Wednesday, March 26, 2014
"The Light at the End of the Tunnel Has Just Been Shut Off": Becky Martin Remembers the Fall of Saigon
In 1974 I was working in Washington for the Department of Defense. I found the job somewhat boring and I wanted to see the world. So one day I just went over and I signed up for all the open government positions I could qualify for, in twenty different countries. I just signed up indiscriminately. Two weeks later Vietnam popped up and they called me.
Well, the war was over: “peace with honor” and all that jazz was in the past, I thought. So I had no misgivings at the time. And I would have gone anywhere. I thought it would be great.
They gave me two weeks to report from the date of notification. I needed to get a passport and make moving arrangements. But they took care of it. The only thing that bothered me prior to my arrival was that the flight from Guam into Manila was full – a Pan Am 747. And that plane emptied in Manila. I mean emptied. I looked around, and I was the only Caucasian aboard the flight other than the attendants and I saw four to six Vietnamese military types in their uniforms. That was it. On a 747! And as we took off from Manila, some hostess came over to me and said, “Why are you going to Saigon?” I said, “I have a job there.” And she said, “You’re kidding.” And I said, “No. How many flights do you make a week?” And she said, “We have to go in twice a week.” I said, “Do you take any more people than this?’’ She said, “No.”
Pan Am had the mail contract. They went in nearly empty. That was my first inkling that I may have made a mistake. It was obvious to me that an awful lot of people knew something that I didn’t.
I went out as an intelligence aide, and once I got into that I didn’t like it. So I got into administrative functions and worked in the Current Intelligence Section of the Defense Attaché Office.
When the war was over, supposedly, there were many enclaves that were left to the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese throughout South Vietnam. I didn’t know that. And in the first briefing I ever went to, an order of battle briefing of what was going on in the country, the first map that went up on the wall was a map of Military Region 1[MR1]. I saw these red and blue symbols and at that time the symbols really didn’t mean that much to me. I didn’t know what they meant, but the color scheme was easy to catch on to. And I noticed that most of the colors were red. I thought, “Gee, that’s unusual. Red usually is the bad guys. They’re not usually the good guys.”
Then the MR2 map went up on the board. Cripes, something was wrong. There are fewer red and more blues. And I turned to Captain Stu Herrington sitting next to me, nudged him –I only met him once before, and said, “Who’s red and who’s blue?” And he said, “Red’s the bad guys.” And I thought, “Oh, shit!”
Then MR3 went up. Well, we had more blue. But not many more. I thought, “What have I done? I’ve got to be out of my mind to be here.” Peace with honor? What a joke. My God, we left half the country to the Vietcong.
After that briefing, Jim Wink asked me, “What’d you think?” I said, “Jim, this place ain’t going to make it. It’s half gone already.” I said, “Oh, no, no, no.” And I said, Yes, yes, yes.” There’s no way in hell they can pull this out.” And they got into a big discussion, Jim and Jimmy Harris and somebody else. They said, “Oh,no, they’re going to be fine. We’re going to provide them with logistical support that they need to make it. We’re their allies….” And blah, blah, blah. I backed off. It was never a subject I harped on.
That evening Stu Herrington came to my apartment. He said, “You seemed a little upset by today’s briefing.” And I said, “Right.” And he said, “Well, I thought I’d come down and talk to you and try to put things in perspective.” So I invited him in and he tried to put ;things in perspective for me, militarily. In other words, all the symbols didn’t mean we were going to be overrun any second.
Another thing that really bothered me the first months in country was that there were an awful lot of young people on the streets. They would lie about their age, draft dodgers, have fake cards made up. There was still quite a bit of desertion. The war was not a popular thing. It had claimed so many lives and been fought for so many years. I felt the will of the people just wasn’t there.
I think Vietnam was a terrible waste. Honest to God. We spent so much in manpower, which was our greatest loss, and so much money, so many years fighting, something that should have been over with in a very short period of time. But it was so political and the politicians never permitted the army to do what they shuld have done – just go in and win it.
We had a MISTA [Monthly Intelligence Summary and Threat Analysis] the morning after Nixon resigned. General John Murray, the Defense Attaché at the time, was devastated with emotion. He said, “Gentlemen, the light at the end of the tunnel has just been shut off.”
The Communists had never been able to key in on Tricky Dicky, really. He was an unknown to them. He didn’t think like other Occidentals think. As a prime example, when Kissinger was at the peace talks in Paris, things ere going very well with Le Duc Tho, the chief North Vietnamese negotiator. And all of a sudden Hanoi was bombed. They could not agree to terms and Richard Nixon turned around and unleashed firepower. The North Vietnamese went back to the table in a very short period of time. And we had the making of peace with honor. But that bombing hit them very hard. It just didn’t hit them in Hanoi, in logistic grids and depots, not only in the north, but in South Vietnam too, the northernmost part.
Then Nixon resigned. That bothered me. Where we were, things would be printed in the press about Watergate, but we weren’t consumed with it. We didn’t have it thrown at us on our TV news. We didn’t have a news station. We only had the one English-language paper and Watergate was not or paramount importance to them. In fact, if you talk to most people who lived overseas at that time, they’ll tell you that most foreigners do not understand the big deal about Watergate. They don’t understand the way Americans crucify themselves over something that’s hoo-hum to them.
So the Nixon resignation changed things for us. We started winding down. We spent two or three months microfiching documents and destroyed everything we had microfiched as soon as the film came back and it was good. We shredded and burned everything. Our security officer would have a heart attack ever time he came through because he would see volumes of papers. And all that stuff had to be destroyed. We just couldn’t leave things behind. The consensus was to get it down to a manageable size, when and if there’s a need.
Still, I never really felt that Vietnam would fall apart, until Danang Fell in late March of 1975. That for me was very symbolic. I saws the reports by the DAO personnel up there. Collection and Liaisons had representatives there and we saw their reports and their accounts of what was happening. Suddenly, here they come! Fourteen or fifteen divisions!
We had another MISTA on April 4 and that morning a colonel came into the office and said, “We’re going to have our first evacuation. It’s going to start today.” Earlier we had made up a priority list of who would leave and when – the least essential individuals were to go out first. He said the people on the first list were to go out that very day – April 4th. I knew that included my message man and one of the secretaries. It also included three junior analysts from our office. And I said, “Since we have the MISTA, why don’t we go ahead and just keep verybody? We’re going to be here for a while and they can go out on one of the later flights.” He says, “Gee, I was thinking the same thing.” I said, “Great.” He came back later and said that Colonel William LeGro aftreed. “We’ll leave everybody in place.”
And so our office, the Current Intelligence Section, was the only one that didn’t lose anybody on the fourth of April because that was our big production day.
But they went ahead with the evacuation that day. They decided to evacuate a large number of Vietnamese children. And they thought, “What a beautiful way to cut down on personnel and go ahead and evacuate mostly women from the DAO.” They could help care for the children, the orphans, being taken out on the flight, too. So they let the women know that morning after they came to work. They were called to a meeting center and told them that they were going to leave and they were given time to go home and pack (I think two bags is what they culd take with them), and that arrangements would be made to send their effects on later. So most of the women did return to the pickup point and were taken by bus from the DAO over to the air base and loaded on this big C-5A. A couple of women did not want to go who were supposed to go. Some other women felt they had commitments to some Vietnamese families and they didn’t think they should go without making an effort to get them out too. They didn’t come back to work until the next day.
We were at work late in the afternoon and one of the guys from security came in and said, “The C-5A crashed returning to Tan Son Nhut. So we all went out and piled into a pickup truck and went over to the air base and stood there and waited for helicopters from the crash site. Not very many came in.
A few dead came in at first, but most were survivors, initially. And most of the survivors were children. The C-5A is a triple-decker plane. Most of the children were on the upper level and they survived but they had burns. I think the thing that just shocked me or intrigued me was that all the kids seemed to have injuries. You could see where the skin had burned and they had wet themselves or excreted but none of them cried. They just lay there like limp dolls. I would have expected them to be just screaming their lungs out, but they made no sound at all – nothing. No response.
My friends from the DAO were all killed. It was like losing my family. I had a feeling they were dead even before, when one helicopter came in and they off-loaded the children. So many people rushed to help and I stood there and I watched. And I thought, “They’re all gone.” A numbness crept from the back of my head and spread to my whole brain. I was so overwhelmed at the sense of loss. Something chemically happened to my body to enable me to cope with it. I had never experienced this numbness before.
Another helicopter came in very quickly and it had a lot more children on it. I went out and helped transfer them from the helicopters to the ambulance. Then I saw they had a woman’s body, and it was Barbara, a gal that worked in our office. Her daughter survived, sitting right next to her. Barbara’s nose and mouth were filled with mud. Other than that there was not a mark on her. And they said later that she had died of fright. She had a heart attack. Another helicopter came in and it had the body of a crew member on it. His head was bashed in. He must have died instantly. They had twelve body bags on the next helicopter and when I saw that I just turned around and left.
I always believe in celebrating family holidays, wherever you are. You always have a lot of people in and you do it right. Set the table and sit down and don’t eat off paper plates, a little bit more like home. So I always went all out to have American-style holidays. Easter had just been celebrated that Sunday and all of the women who came to my Easter dinner were dead within a week.
That night we went back to the office and tried to find out who was on the plane and who was not. At that time there was no consolidated list. There was another Becky Martin on that plane. She was form Texas. She worked in the Air Force division. One of the guys in security asked me, “Do you want me to call your parents?” I said, “Can we get a line out?” He said, “I don’t know.” They really shut down communications at that point because they didn’t want calls going out to families and they didn’t want calls coming in. They wanted to control it until they got a handle on who was on the plane and sent out official notifications. You don’t want somebody calling and giving out, “Yes, I’m sorry, your mother’s dead.” And then your mother may not be dead.
One of the guys in security called my parents and got my mother on the line and told her, “Mrs. Martin, there’s been a very serious accident here, a plane crash, but your daughter is safe. She was not on the plane.” And they cut him off. He didn’t get a chance to say my name might be on the list because there was another Becky Martin on the plane and she had been killed.
My father had friends in Thailand and evidently knew someone in Saigon and they called me at the office and got back to my parents and said, “She really is okay.” Someone from California had sent the list to them and so they were really uptight. My mother still didn’t believe I was okayuntil she talked to me about a week and a half later.
