Interview with Phan Phung Tien, 1981


Phan Phung Tien was a member of South Vietnam’s air force during the Vietnam War. He speaks to the difficulty of getting military supplies following the Paris Agreement. He also notes that comments from American Congressmen were detrimental to their efforts, and that the resignation of President Nixon had also boosted the confidence of the North Vietnamese. He details the rapid fall of South Vietnam, from the battle of Banmethuot to the evacuations of Pleiku, Da Nang, and Saigon. Mr. Tien also describes his own evacuation and reflects on the meaning and lessons of the Vietnam War.


Problems maintaining an adequate South Vietnamese Air Force

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Interview with Phan Phung Tien
Phan Phung Tien:
In the effort to strengthen our air force, the United States sent us huge amounts of aid. This increased our operational capability. Compared to what we had before, we were now having much more. This was because before the Vietnamization program went into effect the Vietnamese Air Force had only from 16,000 to 18,000 persons. But after that, it went up to 60,000. All these operational units, in my opinion, had enough power to carry out the war at the normal pace. But they did not have enough strength to... uh... resist an invasion of the 1975 magnitude.
We had known all these and we had been promised that should such an invasion occur we would have American air support. The difficulties with the Vietnamization program lay in the fact that it started too late. In our observations, all the programs from the beginning until the end were all started too late. For this reason, when we received the units and the equipment we were unable to employ them at their full capacity. We had to have enough time for training as well as distribution before we would be able to meet the full operational capacity.
Take 66
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Phan Phung Tien:
In the effort to strengthen the air force, the most difficult thing was always the question of supplies. This was beyond the control of the Vietnamese Air Force. There were many... uh...
Take 67
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Phan Phung Tien:
In the effort to strengthen the Vietnamese Air Force the most difficult thing, in my opinion, was the processing of supplies. The American Armed Forces had already turned over a certain amount of military equipment in country. Therefore, we did not meet with supply problems. However, as far as the various units which we had to form based on supplies coming straight from the United States were concerned, I came to realize that there were a number of really outmoded planes.
So I thought that the American air force did not intend to have these planes used in operations. And hence there were certain shortcomings in term of supplies on the American side. When we received the C-130's to transport our troops, only five or six out of a total of thirty were still in full operational use after a couple of weeks. There was a shortage of spare parts. Besides that, all the regular difficulties were all solved quite easily. I think that there would not have been much of a problem if the military operations remained at the normal level.
But if there were a systematic invasion, then there would be no chance of resistance. This was because the American air force had maintained 4,000 airplanes this is not to mention the air power of the American navy and yet during the war the United States itself had encountered many difficulties in term of air support. And so with only about 1,000 airplanes at the time, in my opinion, the Vietnamese Air Force was not strong enough. I did raise this problem with my superiors in the effort to strengthen the air force. My superiors said that they knew this but they had promise of support if there were an invasion.

The final Communist infiltration into South Vietnam

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Take 68
Phan Phung Tien:
In 1974 we realized that the infiltration by the Communists through the Ho Chi Minh Trail was stepped up very significantly. We were given intelligence information by the United States and we also collected our own information. The electronic surveillance planes and the aerial photographic planes all proved that the infiltration was very large. We also tried our best to cut off this trail by using our available means. But these means were quite limited.
During this people, I can recall, we were short of gas, oil and bombs and ammunition. The air force had to cut down its bombing missions. And the bombs, which were only normal bombs, were also decreased during the bombing missions. Each airplane which took off could not carry its full capacity in term of bombs and ammunition. This situation, especially in face of the almost daily reports of infiltration from the North the blatant activity which, of course, the Vietnamese side did bring up before the American side , did not elicit any kind of favorable response from the Americans to help us stop this infiltration.
All the Army officers and all those responsible for military matters were very worried. They did their best to stop the infiltration. But, in my opinion, when the American Armed Forces were still over there with all its capabilities they were not effective in stopping the infiltration. Then what could we have done with our limited capability?
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Take 69
Camera Roll 2438
Phan Phung Tien:
We could not stop that infiltration effectively. The reason being the extremely limited capability of the air force. As I have said, there was no way to stop the blatant... uh... infiltration from the North to the South at a high rate in the effort to occupy the South. The Vietnamese Air Force could not have stopped that infiltration. Even the American army and air force had been unsuccessful in this effort during the war years, and so, in my opinion, the Vietnamese Air Force could not have done it either.
Take 70
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Phan Phung Tien:
The concern of my superiors and myself was that with that kind of infiltration, there would be another battle. This was a certainty. However, during that period we did not think that the American side would betray Vietnam. We were still believing in the promises by American officials, especially when they had been made by various American administrations. If North Vietnam blatantly violated the Geneva Agreement [sic] and if a widespread war were to take place, then we expected that we would at least receive intervention by the American Air Force. We were not reluctant, not afraid, to fight.
But our capability was only enough to maintain our positions in the South in case there was no infiltration from the North. However, the concern was... the infiltration was quite large and yet there was no reaction on the part of the United States. This caused us to worry a lot more. But we were still hopeful that if the war flared up in such a blatant way, the United States would be able to find ways of re-intervening in Vietnam, at least with the Air Force.

