Saigon, April 1975: Mobs in the Streets

As the North Vietnamese pushed their conquest of Vietnam further and further south in March and April of 1975, the people of Vietnam fled from them. Refugees by the tens of thousands abandoned their farms, villages, and cities and moved south ahead of the North Vietnamese. They looked to what was left of the Republic of Vietnam (South Vietnam) and the U.S. to save them from the communists. They looked in vain.

I was in Saigon at the time heading the undercover U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) operation. As the streets of the city became more and more crowded with the fleeing refugees, I struggled to get my 43 subordinates and their wives and children—and my own wife and four children—safely out of the country. I knew it was only a matter of weeks at the most before the city fell to the North Vietnamese.

The U.S. Ambassador, Graham Martin, forbade me from evacuating my people and their families. He didn’t believe that the North Vietnamese would attack Saigon. I was intercepting North Vietnamese radio communications and knew that they intended to assault the city as soon as they could. Prohibited from sending my subordinates out  of South Vietnam, I decided to do it anyway.

So I lied, cheated, and stole to get my people out. Some I sent out on phony business travel, others on fake vacations, still others on trumped-up home leave. Fortunately, our office was in the Defense Attaché Office (DAO) building at Tan Son Nhat, on the northern edge of Saigon adjacent to the airport. Even though mobs surrounded our compound, we were still able to force our way through to get to the terminals servicing outgoing aircraft. Getting my people from downtown Saigon, where they lived, to the airport four miles away on the northern edge of the city, was another story. It was tricky, difficult, and dangerous. But we did it.

Day by day, as the fleeing refugees flowed into Saigon, the streets were becoming more and more crammed; getting a car through grew riskier and more difficult. We were able to get people to the airport despite the mobs, but we knew we couldn’t do it much longer. By 20 April or so, we had gotten all our people out of the city. Most had left the country, but a few were still sleeping in the office.

More next time.

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