After the accident I packed up some of my friends’ belongings and went through their papers making inventory lists of everything they had. This was supposedly done for all the crash victims so that later, if they belongings didn’t get out of the country in time, the families could be compensated. There was a lot of jewelry, a lot of expensive things, and mementos and picture albums. It was tough but in a way it helped me, also, and I felt that somehow they were with me.
I had a dream about a month before the accident. All of us were in a room and it looked something like our office. It was a huge room, very long and wide, and the desks faced in different directions. And we had a music system in the office. It was great. We used to listen to Monday night football on Tuesday morning. But we had the music system turned on and all the ddesks were turned upside down, the drawers had been opened and papers were taken out and everything was empty. And I was sitting there and some of the people – Anne Reynolds and Joan Prey and others – came whipping through the office. Joan had access to the bank area where we were and she came in and said, “Come on, let’s go.” I said, “Well, not yet. We’re not supposed to go yet. It’s not time for us to go.” She said, “Okay, I’ll see you later.” I said, “All right.” And she went out. I got a call from Ann and the others and they said, “Come on over, we’re all going to meet over at such and such a place.” And I didn’t know where that was. In my dream it was raining like crazy and the door was flapping back and forth in the wind. I heard a Vietnamese talking, a Vietcong, and I got worried and I wondered, “Where are they? They were all supposed to be here and now there’s nobody here but me.” And as the Vietcong opened the door I woke up.
That dream bothered me. And the next day I went to Anne’s place for a drink. I gave her hell and said, “You turkeys left me.” And she said, “What do you mean?” I told her about my dream. And she said, “No, we wouldn’t ever leave you Becky.” But they did. They all left. It was a weird dream and it haunted me for a couple of days and then I just kind of shoved it aside.
Two days after that crash some of us went to a security meeting down at the Embassy. They presented their plans for the evacuation of Americans from Saigon. They showed us a couple of buildings they had plans to land helicopters on top of and fly people out. They had plans for third-party nationals to be admitted to these buildings so they could also be evacuated. Some of the helicopters would only hold three or four passengers at a time and that’s not very many people when you get a panicky situation. They thought the North Vietnamese would let us leave. Why tear up a city that you can take whole and intact? But what if the South Vietnamese panicked and wanted to go out? Where are they going to go? They’re going to go for the American helicopters! And we’re supposed to maintain crowd control and we don’t speak their language?
At that point I thought I’d better write to somebody, get my affairs in order. I didn’t have a will. So I sat down and wrote a letter to my father and got a power of attorney – talk about ignorant! I got blank power of attorney. I wrote the letter to him and said, “In case I don’t come home by the end of May do this with my car, do this with my savings account, do this with my belongings.” I just made a list of the things I wanted him to do and I took it down and I had Stu address it because I was afraid my mother would open it if she saw my handwriting. And we put “personal” on it. My mother never opens my father’s mail but I felt she was in such a turmoil that if she saw my handwriting it wouldn’t make any difference if it was addressed to him or not. She would open it.
My mother opened it. My God, she had a fit. Because it was from Saigon, she was sure it pertained to me, and my father was not there to open it when it arrived and she was. She could not wait for him.
Sending that off was like having a weight lifted from my shoulders. Doug Dearth said later that day, “What are you grinning about?” I said, “You know, in case we’re a little late in getting out of here, I’ve taken care of all my affairs.” He said, “What did you do, send a will home?” And I said, “Of course not. I sent a power of attorney.” He said, “A power of attorney, Becky, is no damned good if you’re dead.” I said, “Well, it’s too late now. Things will be okay.”
We started sending people out, then, section by section. As a supervisor I was the last one in my section to leave. We left in pretty much an orderly manner. Because of the accesses we had, when we were told to get out, we got out.
I went over to Tan Son Nhut to leave the night that President Thieu resigned, April 21. I was up all night waiting in a staging area. They had C-130s coming in around the clock. All you had to do to take anybody out with you was to go over and tell them, “My name is such and such. I work for so-and-so, I’ve got X number of people I’m taking out” and they’d give you a card and that was that. Then your name and number went on a list and when they got to you, you got on a plane. The C-130s were taking about a hundred people at a time. Just around the clock. And that had gone on for a couple of days.
I didn’t actually leave Vietnam until the next morning at daylight. We were bused over to the boarding area, were body-searched and baggage-searched by Air Force security cops – Americans. They had also brought in a contingent of Marines to beef up security around the perimeter. The largest staging area was over by the DAO swimming pool, a bowling alley and a gymnasium. It was totally packed. You just waited your time to get on and go.
We were getting on the plane and a couple of Vietnamese fighter pilots went by, taxiing to take off in jet fighters, and we gave them a thumbs-up signal, keeping up the front, everything was fine! But the city knew better and they knew better. It was never officially admitted that the Americans were evacuating.
The plane was packed. The engine was loud. It was cold. I think I counted five Caucasians on the plane. The rest were Vietnamese and there were a hundred on each plane. Family units. After we got out over the water for a distance I cried.
We landed at Clark Field in the Philippines and I then tried to get a flight out. I finally got on a plane escorting Vietnamese children to the US. It turned out that some of them had survived the C-5A crash. The plane was a converted C-141. It had the passenger seats facing the tail and toward the tail end of the plane they had a bunk arrangement, baskets for kids so that they were safe.
I said I’d escort the children. I thought this was ironic. But I went ahead and did it. I didn’t think any more about it, though. Too much had happened. Too many people had died.
They strap the children to you when you land on those planes so that if there’s any kind of an accident or anything the child doesn’t go flying through the aircraft.
I held a baby. Well, he wasn’t really a baby. He looked like a baby. He must have been three but he looked like he was maybe one. He was so emaciated. And I had two other children beside me in the seat, sisters. They held tight to me, their fingers digging into my legs. They were afraid the whole way home.
Monday, March 24, 2014
I am a registered nurse. I graduated from Loretto Heights College in Denver in 1970 and then nursed for about three years in Kentucky. The war in Vietnam was on television every night. I watched the stories of what was happening in Vietnam, and I often saw shots of children. I was interested in caring for children and so I became interested in going to Vietnam and working there.
I wrote to several addresses to get information on working in Vietnam. One of the people I wrote to at that time was Rosemary Taylor, an Australian woman who had been working in Vietnam since 1968. Rosemary had become interested in abandoned children in Vietnam and in finding homes for them and caring for them. She had worked at Phu My in a home for the homeless, and she took care of the children there. Then she set up her own facility to care for orphans and abandoned children. She worked through various Vietnamese agencies and the embassies in Vietnam to find homes for the children in many countries.
Rosemary answered my letter and indicated that I might be useful in working with the orphans. Air France let me have a ticket to Vietnam in exchange for an agreement that I would escort five children out of Vietnam when I returned. The date of my return was left open.
I had never been to Asia before. In fact, I had never been out of the United States. I went to New York and then I flew to Paris. I stayed in Paris for a few days with some friends and then flew on to Saigon.
I was not prepared for what I found when I arrived. I had grown up in the United States, which is a land of plenty, and my only acquaintance with something other than what we had in the United States was from television. And television just could not convey the truth of something that was outside the context of what I had experienced in the United States. I was just overwhelmed at first by the poverty. I remember seeing houses along the Saigon River and wondering if people actually lived in them. I think that later I saw things in a much different light. But my first impressions was clearly one of thinking, "This is really a poor country. There were people living along the river, and the river was also used as a sewer.
I lived right in Saigon and worked in a home called New Haven. It had been a French villa and it had been made over into a home for children. There were two French nurses still working there when I arrived. They wanted to work with other refugees, so I was to take their place. They stayed for only about two weeks after I arrived. There were about fifty toddlers in the house. This was the second or third such house that Rosemary opened. One of the houses was for toddlers and one for older children. There was one for babies, also. Later on I took care of newborns in our house, too.
I loved the work. I don't think I ever felt a moment of homesickness because the kids were always there, like a big family. Since they were toddlers, there wasn't any language barrier -- I could communicate with them just as with children of that age anywhere in the world.
One of my duties with the children was to buy food for the house. I would buy stuff at the market and then use blenders to turn it into baby food. There weren't any American-supplied baby foods for us. I bought carrots and other vegetables and meat and put it all in the blenders. At first I also bought chicken for the children, thinking that since it was the cheapest meat I could buy in the United States it would be the cheapest in Vietnam, too. But I found that chicken was really quite expensive. Fish and lobster were not as expensive. So I had to learn a few things about shopping and what was economical and what was not. People would give us food, too. One day someone gave us several cases of apricots, and so for several days we had apricots. And someone else gave us a case of jam, and that lasted for quite a while, too.
I got used to all of this and there weren't really any serious problems.
We drove down to towns in the Delta, to different orphanages there. We took them supplies and medicines. In those orphanages there were many children who had lost one parent. The other parent had then put them in the orphanage to be cared for. We didn't deal with those children except to see that they were immunized, had clothing and whatever supplies we could offer. The expectation was that some day the mother or the father would come and take them back. Those children, naturally, were not available for adoption. Any child, in fact, with any relatives -- cousins or aunts or uncles -- was not available for adoption. Our record-keeping was orderly. Since the children were abandoned we didn't have problems with people taking children from the orphanage. In fact, information regarding abandoned children was published in newspapers in hopes of finding relatives.
For the most part, the American Army was gone by that time. But Vietnam was still at war. It was an everyday sight to see jeeps and soldiers in the streets. There was also a curfew and you could not go outside after 11:00 PM. There was shelling at night. We could hear it. But in 1973 there was never any sense that the country was doomed or that time was running our or anything like that. I was there, in fact, with no definite term of stay and I never thought about having to leave at some future date.
I really liked what I was doing and I was treated very well by all of the Vietnamese. We hired all Vietnamese child-care workers. They were young Vietnamese women and they were called "Mother Care Nurses." We had one Mother Care Nurse for every five children in the house, unless a child was ill or needed special care. Then it was one nurse for one child.
We had a lot of children with cleft palates. They had been abandoned. I didn't know if the parents felt unable to cope with the disability or felt some superstition about them or what. But we had many of them. Those children caught respiratory diseases very easily unless they were fed very slowly and carefully. They had a hard time swallowing and we wanted to make sure that they didn't get any food in their lungs. So for those children there was one worker per child.
When the children with cleft palates were adopted abroad they had surgery to correct the problem. One of the reasons I decided I wanted to become a physician -- I am in medical school right now -- was to help children with cleft palates. I am hoping it will make a different in their lives.
We flew out the adopted orphans fairly frequently. That was difficult. I felt sad because they were leaving but we knew a loving home was best for them. I'd take some of them to the planes. It was hard for the child-care workers, too, because they'd gotten quite attached to the children, especially the children who had been with us for many months.
