With the fall of South Vietnam looming, and an ambassador still in denial, FSOs on the ground began taking matters into their own hands to help get people out, by any means possible.
BY JOSEPH MCBRIDE
South Vietnam seemed strangely secure when I reported to Saigon as a first-tour, political officer in late 1974. But signs soon suggested that stability was chimerical.
In early January 1975, I pulled late duty to report the translation of President Nguyen Van Thieu’s speech to the nation after the North Vietnamese Army had overrun Phuoc Binh, just 90 miles north of Saigon. Thieu rationalized that retaking the jungle town was not worth the cost.
Militarily, he was right, but politically this was a disaster. Phuoc Binh was the first provincial capital the government permanently abandoned after more than a decade of war. Even more dismaying, Thieu rambled on for three disjointed hours. Vietnam’s president and commander in chief seemed to be losing it.
While the translators worked, I slipped over to the Recreation Association to grab a sandwich. It was “Luau Night” around the swimming pool. U.S. contractors were decked out in orchid leis and served by waitresses in sarongs, all lit by tiki torches. The incongruity stunned me: partying as usual while the NVA racked up the score, less than 100 miles to the north. “This cannot last,” I thought.
But I wanted to see for myself. So in early 1975, I took annual leave for a four-day bus trip over the Tet (lunar New Year) holiday, unarmed and unescorted, deep into the Mekong Delta. No travel clearance was required in those days. (It was a different time and a different Foreign Service; hard to envision in the current era of cocoon-like constriction.) My intent was to poke around the district where I had served with USAID as the sole civilian on a joint military-civilian pacification advisory team from 1969 to 1971. (USAID was my chosen entrée into the Civil Operations and Revolutionary Development Support program—the equivalent of a countrywide Provincial Reconstruction Team on steroids.) I wanted to gauge how security had changed on the ground, in a place where I could really judge.
Our former team interpreter, a lasting friend whom I got out a few months later, went with me. We encountered no problems on the road. Vietnamese were astonished to see an American on board, but happy to banter for long hours. Arriving in the district, the army captain now in command was a different matter. Totally flummoxed, he wanted us out of there.
It soon became clear why: his outposts looked like the Maginot Line, because the Viet Cong roamed unchallenged right up to their gates; and government militia to man the walls were scarce on the ground. Caught on the road at sunset, we overnighted with a village notable we knew well. We could sleep in his house, but the Viet Cong were “all around,” he warned. The old gentleman kindly left us with a concussion grenade, as he quickly departed to sleep elsewhere. We high-tailed it back at the break of dawn.
I got what I wanted: a reality test of security on the ground, 1975 versus 1971. The official security rankings for the district—“average for the country”—had not changed in four years. But the place we once knew to be 80-percent secure was now reduced to a hollow eggshell, waiting to be cracked.
Back at the embassy, my trip provoked no criticism. But neither was there a shred of interest in drawing on it for “defeatist” reporting to Washington. My disillusionment was tempered by the explicit warning the department’s director of the Vietnam desk had given me before I left Washington: “Don’t stick your neck out to contest sanitized reporting. We all are perfectly aware Embassy Saigon is selling a concocted story, and nobody back here pays much attention to it.”
The incongruity stunned me: partying as usual while the North Vietnamese Army racked up the score, less than 100 miles to the north.
From mid-January to mid-April the NVA rolled up the country rapidly. The Army of the Republic of Vietnam collapsed due to panicked orders from Saigon and incompetent senior leadership, with a few notable exceptions. The 18th Division bought 10 days by a heroic stand at Xuan Loc, northeast of Saigon, before it was overrun.
The imminent fall of South Vietnam was obvious to all of us, but Ambassador Graham Martin adamantly clung to the hope that some political compromise could be worked out. Martin had lost a son, a helicopter pilot, in the war. He could not admit that defeat was a foregone conclusion.
At most, the embassy was authorized to ship home excess files, though shredding and burning were soon to follow. The political section began discreetly identifying particularly high-risk Vietnamese for possible evacuation. In the end, however, the criteria were too vague and the list too long to be prioritized. For any given Vietnamese, it all came down to who he knew, how lucky he was, and how far his American contact would go to rescue him.
