I Remember

Robert B. Edison
USDAO Saigon, 1973-1975
Copyright 1994

I remember when I arrived in Vietnam, I had expected mortar shells exploding on the runway, bullets flying, etc. When I stepped off the plane there were two things that got my immediate attention. The quiet and the heat. The heat came first, a tremendous wall of hot air like out of a blast furnace. And the quiet, no bombs, no shells, just the sounds that you might find at a small county airport. It surprised me. I walked down the stairs to the terminal, where a friend met me and showed me to my hotel and then back to the office for a quick tour. Then for a night on the town. Dinner, drinks, and ***. It felt good.

I remember for me, as a young, age 27 or so Intelligence officer, Vietnam was good. I had gone to Vietnam to accomplish a number of things, one was to fulfill a promise I had made to myself several years before when I first decided to "do something for my country."

I had initially graduated from college with a degree in International Relations and a specialty in Asian History. The Vietnam war was on, so I decided to volunteer and go into intelligence. It seemed like it was the right thing to do and where I could best put by skills, as limited as they are for a 21/22 year old, to good use. I had driven down to Washington, D.C., where I went to college from Cleveland, Ohio, my home town. Normally a 6.5 hour trip, it had taken me close to 10 or 11 hours because my car was overheating. Then the hour or two bus trip up to Baltimore.

I remember standing in line and some dude asks me of I could lend him some of my urine. My first reaction was you wanna drink this or something? Then I realized he wanted to pass his test. The next event was the bend down and spread your cheeks bit. Here I am, buck naked in a room with a hundred guys or so and these orderlies and doctors walking through the ranks looking into the behinds of each and every one of us.

Then they stop behind me. One guy says Hey Joe, we got one. Now this is a very humbling position to be in, added to that is the embarrassment, fear, etc that I "have something" that is obviously not desirable. My mind races, I imagine every one in the room is taking a step or two away from me. What is this thing, which I later find out is a cyst on my derriere, that of all times had elected to open up and start to drain, no doubt exacerbated by my sitting for so long in my car and then on the bus. I am not suitable for enlistment until I have an operation and have the thing removed.

In a panic, I remember I have a cousin who is a doctor on the staff of John Hopkins - I call, he later tells me not to worry - its just an infected pimple on my butt; just have the operation and then recommends an associate in DC who can perform the operation. I have the operation. I am interviewed by DIA, who claim that while they cannot offer me a draft deferment, they can use my skills. Great, says I. I can find out what intelligence is really like and then if I am about to be drafted, enlist in Army Intelligence. My draft board says no, they do not want me. Possibly because of the work I was doing, I don't know. However, I make a promise to myself - I will get out of my work area specialty if I do not actually visit Asia by the time I am twenty-seven. I felt strongly that it was imperative to know your area and know your enemy.

Several years pass, and I have begun to modify my original promise to myself. Then the Vietnam war ends for most, and there is an opportunity to go to Vietnam with the US Defense Attache Office in Saigon as an intelligence analyst. It was supposed to be a 10-month assignment at most. So I volunteered. The guy that selected me was a friend. We had spent several months together sitting it a room with nothing to do but wait for our clearances to come through. That was back in 1968. He had since gone on to become something of a legend - Mr. Vietnam analyst and head of the Vietnam section at DIA or something like that.

I was excited. I was keeping my promise to myself after all. I was going out to Asia to fight the communist hordes; to do something worthwhile for my country and to assist an ally. I had some special technical disciplines that were in need and I knew I could really contribute. I was no longer to be a desk jockey, where the intelligence reports I wrote, while occasionally going to the SECDEF and the Chairman or even to the White House or Washington Post, were now going to directly effect people's lives. Not to say that the intelligence that you provided to the SECDEF or the Chairman didn't effect people's lives, just that it seemed you were never aware if it did or not.

