Escape from Saigon

I’m asked periodically what it was like when I escaped under fire during the fall of Saigon. I flew by helicopter from the city to a ship of the 7th Fleet, cruising in the South China Sea. I described my sensations during the flight in Last of the Annamese. The protagonist, Chuck Griffin, returned to Vietnam after the cease-fire in 1973 to try to win the war so that the death of his son, Ben, in Vietnam will not have been in vain. When Chuck escapes as Saigon is falling, he is suffering, as I was at the time, from amoebic dysentery and pneumonia brought on by lack of sleep, inadequate diet, and muscle fatigue. The description in Annamese reads:

Hands helped him climb aboard. He settled near a window, and the bird lifted him into the air over the stricken city dotted by fires. Lights burned here and there as if the residents had forgotten they were under siege. Flashes from weapons made the face of the earth sparkle in the dark, but their sound was drowned in the roar of the helicopter. Tracers rose toward him. They were shooting at him, but his tilted consciousness went on marveling at the glittering lights, like those little lights Ben so loved as a child. Ben. Oh, Jesus. The city retreated into nothingness behind him. His heart contracted. Panic rose in his belly, the mindless terror of something urgent overlooked, left behind, forgotten. Nausea flooded him.

End of quote. The principal difference between my experience and that of Chuck in the novel is that I was on a little Huey, not a big Marine CH-53 helicopter. My bird was fired upon. We took so much lead in the fuselage that I thought we were going down, but we made it. We flew directly, in the dark and rain, to the Oklahoma City, the flag ship of the 7th Fleet. Once there, the pilot circled and circled over the ship before finally, very slowly, descending and landing on the flood-lit helipad. He told me later that he, a civilian pilot for Air America, had never before landed on a ship.

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