A google of “The Vietnam War”… gets 86,500,000 hits.
86 million plus… yet that figure doesn’t represents nearly all the literature out there on this period of world History. I’ve done some writing on the subject, and am constantly amazed at the enormous volume of information that can be accessed – the variety of the first hand field reporting and second hand analysis.
There are looks at this war from every conceivable angle. The political maneuvering to set up the battlefield. The world-wide protest against the US involvement. Battlefield acc’ts of the actual fighting and finally the diplomatic finagling to set the stage for the collapse of South Vietnam and the final evacuation of Americans.
More than 86 million reports… but there’s great clutter and bad information in the mix. Plus it isn’t homogenous – the Vietnam war was a different ballgame depending on time and location and unit…. firefights in the delta were different from firefights in the highlands. Almost entirely different enemy tactics region to region. Political advantages were often more valuable than battlefield victories. Combat on the border and in Laos and Cambodia, on the rivers and in the air, were all different. Conventional, non-conventional, big US Army tactics, ARVN, South Korean, Long Range Reconnaissance Patrols. Sweeps, ambushes. Attacks. Defense. Bombings over North Vietnam by state of the art planes flown off US Navy aircraft carriers. Close support to guerrilla units in Laos by locally flown WW II T-28 prop fighters. Fighting early on. Tet. After the US withdrew. All different.
No central, cohesive theme … other than the accumulative – David beat Goliath.
It was a long war of many colors and hues. Along the way was Jane Fonda and monk self-immolations and crying children running from villages that had to be destroyed to save them, to Huey dust-offs, to assassinations and sapper attacks. Bob Hope and Ia Drang valley fights. Khe Sanh. I Corps. Tet. General Giáp and Westmoreland. And Diem and Ky. And snapshots of groups of GIs standing by their field tents, grinning, thumbs up. Dead VC. Wounded Americans. Protestors putting flowers in the guns of police. Broken GIs coming home.
3,000,000 Americans served in the War. Everyone’s got a story and what with home computers, everyone’s writing about their experiences – because Vietnam was the seminal event in the lives of most vets.
Library collections are train wrecks of ideology and combat experiences in SEA 1960 to 1975.
With all the stuff out there, it doesn’t make clearer what happened… makes was happened harder to understand. So much information you have to pick and choose what to believe.
No single book stands above the rest.
How does the entirety of this multi-dimensional war its ownself get passed on to the next generations?
In choosing what to make of it all, It’s like the story of the six blind men who were led up to an elephant and given a chance to touch it in only one random place… and then as a group describe the animal. Their reports could be true in of themselves, but as a group did they come away with an understanding of the entire elephant, from the big trunk to the little tail?
That’s what it is like, getting a realistic handle on the war from reading just half a dozen books or so.
Or – thinking large – let’s say you take all the 86 million accounts of the war on google and put them together. Interesting proposition, but even if you get a computer big enough to coalesce all that information together into one acc’t and then condense and condense and condense, you’d eventually end up with the David beating Goliath thing, but I’m thinking in the super-condensed form you won’t necessarily know how that happened.
And if all that doesn’t present problems for the history books, what if some of the information is incorrect? What if one of the blind men was actually led up to a pony. He was told it was an elephant and he’d come back to the other blind men and in adding his one-feel touchy acc’t, he’d sure cause confusion.
Truth in itself is illusive. Get a group of people reporting on the same accident, you goin’ to get several acc’ts of things.
And throw in the one trick pony – an acc’t which isn’t true at all – you don’t get the story right. You got Ferguson all over again.
Let’s take the final evacuation of Americans from the delta of South Vietnam when the Embassy in Saigon was being de-assed, for example.
Well let the blind men read the few books (in braille of course) that are out there on the subject.
There are no TV acc’ts to confuse issues. Just the few books on the subject, that’s all. They’d understand it, right?
I know. One of those books is about what I saw, heard, smelled, felt as a CIA operative in the delta at the very end.
In other reporting the US Consulate-General (Congen), Francis “Terry” McNamara, – the US President’s appointed senior rep in the Vietnam delta – is portrayed as an upstanding forthright public servant, trying to do good by his country in very trying circumstances.
I thought he was a jerk.
By the time of the evacuation I had been five years on the SEA battlefield. I knew more than most how to survive out there.
