"Khong ai se bi bo lai! Dung lo!"
I was optimistic when I arrived back in Vietnam in August, 1972. By the time the ceasefire was signed I was less optimistic. I became pretty sure that the country was probably going to fall when I heard about the resignation of Nixon. When Nixon walked out on the 8th of August '74, I had my radio in my office in Saigon listening to it and that, for me, that was pivotal. My optimism, my confidence in the South Vietnamese being able to prevail and survive ultimately was badly shaken when Nixon walked out. But the event that caused me to begin to mail my possessions home and write my parents and tell them I'm coming home and it'll be before next August probably, and to write to the Pentagon and start looking for an assignment, was the fall of Phuoc Long in early 1975. The event that caused me to move my wife and kids out of the Delta into Saigon where I could reach out and grab them was the fall of Phuoc Long.
A day to day basis in the DAO, we were living and breathing on everything the Congress said or didn't say or did or didn't do on the aid requests. And there was nothing but a nonstop series of rebuffs by that time. General John Murray, the Defense Attache, had left disenchanted and had shared his disenchantment with me. He was bitter and shared that with me, too. I had a good relationship and close one with Murray. And Murray's departure and his bitterness made a deep impression on me. I happened into his office right after he had a shouting contest with someone who had reprimanded him over the phone from DOD about his interview on "blood for bullets,"with a reporter from the New York Times. He talked me about the interview. And said " I just told him if I get one more phone call about that I'll give a press conference in Hawaii and tell the whole goddamn story."
I was hearing that and it was very discouraging to me. Then Nixon walked out and I was really skeptical. But Phuoc Long was it. I began immediately to close up my affairs in Vietnam at that point in time--discretely.
My visit to Hanoi for the JMT, on April 11th was my last visit there. Harry Summers went after that. Anyway, there was no doubt about it that the North Vietnamese were saying to me loudly and clearly, "We're going to let you guys leave, take your people with you. There'll be no bloodbath. There's been enough blood shed. We need the people of South Vietnam's support to rebuild the country." Those sorts of messages. But the most loud and clear message was that the North Vietnamese had no intention of interfering with our departure.
And they wanted the U.S. JMT delegation to stay -- they wanted the Paris Agreement to remain valid because in their judgement the Paris Agreement contained commitments by the United States to participate in healing the wounds of war --paying money under Article XXI of the Paris Agreement. They desired to reinforce that although the ceasefire itself may have broken down because Thieu had violated it, that that in no way meant that we couldn't accomplish anything on article 8(b), the missing in action location. They felt the Paris Agreement was the legalistic instrument to get aid from the United States.
So they had told me, and they told Harry Summers, and anyone else who would listen up there, that the U.S. delegation, regardless of how the situation on the ground was to work out, should remain in Saigon. We would be safe there. Simply stated, the said, "You guys should stay".
I was sending my possessions out because I felt everyone was leaving. Only in the last four weeks did we begin to get the idea that the U.S. JMT delegation might stay. Basically that was a result of the North Vietnamese urging us to consider staying. Col. John Madison communicated with Dr. Roger Shields and they told him, "We think we've heard clearly that they want us to stay and we need guidance on that issue." And what came back was that we were told to be prepared to stay. And we labored under the impression that we were to stay right up through the time when we arrived down at the Embassy on the morning of the 29th.
When we left Tan Son Nhut on that last morning that we had medicine, we had radios, we had food. We had all this -- we had our own little three-vehicle convoy with everything packed into it which would sustain us and we had even tried to recruit a communications guy to stay with us. For a while there it appeared that the national leadership wanted us to stay, that this was symbolic that the United States was prepared to do business on the MIA question. And so like good soldiers we were ready to do that, although speaking for myself I was not too sanguine nor warm about the notion about being in Saigon after the Americans had pulled out. We laughed about that, we were going to lock ourselves in a room in the Embassy and pray for the arrival of the North Vietnamese Army. Let's face it, we were walking out on the South Vietnamese. They weren't happy.
Around one o'clock in the morning of the 28th of April, Colonel Summers, Colonel Madison and I were over in the area around the DAO swimming pool where we were staging people and putting people on buses and taking them out to the flight line for evacuation. I went over to the office to get a couple hours sleep on a couch. I was driving a land rover type vehicle and I went through Post Two where the Marines were, right at the edge of the street by the compound. Marine Corporals Darwin Judge and Charles McMahon were on duty. They were just standing there. I paused and said, "How are things going, guys?" "Fine, sir. No sweat". The two of them were in their flak vests. I went into the office and I crashed on Colonel Madison's couch. I had a radio that had the Embassy Marine net, all the Marines were on it, the guard posts were all linked, and I was monitoring. And at four that morning when the rockets came in, one of them hit right across the street, hit the general's house. Another one hit right where Judge and McMahon were standing, and others hit all around the trailer park.
