CHUCK NEIL, Armed Forces Radio
"I'M DREAMING OF A WHITE CHRISTMAS"
I had been in Vietnam since 1967 working for various companies -- LSI and AB&T and then FEC-ITT. In 1973 I was working for FEC-ITT(Federal Electric Corporation - ITT) and a friend said to me, "Hey, the military are leaving and they're going to have to have civilians take over their radio station." And he said, "Why don't you apply?" I've gone through your records here and I see that you've had radio and tv experience."
And I said, "Yeah, but mostly behind the cameras in TV and in radio, I've done some announcing but It's been years."
He said, "What the hell, give it a whirl." He said , "Call Colonel Hutchison at the radio station." He was the military --manager of American Forces Radio, but most of us still call it Armed Forces Radio.
So I did call the Colonel and he set up an appointment for me. I went in and auditioned and interviewed. They had a master sergeant who was one of their program directors. Hell of a nice guy. He got in the engineers booth and I got in the announcer's booth opposite him. He gave me the material to read which consisted of on one page, a lot of words, names, place names, including President Nguyen Van Thieu's name and he had Cairo, Egypt and Cairo, Illinois. They wanted to see if you knew they were pronounced differently or if you knew how to pronounce Illinois and not say "Illinoiz". Then they had a script to read, some type of PSA( public service announcement). And they had me rip and read some news. They had three teletypes there at that time. AP, UP, and AFRTS Washington.
So I ripped some news and read that cold.
Well anyway I forgot about it really, for about ten days.
Then I got a phone call saying, "You got the job." So when I went to the station I met E. M. Turvett who had also been with FEC and I recognized him. I was acquainted with him. And they had a young fellow who had been an Army Lieutenant there, by the name of Mike Monderer. And he was the other announcer who had won the job. A real sharp kid, young guy. And he had been in G2, I believe with the Army. And he'd had some radio at the University of Colorado, Colorado Springs, and he was on the radio station there part time. I guess he majored in communications or something. He was the other announcer. Then we had a chief engineer. There were four Americans. And as an alternate engineer we had a fellow by the name of Ed Powers, so if our engineer wasn't available for the transmitter and all, Ed would come in and troubleshoot.
So there we were four Americans. Of course the military was still there when we first came in and they sort of segued us into the job gradually over the period of a couple of weeks. And when the military left in March they kept one American GI there that had been at the radio station for several years. They kept him to help in the transition. But he was supposed to be invisible, because all the American GIs were supposed to have been gone. But he was still there along with several others a month or so after the official exit. They were sort of shadowy figures. Some wore uniforms because they could claim they were attached to DAO, which actually they weren't.
So there we were, four Americans, taking over American radio. In fact we changed the name. Ian and I got together and said what can we call it? We can't call it American Forces Radio, or Armed Forces Radio any more, so we came up simply enough with American Radio Service Vietnam.
We had a regular format -- news, music, sports, twenty-four hour day, one hundred thousand watts, FM radio.
My job title was "News Announcer". But when we got there it was expedient that I do everything. And the first few weeks we were on the air I did quite a lot of live broadcasting. News, et cetera. And I had a couple of live DJ shows I'd throw in there. Although we had Vietnamese personnel that were fluent in English that had been with Armed Forces Radio, we retained them.
Several things were taped for us. We call them "actualities", tape with a congressman or senator making a statement. If we have it on tape we say that's an actuality and punch that up on the radio. But we got those primarily from the feed that we had, the twenty-four hour a day feed, a satellite shot to the Philippines, and cable over to Vietnam. We were getting short wave and feed from Washington, D.C., so we'd just take those and we had a bank of tape recorders and we'd just take that right off the feed.
Every day we were totally immersed in our own routines and it was just like home then. We were working and going to the radio station. We were all either renting a villa or lived in apartment houses leased by the U.S. Government, and the latter is what I did when I was with the government the last two years. I lived just two doors from Marshall Hall where the Marines Barracks were located on Hong Thap Tu Street.
The station was Number Nine Hong Thap Tu. Right in town, only about six blocks from the embassy. It was a separate entity, a compound, I'd say about half an acre, quarter of an acre.
Well about '74 we started to feel that Congress was going to take a hand's off approach to Vietnam which they subsequently did. I wasn't aware how serious that was until just a couple of months before the fall. I kept hoping, most of us did that were there, that Congress would allocate some money to the Vietnamese to subsidize them and keep them going. And they didn't. That's what caused the fall.