People who wanted to adopt the orphans applied through an agency, and then a home study was done. Our agency was based in Boulder, Colorado, and they made sure that the family wanting to adopt one of our orphans was able to take care of a child from another country and that the local community would be willing to accept that child, too. The United States, Australia, Sweden, Germany, Finland, France, Belgium, Canada, English, Italy, Switzerland and Luxembourg all accepted orphans from Vietnam.
Toward the end of 1974 a dramatic change started to take place. It was harder to get supplies, at first. And then the curfew got earlier and earlier. But nobody ever came to us and warned us that the end of the war was approaching. We were never told to prepare to close our facilities.
There was also trouble with getting orphans out of the country. The ministers in the government who worked with us seemed to change almost daily, and the new ministers didn't know the usual procedures. So we were working all the time with people we had not worked with previously -- the people who had worked with us previously were all leaving the country. We had difficulties regarding the children leaving on a World Airways jet. Then we had trouble getting papers for them to leave on the U. S. Air Force Orphan Airlift after that -- the C-5A. But finally we were able to get permission for the children who had passports to go on the flight. I think we put about 230 orphans on that C-5A.
Some of the children left for Australian about fifteen minutes before the C-5A left. I was at the nursery making sure the children were boarded on the proper flights. I did not go out to Tan Son Nhut -- Rosemary did that. And then she came back to the nursery. I remember she told me when she came back from the airport that the C-5A was such a big plane. We had understood that the children would be going on Nightingale planes -- which were medically supplied Army planes with cots. But the C-5A was a big cargo plane and Rosemary was feeling some anxiety about that.
She had been back only for a few minutes when I got a telephone call from the Seventh Day Adventist Hospital. The woman on the other end of the line said, "Could you send some child care workers out here? Your children are being brought in wounded."
So we got in a taxi, an old yellow and blue Renault, and went out to the hospital. We didn't say a word on the way out. We had no idea what had happened. I was thinking at the time, "Was it hit by something? Did it crash? Was it just an aborted takeoff? What happened?"
When we got to the hospital they were just beginning to bring in the living and the dead. Every kind of conveyance you could think of was bringing them in -- trucks, ambulances, jeeps and cars. And there were sirens sounding all around.
It was probably the most shocking experience of my entire life. I had friends on board the plane who died when it crashed. Adults. And there were children that I had cared for on the flight and they died, too. Just seeing their little bodies was like a scene right out of a nightmare.
I couldn't identify many of the children. I couldn't tell who they were. I did unzip a body bag or two but the sight was unbearable. So I sopped doing that. There had been secretaries from the Defense Attache Office on board the plane, too, and some of them were dead. I went through the hospital wards to see if there were any survivors I could identify.
In the context of what was going on at the time in Vietnam, the crash of the C-5A was not so unusual. The women who worked for us would get a phone call and then they would have to go out and identify the body of a husband or a son. And we saw many coffins. We saw them go by on trucks every day. So the crash fit in with everything that was going on all around us. If it had been an isolated event in a country that was a peace, perhaps then somehow it would have been different.
Some of the children from the nursery where I worked were among the living. One little girl I had cared for a long time had sustained a skull fracture and both of her hips were broken. I found her the next day in the hospital. She didn't know how injured she was. When I found her it made me happy and the happiness blended in with the shock of the deaths. In the next days I found other children from our home who had survived the crash.
There were a lot of people at the hospital after the crash. There were people from the Embassy and USAID and they offered their cars to take the children back to the nurseries. We stayed at the hospital until it was past dark, identifying the children and helping them leave.
I don't know if I was in such good condition at the time to decide how the children were. When I found some of them I was just so glad that they were breathing. I gave attention to their outward injuries -- cuts and things. But I wasn't really aware enough to do complete physical examinations on the survivors.
Many of the children left the next day on a chartered Pan Am flight. The children who were badly injured eventually got out. Homes were found for them.
By the end of the first week in April, we were aware that the end was near. The Embassy was interested in getting U. S. citizens out of the country. But I just couldn't leave the children and go. There was no one to take over the task of operating the nurseries, on one to see that they got the food and supplies they needed. And the child care workers weren't in a position to take on all of those responsibilities.
So I stayed until I was sure that there was transportation out of the country for the children. I left on the twenty-sixth of April. Two days before, the embassy personnel came by and said that there was a plane ready for us. The same thing happened on the twenty-fifth. But then on the twenty-sixth we did in fact leave with the children. And that was the end of the nurseries, too.
We left on a cargo plane, a C-141. We went to the airport on buses provided by the Embassy. I remember it was very hot that day. We tried to keep the children hydrated. I brought bottles to feed them with. I had very strong feelings at the time about leaving the Vietnamese people I had gotten to know and love. When I left the orphanage, the child care workers were still there -- they stayed there until all the children had left. Some of the workers came as far as they could and they helped us on board the plane. But then they stayed behind. They were very calm about what might happen to them later. They did not seem panicky at all at the time.
There were about 250 children with us when we left. They were from three of our nurseries. There were fourteen other adults on the flight, too. I sat on the floor in the back of the plane with the very small babies.
The doors on a C-141 are like a big clam shell. I had no fear when the doors started to close. We had boxes on the plane with maybe two children to a box. They needed a lot of attention, so I was thinking about the children. I remember some of my friends leaving the plane before the doors closed. Doreen Beckett, an Australian, left and returned to the orphanage. She stayed behind with Rosemary and with Ilse Edwald, from Germany. The three of them stayed to take care of the buildings and to see that the staff members were paid and that they had the letters of recommendation they might need in the future. So they were not on the plane with us and I did not know what was going to happen to them. I was thinking about them when the doors closed. There were lots of feelings mixed up in me at that moment. Rosemary, Doreen and Ilse finally left on the last day of April from the roof of the US Embassy by helicopter.
I really loved Vietnam. I loved the friends I had worked with from many countries. Leaving that way was so abrupt -- such an abrupt ending with all decisions made from the outside. I realized that this, suddenly, was the end of all of the work I had been doing. And I was not going to see many of my friends again for a long long time -- if ever again. And I would not see Vietnam again for a long time, either.
We flew out to Clark Air Force Base in the Philippines. It was a big relief landing there. The clam shell doors opened and I could see the line of people that seemed to stretch forever and they were to take care of the children. There was one person for each child and each baby on board. A doctor came to me and asked, "Who is the most ill here?" He wanted medical reports on the children. It had been so long since something like that had happened. I had forgotten what it was like. I had been in a country where children in the outlying orphanages were dying every day and where it was not uncommon for epidemics to strike the orphanages. And this doctor said, "Lost night we almost lost a baby." I remember getting all choked up because they really cared about the children and there was someone there to take care of the kids and there were ambulances to take the sick ones to the hospital. The children who were in better condition were taken to a gymnasium and mattresses were put on the floor. There were concession-like stands with baby food in the building.
The first night we spent in the gymnasium. Everything was very well organized. Every day the military had sixty children leaving for the U.S. on C-141s with seats and one escort for every two children.
I was in the Philippines for about seven days. When the last groups of children left, I went with them.
Back in America it was a different world. There was a lawsuit in California -- something about orphans who had been taken from panicky mothers in Vietnam. I felt angry about that because it was untrue. Some people were saying that the children we brought out were kidnapped. And I found that very hard to deal with because I had seen how the orphanages were and I knew how many orphans were left in Vietnam (over 24,000 in orphanages and over 150,000 cared for by Vietnamese families). In fact, there were women who, near the end, came to the gate of the orphanage to give us their children. But the administrators of our place, who was Vietnamese, talked to them and assured them that the Communists were not going to kill their children. And they were sent away.
It took me a long time to get my sensitivity back once I was in the United States again. I remember looking at sunsets or at a beautiful landscape or something really pretty and thinking, "Gosh, that's really beautiful." But I did not feel happiness and I did not feel sadness. I just felt a kind of numbing dullness.
My life changed dramatically after I left Vietnam. I took some children to Europe. I stayed with a family in England for a brief time and I went to France and stayed in the home of a man who had lost his wife and two children on the C-5A crash. Then I visited Ilse in Germany and the children who had been adopted there and in Finland.
I remember being on a train somewhere in Europe at that time and seeing a farmer plowing a field and I thought, "Not all countries are at war!" I had to keep reminding myself that the way it had been in Vietnam was not the way it was everywhere in the world.
But still I have dreams about the C-5A crash. In one dream a friend comes to me and says, "The plane crashed and the children were on it." Then I am at the crash site. In my dream I run toward the plane. There are little pieces of paper flying all over in the air. The air around the plane is filled with these little pieces of paper -- like snowflakes. So before I get to the plane I pick one of the pieces of paper out of the air. And on it is a picture of a child. Then in the dream I turn to the others at the crash site and I shout to them, "It's all right! There weren't any children on the plane. There were just pictures. Just pictures of children."
FORT GEORGE G. MEADE, Md. (AFNS) -- No matter how far women were kept away from combat roles, they were never far from harm and the opportunity to rise above and beyond the call of duty.
An explosion blew out a pressure door of a C-5A Galaxy as it took off from Tan Son Nhut Air Base, Vietnam, April 4, 1975, forcing it to make an emergency landing with 313 passengers and crew, including 250 orphans.
The plane was the first to depart in support of Operation Babylift, where American caregivers were paired with South Vietnamese orphans, most fathered by Americans, to evacuate them to the Philippines then to San Diego, Calif., where President Gerald Ford was ready to welcome them to the United Sates.
Capt. Mary Klinker, the flight nurse and 1st Lt. Regina C. Aune, a nurse, were on board to help safely secure the children for their passage to a new life.
Pilot Capt. Dennis "Bud" Traynor and co-pilot Capt. Tilford Harp heroically controlled the doomed aircraft, but the explosion and a crash landing changed the lives of all on board.
Aune was thrown the entire length of the upper deck as the crippled aircraft skidded a quarter mile in a rice paddy, became airborne approximately a half mile, then crashed into an irrigation ditch where it was torn into four pieces.
In the crash, Klinker became the last U.S. servicewoman to die in the Vietnam War and was posthumously awarded the Air Medal and the Meritorious Service Medal. Her name is listed on panel O1W, row 122 of the Vietnam Veteran's Memorial.
Aune helped carry 80 babies to rescue helicopters at the muddy crash site. When unable to continue, she asked the first officer she saw if she could be relieved of her duties, then passed out. It was later discovered she helped save these babies with a broken foot, a broken leg, a broken vertebra and numerous other injuries.
