April 1975 in Vietnam (13)

More on what happened 43 years ago, in April 1975, in Saigon:

I reported earlier on my attempts to help families to escape. I also tried and failed to evacuate a South Vietnamese officer and his family. Each of those efforts required me to drive through the streets of the city, now overwhelmed by mobs of refugees.

I had ahead of me one more foray through the throngs in the streets. I got through the hordes to the embassy and pleaded with the Ambassador to evacuate everybody as soon as possible, citing signals intelligence evidence that a North Vietnamese assault on the city was imminent. I repeated what I’d been reporting to him hourly, that Saigon was surrounded by sixteen to eighteen North Vietnamese divisions, poised to strike. Communist troops less than two kilometers north of my office at the airport were awaiting the command to attack.

The Ambassador put his arm around my shoulder and guided me to the door. “Young man, when you’re older, you’ll understand these things better.” He showed me out.

Frantic, I went down the hall to the office of the CIA Chief of Station, Tom Polgar. He laughed at my frenzy and showed me a cable to Washington the Ambassador had released that morning. It stated that forecasts of a forthcoming assault on Saigon could be disregarded. It was all due to the Communists’ skillful use of “communications deception.” Stunned, I asked Tom what evidence the ambassador had of communications deception. He waved my question away and bet me a bottle of champagne, chateau and vintage of my choice, that he and I would both still be in Saigon a year hence, still at our desks, still doing business as usual.

Even though I ran into him months later in the Washington, Tom Polgar never made good on that bet.

I finally understood what was going on. The embassy was a victim of what sociologists now call Groupthink Syndrome—firm ideology, immune to fact, shared by all members of a coterie. The Ambassador, and therefore his subordinates, could not countenance the prospect of a Communist South Vietnam and therefore dismissed evidence of the coming disaster. Graham Martin later told Congress he had been advised by the Hungarian member of the International Commission of Control and Supervision, the ICCS, that the North Vietnamese had no intention of conquering Saigon; they wished to form a coalition government with “all patriotic forces in the south.” This from a representative of a Communist government allied to North Vietnam. And the Ambassador believed him in the face of overwhelming signals intelligence that the attack was at hand.

On 24 April, the wire services, which we monitored, reported a speech that President Ford had given the previous day at Tulane. He referred to Vietnam as “a war that is finished.” My cynicism overcame my dread. If the war was finished, what was I, a civilian signals intelligence officer and potential prisoner of singular value to the Communists—in short, a spy—doing in a combat zone with nothing better than a .38 revolver to defend myself against eighteen North Vietnamese divisions?

More tomorrow.

April 1975 in Vietnam (12)

Continuing my narrative of events 43 years ago in Saigon: So much happened that to report most of it (there was too much to report it all) before the end April 2018, I need jump ahead a couple of days to 21 April 1975. The following is adapted from my article, “Bitter Memories: The Fall of Saigon”:

On 21 April 1975, Xuan Loc, 40 miles northeast of us, fell ending a heroic defense by the South Vietnamese 18th Infantry Division. Communist forces proceeded to encircle us. The same day, the president of the Republic of Vietnam (South Vietnam), Nguyen van Thieu, resigned and fled the country.

I instructed my comms center to reduce to the minimum the number of copies it made of each new incoming message. We bagged documents as soon as we read them and burned them in the incinerator in the DAO parking lot, then stirred the ashes to assure that nothing was left legible. I turned my full attention to persuading the Ambassador that the remaining Americans and the Vietnamese who had worked with us had to leave the country before we were captured or killed. In that task, to my undying regret, I failed.

On 22 April, the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency estimated that the Republic of Vietnam wouldn’t last more than a week. It was comforting to see that the Department of Defense and Commander-in-Chief, Pacific harbored no delusions about what was happening in Vietnam. But the Ambassador was not in their chain of command. He reported to the Secretary of State and the President. Unless they overruled him, he still had the power to keep us all in Saigon. He convinced them no evacuation was necessary.

Despite that, outgoing commercial airlines were choked with passengers, and U.S. Air Force C-130 and C-141 transports daily carted hundreds of Vietnamese and Americans out of the country. The embassy made a point of explaining that their departure was not an evacuation. It was a reduction in force to free up resources to help the Republic of Vietnam.

