April 1975 in Vietnam (12)

Continuing my narrative of events 43 years ago in Saigon: So much happened that to report most of it (there was too much to report it all) before the end April 2018, I need jump ahead a couple of days to 21 April 1975. The following is adapted from my article, “Bitter Memories: The Fall of Saigon”:

On 21 April 1975, Xuan Loc, 40 miles northeast of us, fell ending a heroic defense by the South Vietnamese 18th Infantry Division. Communist forces proceeded to encircle us. The same day, the president of the Republic of Vietnam (South Vietnam), Nguyen van Thieu, resigned and fled the country.

I instructed my comms center to reduce to the minimum the number of copies it made of each new incoming message. We bagged documents as soon as we read them and burned them in the incinerator in the DAO parking lot, then stirred the ashes to assure that nothing was left legible. I turned my full attention to persuading the Ambassador that the remaining Americans and the Vietnamese who had worked with us had to leave the country before we were captured or killed. In that task, to my undying regret, I failed.

On 22 April, the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency estimated that the Republic of Vietnam wouldn’t last more than a week. It was comforting to see that the Department of Defense and Commander-in-Chief, Pacific harbored no delusions about what was happening in Vietnam. But the Ambassador was not in their chain of command. He reported to the Secretary of State and the President. Unless they overruled him, he still had the power to keep us all in Saigon. He convinced them no evacuation was necessary.

Despite that, outgoing commercial airlines were choked with passengers, and U.S. Air Force C-130 and C-141 transports daily carted hundreds of Vietnamese and Americans out of the country. The embassy made a point of explaining that their departure was not an evacuation. It was a reduction in force to free up resources to help the Republic of Vietnam.

I didn’t know how much longer I’d be able to get out and about. As the North Vietnamese came closer, refugees fled them and jammed in Saigon. The crowds in the streets were becoming larger and more menacing. Some of the men, in ragged Republic of Vietnam military uniforms, were armed. I knew the danger, but several trips were crucial. I told my Vietnamese driver, who usually ferried me around town, to use his U.S. pass to drive his family onto the military side of Tan Son Nhat in the black sedan assigned to me, a Ford Galaxy with diplomatic plates and American flags, and escape while they still could. Then I took over the sedan. Armed with my .38, I drove it rather than my small Japanese car, foolishly believing that the impressive official vehicle would ward off the massed refugees.

I had it exactly backwards.

The sedan attracted the most desperate of those seeking evacuation. I was mobbed once, but when I bared my teeth and leveled the .38, the crowd pulled back just enough for me to force my way through.

More tomorrow.

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