Aune became the first woman to be awarded the Cheney Award, which was established in 1927 to recognize an Airman for an act of valor, extreme fortitude or self-sacrifice in a humanitarian interest, performed in connection with aircraft, but not necessarily of a military nature.
In all, 37 medals were awarded to the crew or next-of-kin of the 11 Airmen killed in the crash. Those killed also included 35 Defense Attaché Office employees and 78 children.
Aune retired an Air Force colonel in 2007.
Our Woman in Saigon
“Sooner or later...one has to take sides. If one is to remain human.”
Graham Greene, The Quiet American (1955)
Her given name – Ngoc Ha – means Jade River in Vietnamese. Her full name was Le Thi Ngoc Ha. To William Johnson, the last chief of the Saigon Base of the Central Intelligence Agency, she became simply “Holly,” a name derived from his mispronunciation of the her family name Le (which he pronounced Lee rather than Lay) and her given name and his reversal of the Vietnamese custom of placing the surname first and given name last.
She was born on June 16, 1941 in the city of Hue. Le Ha was the eldest of eleven children – five girls and six boys –of a Vietnamese provincial official and his wife. As the first daughter, in the Vietnamese tradition, she inherited the responsibility of assisting her mother in raising and caring for her brothers and sisters. She was expected to set aside her own interests in order to help oversee the welfare, education and match-making of her siblings.
Le Ha’s mother’s younger brother, Vinh Loc, was a cousin of the Nguyen Emperor Bao Dai. He was entitled to be called a “prince” of the Nguyen Dynasty and provided important family connections to the court in Hue and to French provincial officials. He attended military school in France and graduated from the Phu Bai (Hue) Officers school before becoming an aid to the Emperor. He rose rapidly through the ranks of the Army under the French and in the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) after the French departure from Indochina n 1954-1955. By the end of the 1960s was a Lt. General and director of his nation’s College of Defense and in 1975 he became Chief of the Joint General Staff of South Vietnam.
Le Ha was sent to a French convent school in Dalat for her primary education. She graduated first in her class in the Couvent des Oiseaux High School in 1959. By that time she was fluent in Vietnamese, French and English. She enrolled in the University of Sciences in Saigon in the autumn of 1959. During her first semester in Saigon she took an examination for admission to Victoria University in Wellington, New Zealand. She finished first in the exam and was awarded a full fellowship to Victoria. Of the twenty Vietnamese students granted fellowships to Victoria University that year, Le Ha was the only woman recipient.
She chose biochemistry as her major in Wellington and also studied English literature and Russian. She graduated at the top of her class in 1963 and was admitted to the university’s graduate studies program. In 1968 she was awarded a PhD in biochemistry and appointed an instructor in the university.
Le Ha served as president of the Vietnamese Students Association of Victoria University for four years. In that position she regularly attended parliamentary sessions, met the prime minister and other high government officials and closely followed the debate in New Zealand as to whether or not the country should commit troops to the defense of South Vietnam. After demonstrators marched on Parliament demanding that New Zealand not send soldiers to Vietnam, Le Ha called a special meeting of the Vietnamese Students Association and organized a march on Parliament demanding that New Zealand assist South Vietnam. “We had an impact,” she remembered. “They had our story all over the newspapers and television. New Zealand did send troops to assist South Vietnam.” But New Zealand’s contribution was modest – 3890 New Zealanders served in Vietnam and 37 died there.
In partially fulfilling her responsibilities as the eldest daughter in the family, Le Ha helped two of her brothers gain admission to universities in New Zealand. A third brother joined the Vietnamese Air Force and was sent to Lakeland, Texas, for training.
The Tet Offensive of the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese was launched in South Vietnam in January and February of 1968. Le Ha watched the violence unfold on television and in the newspapers in New Zealand. Her mother, sisters and a brother were in Dalat for the Tet festivities with her father, who was serving as governor of II Corps, which included the city of Dalat. The Viet Cong captured Dalat and controlled the city from January 31 until February 9th. While the fighting raged around them, Le Ha’s family went into hiding in a French Boarding school and eluded capture. A large bounty was placed on her father’s head by the Viet Cong.
Le Ha came home to South Vietnam in the summer of 1968. In a Catholic ceremony in the Notre Dame Basilica in the city she married a young Vietnamese scholar and fellow student she’d met in Wellington, Tran Ba Tuoc. She and her new husband decided to remain in Saigon, establish a home there and contribute in whatever way they might to the defense of their country. Tuoc, trained in finance, took a position with the Central Bank of Vietnam. Le Ha accepted a job as a teacher of physics, chemistry and biology in a Catholic school. After six months of teaching she resigned to go to work at Esso, Vietnam, as the chief laboratory supervisor.
The Assistant General Manager and the second in charge of Esso, Vietnam, was Do Nguyen. He had worked previously for the US Agency for International Development (USAID) and for Esso, Eastern. The company sent him to the United States for a year to study management and the petroleum business. When he returned to Saigon he was named a member of Esso, Vietnam’s executive committee, which consisted of four executives in the company. He was the only Vietnamese member. He also supervised the logistics, marketing and supply department of Esso. Nguyen became her primary mentor within the company and went out of his way to help train her for her responsibilities. She in turn, was appreciative of the time he devoted to her and his patience in teaching her how the lab and the company operated.
In 1971 Esso sent Le Ha to the US for a year for a year of specialized training and education. During her stay in the US, several friends in Vietnam wrote to advise her not to return home. “Stay in America,” one friend told her. “We are going to lose our country soon. You will be safe and have a better future where you are now.”
“But I love” my country,” she wrote back. “I will not abandon it at this critical time.” And she advised, “If you continue to believe that we must lose our country, then we will surely lose it sooner.”
She kept her own dark personal concerns to herself. “I learned that many Americans really knew very little about Vietnam,” she later recalled. “And they actually cared even less for it. Vietnam was far away. It was not a country or a people to them – it was just a far-away war that they had become tired of fighting. Most of the people I met didn’t want to talk about the conflict. People who were involved in some way in the war, those who had sons or brothers or fathers or daughters who were there, they knew a little bit. But for the rest – well, they just wanted to be done with us. And the sooner, the better. When I tried to speak with Americans and to tell them what was happening in Vietnam, they would not listen. They did not want to hear. They thought they knew what was happening in Vietnam. But they didn’t. They were not committed to us anymore.”
When she returned to Saigon, Esso named her to public affairs manager of the company as well as lab supervisor. She was happy with the promotion but at the same time unhappy and worried about the deteriorating fortunes of her country. Her doubts about America’s continuing support for South Vietnam were realized. In January of 1973, the Paris Peace Accords were signed, ending America’s direct involvement in the Vietnam conflict. America’s remaining combat troops were withdrawn that spring. The substantial forces of North Vietnam within the borders of South Vietnam, according to the Paris Agreement, remained in place but the Northerners pledged not to seize additional areas of South Vietnam and to submit to observation by an international committee of observers. Both pledges were broken even as the last American combat troops departed from Saigon.
At about the same time that the Paris Accords were signed, she met Bill Johnson. Hearing of her concern for her country, he offered her an active way to assist her country in surmounting its difficulties.
She met Johnson during a dinner in the Caravelle Hotel with several Esso Employees and their friends. Johnson was an attractive American -- tall and good looking, well-educated, multi-lingual (he spoke fluent French and Italian in addition to English). He spoke in a steady and authoritative way with clear confidence about politics and war and he referred often to his broad experience in international affairs. He smoked a pipe rather than cigarettes, like most other Americans she knew, and he projected a professorial image. He had a tendency to lapse into little lectures during a political discussion, as if he was standing in a classroom with students rather than sitting in a restaurant with friends. He often hesitated between sentences as if, she thought, carefully calibrating his words so others at the table might take notes. He told her he was in the political section of the US Embassy. He was accompanied by his wife, Pat, who, he said, was also employed in the Embassy. Johnson and his wife had traveled all over the world and they were well informed regarding politics, Asian cultures and international affairs. They’d had homes in the United States, Japan, South America and Europe. And Johnson had in fact once been a college professor, as she suspected, and he hoped to return to that vocation some day.
William E. Johnson was born and raised in Loveland, Colorado, in 1919. His parents sent him to Hotchkiss School in Lakeville, Connecticut. From Hotchkiss he enrolled in Yale University and graduated with a major in English literature in 1942. “Actually they mailed me my diploma,” he remembered. “Because there was a war on, I left a little early” to enlist in the Army. He married a classmate from Yale, Jean Hanson, shortly before enlisting. Johnson attended Signal Corps Officer Candidate School and was assigned to the Military Intelligence Service. He landed with the Second Infantry Division on Omaha Beach on June 7, 1944. “I went through the war with the Second Division,” he recalled. “I served as an aide to a general for a time and I did interrogation, special scouting and patrolling.” He was assigned for a short time to the Office of Strategic Services in Europe because, he believed, of his facility with languages.
After the war Johnson took a position as assistant professor of English and American literature at Carleton College, in Northfield, Minnesota. From the quiet Carleton campus he followed the disintegration of the alliances of WWII, the establishments of Soviet satellite states and the onset of the Cold War. He was increasingly distressed by what he saw and by his settled and isolated academic life in Minnesota.
The opportunity to participate in the Cold War Struggle came in 1948 when he was visited by an old comrade in arms from the OSS, James Jesus Angleton. Johnson and Angleton met at Yale where both worked on the literary magazine, Furioso. In 1948, Angleton came to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester Minnesota for surgery for hemorrhoids. During his recovery he visited the Johnsons in nearby Northfield. Johnson and Angleton talked about the situation in Eastern Europe and particularly about the loss to the West of Czechoslovakia. Angleton returned to Washington and a week later telephoned Johnson and asked him to join the new organization he had helped found to blunt Soviet expansion, the Central Intelligence Agency. Johnson remembered that his response was immediate and enthusiastic. “Hell, yes!” he answered Angleton.
Following his initial training with the Agency, Johnson was assigned to counterintelligence post in Vienna. There he met Patricia Long, a fellow agent. She was recruited by the CIA from Princeton University. Johnson and Long fell in love and, eventually, he divorced his first wife and married Pat. They became the only husband-and-wife team in the CIA at that time.
