The Last Days of Vietnam (2)

The final days in Vietnam are hard to describe because no superlatives are strong enough. As the North Vietnamese came closer to Saigon, refugees fled by the thousands into the city. The streets were crammed with desperate people with no food or places to stay. Cars couldn’t get through. Our compound at Tan Son Nhat on the northern edge of Saigon was surrounded by mobs, ten to fifteen people deep, all demanding evacuation before the North Vietnamese seized the city. The runways at the airport, next to us, had been bombed. Deep craters meant that there would be no more fixed-wing aircraft takeoffs. Exodus from then on would be by boat—impractical because the enemy controlled the river and adjacent waterways—or by helicopter.

Bob and Gary and I hadn’t slept for days. All we had for food was bar snacks we’d been able to scrounge from a hotel while we were still able to get out into the streets, and they were almost gone. What’s odd is that I don’t remember ever being hungry or tired. I was so focused on somehow getting Bob and Gary out safely that all other considerations were forgotten. The regular shelling knocked us off our feet. The room shifted violently. Dust fell on us.

Somehow, through it all, our communications with the National Security Agency (NSA), our boss, never failed. Gary kept the equipment working, and Bob and I reported on what was happening. I learned later that our guys who had been evacuated were on the other end, reading our reports of what was happening.

One incident at the beginning of the collapse now strikes me funny. At the time, it was deadly serious. I had stopped using normal communications, called criticom, to keep NSA informed because the system was too cumbersome. To use it, I had to type a message on the proper form and give it to the comms guys. They would then poke the text onto a paper tape which they would run through transmission equipment. Instead, I was using what we called opscom (short for “operational communications”), normally used by communicators to solve technical communications problems. That meant that I was typing directly onto a circuit that was printing out simultaneously at the NSA Operations Center (NSOC). Among other things, I was reporting the departure of my guys and their families and where they were headed—determined by where we could get tickets to. I received a criticom message chastising me for using the opscom to report on personnel, matters that were strictly limited to the more formal communications system, and ordering me to cease forthwith.

More tomorrow.

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