People who learn of my travails during the fall of Saigon, as I struggled to get my men and their wives and children out of the country safely, often remark on my stamina and courage. None of that rings true to me.
Looking back on what happened, it was a remarkable feat. Forbidden by the U.S. Ambassador, Graham Martin, to evacuate my men and their families, I did it anyway, using every ruse I could think of to get them on planes out of Vietnam. I and the two men who volunteered to stay with me to the end were stranded in our office suite on the northern edge of Saigon as the North Vietnamese attacked. We went without sleep and food for days on end. I finally got my two guys on a helicopter out of the country on the afternoon of 29 April 1975 after the North Vietnamese were already in the streets of the city. I went out that night under fire.
It obviously required a lot of nerve and resilience to accomplish my mission of seeing to it that none of my men or their families were killed or wounded. But I don’t remember it that way.
What stands out in my memory was my unflagging stubbornness. I was doggedly committed to assuring the escape of all the people I was responsible for. I remember my frustration when my efforts were blocked and I had to try alternatives. I remember my fury at the ambassador for endangering my people. I remember my exhilaration when Bob and Gary, the two guys who stayed with me, finally flew out to a ship of the 7th Fleet cruising in the South China Sea.
But I have no memories of being afraid or exhausted or hungry. I suppose that, in my mind, none of that mattered. The experience took a toll: after I escaped under fire and finally got back to the world (the U.S.), I was diagnosed with ear damage from the shelling we were subjected to, amoebic dysentery, and pneumonia due to sleep deprivation, insufficient diet, and muscle fatigue.
I’m reminded of a text I read long ago about a man preparing to face overwhelming odds as he looked in the mirror. He saw an image of himself trembling with fear and pale with terror. He called that the picture of a hero.
That sounds like a description of me not before but after the fall of Saigon. I had lost so much weight that I looked emaciated. I was wearing clothes I’d been in for days on end. I needed a haircut and a shave, and my face was lined. People who knew me as a healthy man were shocked at my appearance. But I don’t remember any of that. I remember the quiet satisfaction of knowing that all my men, their wives, and their children, escaped unharmed.
That’s the emotion that stays with me still.