The two returned to Washington where Bill was given a senior assignment managing the CIA’s Far Eastern Counterintelligence Operations. The Johnsons worked together in Asia concentrating their attention and activity on Vietnam. They traveled back and forth between Washington, Saigon and Tokyo on a monthly basis for several years. In late 1972 Johnson was given a temporary assignment to the CIA base in Saigon. In the May of 1973 the temporary assignment became a permanent one.
Thomas Polgar had taken command of the CIA’s Saigon Station ten months before Johnson was given his temporary assignment to the base. The two men had been friends since they were stationed together in Eastern Europe in the late 1940s and the 1950s. While Johnson was on temporary assignment in Saigon, he spoke often with Polgar about the prospects for South Vietnam. “We talked about it,” Johnson said, “and gradually we came up with the idea that I ought to go to work there, right in Saigon, on a long-term basis. “ Johnson however had one condition for taking a permanent position in Saigon – he wanted Pat to be stationed there with him. In the end, it was agreed that she could work in Saigon but she would not work directly under Bill’s supervision in the CIA base. She would work as an Order of Battle analyst in the CIA station under Polgar.
The CIA base and the station were both within the walls of the US Embassy in Saigon. The nominal head office of the CIA, the Station, was in the Embassy building itself. The Agency maintained five bases in South Vietnam – in Danang, Nha Trang, Bien Hoa, Can Tho and Saigon. There were also a half dozen sub-bases in the countryside. The Saigon base was set up in a consular building adjoining the station and within the walls of the Embassy compound. Johnson said that his duties made him “essentially simultaneously chief of base and station staff officer. He was charged also with arranging all the station staff meetings.
When he began working full time in Saigon, Johnson’s summed up his assessment of South Vietnam’s chances for survival, “I thought as far as the military situation was concerned, with real and genuine American support, and real commitment of air support when it was needed, and with funding for the government of South Vietnam, there was a good chance they could prevail.”
A short time after they first met Le Ha, Pat Johnson invited her to visit their villa not far from the American Embassy. The Johnsons learned many things about Le Ha since that initial meeting – about her father and her uncle, General Vinh Loc and of the family relationship to the former Emperor, her brother, in the Air Force, her activities in Wellington, visits to Parliament, her duties at Esso and her worries about the fate and the future of Vietnam.
Le Ha was drawn to the Johnsons and enjoyed their company and conversations. Sometimes their socializing was merely small talk – memories about life in the US and New Zealand and Bill’s relating tales about their own travels and his experiences as a college professor.
In a short time their talks focused more often on South Vietnam and the long and the short term prospects for its survival.
Le Ha shared her concerns regarding corruption in South Vietnam and the ways in which it crippled and demoralized the war effort. She mentioned stories she’d heard that a not insignificant segment of the corruption involved Americans as well as Vietnamese. Johnson dismissed those concerns as nothing more than red herrings intended to divert attention from widespread Vietnamese corruption. Le Ha did not challenge him – she had concluded earlier that he was a man who did not value being challenged. But she did know that he was either misinformed or disingenuous in his conclusions about American wrongdoing. In defense of her position, she gently chided Johnson. Recently, she pointed out, she’d heard that a CIA officer in charge of a base in the Central Highlands had been caught stealing funds that were supposed to be going to Vietnamese forces in the area. She mentioned the amount of money he’d stolen – it was significant, she thought – and she gave the name of his Vietnamese mistress, who was involved along with him. She assured him that this was widely known in Vietnamese military and political circles. And how, she asked, had the Americans dealt with it? The man, she told Johnson, had simply been eased into retirement. Le Ha suggested that this was so widely known that surely people inside the American Embassy must be aware of it. But they behaved as if the problems of corruption were all Vietnamese and that there were no problems among the Americans. She waited for Johnson to respond to her revelation. But he merely said that if it was true, he would have heard of it, but he had not. “Saigon is a city of rumors,” he reminded her. “They are entertaining, but they are not true.”
Not long after they disagreed over the existence of American corruption, Johnson confided in Le Ha that he was not with the political office of the Embassy and neither was Pat. He dealt with something more important. He was, he said, with the CIA. In fact, he was the Chief of Base for the Central Intelligence Agency in Saigon. Pat, he said, was also employed by the Agency as an analyst. His specialty, he said, had always been counter intelligence. She listened with what seemed like fascination as he told his story and she did not indicate that she had known from the time of their first meeting all that he was telling to her.
Johnson told her, again, that he saw the major problem that needed to be solved swiftly if South Vietnam was to survive was internal corruption. By that he meant the selling supplies, including rice, weapons, ammunition, spare parts and petroleum products, to the other side. The Americans believed that the pilferage of supplies purchased primarily with American dollars, was a cancer and it had to be dramatically treated soon. He wanted to know, he said, specifically who the principle thieves and the saboteurs were and how they worked. He believed that some people in high places in the South Vietnamese government and military had to be involved. He wanted to know who they were. And if they had American partners, he said, he wanted to know that too. He praised “Holly” for her ability to get people to talk and to listen carefully to what everything that was said. With that talent and her contacts within the Vietnamese military through her uncle and her brother she might be able to uncover important information and pass it to him regarding the disappearance of supplies sent to South Vietnamese armed forces.
The second problem, he said, was related to the first. Friends or active agents of the other side were not merely diverting the gasoline, jet fuel, diesel and lubricating oil that was provided to the armed forces of South Vietnam, but what was delivered was often contaminated. Perhaps not all contamination could be stopped, he said. But it certainly could be diminished and if that happened it might be part of the formula for facilitating a more efficient South Vietnamese military force that could turn the tide of battle against the North. In any case, it had to be tried. Le Ha had recently been promoted to head the testing lab at Esso, he said, and in that position and with her outside contacts she just might have access to information disclosing or pointing to those who were hijacking and contaminating the petroleum products flowing into South Vietnam.
Johnson asked Le Ha to work for him by collecting critical information. The task was not without risk, he cautioned. If she was identified as a source of information to the CIA, her life would be in danger. On the other hand, he assured her, if she shared what she was doing with no one outside her family, the chances of anyone detecting what she did were almost zero. He promised to keep the paper work on her cooperation to a minimum and to share it with no one else within the Agency. On a regular basis he would make sure all of the files dealing with her work were destroyed.
Le Ha was a cautious woman. She did not say yes, immediately. But she also did not say no. She said she needed to discuss it with her husband and with her father. Johnson agreed and gave her a week to make up her mind.
She decided not tell her husband about the offer. But she did discuss it with her father. He listened carefully to the proposal. After considering it, he reminded her that she was the oldest daughter in the family and that she was responsible, after her parents, for the welfare of her siblings. She told him she had not forgotten this obligation. But, she said, perhaps if she could do something to assist the survival of South Vietnam she would be looking out for the welfare not only of her own brothers and sisters but for all of the people of the country. He discussed with her the inefficiency of the American intelligence network in South Vietnam. Several hundred Vietnamese were paid to provide information to the CIA, he reminded her, and they merely translated stories from Vietnamese newspapers and sold them as important intelligence. Everyone knew this, he said. Everyone knew who the men were. The American CIA could neither gather nor keep secrets, he cautioned. And he would not be surprised if some of their trusted sources were in fact working for the other side. Le Ha responded by saying that was why she felt she might be useful to them and to her country. Perhaps she could see or hear what others could not. At least, it was worth a try, wasn’t it? And she was not selling information. Johnson had offered her no money and no favors. All he promised was the chance to help her country survive. After cautioning her to look out for herself first when dealing with the communists, to look over her shoulder constantly, and not to put herself into any more danger than was necessary, he told her that she had his blessing to work for Bill Johnson.
When they met again a few days later, Le Ha told Johnson she would help him.
She had become the assistant public affairs manager of Esso and as well as chief chemist and lab supervisor. A prominent union leader worked closely with her in her lab. She had some difficulties with him in the past because, she thought, he objected to working under a woman. He was outspoken in his denunciations of the government and, in a subtle way he indicated that he favored the cause of the communists. Often, she felt, he purposely provoked her. “I told him I could be tough if he pushed me,” she remembered. “But I said I did not want to be that way. All of us are Vietnamese,” she reminded him, “and we have to treat each other with decency and respect. We have differences of opinion about many things. But we also have important similarities. Let’s just do our job here and leave politics out of it. You be fair with me and I’ll be fair with you. Let’s both do our jobs and there will be no problems.”
Because the other workers clearly deferred to this man, she began to monitor his work more carefully. In a short time, she realized how he, his assistants and coworkers were sabotaging petroleum tests. “Every time there was a major operation with the Army going into the jungle in search of the enemy,” she said, “every time a military unit moved or there were large scale maneuvers, they would send barges and supplies and fuel for the aircraft and for the trucks for the army up the river to Long Binh. Our workers knew all about it each time the oil barges were coming because it was our responsibility to test the fuel before it was used. My lab was the choke point where the sabotage and delay began to take place. I discovered that this was the way it had always worked – with American or South Vietnamese units.
“The refined petroleum products were brought from the refinery in Singapore to Vietnam,” she explained. “We tested the samples from the tankers before we discharged it to the military. We were required to test it a second time once the tank trucks and barges that transported it within the country arrived at their destination. Contamination, in other words, might occur at the point of import or during transportation or in the field. So there were several stages for testing, and if one test was not right, it could slow down the whole operation of getting fuel to our troops and air craft. And every time we had barges loading and unloading, many people knew about it and could pass information to someone else who could either warn the enemy of an impending action or contaminate some of the fuel and slow down field operations.
“Long Binh, which was a military base and we had a lab there too and we had to test at our own bases at Tan Son Nhut, Nha Trang Airport, Qui Nhon, and Danang. So at each terminal we set up a small lab, but they could only run the short test and not the whole test. I had to follow up the results and, in a sense, examine the tests themselves. There was not much real contamination. That is why I thought something was going on whenever several tests suddenly showed contamination.
“We ran tests for all fuel for Cambodia and Laos as well as for South Vietnam. Each time they sent samples of fuel to us to test, they had aircraft waiting on the ground, literally, for us to radio them that the fuel was good, not contaminated, and they could fly their missions. In a troubling number of cases the fuel was contaminated or the tests were delayed when someone might drop a sample or spill it and another sample would have to be flown in. Anything small could slow down the tests for a number of hours or even a day – enough time to get word to enemy forces or agents or targets about what was happening. When we ruled the fuel was contaminated we had to get more samples and order the batch we tested destroyed and not used.”
Slowly Le Ha came to see that the fuel was not being contaminated in transit or in the field. It was being contaminated right there in the lab simply as a delaying tactic.
