After I escaped from Saigon on the night of 29 April, when the North Vietnamese were already in the streets of the city, and landed on the USS Oklahoma City, I knew I was sick. I reasoned that my problem was exhaustion. For days toward the end in Saigon, my two communicators and I had had almost nothing to eat and no sleep. As the 7th Fleet circled in the South China Sea, I slept. Some number of days passed—I couldn’t tell how many—as I lay unconscious in my berth.
In early May, we finally set sail for Subic Bay in the Philippines. Once there, I booked a flight for Hawaii because I knew I’d be required to go to Pearl Harbor to brief Commander-in-Chief, Pacific—CINCPAC—about what had happened in Saigon.
When I arrived in Honolulu, still carrying the two flags that had stood on both sides of my desk in my Saigon office, an NSA official (name still classified) met me at the airport. Rather than congratulating me for getting out of Saigon alive or asking if I was all right, he took one look at me and said, “You can’t be seen around here looking like that.” I was still wearing the clothes I’d been evacuated in and hadn’t shaved for days. I knew I’d lost weight and my face was a map of lines. He assigned a subordinate to gussy me up. That guy took me to a barber and a good men’s clothing store to get a decent suit to brief the brass at Pearl Harbor.
The briefing didn’t go well. I couldn’t talk. I was coughing constantly. I couldn’t focus my eyes. I was sweating and felt like I was running a fever. When I sat down, I passed out.
I finally admitted to myself that I was suffering from more than exhaustion. Despite all the sleeping I’d done before reaching Subic Bay, I was getting sicker. Any sensible person would have gone to a doctor immediately. But I didn’t. I wanted to go home. I can’t tell you how much I yearned just to go home. Dressed in my new suit and tie, I booked the earliest flight possible for Baltimore. During the stopover in San Francisco, I tried to find a doctor. But a physician’s strike was in progress, and no doctor would see me. I flew on to Baltimore. The day after I landed—still carrying my two flags—I saw a doctor who diagnosed me with amoebic dysentery, severe ear damage from the shelling, and “pneumonia due to sleep deprivation, muscle fatigue, and inadequate diet.” He relished adding that heavy smokers are more susceptible to pneumonia than “normal people.”