The last flight out was a crowded flight and few safety rules were enforced. Thankfully my mother-in-law and two sisters-in-law were passengers on this last commercial flight out of Saigon. Additional passengers sat in the aisles for takeoff and the flight. They headed for refugee status in camps set up in Guam, a U.S. Territory.
Unexpectedly left behind on the ground in Saigon, with a brother in law left on a U.S. Military base, I tried to evaluate the circumstances I now faced which, at best, was not turning out as expected. It seemed there was no sense hanging around the airport so I went to the Honda 50 motor bike abandoned by Trinh and started to drive back into Saigon and the family residence, fairly sure I could find it okay.
With fresh images of World Airways’ Ed Daly fighting off fleeing soldiers fleeing the communists, and Garrick Utley saying you’d better be British because Americans would be shot on sight, I motored to the family home in Saigon. At the first traffic circle out of the airport, I rounded next to a Jeep with four South Vietnamese soldiers in it. The driver had his hands on the wheel but the passenger in front and two in back all had an M-16 assault rifles in their hands. A couple of them leveled them at me and one shouted out in English, “Hey American, you’re going the wrong way!” I shouted back in the clearest, most commanding North Vietnamese I could summon up, “I’m only going in to town for a 33 Beer”. With that the troops drew back their weapons and saluted me and I returned the salute, smiled broadly and figured I’d make out just fine.
To make a longer story shorter, nobody expected me to show up at the family home at 33 Hien Vuong (now renamed to Vo Thi Sau Street). When I did, I was met with incredulous looks and a “what to do now” kind of an air. I explained about those who departed on schedule and Nhat hidden on the U.S. Military base. The presumably abandoned family members now considered and wondered if I could take them out. I too wondered why not, since there was already one stuck behind. I also expressed my interest to stay for the “liberation” since I firmly believed there would be no “bloodbath” and I was studying just this kind of history scenario. Nobody however wanted to stay behind and share my dream and hypothesis.
Soon extended family members started to show up with an expectant air that I could get them out. Things were getting out of hand. The Pan Am plane was long gone and I was supposed to be on it with five family members. Now here I was in Saigon with dozens more wanting to leave. What to do?
The next couple of days were a total blur. Who wants to go? Who is related to whom? Why do you want to go when I want to stay? The liberators are not going to harm you. You are over-reacting. Why does every body need to leave? What to do now and how to gather everyone?
On one of the days, on the U.S. Military base, I actually drank 14 bottles of warm Bireley’s Orange Soda without having to pee. It was that hot, it was stressful, it was unusual.
Nguyen Huy Han (see below for brief biographical reference) was the Minister of Taxation of south Viet Nam and arranged for the remaining departing family members to board a van to Tan Son Nhut. The van took its passengers to a rendezvous point where there was a U.S. Air Force bus (like a school bus but painted Air Force blue) collecting evacuees for entry to the base. There were family members on it of all ages and backgrounds, from suckling infants to grandmothers. Besides a government Minister, there were two field grade South Vietnamese Army officers (one in uniform with a trench coat over it). All believed being left behind would mean certain death or imprisonment.
As the bus arrived at the Tan Son Nhut airport entry gates there was an air of expectation that they had been delivered to the hands of freedom. Then reality came crashing down. The first barrier was manned by very serious south Vietnamese Marines. These Marines stopped the crowded bus at the checkpoint. They signaled their intent to come aboard and check ID’s and papers.
I looked back at the faces of the in-laws. They were now refugees. One was a government Minister. In some cases they were Army officers and, therefore, deserters. This was punishable by death. This was serious. It was real. These south Vietnamese Marines had better not board the bus.
As a foreigner I was very conspicuous, so I moved to the front of the bus. As the south Vietnamese Marines took their first steps up on to the bus I moved to block them. In retrospect, this was another out-of-body experience. Like watching a movie of someone else doing it. They did not want to be blocked. Those on the bus did not want the Marines on. I stood fast and, in a moment of inspiration, looked forward, out of the bus window towards the next checkpoint manned by U.S. Marines. I caught the attention of the U.S. troops there. Since I was the only obvious American-looking guy on the bus they started moving forward towards me. There was unspoken eye contact. Marines to me: You need help? I to Marines: We could use your intervention. Within moments it went beyond eye contact when I hand signaled the Marines to come forward. The South Vietnamese backed off the bus and it was allowed to proceed onto the U.S. Military part of the base.
