Tuesday, April 29, 1975
The phone woke me at 5:00 A.M. but stopped ringing before I could reach it. Outside, it sounded like the all-clear siren was going off. The radio, as had been the case for a week or so, had nothing but music on it. I called Bill Austin and asked if he had called me. He said he had and that I must have been sleeping pretty soundly as there had been a firefight going on since 4:00 A.M. and the west side of Saigon was all lit up by fires. He asked me to come to his apartment in a little while as we were on a sort of semi-alert for bus driving. I shaved, ate a light breakfast and took my packed brief case to Austin’s apartment–all set to go. He had a good view to the West from his apartment all right, and fire was at tree-top level, seemingly only 5 miles or so away. Shelling was going on, and by timing sight and sound of explosions Al Dominguez, who was there also, estimated the shells landing about two miles away. One other man from our building, I don’t remember his name, was with us for a while also. He was with the Mission Warden’s Office and left about 7:00 A.M. to go to work. While he was there we heard bits of news from his walkie-talkie radio. We heard about two Marines being killed in front of the DAO compound and he had already heard about Tan Son Nhut being shelled, and that it was closed.
I felt better when it became light. We had some coffee and watched planes flying around near Tan Son Nhut. These were almost all small planes. Helicopters were scurrying about not far from our apartment building at 123 Doan Thi Diem, which is pretty close to the Presidential palace. We had been watching a C-119 for about an hour and had figured it must be a South Vietnamese spotter plane. It circled near Tan Son Nhut airport and a bit south, near where the fires were. Then we saw a ball of fire and a plane gradually circling downward. Dominguez got to his movie camera rather quickly and filmed most of it. We weren’t sure it was the C-119, but it appeared that one of the twin booms came off and then the plane just cartwheeled straight down.
By this time I didn’t think we would be driving busses anywhere. The plan was to follow a Mission Warden escort in a convoy, on a predetermined route, picking up passengers to take to Tan Son Nhut Airport for air evacuation. And it was to be at night during curfew hours, when there wouldn’t be many people around. Despite a 24-hour curfew, if we were evacuating during daytime there would be a lot of Vietnamese out. Since it was daytime, and Tan Son Nhut airport was closed, I didn’t think we would be going anywhere. One of the scheduled helicopter pick-up points was the roof of our apartment building. While I was in Bill’s apartment, Herb Sultan called to find if we were being evacuated. We had not been alerted yet, although we three potential bus drivers were on stand-by alert. Sultan wanted to know if he could take a suitcase and another bag out with him. Austin told him that we would be restricted to one small bag that would fit under an airplane seat. Sultan kept insisting that he had a lot of important papers. Bill said the instructions he had received read one small bag per person.
I went back to my apartment. Mai, my cook, came in earlier than usual, at about 7:30 a.m. She had been up since 4:00 a.m. and I had seen her earlier, near the guards downstairs. She was smiling, as usual, and didn’t appear to be scared. I called Bill Rice and told him that I might be going out to drive a bus anytime, as we were on alert. He hadn’t heard anything from his building warden but said he was going to pack a bag. I tried to read a book, but someone was on the phone or at the door every 15 minutes. Likewise when I was dozing off to sleep in my chair, John Henson was locked out of his apartment. His maid had left and locked the front glass door with the keys inside. I let John try my keys, including extras I found in my apartment, on all his locks. John had conjunctivitis and acted as though he were a bit sick. After awhile we broke the glass and I reached inside and unlocked his door. Then later he came down to leave his canary for my cook and said he was being medically evacuated.
It must have been around 9:00 a.m. that Bill Rice called to say that the Ambassador wasn’t calling for an evacuation but said that anyone who wanted to leave could do so that day, that he thought things would quieten down, and that he thought the Communists were just using pressure tactics. They sure were!! I asked him if any of our people wanted to go and he said that no one had said so. I told him that I would stay also. Meanwhile, Bill Ward had called and jokingly asked about his curfew pass. I told him that if he wanted it he could come and get it. He called later and said he was leaving. I called Al Dominguez and asked how he would like a bloody Mary. He declined and said he thought that he would be leaving. Sultan also called me and talked about taking baggage out. I told him I wasn’t a warden but I was taking a brief case. I also had a call from Mr. Trong, Director of DGBFA, who was concerned about getting his family out. I told him that we were not even on evacuation alert. He gave me his phone number and said that he had also called Wade Jones.
I think I could have relaxed if the phone or door bell one wasn’t ringing every 15 minutes. I was pretty wound up so had a bloody Mary (my first) and felt much better. About 10:00 Bill Rice called and said that Paul Kostamo and I were to go to Clark Field, Philippines and stay there in a holding action. In case things got worse we would be out; and if everything were settled so there was no general evacuation we would come back. he was to pick us up and take us to the Embassy for evacuation. My suitcases were all too big so I decided to just take the brief case with a change of underwear, socks, a shirt and papers I wanted to keep. I wore my best remaining suit.
Bill and Paul came by before 10:30. I told Mai that I expected to be back and to keep everything in order. I had already paid her through May. I said that if everyone left then she could have everything I had left in the apartment. I left the radio, book on the table, a good supply of liquor, golf clubs, Poloroid camera and everything else as it had always been in the apartment. My car was parked downstairs.
We went by USAID I and parked, while Paul went to get his things from the Guest House. Mr. Ba and Mr. Minh, of dollar accounts, were near the door but no one could get in. They asked if there was an evacuation and we told them that there was not at that time. Bill dropped us off at the Embassy vehicle entrance. Few people were around. We went through the grounds and over to CRA. Men were cutting down shrubbery and even a tree, in back of the Embassy, preparing a helicopter landing area.