“Once my suspicions were aroused I learned what was going on, very quickly,” she recalled. “I was surprised that I had not seen it earlier. My problem had been, I felt, I had implicitly trusted the integrity of my fellow lab workers and supervisors. We had differences of opinion on politics, of course, but we disagreements on many things. I just never thought those disagreements would lead to sabotaging our own work. I decided to start extracting duplicate samples of the fuel to be tested.” She told no one else in the labs what she was doing – there was, after all, the chance that her suspicions might be wrong. She hoped they were. While the lab staff and assistants ran tests on the official samples, she ran tests on her own samples. There were, she noticed, immediate discrepancies in her tests and the tests of her co workers. Her samples showed no contamination – the jet fuel and gasoline was reliable and could be used. The air strikes and offensives could take place immediately. The other tests from the same batch indicated contamination – meaning a delay in sorties and in troop movement.
When discrepancies occurred between her own tests and those of her co-workers, she calmly asked her that the fuel be tested again – “in front of me.”
Some of her lab workers objected – including the head of the union -- but in the end did as she instructed. A few were curious. A few were suspicious. “What’s wrong?” she recalls several workers asking. “Don’t you trust our work anymore? Don’t you trust us as chemists?”
“That’s not the problem,” she answered.
“I’ve been here longer than you,” one chemist told her. And she responded, “Yes, you have been here longer than I. Anyone can make mistakes.” When some of her workers became restive, she explained that “mistakes have consequences. Rejecting an entire batch of fuel can cost tens of millions of piastres. Don’t you understand that? (She did not mention that delays also provided the time to warn enemy forces of an impending strike). “I am responsible for the work of this lab. It’s all on my shoulders. I need to say absolutely that I witnessed the tests and that they indicated contamination. It has nothing to do with distrusting your work. Believe me. It has to do with responsibility – my responsibility! I just want to witness the testing.”
So, she recalls, they reran the tests. The results were often different the second time. The fuel was good. “We took a break,” she said. “We ran the test a third time. It was good again. “It’s a go,” I reported to my bosses. “I made the report to Nguyen Do that our tests were negative for contamination. He asked me several times if there had been more than one test. I told him there had been. Two of three were good. At times he demanded a fourth and delaying test. He seemed, I thought, upset that the fuel was good. But I had to do what he required.”
She reported to Johnson what she had found, but did not mention names. She wanted no repercussions against those she suspected of sabotaging the tests. A reprimand from outside against anyone in her department would, she was convinced, absolutely lead workers to point to her. Her value, consequently, would be gone and her career as well as her life and the lives of her loved ones would be in jeopardy. She told Johnson she needed time to dig deeper, to see how widespread the problems in the lab were. She might be able to stop the flawed testing in her department if she could figure out how this system was organized and who the key players were. Johnson seemed pleased with her progress and agreed to wait while she worked to decrease the delays in the fuel supply lines.
She continued making double checks for the next several weeks. “I kept my suspicions in my head,” she said. “I did not know how high this system went and I did not want any blame for the sabotage to fall on the heads of innocent lab workers alone. I was sure that the guilty parties were working for someone else,”
“After a month I called all of my workers into my office and I told them, ‘You know I have not been here very long. But I have been her long enough to know what has been going on. I am not going to name or accuse anybody. I always give people a chance. I am new in my position here and you know that I can be fired if I allow this to continue. But after I leave here I can get a job next door at Shell or CalTex because of my qualifications. I don't worry. But you, once you lose your job here, I don't think you can find a job anywhere. This is not a threat. All the incidents are recorded right here in my files.” She held up a folder for all to see, and continued, “Yesterday, the bottles and the samples of jet lot 1A from Cambodia were broken, and contaminated -- those samples were contaminated right here in my lab! This happens again and again. And I don't take those occurrences as purely accidental. It happens too often for me not to be suspicious. Now, I can forget and forgive everything that has happened here if you promise from now on that you will cooperate with me and that no matter what happens you will be truly responsible. I want each of you to sign a receipt of the sample you are testing and to be responsible for that sample and if something happens to it you will be held accountable. We are at war and if we make mistakes here in the lab we can be brought before a military court. Contaminated products can kill people. We all know that. Aircraft will crash. Trucks will not run. Bad work here means lives lost elsewhere. If you don’t want to be responsible for your work, you had better resign today. But whatever you do, please don't play these tricks again. It’s dangerous and it is childish
“I knew that my workers were being paid for what they were doing,” she explained later. “They were probably paid well. It was easy to be exploited by the Communists at that time. There were social classes and there were rich and poor people and there was a wide separation between the rich and poor and greed and envy and a sense of life’s unfairness were all very powerful motivations in Vietnam. So also was fear. Particularly fear. Most of my workers had family members in the countryside and those families were exposed to repercussions from the Viet Cong if they refused to cooperate. My people were not free agents and I knew that and I appreciated that and I took that into consideration. Failing to cooperate with me might mean losing their jobs. But failing to cooperate with the VC meant their loved ones would lose their lives. You see, they were trapped. And because I knew their dilemma I chose to work within certain boundaries. I had to allow them some way out of the situation that all of us were in. So I tried to explain what we had to do. I explained my responsibility. I explained that I also worked for someone higher up. My appeal and my understanding seemed to have an impact. After that we were pretty efficient at what we did. Less and less fuel was found to be contaminated and no contaminated fuel was put into aircraft or vehicles.”
But Le Ha’s efforts proved to be too little too late. As public affairs manager, Le Ha screened the daily Vietnamese and foreign newspapers and then briefed the General Manager about the political, economic and military situation in Vietnam. Her anxieties and concerns deepened daily. During her regular conferences with the General Manager of the company, Edwin “Ed” Ketchum, she found that he seemed to have lost faith in the future of South Vietnam. In the spring of 1975, again and again the question came up as to how long South Vietnam might survive. After one rather dismal assessment, Ketchum asked what her personal feelings were about the military situation. After a very long pause, she remembered, she said, almost in a whisper, “I don’t think we will survive like this much longer.” Ketchum listened to her and kept his eyes lowered to the table. He did not disagree with her. He only responded with a quiet, “ok” before standing and leaving the room. She was informed the next day that Esso was working on a project to evacuate its principle employees from South Vietnam should the North Vietnamese troops advance to the outskirts of Saigon. Le Ha, her husband and her 16 month old son were on the company’s list.
Johnson was reluctant to share his increasingly dark view of South Vietnam’s future with her. “Watergate changed everything,” he found. He was visited by a senior aide from another component in the summer of 1974. At a dinner one evening, “he brought us up to date as to what was happening in Washington.” Johnson recalled. “It became clear to me in the course of that discussion that the whole atmosphere in Washington had changed, that congressional funding was going to be cut dramatically. The money was going to run out, and soon.” And to make matters even worse, “At that point the oil embargo had happened and the cost of oil quadrupled by the end of 1974 – making it difficult for the GVN to supply fuel to its aircraft and its ground forces. They were cutting back on air missions and ground transport simply because they couldn’t afford the fuel -- and too much of what they did have was contaminated by someone somewhere along the supply line.”
Johnson concluded that “it was undeniable to us and to our opponents in Moscow, that another conventional military effort by the North Vietnamese will have a better chance to succeed than had their offensive in 1972. Disaster was waiting just around the corner!”
The final major offensive of the North Vietnamese Army began December 12, 1974, in Phuoc Long province, less than 75 miles from Saigon. The province was secured by the North Vietnamese on January 6, 1975. There was a pause in the fighting until March 3 when the North launched an attack in the Central Highlands at Ban Me Thuot. The ARVN broke and retreated. The Central Highlands and the northernmost provinces of South Vietnam fell to the enemy and by early April it was clear to nearly everyone in South Vietnam that the end was at finally at hand.
From January until early March of 1975, Le Ha organized visits by Vietnamese women to the military outposts near the border with Cambodia and Laos and in the northernmost provinces of the country – “dangerous places” she described them --where Marines and the Rangers were stationed. “We went there for moral support and brought them gifts and told them that we were backing them up. Sometimes I felt very sad in my heart on these visits. The boys who were doing the fighting and the dying had very high morale. I felt so sad when I visited them since I could see the outside situation deteriorating. Yet there was hope in these men’s hearts that they might fight and even die for a good cause. But I could see the true situation. I was broken- hearted. I wished then I could tell them the truth -- that they were dying for nothing. I felt that. But I could not tell them.”
By the time she visited the military outposts she had learned that there were “general's wives who sold rice and supplies to the Vietcong in order to make more and more money. They knew they would be leaving the country and they wanted to amass all the money possible before they could get away. They were selling it to the other side -- to the other side!” She was too ashamed of her fellow countrywomen to tell Johnson what she’d learned.
She was also convinced that a significant amount of the gasoline and jet fuel that had been consigned to South Vietnam never arrived. What the Americans insisted was South Vietnamese corruption, she suspected, was in fact American malfeasance. Receipts for real oil shipments from Singapore represented just “paper ships” loaded with “paper petrol.” Several thousand barrels of petroleum products had just disappeared since 1973. Bill Johnson, the American press and the American public, she thought, blamed the South Vietnamese for the missing product. But in talks with men at the front and with her father, brother and her uncle, Le Ha became convinced that it was not all Vietnamese corruption. Americans also were deeply involved in corrupt practices in South Vietnam.
Those same suspicions surfaced in the American Defense Attaché Office, which had replaced MACV in 1973. The Government Accountability Office was called in for an audit. Following their findings the FBI was asked to take over of the investigation. The search for the missing petroleum products led the FBI to a group of four men, including one American, in Hong Kong, who had diverted $4.4 million in funds earmarked for fuel for the South Vietnamese military forces. Three of the men escaped but the 4th, the American, was arrested in the summer of 1975 in West Virginia and indicted for the fraud. He admitted to diverting the funds intended to supply oil products to South Vietnam. His $900,000 in personal assets was confiscated by the US Government and he was sentenced to 5 years in prison for the crime. But by the time the fraud was exposed, South Vietnam had ceased to exist.
By Mid-March of 1975, Le Ha remembers, “few of us had much hope any longer.” One of her close friends said that she believed there was hope for was another partition of Vietnam – giving the northern half of South Vietnam to North Vietnam and leaving the southern half of the country as an independent republic. But she told her friend, “No, that will not happen. We are history now. It is all over. South Vietnam is finished. And if you can get out of this country, you had better start making plans now.”