Once on the U.S. Military part of the base things got both easier and more complicated at the same time. Easier in that they were expecting evacuees and a tent city had sprouted and was taking people in. More complicated for me in that one person was allowed to “sponsor” out only ten people to the US. I had 30.
When US Consular personnel asked how many people I intended to take out I simply replied, “About thirty”. This was when I was informed that a maximum of ten was allowed. With me being a full time student, ten was more than enough and thirty was impossible. I was told to choose ten and that was it. I scanned the waiting room, looked at the stressed Consular officer and said, “I can’t choose. You choose. There’s a mother breastfeeding a baby. There’s a grandmother. These are brothers and sisters in law and their kin. You choose and I’ll inform them. They believe they will die if left behind.” The Consular official was beaten and he didn’t know what to say. I pointed out that it seemed the Consuls were overwhelmed, that I spoke Vietnamese and I inquired as to whether or not it would help if I volunteered to process the refugees for the Consulate. They most readily accepted. When, a couple of days later, it was evident that the end was near, the Consuls again asked how many people I wanted to take out and paperwork was provided for all.
Taken to the flight line for evacuation, my clan and I were boarded onto a waiting US Air Force C-130 Hercules transport. I had flown on 49 C-130 combat missions and several ferry flights as well so I was familiar with their layout and their quirks. Immediately one of the quirks became evident. There was a fuel leak on #2 engine. Fuel was leaking from the engine to the ground and pooling. Impatient refugees took cigarettes out and struck matches to light them. I ran around slapping out lights in the volatile air-fuel mixture. Sling seats were stowed leaving old ladies and nursing mothers on a rough cargo aircraft floor. Because of my experience I was able to let down the seats for the needy and get water for the containers. I asked Air America (read CIA) crew to get some sodas and other refreshments with cash provided from my own pockets. They did to the relief of all during the wait.
During the 2 1/2 hours delay for the fuel leak, without food nor bathroom facilities, some proud men decided to take a “bush walk” to pee. Trouble is that if they went beyond a certain roped-off point, local military troops being left behind in Saigon would be authorized to detain or even shoot them. So I found myself acting as a refugee flight steward, shepherding his flock. When getting ready for take off and during the flight I made announcements, in Vietnamese, similar to those I helped translate for Pan Am which were used on their international flights.
Once airborne out of Saigon the flight was fairly uneventful to Clark Air Base in the Philippines – except for the crew with rocket launchers in hand standing by the netted cargo door, ready to fire at heat seeking missiles if they saw them being launched at us.
At Clark Air Base all were settled into Tent City. I volunteered for several positions, including making camp announcements in Vietnamese. Sounded like those announcements in the movie and later TV show M.A.S.H.” “Attention, attention, sick call today will be held at 08:30. The movie tonight will be…” except it was in north Vietnamese. I became a well known figure by wearing the Vietnamese traditional peasant “black pajamas”. An Air Force Colonel, commander at Clark, said “Son, you’re going to get a knife stuck between your ribs for wearing that communist garb”. In fact though, I was beloved by the Vietnamese for identifying with them. My mother-in-law had made them for me and I wore them proudly.
When I finally had the chance to call my wife in Hawaii from Clark Air Base in the Philippines she asked if I had gotten everyone out okay. She was still thinking five people. I told her things got complicated and I’d taken out thirty-three people. She said, “Thirty-three?? Who are they? I don’t know thirty-three relatives in Viet Nam!”
From Clark in the Philippines we took a flight to Wake Island. I left the evacuees behind on Wake for processing and returned to Honolulu where I volunteered with U.S. Immigration for a time, processing refugees.
The family groups left Wake Island and Guam (where I had also visited the camps) and after a stopover at Hickam Air Force Base in Honolulu for a very brief reunion, were settled in the U.S.
For a most interesting postscript to Bob’s story click here.
For an update on all the family members click here.