Failures of the Paris Agreement

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Take 71
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Phan Phung Tien:
We had already regarded the Geneva Agreement [sic] as without any merit from... from... the day... the day it was signed. It had no... It was a joke, it was a sleight of hand, and it brought about all the... the... the... bad things to our side. The Geneva Agreement [sic] was signed under heavy pressure from our allies, that is to say, our American friends. And all the stipulations of the Agreement were detrimental to the Republic of Vietnam. All the people who... who... who had responsibility toward the country, especially the commanding officers of the armed forces, were equally angered and worried because of the stipulations of that Agreement. When we had the opportunity to express our worries to President Thieu, he said that be agreed with us.
But he said that there was nothing else the American side could do in order to pull the American Armed Forces out of the Vietnam quagmire. But he promised that the American side would severely punish all Communist infiltrations in Vietnam. And we believed this. Even with the 300,000 North Vietnamese present in the South, we had enough strength to fight them and to maintain the territories under our control. However, with the infiltration of the entire North Vietnamese army into the South, there was no way we could withstand them.
We had to maintain our territories. Our forces were spread out thinly there. They moved all their troops to the South and left the North empty. There was no way we could withstand their entire army which was in place in the South plus the entire army infiltrating from the North. In addition, we had a lot of problems throughout 1974: Aid problems, budgetary problems, statements by American officials both in the administration and in the Congress all these created much worries for us.
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Take 72
Phan Phung Tien:
We thought that the Paris Agreement was a joke. And all the stipulations of the Paris Agreement would only bring us difficulties. We had the impression that we had been cheated. We had the impression that we had been betrayed with regard to the signing of that Agreement.

Ominous signs for South Vietnam found in American politics

Take 73
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Phan Phung Tien:
When President Nixon resigned we had the impression that... that... we thought that the war would quickly flare up later on. This was because we had always thought that President Nixon was a fearsome opponent. And the Communists had been extremely afraid of President Nixon, especially during the negotiation period when he bombed the North in late 1972. This proved that President Nixon was a forceful person who dared to take active measures.
So when he resigned we had the hazy impression that something detrimental to us will happen. And if the Communists had any intention of starting something later on and I was certain that they would only do so then Mr. Nixon's resignation would only encourage them to carry out these intentions more forcefully and rapidly.
However, we were still hopeful that the person who replaced President Nixon, the later president, would also have to in case the North Vietnamese violated the Paris Agreement so blatantly would have to implement the promises made by President Nixon. Because we thought that the policies followed by President Nixon had not been his personal policies but the policies of the entire administration. And the Nixon administration had not changed. This was because everybody was still in place except for him.
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Take 74
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Phan Phung Tien:
The statements by officials in the American administration as well as in the American Congress were detrimental to Vietnam. I personally knew what was happening in the United States, especially the anti-war demonstrations and the statements by officials and Congressmen. And so I realized that Vietnam was in a desperate situation. However, this does not mean that everyone in South Vietnam knew this.
There were a lot almost the entire population did not know what was happening. This was because the press and all other news sources coming from the outside into Vietnam were all strictly censored by the regime. The... uh... statements... uh, had ... by the administration as well as by the various American representative bodies were, by and large, reported by the BBC or the VOA. Those who listened in to these broadcasts were all worried and afraid... outraged... and had the impression that some bad things were going to happen to South Vietnam.