Two years of that time I spent upcountry Laos working with the mighty Ravens, Air America and Asian irregulars to hold off North Vietnamese invasions year after year.
I came to know Air America pilots as an irascible, competent group of tough airmen – whose motto was Anywhere, Anytime, Professionally. They worked in South Vietnam there at the end but would not fly out in the hinterland – where the North Vietnamese were more and more in control – just on orders from anyone. They were calculating risk takers, and didn’t trust many people.
In the delta one of Congen McNamara’s jobs was to identify who was a US person and who wasn’t. With the extended families of those South Vietnamese women married to Americans, and with some of the half US and half South Vietnamese children left behind, that was a problem; the citizenship line blurred sometimes. Plus McNamara was getting requests in from many people – including politicos in WDC – to try and find friends/relatives out on the South Vietnamese country side.
Only transportation out there was Air America, but they specifically didn’t trust McNamara.
Following is taken from my book The Vietnam War Its Ownself
“In one case, McNamara was required to fly to a province close to the Cambodian border for a personal interview. He tried to arrange this directly with several Air America crews he ordered down from Saigon, but they either told him to get someone else or said that their helicopters were down for repairs. McNamara, in fact, had a history of altercations with Air America pilots. Once, he had asked a pilot to shut down out in a field in an area that the pilot thought was not secured. After a loud shouting match, the pilot said that he was leaving. McNamara could come with him or walk back. McNamara, of course, left with him but was fuming.
McNamara asked Jim D. (CIA Chief of Base and my boss) to intervene on his behalf with Air America so he could get out to the province close to Cambodia. Some US big wig was looking for his wife’s relatives.
The next morning, I went with McNamara to the airfield at Can Tho and waited for the Air America helicopters to come down from Saigon. Cliff Hendryx, an old poker-playing friend, was captain of the first chopper to land.
I asked McNamara, who had a scrubbed, neat, office look about him, to wait in Air Ops until I had talked with the pilot, and I walked up to the helicopter as it was shutting down. Cliff opened the door. His helmet was lying on the console beside him.
His eyes were bloodshot, and he had not had a shave in several days. He had a thin, gaunt face, and his stubble made him look like a mountaineer. He also reeked of garlic. The kicker in the back was handing him a slice of watermelon.
“Muley, how you doing, fuckhead?” Cliff said. Most Air America pilots did not know my real name.
As he ate the watermelon, with some of the juice dripping down his chin and onto his shirt, I explained what McNamara wanted and what I knew about the area where he wanted to go, which appeared safe. Cliff picked up a Playboy magazine and put it in his lap to catch the juice. I said that I would go along because I knew some of the ARVN in the area. Cliff didn’t voice any objection to the mission. He finished his watermelon and lit a cigarette. He was smoking and spitting out watermelon seeds when McNamara walked up. The Congen looked at Cliff — the smelly mountaineer — for a long moment. He finally said that he had changed his mind, turned on his heels, and left.
“Well, fuck him,” Cliff said.”
This continuous relationship with Air America – and McNamara’s disdain for the pilot corps – tended to influence events later when McNamara and my boss Jim D. met to work out evacuation contingency plans.
In his book Escape with Honor McNamara makes the point time and again about the problem he had with the CIA generally and Mr D. in particular over what they should do if or when orders came down to get out of country. McNamara implies time and again, he was right and the CIA wrong.
I can almost remember the first meeting we had in Jim D.’s office after this subject came up in a planning session between him and McNamara.
There were only about a dozen of us total then in the CIA base. D.’s deputy was Tom F., who had fifteen years of paramilitary experience in Asia. And there was another CIA case officer, nicknamed “Mac,” like myself who came from the Lao program. There was no question in our minds that the safest way out was by Air America helicopter. We safely overflew the enemy in Air America choppers every day up in Laos. I could contact Air America in Saigon and they would absolutely come for the whole Consulate student body. We could make up the plan early, I could contact them with the details about pick up areas, radio freqs and number of people to get out, and they would agree to do the job when the whistle blew, I was sure of it.
McNamara – not surprisingly – did not like the idea. And at first he gently countered with a suggestion to go down the Bassac River on two Landing Boat Mechanical (LSMs)… boats he had acquired in delta. He would command this little navy convoy from the Consulate in Can Tho, out to the US Navy in the South China Sea. He was the boss. More and more that was the plan.
