Highlands Pink

Much of the soil in the Vietnam highlands, along the border with Laos and Cambodia, is red. During my time there working with U.S. combat forces, my fatigues and boot socks looked fine after washing, whether I washed them myself or a hired laundress did. But my white socks and all my underwear came back a brilliant baby pink. And, as it turned out, no amount of later washing or bleaching would remove the pink ambience.

Most embarrassing was during the second half of 1967 and the beginning of 1968. I was in the highlands in support of the U.S. 4th Infantry Division and the 173rd Airborne Brigade during the battle of Dak To, then, before Christmas, moved south to Bien Hoa to work with other units. When the troops in the Bien Hoa area got a glimpse of my underwear, I thought I’d never hear the end of it. Did all civilian males wear pink jockey shorts, they wanted to know, or was it just NSA guys operating under cover? Were there queer mail order houses where they could order pink jock straps like mine? And could they specify a different shade of pink for the pouch and the leg straps?

The razzing didn’t stop until we were well into detecting and forecasting the Têt Offensive. By then we had no time for anything but work.

During Chuck’s visit to the highlands with Thanh in Last of the Annamese, he too finds his underwear turned pink. But he was the only American in the group, and the timing of the trip—just before the fall of Vietnam—discouraged humor.

The memory of my pink undies reminds me of how much fun I had with the troops. As one lieutenant observed, you get a bunch of young men together and they always find a way to make each other laugh. Even when they know some of them will be dead the next day.

The Banishment of Brigadier General Baughn from Saigon

Toward the end in Saigon, the Defense Attaché, U.S. Army Brigadier General Homer D. Smith, named his deputy, Air Force Brigadier General Richard M. Baughn, to set up, control, and run the evacuation. His organization included the Evacuation Control Center, the Evacuation Processing Center, and the Evacuation Council. Around the middle of April, when the crowds of refugees thickened outside the Defense Attaché Office (DAO) compound at Tan Son Nhat, on the northern edge of Saigon, General Baughn cabled a request for additional security. Furious, the Ambassador, Graham Martin, ordered Baughn to leave the country.

As a result, the Special Planning Group (SPG), set up to oversee the evacuation of the DAO compound, “went black,” that is, proceeded with its work in strict secret from everybody save General Smith and his immediate evacuation planners. Despite the Ambassador, the preparations General Smith ordered for the evacuation continued.

The episode, including the SPG’s secret callsign, ALAMO, are reported in Last of the Annamese. Like Chuck in the novel, I was unaware that moves were underway to get us out of Saigon safely. I learned what was afoot during the final days when Marine Colonel Al Gray appeared at my office door one night in mufti (civilian clothes). He’d flown in from the 7th Fleet, operating in the South China Sea.

I am eternally grateful that General Smith in effect disobeyed the Ambassador and that the military side of the U.S. government—the Department of Defense and Command-in-Chief, Pacific—harbored no illusions about what was happening Vietnam. They took action. Had they not, my two communicators and I would at worst have been killed and at best been taken prisoner.

Operation Frequent Wind

After the bombing of the air strips at Tan Son Nhat (on the northern edge of Saigon) on 29 April 1975, the only means left to evacuate remaining U.S. citizens and the South Vietnamese who had worked with us was by helicopter or by boat. The airborne evacuation was called “Frequent Wind Phase Four.” That was the final phase of Frequent Wind, called after it was clear that fixed-wing aircraft could no longer be used.

The final pages of Last of the Annamese relate how Chuck, the book’s protagonist, and his two colleagues—all that were left of the Intelligence Branch Staff still in Saigon—were airlifted out on choppers. Their story is drawn from my own personal experience when I and my two communicators, Bob Hartley and Gary Hickman, were flown out.

Operation Frequent Wind Phase Four is, to my knowledge, is the largest helicopter evacuation ever attempted. Reports on the number of helicopters used vary from 81 to 91. They included Marine CH-53’s, large enough to carry 50 men outfitted for combat, and Air America hueys (UH-1 slicks), operated by a civilian corporation, that could carry only eight to 14 people each. The operation lasted 19 hours and moved more than 7,000 people from the Defense Attaché Office (DAO) compound at Tan Son Nhat and the U.S. Embassy in downtown Saigon to the ships of the 7th Fleet cruising in the South China Sea. During much of the operation, the North Vietnamese were shelling us, first with rockets, later with artillery. The last two American fighting men to die on the ground in Vietnam were two embassy Marines guarding the western gate of the DAO compound, Cpl. Charles McMahon, Jr. and Lance Cpl. Darwin Judge, killed during that shelling.

My two communicators went our around 1400 hours (2:00 p.m.) on 29 April. I went out after dark the same day. The first rains of the monsoon season started that evening, and the choppers were being pelted by downpours. I went out on a slick. 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. I looked own on fires burning all over Saigon.