It was just the last couple of months when we knew the shit hit the fan. We knew that Vietnam was going to fall, but we didn't know it was going to be that quick. We thought I Corps would go and then maybe deep south and the Delta, but we thought that perhaps a perimeter there of a hundred miles or so around Saigon would hold out for some time. Indefinitely, we thought, but that didn't prove to be the case.
We were privy to a lot of news from DAO, and when we heard they were abandoning the Central Highlands, that happened, Jesus Christ, we were flabbergasted. We thought, uh oh,that's the beginning of the end. And I tried to look at it -- I said, "Well now maybe they have reasons for that"--wishful thinking. I said, "Perhaps they're going to regroup a little further south and make a stand there" and -- whoops, well, it just didn't happen. We realized after that that it was just a question of time.
I didn't come up with that idea for the radio notice of the final evacuation. The public affairs officer at the DAO, Ann Bottorf -- the late Ann Bottorf, the lady who was on the orphan airlift C5A and when the door opened the suction took her right out -- she thought of it.
I don't remember exactly how we got started on this thing of the early warning, but we knew somehow that we were going to have to notify Americans there. A lot of Americans there were not connected with the government. They were working for private U.S. government-invited contractors and they might not have any means of knowing, "Hey, it's time, get your butt out of here." So we thought -- just about a hundred percent of the Americans there listen to American radio because it's the only radio station around. There were a couple of Vietnamese stations, but it was all Vietnamese or Chinese music mostly. As a matter of fact, a lot of Vietnamese listened to American radio because we had great music on the station. Thousands of them listened to our radio station. I could walk down the street in Saigon and some Vietnamese villa or apartment house and hear my radio station, hear my voice come on.
I guess it was Ann and some of the security people got together and said we'd have to have an early warning. So Turvett and I were called up to the embassy to the security office and we sat there with the head of embassy security and a couple of his associates and we tried to figure out what we could do on the radio to alert people to move out. When they hear this particular reporting, they know it's time to go to their evacuation point immediately, or staging area for immediate evacuation.
So I said why not play a recording of something that every American will recognize in a split second. Plus the incongruity of the thing being played in the middle of summer would alert them to the fact that they have to take a hike. So why not play, "I'm Dreaming of a White Christmas"? And so of course I was thinking about Bing Crosby's rendition, the biggest seller, but of all the thousands of records and tapes we had at the radio station, I couldn't find Bing Crosby's recording so I got Tennessee Ernie Ford's. It didn't matter who I had, but I noticed Frank Snepp said in his book, and several other people, that it was Bing Crosby. It doesn't make that much difference.
Then I announced, after the song, "The temperature in Saigon is 105 degrees and rising." That was the signal, then, that the evacuation was on. We recorded that and put it on a tape cartridge.
That was the plan, but gee by the time it all came down every Vietnamese in town must have known what was happening. A lot of the younger Vietnamese there spoke some English and just about all the Vietnamese, naturally, that worked in DAO radio station were fluent in English. But the announcement wasn't for the benefit of the Vietnamese. This was for Americans.
It's difficult to describe those last few days, believe me. It was a carnival. Nobody knew what was going on. People were leaving daily, busloads of Americans were going out to Tan Son Nhut. You'd see guys with Vietnamese families, guys who had gone Asiatic completely and married over there and had three or four kids. You'd see them in these buses, U.S. sponsored buses going out to Tan Son Nhut with bag and baggage.
The night of the 28th of April, even the 27th was bad news. A lot of heavy concussions and explosions. By this time, by the 28th, we had not only some of our radio station personnel, most of the young ladies and their families we had already gotten out, they had gone three or four days prior from Tan Son Nhut. But we had some of our loyal personnel who had elected to stay and help us through the final days. About four or five Vietnamese, maybe half a dozen. So they got their families to come down to the radio station for the last two days because we all knew that there was going to be an order to evacuate but we didn't know exactly when. They were so afraid of getting left behind that they came three or four days before the final notification. They were sleeping and living right there at the radio station.
These Vietnamese families are not small. They bring the mother, the grandma, the aunties and uncles. Those six people were responsible for maybe a hundred of their relatives plus some of their friends, plus some people just somehow got through the gate.
We must have had two hundred people in there. The toilet facilities were only built for a couple of dozen. They were overflowing and inoperable. And the place started to stink and it was just awful, but there wasn't anything we could do about it. You couldn't say, "Clear out."
So on April 29th, it was about 11:30 or 11:40 in the morning I got the call from DAO, some Colonel. I answered the phone and said, "This is Chuck." And he said, "Chuck, how many Americans do you have there right now?" And I said, "Four." And he said, "Well, you're ordered as of right now to evacuate immediately and proceed to the U.S. embassy for evacuation flight." And I said, "Jesus." I knew they were at Newport, the North Vietnamese, which is a couple of miles down the road. Okay this is it then.
