Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Tiger! Tiger! Tiger!

Lt. Col. Gerry Berry
"Tiger, Tiger, Tiger"

Quotation from George Ball to LBJ, 1965.

"In explaining to the President the concern that I felt about a mounting escalation, I said to him, 'You know, once on the tiger's back, we can't pick the time to dismount. You're going to lose control of this situation, and this could be very serious.'"

"Tiger! Tiger! Tiger!"
Coded message from Lt. Col. Gerry Berry notifying the Blue Ridge that he had picked up the last American Ambassador to South Vietnam from the roof of the US Embassy in Saigon.

I went to Vietnam right out of college, right to flight school and then right to Vietnam. It was the kind of thing you were supposed to do as a young man when you were growing up in America. If the government told you to go you went. That was 68-69. I didn't realize until I came back that people here were really down on the war. I think I was a little bitter at that time to think that we went to do what basically our country asked us to do and then basically the people of the country were not happy with us for having done thos every things.
When I read about the Paris Peace Accords I knew that South Vietnam couldn't last too long. The Accords allowed hard core NVA to remain in the South with the Viet Cong and it allowed for Congress to okay a certain amount of money every year for arms and all that stuff for the South Vietnamese. So I think that most of us who talked about it at the time knew that our Congress probably wasn't going to approve those funds for long and that the NVA wouldn't just sit there in place in South Vietnam. And, as you probably know, on the day those peace accords were signed the military actually started planning for the evacuation of Saigon and other areas. So I don't think anybody in the military was very surprised when the collapse came. Nobody with any experience or imagination thought Vietnam was going to last for long after those accords were signed.
I guess in the end I was surprised at the speed with which South Vietnam collapsed. I had worked with the ARVN up in I Corps before and I didn't think they were that bad, really. They seemed to stand and fight pretty well and to give as much as they got. But then in 1975 they a couple of real military blunders. They evacuated the highlands and the let the NVA split the country. I think that's when you realized it was over.
At that time I certainly had strong feelings about Vietnam. I had been there and fought there and I said to myself, "Gee, what was all the blood and turmoil and all this stuff if we have to turn around and do this now. I had a feeling of regret that we had tried so hard and then had to turn and give it up so easily. But I certainly didn't have a solution for it. It seemed that we had promised these people a lot of things and we certainly were not delivering in 1975 as we had promised them in 1973.
On this mission, Frequent Wind, on our HMM-165 CH-46 we had a pilot, co-pilot, crew chief and we had a gunner -- fifty calibre machine gun gunner -- on each window in the back. So we carried a crew of five. I was the pilot.
I had a flight of four CH-46s. Two of them were loaded with Sparrowhawk teams. If anybody went down we would take care of them until we got the crew and them back out.
About noon we had launched and were on our way to the Embassy. And I landed at the Embassy -- I was the first to land there, in fact -- I landed behind the Embassy and loaded up with all kinds of foreign nationals and Vietnamese and I was talking to the guy on guard and I said, "We're supposed to get the Ambassador." And he said, "Well, he's not ready to go yet." So we picked up these people, we launched out and dropped them on the Blue Ridge. And then General Richard Carey came out and I said, "You know, the brief I had was that we were supposed to pick up the Ambassador, bring him out and then we'd continue the rest of it." I said, "The Ambassador's not ready to come." So he said, "Continue your lift from the Embassy."
So now we start this big cycle and its early in the day now and we're talking probably about one 'o clock. So we start this cycle with the forty-sixes to the Embassy. Nobody else was working the Embassy then, just us. We brought the Italian ambassador out. We brought out all kinds of people -- Swedes and Germans and some prostitutes of the Caucasion persuasion.
It was pretty well organized, really. I think we were supposed to bring out from the Embassy somewhere between fifty and one-hundred people. You know we actually ended up bringing out almost 2,000. We thought it was going to be a brief surgical thing at the Embassy. But the Ambassador, I guess, bless his heart, kept letting the Vietnamese inside the compound, so the number did not decrease as the day went on. In fact the number of people there got larger as the day went on.
