Monday, December 17, 2012
Clinton Harriman's Vietnam
"WELL, DARLING, AT LEAST WE'LL ALL DIE TOGETHER"
I started working for the Military Sealift Command in 1967. I had been in the industry for years, with private companies that went under, so I was working as a harbor pilot down in the Virgin Islands and I just wanted to get out to Vietnam. I had been down to the Far East several times, but never Vietnam. It was right about the time of the big Tet offensive. As a matter of fact when I got there it was just going good.
So I got to Vietnam the first time in 1968. I was the First Officer on the Robinson. I later became captain of her.
We took mostly ammunition between the United States and
Vietnam. I made several trips down there.
And I got married in Vietnam. My wife's name is Tran Thi Tat. The wedding was one of those presided over by a village chief and they put it in the family book. It doesn't really mean shit later on. It's legal over there. But we had to get remarried when we got back to the U.S. My daughter, Thu Hong, which means "Morning Rose," was born December 10, 1970. Our boy's name is Minh, and his father was Tat's first husband. Our youngest boy, who was born in the U.S. is named Chin Si which means "War Hero".
I was in the U.S. when things started coming apart in the spring of 1975 and I tried to get back out there because my wife and the boy and the girl. And I couldn't get back out. I was stuck in New York. I knew the whole goddamn thing was going to be ringing down pretty fast. So I got a hold of the port captain and practically begged him to get out there on the USNS Greenville Victory because it was the only ship that we had going that I could have gotten on.
But then in March as I was leaving my house, I slipped on a piece of ice and broke my leg. But I went anyway. I could still walk, but it was real painful.
Then the thing started swelling up so bad that I had to go see a Navy doctor. So he said, "You're not fit for duty." I said, "Bullshit, I got to make this trip." And he said, "Well, I can't let you go." I said, "I got to go." I told him the reason why. So he said, "Well, Jesus Christ, you going to be okay?" I said, "Well, yeah, I'm the medical officer on the ship, for Christ sake." So he let me go.
When I got to the ship, I got on Captain Iacobacci's back and he carried me up the gangway onto the Greenville Victory. I couldn't do a goddamn thing for a week, though.
We had a full load of ammuniton and we took it up to Cat Lai. We then went to Danang and Cam Ranh Bay, finished discharging at Cam Ranh, then we went to Thailand and sat there. Jesus Christ, around eleven o'clock one night the captain was on board practically by himself because that's a hell of a liberty town, and the next thing you know he's tearing all over town in a cab trying to find guys because we got the word we're going up to Vietnam to start the evacuation.
I had an apartment in Saigon and a house in the country in the outskirts of Tay Ninh which is way up the line a ways. My wife is a country girl. And she always stayed in the country when I was out at sea.
Things were starting to go nip and tuck and we were down in Vung Tau at anchor and I said to Ray, "This is my only frigging chance to get them out." So he said, "Okay, Harry, you go ahead."
The excuse was going to be for me to get this cast taken off. I'm on my feet fourteen, sixteen hours a day, the cast was getting mushy and the leg was swelling and this and that.
I went down to the Seventh Day Adventist hospital, I had to get the cast taken off. My wife was with me and they took off this goddamn cast. The guy said, "I'm not going to let you out of this hospital unless you an walk across this room. I said," Jesus Christ, I don't think I can make it." But I did anyway.
