Get Rid of Guns

The number of gun deaths so far in the U.S. in 2021 is 12,515, according to the Gun Violence Archive 2021. We have averaged more than one mass shooting per day so far this year.

What does it take to get Americans to put a stop to the killing? More than a week ago, President Biden proclaimed that “gun violence in this country is an epidemic.” The ratio between numbers of guns in civilian hands and number of gun deaths is constant for all nations throughout the world—the more guns, the more deaths. Our neighbor Canada, for example, has a little fewer than 35 guns per 100 people and suffers fewer than two deaths per 100,000 people per year from gunfire. The U.K. has fewer than five guns per 100 people and has only .2 fatalities per 100,000 people a year from guns. The U.S., on the other hand, has the highest gun ownership in the world with 120.5 guns per 100 people—we have 20 percent more guns than people — and our annual gun death rate is 12.21 per 100,000 people.

As I have said repeatedly in this blog, the argument that the American culture is a gun culture is meaningless. Equally irrelevant is the defense that the right to gun ownership is guaranteed by the Constitution. Any belief or practice that costs us over twelve thousand lives in four months must change. And the only change that will reduce the number of gun deaths is reducing the number of guns. The statistics are overwhelming and beyond doubt.

So I urge any and all to push hard for legislation that will decrease the number of guns owned by civilians in the U.S. The time to stop the carnage is long since past.

Veith Q&A

I recently published on the Washington Independent Review of Books website a series of questions I posed to George J. Veith, author of the newly published Drawn Swords in a Distant Land: South Vietnam’s Shattered Dreams (Encounter Books, 2021) and the answers he provided. I’ve known Jay (that’s what he goes by) Veith since 2008, when he interviewed me about my own long history of operating in Vietnam as a clandestine agent supporting U.S. and friendly forces with signals intelligence against the North Vietnamese. At the time, Veith was working on his first book about the Vietnam war, Black April: The Fall of South Vietnam, 1973-75 (Encounter Books, 2012), in which he briefly quoted me.

During our interview earlier this year, Jay confirmed that he, like me, saw Hanoi as the iron control over Vietnamese communists operating in South Vietnam during the war who were not regular members of the People’s Army of Vietnam (PAVN), as the north Vietnamese styled themselves. We Americans called these people the Vit Cng or VC, an abbreviation for Vit Nam cng sn that means Vietnamese communist, but the communists themselves never used that term. The North Vietnamese called them the National Liberation Front or the Provisional Revolutionary Government, pretending that they were an independent movement opposed to the government of South Vietnam. They were in fact communist military irregulars—local forces and guerrillas—controlled by Hanoi.

Jay pointed out the two big surprises in Drawn Swords: the true nature of the Anna Chennault affair and the offer the Chinese communists made to Dương văn Minh (the Americans called him “Big Minh”), South Vietnam’s last head of state, to insert troops into South Vietnam to defend against a conquest by North Vietnam. Jay was taken aback that neither of those revelations took me by surprise. As I thought about it, I realized that I had already known about both events at the time they occurred from classified sources.

You can read the full Q&A at http://www.washingtonindependentreviewofbooks.com/features/an-interview-with-george-j-veith

April: Anniversary of the Fall of Vietnam (15)

The bird that I escaped Saigon in, for some reason, was not a CH-53 but a small Air America slick. As soon as we were airborne in the pouring rain, I saw tracers coming at us. We took so many slugs in the fuselage that I thought we were going down, but we made it. All over the city, fires were burning. Once we were “feet wet”— over water—the pilot dropped us abruptly to an altitude that scared me, just above the water’s surface, and my stomach struggled to keep up. It was, he explained to me later, to avoid surface-to-air missiles. All I remember of the flight after that is rain and darkness.

I was conscious when we approached the USS Oklahoma City, flagship of the 7th Fleet. The pilot circled repeatedly before coming down very slowly on the ship’s small floodlit helipad. He told me subsequently that he, a civilian employee of Air America, had never before landed on a ship.

I learned later that during FREQUENT WIND—the evacuation of Vietnam—71 American military helicopters flew 662 sorties between Saigon and the ships of the 7th Fleet. The operation extracted more than 7,800 evacuees from the DAO and U.S. Embassy on April 29 and 30 1975, not counting the U.S. Marines that had landed in Vietnam that day to execute the evacuation. We have no record of the number of Air America helicopters flown or the number of sorties.

The previous posts in this series give the complete story of my escape when Saigon fell. But two more details remain to be told.

