The Sad Month of April (9)

More on the visit of Marine Colonel Al Gray to my office in Saigon in April 1975, as the North Vietnamese prepared to attack the city:

Al told me that he’d been named the Ground Security Officer for evacuation of Saigon when it was ordered. He and his troops were aboard ships of the U.S. 7th Fleet cruising in the South China Sea, out of sight from land. He’d flown in by helicopter to prepare.

But the ambassador was throwing every roadblock he could think of in Al’s way. He wouldn’t allow Al and his men to fly in on Marine helicopters—they had to use the little  hueys, the Bell UH-1 Iroquois  helicopters belonging to the Air America, a civilian company operating in South Vietnam. Those little birds could only hold eight to fourteen people max. The ambassador wouldn’t allow the Marines to stay overnight. So Al and his men had to fly in, do their preparatory work, then fly back to the 7th Fleet each day on the little hueys. And the ambassador insisted that Al and his men dress in mufti, not Marine uniforms. Al’s form of protest was the wild shirt he was wearing.

What Al told me helped to calm me. Now I knew that, ambassador or no ambassador, the Marines had landed. They were ready to carry out the evacuation the instant it was ordered.

After the end of the Vietnam war, Al Gray went on to become a Marine general. He was kind enough to stay in touch with me over the years after the fall of Saigon. We often gave presentations together at gatherings. And he contacted me at least once a year to see how I was doing.

By the way, I don’t call him Al any more. That stopped the day he was named Commandant of the Marine Corps. Now I call him “sir.”

General Gray is the finest leader I came across during my years in Vietnam. He had two priorities: his mission and the welfare of his men. And he never asked his troops to do anything he wouldn’t do himself.

General Gray is now 91 years old and still going strong. There is no doubt in my mind that he is a great man. It has been my privilege to know him.

More on the sad month of April 1975 next time.

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