Glenn (seated at right) in the Vietnam highlands 1967.
Editors Note: On August 7th, 1964, by a near unanimous vote, the U.S. Congress approved The Gulf of Tonkin Resolution. The resolution, which effectively began U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War, authorized President Lyndon Johnson to, “take all necessary measures to repel any armed attack against forces of the United States and to prevent further aggression.” Eleven years later, the U.S. finally withdrew its forces from Saigon – the capitol of South Vietnam – marking the end of the costly and divisive undeclared war. The Baltimore Post-Examiner is proud to present Part 1 of Bitter Memories – an eyewitness account of the Fall of Saigon.
Bitter Memories: The Fall of Saigon
Day la nhung tin tuc cua Tieng Noi Hue Ky phat thanh tu thu do Hoa Thinh Don.
“…broadcasting from Washington.”
The news in Vietnamese, via the Voice of America. That’s what I listened to every day.
I listened to the VoA, the BBC, the American Radio Service; anything to keep track of what was happening in Vietnam. It was April 1975. I was in Saigon waiting for the North Vietnamese to launch their final attack.
My job was intelligence. All classified work. It was the kind of job where every communication that went through my office had to be burned. I couldn’t talk openly when I returned to the United States at the end of the war. To do so would have cost me my career. Now, after 38 years, my work has been declassified, and I can finally tell the story of what really happened in the fall of Saigon.
For me, the story begins in January, 1975, with the North Vietnamese army’s conquest of Phuoc Long Province, some 60 miles north of Saigon. As a speaker of Chinese, French, and Vietnamese, I’d been operating in Vietnam under cover on and off for thirteen years. My final stint, still under cover, was in 1974 and 1975, as the head of an office with two missions: (1) to advise the Ambassador Graham Martin, on intelligence matters, and (2) to assist the government of South Vietnam in intelligence gathering and exploitation.
Infiltration of men and matériel from North Vietnam had spiked since the autumn of 1974, always a signal that an offensive was coming. Other intelligence indicators of a forthcoming attempt to take Phuoc Long were unmistakable. Nevertheless, the surprise Communist victory was an unparalleled blow; it was the first time during the entire war that the North Vietnamese captured and held a whole province, including the provincial capital.
As I learned later, North Vietnam was testing American resolve: would we keep our solemn pledge to counterstrike if the North Vietnamese violated the cease fire signed in Paris in 1973? The seizure of Phuoc Long was a gross violation. Yet we did nothing.
With a knot in my stomach, I went over our intelligence group’s evacuation strategy. I assured myself that each of my men in the field, at Can Tho in the south, Pleiku in the highlands, and Da Nang in the north, was covered in the escape plans of the State Department consuls in those areas. I also confirmed that I could reach our reps by both phone and radio if things suddenly went to pieces. By the end of February, it was clear that the next phase of the North Vietnamese campaign was against the five northen provinces, the highlands and I Corps. Communist units there were on the move.
On 9 March, 1975, I flew north with my South Vietnamese counterpart, a general, to Phu Bai, near Hué in the far north. From there we flew to Pleiku in the central highlands; and then to Ban Me Thuot in the southern reach of the highlands. Our purpose was to visit units under the general’s command to prepare them for the coming onslaught. In Pleiku, things turned sour during a courtesy call on the commander of II Corps, Major General Pham Van Phu. The general I was traveling with and the II Corps intelligence staff chief tried to persuade General Phu that Ban Me Thuot would be the first target of the Communist campaign in the highlands. All our intelligence made that clear. General Phu was unimpressed. He said he doubted that the Communists were preparing to strike, and if they were, he believed II Corps headquarters would be the logical focus of the offensive. After all, he was the most important man in the highlands, and he was at II Corps headquarters in Pleiku. The general I was traveling with cut short our trip. We flew directly, that afternoon, to Ban Me Thuot.
Ban Me Thuot was indeed the first target of the blitzkrieg. The opening barrages against the city had been launched that morning. Not long after we landed, while my counterpart was inspecting his troops, I watched a battle erupt in the valley to the west of the ridge where the airstrip was located. We took off for Saigon just as the runway came under fire.
Ban Me Thuot fell, prompting South Vietnamese President Nguyen van Thieu to order the evacuation of the highlands, starting on 15 March. The evacuation was mass chaos as the military and the civilian population panicked and fled. By then all major roads to the coast were under the control of the North Vietnamese. Fleeing refugees clogged the only open road, Route 7B, a secondary bypass that in places was not much more than a trail. All the while the North Vietnamese repeatedly attacked the helpless victims.
Route 7B came to be called “The Trail of Blood and Tears.” Some eighteen thousand South Vietnamese troops were killed or captured; losses among civilians were over a hundred thousand.
Within days, I Corps also crumbled and the five northern provinces were lost. Another eighty thousand refugees jammed the roads and ports, vainly trying to escape the Communists.