Fall of Ban Me Thuot and Pleiku

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Take 75
SR 451
Phan Phung Tien:
Ban Me Thuot fell around March 10. Our air force knew right away that there was a large battle in Ban Me Thuot. This was because we had an alert station up there. And through the direct communication between this unit and the air force, we came to know of this situation. However, the administration did not make any announcement at all. The next day... the situation in Ban Me Thuot was still... uh... hazy. Nobody knew anything for sure. But our main forces had retreated to the Phung Duc Airstrip.
And the Vietnamese Air Force was able to establish communication with the... the friendly units on the ground. The situation in Ban Me Thuot was not as desperate as it had been in Phuoc Binh and Phuoc Long. Ban Me Thuot could have been retaken. The next day, around the 13th or the 12th, my own air force unit transported two regiments of Special Forces to Pleiku in order to along Highway 13 toward Ban Me Thuot in order to retake Ban Me Thuot.
We also transported a regiment of paratroopers to Nha Trang so that they could march up to Ban Me Thuot along highway 21 in order to retake it. But to our complete surprise on the 14th there was an order to withdraw from Pleiku. Nobody could believe this. And, I learned by chance at the very first moment when the withdrawal from Pleiku took place on the evening of the 14th... uh, I can't recall definitely...
I was in the office of the Lieutenant General who was the commander of the air force that the Major General who was the commanding officer of the Sixth Division stationing in Pleiku asking for permission to come back to report in person as soon as possible. The Lieutenant General who was the commander of the air force did not grant the latter permission because the situation at that time only allowed the deputy commander to report in person. I personally took the Lieutenant General to the airstrip to meet with this officer.
When the two of them talked with each other in the waiting room at the military airport of Tan Son Nhut, the Lieutenant General looked completely shaken... and ... and pale. I knew that something was happening, and, after asking him several times, he told me that Pleiku informed him that there was an order for withdrawal by the Corps Commander. And the Major General who was the commanding officer of the division up there dispatched a person to Saigon to ask for confirmation of this order from the commander of the air force.
The air force commander did not know clearly, did not know at all what was happening up in Pleiku. He tried his best to contact the Supreme Command and high officials, but he was not successful. After that he decided to allow the division to transport the families of the officers and soldiers the military families in general in Tan Son Nhut... uh Pleiku to Nha Trang. Uh... they were to take whatever supplies and spare parts they could to Nha Trang.
This was to be carried out while waiting for a definite confirmation of total withdrawal. This action was taken in order not to cause panic among the soldiers and also to guard against the possibility of a false order so that the air force would not be blamed for uh, unilateral retreat. I myself was the commander to the evacuation from Pleiku that night. By morning, almost all of the military families had been evacuated to Nha Trang. While the Lieutenant General tried his best and yet unable to get confirmation of the order to evacuate Pleiku, that morning the air force in Pleiku reported that the entire Army Corps beat a retreat.
By that time they charged into the airstrip in Pleiku and, as a result, the air force could no longer control the take off and landing of the airplanes. And a number of air force employees had to use the land route to get back to... uh... Highway 7 which was leading them to Phu Yen, Tuy Hoa. All these events happened so incredibly fast and unexpected and made everybody lose their senses. The evacuation from Pleiku to Tuy Hoa turned out to be a gigantic debacle. And almost all the units were annihilated.

Mass confusion in the Army of the Republic of Vietnam

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Take 76
Phan Phung Tien:
The events which led the armed forces of South Vietnam to become disintegrated so rapidly, and I can say, so completely the events that brought all these about seemed... in my opinion, seemed to have been arranged. How could it be that in such a life or death war the dissemination of information by the administration was not timely, nonexistent, nearly nonexistent? Ban Me Thuot fell, nobody said a thing. The withdrawal from Pleiku was learned only through rumors.
There was no official announcements from the administration at all. At that time the inhabitants did not believe in the government announcements any longer. They were all listening in to the VOA, especially the BBC, for news. And the information given by these broadcasts sometimes came before the events themselves occurred. The confusion was therefore further increased. People waited for an explanation from the regime, but President Thieu remained quiet throughout the period when Ban Me Thuot fell until the day he resigned.
Nobody understood why. The inhabitants listened to the foreign broadcasts and the rumors. And, especially the developments in Saigon, created even further confusion and worries and fear among the population. Especially bad was the news about the evacuation of Saigon. Now you have the airlift of the orphans, now you have the evacuation of the American dependent families, now Vietnamese having family connections with the Americans, and now how the high officials whose lives would be threatened by a Communist takeover should be evacuated.
All these news caused the population to see clearly that the war was coming to an end and the Communists were winning. And... uh... whether the fighting would progress or not was... uh... affected by the statements on evacuation which caused people to lose all faith in the resolution of the armed forces at that time. All these caused the civilians, the soldiers and the officers alike to lose their morale and to become panicked. And it brought about a disintegration of the army which, in my opinion, was so complete that there was practically no fighting at all during the period since the fall of Ban Me Thuot to the fall of Xuan Loc, which was a few days before the loss of Saigon.
After Pleiku fell, the air force could come back within a matter of only a few days with helicopters to destroy every single plane left behind in every hangar. Da Nang fell, and yet on the telecommunication systems there were still signals two days later which indicated that the Communist forces had not yet occupied the entire airport. Nha Trang fell, and yet several days later people could still get to the Cau Da wharf. Air force people could still escape by boat to Vung Tau easily. And so the disintegration of the army was quite strange and difficult to explain.

