After spending more time in Vietnam than I did in the U.S. from 1962 to 1974, I was assigned to command the clandestine operation in South Vietnam whose mission was to work with the South Vietnamese in exploiting North Vietnamese radio communications. As it became obvious to me that the North Vietnamese were going to conquer South Vietnam and seize Saigon, I struggled to get all 43 of my guys and their families safely out of Saigon before the North Vietnamese attacked the city. Because the U.S. ambassador, Graham Martin, had forbidden me from evacuating my guys, I had to lie, cheat, and steal to get my people out. But I did it. Meanwhile, I got my wife and four children out of the country only twenty days before Saigon fell to the North Vietnamese. Then I vacated our villa and moved out to my office where I slept on a cot in the front office of our office suite (my office) with a .38 revolver under my pillow.
In the middle of that pandemonium, one day when I was trying to get some much-needed rest on my cot, the office doorbell sounded. I took my .38 to the door and looked out the peephole. Outside I saw an American man with reddish hair dressed in the wildest Hawaiian shirt I had ever seen—colors so bright they hurt my eyes—shorts, and flip-flops—this in a war zone. He gave me a wave, and I recognized him. It was Al Gray. I couldn’t believe my eyes. I’d never before seen Al out of uniform—I didn’t think he owned any civilian clothes—and I knew he never came to Saigon because he hated bureaucracy, and his job was in the field with his troops.
I opened the door and invited him in. We went in my office and talked. I told Al all I knew about the current situation, but he knew more than I did. What he was not aware of was that mobs ten to fifteen people deep had surrounded our compound demanding evacuation. He told me he had been named as the officer in charge of the evacuation of South Vietnam once it was ordered, and he and his troops were flying in on helicopters from the U.S. 7th Fleet cruising out of sight of land in the South China Sea to prepare for the evacuation.
But Ambassador Martin did everything he could to make life difficult for the Marines. He wouldn’t allow them to fly in on Marine helicopters; they had to use the little Air America Hueys configured to carry only eight men at a time. And he wouldn’t allow them to remain overnight—at the end of each day they had to fly back out to the ship they had embarked from. Al’s form of protest was his wild civilian outfit.
Never mind. Ambassador or no ambassador, Al Gray and his Marines had landed. I knew that the instant the evacuation was ordered, they’d get me out.
More next time.