In early April Le Ha’s brother, an Air Force captain, visited her in Saigon and expressed his own grave concerns. "You know you are the oldest in the family,” he told her. “And I say you had better quickly think of a solution for mom and dad and the rest of the family because it is getting very dangerous very fast. I see sometimes that it was scary. From high above, I see the mountains moving with Communist forces camouflaged with branches. We are lost. They are not far away. They are all around us. And every time I report what I see to my commander, he gets mad and yells and screams and tells me that my imagination is getting the best of me."
Le Ha’s brother was killed on April 29, 1975, the last day of the war.
Bill Johnson made plans for leaving South Vietnam. “I of course worried about Pat getting out,” he said. “I sent her to Bangkok on the 20th of April. I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to do my job as I thought the job might develop with her there, so I sent her out. I see now it would have been better if she had stayed because she could have been a lot of help, particularly on the last day.”
The evacuation of Americans and Vietnamese “at risk” became increasingly confused as panic spread through Saigon. Johnson had been told that the final evacuation would be on Tuesday, April 30. “But the next to the last day by our planning turned out to be the last day,” he said. “And the situation was that a lot of people who should have gotten out were left behind.” Le Ha was one of those people left behind. “Pat could have been a great help in that last confused business of getting on the telephone, moving people to evacuation points and things like that. I did what I could but it wasn’t enough. “
While he ferried members of an international monitoring commission from the Tan Son Nhut airport to the Duc hotel in Saigon on the morning of April 29, “there was a woman on the radio inside the Embassy and she was getting pretty frantic. ‘Get your ass back here fast,’ she was yelling at me.”
He packed a single bag and had his driver take him to the Embassy. “Well, when I got there the Embassy was surrounded by a big crowd. My driver couldn’t even begin to get my car through that crowd. He left me off two blocks away. I told him goodbye and said he could keep the car.
“I pushed my way through the crowd and approached the back gate of the Embassy. I had been fairly visible around town and most of the people at the back gate knew me by sight. These were people desperately trying to get into the embassy in order to leave the country on one of the choppers. But they let me pass through politely and the guard let me in the gate. I went to my office, but it was on fire. So I went on to the main building.
“My office had a shredder and a burner in it and somebody too enthusiastically had been burning papers and files and the furniture caught on fire. The building didn’t burn down but everything inside had been burned up, as far as I could tell.
“We got a cable from Washington indicating that the artillery that had been hitting Tran Son Nhut was going to be put down on the Embassy and the palace at 6:00 PM. This came out of the communications arrangements that the NSA has around the world. The order for evacuation came through before we even had a chance to comment on the intercept.
“The Marines began arriving in choppers and taking up positions around the Embassy. When 6:00 PM came, we were standing there checking our watches. And right on time a round came in and took the top off a four-story apartment house near the embassy. That was the only thing that happened at 6:00 PM. One shell.
“I went out into the yard to help pull people over the wall. There were thousands of people out there, desperate to get in. At the same time our people in the station were destroying documents. There was a lot of shredding and burning gong on. I spent most of my time on the phone trying to contact people around town and tell them to get out or where to go. The damned phone system was jammed, though, but it had not been broken down completely. I could not get through to Holly, and that worried me. Worried me a lot. I was concerned for her.
“I went down to the gate and looked for her outside. I was able to pull several people over and had them throw their bags over also. It was all very sad,” Johnson said. “Very depressing. The whole enterprise.
“I continued trying to telephone Holly but without success. Every once in a while I’d go down to the gate and check around. No sign of her.” That night Johnson boarded a helicopter with Frank Snepp, General Charles Timmes and Ken Morefield, an aid to the ambassador. “By the time our chopper lifted off I looked down and saw that someone had set fire to all the cars in the car pool. They were burning very brightly in the night. I was really tired by then, and Timmes woke me up when we were flying over the munitions dump at Long Binh. My God, that was a fireworks display. Below us was on big sea of fire and explosions, with flames licking the night. We watched it and suddenly there were tracers coming up at us, slowing, stopping short and falling away. I remember Timmes saying this was very odd because we knew they had SAMS that they were not firing. Instead, as a kind of defiant little show they fired their automatic weapons at us just to remind us of what was happening. As if we needed reminding. We were out of range by then but we watched the tracers rising up, stopping and falling back to earth.
“We landed on the Denver,” Johnson recalled. “We went to Subic Bay. We were then flown to Manila. I flew over to Guam and moved into a tent in Orote Point to look for my missing people. I looked for Holly and didn’t see her and began to fear the worst. We put a girl on a bicycle with a megaphone and she went up and down the tent streets shouting names and telling people where they should go to be processed.”
During the weekend before the American evacuation, as the North Vietnamese Army approached Saigon, Johnson stayed in touch with Le Ha by phone and assured her that he would get her and her husband out of Vietnam and to safety and that all of his files on her had been destroyed. The US was going to withdraw its people, he told her, on April 30th. He promised would also make arrangements for her mother and father and the rest of her family to leave. Le Ha and her husband lived in a residential compound managed by the Central Bank of Vietnam, her husband’s employer, on the North side of the Newport Bridge.
"Stay home, stay put and wait for my call," he told her. He instructed her to limit herself and her husband to one small bag for the exodus. She and her husband prepared their bag and waited for Johnson’s call. They were not informed that the American exodus had been moved up 24 hours, to begin on the 29th and not the 30th. Johnson had been unable to make contact with her on the 29th and so she waited at home for the telephone call that never came
“At 3 in the morning of the 29th,” she remembered, “we heard shooting and in the early daylight we could see North Vietnamese soldiers running around everywhere. They didn't pay any notice to us then. But I said to my husband, ‘We have to get out of here now. We have to get to the river, and if we need to swim across we have to do so. If we stay here we are lost.’
“We walked to the river – it was unsafe to drive on the roads and there was fighting on both sides of the bridge. On the river there were little sampans going back and forth and they were charging 100,000 piastres [about $1700] cash, just to take us cross the river. I told my husband we had to do that, we had to pay their price. We didn't have the cash, but we had jewels and other valuables in our two bags. Everything we had, everything, just to get across that river. It was completely daylight at that time. We saw dozens of American helicopters flying above the river heading in and out of Saigon. I guessed that they were taking people out to the American ships.
“Once across the river we were able to get a ride to my father’s house and found he was still at home with my mother and three sisters and four brothers. They were listening to the radio. We heard the voice of my uncle, Vinh Loc, saying that he was taking over the defense of Saigon and he said he would fight to the end and all that. And my mother said, ‘Well you don't have to worry, you don't have to leave now.’
“At first I thought my mother and father might flee south and go to Phu Quoc Island and stay there out of harm’s way until my uncle and the South Vietnamese Army stabilized the situation – as they had done in 1968 and again in 1972. Once the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong were pushed out of Saigon, my parents could return.
“But there was no military response in Saigon from my uncle’s forces. The radio broadcast ceased. My hope simply died. I saw that the end of our world was at hand. I told my father he had to leave without delay. The Viet Cong still had a bounty out for his capture. Before anyone else, he had to go. He objected and said he could not leave us behind. There were many boats leaving Saigon with refugees, and they were charging a very high price -- $200 per head (American dollars). We all wanted to leave but we did not have enough cash. Most of our money was locked in the bank. We managed to put together $800 so four of us could go. I figured that my father, another brother who was in the military police, and another brother who was a production manager for Foremost Dairy in Saigon, should go first. That left just $200. I told my husband to leave and he would not leave me. I told my other brother who had come home six months earlier from New Zealand that I wanted him to go too. And so that was the entire $800. My brother was afraid that the Communists would kill us if we stayed behind and so he at first refused to go. But my mother convinced him to leave, and she said if he stayed behind it would be worse for us. So he joined the others and escaped from Saigon on a civilian boat. The rest of us stayed and awaited whatever fate had in store for us.
“The next morning – April 30th -- the Vietnamese communists entered the city in full force,” she recalled. “News came that their tanks had crashed through the fence into the Independence Palace. We went outside to watch and we saw the tanks and trucks in the streets and we were very scared. We heard South Vietnam’s last president, Duong Van Minh speak on television and say that he had given up and all that. We were so afraid that we could hardly move. This was a living nightmare. Yes, we knew it was coming. But at the same time we managed to deny that it would happen. Then it happened and all so suddenly. We thought Vietnam might be like Cambodia and at least a month of fighting would take place around the outside of the city. We never believed that the North Vietnamese would just come into the city like that and Saigon would be left undefended.
“The next day the new officials were on television and the radio and they said that we had to report back to our jobs. Once we made up our minds that the three of us, my husband, my brother and me, would report to work, we sat down and I told them what my father taught me, that they will ask us about our father, about our brother and about our family, and with communists, we all have to tell the same story. We have to be consistent; we can't lie and get caught. If they know the truth about us, they will kill us or send us into the countryside into a New Economic Zone. We had heard what was happening in Cambodia. We expected nothing less. So we sat down and we made up the whole story as to how we should answer and we copied it out for every member of the family. We stayed up all night and we went over it again and again. We told them that my father had a concubine and he did not live with us. That was not true but that was a good story. We said that he left ages ago and we didn't know where he was living or where he was. We said our other brothers were killed and we did not anything more about them.
“We had to learn all of this by heart, and we tried again and again and asked each other questions. My youngest sister was only 14 and we had to have her learn the answers and the stories well. I knew they would try to manipulate her, and I knew that even if she worked with them they would never ever trust her. I told her about friends in the North who had worked with the Communists and then even years later were trying to escape. So I told her not to believe anything that they said and no matter what they promised. She was to stick to our agreed-upon story no matter what they promised her.
“We reported to work. We were asked about twenty times to write our family and personal histories. They came to work and they came to the house and we had to go to block meetings and all of us had to write out our biographies again and again. These were read and examined for inconsistencies. We were questioned almost daily.
“Do Nguyen, the only Vietnamese on the Esso executive committee and the head of the logistics, marketing and supply department, was in my office waiting to greet me when I returned to work. But he had a new name, now and new attire. He wore the uniform of the North Vietnamese Army and he introduced himself as Comrade Dong Van Chi and boasted he had been a member of the Communist party and an agent of the Revolution for two decades. I also learned that the communists had used one of my supervisors, Nguyen Ngoc Chou, to destroy Esso storage tanks and tankers. He had provided a cousin who was with the communists in the countryside with the exact coordinates of our facilities and our tankers and their scheduled time of arrival and they sent in rockets to destroy them. He was quite proud of his work.”
