Wednesday, September 12, 2012
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. ]