April 1975 in Vietnam (20)

After the evacuation of Saigon was finally ordered from Washington—countermanding the ambassador—Bob, Gary, and I, still trapped in the DAO building on the northern edge of Saigon, destroyed our communications and crypto equipment and locked the door as we left for the evacuation staging area, another office that the Marines had secured. The North Vietnamese shelling got worse.

The remaining events of 29 April are confused in my memory—I was in such bad shape I was starting to hallucinate. I know that, as the shelling continued, I begged Al Gray to get my two communicators out as soon as possible. I couldn’t tolerate the idea that, after all they’d done, they might be hurt, captured, or killed. Around 1400 (2:00 p.m.) in the afternoon, when finally they went out on a whirlybird, my work in Vietnam was done.

I recall being locked in a room alone and told to wait until I was called for, trying to stay awake in my chair as the building pitched from artillery hits. I didn’t want to board a chopper until I got confirmation that my communicators were safe aboard a ship of the 7th Fleet. And I wanted to get to a telephone to confirm that our Vietnamese counterparts were being evacuated. As far as I knew, they were still at their posts awaiting orders. But there was no telephone in the room, and I couldn’t leave because the South Vietnamese air force officers were still on the prowl.

The next thing I remember is being outside.

It was getting dark, and rain was pelting the helicopters in the compound. I protested to Al Gray that I wanted to wait for confirmation that my two communicators were safe, but he ordered me, in unrepeatable language, to get myself on the chopper now. I climbed aboard carrying with me the two flags that had hung in my office—the U.S. stars and stripes and the gold-and-orange national flag of the now defunct Republic of Vietnam.

The bird, for some reason, was not a CH-53 but a small Air America slick. As soon as we were airborne, I saw tracers coming at us. We took so many slugs in the fuselage that I thought we were going down, but we made it. All over the city, fires were burning. Once we were “feet wet”— over water—the pilot dropped us abruptly to an altitude that scared me, just above the water’s surface, and my stomach struggled to keep up. It was, he explained to me later, to avoid surface-to-air missiles. All I remember of the flight after that is darkness.

More tomorrow.

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