The impact of the 122mm rocket was so great that the whole DAO building just rocked. I remember there was a flag in the stand behind Colonel Madison's desk, and it came falling down. Immediately I heard a couple voices screaming over the radio that we took a hit at the gym, we got casualties at the gym. And then another voice that there were casualties at Post Two. I ran out of the office. I ran to the dispensary and broke the door down. Marines who had been in the building were all in the concrete bunkers outside the door of DAO headquarters, they were thick concrete with great big pieces of culvert inside. The Marines were in there hiding out from the barrage. It was continuing. I yelled down, "Any of you guys a medic?" "Yes, sir". I said "Get in a vehicle and get over to the gym, they got casualties over there." I yelled at this kid, "Medical supplies are in the room down at the end of the hall and the door's open". I got the Marine and told him where the medicine was, and to told him to get in a vehicle and get over to the gym, because the last time I saw this gym there were about four hundred people in it. In my mind's eye, if a rocket had hit that gym there was a mess for sure.
Then I ran over to Post Two. And got to Post Two, the ambulance was parked there, and Sergeant Kevin Maloney was there and an ambulance was just pulling away. Maloney was standing there like this, like a guard, just standing there. The ambulance was pulling away. I asked him, "What are you doing"? He said, "I'm the squad leader, Sir. I'm Sergeant Maloney, squad leader, manning the post. My two men are dead." And a rocket came in and landed right across the street, ferocious, ferocious. They are a terror weapon. And we both jumped into the ditch and I said, "Maloney, old man, this is a better place to man the post if you're gonna man this post. Man it from here."
At that point in time the 122 mm rockets were hitting, then the artillery started up. And it started coming in big time. Hundred and thirty millimeter stuff. And it was walking its way right down the street, across the street. Big time. And it was observed fire you could tell, because the short rounds were landing right across the street from us, uncomfortably close. There was shrapnel flinging against the chain link fence behind us.
I didn't have a helmet on. My helmet was back in BOQ. I had a soft hat. I crawled over to a helmet that was laying there on the ground and put it on, crawled back to where Maloney was. It was not healthy at that moment to stand up. I was lying there waiting for a chance to get the hell out, but it was a pretty heavy barrage, and it was obvious the way the rounds were landing you were playing russian roulette if you stood up and started moving around. So we laid there, my intention being to get the hell out of there. This was Maloney's post and until he was relieved he was going to man it. Fires were bursting across the street on the Tan Son Nhut ramp. There were explosions, fires. Maloney saw a figure starting to cross the street about 50, 60, feet to our left, pointed, didn't know who it was. Maloney and I jumped up -- he had his M16 and I had a .45, and intercepted them. It turned out to be two of the security guards, Vietnamese who worked for the American contractor, World-Wide Security. They had been over at the Air America terminal doing security duties. Maloney halted them. I recognized them. They told me in Vietnamese that they had to get out of there because the artillery fire was awfully accurate and too dangerous over there.
Some aircraft took off during the barrage. At least one AC 119 went up. One spotter plane went up. Both were shot down by heat seeking missiles. And thousands of people saw that.
I remember Air America Hueys flying around, but for sure an AC 119 and an old L-19 birddog took off and they were both shot down. Within sight of the city of Saigon.
We went back to the little ditch for a while. By that time it started to get light out. Maloney and I got up. The barrage had subsided. It was dawn's early light, if you will. We walked around. We recovered parts of bodies that had been blown around. A boot with a foot in it. A piece of a rifle, the bolt and receiver group of a M-16 rifle with the serial number on it, which was important because it established identity. No dog tags. Pieces of flesh that were in the chain link fence. I found out later that rounds had hit in the handball courts of the DAO and the wooden walls of the handball courts absorbed all the shrapnel. I think they had one or two wounded over there, lightly, and that's about it. The rest of the rounds caused more fear than they did damage. Judge and McMahon happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.