First, the Marine colonel, whom I had known since he was a captain years before as we both crisscrossed Vietnam and who then saved my life as Saigon fell, went on to become Commandant of the Marine Corps. General Al Gray, long since retired, is known for his devotion to his mission and his concern for the wellbeing of his subordinates. He is a hero to today’s Marines. When I mention to Marines that I know him, they are in awe of me.

Second, I mentioned that as I escaped via helicopter I was carrying the two flags that had stood on either side of my desk in my Saigon office, the stars-and-stripes, and the national flag of the Republic of Vietnam, that is, South Vietnam. I carried those two flags in my hands on my flight to the Oklahoma City. I kept the flags by my side as we sailed to the Philippines. I carried them under my arms as I flew from Subic Bay in the Philippines to Pearl Harbor, from there to San Francisco, and finally to Washington, D.C. When I returned to the National Security Agency (NSA), I brought the flags with me.

Today those flags are on display in the National Cryptologic Museum on Fort Meade, Maryland.

April: Anniversary of the Fall of Vietnam (14)

The remaining events of 29 April 1975 are confused in my memory—I was in such bad shape I was starting to hallucinate. As I learned later, I was suffering from pneumonia (due to sleep deprivation, muscle fatigue, and poor diet), amoebic dysentery, and severe ear damage from the shelling. As the artillery attacks continued, I begged Al Gray to get my two communicators out as soon as possible. I couldn’t tolerate the idea that, after all they’d done, they might be captured, wounded, or killed. Sometime in the afternoon, when finally they went out on a whirlybird, my work was done.

I recall being locked in a room alone and told to wait until I was called for, trying to stay awake in my chair as the building pitched from artillery hits. I didn’t want to board a chopper until I got confirmation that my communicators were safe aboard a ship of the 7th Fleet. And I wanted to get to a telephone to confirm that our Vietnamese counterparts were being evacuated. As far as I knew, they were still at their posts awaiting orders. But there was no telephone in the room, and I couldn’t leave because the South Vietnamese air force officers who had forced their way into the building to demand evacuation were still on the prowl.

The next thing I remember is being outside.

It was getting dark, and rain was pelting the helicopters around the compound. The rain was weird. The dry season wasn’t due to end for almost a month, and here it was, pouring rain. I protested to Al Gray that I wanted to wait for confirmation that my two communicators were safe before I left, but he ordered me, in unrepeatable language, to get myself on the chopper now. I climbed aboard carrying with me the two flags that had hung in my office—the U.S. stars-and-stripes and the gold-and-orange national flag of the now defunct Republic of Vietnam.

More next time.

April: Anniversary of the Fall of Vietnam (13)

By the time the embassy told me it couldn’t help me, the Marines from the 7th Fleet (cruising out of sight from land in the South China Sea) had landed in Saigon, flown in by helicopter. I tracked down Al Gray, the Marine colonel in charge,  and asked if he could fit us in with his guys when he pulled out. He reassured me he would.

We got word that armed South Vietnamese air force officers had forced their way into the building and were on the loose, demanding evacuation at gun point. Offices were to be emptied and locked. We were to proceed at once to the evacuation staging area, an office the Marines had secured. We sent our last message announcing we were closing down. It was a personal message from me to my boss, General Lew Allen, Director of the National Security Agency (NSA):

1. HAVE JUST RECEIVED WORD TO EVACUATE. AM NOW DESTROYING REMAINING CLASSIFIED MATERIAL. WILL CEASE TRANSMISSIONS IMMEDIATELY AFTER THIS MESSAGE.

2. WE’RE TIRED BUT OTHERWISE ALL RIGHT. LOOKS LIKE THE BATTLE FOR SAIGON IS ON FOR REAL.

3. FROM GLENN: I COMMEND TO YOU MY PEOPLE WHO DESERVE THE BEST NSA CAN GIVE THEM FOR WHAT THEY HAVE BEEN THROUGH BUT ESPECIALLY FOR WHAT THEY HAVE ACHIEVED.

Even though the message was from me to General Allen, I still began the third paragraph with the words “FROM GLENN.” I wanted to be sure he knew it was me speaking.

We destroyed out comms gear and crypto and locked the door as we left for the staging area.

More next time.

