April: Memories of the Fall of Saigon (2)

As April 1975 went on, it was daily becoming more obvious to me that the final attack on us was coming. At my behest, NSA put out a series of reports warning that the DRV forces were preparing to attack Saigon. I couldn’t tolerate the idea that my guys and their families would be killed when the attack began. So violated the ambassador’s orders. I lied, cheated, and stole to get my people and their families safely out of the country. Some I sent on phony vacations, others on fake home leave, and still others bogus business travel.

I knew I had to stay until the end—the ambassador wouldn’t let me leave—so I asked for two volunteers to stay with me. I needed a communicator who could send and receive messages and a maintenance technician who could keep the communications equipment working. Most of my 16 comms guys said they’d like to help me out, but they felt they owed it to their families not to risk their lives. Finally, two men agreed to stay with me to the end. Their names are no longer classified, so I can tell you who they were: Bob Hartley was the communicator, and Gary Hickman was the tech. As long as I live, I will honor both of those men for their raw courage.

I couldn’t wait to get my wife, Ann, and our four children safely out of the country. But Ann was not persuaded she should leave. She loved being in Saigon, where she held sway as Mrs. Chief—the boss’s wife. Besides, she had three servants who kept up the house, cooked the meals, and took care of the children. She was free to play tennis, shop, attend teas and receptions at the embassy, and host gatherings at our luxurious villa, close to the Presidential Palace. The embassy, despite my increasingly frantic warnings that the enemy was about to attack Saigon, reassured her that there was no danger.

Finally, she agreed to take the children and leave the country on three conditions: first, that she could choose the date of her departure. I said fine, as long as it was within the next five days. Second, she and children would take a grand tour of the world on the way home, travelling through Asia and Europe for as long as two months before heading to the U.S. Take as long as you want, I told her. Finally, her third condition was that as soon as she arrived in the states, she could buy a brand-new Buick station wagon. Once again, I agreed.

More next time.

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