The Sad Month of April (16)

More about my time aboard the Oklahoma City after the fall of Saigon:

The sea, between and among the ships of the 7th Fleet and to the western horizon as far as I could see, was filled with boats—sampans, junks, fishing vessels, commercial craft, tugs, even what looked like large rowboats, each overloaded with Vietnamese waving and calling to the ships, wanting to be evacuated.

Someone found out I spoke Vietnamese and asked me to broadcast a message on a common frequency telling those in the boats that the ships of the 7th Fleet were already jammed to the rafters and couldn’t take any more onboard. It was true. The decks and stairwells were filled with people. Numb to the implications of what I was saying, I repeated the message four or five times before my voice gave way from coughing and I had to quit. Only later did I understand the consequences of what I had done. Many of those boats were so far from shore that they couldn’t make it back. Many didn’t make it back. The people on them perished at sea.

After circling for days, we finally set sail for Subic Bay in the Philippines in early May. Once there, I booked a flight for Hawaii because I knew I’d be required to brief Commander-in-Chief, Pacific—CINCPAC—about what had happened in Saigon.

When I arrived in Honolulu, still carrying the two flags from my Saigon office, an NSA official met me at the airport. Rather than congratulating me for getting out of Vietnam alive or asking if I was all right, he took one look at me and said, “You can’t be seen around here looking like that.” I was still in the clothes I’d been evacuated in and hadn’t shaved for days. I knew I’d lost weight, and my face was a map of lines. He assigned a subordinate to gussy me up. That guy took me to a barber and a good men’s clothing store to get a decent suit to brief the brass at Pearl Harbor.

That briefing didn’t go well. I couldn’t talk. I was coughing constantly. I couldn’t focus my eyes. I was sweating and felt like I was running a fever. When I sat down, I passed out.

I finally admitted to myself that I was suffering from more than exhaustion. For days, as the ships of the 7th Fleet circled, I’d done nothing but sleep. Despite that, I was getting worse. Any sensible person would have gone to a doctor immediately. But I didn’t. I can’t tell you how much I yearned to go home. Dressed in my new suit and tie, I booked the earliest flight possible for Baltimore. During the stopover between flights in San Francisco, I tried to find a doctor. But a physician’s strike was in progress, and no doctor would see me. I flew on to Baltimore. The day after I landed, I found a doctor who diagnosed me with amoebic dysentery, ear damage from the artillery shelling, and “pneumonia due to sleep deprivation, muscle fatigue, and poor diet.” He relished adding that heavy smokers are more susceptible to pneumonia than “normal people.”

More tomorrow.

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