Reading Thurston Clarke’s Honorable Exit brought back vivid memories of the last days of Vietnam. I wrote several days ago about the 2700 South Vietnamese soldiers I failed to evacuate at the end. Today I want to tell the story of the general commanding those troops and about one of the 2700, an army major, who was sacrificed at the end.
The general, whose name is still classified, headed the South Vietnamese signals intelligence effort against the North Vietnamese. During the last week of April 1975, as the North Vietnamese surrounded Saigon and prepared for the final attack, the general became despondent. He sat alone in his darkened office sobbing hysterically. I urged him to evacuate his men before Saigon fell, but my words went unheard.
Meanwhile, I visited one of his officers, a major I had known for years. I wanted to be sure he and his troops knew where to go when the U.S. ordered the evacuation, something I couldn’t discuss on an unsecured phone line—the North Vietnamese were already in Saigon’s outskirts and were monitoring my telephone. Always a model of Asian politeness, he invited me in and served me tea. He told me that his wife, who worked for USAID, had been offered the opportunity to leave the country with her family. That included him. But he wouldn’t go because he was unwilling to abandon his troops—no evacuation order had been issued—and she wouldn’t leave without him. Alarmed, I asked him what he would do if he was still in Saigon when Communists tanks rolled through the streets. He told me he couldn’t live under the Communists. “I will shoot my three children, then I will shoot my wife, then I will shoot myself.”
The major didn’t escape at the end, and I have no doubt that he carried out his plan; many other South Vietnamese soldiers did precisely what he described.