(Feature photo: Marine Ch-53 helicopters would be used for the evacuation of Saigon.)
Editors Note: In the spring of 1975, Communist forces launched an all-out assault against the Republic of Vietnam, forcing an end to the costly and divisive undeclared war. The Baltimore Post-Examiner is proud to present Part 2 of Bitter Memories – an eyewitness account of the Fall of Saigon.
Bitter Memories: The Fall of Saigon (Part 2)
On 24 April, the wire services, which we always monitored, reported a speech that President Ford had given the previous day at Tulane University. In that speech, the President referred to Vietnam as, “a war that is finished.” My cynicism overcame my dread. If the war was finished, what was I, a civilian intelligence officer and potential prisoner of singular value, doing in a combat zone with nothing better than a .38 to defend myself against 18 North Vietnamese divisions?
During the night of April 26, I was trying (unsuccessfully) to sleep, when the shock from a nearby blast threw me from my cot. Running to the comms center, I found the guys looked dazed, but everything was working and nobody was hurt. A bulletin arrived within minutes telling us that communist sappers – highly trained commandos – had blown up the ammo dump at Bien Hoa, just north of us. That meant, among other things, that panic in the streets would ramp up a couple of notches.
A few days earlier, I had started doing regular recons of the Defense Attaché Office (DAO) building. The edifice was so huge we referred to it as Pentagon East. Sometimes I took out a load of burnbags to the incinerator in the parking lot; other times, I simply wandered around. I wanted to be sure I knew ahead of time if the perimeter fence was about to be breached and the anxious mobs outside were going to break through. As I walked the halls that first day and crisscrossed the compound, I noticed brawny young American men with skinhead haircuts who seemed to have appeared out of nowhere. They were dressed in tank tops or tee-shirts, shorts, and tennis shoes. When two or three walked together, they fell into step, as if marching.
Marines in mufti! What the hell was going on?
I found out that night, when I was trying to grab a little sleep in my office. The door chime sounded. I grasped my .38 and went to the door. Through the peep hole I saw a middle-aged red-haired American man in a neon Hawaiian shirt, shorts, and rubber flip-flops. He gave me a flat-handed wave and a silly grin. It was Al Gray, a Marine officer I’d worked with over the years in Vietnam. I’d never seen Al out of uniform, and I knew he made it an iron-clad rule never to spend more than 24 hours in Saigon. I lowered the .38 and opened the door.
“Hi,” he said. “Can I come in?”
Inside my office, I told Al everything I knew about the military situation; but he knew more than I did. What he didn’t know in detail was what was going on with the friendlies. I told him about the unruly, desperate crowds jamming the streets – now ten to fifteen people deep outside of our compound – and my worry that the perimeter fence might not hold. Al explained to me that he was the Ground Security Officer – the man who would be in charge of the evacuation of Saigon once it was ordered.
If it was ordered.
The Ambassador was doing everything he could to hamper Al’s efforts.
Ambassador Martin wouldn’t allow Al’s Marines to dress in uniform, fly their own helicopters into the country, or even stay overnight. So he and his grunts, in civilian clothes, had to fly in and out each day from the 7th Fleet, anchored in the South China Sea, via Air America slicks. The slicks were little UH-1 (Huey) choppers that could only carry eight to fourteen people. That didn’t matter to Al. Ambassador or no Ambassador, the Marines had landed; they’d be ready for the evacuation the instant it was ordered.
During my next daylight recon of the compound, I saw 55-gallon drums ranged along the perimeter fence. I asked one of the buzz cuts why they had been placed there. He said the drums were filled with a combustible material – maybe gasoline – and wired. If the North Vietnamese penetrated the perimeter, the barrels could be detonated to wipe them out.
A tour of the parking lot took me from the sanity of the steel drums into a surreal world. Marines and civilians were cramming cars, (my small white Japanese car among them), onto the side of the building by driving them into one another so that they formed a compacted mass. That done, the drivers took to the half-dozen cars that remained in the parking lot – large black sedans (including my Ford) and one jeep. These they used as ramming devices, crushing the heap of cars even more tightly together. Then they turned the now-mangled sedans on the tennis courts.
Again and again, they backed the vehicles to the perimeter wire, then burned rubber to smash against the poles holding the mesh around the courts; repeating this until they tore the poles out of the pavement. Next they used the cars as battering rams, flattening the nets and court fencing against the building. Lastly, they ground the vehicles they were driving into the jumble of mashed automobiles.
The area between the fence and the wall of the building was now clear. It dawned on me what the resourceful Marines had just done.