April: Anniversary of the Fall of Vietnam (12)

More on the fall of Saigon, forty-six years ago today:

The bombing of the Tan Son Nhat runways by defecting A-37 fighters at sunset on 28 April was just the beginning. We were bombarded throughout the night and much of the following day, first rockets, later, beginning around 0430 hours local on 29 April, artillery. One C-130 on the runway next to us was hit before it could airlift out refugees; two others took off empty. Fixed-wing airlifts were at an end. Rounds landed inside the DAO compound; the General’s Quarters next door to us were destroyed. Worst of all, two of the Marines I had been talking to at our gate were killed. Their names were McMahon and Judge. They were the last American fighting men killed on the ground in Vietnam.

One image I’ll never forget: sometime during the night I was on my cot taking my two-hour rest break when the next bombardments started. I sat straight up and watched the room lurch. Bob Hartley was typing a message at a machine that rose a foot in the air, then slammed back into place. He never stopped typing.

Just after that, we got word that FREQUENT WIND PHASE IV had been declared. That was the code name for the evacuation. It had finally been ordered.

We gave up trying to rest. The air in the comms center, the only room we were still using, was faintly misty and smelled of smoke, as if a gasoline fire was raging nearby. After daylight, I got a call from the Vietnamese officer I’d visited a few days before. He wanted to know where his boss, the general, was. He’d tried to telephone the general but got no answer. I dialed the general’s number with the same result. I found out much later that the general had somehow made it from his office to the embassy and got over the wall. He was evacuated safely while his men stayed at their posts awaiting orders from him. They were still there when the North Vietnamese arrived.

Next I telephoned the embassy. “The evacuation is on. Get us out of here!

The lady I talked to was polite, even gracious. She explained to me, as one does to child, that the embassy could do nothing for us—we were too far away—and, although I probably didn’t know it, the people in the streets were rioting. Of course I knew it; I could see them. I uttered an unprintable curse. She responded, “You’re welcome.”

More next time.

April: Anniversary of the Fall of Vietnam (11)

Today is the forty-first anniversary of my escape under fire as Saigon fell to the North Vietnamese. I pick up the story where I left off yesterday:

Partly to stay awake, I maintained my schedule of recon runs, checking out the parking lot and the perimeter. I got chummy with the snuffs at the gate closest to the building exit I used. Unlike most of the Marines, these guys were willing to fill me in on any new scuttlebutt. Among other things, they told me that people in the mob outside the fence were tossing babies into the compound, hoping they’d survive and escape the Communists. Most of the infants didn’t make it over the top of the fence—it was something like two stories high with barbed wire and an outward tilt at the top to prevent scalers. If they did clear the fence top, they fell to the hard pavement below. There was no one there to catch them. Without question, whether they made it over the top or not, most of the babies fell to the ground and were killed.

Not long before sunset on 28 April, I made a head run. The mammoth Pentagon East, what we called the DAO building, was in shambles. Light bulbs were burned out, trash and broken furniture littered the halls, and the latrines were filthy and smelled disgusting. I came across men on stepladders running cables through the ceiling. They told me they were wiring the building for complete destruction. “Last man out lights the fuse and runs like hell,” they joked.

I went into the men’s room. I was standing at the urinal when the wall in front of me lunged toward me as if to swat me down, then slapped back into place. The sound of repeated explosions deafened me and nearly knocked me off my feet. Instead of sensibly taking cover, I left the men’s room and went to the closest exit at the end of a hall, unbolted it, and stepped into the shallow area between the western wall of the building and the security fence, a space of maybe ten to fifteen feet, now piled high with sandbags.

The first thing I noticed was that the throngs of refugees surrounding the building had dispersed—no one was clamoring outside the barrier—presumably frightened away by the explosions. My ears picked up the whine of turbojets. I shaded my eyes from the setting sun and spotted five A-37 Dragonfly fighters circling above the Tan Son Nhat runways. They dove, dropped bombs, and pulled up. The resulting concussions sent me tumbling, but I was on my feet and running before the planes went into their next approach. Back in the office, I found out that renegade pilots who had defected to the communists were bombing Tan Son Nhat.

More next time.

April: Anniversary of the Fall of Vietnam (10)

By 27 April 1975, I knew that the final North Vietnamese attack on Saigon could come at any moment. We were, by dint of lying and deception, finally down to just the three men, me and my two communicators, Bob Hartley and Gary Hickman. None of us had slept through the night for longer than we could remember, and our diet was bar snacks we’d scrounged from a hotel before the mobs surrounding us made it impossible to get out. I found out that Vienna sausages were edible cold straight from the can and that mustard on pickle relish, if eaten in quantity, could stave off severe hunger. Granted, I developed bowel problems, but my guess at the time was that it was due less to the food than to stress. Coffee we had aplenty—Bob and Gary had seen to that—and I’d made sure I wouldn’t run out if cigarettes. From then on it was lots of coffee, chain smoking, almost nothing to eat, and no sleep.