The first week in Vietnam, I put MR1 on alert. Possible NVA attack. Turned out that it interrupted a small scale set of attacks the NVA was planning throughout the South Vietnamese Marines AO. I was elated. First week in country and I was doing something worthwhile. I believed it then and I still believe it now. If I can save some lives of allied forces or Americans, then what I did, the hours I put in, all that was worth it.

I remember some of the injustices. One of the American civilians who had managed a graphics section at the USDAO. Allegedly he had been forcing his female employees to have sex with him if they wanted to keep their jobs. Finally one of the husbands of one of the women had complained when he found out. The 'boss' was allowed to go on extended family leave and not come back. A decision had been made not to turn him over to the Vietnamese justice system. And that hurt. Several weeks later, the rapes were reported on the Viet Cong (COSVN) radio.

I remember the violation of trust. We (the US) had been continuing B-52 strikes through late 1973. I remember laying out some of the target boxes. And then, allegedly, a USDAO civilian employee, who was involved in securing provincial Vietnamese approval for the strikes, leaked the information to the press that DIA civilians were involved in targeting operations in Vietnam. And that pissed me off. Despite the fact the SOB has since written a book about Vietnam, I believe that what he did was wrong.

I remember the forward command posts I visited in Quang Tri, in Quang Tin and elsewhere. In Quang Tri, we would come in by Air American chopper and land, drive by the ICCS compound, flip a finger at the Polish and Hungarian representatives, and go to the Marine bunker for discussions. I say discussions because while we were briefed by the RVN armed forces, we also held discussions with them. We would try to pass on information to them on the forces in their AO and what was likely to happen over the next several weeks.

The meetings were usually attended by the unit CO and his G2. Again, fairly heady stuff for a young kid, but we were serious. We wanted the Marines or the Airborne or the various other ARVN divisions to kick ass and take names as well as to prevent their own butts from getting kicked. After the briefings, we usually convinced the Air American pilot to take a trip around Quang Tri city or some other area.

The devastation in Quang Tri was tremendous. Rubble everywhere. And this was a provincial capital. Nothing was left. I was reminded by the DIA friend of the ARVN tank units that had stood here and shot it out with the NVA armored units. Our friendlies had been trained in good tank gunnery tactics and had exacted a heavy toll on the NVA back in 1972. The RF/PF had also given a very good accounting of themselves at that time against NVA mainforce units when the regular ARVN units had broken and run. If the RF/PF could stand up to the NVA, then there was no excuse for the regular ARVN units not to do as well.

Anyway, as I looked out over what was once probably a bustling town at one time, it hurt. And then flying back to Hue, I could see the new resettlements the Government was building for the refugees from Quang Tri. Life was returning to this desolated area, albeit further from the front than Quang Tri city.

I remember the report we received in mid-to-late 1974 on the economic conditions in the country and the armed forces. It had been done by the military intelligence organization and revealed not only wide spread corruption, but growing despair. When the American military presence was at its largest, we employed a great many Vietnamese in various capacities, some legal and some not. That meant that a secretary at an American base could earn the equivalent salary of a Vietnamese Major or Lt. Colonel. When we left, much of the economy went also.

I remember our representative in MR1. Paul was a retired SF NCO with lots of experience. I had been sent up to MR1 one week to get some first hand information on something and had taken some one-time pads with me. Paul and I had encrypted our message and discovered that Saigon did not have the right decrypt material on their end. Had to go back and report in person. Later when I went back to MR1, I had to tell the US staff that things were not so rosy. Unfortunately, we did not have a great deal of time to warn them of the NVA attacks when they came. We had the long term warning but not the tactical warning needed.

I remember that I started to carry a sidearm during the last several weeks. It was more of a macho thing I guess. In March, I had decided to make a quick photo recon of Saigon, taking pictures of the city that I might never see again. I remember seeing out of the corner of my eye, the Honda come up on the sidewalk, the ARVN passenger reach out for my camera strap. I was prepared, as I had hunkered down and was using the full weight of my body to hang onto the camera. He was going too slow and he had to let go.