I went into the command center to bring the rifle in to Marine Colonel Slade and I ran into Homer Smith's wife Joan as I walked into the building and she screamed when she saw me. Just a huge scream and I couldn't figure out why, and she just kept pointing. I took the helmet off and it was crimson with blood. But I didn't know. It was dark out. So I went into the men's room and scrubbed it off. There was a hole about that big right through the side of the helmet. Just like somebody took a can opener and put a hole in it.
It was Judge's helmet that I had picked up and put on. I wore it throughout the evacuation. I wore it to Bangkok. I brought it to the States. I mailed it to the States and I wrote a letter to the U.S. Marine Corps and told them what it was and how I came upon it, and I felt it was something that the Marine Corps ought to have. It had his name written on it. And a big hole in it.
I sent it to the Marine Corps for their museum and I never heard a word about it. I suspect some son of a bitch probably purloined it and I probably should have kept it. I debated sending it to the young man's family and then I said, "Don't do that Herrington, that would be too much for them to take. Some dads would like to have their son's helmet, other dads might not be able to take it. Don't get in the middle of the Marine Corps casualty reps and the family." So I sent it to the Marine Corps.
At that point in time, after I went in to the command center and I got the map, --because see, I wasn't just laying there, I was figuring out what direction the rounds were coming from, laying it down on the ground, drew and arrow, and the back asmuth of that arrow is where the rounds were coming from. So I went in and plotted the location of the artillery in the command center in case somebody was going to try and drop some bombs on them. I was told that Colonel Madison, Colonel Summers were looking for me and that we had orders to report to the Embassy.
I linked up with Madison and Summers about 7 in the morning. We had breakfast in Madison's office. Because I cooked it. We weren't sure when we were going to get another meal, or what was going to happen. We decided that there was a lot of food there and we damn well ought to eat. We hadn't eaten for some time. So I cooked breakfast in Madison's office. I cooked bacon, eggs, opened a bottle of champagne we had -- that sounds sick, but I remember I did that. That could be made to look really -- it was a fatalistic, "Well now what?" It was obvious that the end was near. We were on hold, for the moment, about going to the Embassy. We told we were going to stay, but we weren't yet sure we were going to stay there, or go downtown. We were on a sort of "Well, now what?" and we were told, "Time, you'll be told. Stay where we can get in touch."
So we stayed in the office. Had breakfast. Got the word to proceed to the Embassy.
We were ready for a hectic drive, because given what was going on, we felt that all roads were going to lead to Tan Son Nhut and there was going to be a massive migration of Vietnamese towards Tan Son Nhut and as Americans out on the streets at that stage of the game, that there was always the possibility of an incident. So we had a total of two or three vehicles. I was driving the Land Rover, Madison and Summers were in black Ford sedan. And when we headed out the gate, it was, "Stay close to one another. Jesus I'll feel better when we get there."
It was just the chaos in the streets and there was a very good chance of being victimized by disaffected ARVN troops. We didn't think in terms of the NVA. Our worry about the trip from Tan Son Nhut to the Embassy was order in the streets.
There was some disorder right outside the gate, to the point we actually had to go off the road into a ditch and around an obstacle. I can't quite remember what the devil it was, but I remember I was first in Land Rover, and I made it and I watched in my rear view mirror and crossed my fingers and hoped that Madison and Summers would make in the same -- and they did. And as we went towards the Embassy you could see swirling groups of people and what appeared to be lots of uncertainty. There were columns of smoke to our rear coming up from Tan Son Nhut and, you know, I had the feeling it was good to get out when we got out because the gates of Tan Son Nhut were going to be pretty hairy later on, I felt.
We drove into the Embassy.
Inside the Embassy, the Marines had a lieutenant on the roof with a radio that was supposed to be calling the birds in, and he fell off the chopper pad a distance of about fifteen feet to the roof of the Embassy and landed on his head and had to be medivaced out to the fleet. The flights coming into the Embassy were only sporadic and we didn't know why. People were worried about not getting out. There was this problem, the Marines didn't have good radio with DAO. They could talk to their helicopters apparently but they couldn't talk to DAO.
When we found that out it was very late in the afternoon. It was dark out. And we were astounded. And Colonel Madison said, "Jesus Christ, that's the dumbest thing I ever heard of."
So I went in and got ahold of this guy and I said, "Hey we have a real stupid situation here. Don't you know the frequency of the evacuation control center, the ECC out at Tan Son Nhut?" So he told me the frequency and I went out into the van where we had radios. In the vehicles we had everything you needed. So I got a radio out, put a long antenna on it, put it on the frequency, and I called out to DAO and used the call sign of Embassy Marine.