We locked all the rooms in the office suite except the comms center, and I moved my cot and my .38 in there. Bob and Gary and I established a regimen: one guy took a two-hour rest break while the other two worked.

Then a series of messages I’ll never forget flowed in. They asked me to get children out of the country. The requests were from American men who had fathered kids in Vietnam and wanted to save them. I shuddered to think what might happen to Amerasian youngsters when the communists took over. But it was too late. I had no vehicle and couldn’t even get out of the compound—surrounded by panicky crowds anxious for escape—much less to the addresses the children’s fathers gave me. To this day, I don’t know how the senders managed to get messages to me.

More next time.

April: Anniversary of the Fall of Vietnam (9)

Continuing my posts on the sad month of April, the forty-sixth anniversary of the fall of Saigon:

During my next daylight recon of the DAO compound where I was isolated, I saw 55-gallon drums ranged along the perimeter fence. I asked one of Al Gray’s buzz cuts why they were there. He said the drums were filled with combustible material, probably gasoline, and wired: if the North Vietnamese penetrated the perimeter, the barrels would be detonated to wipe them out.

Another tour of the parking lot took me into a surreal world. Marines and civilians were cramming cars, my small white sedan among them, onto the side of the building by driving them into one another so that they formed a compacted mass. That done, the drivers turned their attention to the half-dozen cars still in the parking lot, large black sedans (including mine) and one jeep. These they used as ramming devices, crushing the heap of cars more tightly together. Then they turned the now-mangled sedans on the tennis courts. Again and again, they backed their vehicles to the perimeter barrier and burned rubber to smash into the poles holding the fence around the courts until they tore out of the pavement. Next they used the cars as battering rams, flattening the nets and court fencing against the building. Lastly, they ground the vehicles they were driving into the jumble of mashed automobiles. The area between the perimeter fence and the wall of the building was now clear.

It dawned on me what was going on. The small Air America slicks had been able to get into and out of the compound one at a time, without hitting parked cars or the tennis courts, but the much larger Marine CH-53 helicopters—each could carry 55 troops loaded for combat—needed more unobstructed space, especially if two or three were in the compound at the same time. One more obstacle to our escape had been removed.

More next time.

April: Anniversary of the Fall of Vietnam (8)

Continuing my retelling of how I survived the fall of Saigon:

The night I recognized the Marines in the compound even though they were in civilian clothes, I found out what was going on. I was trying to grab a little sleep on the cot in my office when the door chime sounded. I grasped my .38 and went to the door. Through the peephole I saw a middle-aged American man with reddish hair in a neon Hawaiian shirt—colors so bright they hurt my eyes—shorts, and rubber flipflops. All wildly inappropriate for a warzone. He gave me a flat-handed wave and a silly grin. It was Colonel Al Gray, a Marine officer I’d worked with over the years in Vietnam. I’d never before seen Al out of uniform—I didn’t think he owned any civies—and I knew he made it an iron-clad rule never to spend more than 24 hours in Saigon—his work was with his troops in the field and he disliked bureaucracy. I lowered the .38 and opened the door. “Hi,” he said. “Can I come in?”

In my office, I told him everything I knew about the military situation, but he knew more than I did. What he didn’t know in detail was what was going on with the civilian population. I told him about the unruly, desperate crowds jamming the streets to the point that I couldn’t drive through anymore and the crowd now ten to fifteen people deep outside the perimeter fence of our compound and my worry that the fence might not hold. He explained to me that he’d been named the Ground Security Officer—the man in charge—for the evacuation of Saigon once it was ordered. He and his Marines were flying in by helicopter to prepare for the massive operation from ships of the U.S. 7th Fleet cruising out of sight in the South China Sea.

But the Ambassador was doing everything he could to throw roadblocks in Al’s way. He wouldn’t allow Al’s Marines to dress in uniform, fly their own helicopters into the country, or stay overnight. So Al and his troops, in civilian clothes, had to fly in and out each day via Air America slicks, the little Hueys, the UH-1 choppers that could only carry eight to fourteen people. Al’s crazy outfit—shorts, flipflops, and the loudest sports shirt I’d ever seen—were his form of protest against the ambassador’s orders.

It didn’t matter. Ambassador or no ambassador, the Marines had landed. They’d be ready for the evacuation the instant it was ordered.

More next time.