one reviewer of Last of the Annamese quoted from me, forgetting what happened would be unforgivable.