April 1975 in Vietnam (14)

Continuing my narrative about what happened in Saigon in April 1975:

During the night of 26 April, I was trying unsuccessfully to get some sleep in my office at Tan Son Nhat, on the northern edge of Saigon, when a blast threw me from my cot and slammed me to the floor. I ran to the comms center. The guys looked dazed, but everything was working and nobody was hurt. A bulletin arrived within minutes telling us that North Vietnamese sappers had blown up the ammo dump at Bien Hoa, just north of us. That meant, among other things, that panic in the streets would ramp up a couple of notches.

I started doing regular physical recons of the DAO building, that huge structure we called “Pentagon East” where our offices were located and where we were now sleeping. Sometimes I took out a load of burnbags to the incinerator in the parking lot and burned them; other times I just wandered around. I wanted to be sure I knew beforehand if the North Vietnamese were going to breach the perimeter fence. As I walked the halls and crisscrossed the compound, I saw brawny young American men with skinhead haircuts who had appeared out of nowhere. They were dressed in tank tops or tee-shirts, shorts, and tennis shoes. When two or three walked together, they fell into step, as if marching.

Marines in mufti! I knew all the Marines in country, and I didn’t recognize any of these guys. What the hell was going on?

I found out the next day. I was again trying to grab a little much-needed sleep in my office. The door chime sounded. I grasped my .38 and went to the door. Through the peephole I saw a middle-aged American man in a neon Hawaiian shirt, shorts, and rubber flip-flops. He gave me a flat-handed wave and a silly grin. It was Colonel Al Gray, a Marine officer I’d worked with over the years in Vietnam. I’d never before seen Al out of uniform—I didn’t think he owned any civies—and I knew he made it an iron-clad rule never to spend more than 24 hours in Saigon—his work was with his troops in the field and he disliked bureaucracy. I lowered the .38 and opened the door. “Hi,” he said. “Can I come in?”

In my office, I told him everything I knew about the military situation, but he knew more than I did. What he didn’t know in detail was what was going on with the friendlies. I told him about the unruly, desperate crowds jamming the streets and now ten to fifteen people deep outside the perimeter fence of our compound and my worry that the fence might not hold. He explained to me that he’d been named the Ground Security Officer—the man in charge—for the evacuation of Saigon once it was ordered.

More tomorrow.

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