It turns out the guys at DAO don't know what's happening at the Embassy. When they heard this voice in the night calling, "Embassy Marine calling DAO" someone came back, and I said "What's going on? We're waiting for helicopters that are never coming". And he said "What's the situation there?" and I said, "The situation is we got a couple thousand people and where are the helicopters?" And the guy told me to wait one.
Here we were about five miles apart and there was no communication. Madison and Summers and I didn't know that until Jim Kean's people told us. So we got that link to the DAO and we found out that the DAO evacuation -- this is about 8 in the evening of the 29th -- that the DAO evacuation was proceeding apace without any big problems and that priority was the pull at DAO and that around midnight when the DAO pull was complete, priority of birds would shift to us. We needed to hold tight.
Then around midnight almost all flights just stopped at the Embassy. The problem we had was, if we knew that, we could have planned on it. To plan on it meant we could tell the people. As it was there was nothing happening and we had all these people who were thinking that they were being left behind and there was a terrible control problem of these people. They were scared to death. And they were afraid they were being abandoned. So we went around and told everybody the word. The word is we're all going out. The helicopters are going to be coming. Don't worry the evacuation is not ended. Above all while I'm here with you, and my government is not going to leave me, so relax. As long as I'm here, I'm going on the last helicopter when all of you go. And you can just please cooperate by getting in line, get in family groups, and stop shoving and stop pushing.
It was dark and there was confusion. There was this tremendous pushing and shoving going on almost approaching panic. A young Vietnamese interpreter who came up an whispered in my ear that the people doing the pushing were Korean, they don't understand what we were saying, and they were pushing and shoving. So then in English I asked if there was a Korean officer present, with this bullhorn I had. Then this Korean naval officer, attache guy, came up with his wife, and I said "You have to help me. You have got to control your people."
I would estimate there were probably forty or fifty of them.
Men and women, secretaries from the Korean Embassy. The ambassador, his secretary, the army attache, the naval attache, some of their families as well. Quite a contingent. See, we didn't know that.
The Korean ambassador, his secretary and the army attache all got out, finally, but they tried to bring their suitcases on the helicopter and I caught them doing that. We had told everyone, you have got to take your suitcases and throw them away. "Go in your suitcases, get out any valuables, letters, papers, but suitcases can't go. The choppers will only take people, not luggage." And all the Vietnamese, stoically and obediently did it. We told them they could have a Pan Am type bag, or attache case. The Koreans tried to pull a bunch of suitcases on the chopper, and I was controlling access to the chopper and when this one Korean arrived with this suitcase I yanked the suitcase out of his hand and threw it in the bushes. Second tried it, I yanked that suitcase and threw it in the bushes. And the third was a woman who had a suitcase she was dragging, and I yanked it out of her hands and threw it in the bushes. She screamed at me like a banshee and crawled after it on all fours and retrieved it and tried to get on the helicopter again. And I ripped it away from her a second time and threw it over in the bushes and told her to get on the chopper. And she ran back and got it again. She grabbed a hold of that suitcase by the handle and would not let it go and I finally took my M-16 and I beat her across the forearms with the butt of the M-16 about three times saying unprintable things, until she screamed in pain and let it go, and I threw her, literally grabbed her by the body and threw her into the chopper and the chopper went up. That was the last chopper that left with civilians.
I later learned that she was the Ambassador's private secretary. She had bruises all over her forearms. And Harry Summers later told this South Korean officer, "You need to explain to her that if Captain Herrington hadn't shoved her on that helicopter, she would be in a Hanoi prison right now, and that he got her out. If he had let her stay with that bag, she would still be there with that bag." The bag contained gold and jewelry. And it was damn heavy. And apparently it had all the valuable collected from all of the Koreans. Harry did legion work in telling this guy to convince her that she should decriminalize me because I saved her rear end.
I was doubtful a week or two before the country fell, as to the ability to walk out with my personal honor. I just was extremely worried and told my folks, put it in tapes, that the way we had mishandled this whole thing over the years, that there was no reason to expect that it would be handled with class at the end. I was extremely worried that we were going to be made to abandon our people, our employees, their families, my friends. As an American, even though I was charged with responsibility for getting all kinds of Vietnamese out who had a reason to want to get out, I really feared that in the end that somebody was going to say, "Let's save Americans and to hell with everyone else." I was worried about that from the beginning. There weren't a lot of Americans who were worried about the Vietnamese at that stage of the game, but I was and so was Colonel Madison and Harry Summers.