Then South Vietnamese General Tran Van Hai told me in a meeting at Hai’s headquarters on the Cambodian border on 22 April 1975 that he thought Saigon would fall in 7 days. [This a few days after Senator Church had said on national TV that the US was cutting off all funding to South Vietnam, and good riddance.... and I feared for my life in meeting General Hai at his headquarters out on the battlefield.]
We discussed Hai’s predication at great length in D.’s office when I got back to the consulate that night. What Hai had said went against the CIA station in Saigon reporting that there would be a negotiated peace. Saigon and the delta would not be overrun was their official word.
After extended debate, we decided that Hai was probably right, and the station probably wrong. More than anyone else on our side, Hai would know.
So I sent out an intelligence report to Washington that Saigon would fall in a week’s time and we got ready for the Saigon and Washington blow back… which never materialized. Saigon just had no resources left to counter some single piece of paper from the delta; they were up to their ears defending their more and more obviously flawed analysis of the South Vietnam end-game.
So what do we do in the delta?
Since we believed General Hai that South Vietnam would be no more after the end of the month, we decided to go about identifying those CIA assets who had worked for us for years and who would certainly be executed when the North Vietnamese came to power. We would try to get those few people out by Air America.
It was about this time that we heard that McNamara was developing his personal list of South Vietnamese he wanted to put on his two boat flotilla for the run down the Bassac… and according to rumors ripe in the consulate that number included his girlfriend’s family and the extended families of other State Department people he had promised to get out and some local South Vietnamese political friends of his. There was little discussion about making room for long time CIA assets.
The meetings in McNamara’s office – which was right below D.’s in the consulate – became very contentious.
1) McNamara would not consider evacuation by Air America and
2) he would make up the invitee list for the boat trip. He was in charge. D.’s conveyed our contention that it was enormously dangerous going down that river if South Vietnam fell. On our maps the territory on both sided of the Bassac from Can Tho to the sea was controlled by the
Loi at a Christmas party in Vi Thanh
communist. And it was especially dangerous as the wide river meandered through the flood plain as it met the South China sea. There were only a few safe passages and they changed day to day.
But to me the most emotional issue was the fact that McNamara was allowing maids, local political riffraff and grandparents of girlfriends out, and would be selective about long time CIA assets sure to die. I personally was incensed that my friend Loi was staying over friends in the court of the Congen who were getting a free ride.
As the end of the month bore down on us, the meetings in McNamara’s office were getting louder and things were being thrown. At one point D. had me accompany him to explain the enemy situation in the field and what I knew from talking with ARVN Generals Hai and Hung… which McNamara blew off. I don’t think he was listening.
Evening 27 April – couple of days before Saigon would fall according to Hai – I arranged with Air America in Saigon to send two helicopters down to Can Tho to stay with us for two days, and I asked for particular pilots… including a long time friend, George Taylor, who had flown for me probably more than any other pilot in Laos. We had hundreds of hours working together in a hostile environment.
On the morning of the 28 April, Taylor came down from Saigon co-piloting one of the two helicopter we had asked for. That day we ferried 117 KIP to the USS Vancouver - part of the US Navy armada sitting out in the South China Sea. We did it without real authority from anyone, other than Jim D. I was caught that night on the last flight out by the US Navy Captain of the Vancouver who said he couldn’t find anyone in Saigon or Washington who authorized this evacuation and I was taken off the Air America chopper. After the chopper left, I was sent with the 117 KIP collected in the bowels of the US Navy boat to the merchant marine ship The Pioneer Contender - sitting at anchor nearby – with a promise that the US Navy would be back in the morning to pick me up.
29 April when I woke up on the Pioneer Contender, there was not a US Navy boat in sight. All had re-positioned closer to the mouth of the Saigon River because the US Embassy in Saigon had been ordered evacuated and Americans were leaving South Vietnam.
Hai had been right to the day.
Back in Can Tho, McNamara gathered the entourage of locals he had selected on two old LSMs, plus other Americans from the Consulate and moved to the center of the Bassac River, waiting Jim D. and crew.
