Thirty-three year old Maj. Hillel "Gus" Schwartz, Tacoma, Wash., entered the elevator on the sixth floor of the U.S. Embassy in Saigon and pushed the button for non-stop descent to the first floor. "I didn't want to take the chance on the elevator stopping between floors and somebody firing me up," said the paratrooper officer as he recalled his actions while directing a platoon from the 101st Airborne Division in a combat assault to the roof top of the embassy building.
|Maj. Hillel "Gus" Schwartz
Schwartz, father of four children (one son and three daughters) was serving his second tour in Vietnam. His first tour was an advisory role with the 5th ARVN Division at Phu Loi in 1965. As assistant intelligence officer of the famed Screaming Eagle Division, Schwartz had known of the enemy buildup at the Bien Hoa-Saigon area prior to the beginning of Tet.
About 3 a.m. on Jan. 31 the Bien Hoa air base came under attack. Schwartz and other officers of the 101st were accupying positions on a burm between the airbase and Division Headquarters. As the paratrooper major and his fellow soldiers manned their defensive locations, Division Commander Maj. Gen. O. M. Barsanti received a message requesting a reinforcing element for the forces under attack at the U.S. Embassy in Saigon.
Division intelligence officer, Lt. Col. Charles Beckwith, Atlanta, Ga., went to the burm and located Schwartz: "The CG's got a mission for you, Gus. Come along!" In the following minutes, Gen. Barsanti explained the mission to Schwartz and other staff members, emphasizing that Schwartz was the commanding general's representative in dealing with the embassy personnel and organizing the security force.
"General Barsanti told me we were going to take a platoon of paratroopers from C Company, 1st Battalion (Airborne), 502nd Infantry and make a combat assault onto the embassy roof," Schwartz recalled. "The general told me what to look for on the rooftop and how to identify the LZ (landing zone)." Schwartz in turn briefed the C Co. commander, Capt. John Speedy, Arlington, Va., and platoon leader Lt. Robert Bell, Jacksonville, Fl.
"Marines are barricaded in the Embassy," Schwartz said. "Military Police units are on the outside perimeter of the courtyard and Viet Cong armed with automatic weapons and RPG bazookas are inside the embassy perimeter.
At 6:33 a.m. Schwartz, Capt. Speedy and two sergeants boarded a helicopter and flew to Saigon. "We could see a lot of firing all over the city and particularly in the area of the embassy," he said. They started to land on the roof when the helicopter was fired upon. Four rounds hit the aircraft and the door gunner was wounded in the hand and shoulder. "It's a hot LZ," someone said over the intercom as they pulled away. Schwartz shoved his M-16 rifle out of the door and fired at the muzzle flashes below. Sgt. Robert J. Formaneck, Anaheim, Cailf., fired on the flashes too.
The pilot, Lt. Col. John McGregor, Makanda, Ill., commander of the 101st Aviation Bn. (abn.), noted that the aircraft was heating a bit and suggested they fly to Long Binh where the wounded gunner could be hospitalized and another chopper could be obtained. "We got another ship and took off again for the embassy," Schwartz said. "There was still firing around the embassy, but somehow we got in without taking any hits. We leaped out of the helicopter and it took off."
As the four paratroopers searched the roof, the phone rang. Schwartz answered it and a member of General William C. Westmoreland's staff at MACV asked if the embassy had been pentrated and told Schwartz he was to take charge of all American forces in conducting the search and security mission.
Schwartz left one man as security on the rooftop and a guide for Lt. Bell and his platoon who were enroute in five helicopters. He then entered the 6th floor of the embassy where he met a duty officer holding a .45 automatic. Schwartz asked him several questions and instructed Capt. Speedy to insure that the paratrooper platoon search every room and cubicle, post security on every floor and establish a perimeter in the courtyard.
"Then I went into an office where a phone was ringing and someone picked it up and handed it to me," Schwartz continued. The caller was from the MACV command center and began asking questions.
An official gave Schwartz the key to the first floor mezzanine. He walked to the elevator, entered and punched the buttons marked "direct" and "1st floor." "Gee, I was scared," he remembered. "I thought about a lot of things... my wife Marilyn, my dad in Philadelphia, and I wondered how the Army would get all the stuff in my quarters back tro my family if something happened."
When the elevator stopped at the first floor, Schwartz stepped out with his rifle poised. He unlocked the door to the embassy proper and saw bullet holes "all over the place. I found a Marine sergeant and told him I assumed control," he said. "There's a lot of people out there," the sergeant answered, gesturing with his weapon toward the courtyard. He did not know how many.
Schwartz slipped through the door into the courtyard when he saw MP's pursuing Viet Cong dressed in civilian clothes and carrying AK-47 assault rifles. He told an MP officer to sweep the area and secure the surrounding buildings.
"A VC on my left suddenly opened fire from the consulate house," Schwartz said. "Then a window opened on the top floor and a man who said he was a retired colonel yelled he didn't have a weapon. An MP heaved a 45 automatic up to the man and I pitched him a few hand grenades. The MP also managed to get a protective mask up to the window and the rest of us started throwing a riot control agent into the room where we saw the VC flee." Schwartz and two MP's entered the building.
"We heard firing upstairs," he said. "An AK fired a burst and then two shots from a .45" As they reached the second floor, the three soldiers saw the VC dying. The man who had been tossed the weapon stood in the hallway, pistol in hand. "Boy," the man said, "am I glad to see you!"
The paratrooper major and the MP's returned to the courtyard. "There were dead all over the place," Schwartz recalled. He instructed the MP's to put two guards on each VC body and bring captured documents and weapons to his command post in the main entrance to the embassy. Additional guards from the paratrooper platoon began to secure the area.
"General Westmoreland arrived and I accompanied him in an inspection of the courtyard," Schwartz said. "Nineteen bodies littered the ground. Some lay sprawled among the big flower planters." As the two looked at the big hole blown in the embassy wall, the general was called to the phone. It was a call from the White House.
The embassy seal had been shot down and lay bullet ridden on the ground. Helicopter supply ships were arriving and landing on the embassy roof. Major Schwartz turned the security over to a Marine captain and walked into the embassy. He entered the elevator, punched the button for the 6th floor, wiped the perspiration from his face and breathed deep. The mission was accomplished.
Written by Maj. Billy E. Spangler, Rendezvous With Destiny magazine, June 1968.