With the northern half of the country now captured, Communist forces moved south toward Saigon. I knew capitulation was mere weeks away.
To reduce the number of in-country people I was directly responsible for, I considered evacuating some of my group, including my secretary, on the first Operation Babylift flight.
The project, launched by President Ford, was an effort to save as many orphans (mostly Amerasian) as possible, given the prospects for half-American, half-Vietnamese children under the Communists were frightening. A C-5A Galaxy transport, the largest plane I’ve ever seen, would ferry the orphans to California. The adults on board the aircraft, all volunteers, would act as caretakers for the children.
By the grace of God, I decided against sending any of my people on that flight. It crashed shortly after takeoff, killing 138. Among them were 78 children and 35 Defense Attaché Office (DAO) folks. Each of us knew somebody who died in that crash.
The day after the C-5A disaster, I took my wife to lunch at the American Officers’ Club to break the news to her that she and our four children must leave the country immediately. She was incredulous. Just that morning she’d gone to a coffee at the embassy. Officials there had urged everyone to disregard the dire news reports and comforted the dependents by telling them everyone was safe and had nothing to fear. Unmoved by my urging, she finally agreed to go, on three conditions: (1) she and the children could tour the world on the way back to the states; (2) she could have a new Buick station wagon when she got home; and (3) she could choose the flight date.
By some ruse or other, I managed to make my family’s departure look like a vacation in Bangkok (the Ambassador forbade evacuations – more about that later) and got tickets for them to fly out on 9 April. On the 8th, a South Vietnamese air force pilot who had defected to the Communists bombed the presidential palace, close to our house. My wife was now convinced, but because of the 24-hour curfew imposed in the wake of the air strike, I had to pull rank to drive my family through Saigon to the airport at Tan Son Nhat. But at last, I got them all on a plane headed for Bangkok. The next day, unsure how long I’d be able to get through the mobs of refugees swarming Saigon, I moved from the villa my family and I had shared to my office in the DAO building at Tan Son Nhat on the northern edge of Saigon. I stayed there 24 hours a day, sleeping on a cot between the two flags beside my desk; a .38 revolver underneath my pillow.
On 17 April, I was in my office, which now doubled as both my bedroom and a stoveless kitchen, reading the latest messages and reports, when one of the communication guys rushed in with a news dispatch he wanted me to see right away:
Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia, had fallen.
Within days, we were getting grisly descriptions of the beheadings of Cambodian officials. I had been involved in Vietnam on and off since 1963, and had seen the brutality of the war. But this was my first taste of terror.
Since the middle of March, my principal concern had been seeing to it that none of my people were caught in the fighting. I had 43 American civilians working for me with 22 dependents living in Saigon. My men in Da Nang, Can Tho, and Pleiku had all managed to reach Saigon and were presently working in our improvised Tan Son Nhat office. I wanted to get all my people out now.
But Ambassador Martin refused to consider evacuations. On the one hand, he wished to avoid doing anything that might stampede the South Vietnamese; on the other, he genuinely believed that the fear of the Communist flag flying over Saigon was unfounded. I was stymied. My state-side boss ordered me to close down the operation and bring everyone home before somebody got killed, but the Ambassador wouldn’t hear of it. I made him a proposition: if he would let most of my people go, I would stay on in Saigon; keeping two of my communicators with me to assure that intelligence communications would continue uninterrupted.
The Ambassador turned me down.
It was now clear I’d have to stay until the end. The Ambassador wouldn’t allow me to go, but I had to be sure all of my subordinates escaped. So I cheated.
Since I couldn’t leave, I put my rejected plan into action and asked for two volunteers to stay with me. I needed a communicator and a communications maintenance technician to keep the center going. A few pleaded the importance of family as the reason not to remain. Then two brave men stepped forward: Bob, a communicator, and Gary, a maintenance man. I warned them of the danger and told them that they’d have to keep the equipment going through unforeseen emergencies including electrical outages and shelling.
In the meantime I sent employees and dependents out any way I could think of. Some I had to order out – they were unwilling to leave me behind. Others went on contrived vacations, on phony business travel or on trumped-up early home leave. I even bought one guy a ticket with my own money and, with no authorization, put him on a Pan Am flight to the U.S. It was the last Pan Am flight from Saigon.
Besides my people, there were some 2700 South Vietnamese military personnel; men who had worked with us for many years. I was determined to do everything possible to get them out of the country too, before the North Vietnamese took Saigon.
On 21 April, Xuan Loc, 40 miles northeast of us, fell; thus ending an heroic defense by the South Vietnamese 18th Infantry Division. Communist forces encircled us.
I instructed my comms center to reduce to the minimum the number of copies it made of each new incoming message. We bagged documents as soon as we read them and burned them in the incinerator in the parking lot. I then turned my full attention to persuading the Ambassador that the remaining Americans and the Vietnamese who had worked with us had to leave Saigon before we were captured or killed. In that task, to my undying regret, I failed.
