My retracing the events of April 1975 in Vietnam has brought back memories of General Al Gray, USMC. It was he who saved my life as Saigon fell, and I’ll have more to say about that later in April. For now, I want to survey my memories of the general before and after the rescue.
I first met Al Gray in the early 1960’s in Vietnam. He was a captain then, having risen to officer rank after serving as an enlisted man. I don’t remember where I first encountered Al—I was wandering all over South Vietnam in those years assisting U.S. combat units with signals intelligence support. As the sixties went on, I kept running into Al, sometimes in the far south, sometimes up north near the DMZ, sometimes in areas in between, like the highlands where I spent a good deal of time.
By the time Saigon fell, Al was a colonel. It was he who pushed me onto a Huey on the night of 29 April 1975 for the escape flight to a ship of the 7th Fleet cruising in the South China Sea. I’ll tell that story in detail later this month.
What impressed me was that as the years passed, Al stayed in touch, even after he became a general. When I was diagnosed with lung cancer in 2013, he went out of his way to contact me and express his wishes for my recovery. When my former employer, the National Security Agency, invited me back a few years ago to give a presentation on the fall of Saigon, Al was there to speak after me.
As I’ll explain in more detail later, I stopped calling him Al when he became Commandant of the Marine Corps. Now I call him “sir.” I was then and still am today in awe of the general. He is the finest leader I had ever seen in action. To this date, I’ve never met a Marine who doesn’t know who Al Gray is.
Last year, volume 2 of General Gray’s biography was published: Al Gray, Marine: The Early Years 1968-1975, Vol 2 by Scott Laidig. In it, Scott recounts in detail the evacuation of Saigon, Operation FREQUENT WIND PHASE FOUR, headed by then Colonel Al Gray, and describes my situation during the failing days of Saigon.
One of my favorite memories of Al Gray came fairly early, although I can’t now remember where or when the moment occurred. I asked Al why he had never married. I’ll never forget his words: “If the Marine Corps had wanted me to have a wife, they would have issued me one.”
The general did marry later. I made it my business to keep his earlier statement to myself when his wife’s around.