I now know that the North Vietnamese could have easily shot down all the helicopters in Frequent Wind Phase Four. But, to my knowledge, not a single chopper was lost. I’ve since concluded that the ground fire that hit the helicopter I was on originated with panicking South Vietnamese soldiers, terrified that they would not be airlifted out.

The tragedy of Frequent Wind Phase Four is that we left behind thousands of Vietnamese who had worked with us. Had the U.S. Ambassador called for the evacuation before the siege of Saigon began, most of them could have been saved.

Ambassador Graham Martin’s Incredulity

The tragedies of loss of human life during the fall of Saigon, as recounted in Last of the Annamese, were due in large measure to the failure of the U.S. Ambassador to the Republic of Vietnam (South Vietnam) to heed the warning given him by me and others that the North Vietnamese were about to attack Saigon. For reasons indecipherable to me, he chose to believe the assurances of the Hungarian member of the ICCS—a representative of a communist government allied to North Vietnam—that North Vietnam would not attack Saigon. Signals intelligence left no doubt of the intentions of the North Vietnamese.

Had Graham Martin called for an evacuation when I first pleaded with him to do so, thousands of lives would have been saved, including those of the 2700 South Vietnamese soldiers who worked with the NSA organization during my 13 years on and off in Vietnam.

I’ve ransacked my brain for any understanding of Martin’s thinking. I’ve concluded that he was misled by ideology, his refusal to accept the idea that the communist flag could ever fly over South Vietnam. It was unthinkable. To even consider such a possibility was blasphemy.

I wrote earlier that my warnings were ignored so often in Vietnam that I coined the name Cassandra Effect for that dilemma. The worst example was the fall of Saigon. I am deeply concerned that the Cassandra Effect is alive and well in the current administration. I’m writing an op-ed alerting people of the dangers that emerge when leaders ignore intelligence.

The Meaning of Vietnamese Place Names

Vietnamese place names all have meaning. Some are so obscured by time that I can’t determine the origin. But others are fairly easy to define.

“Vietnam” is the name given to the ethnic people who eventually became the Vietnamese. It’s the Vietnamese language version of the Chinese yuëh nan, which means “trouble makers in the south.” That’s how the Chinese termed the non-Chinese people in southern China who eventually moved into the area that is now Vietnam.

The name of the northern capital of Vietnam, Ha Noi, means “river in the inside.” It refers to the body of water around which the city was built in ancient times.

And Hai Phong, the northern seaport, means, literally, “sea defense.” It’s generally understood to mean “coastal defense.”

“Tonkin”—as in the Gulf of Tonkin—is a corruption of the Vietnamese “Dong Kinh” which means “eastern capital.” Related are the meanings of the Chinese cities Beijing (Peiking) and Nanjing (Nanking) which mean, respectively, “northern capital” and “southern capital.”

But not all place names in Vietnam are Vietnamese. The names of the provinces and cities in the highlands along the Laotian and Cambodian border are derived from the tribal languages of the people who populate the area. So Kontum and Pleiku are not Vietnamese names. I have no idea of their meaning.

Thanks for putting up with the meanderings of a linguist’s mind.

Ralph Adams

I learned a couple of days ago that Ralph Adams died on 23 January. I’d known Ralph for over fifty years. He arrived at the National Security Agency (NSA) as a soldier in 1961 one year after I did, and, like me, later joined the NSA workforce as a civilian. He served as the chief of my analysis shop in Saigon until he was evacuated just before the fall of Saigon in April 1975. He went on to become a member of the Senior Cryptologic Executive Service and became one of the highest-ranking civilians in the agency.

But the Ralph I knew was a fellow linguist. He possessed the inborn knack for understanding the Vietnamese language intuitively, and he spoke it so well that he was one of only three linguists I knew who were mistaken for native speakers on the phone. As an African American, he had to put up with the rough-and-ready humor of his fellow NSA civilians serving in Vietnam in the period just before the country fell to the North Vietnamese. They called him “Spear Chucker,” a moniker that became over time a symbol of respect and liking. There was no one like him.

His obituary is at http://www.omaha.com/obits/adams-ralph-w-jr/article_995bc9d2-09fa-5e95-8d5d-a9a272f8b801.html


Toward the end of Last of the Annamese, Molly, the American nurse working at the dispensary in Saigon, volunteers to accompany Amerasian orphans being evacuated to the U.S. during Operation Babylift. That was the name of a program launched by President Ford to get the mixed-race orphans out of Vietnam before it fell to the Communists. The aircraft to be used was the C5A Galaxy, the largest plane I’ve ever seen, some six stories high. The plane crashes after takeoff. Molly and the orphans she was accompanying are killed.

The crash is historical fact. It occurred on 4 April 1975. At the time, I was anxious to get my subordinates out of the country—I knew Saigon would be attacked soon. The last woman in my office was my secretary, Suzie. I decided sending her out via Operation Babylift was the answer. At the last minute, for reasons I couldn’t explain at the time and still don’t understand, I took her off the list of passengers. She was not aboard the plane when it went down. Thank God for my decision.