On 22 April, the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency estimated that the Republic of Vietnam wouldn’t last more than a week. It was comforting to see that the Department of Defense and Commander-in-Chief, Pacific harbored no delusions. But the Ambassador didn’t work for them. He reported to the Secretary of State and the President. Unless they overruled him, he still had the power to keep all of us in Saigon.
Even though the Ambassador had not agreed to an evacuation, outgoing commercial airlines were choked with passengers, and U.S. Air Force C-130 and C-141 transports daily carted hundreds of Vietnamese and Americans out of the country. The embassy made a point of explaining that their departure was not an evacuation. It was a reduction in force to free up resources to help the Republic of Vietnam. As far as I know, the Ambassador never did order the evacuation. On the last day, when the Vietnamese Communists were already in the streets of Saigon, he was finally countermanded, I believe, by President Ford.
I didn’t know how much longer I’d be able to get out and about. The crowds in the streets were becoming larger and more menacing. Some of the men, in ragged Republic of Vietnam military uniforms, were armed. I knew the danger, but several trips were crucial. I told my Vietnamese driver, who usually ferried me around town in a black Ford sedan with diplomatic plates, to use his U.S. pass to drive his family to the airport and escape while they still could. I then retrieved the sedan and armed with my .38, I drove it, rather than my small Japanese car. Foolishly I believed that the impressive official vehicle might ward off the massed refugees.
I had it exactly backwards.
The Ford attracted the most desperate of those seeking evacuation. The car was even mobbed once, but when I bared my teeth and leveled the .38, the crowd pulled back just enough for me to make my way through.
One trek was to help a Vietnamese family related to our house servants get into the military air base at Tan Son Nhat. Because South Vietnamese guards at the gates would allow no one to pass without official identification, the family members hid in the trunk and on the floor by the back seat of the sedan, covered with blankets. The guard admitted me without incident and the family managed to get on a C-130 and fly to Guam. Much later, the family contacted me in the states to offer their thanks.
After dropping that family off, I went to check on a Vietnamese officer I worked with. I wanted to be sure he and his troops knew where to go when the evacuation order was given; something I couldn’t discuss on an unsecured phone line. Always a model of Asian politeness, he invited me in and served me tea, just as he had regularly done whenever I dropped by. He told me that his wife, who worked for USAID, had been offered the opportunity to leave the country with her family. But he wouldn’t go because he was unwilling to abandon his troops, and she wouldn’t leave without him. Alarmed, I asked him what he would do if he was still in Saigon when the Communists tanks rolled through the streets. He told me he couldn’t live under the Communists. “I will shoot my three children and I will shoot my wife, then I will shoot myself.”
The officer didn’t escape, and I have good reason to believe in the end he carried out his desperate plan. Many other South Vietnamese officers also did precisely what he had described.
That left one more requisite foray. I got through the hordes to the embassy and pleaded with the Ambassador to evacuate everybody as soon as possible, citing intelligence evidence that an assault was imminent. I repeated what I had already reported to him via official channels; that Communist troops were less than two kilometers north of the airport, awaiting the command to invade the city. Saigon was surrounded by 16 to 18 North Vietnamese divisions, and all of them were poised to strike.
The Ambassador put his arm around my shoulder and guided me to the door. “Young man, when you’re older, you’ll understand these things better.”
Frantic, I went down the hall to the office of an embassy intelligence officer. He laughed at my frenzy and showed me a cable to Washington the Ambassador had released that morning. It stated that the suggestion of a forthcoming assault was due to the Communists’ skillful use of “communications deception.” Stunned, I asked the officer what evidence he had of communications deception. He waved my question away and bet me a bottle of champagne, chateau and vintage of my choice, that he and I would both still be in Saigon a year hence, still at our desks, still doing business as usual.
I finally understood what was going on. The embassy was a victim of what is now called groupthink syndrome – firm ideology, immune to fact, shared by all members of a coterie. The Ambassador, and therefore his subordinates, could not countenance the prospect of a Communist South Vietnam, hence they dismissed evidence of the coming disaster. Graham Martin later told Congress he had been advised by the Hungarian member of the International Control Commission that the North Vietnamese had no intention of conquering Saigon; they simply wished to form a coalition government with “patriotic forces in the south.” This from a representative of a communist government allied to North Vietnam. And Ambassador Martin believed him in the face of overwhelming intelligence that the attack was at hand.
Months later, I ran into that embassy intelligence officer back in the United States. He never made good on that bet.
Tom Glenn has worked as an intelligence operative, a musician, a linguist (seven languages), a cryptologist, a government executive, a care-giver for the dying, a leadership coach, a reviewer (for the Washington Independent Review of Books) and, as always, a writer. For thirteen years he shuttled between the U.S. and Vietnam on covert intelligence assignments and was evacuated under fire when Saigon fell. His new Vietnam book, Friendly Casualties, is available at Amazon. His book about caring for men with AIDS, No-Accounts, is available both at Amazon and Apprentice House.