I remember that I whipped out my Makarov - the Makarov that I had bought from Stu Harrington, who had sold it for an ARVN recon Lt. who had taken it the hard way, blowing up a NVA command bunker in MR1 - and raised it up as if I was going to shoot the MF who was trying to steal my camera, and I remember the shriek of terror of the old woman who was walking by. She was terrified I might start shooting and hit her. I felt foolish.

I remember the priest I had helped once. He had been referred to me by the Deputy Congen in MR1. She had said to contact me if you need a place to stay in Saigon. When Father John Tabor or something like that, showed up on my doorstep I said sure you can stay here. He responded by saying, anytime I was up in MR1 I was welcome to stay with him in his village outside Danang. I wanted to take him up on it. Never did. I remember he did not come out during the evacuation from Danang. He was captured and I believe later released by the NVA. That felt better.

I remember the briefings I gave. One of my roommates (our MR2 analyst) and I both sported beards. Our bosses felt that it would be great if we briefed all the visiting dignitaries and assorted military brass who passed through Saigon. I remember the stares from the military officers who had a tough time accepting these two talking dogs with beards and long hair. Still, our professionalism showed through - we were one hell of a bunch of analysts - tight with each other, we socialized together and raised hell together.

I remember how Gen. Vought returned the favor when he briefed us on the Neak Long bombing. This was the incident when a US aircraft had bombed a Cambodian village accidentally. The B-52 was using a beacon located in the village as the reference point for the bombing. The B-52 bombardier had forgotten to throw the switch in the aircraft which tells the bombing system to offset the target box from the beacon. Instead he had bombed his own beacon and the town as well. A major tragedy. Gen. Vought had used us as practice for the briefing he was going to have to give to the US Congress when he got back to Washington.

I remember when the C-5A went down. The C-5 had been part of an effort to evacuate orphaned or abandoned babies to the states. It also allowed us to send some of our staff home as escorts for the babies and not hopefully unduly alarm the Vietnamese that we were actually evacuating our staffs. The flight was christened 'Operation Baby Lift' by some, although the Vietnamese realized we were also beginning the evacuation of Americans.

Word on the crash came in from the operations center across the hall. Leaving one person in the office, the entire intelligence staff, along with many of the other USDAO staff, went over to the air terminal at Ton Son Nhut. Most of us had just sent off on that flight friends or co-workers. Some stayed at the airport, others went out to the crash site. I worked at the airport taking the bodies off the choppers and carrying them over to ambulances destined for the morgue or the hospital or whereever. Some of the babies were alive. What got to me was the smell. The vomit, the feces, and perhaps above all the smell of fear and death in those so young. A baby can only cry, but these infants were so terrorized that they couldn't even cry. It was horrible and gruesome.

A good friend, a college classmate of mine, who I had accidentally run into at a lunch line at the USDAO several months before, came out to the airport, terror in his eyes as he searched for his wife and young son. He is a real Kalmuk Mongol. Born in Eastern Europe after his family fled the communist regime in Mongolia, he had come to this country, joined the Army, gotten out, married, had kids and then gone to Vietnam as a contracts officer. Over the past several months we had renewed our friendship and I had spent several pleasant evenings with his family or touring Saigon together.

Several moments before, I had just taken a large woman off one of the choppers. While I did not think the body I had just unloaded was his wife's, I couldn't be sure. I couldn't bring myself to tell him anything other than hold him, console him, and tell him he had to go over to the hospital and see if his wife was there. In my heart, I knew she was dead. It later turned out his wife had in fact been killed in the crash, but their young son had survived. My other roommate, and who also was an MR1 analyst, had gone out to the site of the crash. He had found the body of one of our secretaries. During the decompression of the aircraft, her clothes had been ripped off her and she was horribly battered so that he almost didn't recognize her. He managed to carry her body to one of the waiting helicopters.

