April 1975 in Vietnam (17)

Continuing the story of what happened when Saigon fell to the North Vietnamese in April 1975:

As I reported earlier, I’d gotten 41 of my subordinates and their families out of the country by lying, cheating, and faking, despite the ambassador’s edict forbidding evacuations. By 27 April, only three of us were left. We knew we had to stay to the end. We had almost nothing to eat, and we didn’t dare sleep.

Partly to stay awake, I maintained my schedule of recon runs, checking out the parking lot and the perimeter of the DAO building where Bob and Gary and I were holed up. I wanted to know ahead of time before the North Vietnamese broke through the fence. I got chummy with the snuffs at the gate closest to the building exit I used. Unlike most of the Marines, these guys were willing to fill me in on any new scuttlebutt. Among other things, they told me that people in the mobs outside the fence were tossing babies into the compound, hoping they’d survive and escape the Communists. The babies that made it over the top of the compound fence fell to the pavement inside and were killed because there was no one there to catch them. Most of the infants didn’t make it over the top—the fence was something like two stories high with barbed wire and an outward tilt at the top to prevent scalers. Many of the babies bounced on the fence, fell to the ground, and were killed.

Not long before sunset on 28 April, I made a head run. The mammoth DAO building“Pentagon East,” as we called it—was in shambles. Light bulbs were burned out, trash and broken furniture littered the halls, and the latrines were filthy and smelled disgusting. I came across men on stepladders running cables through the ceiling. They told me they were wiring the building for complete destruction. “Last man out lights the fuse and runs like hell,” they joked.

I went into the men’s room. I was standing at the urinal when the wall in front of me lunged toward me as if to swat me down, then slapped back into place. The sound of repeated explosions deafened me, and the jolts nearly knocked me off my feet. Instead of sensibly taking cover, I left the men’s room and went to the closest exit at the end of a hall, unbolted the door, and stepped into the shallow area between the western wall of the building and the security fence, a space of maybe ten to fifteen feet, now piled high with sandbags to protect us from shrapnel.

The first thing I noticed was that the throngs of refugees had dispersed—no one was clamoring outside the barrier—presumably frightened away by the explosions. My ears picked up the whine of turbojets. I shaded my eyes from the setting sun and spotted five A-37 Dragonfly fighters circling above the Tan Son Nhat runways. They dove, dropped bombs, and pulled up. The resulting concussions slammed me to the pavement, but I was on my feet and running before the planes went into their next approach. Back in the office, we got in a dispatch telling us that renegade South Vietnamese Air Force pilots who had defected to the Communists were bombing Tan Son Nhat.

More tomorrow.

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