Monday, April 28, 1975

[Martindale, continued]

Monday, April 28, 1975

         We proceeded pretty well on schedule and moved out of the bowling alley to an area next to the gym, probably around 4:30 A.M. I should say about one-half of our group did. I had made arrangements with the people at the processing gate to stage our people in this area, in the order that their names appeared on the manifests, so the processing could proceed in an orderly manner. When I notified our people in the bowling alley to get ready to go to the staging area, this excited another group into action. The group scheduled directly ahead of us, unknown to me, was also in the bowling area. They hadn’t been told to get ready and consisted of only about 40 employees of the American radio station. They moved out very quickly into part of our staging area. So I moved only one-half of our people, and left the others in the bowling alley in two groups.

         Our people waited very patiently in the staging area as, first daylight, then sunrise, came. If  I had not already known them, I would have had to admire them then. We had all been up since the early morning before, and God only knows how much sleep they had that night, with the excitement of getting ready to leave their country. But here, as the sun came up, 65 and 70-year-olds seemed to have more energy than I had; and I knew they had sat up all night, seemingly as tense and nervous as could be.

         At this point I should state that, of all the people processed, it seemed that USAID had a very low percentage, considering the number of people in the country from various organizations. That is, other than SAAFO personnel. SAAFO people were a breed apart, and though ordinarily shown as AID personnel, they reported primarily through the Special Assistant to the Ambassador for Field Operations, hence the initials SAAFO. These Vietnamese weren’t even AID employees after June 30, 1974 (although we still paid them and supervised them) but were nominally GVN employees. Vietnamese personnel of DAO contractors, such as P, A and E, were being evacuated. And on the last day a lot of voluntary agency local personnel were evacuated. I don’t know as AID contractors’ local employees were ever evacuated, and a lot of our own direct-hire Vietnamese never got the chance. And so many others were secretly evacuated; supposedly many GVN officials’ families, and those of high ranking military officers had to be, in order for us to be able to safely evacuate our people. I know the night our people were waiting in the bowling alley, at about 10:00 P.M., I saw two U.S. government officials that I knew, who said they had just brought in 600 people. It was so secret they couldn’t tell me who they were. But they didn’t wait anywhere near 16 hours. And the next night they were to send out 600 more.

         At about 6:30 A.M. we were next in line for processing, when a halt was called. I was told that we would hold until 8:00 o’clock, I told our people to relax until 8. Some bought coffee and bread from the soldiers through the adjoining fence. Some of these warriors had been on duty all night, hawking their wares through the fence. They had samples of newspapers, cigarette packages, etc. stuck to the fence. Up until about 2:00 A.M. there was a virtual army of Military moonlighters manning the fences. Come daybreak, there was also an army pushing bread and coffee. I accepted some French bread from some of our people. After a while, shortly before 7:30 A.M., I went to the men’s room in the gymnasium. I came out about 7:30 and found that our people had been called to go in for processing. It didn’t go as smoothly as I thought it would. I had told our people that we would start processing at 8:00 A.M. (as I  had been told). So when I came out, they were not in their proper order, and, at first, there was a bit of confusion. and now there was new Defense Attache Office (DAO) man at the gate, a civilian who had either been a top sergeant or had nurtured delusions of being a top sergeant. His yelling and cursing at the Vietnamese created more disorder. I had designated a Vietnamese to be in charge of each of our four groups. By having each of them line their people up and bringing them into the gate in their regular turn, we finally convinced “Napoleon” that we could organize them better than he could.

         As our 300 some-odd USAID employees were processed through, our 89 Controller Office personnel dwindled to 86. Chi’s mother decided at the last moment that she couldn’t leave her country. And another employee, who was also the second wife of the USAID Director’s driver, tried to get her sister through with her. Her sister was over the age limit of 20 but somehow she had gotten onto a bus. When the count was made at the gate (there they only checked numbers of people) of “employee and one other,” the sister also breezed inn. “Napoleon” was alert enough to count three people when there should have been two, although the employee’s baby was quite small. So she had a choice of going with her baby only or not at all. I guess her sister had been taking care of the baby because the employee elected to stay behind with her baby. I vowed to see that all  three were put on a later manifest, now that I knew how the system worked.

         I followed our employees through the baggage-checking process and the body searching. I wanted to see how the entire operation worked. There was no check on baggage weight, although we had religiously told our people that they would be allowed 20 kilos per adult and 10 kilos for others. And they were well below those limits. Some were apprehensive about the body searching. After being paid accrued leave and severance pay in greenbacks, and being allowed to convert up to $2,000 worth of piasters into U.S. currency (although many would have preferred dollar checks), some employees had a few thousand dollars on their bodies. Some had sold all of their property (houses, automobiles, Hondas, etc.) and had converted the piaster proceeds into gold and jewelry, at unfavorable rates. But even these Vietnamese, or most of them, probably didn’t have as much wealth as the U.S. newspaper reporter, who made headlines by reporting on the wealthy Vietnamese refugees, has just in the equity on his home. They had to carry what they could out with them. Apparently the American guards were concerned primarily about anyone carrying firearms. The solder who checked them was a very personable, outgoing type, who did a great deal to ease the tension among these people who had been waiting in the processing area for more than 16 hours. I saw more smiles in ten minutes there than I had during the entire 16 hours. Of course, they were near the end of the line too. Hien, our ex-receptionist, ex-secretary, was so happy after she got through the metal detector. She said the detector went “rrr, rrr” and the sergeant asked her what she had on her person. She told him she had some jewelry and she was passed on through.

