|The familiar, humiliating image below of the roof of the U.S. Embassy in Saigon on April 30, 1975 is one many people who were around in those days will recall. Following the signing of the Paris Peace Agreement on January 27, 1973 between the United States, The Democratic Republic of Vietnam (North Vietnam), The Republic of Vietnam (South Vietnam) and The Republic of South Vietnam (PRG--which represented the Viet Cong in South Vietnam), the U.S. agreed to withdraw its combat forces from Vietnam. At that time, the government of South Vietnam controlled 80% of the territory and 90% of the population. That seemed like a successful conclusion in a never-ending war though it was known by all that it would not last once the U.S. ended its meaningless and ill-conceived involvement.
Prolonged negotiations in Paris were created by Henry Kissinger and Richard Nixon to “declare some form of victory in defeat in order to “retreat” and get out of “Dodge.” North Vietnam went along with the charade as they desperately needed to rebuild their strength from the massive casualties suffered during the Tet Offensive in 1968. The foolish war cost over 3.3 million Vietnamese lives and 58,220 American lives over the two decades in a senseless and unnecessary war that should never have happened.
Shortly after the Paris Peace Agreement was signed, yours truly was relocated to Singapore and assumed a role in the Esso fuel supplies to Vietnam under a U.S. Department of Defense Fuel Supply Contract. Singapore was the fuel supply hub to Vietnam as Esso had a refinery there, a marine fleet of tankers representing a secure location with good connections to Thailand and Vietnam and not a bad place to return for a bit of peace and quiet. During my two-year tour, we only had one terrorist attack on the Singapore refinery though fuel depots in Vietnam were repeatedly destroyed. This account will not deal with the conduct of the war but rather the totally botched evacuation that rests at the feet of the U.S. Ambassador which will be outlined as we proceed.
The beginning of the end was March 1975 when North Vietnam began a massive invasion during the dry season, as illustrated below, by moving forces south from the Demilitarized Zone between North and South Vietnam as well as entering South Vietnam from Laos and Cambodia. This pincer movement toward Saigon in the south enabled them to capture the country and rout the Army of Vietnam (ARVN) at an unbelievable pace. Along the way south, they secured the coastal positions to preclude any amphibian landing. The U.S. government turned a blind eye to the fact that the ARVN threw down their weapons and ran toward Saigon at a speed that baffled the North Vietnam army as they struggled to keep up.
Esso had a reasonable number of expatriates and 84 Vietnamese staff in the military fuel operation. On one fine day, Esso declared that all of the expatriate positions would be nationalized and replaced by Vietnamese. Yours truly decided it was time to go for what might be a farewell session with old Vietnamese friends and Air America mates before Saigon fell. I had the Esso Vietnam financial department send a telex that my presence was essential to review some sensitive documents. Not surprisingly, the Esso Singapore CFO forbid me to go but I went anyway for several days of farewell parties.
One Air America pilot recounted that he had just run into Nguyen Cao Ky (ARVN General and former South Vietnam Prime Minister) in the Hong Kong airport who said he would be at the Tan Son Nut airport in Saigon with an M-16 rifle fighting to the end. Well, he was there but jumped a flight to Los Angeles instead. In fact, U.S. Marines began to secure landing zones for U.S. helicopters to evacuate high-ranking ARVN officers and their families.
I returned to Singapore with a clear foreboding of the future in Vietnam which was upon us. We were active in the Vietnamese orphan airlift and had just suffered a setback when one of the planes crashed with injuries to several of the expatriate families assisting the effort but, thankfully, no fatalities. I went immediately to my CFO and said, “We need to put a tanker offshore on standby to take our 84 employees and their families away as they will face war crimes when it is over which will be very soon.” Being the very cautious career Esso guy that he was, he contacted the U.S. Embassy in Saigon and Ambassador Graham Martin said, “Not possible as it will create chaos!” Therefore, Esso refused my request. Although I do not have an accurate account of those who did make it out, only two surfaced in the Esso Eastern headquarters in Houston having taken their own initiative to escape as boat people. There were no accounts of the other 82 though the re-education camps were not exactly spas and they failed to make it to any of the Esso Eastern reunions.
