Target Saigon: The Fall of South Vietnam by Albert Grandolini

Albert Grandolini’s Target Saigon, Volume 2: The Fall of South Vietnam: The Beginning of the End, January 1974–March 1975 (Helion, 104 pp. $29.95, paper) is a concise history of the final chapters of the decades-long American war in Vietnam. Ironically, it all takes place after the signing of the so-called Paris Peace Accords in January 1973.  

South Vietnam, going into its death spiral, was burdened by several disadvantages—unlike North Vietnam. For one thing, South Vietnam  was competing for munitions with Israel as a result of  the 1973 Yom Kippur War, which all but drained the pipeline of promised U.S. military aid. In contrast, the Soviet Union and China replaced most of the North’s materiel losses from the 1972 Easter Offensive.

It also was Saigon’s misfortune that President Richard Nixon’s impeachment and resignation in 1974 put an end to his promises of aid and support if the North launched a campaign to crush South Vietnam’s government. His successor, Gerald Ford, faced with a Congress opposed to renewed involvement, was not going to re-commit the U.S. to the conflict in order to save the South Vietnamese regime of Nguyen Van Thieu.  

Beyond external factors, there President Thieu’s lack of strategic vision and poor decision making. In contrast, the strategic goal of the North—reunification under a communist regime—always remained the same despite years of horrendous combat losses. With the United States no longer a player in the war, the North totally applied itself to developing and implementing a final campaign.  

Grandolini, a historian and aviation journalist and author who was raised in Vietnam, effectively uses primary source documents to discusses another part of the equation: an unanticipated sideshow that caught the South off balance. In January 1974, South Vietnam suddenly found itself in conflict with the People’s Republic of China over the disputed Paracel Islands. After several naval engagements, China prevailed and took control of the islands.

The North’s leaders relied on a centralized and highly disciplined command structure with combat-experienced generals to form a strategy for ending the war in total victory. The resulting plan called for corps-sized phased regional offensives to begin in 1974 with the aim of probing for exploitable weak points that could be followed by breakthroughs.    

It was of great interest to learn about the successful concealment efforts by the NVA, including the use of bogus transmissions and hidden movements of major units, some advancing well over 300 kilometers. On the other hand, the South Vietnamese Army’s reaction to the Spring 1974 NVA thrust into the Parrot’s Beak must have surprised the North’s planners. In a multi-corps armored counterattack, the ARVN swung through Cambodia to outflank and outmaneuver the NVA while supported by highly effective airstrikes. They mauled the NVA units and sent them into retreat.  

But that would be the last ARVN offensive operation during the war. Although ARVN units often put up heroic resistance to NVA attacks, the fact remains that without American aid the South was forced to fight defensively with limited resources.   

Signing the Paris Peace Accords, January 23, 1973

In 1975 things irreversibly fell apart for the South. The North’s operational plan originally called for two stages, destroying the ARVN in 1975 and victory in 1976. The South’s fate was sealed, however, when in March 1975 Thieu abruptly—and without proper preparation at the tactical level—ordered the evacuation of military forces from northern South Vietnam. The withdrawal soon became a rout swollen with countless thousands of civilians blocking the way.

This well-researched and well written volume closes on that rout and sets the stage for the final battles and the fall of Saigon. I strongly recommend Target Saigon to anyone with an interest in the final two years of the Vietnam War        

–John Cirafici

The Lucky Few by Jan K. Herman

Jan K. Herman’s The Lucky Few: The Fall of Saigon and the Rescue Mission of the USS Kirk (Naval Institute Press, 192 pp., $39.95) is a unique story of the final days of the Vietnam War. The remarkable thing about this book is why the story Herman tells has been overlooked for so many years. 

Perhaps our collective national denial kept this event hidden for so long, shrouded by the nation’s sole military loss. As Herman puts it: It “most likely had to do with America’s mood in 1975. The national nightmare of Vietnam was over and it was time to move on.”

This neglected story has finally surfaced in this comprehensive yet brief book. Perhaps with the passage of nearly forty years are we now able to look more objectively at this earth-shattering event that took place during one of the nation’s most troubled periods. Though it’s doubtful all of us will ever be able to come to terms with what occurred in Vietnam in 1975, this book provides an opportunity for readers to see things from a different perspective.

The difficulty with The Lucky Few—aside from the connection with defeat and tragedy—concerns the manner in which the collapse of the Republic of Vietnam occurred and its extensive media coverage. The lucky few were those fortunate enough to board U.S.-supplied helicopters, the ones that were nearly all scuttled once their overcrowded passengers were offloaded. Said passengers were mainly South Vietnamese top military and political leaders and their families.

With the description of the loss of each million-dollar aircraft, it became  increasingly more difficult for this reader to make sense of the war’s final chapter. That may be the point, however, that was lost in the chaotic ending. That is, war is always senseless, a complete breakdown of the greatest of all human abilities, an unwillingness to compromise.

The USS Kirk was a 400-foot escort destroyer commissioned in the early 1970s and deployed to the Western Pacific with the Seventh Fleet to operate in the Tonkin Gulf. With a crew of more than two hundred, this Knox Class warship performed normal naval support duties under the command of a remarkable leader, Commander Paul Jacobs. In this final episode of the war his effective leadership would result in a successful evacuation mission. Familiar with all aspects of naval command, Jacobs was a leader who led by example, developing a trust with his crew through rigorous training.

Jan Herman

“The gift of leadership, it seemed, was in Paul Jacobs’ genes,” Herman writes. Jacobs “worked very hard to keep the crew as a team and the crew responded very well to him.’”

Moreover, this destroyer (aka “tin can”) was an agile man-of-war, versatile and quick, but built with a single shaft and screw. More common twin-screw ships were easier to maneuver and more forgiving, especially during rescue work. Jacobs therefore trained his crew relentlessly. It made a difference when the need arose.

With exacting detail, the author tells the story of the collapse of South Vietnam in April 1975, disclosing the valiant efforts of U.S. naval forces to evacuate both military and civilian personnel. As communist forces moved south, an escape plan was devised that included removing as much military equipment as possible to offshore Navy vessels.

Under the direction of former Navy man Richard Armitage, then a civilian operating with the Department of Defense, the plan was devised quickly, designed to use any available naval vessels—carriers, escorts, support ships. Though Armitage is described much like the unhinged Captain Kurtz in the film Apocalypse Now, he devised the plan to land Huey and Cobra helicopters on nearby ships, unloading personnel, and preventing the North Vietnamese from seizing aircraft and equipment.

Helicopters landed, unloaded, and then jettisoned. In addition to airborne evacuees, the Vietnamese Navy with its former U.S. warships pitched in to help. In all, more than 30,000 refugees eventually arrived in the Philippines through the efforts of the Navy and ships including the Kirk.

To this destroyer veteran, The Lucky Few is fascinating, though it was difficult to revisit that time of sadness and misfortune. The author has done an outstanding job researching details of day-to-day shipboard life, recalling things that I have not given a thought to in many years.

Lastly, he neatly connects surviving refugees and rescuers, revealing many happy endings. I highly recommend this book, believing that enough time has finally passed to allow us to see another amazing triumph of the human spirit.

—Peter Steinmetz