When we went into the CRA restaurant, we were told that a complete evacuation had been called. It was almost 11:00 a.m. There weren’t too many people there at that time but the crowd was building. Paul and I joined others at a table near the entrance and drank a couple of cold beers that were on the table. Pretty soon I saw Kim, one of the Vietnamese waitresses at CRA. She was quite agitated as she didn’t know whether to leave or not. Her mother wouldn’t leave and was sick. Kim’s two older sisters, who were married, were staying but Kim thought she should stay and care for her mother. She took me to the kitchen to meet others of her family who were leaving, two or three brothers and sisters I believe. For a couple of hours Kim kept wringing her hands and I believe finally decided to leave after she had seen her mother again and was told by her to leave.
The CRA restaurant soon became crowded with Americans, Vietnamese, Koreans, and I don’t know who else. Quite a crowd was building outside near the swimming pool also. Finally a couple of Americans guarded the door to keep more Vietnamese from coming inside the restaurant. We were inside from about 11:00 a.m. until 4:00 p.m. A group of fellows started cooking steaks for everyone that wanted any. There was a large supply of wine which we also sampled. Beer had long since run out. I saw a man who must have weighed 300 pounds, with the largest pile of ice cream I think I have ever seen on a table. That must have kept him busy for 30 minutes.
At 4:00 p.m. we went outside where a line was forming around the swimming pool after being funnelled through a gate on the shallow end of the pool. Bill Rice had come back about an hour after dropping off Paul Kostamo and me. After he came in and saw that so many had brought Vietnamese in, he went over to check in the control room about going out to get some of our locals if any were still around USAID I. He was told he shouldn’t leave the compound as he might not be able to get back in. So we had no warning about the evacuation so we could round up some of our key employees, especially the ones whose families had gone on ahead.
I think the first helicopters came into the Embassy grounds shortly after 4:00 p.m., although at least a couple of smaller ones had been on the roof top earlier. When we got into the line, we were told to take out any guns we might have. Bill Rice gave up a 45 cal. pistol and I donated a 22 cal. pistol. They were both dropped into the swimming pool. During 20 months in Saigon I never did go into that swimming pool, but my gun did. It wasn’t a very good one anyhow.
The line was funnelled through a gate, and the remaining people were in a mas in front of the CRA patio. The great majority of the hundreds of people there were Vietnamese. A barrier about waist high was placed along the side next to the Embassy compound and behind it was a wall of husky Americans, shoulder to shoulder, to keep back any rush toward the gate to the Embassy. A little later marines manned this line but the crowd was quite orderly.
Then the helicopters started coming in, some stopping at the Embassy’s two pads, and others going to DAO, 259, 35 A Ben Chuong and possibly other locations. Some of the early helicopters brought in more marines and they were a comforting sight. They looked and acted like they meant business. Most guarded the gate and walks to keep unauthorized Vietnamese from coming in. Everyone that was inside was being taken out on helicopters. No check could be made of personnel. Marines also helped Americans come over the walls. After we had been in line a couple of hours and were wondering where Dick McClure and Clarence Combs were, lo and behold, here came Combs, hobbling and looking like he had been through a wringer, which he had. He had toured the city on a bus driven by Wade Jones, probably my replacement. He had lost his and McClure’s baggage fighting his way through crowds from the Embassy tennis courts, a few blocks to the CRA entrance. Then somehow he made it to the top of the gate, probably at least 20 feet high (Clarence said 30 feet, and he was up there). When he jumped, or was swept over, he suffered two breaks in the instep of each foot (discovered by x-ray on board ship two days later).
During all this time we could hear shelling or rocketing, and close at home there was small-arms firing. It sounded like shotguns and I guessed that marines or Mission warden personnel were firing over the heads of the crowd outside. Helicopters were all over th skies, coming in and going out. Fighters from the Enterprise were up high, flying cover. And finally we saw some sleek helicopter gunships. The line seemed to move mighty slow. I found later that outside groups. such as families of National Policemen, got in somehow and were taken out so th evacuation wouldn’t be interfered with by South Vietnamese police and military. I know one time 4 or 5 large helicopters came and went, and no one went through the Embassy gate during that period. I guess we were all a bit tense, hoping that the marines could hold back the crowd outside.
I was in line a little over 4 hours. A number of us from USAID were more or less in one group. When we neared the gate, we were taken together through the grounds and up the stairs to the roof of the Embassy. The helicopter never cut its engines. We rushed up to last short flight of stairs across the pad and clambered aboard. It was dark on the roof and darker yet inside the helicopter. It held 20 or 22 passengers–a marine helicopter. Two or three passengers hesitated in the darkness as they entered. A marine, who was all business, threw them half the length of the copter onto seats. It wouldn’t have taken two minutes to load. Then we were off and I felt better than I had all day. It was 8:20 p.m.
On the way out we could see bright fires up north. It looked to be about the distance and direction to Bien Hoa [?]. It was large enough to have been half the city. I had wanted to be evacuated during daylight in order to see what size crowds were outside and to get a final view of the city–also to see how large the Navy force was offshore. It must have been quite large as there were plenty of lights below, all the way to our ship, the USS Midway (an aircraft carrier) which we reached at 9:30 p.m. After we landed we were moved quickly below where we were given a quick medical check (my blood pressure, normally 120-90, was 160-110) were registered and taken to quarters that had been vacated by sailors. They were air conditioned and quite compact: three tiers of bunks with 48 people in a section. At this time anything looked good to us. I guess we ate at about midnight or 12:30 a.m. I was so tired I washed up but didn’t shower. After I lay down I couldn’t sleep. So I took a shower at about 2:00 a.m. and then was off to sleep. It had been a long day.