If it was obvious to me the ARVN was being overrun and the war was over, where was Ambassador Graham Martin during this period? Well, the image below shows Ambassador Martin in the Oval Office in Washington, D.C. on March 25, 1975 with President Gerald Ford, Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, and Army Chief of Staff General Frederick Weyand. We can only guess from later anecdotal evidence that Ambassador Martin was told to negotiate a peaceful end to the war by Kissinger so as to preserve his reputation though intelligence reports and basic common sense made it clear that North Vietnam wanted total victory.
Subsequently, Ambassador Martin was sharply criticized for his handling of the evacuation for leaving hundreds of classified documents behind. He was openly accused of not ordering American troops out of Saigon earlier. Moreover, as we saw in the beginning of this commentary, a rooftop evacuation of U.S. Embassy personnel as Saigon fell was certainly less than a noble exit. He maintained that he did a “hell of a good job” in the evacuation. In 1976, he told a House Foreign Affairs subcommittee that the accusations against him were “gross distortions” and that his final 10 days in Saigon “required a most careful walking of the tightrope of judgment of just how the situation was developing.”
While our Esso Vietnamese staff were ignored, the disgraced ARVN leaders and families were being flown to aircraft carriers laying offshore. In the most extreme cases, ARVN pilots flew their helicopters to land on aircraft carriers and the helicopters were quickly pushed into the sea given the limited space to accommodate them on the deck. Somehow, it seems inappropriate that our Vietnamese people provided the fuel for the evacuation of the military just to be left behind. It should come as no shock that Ambassador Martin became a special assistant to Secretary of State Kissinger after the botched evacuation. Some ten years later, I passed Henry Kissinger eating oatmeal for lunch all alone in an exclusive New York City private club which speaks volumes.
It was clearly over when the North Vietnam flag flew over the empty Independence Palace in Saigon shown below. The North Vietnamese were kind enough to let the throngs of people at Ton Sa Nhut airport flee on U.S. evacuation flights. I had a good friend and work associate who was flown in the night before by an Air America pilot and dropped at the airport to retrieve two of his Vietnamese wife’s family. He spent the night with a USAID friend in the airport to leave the morning of April 30 on one of the evacuation flights to Guam. Bravery is not all about guns and killing. During his six-week tour through the relocation camps with the kids, he took the opportunity to quit smoking which was a bonus.
Sadly, as shown below I had three remaining years on my Vietnam visa though I did think it would be wise to let a reasonable period pass before returning to Vietnam. Apart from a handful of resident visas, all others were issued as transit only. However, as Vietnam became a bit gamier toward the end, the initial three-day limit was increased to seven days. Perhaps, all Americans were just passing through for all of those years.
As things began to unravel, one of our Esso expats had a phosphorous grenade bounce off his leg that was tossed from a lovely Vietnamese lady as he was in route in a pedi-cab to his farewell dinner. He was already near the breaking point having spent several months hopping around fire bases and other remote spots gathering signed DD 250’s which were receipts for into-plane fuel deliveries while wearing a flak jacket and carrying an M-16. On another occasion, a friend and I drove to an Air America party. When he parked the car on Tu Do Street, he said, “Make sure your door is locked.” I made it clear that he had nothing to steal and the car was a clunker. He responded, “I do not want someone leaving a present for us.” Another Esso expat was advised by his maid not to go to the cinema on a specific evening and sure enough the theater blew up that night.
For stays in Saigon, Esso Singapore always booked me a room at the Hotel Caravelle but I never stayed there. If you wanted to blow up the expats, that would be the place which did happen from time to time. I always stayed at a local place in order to practice my Vietnamese while convincing myself that I was much less conspicuous there than at the Caravelle. Toward the end, I found an obscure apartment to try and blend in with the scene.
In some respects, it was sad to see the old Saigon go but it had outlived its purpose and a wonderful future was in front of this newly unified country. Some fifteen years later, I returned to spend a significant portion of the next thirty years there with a deep and successful commercial involvement while developing many Vietnamese friendships which will be the subject of another chapter.