A few weeks ago, Jan Herman, author of The Lucky Few (Naval Institute Press, 2013), emailed me to say that he had reread Last of the Annamese and enjoyed it. That prompted me to pull out my copy of The Lucky Few and read it again. I’m glad I did. It’s a fine piece of work and well worth my time.
The book narrates the rescue operation undertaken by the USS Kirk, a destroyer escort that was part of the U.S. Seventh Fleet Task Force 76. The ships in the task force rescued evacuees, including me, during April and May 1975 when Saigon fell to the North Vietnamese.
What makes Jan’s book so valuable to me is that it greatly adds to my understanding of the events surrounding the fall of Saigon. I knew in detail what happened on the ground—I lived it—but my knowledge and memory of actions taken at sea was at best sketchy, in part because I was so sick during those days that I didn’t observe much. Because of conditions I had to live under during the prolonged North Vietnamese siege of Saigon, I was suffering from exhaustion, amoebic dysentery, ear damage, and pneumonia due to insufficient diet, muscle fatigue, and sleep deprivation. I wasn’t physically competent to understand that huge naval operation.
Thanks to The Lucky Few, I now know that Task Force 76 was an enormous undertaking put together in great haste. It included seventeen amphibious ships, two aircraft carriers, fourteen escorts, and eleven replenishment ships. Beyond them, two other aircraft carriers farther out to sea provided protection.
The night Saigon fell, 29 April, I boarded a Huey belonging to Air America, a private company operating in South Vietnam. We came under fire as soon as we were airborne, but we made it. In the dark and pouring rain, we landed on the Oklahoma City, the flag ship of the Seventh Fleet. At the same time and in the days that followed, Vietnamese refugees escaped by boat and on the ships of the South Vietnamese navy. The Kirk alone rescued more than 30,000 of them.
I’m heartened by the story of Task Force 76. It was a gallant and magnificently executed operation that saved many thousands of lives. The Kirk story is a small and partial antidote to my grief over our abandonment of the hundreds of thousands of South Vietnamese who had fought by our side. The loss is personal to me. Some 2,700 South Vietnamese soldiers who had worked with my organization were left behind as Saigon fell. All of them were killed or captured by the North Vietnamese. The ambassador had refused to call for an evacuation, and by the time he was countermanded from Washington, it was too late to get to those men. I will always mourn their loss.