Late last month, I offered my presentation with slides titled “Bitter Memories: The Fall of Saigon” at the Elkridge 50+ Center. I had a full house and very responsive audience.
The presentation is always very emotional for me, even after having given it more times than I can count. Every time I do it, I choke up when I talk about the South Vietnamese officer who didn’t escape at the end and had told me that he would shoot his family and himself rather than live under the communists. I get tears in my eyes when I relate how two brave men, Bob Hartley and Gary Hickman, agreed to stay with me to the end and risk their lives to help me after everybody else was evacuated. And I still get breathless when I describe their evacuation and my escape under fire.
My two most precious possessions, even today, are my Civilian Meritorious Medal, given to me to recognize the lives I saved during the debacle, and a plaque from my guys. Something like a year after the fall of Saigon and our escape, my guys got together for dinner in Washington, D.C. and invited me to join them. At the completion of the meal, they presented me with a plaque in effect thanking me for saving their lives.
The background is that the U.S. Ambassador, Graham Martin, refused to allow me to evacuate my people. He didn’t believe that the North Vietnamese would attack Saigon, despite the overwhelming evidence I gave him from intercepted North Vietnamese radio communications. So I lied and cheated and stole to get all my guys out safely. At the end, when our travel funds ran out, I used my own money to buy an airplane ticket for the last of my guys and got him out on the last Pan Am flight out of the country. My guys were reading the messages I was sending to my boss, the Director of the National Security Agency (NSA), and knew what was going on. They recognized that I saved their lives by risking my own to stay in Saigon until the very end when the North Vietnamese were in the streets of the city.