Monday, December 10, 2012

Drinking Champagne and Watching the War

Diane Gunsul's story.

"Drinking Champagne and Watching the War"

In the late 1960s I was really active in the anti-war movement in Washington. I did a lot of campaigning on the Hill against the war. I was in most of the demonstration marches. I belonged to the Federal Employed Women, FEW, at that time and was very active in lobbying to get us out of Vietnam. I never thought we should have American ground troops there.
I'd always believed we should help our allies as much as we can in their struggles, but I don't think we should send Americans in to fight civil wars. And that's what the war in Vietnam was. A lot of people believed the way I did, that we shouldn't send our guys over there to be killed in a civil war. That doesn't mean we are rooting for the communists.
Then in 1970 I went to Taipei, Taiwan, and worked for the U.S. Embassy as a secretary for MAAG, Military Assistance Advisory Group. In Taipei I got a divorce in a Chinese court and after that was kind of at loose ends. I didn't know where I wanted to go when the message came out of Vietnam that all the ground troops were leaving as of March 29, 1973. And they were looking for civilians to go in to help with the advisory groups. Since I had been so strongly against the war itself and the ground troops being there, I said, "Well, what keeps getting thrown in my face is, 'You've never been there, you don't know what it's like'." So I said, "The hell with it, I'll go see what it's like." I applied for a job and there were twenty-five applicants for my job and I got it. I went over there on April 2nd. The troops were out as of the 29th. And I literally walked into an office where somebody, an American military man, had gotten up and walked out of that office and left his cigar in the ashtray. Everything was just like he was coming back. This was out in Bien Hoa. It was eerie. People just picked up their duffle bags and left. Very strange.
I worked in what was called a logistics center. We built up from twenty-five people to a hundred civilians. General Richard Baughn was one of my bosses. But they were all downtown. We had a colonel in charge out at Bien Hoa, who had never worked with civilians before, obviously. He couldn't understand us.
The first six months I lived in Saigon and went out to Bien Hoa ever day on a bus. But we kept getting cut off by the VC, so finally -- it got a little hairy if you were out at Bien Hoa and you missed the bus going back and you went back on a later one. You couldn't travel after dark. I got tired of that. And we'd helicopter out. And finally I just moved out to Bien Hoa itself. We lived in the Franz Blau apartment house, which was once a brothel.
I met my second husband in Vietnam. I met him on a bus in Saigon my first day there, in fact. But we both worked at Bien Hoa.
When I first went there I was a management assistant, very low rank, GS-7, and I made a 9 promotion there and I became administrative officer. But what was funny was that in Bien Hoa there were so few people that you did a lot of different things. So I had the evacuation disaster preparedness plan; I had the security operation; I had the administrative paperwork stuff that you do when you come over on TDY. I was protocol officer, so you meet a lot of people and go around.
The Vietnamese, I found, are a very warm, open people. More so than the Chinese, I found, or the Japanese. They aren't at all like the Japanese. In comparing the three cultures that I had lived in in Asia, I found the Vietnamese the most friendly. They were much more open, much warmer than other Asian cultures. We would talk a lot about the war, and how it affected almost every family that I knew there. I'd been in their homes. In fact my husband was a godfather to one of the children that was born while I was there, a Vietnamese lieutenant's. They had been at war their whole lives, so it was normal to them. What to us would seem strange was normal to them. It was a very unreal atmosphere.
When Phuoc Long fell in early 1975 there was a lot of wonderment rather than fear. It was, "Is this the beginning of the real end?" Or "Are they going to be able to stop it?" Then they withdrew from the Central Highlands and the refugees started marching, I think that's when we had our very first feeling of doom.
We asked things like, "Are they going to be able to recover?" I still didn't think it was going for good. I didn't think it was going until April after I had been evacuated out of Bien Hoa.
In early April a message came in from the Department of Defense and it said, "Send out all American women immediately"--that's about what it said. I saw the message and I was just furious. The colonel looked at it and sent a message back and said, "I don't have any American women. I have logisticians, I have administrative officers. You tell me what skills you don't want in this country." He had ten women working with him still at Bien Hoa.