So now Captain Iacabocci and the ship left to go up north to do this other operation and I'm down in Saigon. And the whole shit is now coming down. We had a little, nice apartment on the other side of the river, one of the small branches of the Saigon river, and my wife was sort of lah-de-dah. And she was saying, "Well, it's going to be okay" and so on. Well I knew it was not going to be okay. So I went to a friend, a Colonel Vong, a hell of a guy, and he offered to put us up at Newport. He was commander of the base there. He had a big beautiful home. And we did stay there overnight one night, but then all his relatives started arriving, his ancient mother, and all his sisters, aunts, and so on. It's amazing, Vietnamese people, it doesn't make any difference whether they're from the aristocracy or the peasantry, they think nothing of fifteen people sleeping in the same room. But I said to myself, "My God, I'm sort of an appendage here and he's being extremely kind." I said to myself, " I'm going to go down in the town and stay in a hotel." We went down to the Majestic and get this great big suite and this leg of mine now looks like an umbrella stand. I'm waiting for the ship to come back, and saying to myself, "God damn, I'm going to be cut off here." These people coming down from the north were traveling so fast they couldn't keep up with their own gasoline, you know. My wife is kind of a country girl, and of course her mother had been through the Japanese and the French and this and that and the other shit, and she always thought this was just an offshoot from a little war that's going on, you know. But I knew it was going to be the goddamn end. And the end of life as they knew it over there, as a matter of fact. So I I had a friend who was a Brit, and he headed up some little steamship company, and he arranged for this car, it was about a 1939 or 40 Renault. A great looking car with a very old driver.
We drove to meet the Greenville Victory when it came back down to Vung Tau. On the way out the roads are getting more an more clogged as we went. And the last five or six miles we were maybe doing fifteen miles an hour in this Renault. We get up there finally to this gate and there are abandoned pigs, and baskets, Lambrettas laying on their sides, and I could see the ship down there in the harbor. Then this little goddamn pimply-faced soldier, when we got to this barricade, stuck his rifle in the bloody window next to the driver. My wife, and child, and myself are sitting in the back. And he said, "Get out and walk." Well, Jesus Christ, I couldn't. So I said to my wife, taking a chance he didn't speak English, and I could tell he was a country boy anyway, I said, "Tell the driver to turn this goddamn car around, we're going back to Saigon." And the Vietnamese speak softer than the Irish, and she leaned over and spoke so softly that I couldn't hear. This old man who was extremely nervous the entire situation, wheeled this car around and u-turns and just missed a truck by an extra coat of paint, and zip, down the road we went.
We made this u-turn now going back towards Saigon and there was nothing on the road. It was a beautiful road built by the Americans during the time they were there. It was like a four lane highway with a divider and traffic going south one way and north the other way. And you see all these people all clogged on bicycles and motor scooters and lambrettas, and little cars, and trucks, all fender to fender going the other way and we're wheeling down this gosh-darn road, no problem. We get about, I would say, twenty miles down that road, and I could see some guys putting up a barricade on the road, of 55 gallon drums. And it was at that point that I said to myself, "Here we are."
So, we saw them for quite a long stretch and the old man starts slowing down. I had, in the car on the floor, a box of hand grenades, a 45 automatic, and a 38 special, which I still have. And I had four or five boxes of 45 ammunition, plus two or three boxes of 38 special ammunition. So I said to my wife, "You tell this old guy" -- and I don't like fast driving, believe me. I don't like fast driving at all, but that day you couldn't get the car to go fast enough to suit me -- "You tell this old guy to step on his goddamn accelerator, because we're going to get past these frigging barrels. I'm not going to be stuck out here on this goddamn place."
He said to her, "Well, look, they're setting up a barricade, what can I do?" She told me, and I said, "Tell him if he doesn't go through it I'll put a goddamn bullet in his head." And at that point he put it to the floor. And we went tearing down that road. And these guys were off the road, down off the slope of the road getting rocks to fill the barrels up with, and if you hit one of them, you're dead in the water. Well, he went tooling through there like Grant took Richmond and he just hit one of those barrels a tiny bit and the thing went flying off in the air. By this time they had scrambled up on the edge and they each took two or three shots at the car. We were going around a bend at the time and I suppose getting their sights adjusted or maybe they weren't good marksmen, but we weren't hit.
So then the driver said, "Look, I'm going to tell you something right now, it looks like they're cutting off the road. When I was a young man I used to work in a rubber plantation that's not to far from here and there's an old country road that if we start slowing down now we can make a left-hand turn and take it."