         I wanted to see our people through to the airplane but the sergeants overruled the Navy Lt. Commander, who had given me permission. They cited anti-hijack regulations. So I saw them all aboard the busses  at 9:20 A.M. headed for the airplanes. I don’t think they were delayed further because they had been held up awaiting busses. It seemed a shortage of drivers had developed, as drivers were getting out also. I felt glad for our employees but was very sad, knowing I would probably not see a one of them again. Parting with some close friends such as Hien and Cam Van was especially hard. I was so choked up I couldn’t say goodbye to them as I was turned back at the gate, but could only wave goodbye.

         During my tour through the processing cycle I found that no check was made of the relationship and age requirements when employees and their families boarded the busses. Bus monitors should have made this check but did not have time. And an American couldn’t have made heads or tails of the Vietnamese names, not to mention the second and third wives and their children. The employees could have held to the original number of family members they had reported, and we would never have know the difference. Then when the manifests were turned in, the number of persons listed was allowed to go through the gates. The employee’s name was called plus, say, 4 others. Five people were counted as they went through the gate and were as good as in Guam. We were given the rules and put the fear of God into our employees. And I think we did right; otherwise, fewer of our employees could have gone. But I don’t know how many others did likewise.

         After I saw our people off I went home, took a shower and grabbed two hours of sleep and a snack and then back to the rat race. I found that another list of 120 had been prepared and the people were being processed. Based on our money exchange experience, Bill Rice got permission for USAID to make the  exchange for its employees and to accept piasters, with dollar checks to be sent ot the employees on Guam, or wherever they went. A list of personnel turning in piasters was kept, and I  don’t know whether the employees were given receipts on the spot or not.

         We had the usual rush of employees seeking us out and citing their particular problems. Vietnamese officials sought out anyone they knew in the U.S. Mission for help. Colonel Vuu, a very knowledgeable Accounting major, with an MBA from Syracuse University was getting out of the military on April 30th and was looking for help. Mr. Truong, Director General of DGBFA who had been of so much assistance to us, and had probably done more for the U.S. Government than any of our own employees, was seeking help. He was most vulnerable in case he couldn’t get out. All we could do in such cases was refer these people to the Director’s Office, as we were only authorized to make arrangements for our own people and their families. But these were also good friends and we had to take the time, which we didn’t really have, to talk to them. I don’t know whether Col. Vuu got out or not but I’m pretty sure Mr. Truong did not. But again, I’m not sure, as some of these people surprise you with their ingenuity.

         I was surprised that afternoon to find that Mr. Au  was on the job. I found that he had told Paul Kostamo that his family had gone out in the group that I had shepherded. I told Paul, who was not aware of the case, that Mr. Au must have decided that there was more money around to be stolen. And then I found that he had been helping to count the money that was turned in for payment by dollar checks. I told Bill Rice that he was on the job, so we called him into the office. He told me that his family had gone out, and then we told him that we knew better because Bill Rice was monitor of the bus that his family was supposed to board and that I had stayed with the group all night and had a list of all the people that boarded the plane. We told him that everything would be O.K. if he just brought $2,000 the next day to turn back in. He made some lame excuse about his son being in an accident, but we told him we still expected the money the next day. I bet Bill 1000 piasters that he would never come back to work again. I guess I won the bet because the next morning there was a 24-hour alert and before the day was over we had all left Vietnam.

         I went to CRA to eat but found they were serving only sandwiches. Then I drove to the Guest House in the USAID I compound. While waiting to be served, and while sipping on a cold beer, at about 6:30 P.M. all hell broke loose. That was when the U.S.-built planes hit Tan Son Nhut airport, but we didn’t know that then. We heard all kinds of shooting outside. Our waitress became so agitated that she was literally jumping up and down and running around between tables. We made her go into the kitchen as she was making everyone more edgy and nervous. People were running around out in the lobby and the firing outside sounded as though it was in our compound. I fully expected someone to rush through the door firing a gun at any time.

         In time things quieted down, our waitress reappeared and served us and we left. I took Bill Ward home to 259, and he lent me his curfew pass in case I didn’t make it home before curfew. When I got home I found that a 24-hour curfew was in effect.

         At about 9:00 P.M. I went to Bill Austin’s apartment to see if there was an alert for evacuation. Bill was our building warden. While I was there he received a call from the Mission Warden’s Office wanting three drivers to go to Tan Son Nhut to drive busses back to our apartment. It seemed all the drivers deserted when the shooting started at the Air base. Bill asked me if I was a bus driver, I said I’d never driven one in my life. He told the Mission Warden he had one volunteer right there in his apartment.

         A little later Bill Austin, Al Dominguez and I were taken out to pick up some busses. There were probably 8 or 10 other drivers there also. We picked up the busses in front of  the DAO headquarters where 5 or 6 hours later rockets hit, killing 2 marines and destroying some other vehicles. After learning where the various gears were, I was able to drive alright. I was more afraid of possible trouble from the ARVN or National Police than anything else and at one check point the did come on board and check for passengers. With the tension of driving around during curfew, going through road blocks, etc. I found that my clothes were almost all entirely wet with perspiration when I reached home. I called Jennie in Bangkok before going to bed somewhere around 1:00 A.M.