More on the fall of Saigon, forty-six years ago today:
The bombing of the Tan Son Nhat runways by defecting A-37 fighters at sunset on 28 April was just the beginning. We were bombarded throughout the night and much of the following day, first rockets, later, beginning around 0430 hours local on 29 April, artillery. One C-130 on the runway next to us was hit before it could airlift out refugees; two others took off empty. Fixed-wing airlifts were at an end. Rounds landed inside the DAO compound; the General’s Quarters next door to us were destroyed. Worst of all, two of the Marines I had been talking to at our gate were killed. Their names were McMahon and Judge. They were the last American fighting men killed on the ground in Vietnam.
One image I’ll never forget: sometime during the night I was on my cot taking my two-hour rest break when the next bombardments started. I sat straight up and watched the room lurch. Bob Hartley was typing a message at a machine that rose a foot in the air, then slammed back into place. He never stopped typing.
Just after that, we got word that FREQUENT WIND PHASE IV had been declared. That was the code name for the evacuation. It had finally been ordered.
We gave up trying to rest. The air in the comms center, the only room we were still using, was faintly misty and smelled of smoke, as if a gasoline fire was raging nearby. After daylight, I got a call from the Vietnamese officer I’d visited a few days before. He wanted to know where his boss, the general, was. He’d tried to telephone the general but got no answer. I dialed the general’s number with the same result. I found out much later that the general had somehow made it from his office to the embassy and got over the wall. He was evacuated safely while his men stayed at their posts awaiting orders from him. They were still there when the North Vietnamese arrived.
Next I telephoned the embassy. “The evacuation is on. Get us out of here!”
The lady I talked to was polite, even gracious. She explained to me, as one does to child, that the embassy could do nothing for us—we were too far away—and, although I probably didn’t know it, the people in the streets were rioting. Of course I knew it; I could see them. I uttered an unprintable curse. She responded, “You’re welcome.”
More next time.