So you say to yourself, "Am I being led into a goddamn trap or what?" But these guys were not fucking around up there on the main road, so I told him to do it. He darts off this road and we went down this little bumpy road and came out on a little tar road, which was built back probably in the 20s, a regular tar road with a real high crown. So we get right on the top of this crown and traveled it.
He went putzing down this road. But we could look up out of the right hand side windows and see the main highway, and you could look up through the trees and we did see two helicopters land there and they were not friendly.
Now I don't give a shit what some historian of this war will tell you, but I was there in that car and I know what I saw. I saw uniformed North Vietnamese soldiers with AK-47s getting out of helicopters.
I said to my wife, "We could all get it right here on this road any minute." And I was saying to myself, "Screw it, if we do I'm going to take a couple of them with me, I think." And she had the goddamn courage to say, "Well, darling, at least we'll all die together." And that gave me great courage. I don't even know if she knew what she was saying, but it came out pretty good.
So we went buzzing down the road, sort of following the river, and then we darted off into the jungle for a while. The next thing you know -- after about 80 miles we came -- we came out to this gate with a sentry box and with a real nasty little bastard of a soldier there. And in many many cases they didn't like to see a Vietnamese female with a white guy. We had papers with her picture and my picture and all that, intent to wed. Colonel Vong's signature was on her pass, plus the fact that we had a state pass, and Colonel Vong's signature brought this guy to attention, I'll tell you. So we went in through the gate, and I still didn't know where I was.
Well, we were back at the encampment and it was entirely deserted. And I saw the Seamen's Club, which was a huge beautiful place. At this point my leg was so frigging sore I thought it was going to fall off. And my wife said, "The old man would like to have some cold soda." So I said, "Jesus Christ woman, get him one."
She started to go in and got to the second swinging glass door and she looked in and came back out and said, "I'm afraid to go in there." I said, "Why?" She said, "Nobody there." So I grabbed a pistol and hobbled in. Walked in, and this place was a big place, and I'm thinking you could have heard a pin drop in there. Now the guy who used to run this place was as tight as the bark on a tree. I said, "I'm going to get one free drink out of this place one way or another." So the bar was way down the other end and I walked down there, and Jesus Christ, there was money in the cash register and everything. And not a bloody soul, not a waitress, not a waiter, not a cook, nothing. It was like everybody had just evaporated.
So I went behind the bar and poured myself a nice great big vodka and then I threw that down. Of course your adrenalin is running so high at a point like that, throwing down a vodka doesn't do anything, it burns that up. Then I poured myself another one and I got this old man a Seven Up, came hobbling back out of there, and gave it to him. He was an old, old, guy, and he took a few sips out of that Seven Up. And my wife says, "Give him some money." Well I had about six hundred bucks in my pocket, but it's going through my mind how I'm going to get out through Thailand with a woman and a little girl with only six hundred bucks?
So I said, "Do you think twenty would be enough?" And she said, "Twenty is fine." So I laid twenty on the old man and he gets back in the Renault and turned on the key and that was it. That frigging engine just froze up. Hundred and sixty miles at that speed and probably ran out of oil about a hundred miles back, and nothing. It went "click" and that was it.
The last time I saw that old man he was walking out through the main gates sipping on his Seven Up. I don't know what happened to him.
But I still had $580 and two pistols -- one pistol, one revolver -- that's always very comforting.
This point was kind of like the lull before the storm. I telephoned Bill Ryder who was right there on the base. As a matter of fact it was only about a hundred yards down to Ryder's and I said to my wife, "Let's walk down there."
The MSC offices were full of these absolutely delicious young Vietnamese girls who worked for them. And they didn't want to stay, because anybody who worked for the Americans, they were going to get fucked without getting kissed. Believe me it was a choppy time in there.
