The Sad Month of April (14)

Continuing my series of posts about the fall of Saigon in April 1975:

After I dispatched my last message to the director of NSA, General Lew Allen, Bob, Gary, and I destroyed out comms gear and crypto and locked the door as we left for the staging area.

The remaining events of 29 April are confused in my memory—I was in such bad shape from lack of food and sleep that I was starting to hallucinate. I know that, as the North Vietnamese shelling of Saigon continued, I begged Al Gray to get Bob and Gary out as soon as possible. I couldn’t tolerate the idea that, after all they’d done, they might be hurt, captured, or killed. Sometime in the afternoon, when finally they went out on a whirlybird en route to a ship of the U.S. 7th Fleet cruising in the South China Sea, my work in Vietnam was finished. The last of my 43 subordinates and their families were safely out of the country.

I recall being locked in a room alone and told to wait until I was called for, trying to stay awake in my chair as the building pitched from artillery hits. I didn’t want to board a chopper until I got confirmation that Bob and Gary were safe on a ship of the 7th Fleet. And I wanted to get to a telephone to confirm that our Vietnamese counterparts were being evacuated. As far as I knew, they were still at their posts awaiting orders. But there was no telephone in the room, and I couldn’t leave because the South Vietnamese air force officers were still on the prowl in the hallways demanding evacuation at gunpoint.

The next thing I remember is being outside.

It was getting dark, and rain was pelting the helicopters in the compound. I protested to Al Gray that I wanted to wait for confirmation that my two communicators were safe, but he ordered me, in unrepeatable language, to get myself on the chopper now. I climbed aboard carrying with me the two flags that had hung in my office—the U.S. stars and stripes and the gold-and-orange national flag of the defunct Republic of Vietnam.

The bird, for some reason, was not a CH-53 but a small Air America slick, a little huey. As soon as we were airborne, I saw tracers coming at us. We took so many slugs in the fuselage that I thought we were going down, but we made it. All over the city below me, fires were burning. Once we were “feet wet”— over water—the pilot dropped us abruptly to an altitude just above the water’s surface, and my stomach struggled to keep up. It was, he explained to me later, to avoid surface-to-air missiles. All I remember of the flight after that is darkness.

More tomorrow.

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