And they sent back another message that said, "Whoops."
He then made a list of all the people that were still in Bien Hoa, in priority. And some were women who were sent out as non-essential. And some women who were considered essential, such as myself, stayed behind. It was not an evacuation yet. We couldn't call it that, because it hadn't been declared an evacuation.
What they did at first, they asked for volunteers, American women to take babies out, which was a way around evacuation itself. What they were doing was urging American women to go out on a plane carrying orphans. Now one of our people, Selma Thompson, had already been so spooked by the rockets and mortars at Bien Hoa that she wouldn't go there any more. She was in Saigon when that request went out from the embassy for American women who would like to volunteer to take the babies out to go out on the C5. They had less than twenty-four hours to get ready.
The women at Bien Hoa who were still working there, never got that message. We never even knew that there was a C5 baby lift going out. But since Selma was living in Saigon and had already been spooked and wouldn't go to Bien Hoa, she did go on that plane. And that's the only reason she was on it. She was already terrified of being in country and she wouldn't come out to Bien Hoa at all.
So she left on the C5A on April 4th. When we heard it went down there was absolute shock. I could have been on it, easily. We stayed up all night waiting for the reports to come in. Someone finally called us in Bien Hoa from Saigon and told us that Selma had survived the crash and she was evacuated out. That was our first experience with the so-called evacuation.
I left Bien Hoan for good about the tenth of April. My colonel came out and said, "Okay, I'm sending everybody -- he had the list and he would go up the list each day and say who was leaving." And it got to where there would only be four or five people left. My husband stayed longer.
We were evacuated in the morning. It was about ten o'clock in the morning when I went out. We went by van, regular U.S. government van, our mail van. There were about four or five of us who went out that day and we went through all the different checkpoints and roadblocks between Bien Hoa and Saigon.
I hadn't been on that road in months and months, because when I went into Saigon we went on helicopter. We had a shuttle service set up. I was amazed at all this concertina wire stretched across the road at checkpoints. When I had been coming out by bus there had been no checkpoints.
It was the first time I had felt in danger of friendlies. They knew we were bugging out from Bien Hoa. It was obvious even though we each only had one small bag with us. Everything else was left behind. That was the first time I was afraid that friendlies would kill us. The Americans are bugging out again. To the very end people were saying to me, "When are the B-52s coming back?" They did not believe that the Americans would not come back with bombers when it got that close.
In Saigon I lived in one of the old MACV VIP trailers. But I was in it so seldom that when I actually was there I had to think for a minute where I was.
At that time one of the things we were doing was getting our employees out of the country. They really didn't have to come and ask. We were asking them if they wanted to go out. And some people did not want to go.
I went down to the American consulate with a Vietnamese man who worked for me who had done his time in the Vietnamese military and been discharged. He wanted to leave with his wife and two children. After his wife and children left the country as my husband's wife and kids, I went down and signed a statement saying that this man was my common law husband. We didn't go out with our "spouses." We would go down and swear that he or she was a common law wife or husband and that we wanted them out although we were not declared non-essential yet.
I carried a letter that said I was a non-essential person. It was blank and all I had to do was fill in the date when I felt I needed to go. We all had to have papers to get out.
My husband took out three women as his wives at different times. The American Consulate knew we were lying through our teeth. We knew it was the only way we could get these people out and it worked for us. The consulate had to abide by the Vietnamese government regulation that said that these people could not have exit permits. And the only way we could get these people out if they weren't actually employees was to swear we were married to them. I remember being just mortified going down there to swear that I had a common law husband. And of course he would only call me Miss Diane. That was my name. So I told this guy, "Don't call me Miss Diane in front of the consul.". So of course the consul asked him something, and I would answer. I would say, "this is my husband and I need to send him out." "Let me see the marriage license." I said, "Well we never formalized it, we've been living together." "How long have you been living together?" I said, "Well, almost a year and a half now."