Several weeks before the end, two high-flying seventh-floor staffers took unauthorized leave to come rescue Vietnamese contacts for whom they felt personal responsibility. One morning Deputy Chief of Mission Wolfgang Lehmann barged into the political section, “Does anybody know Lionel Rosenblatt and Craig Johnstone? If they show up, have them report to the front office immediately!” When he left, my boss muttered, “Before reporting in, those two better finish anything they came here to do. Because they’ll be slammed into the first plane out of here.”
Sure enough, within the hour I ran into Rosenblatt and Johnstone climbing the back staircase to see me. I hurried them back out of the embassy before they were spotted and, later, fixed them up with contacts at the Tan Son Nhut evacuation site. Over the next week, to their great credit, they got 30 contacts and their families out before departing themselves on the last commercial flight from Saigon.
A week before the end, the Department of Justice finally authorized “parole status” for the Vietnamese families of the estimated 5,000 private American citizens who refused to leave the country without them. Ken Moorefield, an aide to the ambassador, set up a processing center at the airfield to process these roughly 20,000 people. I soon joined him. We were stamping out “parolees” on the afternoon of April 28, when turncoat government pilots bombed and cratered the airfield. The damage done put an end to any possibility of further fixed-wing evacuation.
We were now down to limited helicopter evacuation from the airfield and the embassy, plus a barge route down the Saigon River. The barges were the brainchild of Mel Chatman and Bob Lanigan, USAID field officers, who had distinguished themselves in chaotic evacuations down the coast from Da Nang and Nha Trang. At the end, the two personally nursed the Alaska Contracting barges down to the sea. But due to the lack of overall embassy planning and execution, these enormous barges went out only half-filled.
That night, I fell asleep, exhausted, on an embassy desktop. In the false dawn of April 29, NVA rockets suddenly rained down from all around the city.
The old gentleman kindly left us with a concussion grenade, as he quickly departed to sleep elsewhere.
Several weeks earlier I had signed on to drive high-risk contacts down to the Saigon docks for evacuation by sea. “I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas”—the mission warden code for activating the evacuation—started playing on the radio. It was time to rise and shine … and make things happen.
Around noon on the 29th, I grabbed a nine-passenger van with a full fuel tank and headed out for the designated safe house where political section contacts were supposed to assemble. I requested Lacy Wright, the deputy in the section, to lead the way for the first run because of his 4/4 Vietnamese. The ticklish part would be negotiating the police guards sealing off the docks to the evacuation barges on the river. I wanted no 3/3 linguistic slipups to block our entry.
The safe house was already swarming with people when we got there, and it only got worse through the day. Word on the street spread fast; it had been an illusion to think we could keep the safe houses secret. Separating out the genuine high-risk cases took time. We each crammed up to 20 people into our vans, but it did not make a dent in the inflow. Lacy sweet-talked us through the police and army barricades for the first run, but he and I got separated after that.
Stuck at the closed-off airport, Admin Officer Don Hayes linked up with the Marines to courageously thwart enraged paratroopers trying to force their way aboard the airlift—or block the evacuation. Political Internal Chief Shep Lowman got stuck with a houseful of high-level VIPs, but despite frantic calls, no vehicles were ever sent to pick them up. In the end, Shep made it back to the embassy by foot, but he could get only three high-level friends through the gate with him. Ken Moorefield was also driving a rescue mission out on the streets, but got stuck cruising around Saigon with two full busloads and nowhere to take them. The airfield and the embassy were buttoned up tight. Tellingly, nobody in charge had alerted Ken about the barges leaving from the docks on the river.
Sadly, snafus and disconnects like these were the rule of the day, not the exception. Those with initiative—who would rather ask for forgiveness than wait for permission—were the only ones who were truly effective. Officers from the Defense Attaché Office at the airfield had control of key assets, personnel to deploy and the nerve to jump the start gun. The rest of us played it by ear the best we could.
Back at my safe house, from all I could tell I was completely on my own. As the city shifted toward chaos, I could only raise the front office on my radio net. I got plenty of “attaboys” and “stick to it as long as you can,” but no useful guidance or info of any kind. Fortunately, the mood on the streets had not yet turned against us. Renegade South Vietnamese soldiers turning their guns on us—not the NVA—was always our biggest security risk. (We knew leaders of the Airborne Brigade were actively plotting to take Americans hostage to ensure their own evacuation.) Beware the wrath of a betrayed ally.
