April 1975 in Vietnam (10)

On 17 April 1975, as I went on living in my office at Tan Son Nhat on the northern edge of Saigon, I got word that Phnom Penh, the capitol of Cambodia, had fallen to the Khmer Rouge, the Cambodian communists, allied to North Vietnam. That was another signature event heralding the collapse of anti-communist forces in Southeast Asia.

Meanwhile, I pushed on in getting as many people out of the country as I could. I couldn’t tolerate the prospect that any of my subordinates or their families would be killed when the North Vietnamese attacked Saigon, and all the signs were that the attack was coming soon.

The ambassador has refused to allow me to evacuate my people. So I cheated. I sent my employees and their families on any ruse I could think of. One I had to order out—he was unwilling to leave me behind. Some went on trumped-up early home leave, some on contrived vacations. Others I sent out on phony business travel. One day toward the end, I bought a guy a ticket with my own money and, with no authorization and no orders, I put him in a Pan Am flight out of the country. It was the last Pan Am flight from Saigon.

I knew I’d have to stay until the end. The Ambassador wouldn’t allow me to go, but, more important, I had to be sure all my subordinates and their families escaped. Besides, there were some 2700 South Vietnamese soldiers who had worked with NSA for years. I was determined to do everything possible to get them out of the country before the North Vietnamese took Saigon. I knew how cruel the North Vietnamese would be to them if they could get their hands on them.

Since I couldn’t leave, I asked for two volunteers to stay with me. I needed a communicator and a communications maintenance technician to keep comms open to the U.S. Some of the 16 men in my communications center pleaded that they owed it to their wives and children not to risk their lives. I found that eminently reasonable. Then two brave men stepped forward. Their names are now declassified, so I can tell you who they were: Bob Hartley, the communicator, and Gary Hickman, the maintenance man. I warned them of the danger and told them that they’d have to keep the equipment going through unforeseen emergencies that might include electrical outages, shelling, and direct attack.

They understood.

Even today I admire, no, love, those two men for their raw courage. They risked their lives because I asked them to.

More tomorrow.

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