I didn’t know how much longer I’d be able to get out and about. As the North Vietnamese came closer, refugees fled them and jammed in Saigon. The crowds in the streets were becoming larger and more menacing. Some of the men, in ragged Republic of Vietnam military uniforms, were armed. I knew the danger, but several trips were crucial. I told my Vietnamese driver, who usually ferried me around town, to use his U.S. pass to drive his family onto the military side of Tan Son Nhat in the black sedan assigned to me, a Ford Galaxy with diplomatic plates and American flags, and escape while they still could. Then I took over the sedan. Armed with my .38, I drove it rather than my small Japanese car, foolishly believing that the impressive official vehicle would ward off the massed refugees.

I had it exactly backwards.

The sedan attracted the most desperate of those seeking evacuation. I was mobbed once, but when I bared my teeth and leveled the .38, the crowd pulled back just enough for me to force my way through.

More tomorrow.

April 1975 in Vietnam (11)

Continuing the story of my struggle to get people safely out of South Vietnam as the fall of Saigon loomed:

I made it my business to save two Vietnamese families.

One was well-to-do, living in an exclusive neighborhood. I went to their house, explained that I’d help them leave the country. They were insulted. They assured me that there was no danger and Saigon would not fall to the communists and sent me away. Months later, I ran into them in the U.S. They had escaped at the end and now upbraided me for not helping them.

The other was a poor family related to one of the servants in our villa. I hid them in my sedan—some in the trunk, others on the floor by the back seat, covered with a blanket—and drove onto the air base at Tan Son Nhat, on the northern edge of Saigon, using my U.S.-issued pass to get through the gate manned by South Vietnamese police who would not have admitted them. I drove to the airstrip and let them out, telling them to get on any aircraft they could to escape the country. Months later, back in the U.S., they contacted me to thank me for saving their lives.

More tomorrow.

April 1975 in Vietnam (10)

On 17 April 1975, as I went on living in my office at Tan Son Nhat on the northern edge of Saigon, I got word that Phnom Penh, the capitol of Cambodia, had fallen to the Khmer Rouge, the Cambodian communists, allied to North Vietnam. That was another signature event heralding the collapse of anti-communist forces in Southeast Asia.

Meanwhile, I pushed on in getting as many people out of the country as I could. I couldn’t tolerate the prospect that any of my subordinates or their families would be killed when the North Vietnamese attacked Saigon, and all the signs were that the attack was coming soon.

The ambassador has refused to allow me to evacuate my people. So I cheated. I sent my employees and their families on any ruse I could think of. One I had to order out—he was unwilling to leave me behind. Some went on trumped-up early home leave, some on contrived vacations. Others I sent out on phony business travel. One day toward the end, I bought a guy a ticket with my own money and, with no authorization and no orders, I put him in a Pan Am flight out of the country. It was the last Pan Am flight from Saigon.

I knew I’d have to stay until the end. The Ambassador wouldn’t allow me to go, but, more important, I had to be sure all my subordinates and their families escaped. Besides, there were some 2700 South Vietnamese soldiers who had worked with NSA for years. I was determined to do everything possible to get them out of the country before the North Vietnamese took Saigon. I knew how cruel the North Vietnamese would be to them if they could get their hands on them.

Since I couldn’t leave, I asked for two volunteers to stay with me. I needed a communicator and a communications maintenance technician to keep comms open to the U.S. Some of the 16 men in my communications center pleaded that they owed it to their wives and children not to risk their lives. I found that eminently reasonable. Then two brave men stepped forward. Their names are now declassified, so I can tell you who they were: Bob Hartley, the communicator, and Gary Hickman, the maintenance man. I warned them of the danger and told them that they’d have to keep the equipment going through unforeseen emergencies that might include electrical outages, shelling, and direct attack.

They understood.

Even today I admire, no, love, those two men for their raw courage. They risked their lives because I asked them to.

More tomorrow.

April 1975 in Vietnam (9)

By 16 April 1975, I was spending most of my time struggling to get people out of Vietnam. I knew the fall of Saigon to the North Vietnamese was imminent. So I put aside my two principal missions—keeping the U.S. Ambassador, Graham Martin, up to date on the North Vietnamese as they got closer to Saigon; and assisting the South Vietnamese government in its own efforts to intercept and exploit the communications of the North Vietnamese—and concentrated on saving as many people as I could.

I’ve told in passing the story of my work to move people out of South Vietnam earlier in this blog, but here I’ll recap the whole story, starting with a quote from my published article, “Bitter Memories: The fall of Saigon”:

Since the middle of March [1975], my principal concern had been seeing to it that none of my people was killed or wounded in the forthcoming attack. I had 43 American men working for me and I was responsible for the safety of their 22 dependents, wives and children, living in Saigon. My men in Da Nang, Can Tho, and Pleiku all managed to reach Saigon after hair-raising escapes and were working in our Tan Son Nhat office [on the northern edge of Saigon]. I wanted to get all my people out now.