He looked at me, he grinned. He knew damn well I was lying. And then he asked my husband and my husband turned to me and said, "Miss Diane ...", and I said, "Don't call me Miss Diane." It was hilarious. The Vietnamese military that we worked with asked my husband, three different ones, to take their families out. They did not ask to take themselves out. I wasn't asked. It was a pride thing that none of them asked me to be taken out. Of the three wives that my husband took out, all three husbands showed up within the month, later, on boats, in Guam. So we did get to see them reunited, because we worked in the refugee camps on Guam.
The husband that I took out did get to the Philippines and then to Guam and was reunited with his wife and children and he now lives in San Diego.
We did this for the sake of those who had worked with us. They were scared. And rightly so. One of the people we did not take out, who did not ask to go out, a lieutenant, who wanted to stay with his family -- he had a young baby -- was in a re-education camp for seven years and was brutally beaten. We get letters and we've had word from some other people, because he worked for us.
There was saying that everybody that knew Americans was going to be killed. There was that feeling toward the end that if you had any association with Americans you were going to be slaughtered by the communists. It was a fear that was rampant.
I didn't know what to believe. I thought they would probably kill a lot of the military. I didn't think there was much so-called "honor" of conquering heroes in the Orient as there is in the western world. There is much more bloodshed. I did not know if they would slaughter them or just make life miserable. And what they did was make their life miserable mainly.
Out at the DAO I worked down in the evacuation control center with Rear Admiral Owen Oberg and Rear Admiral Hugh Benton. There was a marine colonel there, also, who said he would kill me before he let me be captured.
Everybody at that time carried weapons. Being a pacifist, I wouldn't carry a weapon. And everybody was carrying briefcase with weapons and finally they carried them in holsters and they were issuing weapons out and asked me which I would like one. And I said I don't want one. And they said, "What would you do if that VC came through that bunker door pointing a gun at you?" And I said, "Well, I would probably die." And they couldn't believe that. I said, "I made up my mind when I volunteered to stay in Saigon, being single -- my second husband wasn't my husband yet-- with no children, no dependents, no debts, nothing, that I was prepared to stay and die if I had to. I wasn't looking forward to it, thank you, but I had come to terms with it. And the Marine colonel looked at me and he said, "That won't happen." I said, "What do you mean?" He said, "I would kill you first."
I said, "Whose side are you on?" He said he would not let an American woman be captured by VC. I said, "I'll tell you what, let me be captured, and say for a couple years they'll torture me and all this wonderful stuff and then you can come in and rescue me and we'll write a book, make a movie, and make a million dollars." I was treating it as a joke. He didn't think it was funny. He said, "I will not let an American woman be captured by these people." He was a neat guy, but I'll never forget him saying that.
My husband-to-be was declared non-essential and went out before I did. When he went out and I was still there, I sent letters to my three brothers explaining why I was staying behind, and saying that I felt it was necessary and if I had died I was prepared for it. I had made out a will, done everything I could possibly do -- I wasn't looking forward to it. I still hoped I could get out.
The attitude at the time was get as many Americans out as we could but also to get all the Americans' friends out. I felt that if I could get as many more people out as possible that had helped us, get them out to a better life, that it would be worth it to me. The only time I had ever had that feeling before was when John Kennedy was killed. I had the feeling that if they could have killed me instead of him, I would have done it. And that was the only other time I ever felt I would be willing to die for something. And the march on the White House when we invaded Cambodia in the spring of 1970, since that was not a legal demonstration, we felt that we might get fired upon and killed at the White House. But we felt so strongly about the illegality of going into the Parrot's Beak in Cambodia that we went to the demonstration. So there were three times when I felt and believed something strongly enough that I was willing to die for it. I'm not looking forward to death, but sometimes you get that surge telling you, "This is right."
When I was in the bunker at the DAO I had a male secretary working for me who had a wife and two children, and I told him to leave. And Admiral Oberg said, "But he's the guy who's sending our messages." And I said, "I can type. He has a wife and two children. He needs to get out of this country. I'm single and I don't have any of those things. I'll type these things we need to have typed."