On the bodies of some of our other secretaries, all items of value; jewelry, rings, money, passports, etc had been removed/stolen by the time the rescue teams reached the site. And that hurt. I remember vividly the young Air Force flight nurse who had been brought it by helicopter from the crash. She was herself battered and bruised. I watched her make her report to BG Bohn, USAF, the Deputy Defense Attache, on what had happened. She described the limited number of survivors and that most had been lost.

I remember during the fall of MR2, I had heard of the plight of the ill-fated convoy of death when the GVN made the extraordinarily bad decision to evacuate Kontum and Pleiku overland, using a road, Route 7B, that had not been used in many years, a road that had almost ceased to exist. They had to take along engineer units to build bridges and clear the old, overgrown roads. They almost made it to Tuy Hoa, and then the NVA 320th Division caught up with the them near Cheo Reo, harassing them until they reached Cong Son, caught up with what started out as a military convoy but had become a largely civilian one. That is the 'polite' description, as towards the end, there was chaos. They were finally stopped at a river crossing. I saw the reconnaissance film of that event.

I bent over the light table and examined very carefully the figures fleeing from the cars by the side of the river. I saw the people dropping, civilians, women and children trying to run away from the waters edge and I saw the machine gun bullets ripping the water as the NVA shot at them from the other bank. Some 60,000 civilians eventually reached Nha Trang while nearly 100,000 were left to wander around Phu Yen Province without food, water or medical assistance. In my mind, it rivaled the atrocities in 1968 in Hue and in 1972 as the refugees fled south along highway QL1 from the provincial capital of Quang Tri to Danang.

A friend had told me that in the 1972 incident, even the NVA had questioned their orders but had none-the-less proceeded with the carnage. Now I was witnessing another carnage, a witness only, unable to help. We received reports on the progress of the convoy from aircraft flying overhead, trying to drop supplies, from the aircrews and from ARVN unit commanders who were trying to maintain control of their troops while everyone else was fleeing in panic.

I remember the frustration we felt. No Americans were going out on the airlift planes. Despite the fact that we recognized Vietnam was going down hill, and had organized a cell for the evacuation effort, the US Embassy resisted. Efforts to arrange for Americans to take their Vietnamese family members with them were stalled. While many of these men had lived with a Vietnamese woman for many years, they had not formally gotten married. Now, the US Embassy said, they must fill out all the paperwork, get a Vietnamese exit visa for their family, get married, etc.

What this means in a rapidly deteriorating situation is that the lines that form up at the US Embassy are long, people cannot possibly be processed in time before the country falls apart, visa and documentation required from the Vietnamese go up in price, etc. Finally, some Embassy staffers, the ones who had their shit together, arranged to cut down on the paperwork. Americans who needed to get married were lined up with their perspective spouses, asked to say I do and were married on the spot en-masse, in 30 seconds. Hallelujah.

Last but not least, the Vietnamese themselves were resisting at the official level, because they could not be assured that they themselves would get out. One night, I believe it was 19 April, our night duty officer took a call from the DIA rep in the Pentagon. The Chairman and the SECDEF wanted to know why no Americans were coming out on the evacuation flights. Our man had the presence of mind to tell him a thing or two about the situation.

I believe the DIA officer then walked into the DIA Directors office and they both went into the NMCC or the Chairman's office to explain what the hell was going on. The next day, my boss went on his black bag run taking money to the Vietnamese VNAF base commander and the police commander. I also believe that the order was stated to f**k the embassy and their not wanting to panic the Vietnamese population about a possible American evacuation. As if the Vietnamese didn't know one was going on.

We then shifted into high gear organizing our employees and those Vietnamese in sensitive positions to assemble their families and be picked up for evacuation. We had established lists of key people to be taken out. I had managed to put some people on the list that were at risk, a Vietnamese Senator, who was my neighbor and some others. I later found out that an American, who worked at the USDAO and who had close connections with the Vietnamese National Police, had removed the names. I had later heard he had substituted his own names. I was pissed.