I repeatedly delivered my passengers, and policemen guarding the docks grudgingly accepted handfuls of Vietnamese cash. Toward the end of the day, a young Army officer at a roadblock detained my van. Trouble, I thought. “No. I just want to say thank you for trying,” he said with a salute. The lieutenant declined to climb in with me, saying he would stay with his family. Earlier, a senior embassy translator had declined a similar offer, snapping, “No, I’m Vietnamese. I’m staying.” It sounded like he already had paid his dues to the new order and knew he was safe.
The place we once knew to be 80-percent secure was now reduced to a hollow eggshell, waiting to be cracked.
The long shadows of late afternoon arrived, and there had been a long gap with no evacuation helicopters from the Seventh Fleet. Crowds overran my safe house. Two longhaired Saigon cowboys in bellbottoms carried in a desiccated grandfather in an ebony chair—outrageous draft dodgers, not the people we set out to save. On top of it all, my van’s once-full fuel tank was now running on fumes, and gasoline stations were shut down tight. It was time to head back to the embassy.
I radioed that I was coming home. George Jacobson, the ambassador’s longtime special assistant for field operations, asked that I make one more run to pick up his household staff. It was a personal favor. He told me I could siphon gas out of his parked car, “and don’t worry about the taste.” (Jacobson had been dramatically filmed during the Tet Offensive of 1968, catching a pistol thrown up to his bedroom window in time to dispatch a Viet Cong sapper coming up the stairs.) So, gasoline taste in my mouth, I made one more run for the docks.
Back at the embassy I found packed crowds hunkered down, waiting. Earlier wall climbers apparently had been beaten down. Street toughs had cannibalized abandoned cars down to their naked x-frames, motor blocks and all. The vandals were snarly and scornful. But as I inched through them, the tens of thousands waiting around the embassy were imploring rather than angry.
The Marine guard at the main vehicle gate could not let me in. Once he cracked the gate, masses of people would break through. He had orders to fire on them if they did. He was right. I threw my Samsonite briefcase over the wall, not wanting to get caught with the two hand grenades inside, if the crowd turned mean.
Baffled, I tried to figure out what to do. Finally, another Marine directed me to the small sally-port gate opening into the consulate. It was buttressed by projecting towers, so that only one person at a time could pass. He asked me to collect the various Americans locked outside and quietly slip them over to that gate. Slowly, mustering every courtesy term I could recall from FSI language training, I worked around to the other side of the compound. “Don’t worry, we’ll have helicopters enough for everybody who wants to go. We are not leaving without you,” I assured one and all. To my relief, they seemed to believe me. Because they wanted to, they had to. What other hope could they have?
I collected about 10 Americans and their families and gingerly slid them to the consulate gate. Two huge Marines in full battle rattle came over the gate. I positioned myself between them as we passed through each person, including a very pregnant woman. Three stout men on the back side of the gate opened and closed it behind each entrant.
The two giant Marines repeatedly muscled the crowd back with their flack-jacketed bulk while snapping the loading slide on their (actually unloaded) M-16s for dramatic effect. I marveled at their cool—despite not understanding the language and being totally vulnerable to a hidden knife or pistol. My job was to pick out those who were to be saved, and keep uttering the implausible promise that we would not abandon anybody. Later, I wrote up the two Marines, and they both got military awards and a coveted assignment to guard duty at the U.S. mission at the United Nations.
The mission leadership was overwhelmed dealing with Washington and, by all accounts, out of contact with what was going on outside.
Inside the compound I stripped to the waist, wringing buckets of sweat out of my shirt. I threw away a filthy gray-striped seersucker jacket that had covered the revolver tucked in the small of my back.
Suddenly, a platoon of some 40 Marines charged out from the main door of the chancery building, crossed the front lawn and flung their backs against the compound wall. Soon DCM Lehmann appeared, gesturing firmly, and called them back. The Marines recoiled back from the wall and into the chancery building.
What was going on, I wondered? Lehmann, a former infantry officer, came over and cleared up my confusion. “Nobody, nobody else gets into this compound,” he barked to all present. “Understand? And that goes for you, too, McBride!” Half naked, I managed a “Yes, sir.”