But Ambassador Martin refused to consider evacuations. On the one hand, he wished to avoid doing anything that might stampede the South Vietnamese; on the other, he genuinely believed that the prospect of the Communist flag flying over Saigon was unthinkable.

I was stymied.

My state-side boss, General Lew Allen, the Director of NSA, ordered me to close down the operation and get everyone out before somebody got killed, but the Ambassador wouldn’t hear of it. I made him a proposition: if he would let my people go, I would stay in Saigon until the end with a skeleton staff to assure that the flow of SIGINT [that is, signals intelligence] reports for him from NSA would continue. He turned me down.

End of quote. More tomorrow.

“Men Are the Noisiest Things”

I interrupt my commentary on the events of April 1975 in Vietnam to comment once again on the differences between men and women. I was caught up short the other day when a woman friend asked me what I do in the bathroom.

I had gone to master bathroom to take my medications after eating dinner—I can’t take them on an empty stomach. As usual, I opened the medicine chest, took each pill, put the pill container back on the shelf, and closed the door. Then I looked in the side cabinet for the capsules that come in jars so large they won’t fit in the medicine chest. I took those, put each jar back, and shut the cabinet door. I had spilled some water on the floor when I drank from the plastic cup in a holder by the sink, so I looked for a dry rag in the cabinet under the sink, wiped the floor, and put the rag in the laundry hamper, and closed it. Then I left the room and shut the door firmly behind me.

My friend was in the hall. She looked perplexed. “Were you having a fight in there?” she asked. “What on earth was all that crashing and banging?”

She went into the hall bathroom and closed the door. I stood listening. Not a sound.

As she pointed out later, we men make no attempt to keep the noise down. We stamp around, slam doors, bang into walls, and drop things in place without a thought. For reasons I don’t understand, women go out of their way to avoid conspicuous noise.

I thought back about what I had done in the bathroom. Yes, I closed each cabinet door firmly, dropped bottles and jars back in their place, slammed the laundry hamper to be sure it was properly shut, and pulled the bathroom door closed to confirm it was engaged. That all seemed like the normal things to do.

Not from her point of view. She folded her arms and shook her head. “Men Are the Noisiest Things.”

Marine General Al Gray

My retracing the events of April 1975 in Vietnam has brought back memories of General Al Gray, USMC. It was he who saved my life as Saigon fell, and I’ll have more to say about that later in April. For now, I want to survey my memories of the general before and after the rescue.

I first met Al Gray in the early 1960’s in Vietnam. He was a captain then, having risen to officer rank after serving as an enlisted man. I don’t remember where I first encountered Al—I was wandering all over South Vietnam in those years assisting U.S. combat units with signals intelligence support. As the sixties went on, I kept running into Al, sometimes in the far south, sometimes up north near the DMZ, sometimes in areas in between, like the highlands where I spent a good deal of time.

By the time Saigon fell, Al was a colonel. It was he who pushed me onto a Huey on the night of 29 April 1975 for the escape flight to a ship of the 7th Fleet cruising in the South China Sea. I’ll tell that story in detail later this month.

What impressed me was that as the years passed, Al stayed in touch, even after he became a general. When I was diagnosed with lung cancer in 2013, he went out of his way to contact me and express his wishes for my recovery. When my former employer, the National Security Agency, invited me back a few years ago to give a presentation on the fall of Saigon, Al was there to speak after me.

As I’ll explain in more detail later, I stopped calling him Al when he became Commandant of the Marine Corps. Now I call him “sir.” I was then and still am today in awe of the general. He is the finest leader I had ever seen in action. To this date, I’ve never met a Marine who doesn’t know who Al Gray is.

Last year, volume 2 of General Gray’s biography was published: Al Gray, Marine: The Early Years 1968-1975, Vol 2 by Scott Laidig. In it, Scott recounts in detail the evacuation of Saigon, Operation FREQUENT WIND PHASE FOUR, headed by then Colonel Al Gray, and describes my situation during the failing days of Saigon.

One of my favorite memories of Al Gray came fairly early, although I can’t now remember where or when the moment occurred. I asked Al why he had never married. I’ll never forget his words: “If the Marine Corps had wanted me to have a wife, they would have issued me one.”

The general did marry later. I made it my business to keep his earlier statement to myself when his wife’s around.