I remember arriving back in the states - as I cleared customs someone asked - No Vietnamese? I said no, and boarded my next flight for Washington D.C. I wanted to turn around and say that I did not bring out any Vietnamese with me because I had helped get them out officially. And that hurt, first because I couldn't stay longer and help more to get out; secondly, no matter how 'loyal' to the Government of Vietnam a Vietnamese citizen might have been, or how supportive of Americans in Vietnam they might have been, if they didn't have direct and almost daily contact with Americans they didn't get out.

I remember sometime in March or April, we had gone out for a banquet with the ARVN Joint Intel Center types. It was a way we could get to know each other, share some of the problems. Since I had an affinity (and capacity) for cognac and soda, I was picked as the one to take the challenge from the Vietnamese side to have some friendly 'toasts.' My friends took me home that night - the Vietnamese fellow I had 'toasted' with had to go home on his Honda motorcycle. He made it a few blocks, passed out and crashed. He was in the hospital with broken legs. When it came time for evacuation, he was left behind.

I was told by my bosses to leave, that my work on North Vietnam and MR1 was finished. The MR3 and 4 Analysts were staying because they could still do some analysis. I managed to stay on a little longer by helping smuggle Vietnamese staff and their families who worked for the US Defense Attache Office onto Tan Son Nhut airbase. I say smuggle because even after one of my bosses took the bag of money over to the Vietnamese base commander and the police commander, we still smuggled 'our people' on base. We still felt that the police at the gate would make trouble, and throw the civilian family members of the USDAO staff off base.

I remember stuffing Vietnamese into the trunk of my car and having to use a step van truck so we could hide more. We would rendezvous at a preselected house of an American and pick of the load of Vietnamese that were waiting. We would fill the step van with people, put a sheet over them, put some empty cardboard boxes on top to make it look like we were taking in boxes of equipment and household goods and then drive the truck on base, with a car inches in front of the trucks front bumper and a car following also inches away.

When I got to the Philippines, a friend in my office brought me a letter from Saigon from someone I had been very close to asking me to help get her family out. It was too late - and that hurt. Her brother, who was a damned good VNAF flight mechanic, wound up in a reeducation camp. I also remember a co-worker later telling me I had received a call late in April from someone I knew in the Vietnamese Airborne Division. I am not sure if it was the G-2 or G-3 or whoever.

I had briefed them, provided them intelligence on the NVA forces that were opposing them, and in over a year and a half had grown to admire them. They were a unit that was proud of their heritage, they had been formed prior to the American buildup in Vietnam, and they had a dedicated group of officers and troops that were not fond of the communist forces. They fought hard and well, even to the end. They were singled out by the NVA after the fall for identification and incarceration.

It hurt when I heard of the call and was not there to do anything about it. It hurt also when I became aware of the situation in Quang Ngai province. I had spent several days with the American CIA, State and USAID teams in the province. I was informed that when the local VC walked into town, there were reprisals - officers and troops rounded up and shot in the head.

It really hurt when I got off the plane in the states, looked around me and realized that Americans were carrying on as usual. Didn't my fellow countryman realize that we were finished? Not only had America been forced out of Vietnam, we had abandoned an alley, we had cut and run. We had abandoned 'our troops'.

I wanted to scream at the people in the airport, "We Americans are untrustworthy, we are disloyal; we will promise you all kinds of support and then after some Americans get killed, we will turn our backs on you, we will turn the other way; when the going gets tough, we will leave you." I was exhausted and probably felt the lowest I have ever felt in my life. I was ashamed of myself and my country.

