The bird that I escaped Saigon in, for some reason, was not a CH-53 but a small Air America slick. As soon as we were airborne in the pouring rain, I saw tracers coming at us. We took so many slugs in the fuselage that I thought we were going down, but we made it. All over the city, fires were burning. Once we were “feet wet”— over water—the pilot dropped us abruptly to an altitude that scared me, just above the water’s surface, and my stomach struggled to keep up. It was, he explained to me later, to avoid surface-to-air missiles. All I remember of the flight after that is rain and darkness.
I was conscious when we approached the USS Oklahoma City, flagship of the 7th Fleet. The pilot circled repeatedly before coming down very slowly on the ship’s small floodlit helipad. He told me subsequently that he, a civilian employee of Air America, had never before landed on a ship.
I learned later that during FREQUENT WIND—the evacuation of Vietnam—71 American military helicopters flew 662 sorties between Saigon and the ships of the 7th Fleet. The operation extracted more than 7,800 evacuees from the DAO and U.S. Embassy on April 29 and 30 1975, not counting the U.S. Marines that had landed in Vietnam that day to execute the evacuation. We have no record of the number of Air America helicopters flown or the number of sorties.
The previous posts in this series give the complete story of my escape when Saigon fell. But two more details remain to be told.
First, the Marine colonel, whom I had known since he was a captain years before as we both crisscrossed Vietnam and who then saved my life as Saigon fell, went on to become Commandant of the Marine Corps. General Al Gray, long since retired, is known for his devotion to his mission and his concern for the wellbeing of his subordinates. He is a hero to today’s Marines. When I mention to Marines that I know him, they are in awe of me.
Second, I mentioned that as I escaped via helicopter I was carrying the two flags that had stood on either side of my desk in my Saigon office, the stars-and-stripes, and the national flag of the Republic of Vietnam, that is, South Vietnam. I carried those two flags in my hands on my flight to the Oklahoma City. I kept the flags by my side as we sailed to the Philippines. I carried them under my arms as I flew from Subic Bay in the Philippines to Pearl Harbor, from there to San Francisco, and finally to Washington, D.C. When I returned to the National Security Agency (NSA), I brought the flags with me.
Today those flags are on display in the National Cryptologic Museum on Fort Meade, Maryland.