The Last Days of Vietnam

Although I’ve written about it before, the final days in Saigon as it fell to the North Vietnamese in April 1975 are worth a revisit. They are forever engraved on my memory.

Toward the end of my novel, Last of the Annamese, as the attack on Saigon begins on 26 April 1975, Chuck, Sparky, and Colonel Troiano are caught in their office at Tan Son Nhat, on the northern edge of Saigon, where they’re holed up. Here’s the text from the beginning of chapter 19:

“It started Saturday morning. Reports swamped the comms center. Long Binh was under attack, and Ba Ria fell. North Vietnamese shelling of Bien Hoa was low thunder that shook the floor. The final assault was under way. To get around the Ambassador’s edict that no one was to be evacuated, Troiano sent most of the remaining personnel out of country by air on trumped-up ‘temporary duty’ missions. The Intelligence Branch, the comms center, and the tank were now manned by five people—two comms techs who’d volunteered to stay to the end, Chuck, Sparky, and Troiano. ‘We’re just here to turn off the lights when the Ambassador gives us permission to leave,’ Troiano told Chuck. They adopted the eight-sixteen rule—eight hours of sleep, sixteen hours of work on rotating shifts, so that two people would man the tank at all times. Sparky made a food run, found out that the snack bar was deserted.”

That description matches what really happened to me. Most of my 43 subordinates were already gone, sent out the country on phony temporary duty, home leave, or vacation—all to get around the ambassador’s no-evacuation order. By the next day, Sunday, 27 April, we were down to three of us, me and two communicators who had volunteered to stay through attack. We had already been on the eight-sixteen rule but switched to a 24-hour schedule with two-hour breaks for one man while the other two worked.

It was a living nightmare. The North Vietnamese shelled us regularly. The comm center, where we were hiding, lurched from side to side. The sound of the artillery shells exploding in the building deafened us. For days we had almost nothing to eat and couldn’t sleep because of the shells detonating all around us.

I’ll never forget or stop honoring those two communicators who agreed to remain during the attack. Bob Hartley and Gary Hickman showed enormous courage. They stayed calm in the face of disaster, knowing they could be killed in the next barrage. They worked harder than I had any right to expect, doing between them the job 16 men had done when we were at full strength. When they were extracted by helicopter on the afternoon of 29 April, I knew my work in Vietnam was finished.

More tomorrow.

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