Remember now that we started with the four aircraft of mine. And we finally convinced them that we could drop the Sparrowhawk teams off -- those Marines in the back of the other two helicopters. Okay, now maybe about three thirty we got four helicopters working the thing, but we're talking to the people when we land on the Blue Ridge, which isn't all the time because we're using all the ships --the Okinawa, the Hancock, the Midway -- all those ships are taking people also. The Okinawa qualifying "Gallant Man" was the control, HDC, Helicopter Direction Control, so you'd call, you'd say, "Hey, I got forty, fifty Vietnamese with maybe a couple of others, whatever, you figured you had, and they'd say, "Put them on the Midway or on the Hancock" or some other ship.
For the first four or five trips in I kept thinking, "I'm going to get the Ambassador and bring him out because that's my job," see. And it never happens. And as it starts to get dark and they diverted some other aircraft over to the Embassy and they are landing CH 53s behind the Embassy. Fifty-threes were landing behind the Embassy and 46s were landing on the top of the Embassy. On the roof of the Embassy there were civilians standing there burning all kinds of trash and it was getting kind of exciting now and there were big crowds, you can see the big crowds around the Embassy. But anyway we went on and on and this thing started dragging and dragging and we've probably got about ten or twelve or fourteen 46s involved on and off the roof continuously or maybe up to 20 because there were thirty some out there. And the 53s were going continuous because there's good lights on the roof. About 10 o'clock that night they shut down the zone behind and stopped taking 53s behind.
Then I think they only had maybe my four airplanes and two more working. We had a very few working for about a two hour period until Carey got them all cranked up again. This thing went on and on -- to me, it's almost ridiculous. I would get excited and then tired and then angry because they can't get themselves organized and get this thing over with. This went on and every time I'd land on the Blue Ridge General Carey would come out to the airplane and say, "Well, where's the Ambassador?" And I'd say, "Well, you know, what am I supposed to do? I'm just flying the helicopter. Surely there must have been some link between the Seventh Fleet and the White House and the Embassy. You know much more than me, I don't have any way of getting him out."
Anway, we landed about three in the morning of the 30th on the Blue Ridge and General Carey came out this time and he said, "I don't care what they say, you bring out the Ambassador the next trip." So I thought, "How am I going to do this? I don't know the Ambassador from Adam and I'm sure he's not going to take orders from me." So I started thinking about how to get him out.
So we land on the roof now, at three thirty or four in the morning, and I get a load of Vietnamese again. And I said, "This is it!" I told my crew chief, "Kick them all off!"
I got the Marine on top of the roof to pick up the little head phones outside the door of the forty six so he can talk to me. And I said, "This helicopter doesn't leave until the Ambassador's on it. The President says."
Twenty-four seconds later the Ambassador was on the airplane. It was so fast it was almost phenomenal. Like he was waiting there for the President to tell him to come out or something, because otherwise he was going to go down with the ship or whatever you do in a situation like that.
Well, let me tell you something, the minute the Ambassador came out Jim Kean took over the place and all the decisions were made by him after that and things went just like clockwork from then on. Kean locked all the doors, closed everything down. And on the next pass we started taking Marines out and I made that pass and one other and that it was it. Then it was all over.
When I got the Ambassador and was taking off, I was supposed to signal the Blue Ridge by saying "Tiger, Tiger, Tiger."
Then a little while after we took off and I'd already made the call "Tiger, Tiger, Tiger," it came to my mind, "Hey, maybe this guy is not the Ambassador. I couldn't really see him when he was on the airplane. And I thought, "Oh my God, what if it isn't him." I didn't know. When he got off, he got out the side door and he walked within two feet of me and I got a good look at him. And I thought, "He is a beat person." Later I learned it really was him.
So when we came off the roof I broadcast "Tiger, Tiger, Tiger." And he said, "Roger, you know you're clear to switch to Gallant Man Control." As soon as I went to Gallant Man Control -- that was the Okinawa -- I broadcast "Tiger, Tiger, Tiger" again and they said, "Roger" and then told me which heading to fly and to prepare to land on the Blue Ridge.
I flew back in during full daylight. You could actually see from out on the northern ring, you could actually see the enemy tanks, the big dust clouds and all that kinds of stuff rolling into the city. And the streets now that had been crowded all night were becoming very deserted. You didn't see many people in the streets. It was like, "Oh boy, here they come. Get a place to hide and a place to go." So I would say in the morning flying the last load out it was a little bit eerie looking down on the city, a little bit eerie because now we knew the gates to the Embassy had all been closed for good.

Lt. Col. James Kean, USMC

Ambassador Graham Martin

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