It was pretty much up to me as to when I wanted to go out. They kept very few people behind. Everybody was carrying around a blank form that said that "This person ...." then left a blank and you put your name in, is declared "Non-essential" on such and such a date. And you just filled that in and went over to the airplane where people were lining up and said, "Okay, I want to go out."
I left on the night of the 28th of April, I believe. It was sometime about one in the morning, as I remember. The flashes(coded messages) were coming in, of course that's why I was there. I had the crypto clearance and I was there to change the communications daily code. We had the tie in to Washington and even though I was not a communications officer, I was dealing a lot with the communications line. And I did pick up the top secret flashes that were coming in. And reading those, I knew what was going on, and it got to a point where I said, "Okay, I think it's time." I knew it wasn't going to last much longer.
I was so exhausted that I knew I wasn't doing any good. And my husband-to-be had already gone and I just knew by the traffic that was coming in that there wasn't much longer and I did not want to go out to the fleet. The admirals went out to the fleet every night. And Admiral Oberg said to me, one day -- they were closing in around the compound at the time, getting closer and we could hear a lot of gunfire, lot of fighting --and he said, "Why don't you come along, we'll take you out to the ship each night." And I said, "Admiral, how long have you been at sea?" He said something like seven or nine months. And I said, "How long since you've been in port?" And he said so many months, and I said "I think I'll take my chances with the VC!"
There was a lot of humor in the bunker. A lot of humor in the Evacuation Control Center, because there's so much tension there. You're calling in the planes. You're trying to coordinate the evacuation. You have to do something to relieve the tension, so there was a lot of humor.
One time Admiral Oberg sent me downtown in the midst of all this in a black government car with mirrored windows. I know a lot about art work and we talked a lot about art in the bunker, and he wanted to buy something typically Vietnamese --a painting, or artifact of some sort to take back to someone who had lost a son in Vietnam as a memento of the country. And he told me the price range, and he sent me down town with a Vietnamese driver. And I went to downtown Saigon out to Tu Do street where all the art shops were and I could not believe how normal everything was. People were doing their normal things in Saigon. There was no panic. It was a little bit quieter, but it was very eerie, almost like a Fellini movie. To think of what was going on a Tan Son Nhut, and trying to get people out, and the almost frantic tense atmosphere, and then go into Saigon proper and it's like everything's normal.
Then I thought, "What should they be doing, running around in a frenzy? Of course not." I went into an art shop and spent a couple hours going through things until I found something that I thought was typically Vietnamese that I did buy. Then I got into this big black limo and went back to Tan Son Nhut. Like a little excursion. It was very eerie. I was afraid going into Saigon. I was afraid in that car. I was afraid if they knew there was an American inside there and they knew that we were bugging out.
So on the night I left, I went over and got on a bus that took us to the plane. And I remember the airplane seemed to continue rolling as we were boarding and we combat loaded. I'm sure it stopped, but in my mind it was on the ground like two minutes. It wasn't so much a frantic boarding but it was very swift. As you came off the bus it was "Move! Move! Move!" as they made us move fast and get into those cargo straps. You sat on the floor and hung onto the cargo straps. It was very quiet, eerie. And it was very fast. And I remember the American crew guys standing at the windows of the aircraft with some sort of flare guns in their hands.
They were startled to see an American woman, I remember that. They looked at me like, "Who are you?" It was strange for them, because everybody else on it was Vietnamese. We had so few Americans left there. There were some women who came out by helicopter later. But only a very few.
I was so tired and so exhausted I don't think I was thinking at all at tht time. The only thing I remember I was hoping we would not get hit on the way to Clark. That was the only thing that was worrying me, because they were firing at planes as we took off. We don't know if it was friendlies or VC. There were stories going around that the friendlies were firing at the airplanes going off. It got a little bitter. It got a lot bitter.