Ryder who was a Kings Point guy, hell of a wonderful guy, put me on the Pioneer Contender. There was some captain on there from Staten Island, Captain Flink. Ryder was up to his ass in alligators in this office, radio messages coming and going and all these little girls biting their fingernails and whatnot, and all in their best ao dais.
So this big car, Buick or something like that, with a woman driver, took us down to the goddamn U.S. Lines ship, Pioneer Contender. About two or three booms were swung out and most of Colonel Vong's stuff was in boxes on the pier. He never did get them. So I went aboard the longest goddamn gangway in the world, I thought, with this frigging leg which is now the size of a sewer pipe. And got up there and my wife always had our girl dressed in American clothes, I used to bring clothes over from the states. This one day, my God, she was wearing a pair of Chinese pajamas. She looked white, but of all the frigging things to dress her in that day, that was the wrong thing.
Well, anyway, I went aboard, and this guy Flink, he's sitting behind his goddamn desk there and regular U.S. Lines desk, and I said, "Bill Ryder sent me down here, for you to take me down the river with my daughter." My wife is on the pier. Now she's got to find the boy. I told her to wait with the driver until I gave her a wave. I was afraid of having no car, because just getting to the goddamn Captain's room, believe me, was like climbing the Matterhorn, the condition my leg was in.
Well, you know, here we are, two goddamn Americans, Saigon's about ready to fall, and this pompous ass sitting behind this desk says, "Well, I'll have to wait, I can't take you as a passenger." I said, "For Christ's sake you're not going to leave us here on the goddamn pier are you?" And he said, "Well, hey look, we have rules here in this company."
You know, when they went into Chapter Seven here not long ago, I said it's on account of pricks like you they went into Chapter Seven. I couldn't believe this guys attitude.
I went out on his deck and I yelled down to the driver, "Can you get Ryder down here?" And she said, "No, no, no, too busy." I said, "Wait for me."
Now I got to go back up to the office. I get down there and they heard some shots going off, and the driver, she takes off with my wife.
I didn't walk up there. There happened to be a soldier, a Vietnamese soldier, with a motor bike, so my daughter got in back of him with her legs wrapped around his waist and her arms around his waist, and I rode side-saddle. And we went up to Bill's office. I go back up to the goddamn office, Ryder's still there with the girls chewing their fingernails, and I said, "This fucking asshole won't take me down the river."
Bill said, "What the hell are you doing here?" I said, "This frigging guy doesn't want to take me down the river." He says, "God damn his ass." So he breaks out of there, we get another car, go back down to the ship, back up the gangway to the captain's quarters, and Bill says, "Look, you're to take him down the river with his child." And Flink said, "Well, you know," -- MSC was keeping U.S. Lines alive -- Bill Ryder says, "I'm going to tell you something right now. If you don't want to do it, you're off hire." Off hire means you don't get any money for this ship at about 27 thousand dollars a day. Well this caught this guys attention, because his days as a sailing captain are going to be all over. He says, "Well in that case . . . " and they swung the goddamn booms in and they got some kind of orders within a matter of half an hour or so, and down the river we went to Vung Tau.
Now this guy Flink is pissing his pants. They must have been doing six, seven knots. Captain Iacobacci sent a lifeboat out to pick me up, and had that god damn thing wide open and they can move right along with their engines, and they were just barely keeping abreast of this bastard. Three quarters of the way down the gangway this black ex-marine in the lifeboat, James McGee, Jr. -- he joined the Marine Corps and never got out of Camp Lejeune, the reason being he was such a goddamn athlete they didn't want to let him go, boxing and so on --so McGee says, "Don't worry about it, Mr. Harriman, just throw her to me, I'll catch her." And I took that little four-year-old girl and threw her down there like a bag of grain, a good long drop too, like fifteen, eighteen feet. And he caught her just like a basketball. He was a wiper, the lowest form of humanity aboard a ship besides a cadet, which I was for a long time.
My wife went back up to the country to get the boy. Colonel Vong arranged for that. Then they got cut off. She walked about twenty-three miles through the frigging jungle carrying a suitcase in one hand and leading this little kid by the other.
