Today is the forty-second anniversary of the fall of Saigon. Tomorrow is the official celebration or commemoration—depending on one’s view—but by midnight on 29 April 1975, Saigon was in the hands of the North Vietnamese. It’s a troubling day for me, filled with nightmarish memories and things I’m not sure I remember. I was in such bad shape due to lack of food and sleep that I was starting to hallucinate (more about that in another blog).
I remember the sense of relief I felt when Bob Hartley and Gary Hickman, the two communicators who volunteered to stay with me to the end, went out that day on a helicopter destined for the 7th Fleet cruising in the South China Sea. With them gone and my other forty-one subordinates and all the families safely out of the country, I knew my work in Vietnam was finished. I flew out that night in the rain. As soon as we were airborne, I saw the tracers coming towards us. We took so much lead in the fuselage, I through we were going to crash. But we made it. When we reached the Oklahoma City, the flagship of the 7th Fleet, the pilot circled and circled in the dark and the rain. Then he finally, very slowly, descended and landed on the floodlit helipad of the ship. He told me later that he, a civilian pilot working for Air America, had never before landed on a ship.
I remember the sense of loss—we left behind many thousands of South Vietnamese who had worked and fought by our side. We abandoned them to the mercies of the conquering North Vietnamese.
Later, I took pride in what I and my men had accomplished. But not that night. That was my night to mourn.
I still grieve over what we lost. An Nam, the old name for Vietnam, was forever destroyed. And its people were all killed or captured. It was the last of the Annamese.