I knew then that I was leaving a country that I fell in love with. It's a beautiful country. I was sad to know that the people had lost their war and that they would probably regret it. When they could have won. I still think they could have won their war if we'd just stayed the hell out of it. Eventually freedom is going to win over there. They have a taste of it. And eventually I truly believe that places that are oppressed, no matter what type of regime it is, will win their freedom back. I went to the Philippines. They had closed the airfield, but we landed there anyway. We off loaded but were not allowed off the tarmac. I sat in a chair, and when I woke up, I was the only one left, all the Vietnamese were gone. I asked where they were and they said they had taken them on to Guam. They had not awakened me and I had not heard anybody leave. I was in a hanger in some big chairs that the officers wives club had set up. And I remember standing up and saying, "Where are my Vietnamese?" "Oh, well we loaded them on to Guam because Ferdinand Marcos has closed the country to them." I cried when they told me that my Vietnamese were gone and I don't know what else they said to me, but I was so tired and so exhausted that I started to cry. And I went over by myself in a corner and cried. Luckily the Americans left me alone. And I just cried.
They wanted to send me to Guam but I told them I had Philippine visa -- I'd picked it up in Saigon when I first arrived. A colonel came over and said, "I can't believe that." And I showed him I had both a red passport and a tourist passport, and he just could not believe I had a Philippine visa. He said, "I will take you over to VOQ (Visiting Officers' Quarters)myself and get you a room." There weren't any rooms available but he did get me a room. I went to sleep and when I woke up the war was over.
I got up and went downstairs and saw Stars and Stripes and the headline said "Saigon Falls," something like that.
When I read that it was almost like a feeling of relief -- it's over. When I knew the country had fallen, it was over. There was a closure. There is a psychological need for closure in most relationships and I think I needed that, because I had a very close relationship with that country.
Then I went over to where we had our logistics center people and said, "Next time you call Guam, tell Roy --my husband-to-be -- that I'm here." Well, they didn't tell him, and it took me three days to get a flight. And he thought I was still in Saigon. But then when I got there they asked for volunteers from people who had been in Vietnam to work in the refugee camp. Although we had not wanted to do that, we wanted to go on, they really needed people badly because there were lots of folks coming in and they were still processing so many people. So we volunteered.
We stayed there one month. Then we took two weeks in Hawaii to unwind and came back to California.
If you ask people today, you'll find that most Americans don't know when the war in Vietnam ended and they don't know that there were no American ground troops in Vietnam when Saigon fell. They don't understand that Americans left in '73, civilians went in after that. We had a joke out there: It took the military ten years to lose the war. It only took the civilians two. It's a sick joke but....
I couldn't talk about Vietnam for two years after that. You're supposed to make out a report when you come back of all the things you lost and the government reimburses you, like ten cents on the dollar. I left a lot of furniture, my clothing, and all my personal papers and pictures, which wasn't supposed to be left. I couldn't make out that form and you had two years to do that. It took me a year and eleven months before I could sit down and write that form out.
When you come back to the U.S. you feel like an absolute idiot because when you hear a backfire or something and you dive for the ground. The military have that experience. You get over that in a year or two. Then you think about the people and how they are doing. It's a big chunk out of your life, a very important part. I talk to the people back here about it but it's sometimes like I'm an alien. They're interested but they have no conception of what I've been through.
And as I'm talking to you right now, I'm shaking. Every time I talk about these things I get, not a nervousness, but very emotional. The whole experience was deeply emotional.
I do think that my memory and accounting of that time is colored by the fact that I met my husband in Vietnam, so I have a different view of the country. I loved it, because I was very happy there. I think if someone had not made that type of attachment there they would probably look at it through different eyes. And I had a very happy marriage.
My husband died a year and a half ago, so when I think of Vietnam I think of meeting my husband there and I have very happy memories of it. Those are normally the things that I remember and talk about, the fun parts. Like going to Vung Tau and sitting on the beach drinking champagne and watching the war, watching these huge clouds of black smoke coming up around the peninsula where there's been bombing and saying, "I don't believe this is true. Here were are sitting on the most beautiful beach in the world watching a war and drinking champagne."

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