She just barely made it out. If it wasn't for Colonel Vong she would not have gotten out.
She went out, got the boy, came back. From Tay Ninh to Saigon is a long way. She got down there just as the thing fell on its face. She got a ride up, and some rides back, but she spent a lot of time walking down through rubber plantations, coconut plantation, and shit like that.
She came back into Saigon. She was the only goddamn female that had a pass to get into that base. The only Vietnamese female, besides the ones who worked there. But she had this personal document that looked like the Diet of Worms, about the size of the Declaration of Independence with Colonel Vong's signature on it. She could get in anywhere with that pass, because he was the big law there.
At least I had my daughter at that point. So then we went to the Philippines on the Greenville Victory.
My wife and boy came out on the Boo Hueng Pioneer. That was the last ship out.
I remember when we were sitting off the coast I met somebody who was looking for Ambassador Graham Martin's dog. A black guy dressed in a suit came on board the ship looking for the ambassador's dog. Really! We'd just picked up 11,000 refugees and Martin's second secretary or whoever the hell he was was going from ship to ship in some kind of a good looking barge looking for the Ambassador's dog!
No, we went back into the Philippines, and there was guy by the name of Captain Ruebsamen. I'd seen him first when he was I think a Lieutenant Commander in the beginning of the war or when I first went up there. I knew he was somebody big with MSC, but he was over in, I think, Japan. So I'm sitting up in the officer's club in the Philippines in Subic Bay at the Naval Base, beautiful club, and this guy walks up to me and said, "By the way, your wife is out on East LeGrande. She just came in on the Boo Heung Pioneer." And boy. Then of course I knew she'd picked Minh up. And this guy Bill Ryder was very helpful in getting her aboard the Boo Heung Pioneer, and so was Colonel Vong. As a matter of fact she slept in the owner's cabin.
It was late at night, about 10:30. He said, "You can have my launch in the morning and take a run out there and see her." So that was fine. And I went zipping out there in the morning and she was gone. They'd taken her down to Guam.
So she goes down to Guam, but at least I knew she was on her way to the U.S.
The next thing I know, she was only there in Guam a couple of days when she turned up in a refugee camp in Indiantown Gap in Pennsylvania. I called her and said "Don't move!"
I'll tell you one thing, the house we built on the outskirts of Tay Ninh is a really divine home. It was a beautiful place. And when all these communists refer to Vietnam now as the "Peoples Republic" and "the People's this," and "the People's that", its all bull shit. Those people in the goddamn hierarchy of any communist government live better than the fucking czars or anybody else ever did live. This beautiful home we had outside of Tay Ninh. You know where my wife's mother and her brother and sister were living now? Well now they're living in a tool shed. And who do you think is living in the house? The communist province chief is living in our fucking house. They just changed the buttons on the hats is all. They took the Russian double eagle off, put on a red star and moved right into the fucking palace.
But we're all safe and happy here. The oldest boy -- well my wife had been married to a Vietnamese guy who got killed during the war and when I met her the boy was about the size of a loaf of bread, little little kid -- he never knew any other father except me. I didn't tell him until he was fifteen because one time I said when he's about seventeen or so he's going to look in the mirror and realize I'm not his real father. He's very oriental looking, but he's a real great kid, just like he's my own kid. And we have two of our own.
My sleep is not disturbed at all by war memories. I was one of the very few survivors off one ship that went down off the coast of Brazil in World War II. And I won't say I wasn't scared, but the only thing that bothered me was the first week or two I was home was when the telephone rang. To me it sounded like a general alarm. But I got over that in a couple of weeks. And I went in to get the Mayaguez out in 1975, too. But that's another story.
If I had to do it all over again, I'd do it in a minute. In fact, nothing would give me greater pleasure in the whole goddamn world than to walk into my goddamn house in Tay Ninh and blow that communist provincial chief's ass away.