Because I knew from intercepted communications that the North Vietnamese assault on Saigon would start within days, I was desperate to get all my people and their families out of the country. But the ambassador wouldn’t permit me to evacuate my people. He accepted the word of the Hungarian communist that no attack would happen and rejected my warnings. My boss, the director of NSA, ordered me to close down the operation and get everybody out before someone got killed. I told the ambassador that if he’d let my people go, I’d stay until the end so that he would still get intelligence from NSA. He turned me down.
Meanwhile, I did all I could to prevent my subordinates and their families from finding out that the ambassador had forbidden their evacuation. They had enough to worry about as it was. But as I learned later, they knew the whole time what was happening.
At my wits end, I decided to disobey the ambassador and secretly got my guys and their families out any way I could. Some I sent out on phony home leave; others went out on fake vacations; still others had orders for sham business travel. At the end, I took money from my own pocket, after our travel funds ran out, and bought a ticket on Pan Am for the last guy I wanted to rescue. He flew out on the last Pan Am flight from Saigon.
That left only three people still in Saigon: me and the two communicators who had volunteered to stay with me to the end. Marines flying in from the U.S. 7th Fleet, cruising out of sight out in the South China Sea, evacuated my two communicators mid-afternoon on April 29 after the North Vietnamese were already in the streets of the city. I flew out that night in pitch black and pouring rain. No sooner were we airborne than I saw tracers coming at us. We took so much lead in the fuselage that I thought we were going down. But we made it.
When we reached the Oklahoma City, the flag ship of the 7th Fleet, the pilot circled and circled over the flood-lit landing pad on the deck, then finally went down very slowly and landed. He told me later that he, a civilian pilot, had never before landed on a ship.
More next time.