I’ve been invited to speak about my experience in Vietnam at the annual reunion of Vietnam vets of Hotel Company, 2nd Battalion, 5th Marine Division at Quantico, Virginia next October. I’ll talk about support to Marine units throughout Vietnam during the war and about a Marine officer named Al Gray.
I first met Al in the early 1960s when he was a captain. Over the years, I kept running into him as he commanded Marine units engaging the enemy in Vietnam and I crisscrossed the country doing signals intelligence against the enemy in support of U.S. combat forces. The last time I saw Al in Vietnam was in late April 1975 during the fall of Saigon. By then he was a colonel. Here’s the story:
In 1974, I was assigned to be chief of the clandestine National Security Agency (NSA) unit in South Vietnam. As it became obvious to me from intercepted enemy communications in March and April 1975 that Saigon was going to fall to the North Vietnamese, I struggled to get my 43 guys and their families safely out of country before the final collapse. The U.S. ambassador in Saigon, Graham Martin, forbade me to evacuate my people—he didn’t believe that the North Vietnamese would attack the city. So I had to lie, cheat, and steal to sneak them out. It worked. By the last week in April, all but a handful were gone.
One day, toward the end, I was on my cot in my office trying in vain to get some much-needed rest when the door chime sounded. I took my .38 revolver, went to the door, and looked out the peephole. Outside, I saw middle-aged American man in the wildest Hawaiian shirt I’d ever seen, colors so bright they hurt my eyes, shorts, and flip-flops. This in a war zone. He gave me a round-fingered wave and a silly grin, and I recognized him. It was Al Gray. I’d never before seen Al out of uniform. I didn’t think he owned any civilian clothes. And I knew he never came to Saigon except when he absolutely had to. He hated bureaucracy, and his job was in the field with his men.
I admitted Al to my spaces, and we went in my office to talk. He told me he’d been named the Ground Security Officer for the evacuation of Saigon. He was going to get me and my remaining men out safely. When I asked why he was in mufti, he told me that the ambassador tried to stop the evacuation but lacked the legal authority. The worst he could do was insist that Al and his Marines not wear uniforms while they did their preparations for the evacuation. Al’s form of protest was his wild outfit.