So I hung up the phone and went in to Turvett, and said, "Hey Ian, this is it. Evacuate now." So we had a little plan with our Vietnamese employees, some of the technicians and engineers, that we were going to take them first because they had elected to stay and we had assured them that we would get them out. So we wanted to live up to that. So Ian went out back. We didn't want to panic the Vietnamese that were there, but we had no means of getting them to the embassy, two hundred people. We had a van and two pickup trucks there. So we took the van around to the side and alerted our Vietnamese engineers. We said, just don't say anything to anybody. Just walk out this side door into the van. Which they did. And I told the Americans, some merchant mariner happened to be there, I don't know how, and he was scared shitless. He didn't know what to do, he didn't have any place to go, so we took him into the station. And an old Vietnamese-American expatriot by the name of Smitty. Turvett the station manager, me, and a friend of mine by the name of Van Buskirk that happened to be there. We got them in the van, and then I went back inside.
We had a big Gates Automatic Programmer. We programmed most of our day from that machine. And I went back in there and took the cart, "105 degrees and rising" and also the "I'm Dreaming of a White Christmas", and popped it in the slot and punched it up. And that was my final act at the radio station. And then we didn't just rush out though, because I said, "Hey, maybe we should take a goddamn weapon. At least take the shotgun." The day before that or a couple days before I had a flak jacket on, a Winchester model 12 twelve gauge shotgun, when all the explosions were going on. I thought we were going to be invaded. They were still right there. I thought about taking them. But I realized that might be fruitless. What am I going to do standing here with a shotgun against the whole North Vietnamese army?
I took the flak jacket off, but we kept the shotgun, thank God. We had to run the gauntlet to get to the embassy. By this time the ARVN were getting rather surly, jealous and mad that we were taking off. We were de-de-bopping on out and leaving them there. De De Mau is how they say it in Vietnam. Means take a quick split.
So we kept the shotgun and I had my .38 colt cobra. Ian Turvett had his Walther 380 automatic and one of the other guys had a colt 45 automatic. So we were armed to the teeth. We got into that van. By this time there were hundreds of people outside this radio station. The only thing that kept them back was a big chain link fence. And we still had a couple of guards there from the PA&E Security, Pacific Architects and Engineers. But we had some Vietnamese guards who were still on the job. I have to hand it to them in that respect. People were trying to climb the fence. Some were succeeding.
But we got out. We had to honk the horn and people had to part for us to get out. They couldn't see in the back were our Vietnamese engineers and a couple of Americans. And I'm sitting with my revolver tucked in my waistband. The reason for this, we weren't afraid of the North Vietnamese, it was the ARVN. Sometimes they would stop you, at this point in the last couple of days, they would stop Americans from getting through checkpoints, and wouldn't let them through, just being contrary. So we started down the street. It was only about six blocks to get there, but right at the intersection there was a checkpoint and they wanted to see -- they didn't want to see any Vietnamese being taken out. So we got there to the checkpoint and these guys had M16s, locked and loaded. And I don't know if you've heard, but these ARVNs were quick to pull the trigger. Just shooting in the air even. And they looked mean.
Turvett was driving. I was sitting in the passenger side on his right. So we stopped and said a few words and I reached in the glove compartment and I had a carton of Salems and I just threw the carton of Salems and the guy said "Thank you", and waved us on.
Then coming up the street slowly we could see thousands of people surrounding the U.S. Embassy, out in the street. And we thought "Jesus Christ, how are we going to get through this?" Well we did. We made a left up a side street right by the national police headquarters and then the next gate down was the U.S. Embassy. They had the side entrance and that's where we got it. It was bristling with embassy security personnel with machine guns, shotguns, you name it.
We got inside that damn embassy. I think we were one of the last vehicles to be allowed inside. One of the last. We had a short wave radio and a big antenna for emergency purposes, and so at first the guards weren't going to let us in, they said just leave the van, and come on in. There were vehicles abandoned all over the place. And we said, "No, we got an emergency radio in here." So he said, "Okay, see if you can squeeze it in." So we drove it in. There was a lot of vehicles in there already, but they had to leave the courtyard open for the choppers to get in. When we got there they were in the process of chopping down two trees that happened to be in the middle of the courtyard. So we parked and this guy got out with the shotgun, and I said, "Geez, disarm this shotgun." And I took and jacked all the shells out of it. He was waving it around and I thought the damn thing was going to go off and he'd blow somebody's head off. He was so excited, this merchant marine. You weren't supposed to take any weapons with you. Some guys did. They declared them. One Air America guy said, "Hey, this 45 automatic has been with me over here for six years every day and I'm not about to give it up. But my little 38 Cobra I took over to one of the marine guards whom I knew, and I said, "Hey, here's a present for you." And he said, "Jesus Christ, thanks."