The small Air America slicks had been able to get into and out of the compound one at a time, without hitting parked cars or the tennis courts. But the much larger Marine CH-53’s (each could carry 55 men loaded for combat) needed more unobstructed space – especially if two or three were in the compound at the same time. The bizarre demolition derby meant one more obstacle to our escape had been removed.
By April 27 I had gotten all of my subordinates out. It was finally down to just the three of us – myself and my two communicators, Bob and Gary. None of us had slept through the night for longer than we could remember, and our diet consisted of bar snacks we’d scrounged from a hotel before it wasn’t safe to leave the compound. I found out that Vienna sausages were edible straight from the can, and that mustard on pickle relish, if eaten in quantity, could stave off serious hunger. Granted, I’d developed bowel problems, but my guess was that it was due less to the food than to stress. Coffee we had aplenty – Bob and Gary had seen to that – and I’d made sure I wouldn’t run out of cigarettes. From then on it was lots of coffee, chain smoking, almost nothing to eat, and no sleep.
About this time I realized I wasn’t operating on all cylinders. I was coughing constantly and thought I was running a fever. I also had trouble focusing my eyes. Staying conscious was becoming a challenge. It didn’t matter. I had no choice. I had to keep going.
We locked all the rooms in the office suite except the comms center, and I moved my cot and my .38 in there. Bob and Gary and I established a regimen: one guy took a two-hour rest break while the other two worked.
A series of messages flowed in asking me to get children out of the country. The requests were from American men who had fathered kids in Vietnam and wanted them saved. I shuddered to think what might happen to Amerasian youngsters when the Communists took over. But it was too late. I had no vehicle and couldn’t even leave the compound – surrounded by panicky crowds anxious for escape – much less get to the addresses the children’s fathers gave to me. I didn’t answer the messages. To this day, I don’t know how the senders managed to get those messages through.
Partly to stay awake, I maintained my schedule of recon runs, checking out the parking lot and the perimeter. I got chummy with the snuffs at the gate closest to the building exit I used. Unlike most of the Marines, these guys were willing to fill me in on any new scuttlebutt. Among other things, they told me about people tossing babies into the compound, hoping they’d survive and escape the Communists. Most of the infants didn’t make it over the top of the fence – it was something like two stories high with barbed wire and an outward tilt at the top to prevent people from scaling the wall. That meant many of those babies fell to the ground and were killed.
Not long before sunset on April 28, I made a head run. The mammoth DAO building was in shambles. Light bulbs were burned out, trash and broken furniture littered the halls, and the latrines were filthy and smelled disgusting. I came across men on stepladders running cables through the ceiling. They told me they were wiring the building for complete destruction. “Last man out lights the fuse and runs like hell,” they joked.
I went into the men’s room. I was standing at the urinal, when the wall I was facing lurched forward as if to swat me down, then snapped back into place. The sound of repeated explosions deafened me. Instead of sensibly taking cover, I left the men’s room and hurried to the closest exit at the end of the hall; unbolted the door, and stepped into the shallow area between the western wall of the building and the security fence. This space, maybe eight to ten feet wide, was now piled high with sandbags.
The first thing I noticed was that the throngs of refugees had dispersed. No one was clamoring outside the barrier. Presumably they’d been frightened away by the explosions. As I looked about, my ears picked up the whine of turboprops. I shaded my eyes from the setting sun and spotted five A-37 Dragonfly fighters circling above the Tan Son Nhat runways. They dove, dropped bombs, and pulled up. The resulting shock waves knocked me to the ground, but I was up on my feet and running before the planes went into their next approach. Back in the office, I found out that renegade South Vietnamese pilots, who had defected to the Communists, were the ones bombing Tan Son Nhat.
Shelling went on through the night of April 28 and much of the following day; first rockets, and then afterwards, beginning around 0430 hours local, artillery. One C-130 on the runway next to us was hit before it could airlift any refugees out; two others took off empty. Fixed-wing airlifts were at an end. Artillery rounds landed inside the DAO compound; the General’s Quarters next door were destroyed. Worst of all, two of the Marines I had been talking with on my recons were killed in this attack. I later learned their names: McMahon and Judge. They were the last American fighting men killed on the ground in Vietnam.
One image I’ll never forget: sometime during the night, I was on my cot taking my two-hour rest break when the next round of bombardments started. I sat straight up and watched the room reel. Bob was typing a message at a machine that rose a foot in the air, then slammed back into place.
He never stopped typing.
Just after that attack, we got word that Frequent Wind Phase IV had been declared.
The evacuation was finally on.