It turned out that the CIA station had assembled a bunch of “assets” in a building across the boulevard from the embassy and then arranged for the Marine fleet detachment to mount an assault over the wall and push the crowd back to open a corridor for these chosen few to get to the gates. Given the thousands of people in the street, it’s hard to imagine how this scheme could have worked out, unless the Marines provoked panic by also firing into the air. But once the front office got word of it, the DCM promptly stomped on it.
The DCM’s intervention, however, seems to have been one of a kind. It was the only case that I know of where the front office exercised effective management control over any part of the street-level evacuation. On the contrary, the mission leadership was overwhelmed dealing with Washington and, by all accounts, out of contact with what was going on outside. Those Vietnamese trying to escape either lucked out by having an American protector to provide access to evacuation points—embassy, airport or barge dock—or they were left behind.
Most were left behind—including one agency’s full complement of 200 staffers and their families. Their American supervisors clearly were isolated and out of the loop until the balloon went up. When it did, they were ignored—allegedly misled—and ultimately helpless to save their people. They had gullibly accepted generic assurances that their people would be wrapped up in the overall mission evacuation. No other agency, to my knowledge, was similarly naïve.
I entered the chancery as tropical darkness fell suddenly. The political section was totally empty. Nobody could be found on any working-level floor that I could access. All offices were thoroughly trashed, with IBM Selectric typewriters getting special attention. An odor of alcohol wafted through from time to time. Only when I got to the outer office of the executive suite on the third floor did I find a gaggle of people.
The ambassador’s extraordinary secretary, Eva Kim, and her newsman beau, come to mind. The rest seemed to be largely superannuated hangers-on, serving no purpose at the wake. I saw nobody drinking, but painkiller had clearly been applied here and there. I received plenty of congratulations and pats on the back. After that, given the DCM’s ukase to let no more people in, I could see nothing more to do but wait.
I grabbed a nine-passenger van with a full fuel tank and headed out for the designated safe house where political section contacts were supposed to assemble.
Eventually, a CH-53 Sea Stallion arrived on the landing pad on top of the building. A few Americans were needed to fill out an otherwise overwhelmingly Vietnamese passenger list. At the foot of the stairs to the roof, immediately in front of me, stood an impeccably dressed Europeanist doing his obligatory excursion tour to Asia, complete with perfectly pressed suit, neatly combed hair, starched handkerchief adorning his jacket pocket, polished attaché case and overnight bag. Right then and there, I decided I would never become one of them.
As we started upward, Amb. Martin came out of his private office to pull me aside. Putting his hand on my shoulder, he intoned in a low, southern patrician voice that he knew what I had been doing out on the streets, and he wanted to thank me. Truthfully, I felt honored to be there at the end, to have done all that I could do. For all his foibles, the ambassador had extended a gracious gesture that I had no right to expect.
It was pitch dark as the chopper lifted off the roof, but the tail ramp was down enough to make out scattered fires burning in the distance. Lit by an eerie blue light inside, all I could make out were Vietnamese around me. Some other Americans were aboard for sure, but not many.
Contrary to some accounts, I detected no enemy ground fire reaching up to us. The NVA wanted us gone in time to celebrate their victory on May Day, and we were going. They may have painted our choppers with their targeting systems, but they let us go unimpeded. After a while, we landed under floodlights on the USS Hancock, a World War II vintage carrier. Those of us with pistols handed them over. I slept for much of the five days' journey to Subic Bay, the Philippines.
The evacuation concluded in the early morning of April 30. Amb. Martin admirably stretched out the evacuation to get out every Vietnamese he could—“just a few more helicopters.” Several inbound crews crashed from vertigo. The exasperated Navy finally resorted to a direct presidential order for the ambassador to get on a designated helicopter, just before dawn. That’s what it took.
Once the ambassador departed for the fleet, “Americans only” for boarding was strictly enforced. In the process, some 400 Vietnamese—including all mission firefighters who had volunteered to stay to the end—were abandoned.
Captain Stuart Herrington, a Vietnamese-speaking DAO officer, had kept the crowd under control by promising that he would not leave until they left. He was utterly devastated to be ordered—forced—to abandon those to whom he had given his personal word. Retired Colonel Herrington deservedly serves as the moral centerpiece of Rory Kennedy’s documentary, “Last Days in Vietnam.”