I have three pages of four from an English language newspaper I carried with me on the evacuation and I have no idea in the world what happened to the fourth, but it is a heartrending account of a Vietnamese reporter who was in the midst of this disaster. His continual recitations of the Americans, Koreans and others who had lost their lives in the defense of South Vietnam which had now been for naught is depressing to say the least. One of the most powerful pieces I have ever read and it kills me to this day whenever I think of it.
By the time that the last straggling men, women, and children had reached Tuy Hoa on the coast; 300,000 civilians, 40,000 ARVN, and 6,300 Rangers were missing, never to be accounted for.
The Razor’s Edge
By noon on March 16, a mass of humanity; troops, dependents, civilians, and deserters; was clogging the old road. Some 400,000 civilians, 60,000 ARVN, and 7,000 Rangers began the attempted escape to the sea.29
Even before the mass of refugees was half way toward their goal of reaching the coast, any semblance of discipline among the soldiers had disappeared. Food supplies ran out and the men began to pillage the villages along Route 7B. There were many incidences of murder and rape. By March 18, some 200,000 desperate people were trapped in the vicinity of Cheo Reo. And the communists continued to fire at them with small arms and artillery from the hills on both sides of the road. General Smith has called it a "turkey shoot."
The former Commander of the ARVN Artillery Command, General Thin, described the retreat as follows: "We must salute the battalion commanders and lower officers for having marched with their units but they were no longer able to control their famished and tired men. The soldiers kept shouting insults at President Thieu for this impossible and terrible retreat. Some reached the limit of their despair and killed their officers. An artillery battalion commander who was marching in the retreating column was shot to death by some Rangers who wanted his beautiful wristwatch. The despair was so great that at one point two or three guerrillas arriving at the scene could make prisoners of a hundred Rangers. Wives and children of retreating soldiers died of hunger and sickness along the road. It was a true hell."33
The journalist Nguyen Tu, who was in Cheo Reo on March 18, wrote: "On the heels of the refugees evacuating Pleiku and Kontum, the people of Cheo Reo were also leaving their city. Refugees evacuating Pleiku and Kontum who reached Cheo Reo in small groups made the long journey in two days. The majority [were] still far behind, dragging their feet on the dirty road under a scorching sun by day and chilled by night in the forests. It was not possible to say how many children fell during the walk, how many helpless old people were standing along side the road unable to move, how many others were suffering from thirst and hunger during the walk to freedom and democracy. A Ranger officer told me, ‘This time, I can never look straight to my people again.’ A private said, ‘Damn it, we got away without any fighting. I prefer to fight and run away if we lose. I will accept that.’ An Air Force captain said, ‘It is sad, very sad, especially when we look back at Pleiku, a deserted city now. We can see only fires and fires. I am very sad.’ Another soldier added, ‘I am stunned. … Look at these people, the young ones. Isn’t this miserable?’"
He continued, "Women, children, youngsters, and the elderly – all in small groups with their belongings either on their backs or in their hands – rushing out of their houses as they saw the convoy approaching. The same scenes of plundering and ransacking of homes by unidentified people reappeared. … Many sections of town were set on fire. … Cheo Reo has capitulated not to the enemy but [to] its own. … After Kontum and Pleiku on Sunday, Cheo Reo became a lost town on Tuesday."34
The next day Tu’s dispatch read, "the leading part of our convoy got through the ambush point under a screen of supporting fire. But the tail end had to leave the road and pass through the jungle. I was in the tail end. Rebel mountain tribesmen armed with our [American] weapons and Communist B-41 rockets and AK-47 rifles shot into the convoy, while Communist artillery struck from all directions. Many trucks were hit by shells and burst into flames and exploded. The trucks were crammed with soldiers, children, and old people. They fell everywhere. Those who walked fell to machine gun bullets. Their blood flowed in tiny streams. The roaring artillery, crackling small arms, screams of the dying and crying of the children combined into a single voice from hell.
"The Rangers resisted all night, permitting the tail end of the convoy to flee into the jungle.
"At last, 200 of us succeeded in climbing up Chu Del hill, about six miles from Cheo Reo, 210 miles north of Saigon. Helicopters contacted us and moved in for rescue. The operation was difficult, because Chu Del is a narrow and steep hill. Finally, in an operation that evening and the next morning, 200 people were lifted out and rescued."35
The following Sunday, March 23, a photographer for United Press International named Lim Thanh Van was able to get a ride on a helicopter piloted by Captain Huynh My Phuong. The pilot’s mission was supposed to be "to destroy communists." However, Captain Phuong spotted a group of refugees huddled on top of the same hill from which Nguyen Tu had been rescued earlier. Captain Phuong dropped down to pick up as many of them as he could. As he pulled up, an old woman and an old man holding a child lost the grip that they had managed to get on the skids and fell to the ground. The pilot was quickly notified of the fact that the child’s mother had made it on board in the mad scramble, and he started to turn back. Lim Than Van later wrote, "Phuong, tears in his eyes, tried to swing his helicopter around and pick up the abandoned child. He could not, because he already had so many aboard. We dropped his load of refugees at the province capital of Tuy Hoa and flew back, Phuong urging his helicopter on in an attempt to pick up the ones left behind. When we got there, they were gone ….
"Communist artillery, attacks by mountain tribesmen and dissident troops, the heat, the sheer struggle, the hardships have killed – who knows how many died?
