The Escape from Saigon

As I’ve noted before in this blog, I escaped under fire during the fall of Saigon on the night of 29 April 1975. I adapted my own memories of that escape to tell of the flight of Chuck Griffin, the protagonist of Last of the Annamese. Ben, mentioned in the excerpt, was Chuck’s son, killed in combat in Vietnam:

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.

He tried to sit forward and discovered that he was strapped in. The deafening roar of rotor engines filled his ears. Where was he? Total darkness. No, a dashboard was gleaming maybe ten feet from him. The dials and gauges were a craziness of meaningless green lights, numbers, lines, spaces. He and a lot of other people were flying. The pressure in his head made him wonder if they were upside down. How could the pilot tell? He couldn’t get his brain to cooperate. He shook his head, forced his eyes open, slapped himself to keep awake. Memory clicked in a piece at a time. He was en route to the Seventh Fleet in the South China Sea. He hadn’t been airborne long. Had he blacked out?

End of quote. Chuck’s fictional experience and mine differed in several respects. First, Chuck escapes on a CH-53 helicopter, a large bird used for the evacuation. I went out on a little Huey, flown by an employee of Air America, a civilian corporation brought in the to help in the evacuation. Second, the chopper I was on took so much lead in the fuselage that I thought we were going to crash, but we made it. Third, I was flown not to the Midway but to the Oklahoma City, the flag ship of the Seventh Fleet. The pilot obviously had trouble landing in the dark and the rain on the floodlit helipad of the ship. He told me later that he had never before landed on a ship.

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