“These were not the only enemy operatives within Esso,” she discovered. “A dozen of the chemists were communists and now openly revealed their true identities and backgrounds. By the way they spoke, it was clear that they were not saying this merely to ingratiate themselves to the new regime or out of fear for their families in the countryside. They were true believers in communism and they had been for a long time.”
Le Ha constantly feared that her name was on a list left behind by the Americans. Esso had drawn up a list for getting people out of the country – prioritized as A, B. and C. She was told she was priority A. The company sent one of their ships, the Esso Adventure, to Vung Tau on the 29th of April to evacuate their employees. The Esso evacuation list was found in a filing cabinet by the communists. A group of men and women came to Le Ha’s home. They asked her to tell them all she had done at Esso and what her husband had done in the bank. After she provided them with a carefully edited version of her career and that of her husband, she was allowed to stay in Saigon but her husband was sent to a reeducation camp. “They said they wanted to send me to a reeducation, but they assigned me instead to on-the-job reeducation at Esso, which meant that I reported to work where I attended intense political meetings for three days.”
Top officials of the new regime in Ho Chi Minh City concluded that because of her expertise and experience, Le Ha must stay at Esso. The income she was assigned was low – about 2 percent of what she was paid previously. She found that she and her mother and sisters could not live on that income. So they sold everything of value they still possessed – jewelry, watches, dishes, bicycles, ceramics, clothing and the family car. “The communists and people from the North came to Saigon to buy what we had to sell,” she remembered. “It was a wonderful buyer’s market for them.”
In the autumn of 1975, several high-ranking communist cadres came to her home and accused her of having worked for the Americans. She feared they had found Bill Johnson’s files. But they did not mention Johnson. They kept naming Ed Ketchum and other American managers at Esso. “I did not deny that,” she said. “I reminded them that I was scientifically trained and technically trained and I said that if the Americans need me for that sort of work, they paid me for it and they got their money’s worth of my expertise.”
Her co-workers at Esso apparently told representatives of the new regime that Le Ha had been a compassionate and competent boss in the lab. They remembered her talks about honesty and integrity and the responsibility that was on her shoulders in the lab. None of the workers lost their jobs on her watch and they defended her.
The new regime decided to use her for its own purposes. A group of Russian petroleum officials came to Saigon in the late summer. Because she was fluent in Russian, Le Ha was selected to meet with the visitors and to give them a tour of the oil facilities that had previously been the property of Esso. The Russians could not speak Vietnamese and none of the remaining employees in Esso could speak Russian and so she became the principle go-between in discussions about petroleum refining, processing, testing and distribution. “When the Russians came to Saigon,” Le Ha recalled, “the Vietnamese officials were really afraid of them. They treated them like Lords or something. They drove me to the airport in a limousine to meet the ‘comrades’ as they addressed them. When some of my friends saw me being driven around in Saigon with a group of Russians they concluded that I had been a communist all along. They turned their backs on me when they saw I was wearing Western clothing and make up to meet the Russians.” The Russians appreciated her technical expertise and her abilities to speak fluent Russian and to translate for them. They asked if she might accompany them to Moscow to meet with other Russian officials. She demurred and said she was responsible for her mother, brother and sisters in Saigon. In addition to this, of course, she knew she was still not trusted completely by the new government and most likely they would have found some way to prevent her from leaving the country. The regime rewarded her work and doubled her salary at Esso. “My boss,” she said, “told me he had been a colonel in the North Vietnamese Army for thirty years, and yet he made less than I did. He said he just could not understand it.”
She had long decried the corruption of the former regime in South Vietnam and of the Americans. But after April 30, 1975, she found that that the new masters in Saigon were far more corrupt than the previous ones. “I must tell you,” she said, “I was absolutely delighted when I saw how corrupt they were, because I knew I could use their corruption in order to escape from Vietnam. She found a few dishonest and greedy minor government officials and paid them to draw up legal papers for her, signed by witnesses in Hanoi, attesting to the fact that her husband’s father had been a communist hero in the 1940s in the North. She took the papers to the old Independence Palace where the new reeducation board had established its office. She asked to apply for a petition to have her husband released from reeducation because his father had been a communist hero in the North. The officer in charge was incredulous and unwilling to help her. She returned to his office a dozen times, each time she was either ignored or ordered to leave. A small gift to the man’s secretary got her the officer’s home address. She went to his house and spoke with his wife, brought her gifts and, eventually, paid her in gold, and told her that she was heartbroken because her husband was wrongly held in a reeducation camp and his father had been a red hero. The woman accepted her petition and gave it to her husband. Her husband was released from a camp and returned home the day before Christmas, 1975.
She was determined to get out of Vietnam. But she gave birth to her first child, a son, in 1977, and her plans for leaving the country were put on hold. In 1979 she attempted to leave and failed several times. Using a false name and forged papers she paid several different boat owners to take her to Thailand or Malaysia as a boat person. Each time she was betrayed or cheated out of her money.
Finally she paid a communist official with 30 ounces of gold for herself and 5 ounces of gold for her son to secure exit visas to go abroad for a short period of time medical treatment for toxoplasmosis. She paid a physician to draw up the diagnosis and phony test results indicating that she and her son were victims of the disease. She purchased a ticket on Air France to Bangkok. From there she flew to Tel Aviv and then Paris and finally to Berlin. Her husband remained behind. From Germany she contacted her brothers and father in the US and was able to gain sponsorship to join them in 1980.
Le Thi Ngoc Ha and her son became American citizens. She tried to sponsor her husband to join her in the US but he had changed his mind about leaving Vietnam. They divorced. He remarried in Vietnam. She remarried in the US and had a second child, a daughter. She was hired as a chemist by Exxon.
Eventually she was able to contact Pat and Bill Johnson at their home in Boulder, Colorado. Bill had retired from the CIA in 1976 and moved to Boulder, Colorado in 1977. She visited them.
“I do not bear any grudges against the US for leaving Vietnam,” Le Ha told me. “I do, however, feel sad, very sad, about them leaving so many Vietnamese behind to suffer and die in reeducation camps. I see the consequences for the Vietnamese men who fought side by side with the Americans because they believed in a free country for themselves and their own families. Many of those men who survived the war, paid for their idealism with their lives in reeducation camps after 1975.
“I think we Vietnamese became spoiled,” she told me. “We did not appreciate what we had until we lost it all. If you have something that is valuable to you, you have to work hard to keep it, even die for it, rather than take it for granted. I am afraid too many of us took freedom for granted. And we lost it all.”
[Of the three brothers who came to the US in 1975 with Le Ha’s father, one became an attorney in San Jose, California, and another went back to work for Foremost Dairies and then for California Dairies Inc. in Visalia, CA. The third brother immigrated to France and began working with computers. In 1982 Le Ha and her father and brothers sponsored her mother to come to the US. Le Ha’s son, Tony Le, remembered that “it was a joyous occasion.” William E. Johnson passed away on November 13, 2005, at the age of 86. Le Thi Ngoc Ha died January 30, 2010 at the age of 69. Thomas Polgar died on March 22, 2014, at the age of 91.) ]
There is a significant sidebar to this story that is important to take into consideration and that puts the CIA activities, oversights and errors in late April in quite a different light. That story was told to me by Eric Cavaliero, the last CBS News Bureau Chief in Saigon (he was the bureau "night man" before the pull out) who remained behind after all but a few other newsmen had fled from the country, most having been taken out from Tan Son Nhut Airbase or from the roof of the US Embassy. Cavaliero was married to a Vietnamese woman and refused to abandon her or to leave her behind in Saigon. And so he stayed. And he continued to file news stories from Saigon. In the first heady and dramatic days after April 30, 1975, when the North Vietnamese Army seized control of Saigon and the rest of South Vietnam, Cavaliero met an American (Cavaliero was a British citizen) who had been left behind and who was, he remembered, "the most frightened man in Saigon." He was also something of a genuine and uncelebrated hero . His name, Cavaliero told me (I interviewed Eric three times in Hong Kong) was Fred Gulden. Gulden happened to wander into the CBS bureau on April 30th, 1975, where he met Cavaliero. Gulden, an architect, had been working for the American firm of DeLeuw, Cather International in Saigon designing an ammunition dump for the South Vietnamese government. On April 18, 1975, he flew to Bangkok to meet with company officials to persuade them to evacuate all of their employees from Saigon, convinced as he was that Saigon was about to fall to the North Vietnamese. When things did not move swiftly enough he returned to Saigon on April 22 to take charge of evacuating the company's employees. He managed to get almost all of his company's employees out by barge on the Saigon River. But when on April 30, he had completed his task, time had run out for him. He went to the US Embassy on the morning of April 30 to discover that the last US Helicopters had left Saigon and there would be no more. He went into the Embassy grounds and wandered around looking for someone to help him. The buildings were in disarray and hundreds of Vietnamese had broken into the embassy buildings. Gulden wandered into the CIA offices adjacent to the Embassy. As he wandered around looking for help he noticed several of the CIA desks were covered with what seemed to be notes. He paused to read some of the notes and found they had been scribbled by CIA officers who were taking desperate telephone calls from Vietnamese in Saigon who needed help in getting out of the country and who wanted to bed picked up or to know where they should go to be picked up. Gulden told Cavaliero who told me, that each of the several hundred notes included the name, telephone number, address and specifics for the caller, such as "I worked for the Americans in the Phoenix program from this date to this date" and "I am sure the Viet Cong will kill me if I am left behind." The CIA officers who had written down these appeals had departed or fled and left the notes on their desk to be found by the North Vietnamese. Gulden said he recognized these for what they were -- death notices for the callers. The desperate calls from Le Thi Ngoc Ha were likely among those noted on the desks. Rather then climbing the stairs to the top of the embassy, Fred Gulden went methodically from desk to desk in the CIA section of the embassy, gathered up all of the notes left behind by CIA operatives, carried them outside, put them in a burn barrel and destroyed them. In doing that, Cavaliero told me, he believed he had saved the lives of hundreds of South Vietnamese who had worked for the American government or American companies. When he had destroyed the documents, Gulden returned to the roof of the Embassy where scores of people gathered to wait for more American helicopters. A British television correspondent found him on the roof of the Embassy around noon on April 30th along with about 200 Vietnamese. Gulden was detained by the North Vietnamese and was finally released by them on August 2, 1976. He believed he was the last American in Vietnam at that time. Cavaliero told me that Gulden had remained behind for "noble reasons" and had undertaken a heroic task in destroying messages carelessly left by operatives and agents of the American CIA inside the Embassy grounds. Gulden died in Alexandria VA in April 2009, at the age of 86.
October 3 ·