Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Keeping faith with the ARVN vets

This is from a friend and Marine Vietnam vet, who runs a small charity helping wounded ARVN soldiers and kids in Vietnam (http://www.thevhf.org/). They were our allies, and paid a high price for trusting that Americans would keep their word and stand beside them. I fear those who have stood with us in Iraq and Afghanistan are likely to pay the same price for trusting the words of American politicians. ~Bob


I have had comments from other vets, especially the ones who served in '65-'67, about the very poor quality of the ARVN troops they encountered. No doubt those recollections are valid, as were some of the news programs and other reports that were severely critical of ARVN units.

This has led to a general belief that the South Vietnamese soldiers were always overall a poorly trained and badly led bunch, who tried to avoid fighting whenever they could, and didn't fight well even when they had to.

But this is actually an unfair and false legend, for reasons many of us just don't know about.

In the '60-'68 time frame, there were many units that were poorly trained and poorly led, officer commissions were obtained through politics and bribes, intra-military politics ran rampant, and only a minority of the units, such as their Rangers, Marines, and some others, were really good, tough soldiers. (A unit of their Rangers held part of the line at Khe Sanh, and performed very well there.)

However, during Tet '68 they seemed to pull together and fought well against the attacks. (ARVN units actually retook more of the territory of Hue than Marines did, in fighting just as nasty as the Marines went through.)

After Tet, a lot more South Vietnamese came off the fence and decided that they really didn't want the North to come down and take them over, enlistments in the Army went way up, training got a lot better, and the general quality of the South's military began to improve noticeably in '69-'71. Of course, that was when the number of Americans serving up front was declining all the time, so there weren't that many opportunities for us to see the ARVN doing better.

By '72, when we were gone, the number of subpar units in the ARVN had become a minority, and many units were excellent, their 1st Division for one. And when the Easter Invasion hit from the North, 200,000 NVA regulars in several divisions, with 400 tanks, much better artillery than we'd left for the ARVN, and AA missiles and guns to shoot down the South's planes, they wound up in a series of large pitched battles that were as intense but a lot longer lasting than any we ever fought. The siege of An Loc was a kind of ARVN Alamo, went on for weeks and weeks, destroyed the city completely, but the cut off ARVN fought like tigers and refused to surrender. They stopped NVA tanks by jumping on them under fire to stuff grenades in the view slits. US Advisors were there to witness it all, and there are some good books about it.

But of course by then the media (both US and international) didn't have that much interest in what went on, there were very few reporters on the ground any more, so the coverage of all this was minimal at best.

But by the final invasion of '75, with NVA forces twice as big as in '72, superbly equipped and supplied from massive bases in Cambodia, the ARVN were on limited fuel and ammo, half their tanks were down for repairs that depended on spare parts they couldn't get any more, and they started to fold under the blitzkrieg. Their President made a poor decision to start an unplanned retreat, and things when to hell in just a few days, leading to the panic scenes of soldiers running after planes and hanging onto chopper rails in Da Nang. (What you didn't hear about were the radio calls from VN Marine units in the hills, who never surrendered and fought to the death.)

So it all went to pieces, but there were still some heavy duty battles, such as the 18th Division under General Le Minh Dao at Xuan Loc holding off three times their number of NVA and inflicting massive casualties on them as they tried to get past them to Saigon. Finally the NVA bypassed them, and when ammo ran out, the General surrendered them and himself (even though the US would have gotten him out), and he became one of the longest prisoners of the war, 18 years in "re-education".

These are the things not many of us heard about, but in all fairness have to take into account now. I know personally more than a few South Vietnamese veterans, who fought hard and have the wounds to prove it, many of whom also spent a lot of time in the terrible camps after the war, where the death rate was 30% from starvation, overwork, and disease. They deserve our respect, and after all, they were our comrades in some sense, who got left in the lurch when Congress cut off their critical supplies and we broke the promise made at the Paris Accords to come to their aid if there was an invasion again.

For anyone who doesn't know it, I go back to Viet Nam to help the crippled ARVN vets who lead really tough lives there, still under laws that discriminate against them, their kids, and grandkids. Go to http://www.thevhf.org/ if you have any interest in this.


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