The surprisingly rapid fall of Da Nang

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Take 77
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Phan Phung Tien:
The fall of Da Nang is an incredible thing which nobody understood why and which there are still many questions today. As I myself knew, the Lieutenant General who was the commander of the air force flew to Da Nang two days earlier and met with the air force commander of the I Corps area. The Lieutenant General asked the latter about all the battle situations in the I Corps area. He also told the commander of the Da Nang air force to be vigilant and to report all occurrences immediately so as to avoid the last minute situation in Pleiku.
The commander of the air force in Da Nang reported that the air defense in Da Nang was impeccable, that all the units were still intact and that their morale was high. This happened only two or three days earlier. Then... uh, I don't know whether it was on the 28th or 29th, when the special contingent of my 5th Division was dispatched to Da Nang and they telephoned back asking for permission to fly all the staff back to Saigon because there was an evacuation of the Da Nang airport and nobody knew where the order for that evacuation came from.
This special contingent was under my command and they asked permission to come out with the rest of the air units in Da Nang. I did not know what to do in this situation and so I telephoned the Air Command Headquarters. The Command Headquarters told me that they also received news about the confusion in Da Nang, but the air force commander was not available... uh, the general who was the commander of the Da Nang air force, i.e., the commander of the First Air force Division in Da Nang was not available.
I then... uh... telephoned Da Nang at once and gave permission to the special contingent to return. But naturally, this did not come about because at that time the staff members of the air force had already climbed up in the planes in large numbers and so the airplanes could not take off. After the initial panic when there was no knowing what really happened, the general who was the commander of the air force, based on the experience of Pleiku, ordered C 130's to Da Nang to help take out those airmen who were still stuck there on the ground.
Eighteen C-130's took off to Da Nang where they circled around the airport for permission to land. While we were still in the air we made contact with our airmen on the ground and told them to maintain order and to line up their men down there so that they could board the planes smoothly and quickly so as to be able to make it out of Da Nang. When the airplanes arrived, they could no longer communicate with the air controllers. They had to call me back and I had to use the telecommunication system to talk with the staff out there.
But there was nobody left in the telecommunication center. After the planes circled the airport for about half and hour and were told by the commander of the special air contingent that there was utter confusion on the ground, that motor vehicles, people and belongings were strewn all over the runways, I reported the situation to the Air Command Headquarters and asked permission to bring all those planes back.
And... we landed in Tan Son Nhut without being able to rescue anybody from Da Nang at all. A number of airplanes in Da Nang were able to make it to the airport at Phu Cat, Phan Rang and Nha Trang. But the great majority were stuck in Da Nang.
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Take 78
Phan Phung Tien:
After the fall of Da Nang, I personally thought that that was the end of Vietnam. There was no other solution and there was no hope of any American intervention as we had expected. This was because with the fall of Da Nang what was there to bargain with in any future negotiation, if there were going to be any? I was completely disappointed.
At that time things just unraveled so quickly that we did not have any time to think of any political solution or... to put any hope in the statements of high officials. Crises came every day and my unit had to be involved directly in evacuations. After that there came the fall of Phu Cat, Phan Rang, Nha Trang in quick succession. And so it went until the final day when Saigon was lost.

