The Sad Month of April (15)

More about the fall of Saigon forty-five years ago:

It was pitch black and pouring rain as the little huey carried me from Saigon to the U.S. 7th Fleet in the South China Sea on the night of 29 April 1975. I was conscious when we approached the USS Oklahoma City, flagship of the fleet. The pilot circled repeatedly before coming down very slowly on the ship’s small floodlit helipad. He told me later that he, a civilian employee of Air America, had never before landed on a ship.

As we got out of the slick into the lashing rain, flashbulbs went off and someone took my .38. But I wouldn’t give them the two flags I carried—the stars and stripes and the gold and orange flag of the Republic of Vietnam (South Vietnam) that had stood on both sides of my desk in my Saigon office. Those flags are now in Cryptologic Museum at Fort Meade, Maryland.

Sailors immediately tipped our huey over the side and dumped it into the sea to make room for the next incoming helicopter. I faintly remember some kind of processing, answering questions and filling out forms, but I was only half there. The next thing I recall clearly is shivering—I was very cold. I was in a berth, a sort of canvas hammock, in a room lit only by a red bulb on the bulkhead. I could hear the ship’s engine, low and far away, and men above, below, and on all sides of me were sleeping in suspended berths.

I managed to get out of the berth and down to the deck. I discovered I could walk and found my way to the latrine where, still shivering, I brushed my teeth and showered for the first time in weeks. Somebody directed me to the wardroom where I ate a breakfast and a half, surrounded by the scruffiest mix of Vietnamese and Americans I had ever seen. Their clothes were torn and filthy. The men were unshaven, the women disheveled. In the midst was a distinguished older gentleman in a ruined suit, but his tie was still knotted at the throat.

When I’d eaten my fill and went on deck, it was daylight—I must have slept a long time. South Vietnamese helicopters flew close to the ship, cut their engines, and dropped into the sea. The pilots—and sometimes their families—were rescued and brought aboard as the choppers sank to the bottom.

More tomorrow.

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