The marines there, and the embassy guards had set up several thirty caliber machine guns. They had one at the Combined Recreation Association compound, where the swimming pool was and a restaurant and two bars, a little commissary where they had liquor, and groceries, and dressing rooms. They had some security guys in there -- they had this 30 caliber machine gun set up pointing toward this gate that fronted on Hong Thap Tu Street. And about a week before the final day they had put extra metal sheet steel and welded that to the regular gate which had just bars. They made those solid with sheet steel welded up there and put some reinforcing bars in back of it. And believe me it was straining even then with the thousands of people leaning up against it. But they had this machine gun trained on that gate. And some of the guys had rolled empty hundred gallon oil barrels up to the gate and the wall and were looking out over and were helping pull up some of their buddies, Americans. They'd grab their hands and pull them up. And a lot of Vietnamese would stretch their hands to be pulled up too. You couldn't do it. My God, the compound was already loaded. We must have had three thousand evacuees, not only Vietnamese but a lot TCNs from Phillippines and Korea. And, of course, Americans. When we got there about quarter after twelve that afternoon, and already that place was jam packed.
They had all of the evacuees and the refugees back in the CRA compound area around the swimming pool. And they were well behaved, but it was crowded. At the swimming pool a couple of security guys were there. They had collected weapons, hand guns. They were taking the automatics and popping the clips and drop them into the pool, and the revolvers they would turn over and empty right into the swimming pool. But the guns they were throwing into these boxes and they had four or five boxes jammed with all kinds of weapons.
About this time the CRA restaurant, everybody was going inside and just taking over. There was no personnel there to speak of. The manager of the place was still there, but he just opened the refrigerators and some of the people were frying up steaks on the grill and the liquor locker was open and hundreds of bottles were consumed until finally there was nothing left. About three or four that afternoon the Vietnamese outside shut off the water to the compound so we had no water. And everybody was getting thirsty, but I found a bottle of Vichy water, or something, with a cork, and I can remember I was walking with it and one little Vietnamese girl, about fourteen, asked me for a drink. And I gave her that to drink and she handed it to one of her little brothers or sisters and they had a drink and then her mamasan had a drink and then they passed it around and by the time it got back to me it was empty. Geez I was thirsty. Didn't get a drink until the marines finally got there.
The first chopper came in about four o'clock, I guess. Right in the parking lot.
The Americans had number one priority, but they were lined up around the pool in long lines, just sitting around by this time, and there must have been -- what we were looking at were just about the last Americans in country with the exception of a few scattered. And I can't recall how many were there, not that many, maybe a couple hundred Americans, and the rest of the crowd was all Vietnamese and third country nationals. Jeez, I can see it now. And it was hotter than hell, naturally.
When the first marines landed and they came into the compound, I hit up one marine who had his canteen and said, how about a drink? He gave me his canteen and damn that water was good.
The explosions started a little later just before dark, and some of the marines were yelling -- the first time I heard a marine yelling, "Oh, shit, incoming." And by this time I was inside -- I could get inside the embassy compound because I had a pass. So I could get into the embassy compound itself. It had a gate from the CRA compound to the embassy compound and a fence separating them.
I saw Martin there, the Ambassador, in the halls. I just saw him walking from one office of one of his underlings. And as you can imagine he looked rather hairy. For some reason I had to go up to communications in the embassy itself on the third or fourth floor. Of course things were in disarray as you can imagine. A lot of the embassy personnel had already gotten out, not all but a lot, and they had abandoned their weapons. There were beautiful handguns lying around all over the place, just left there. Probably the marines gathered them up before they left.
They were trying to take people in rotation from the line that formed outside in the compound. But I really wasn't in that line. I was back and forth between the compound and the embassy, and I just stuck around to make sure that our Vietnamese engineers got out. We had higher priority than they did, but I wanted to make sure that they got out and they weren't taking any Vietnamese at first except a select few.
We got on the telephone and called the radio station and told them to use the vehicles and to shuttle from there to Newport. And they did. I understand they had a hell of a time but they made it. But we had tried to get out, Ian and I, to take the van and go back and see if we couldn't shuttle some back and forth, but there was no way. They wouldn't let us out. I don't think we would have been able to make it in the van anyway, because there were too many people out there on the street.