Evacuation from Tan Son Nhut Airbase

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Take 79
Phan Phung Tien:
Two days before the fall of Saigon we were all became extremely apprehensive, not knowing exactly which day this eventuality would come about. This was because all the political solutions, the resignation of Mr. Thieu, the... (telephone interruption.)
Two days before the fall of Saigon, as far as I can recall, we... that is to say the General who was the commander of the air force and I were visited by a high American official.
He came and put forth the question of evacuating the air force base at Tan Son Nhut. I then realized that the fall of Saigon was close at hand. On the 28th, when there was a change of administration in South Vietnam – when Mr. Huong handed over the government to Mr. Minh , our various teams responsible for blowing up the ammunition dumps went to Bien Hoa to help the people there blow up the arsenal there.
And after the transfer of power was carried out, the Communists' planes were already arriving at the Tan Son Nhut airport. That night I realized that things happened so quickly and the staff members and families of the soldiers of the Fifth Division and other units were still everywhere inside the airport, I decided to suggest to the General in command of the air force – and in the presence of high officials from the American DAO and the American Embassy, that we should use our airplanes to evacuate the families of airmen to Con Son Island that night so that the Seventh Fleet could come and pick them up there.
And we began this evacuation of the families of airmen in order to relieve the crowded situation in Tan Son Nhut. This went on until four o'clock in the morning and we were able to take several thousand persons to Con Son Island. After that, as far as I know, the Seventh Fleet did come as promised and was able to bring those people in Con Son out, of course with the exception of the prisoners who had already been there.
By four o'clock on the morning of the 29th Tan Son Nhut was shelled. It looked like a fireplace there. The fire was fierce. But we still took off in our planes in order to provide support. But the capability of the air force had been diminished because so many airplanes were burning. But by 6 am I realized that the Communist shelling became much more effective. They were able to hit every single plane on target.
I knew that the Communist artillery was being given direction by the Viet Cong group which was in the Camp David in Tan Son Nhut at that time. By 9 a.m. the situation had reached the point where we could not put up any longer. If we allowed the situation to go on like that, all the planes would have been destroyed. And... if... uh... although the Communists had occupied only half of the airport and were being pushed back by the defense force in Tan Son Nhut, we were suffering a lot of casualties.
So they could occupy that place at any time that day, and there would be nothing we could have done for our staff members and the airplanes. So I went to the Lieutenant General in command of the air force and reported the situation to him. And according to the plan which had been worked out with the American officials, the high military officers in the Supreme Command Headquarters should remain in order to direct the evacuation of the planes and staff members from Tan Son Nhut until completion.
The presence of the commanders was regarded to be of utmost importance because without them there would be another disintegration of the arm units when soldiers would be shooting and killing each other. For this reason, we stayed on until the very last minute until about midday when we headed toward the DAO according to plan. That is to say, we would use the American Embassy helicopter to go to the Seventh Fleet. In the afternoon of the 29th, we took off and reached the Seventh Fleet safely.
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Phan Phung Tien
Take 81
SR 452
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Phan Phung Tien:
After escaping from Vietnam and arriving on the Seventh Fleet, we... I must admit that those of us who had been in responsible positions felt kind of ashamed and dishonored. This... this... this feeling still exists until today. However, after a period of tranquil reflections on all the things which happened, I have the impression that all the things which happened during the last days of South Vietnam seemed to have been arranged. And the Vietnamese officers at the lower echelons could not have devised any means to stop things from unraveling. The guilt complex is not there anymore. But the shame and anguish of a vanquished general remain forever in his thoughts and his heart. But in the final analysis, if things were beyond your control then I am quite sure that some day I will be able to recover something for my country.

Blame for Vietnam's loss extends to all parties

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Phan Phung Tien:
Concerning the defeat of South Vietnam, the responsibility for it and other related issues, this is such a long story that I don't think I can analyze it all in a limited time. And of course there were many other events which I was not informed of. But in my own eyes all the responsibilities ever since the Second World War on the part of the United States, on the part of the Vietnamese, on the part of other countries, and the part of... ah.. I do not dare to criticize anybody because I do not have all the facts. But according to my own observation, there had been many shortcomings. In my own eyes, there had been many mistakes and shortcomings.
America did... The United States also was responsible for pushing Vietnam into the war and was in some way responsible for the disintegration of the Vietnamese army. Let me just cite the morale problem in the last interview and the things which happened when the evacuation of Vietnamese took place. Then there was the cut off of aid when we needed it most aid the efforts in preventing us from defending ourselves while the Communists were infiltrating in droves. On the Vietnam side, the leaders did not have enough talent and virtue to lead a nation.
Ah... President Thieu, for example. How can anyone say that we chose him when he was the only candidate in the last election? Ah... a general acting as president, how could he have given the order... If he still had his wits and if he were not under certain kind of pressure then how could he have given that simplistic order to withdraw from Pleiku? From the information given to me by friends who were high military commanders, the order to withdraw was given simultaneously with the order to keep it a secret.
This was quite unbelievable. On the part of the American friend, there were many organs and many individuals... But I think that if we were to talk about old things then it would take too long. In conclusion, I have always believed that in the past Vietnam was a pawn in the international chess game so that there could be exchanges by the superpowers, And... I hope that in the future, the Vietnamese leaders will do their best to lead their people away from the mistakes so that the Vietnamese race will survive.
End Tien interview