April: Anniversary of the Fall of Vietnam (8)

Continuing my retelling of how I survived the fall of Saigon:

The night I recognized the Marines in the compound even though they were in civilian clothes, I found out what was going on. I was trying to grab a little sleep on the cot in my office when the door chime sounded. I grasped my .38 and went to the door. Through the peephole I saw a middle-aged American man with reddish hair in a neon Hawaiian shirt—colors so bright they hurt my eyes—shorts, and rubber flipflops. All wildly inappropriate for a warzone. He gave me a flat-handed wave and a silly grin. It was Colonel Al Gray, a Marine officer I’d worked with over the years in Vietnam. I’d never before seen Al out of uniform—I didn’t think he owned any civies—and I knew he made it an iron-clad rule never to spend more than 24 hours in Saigon—his work was with his troops in the field and he disliked bureaucracy. I lowered the .38 and opened the door. “Hi,” he said. “Can I come in?”

In my office, I told him everything I knew about the military situation, but he knew more than I did. What he didn’t know in detail was what was going on with the civilian population. I told him about the unruly, desperate crowds jamming the streets to the point that I couldn’t drive through anymore and the crowd now ten to fifteen people deep outside the perimeter fence of our compound and my worry that the fence might not hold. He explained to me that he’d been named the Ground Security Officer—the man in charge—for the evacuation of Saigon once it was ordered. He and his Marines were flying in by helicopter to prepare for the massive operation from ships of the U.S. 7th Fleet cruising out of sight in the South China Sea.

But the Ambassador was doing everything he could to throw roadblocks in Al’s way. He wouldn’t allow Al’s Marines to dress in uniform, fly their own helicopters into the country, or stay overnight. So Al and his troops, in civilian clothes, had to fly in and out each day via Air America slicks, the little Hueys, the UH-1 choppers that could only carry eight to fourteen people. Al’s crazy outfit—shorts, flipflops, and the loudest sports shirt I’d ever seen—were his form of protest against the ambassador’s orders.

It didn’t matter. Ambassador or no ambassador, the Marines had landed. They’d be ready for the evacuation the instant it was ordered.

More next time.

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