Well, the evening before the final day, the North Vietnamese brought in the predicted air strikes on Saigon
, the ones that had been forecast by the agent I talked to a week and a half before. This threw not Saigon
into a panic, but it certainly threw the Embassy into a panic. Secretaries spent half the night up throwing typewriters down the stairwells. Ah we were shredding secret documents like crazy because Martin
had been unwilling to evacuate a number of our secret files.
He felt this would send the wrong signal to the South Vietnamese. The generators, or I should say the incinerators on the roof of the Embassy were going full blast and reverberations could be felt throughout the building. And we could hardly hear ourselves talk on the top floor of the Embassy. I stayed up most of that night and then returned to my apartment for what I hoped would be uninterrupted rest none of us had been sleeping in the Embassy for weeks and weeks.
I probably had been going on about two-three hours of sleep a night. I climbed into bed and about two hours later was thrown out of bed by what I first thought was an uncommonly loud thunderclap. In fact, it was the Communist artillery opening up on the South Vietnamese air base at Tan Son Nhut
. At that point, I rushed to the Embassy through the deserted streets of Saigon
. The streets at that point were still deserted. This was just after dawn. I got to the Embassy and there was absolute pandemonium there among officials.
The ambassador was on his hands and knees pulling together his own classified files which had not been destroyed that particular point. And right after my arrival at the Embassy, we received an intelligence report from one of our few remaining sources that the Communists were going to shell the heart of Saigon
directly at six in the evening if we weren't out by then. Well in Washington
this message was received with a great deal of hand wringing, and at that point, the decision was made to pull the plug to order Ambassador Martin
to go to Frequent Wind that is, the use of helicopters to pull out the Americans and the Vietnamese who needed to be evacuated, whom we wanted to evacuate at that point. About eleven
in the morning, a little after, Martin
received word from the White House to move ahead.
We were still shredding, and as the helicopters, we were still shredding our secret documents, and as the helicopters came in they had to fight their way through billows of smoke from the incinerators and bags of shredded material were blown open and you had classified material flying about the Embassy grounds like confetti. There were scuff marks along the floor of the Embassy as people moved boxes here and there fruitlessly as it turned out, 'cause we'd never be able to evacuate all the office equipment that was still there.
By mid morning the helicopters were beginning to beat their way through the clouds of smoke from the incinerators which continued to work at top capacity. The Vietnamese generals were crowding into the Embassy hoping that they would be the first ones we would lift out. And again the secretaries were at work with the hammers destroying the last of their equipment. It was a very interesting time because I found that most of the women who were still there secretaries, the CIA and State Department officers, women among them, were far braver and more relaxed than the men.
The men began drinking and by afternoon had been through bottles of cognac that we ordinarily reserved for our South Vietnamese contacts, and by late afternoon I had taken over the function of secretary, phone answerer, coordinator of our front office, because the CIA station chief was at that time trying to rescue thirty Vietnamese, friends of his own who were trapped outside the walls of the Embassy. I had been told that I would be one of those Americans who would stay behind even after the Communists took over the city. But when finally Kissinger ordered up the evacuation, the full scale heli lift, the word came through from Washington
that nobody no official American would be left behind.
It was a bizarre Kafkaesque time because as those helicopters came into the Embassy one could hear wafting in over the walls of that that citadel the strains of Bing Crosby's “I'm Dreaming of a White Christmas" That was a code. It was beamed out over Saigon
radio and over the official American station in Saigon
. It was supposed to summon all Americans to various staging points. What a bizarre code it was.
And I remember amidst all this chaos that totally incongruous note "I'm Dreaming of a White Christmas". The Vietnamese outside the walls in the Embassy were for the most part well behaved very calm. Because they knew if they prevented us from continuing the evacuation that none of them would get out. By afternoon, by late afternoon, however, they were beginning to get very anxious. Some were trying to get over the walls of the Embassy and the Marines were beginning, at that point, to use their rifle butts to keep them away. Some Americans were outside the Embassy, I wasn't. I was, as I say, manning the radios and trying to maintain some kind of order among the few CI people still there.
At six o'clock, I remember sitting in the front office of the CI station waiting for the bombs to fall on Saigon
that our intelligence source had predicted. They didn't. Apparently Washington
having read the same intelligence got in touch with the Soviets and the Soviets Hanoi, indicating that that was simply unacceptable and they had better not bomb the center or shell the center of Saigon
. Well, as the, as the day waned and nightfall came on, uh, I felt trapped in the Embassy itself. All this intelligence coming in, radios blaring with calls for help from our Vietnamese friends
and contacts and knowing there was no way we could help them then.
The halls of the Embassy were filling up at this point with Vietnamese. They had been moved inside so that they could be more easily and more quickly gotten onto helicopters which were landing on the roof as well as in the courtyard of the Embassy. And I remember walking out amongst them and handing out water and some food that we had on hand. Some of the Vietnamese had dogs with them, they had of course their children, and lying about on the floor were all sorts of weapons that the Americans had suddenly produced in anticipation of a final Communist push on the city. None of the Vietnamese in line bothered even to pick them up.
Heavens if there had been a Communist among them they could have certainly done away with all of us in the Embassy. They didn't. Come about 9:30, I was told that I was to get out of Saigon
. The last CI men in the Embassy were to leave except for the station chief who had remained with the Ambassador 'til the Ambassador's own evacuation. The Marine guards pushed the Vietnamese out of the way and the twelve CI men with whom I was evacuated stumbled up to the helicopter pad on the roof, and we climbed aboard, and I felt shamed and shame that there were still Vietnamese on the steps waiting to be evacuated.
The helicopter began to corkscrew off the roof of the Embassy and through the porthole I could see the faces of Vietnamese in the courtyard below and outside the walls of the Embassy. My shame was felt all the more. The helicopter arched up over the city and for a moment I could see from the porthole the hotel where I first stayed when I arrived in Saigon
. The streets were deserted, everybody was either indoors or at the Embassy itself all the Saigonese
The helicopter moved out over the perimeters of Saigon
out towards Bien Hoa
which was the main military depots South Vietnamese military depot, and it was going up in miniature atomic explosion, and out on the spider web of highways beyond Bien Hoa
, you could see thousands of trucks with their lights on moving into the city the North Vietnamese Army, moving in on Saigon
, closing on the city.
The helicopter gained altitude, and as we reached the coast suddenly in one porthole, I saw the tattoo of artillery fire. South—the North Vietnamese gunners were firing on us. The helicopter quickly gained altitude and I thought, oh my heavens, to be shot down on the way out, what irony that would have been! At last the helicopter reached the evacuation fleet and as my helicopter descended onto the deck of the USS Denver
, I felt as though I was being enclosed in a metallic cocoon as the ship came up to embrace us. I was so weary I hardly even felt the jolt of touchdown.