One of the two LSMs in McNamara’s flotilla
The base secretary Phyliss F. was the last to leave the CIA offices. She had destroyed all sensitive papers, including some of her personal correspondence, took a look around, reached up and turned out the lights, shut the door and joined Jim, Tom and another CIA officer in a jeep for a ride to the CIA warehouse area down by the river. There, the plan was to get in speed boats for the ride out to McNamara’s two landing boats. Our main KIP had been evacuated the day before, so D. had done his CIA duty. Now he had to follow the lead of the senior US official.
Mac was at the warehouse area already and had tried unsuccessfully to get in touch with the Air America pair of chopper that were supposed to be working for us this day. All he had was his limited-range hand-held radio. Time and again Mac called for Air America. Time and again there was no response. Only static.
D. and group arrived and slowly began to off-load their gear from the jeep. Tom went up the top compound offices to pay off the warehouse manage and chief guard, to insure that they would protect this last handful of American leaving.
Air America pilot and my friend, George Taylor
Mac’s radio crackled with the sound of George Taylor saying that he and the other chopper were en route to work … like he understood had been scheduled.
Tom F. almost shit his pants he was so happy to hear Taylor’s voice… and in short order the two helicopters landed and safely took D. and crew out to US Navy ships.
McNamara saw the Air America choppers fly overhead heading east.
He, his state department officers, the Marine detail and his invited South Vietnamese friends shoved off to travel the 60 miles down the Bassac, through the shifting seaweed and mangrove at the confluence of the South China Sea, and then out where he just happened on me and The Pioneer Contender, sitting at anchor.
There was nothing heroic about the trip. It was amateurishly conceived. And enormously lucky in execution. Just fantastically lucky.
McNamara at the helm of one of the LSMs. He would wear this particular helmet liner whenever he felt that his strong leadership was required… during an earlier fire storm in Can Tho and in his quixotic run down the Bassic. It says “Commander Can Tho Yacht Club”
McNamara’s lack of understanding of the spent South Vietnamese battlefield, his misguided priorities of those who the US should help out of the country, and who they should not, and his general naiveté, is not reflected in any of the reporting I’ve seen on the evacuation of the Americans from the delta, other than my own.
In fact most of the reporting refers to McNamara in very positive language… Read the very popular The Last Men Out by Tom Clavin.
McNamara has been celebrated in the subsequent years by the State Department for his courage.
His acc’t is part of history’s drawing of the Vietnamese elephant… his is the pony part.
Plus this: the general misunderstanding of events around the evacuation in the delta contributed to the State Department conviction in their ability to manage hostile situations that arise when they are forced to walk on the wild side of the world’s streets… They are not trained for this. They have no experience. No frame of reference.
Like their misanalysis of the situation in Libya that led to the assassination of the US Ambassador there.
There are goin’ to be Congressional hearings on Benghazi in the next few months. Pay attention, dear reader, to what the CIA – the US Central Intelligence Agency – on the scene had to say about the situation downtown Benghazi right before the incident, and how much CIA advice was taken by State Department.
For me, I’m just happy to add this 82,500,001st story to the literature on the Vietnam War Its Ownself. Maybe someone in fifty years will read it.
This picture was taken from McNamara’s book Escape with Honor. I find the flag being used as a blanket by Cushing unsettling, and vaguely disrespectful. That’s not what our flag’s for. I also take exception to another American flag being used as a cushion in the chair above the guy’s head. Note he is using his man purse as his pillow. A man purse smack dab middle of a combat zone.
I encourage Tom Clavin and Terry McNamara’s comments.
Following comments are from someone evacuated from the US Embassy in Saigon who was on the USS Blue Ridge with McNamara after he and his entourage had been moved from the Pioneer Contender: ”In the ship’s lounge area, which the hundreds of evacuees had to share, McNamara commandeered a small office and put up a sign that said “Consulate General Can Tho in Exile” or something along that line, and he used that office to put his story out to the mass of journalists who were brought from all the rest of the ships to the Blue Ridge to get the “official story” on the evacuation from Ambassador Martin and his minions, including McNamara. I got the impression that McNamara was interested only in burnishing his reputation and getting as much publicity for himself as he could. It all appeared very unseemly to me.”
And to those who asked… I don’t know what happened to Loi. He was Nung, an overland Chinese tribes man, so he may have survived hiding out in the boonies with his old Nung family unit. If he was captured by the North Vietnamese, he would have been shot.