Yes, maybe it was wrong to have been involved in Vietnam the way we were, and maybe we should have said to the South Vietnamese early on, you carry more of the ball instead of America trying to fight the war for you. But I had seen the Vietnamese fight. I had helped them achieve some measure of victory. I had seen that they could stand up to a NVA unit, even at the end when the average ammunition load of an NVA trooper was two or three times that of an ARVN trooper - yes you got that right - by late 1974/early 1975, the NVA troops were starting to be better supplied and provisioned than the ARVN.

I had seen the four lane asphalt highway being built down the Ashau valley. I had gone over the aerial photos myself. I had been helping the in-country imagery analyst with some of his work. Some of the VWAR list members may remember the Ashau valley back when it was no four lane highway. The net result of this was, while it used to take three or four months for supplies and troops to reach the Delta from North Vietnam, it now took a week. Their troops could arrive rested and well fed, as they didn't have to worry about B-52 attacks or SF snatch operations or the VNAF. The US had not given VNAF our smart weapons or our ECM equipment. To fly in and try to take out the SA-2 site at Khe sanh which was supported by numerous 12.7mm, 23mm, 37mm, 57mm (radar directed) AAA sites and SA-7 teams would have been suicide.

Also operative was the restriction being placed by the VNAF themselves on their operations. Only one pilot would fly in an A-37 fighter bomber. This is a two seat craft where pilot and co-pilot sit side by side. By 1974, these aircraft with only one pilot were taking some heavy losses to SA-7 fire. It seemed that when the single pilot looked back over his shoulder to see if there was any SA-7s being fired at him, the NVA would watch the direction he turned and then fire off an SA-7 from the other side, his blind side and bag him. There was no way VNAF could survive in these circumstances and no way VNAF could interdict the flow of supplies to the south. The logistical flow was gradually swinging in favor of the NVA.

We had reports of NVA commanders calling up the ARVN CO of a small post or encampment saying on the radio, we know you have only five mortar rounds you can fire off tonight, and the arty support at the firebase near you can only fire off five rounds. Whereupon they would fire ten or twenty arty rounds in on his positions. The NVA were using their logistical advantages in their propaganda and it was demoralizing the ARVN. They, the ARVN, knew the US congress was cutting back on their logistical tail and they now had to face an enemy without US support and without an equal amount of supplies.

Years later, when I returned to Vietnam in 1992, my wife and I visited the area of Hanoi where Ho Chi Minh lived and worked. It was a small house next to a pond adjacent to the old French colonial Governors palace. Our guide described several of the buildings surrounding this house. One was a kitchen where Ho's food was prepared and another was a building where he had died. No foreigner's were allowed in there. It was suggested to my wife that she could come back later if she dressed like a 'native' and see what was there. We didn't have the time, but the guide then mentioned that certain documents on Ho's life were kept there, including one in which he prophesied that the war would end in 1975.

Ho died several years earlier, and I found it fascinating that the fall of Vietnam as I had seen it and the NVA offensive in 1975 may have been given added energy by the desire of the North Vietnamese leadership to ensure that Uncle Ho's prophesy indeed came true. I was reminded by a friend recently of 'Uncle Ho', the man with the children clustered around him or sitting on his lap as the Vietnamese like to picture him.

I was reminded of the many Vietnamese nationalists who had escaped to Hong Kong in the 1930's and 40's who had wanted to continue the fight against the French. Apparently under Ho's orders, a Vietnamese official in Hong Kong had collected detailed information on them, and if they did not join with the Communists, i.e. they were patriotic but non-communist Vietnamese, their names were passed to the French Surrete so that when they recrossed the Vietnamese border, they were picked up by the French. Not a bad way to eliminate your opposition. The friend also reminded me that Ho did the same thing in the south to the Trotskyite faction in the Communist Party.

Well, this has drained me - all this remembering. I offer this as another perspective on the war. Col. Bill Legro, my former boss at USDAO Saigon, has advised turning this into a short story or book - maybe.

Copyright 1994
Bob Edison
USDAO Saigon, 1973-1975