Sailors pushing a helicopter from the deck of the USS Oklahoma City on 30 April 1975.
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 the third and final part of Bitter Memories – an eyewitness account of the Fall of Saigon.
Bitter Memories: The Fall of Saigon (Part 3)
The evacuation was on, but the situation on the ground was rapidly deteriorating.
Bob and Gary and I gave up trying to rest. The air in the comms center, the only room we were still using, was faintly misty and smelled of smoke, as if a gasoline fire was raging nearby. After daylight, I got a call from the Vietnamese officer I’d visited a few days before. He wanted to know where his boss, a certain general, was. The officer said he’d tried to telephone the general but got no answer. I tried dialing the general’s number with the same result. Unbeknown to us, this general had somehow slipped away from his office, made it to the embassy and got over the wall. He was evacuated safely while his men stayed at their posts – awaiting his orders.
Feeling the walls closing in, I telephoned the embassy.
“The evacuation is on. Get us out of here!”
The lady I talked with was polite; even gracious. She explained to me, as one speaks to a child, that the embassy could do nothing for us – we were too far away. She also added that, although I probably didn’t know it, the people in the streets were rioting. Of course I knew it; I could see them around Tan Son Nhat. I uttered an unprintable curse. She responded, “You’re welcome.”
I finally tracked down my Marine friend, Al Gray and asked if he could fit us in with his guys. He assured me he would.
We got word that armed South Vietnamese Air Force officers had forced their way into the building and were on the loose, demanding evacuation at gun point. Offices were to be emptied and locked. We were to proceed to the evacuation staging area – an office the Marines had secured. With that, we sent our last message announcing we were closing down to be evacuated, destroyed our communication and crypto gear, and locked the door as we left for the staging area.
The remaining events of 29 April are a blur. I was in such bad shape – both physically and mentally – I was starting to hallucinate.
As the shelling continued, I begged Al Gray to get my two communicators, Bob and Gary, out as soon as possible. I couldn’t tolerate the idea that, after all they’d done, they might be hurt, captured, or killed. Sometime in the afternoon, when my guys went out on a whirlybird, I felt the sense that my work in Vietnam was done.
Or almost done.
I didn’t want to board a chopper until I got confirmation that my communicators were safe aboard a ship. And I wanted to see what we could do to evacuate our Vietnamese counterparts, who, as far as I knew, were still at their posts.
But there was no phone in the secured room where the Marines had locked me, alone, for my own safety. The desperate South Vietnamese Air Force officers were still on the prowl. I waited in that room, trying to stay awake in my chair as the building pitched from an artillery barrage.
The next thing I remember is being outside.
It was getting dark and rain was pelting the helicopters in the compound. I protested to Al Gray that I wanted to wait for confirmation that my two communicators were safe, but he ordered me, with a string of invectives, to get myself on the chopper. I climbed aboard carrying with me my revolver and the two flags that had hung in my office – the U.S. stars and stripes and the gold-and-orange national flag of the now-defunct Republic of Vietnam.
For some reason, the bird was not a CH-53 but a small Air America slick. As soon as we were airborne, I saw tracers coming at us. We took slugs in the fuselage, but we made it out. All over the city, fires were burning. Once we were “feet wet,” or over the water, the pilot dropped abruptly to an altitude that scared me – just above the water’s surface. I found no comfort in later learning that maneuver was to avoid surface-to-air missiles.
All I remember of the flight, until we got to the ship, is darkness.
When we approached the USS Oklahoma City, flagship of the 7th Fleet, the pilot circled four or five times before coming down on the ship’s small, floodlit helipad. He subsequently told me that he, a civilian employee of Air America, had never landed on a ship before. As we got out of the slick, flashbulbs went off and someone took my .38. Sailors immediately tipped over our Huey and dumped it into the sea to make way for the next incoming helicopter.
I faintly remember some kind of processing, answering questions and filling out forms, but I was only half there. The next thing I recall is shivering – I was very cold. I was in berth, a sort of canvas hammock, in a room lit only by a red bulb on the bulkhead. I could hear the ship’s engine, low and far away, while men above, below, and on all sides of me were sleeping.
To my surprise, I discovered I could walk and found my way to the latrine. Still shivering, I brushed my teeth, shaved, and showered for the first time in weeks. Somebody directed me to the wardroom where I ate a breakfast and a half, surrounded by the scruffiest mix of Vietnamese and Americans I had ever seen. Their clothes were torn and filthy. The men were unshaven; the women disheveled. In their midst was a distinguished older gentleman in a ruined suit. Incredibly, his tie was still knotted at the throat.
When I went on deck, it was daylight. South Vietnamese helicopters flew close to the ship, cut their engines, and dropped into the water. The pilots were rescued and brought aboard as the choppers slowly slipped beneath the waves.
The sea, between the ships of the 7th Fleet and to the western horizon as far as I could see, was filled with boats – sampans, junks, fishing vessels, tugs; everything from commercial craft to large rowboats. Each was overloaded with Vietnamese waving and calling to the U.S. ships.
