More on my memories of the fall of Saigon forty-five years ago this month:
During the last week of April 1975, as I reported earlier, I was sleeping in my office located on the northern edge of Saigon and living on bar snacks scavenged from a local cocktail lounge. As I scrambled to get the last of my people safely out of Vietnam before the North Vietnamese took the city, I spent hours destroying our classified material. Since even the presence of National Security Agency (NSA) personnel in Vietnam was secret, reams of paper had to be burned. Then the ashes had to be stirred to be sure nothing was left legible.
As I took loads of material out to burn in the incinerators in the parking lot of our compound, I spotted brawny young American men with skinhead haircuts inside the fence. They were wearing tee-shirts and tank tops, shorts, and tennis shoes. And when two or three of them were walking side by side, they fell into step with each other as if marching. I realized they were Marines in mufti. But I knew all the Marines in country, so who were these guys?
I found out the next day. I was trying unsuccessfully to grab some sleep on the cot in my office when the door chime sounded. I took my .38 revolver and went to the door. Through the peephole I saw a middle-aged American man dressed in shorts, rubber flip-flops, and the wildest Hawaiian shirt I had ever seen, colors so bright they hurt my eyes. The man gave me a flat-handed wave and a silly grin, and I recognized him. It was Al Gray, a Marine officer I’d worked with on and off during my thirteen years in and out of Vietnam. I’d first met Al when he was a captain in the early 1960s. I knew he was now a colonel. I’d never before seen out of uniform—I didn’t think he owned any civvies. And I knew he never came to Saigon unless he had to, then he stayed less than a day if he could. He hated bureaucracy, and his job was in the field with his troops. I put aside the .38 and opened the door. “Hi,” he said. “Can I come in?”
We went into my office and we talked. I told him everything I knew about the military situation, but he knew more than I did. What he was less clear about was the mobs of refugees flooding Saigon. I explained that I couldn’t get a car through the streets any more and that the compound was now surrounded by a crowd ten to fifteen people deep, all demanding evacuation. I was afraid the fence might not hold.