April 1975 in Vietnam (21)

I was conscious when the helicopter on which I was evacuated as Saigon fell approached the USS Oklahoma City, flagship of the 7th Fleet. In total darkness and pounding rain, the Huey pilot circled and circled, then very slowly descended to the ship’s small floodlit helipad, where he finally landed. He told me subsequently that he, a civilian employee of Air America, had never before landed on a ship.

As we got out of the slick into the lashing rain, flashbulbs went off and sailors took my .38, but I wouldn’t give up the two flags that had stood on both sides of my desk—the stars and stripes and the gold and orange flag of the Republic of Vietnam (South Vietnam). Those flags are now in the Cryptologic Museum at Fort Meade, Maryland.

Sailors immediately tipped our Huey over the side and dumped it into the sea to make room for the next incoming bird. I faintly remember some kind of processing, answering questions and filling out forms, but I was only half there. The next thing I recall clearly is shivering—I was very cold. I was in berth, a sort of canvas hammock, in a room lit only by a red bulb on the bulkhead. I could hear the ship’s engine, low and far away, and men above, below, and on all sides of me were sleeping.

I discovered I could walk and found my way to the latrine where, still shivering, I brushed my teeth and showered for the first time in weeks. Somebody directed me to the wardroom where I ate a breakfast and a half, surrounded by the scruffiest mix of Vietnamese and Americans I had ever seen—all refugees evacuated from Saigon. Their clothes were torn and filthy. The men were unshaven, the women disheveled. In the midst was a distinguished older gentleman in a ruined suit, but his tie was still knotted at the throat.

When I’d eaten my fill and went on deck, it was daylight—I must have slept a long time. South Vietnamese helicopters flew close to the ship, cut their engines, and dropped into the water. The pilots—and sometimes their families—were rescued and brought aboard as the choppers sank to the bottom.

The sea, between and among the ships of the 7th Fleet and to the western horizon as far as I could see, was filled with boats—sampans, junks, fishing vessels, commercial craft, tugs, even what looked like large rowboats, each overloaded with Vietnamese waving and calling to the ships.

Someone found out I spoke Vietnamese and asked me to broadcast a message on a common frequency telling those in the boats that the ships of the 7th Fleet were already jammed to the rafters and couldn’t take any more onboard. Numb to the implications of what I was saying, I repeated the message four or five times before my voice gave way from coughing and I had to quit. Only later did I understand that many of those boats were so far from shore that they couldn’t make it back. Many didn’t make it back. The people on them perished at sea.

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