Speech to the Marines

Last Wednesday, I was invited to speak at a training session for the Marine Corps Cryptologic Battalion. Here are excerpts of what I said to them:

[Throughout my years in Vietnam,] I kept running into a guy names Al Gray. I first met him in the early 1960s when he was a Marine captain . . . The last time I saw Al in Vietnam was in late April 1975 [during the fall of Saigon]. By then he was a colonel and I a GS-15, still rank equivalent. Here’s the story:

[One night, toward the end,] I was on my cot trying in vain to get some much-needed rest when the door chime sounded. I took my .38, went to the door, and looked out the peephole. Outside, I saw middle-aged American man in the wildest Hawaiian shirt I’d ever seen, colors so bright they hurt my eyes, shorts, and flip-flops. This in a war zone. He gave me a round-fingered wave and a silly grin, and I recognized him. It was Al Gray. 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 except when he absolutely had to. He hated bureaucracy and his job was in the field with his men.

[Al explained he was the Ground Security Officer for the evacuation.]

Just before sunset on 28 April, the bombardment started . . .  our western gate was hit. Two of the Marines I had been talking to were killed. Their names were McMahon and Judge. They were the last two U.S. servicemen killed on the ground in Vietnam.

Washington finally countermanded the Ambassador and issued the evacuation order in the wee hours of the morning on 29 April. [Al Gray and] the Marines from the 7th Fleet immediately flew in and got us out.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t credit Al Gray with saving my life . . .  I don’t call him Al any more. That stopped the day he became the Commandant of the Marine Corps. Now I call him “sir.” He’s the finest leader I’ve ever seen in action and a man I’m privileged to know.

So maybe you can understand why I have such respect for the Marines. Were it not for the Marines, I wouldn’t be alive today. So, Marines, I salute you and thank you for my life.

Foreseeing the End

In Last of the Annamese, all three of the principal characters—Chuck, Thanh, and Tuyet—foresee that Saigon will fall to the North Vietnamese. Chuck is in intelligence. He watches as the North Vietnamese close in on Saigon. But Thanh and Tuyet simply pay attention to what is going on. They see what Chuck sees.

I, like Chuck, was in intelligence, and like him, I saw the end coming. I’ve talked elsewhere in this blog about my warning to the U.S. Ambassador and his failure to believe what I told him. It was the last manifestation of the Cassandra Effect, having the means to foretell the future and not being believed.

It turns out that many of those around me saw the end coming. I knew American business people who arranged things to be sure they had a way out of the country. Other folks in government who were not in intelligence saw the writing on the wall. And, most important to me, my guys, the 43 men working for me, knew. I didn’t have to tell them.

Responses to this blog have told me, for the first time, that my men knew what was going on between me and the Ambassador—that he wouldn’t permit me to evacuate my people; that I was cheating, lying, and stealing to get my men and their wives and children out of Saigon before they got killed; that I and the two communicators who volunteered had to stay through the fall of the city might not get out.

The man in charge of our destiny, Ambassador Martin, was one of the few who didn’t foresee the fall of Saigon. Due to him, thousands didn’t escape at the end, including 2700 South Vietnamese soldiers who worked with my organization. I grieve for them as much today as I did the day Saigon fell.

What Is Courage?

When I tell the story of the fall of Saigon, listeners come up to me afterwards and accuse me of having courage. I plead not guilty. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, courage is facing danger without fear. Believe me, I was scared the whole time.

Men and women I’ve talked to who are, by my standards, heroes for their acts of bravery, often say something similar: all they did was what was required by the circumstances at the time. And I remember reading somewhere long ago a description of a man standing in front of a mirror and watching himself tremble with fear after carrying out an act of bravery and thinking wryly to himself: “This is the portrait of a hero.”

What the protagonist of Last of the Annamese, Chuck Griffin, does at the end of the book could be described as courageous. But he clearly doesn’t see it that way. He’d use words from his friend, Ike: “You do what you have to do, whatever it takes.”

Looking back on the last days in Saigon, what I remember most vividly is my determination to get all my men and their families out of Saigon safely before the attack on the city started. It took every scrap of strength I had; I didn’t have time to dwell on my fear that I might not make it out. Toward the end, I wrote a letter to a neighbor of ours back in the states and told her to deliver that letter to my wife if I didn’t make it. At the time, I really didn’t see how I was going to get out of Saigon alive. That letter was another thing I had to do, whatever it took. When I made it back to the world alive, the marriage collapsed. I burned the letter unread.

So what is courage? I honestly don’t know. What Chuck and I had doesn’t fit the description. Maybe what drives people to risk their lives is more like determination or focus on a goal of overwhelming importance. Maybe some things are more important staying alive.

If any of the readers of this blog can enlighten me and others, please leave a comment.