"Vehicles lie along Highway 7B, route of retreat from the Central Highlands provinces of Pleiku, Kontum, and Phu Bon. So do the dead children, women and old men. For miles and miles, people look up to us, falling on their knees, begging for rescue. Phuong saw a communist mortar team firing at one group of persons in the convoy. He and his following gunships furiously attacked. The mortars stopped."
Journalist Lim recorded, "It is against Phuong’s orders to stop and pick up people, but he said he must. The door gunners ran out to pick up children, old people. Others, including government Rangers, ran for the helicopters. I fell down and had ten persons on my back. I didn’t even feel any pain, worrying only that the children wouldn’t get on the chopper. In the helicopter, I was pinned down by people. I couldn’t even click my camera.
"No one knows how many people have died in this most incredible convoy down Highway 7B. No one likely ever will. Babies are born on the route. More die. The sheer incomprehensible terror is not only on Highway 7B.
"At Pleiku last Sunday, the last planes took off before the town was abandoned to the communists. Old Mrs. Khien told me the huge crowd trying to get on the last three C-130 transports looked like a huge dragon dance, pushing, shoving, up and down, back and forth. People grabbed for the tail, falling off as the plane taxied. Just as the last one took off, a small baby fell out of the aircraft, killed instantly as it hit the tarmac, she said.
"And at Tuy Hoa [on the coast] sits major Ly Van Phuc, generally recognized as the best field information officer in the South Vietnamese Army. Phuc was away at training school when Pleiku was evacuated. His wife and eight children were somewhere between Pleiku and Tuy Hoa on the convoy of death."
Richard Blystone, then working for the Associated Press, reported from Tuy Hoa, " The helicopters spill out weeping women and children limping on bare feet and soldiers in blood-caked camouflage fatigues. Some carry satchels and straw baskets; some have nothing but their lives. An Army major, hoping his family has made the 150-mile march from Pleiku, watches each incoming helicopter intently. An old woman drops down on the grass near the helicopter pad. ‘Now I know I am alive,’ she says. She has been on the road a week.
"‘It was such misery I cannot describe it,’ says a mother after frantically searching for her ten children and finding that they are all there.
"Two children arrive alone. Their father put them aboard a helicopter thinking that their pregnant mother was on board. But she was not.
"A school teacher says that his family walked through the jungle to avoid North Vietnamese shellfire and thought their luck had changed when they were able to climb aboard a truck. But later they realized that their five-year-old child was missing in the scramble.
"The refugees are flown to this coastal province headquarters about 240 miles northeast of Saigon from a stalled refugee column that ends 15 miles to the southwest. Outgoing choppers carry ammunition, rice and bread – some of which the helicopter pilots pay for out of their own pockets. Flying from Tuy Hoa toward the column, the reasons why the refugees cannot move soon become evident. Six miles from the city, a blackened armored truck sits in the road beside a flattened burned out hamlet. This is as far as relatives of the refugees hoping to meet their loved ones dare to go. …
"The retreating soldiers at the head of the column have set up several camps beside the road. Farther on, cars, trucks and busses are clustered in a bizarre traffic jam in the middle of nowhere. Other vehicles are backed up at a half-completed bridge across a river. Viet Cong shells have been hitting near the river crossing, killing and wounding many persons, the refugees say.
"Earlier in the week, they say, more than 100 persons, mostly civilians, were killed by shellfire near Cong Son, ten miles back.
"The column trails out of sight into the foothills where a cloud of gray smoke rises; officers say that there are about 35, 000 refugees near [that fire] and anther 30,000 stretching back to Cong Son, where a Ranger group harassed by communist fire brings up the rear. How many hundreds are left behind along the rest of the more than 150 miles to the abandoned Central Highlands capitals of Pleiku and Kontum no one knows."36
By the time that the last straggling men, women, and children had reached Tuy Hoa on the coast; 300,000 civilians, 40,000 ARVN, and 6,300 Rangers were missing, never to be accounted for. While General Phu had said that the withdrawal could be completed in three days, some of those who had left Pleiku on or about the 16th of March were still staggering down Route 7B when the North Vietnamese captured Tuy Hoa on April 1.37
General Cao Van Vien, the last chairman of the South Vietnamese Joint General Staff, summarized the situation this way; "Psychologically and politically, the self-inflicted defeat of II Corps in the Highlands amounted to a horrible nightmare for the people and armed forces of South Vietnam. Confusion, worries, accusations, guilt, and a general feeling of distress began to weigh on everybody’s mind. Rumors spread rapidly that territorial concessions were in the making. The immediate impact of the rumors was to unleash an uncontrollable surge of refugees seeking by all means and at all costs to leave whatever provinces remained of Military Region II. To the north, Military Region I also felt the repercussions. Its population soon joined the refugees and battered troops streaming south along the coast. First, they rushed into Phan Rang and Phan Thiet (on the coast south of Nha Trang), and then moved on toward Saigon. In the national capital itself, the opposition increased its activities and irreparably widened the government’s credibility gap. Confidence in the armed forces also swung down to its lowest ebb. Demonstrators angrily demanded the replacement of President Thieu; they also vigorously voiced anti-American sentiment. A pervasive hope still lingered, however, for some miraculous thing to happen that could save Vietnam."38
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