It got dark and then either artillery or rockets, but heavy explosions started. I don't think they tried to zero in or they would have, on the embassy itself. I think they were cooperating and letting us get out. But occasionally some rounds would come in, small arms fire. And I think that was dissident ARVN, I have no way of knowing. There was one explosion just outside the wall. At first I thought, "They're trying to zero in on us." But to my knowledge they didn't, even after I left.
I didn't get out until about one o'clock. I was one of the last few Americans to be evacuated.
We walked up those damn stairs up to the roof and I could look down from that roof and see that CRA compound just filled with Vietnamese and TCN.
Then I I got up on the roof and the chopper was waiting. We had about four of our Vietnamese engineers with us on the same chopper.
I knew that our exodus then was permanent, at least for the foreseeable future. I was disgusted with the whole thing, to be honest with you. I felt like we abandoned a lot of people.
After all I'd been there so many years it was getting to be like home to me. And I thought about some of the young people I knew, some of the young girls that worked, the bar girls, the hostesses. Some of them were nice kids really, I'm not talking about whores. And some of the other Vietnamese, Mai Ly, there was a gal I knew that had been married to a friend of mine and I just wondered to myself what the hell is going to happen to these people? Are they going to survive or what? I almost at one point decided, thought, "Well I'll leave the embassy and just stick around."
We got off okay, but some of the choppers, a couple from the courtyard, just barely made it over the wall. They were laden heavily. They threw baggage off and a couple guys would jump off and finally they got up and it was laboring, and finally it started to go and just cleared the wall by a foot and then it slowly gained altitude and then it was okay.
Our chopper didn't seem to have much trouble getting off the roof. The choppers were landing on the roof and in the courtyard both. Mine happened to be on the roof. We had about forty three or four on our chopper. As we flew out you could see they were burning some oil and gas dumps. Long Binh was ablaze. Fires all over the place. You could see them.
By this time some of the people were anxious to get on and get the hell out and get it over with. We got up to altitude and we only had to fly about a hundred miles, or a hundred and ten miles out to the ship. Forty or fifty miles to Vung Tau and then about sixty miles east of that where the Hancock was lying off. And so I think it only took us about maybe an hour and a half.
As we went out, I could look down and see lights in Vung Tau. I could see the ocean, the white surf. And I thought, "Jesus Christ." I wasn't ready to leave yet, you know." I felt like we were letting a lot of people down.
At the moment you are confused about the whole situation. I had mixed emotions about it, but I was glad to get out with my butt intact, and yet again I was sorry to leave so hurriedly. All of a sudden you were there and then all of a sudden the place that had been my home for years was gone.
The following day, about eleven in the morning, I heard my voice come on the radio say, "It's twelve o'clock midnight in Saigon on American radio." " Jesus," we thought. We had a powerhouse there for our own diesel power, diesel generators. And the generators must have still been operating because we were still broadcasting. And I thought to myself, "Gee whiz, it's funny they haven't gone to the radio station and shut everything down or blown it up." Well they didn't want to blow it up, they wanted to keep the equipment.
When we first touched down the Navy guys took us over to the bridge side of the ship and they said -- I was there with these Vietnamese engineers that went with me, and they said, "Okay, drop your trousers." I said, "Hey, no way." But the Vietnamese did and they gave them a finger wave. They were checking for weapons. I thought what kind of weapon would a guy stick up his rectum, not a knife. And I said to Ian, "Geez, these Vietnamese must think it's some strange occidental custom."
That was their entree to the U.S. Navy.
The Vietnamese helicopters came out the next morning. About a half a dozen marines would come out with their M16s and kneel down and point them at the chopper, and then one marine unarmed would walk up and pull the thirty caliber machine gun from the cradle and dump that over the side. Then he'd have the guys spraddled up against the chopper and search them for weapons. The Vietnamese pilots. If they had any, they'd pull it out and throw it overboard. They'd take the Hondas out and push those overboard, and you could see the Vietnamese guys just looking on aghast at that. Because here instead of taking people they had filled up the empty space with Hondas, but they threw those right overboard. And rightfully so. Then as I say, they towed the chopper to the stern and pushed it overboard.
So a lot of the Vietnamese officers in Vietnam were a conceited lot and could even be a little surly, but their attitude changed real fast after they got on the Hancock. And they herded them down below, just like anybody else. Most of them took off their insignia.
I think about Vietnam quite often, still today. I think about it often. It feels like unfinished business somehow.