Someone found out I spoke Vietnamese and asked me to broadcast a message on a common frequency telling those in the boats that the ships were already jammed to the rafters and couldn’t take any more onboard. Numb to the implications of what I was saying, I repeated the message four or five times before my voice gave way from coughing and I had to quit. Only later did I understand that many of those boats were so far from shore that they couldn’t make it back. The desperate people in that ragtag flotilla presumably perished at sea.
After circling for days, we finally set sail for Subic Bay in the Philippines. Once there, I booked a flight for Hawaii. I knew I’d be required to brief the Commander-in-Chief, Pacific, about what had happened in Saigon.
When I arrived in Honolulu, still carrying my two flags, a senior U.S. official met me at the airport. Rather than asking if I was all right or congratulating me for getting out alive, he took one look at me and said, “You can’t be seen around here looking like that.” I was still in the clothes I’d been evacuated in and hadn’t shaved since that first morning aboard the Oklahoma City. I knew I’d lost weight and my face was a map of lines. The official assigned a subordinate to gussy me up. That guy took me to a barber and a good men’s clothing store to get a decent suit to brief the brass at Pearl Harbor.
By then I knew I was suffering from more than mere exhaustion. For days I’d done nothing but sleep and I was getting worse. Instead of acting rationally and going to a doctor there on the island, I booked the earliest flight possible for Baltimore. During the stopover in San Francisco, I tried to find a doctor. But a physician’s strike was in progress, and no doctor would see me. I flew on to Baltimore. The day after I landed, I found a doctor who diagnosed me with “pneumonia due to sleep deprivation, muscle fatigue, and poor diet.”
He relished adding that heavy smokers are more susceptible to pneumonia than “normal people.”
Thirty-eight years have now passed since the fall of Saigon; time enough to reflect on the chaos I witnessed and on the scars I will always carry.
None of the 2700 Vietnamese who worked with us escaped. All were killed or captured by the Communists. Many could have been saved but for two overriding factors:
- The Ambassador failed to call for an evacuation. By the time he was countermanded, the North Vietnamese were already in the streets of Saigon.
- The general in command of those 2700 abandoned his troops. They were still awaiting his orders when the North Vietnamese arrived.
Ambassador Graham Martin’s career ended not too long after the debacle he authored in Saigon. Until the day he died, Martin maintained he did, “a hell of a good job” with the evacuation.
Bob and Gary, my two communicators, survived and went on with their careers. Bob passed away in 2008, but I spoke to Gary a few months ago. He’s doing fine.
And me? Besides the pneumonia, I sustained ear damage from the shelling. I’ve worn hearing aids ever since. Perhaps worst of all, I still suffer from a condition we didn’t have a name for back then – Post-Traumatic Stress Injury. This resulted not just from living through the fall of Saigon, but from a number of earlier experiences I had in the war.
I escaped Saigon alive but the PTSI claimed one more casualty. When I got back to the states, my marriage fell apart. The home I yearned for simply did not exist. I lost my family, but there was nothing I could do.
I knew I needed help, but my livelihood was in intelligence. Had I sought psychiatric care, I would have lost my clearances, and therefore lost my job. I had to grit my teeth and endure the flashbacks, nightmares, and panic attacks. Absent traditional therapy, I turned to writing. As it turns out, my drive to write is probably the reason I am still around today.
I have always been a writer, and I wrote constantly about what had happened in Vietnam. Doctors now say that one of the most effective therapies for PTSI is writing down the searing experiences. So to some degree, I healed myself. I still have occasional nightmares, and I can’t abide Fourth of July fireworks. But on the whole, I get along well.
On the positive side, for my work during those frustrating final days in Vietnam, I was awarded the Civilian Meritorious Medal. It remains my most cherished possession.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t credit Al Gray, a Marine intelligence officer who became a combat commander, with saving my life and the lives of my two communicators. I don’t call him Al anymore. That stopped the day he became Commandant of the Marine Corps. These days I call him “Sir.” General Gray is the finest leader I have ever seen in action and a man I am privileged to know.
This story does have a footnote. In January of 2012, I learned that Bob, Gary, and I were in more danger at the end than we ever realized.
George Veith, author of Black April, told me his perusal of newly translated North Vietnamese documents brought the following information to light:
Before dawn on the morning of April 29, the North Vietnamese 28th Regiment was en route to attack Tan Son Nhat. But as the unit’s tanks passed over a river close to Saigon, the bridge collapsed. The regiment was forced to take a detour and didn’t arrive at Tan Son Nhat until the morning of April 30. By then, we were gone.
Had the regiment reached us on April 29, my communicators and I would have likely been killed, or at best been taken prisoner. Because we were intelligence personnel, torture and long incarceration would have been inevitable. That was the fate of a CIA employee, James Lewis, captured in mid-April when the coastal city of Phan Rang was overrun.
I had always known that we could have died while waiting to get out of Vietnam. But I never dreamed I’d owe my survival to something as mundane as a collapsed bridge. Just one more irony to add to my bitter memories of the fall of Saigon.
Please read the complete series on Bitter Memories.