But that night in the Embassy, you know, the helicopters were coming in as fast as we could throw people on them. Between say, midnight and three in the morning, 3:30 when that last one came, Colonel Madison had made a very strong statement to Wolfgang Lehmann, the deputy chief of mission, who was really in charge. Lehmann was running the show. In my opinion and in the opinion of a lot of other people, Ambassador Martin was too ill at that stage of the game. He was very ill. He did come out and survey the situation personally with his security guard, but he was shaky and the contact we had with anybody in authority was primarily with Lehmann. And Lehmann was a cool cucumber who appeared to be the guy in charge. When Lehmann came out and said, "You know this thing's going to wind up, Washington's impatient," or words to that effect, Madison said, "Look, we've done head count here, we have 420 more people and we need a few more helicopters." And Lehmann said, "Okay, you'll get what you need." By then we definitely had control of the situation. We had it down quite military. We had the refugees in groups, ready to throw them on a bird. Throughout the night when a bird came in, we had a group of fifty here, and a group of fifty here, and if it was a big bird, a CH53 we threw them all on. Ninety folks went on those birds. If it was a smaller bird, a CH46, then half went. By the time Lehmann came down to survey the situation, Madison told him how many people we had left and how many helicopters we needed, and Lehmann said, "Okay, I'll arrange it. And it was then that it all broke down.
We had people in the stairwell going up to the roof of the Embassy. You couldn't get them all out just using one landing zone on the parking lot here, so we had choppers landing up on the roof, and we had choppers landing in the courtyard. And we had fed like toothpaste through a tube, we had fed a couple hundred of these Vietnamese up that stairwell, sixth floor stairwell. So there were Vietnamese in the stairwell who were going off on the CH-46s from the roof, even though they had told us that the chopper pad wouldn't hold the weight of the 46, we had to do it.
And then word came, as we go into the final push we're only going to use one pad, get all the Vietnamese out of the stairwell, and put them all outside so we have everybody out there. And at that point in time, first Lehmann came out and told Madison, "I think, that things were winding up," and Madison said, "No way, we have 420 people, and it's doable, and we made commitments to them." Madison was hard-nosed about it. And Lehmann said, "Okay, I'll arrange it."
So when Lehmann walked out of that parking lot, Madison regarded that we had the assurances of the guy who was running the show that everybody was going to get out, and he told me to go and tell everybody that. I did.
Madison told me, "Tell the people everything is squared away, we've got the helicopters we need". And I told all the Vietnamese, "Khong ai se bi bo lai! Dung loi!"( "Nobody's going to be left behind. Don't worry.") I said it over and over again. And I believed it. Madison believed it. Summers believed it. And at that point in time, all of a sudden there were no birds.
Then all of a sudden here came Kean walking over to Madison and I saw them in earnest conversation. It was dark out. But we had floodlights and automobile headlights, so it was illuminated. And Madison was arguing with Kean and telling him, "I've got the helicopters promised to me and I'll just take this up with the Ambassador." And Kean said to Madison, "Presidential order."
Kean said "Presidential order and I'm not going to risk my men any more. And Madison said "Well, I'll just have to take this up with the Ambassador if I have to." And Kean said, "You can't, he just left." And pointed to a CH46 that had just taken off from the roof, which apparently was Lady Ace Zero Nine piloted by Gerry Berry. That was 4:47 in the morning.
Madison was just crushed. He called Harry Summers and I over and we had a little conversation. "Shit, now what do we do?" And Madison said, "The Marines are pulling out. It's a Presidential order. We're losers." And Madison made the tough call, and he said "Stu you go stay with the Vietnamese. Give Harry and I and the others time to get in and get our stuff together and get it to the roof. Then come up to the roof."
There were still Marines out on the wall. The Vietnamese who were left, the four hundred and twenty of them, were by that time all down on the parking lot. They were in ranks sitting. And the ranks were right behind the cars that were running with their headlights on. And I was sitting on the trunk deck of one of the cars with a radio. I had the radio that I had put together with the antennae and at that point in time I wasn't talking to anybody because once the Embassy closed at midnight they destroyed all their communications. That radio was nothing but it looked like I was talking to helicopters. And the Vietnamese were sitting there, and I told them "Don't worry, there's a big helicopter coming and we're all going." That was a hard thing to tell them because at that time I knew better, so I was stalling.
I sat there for fifteen minutes, and I came very very close to saying ,"Screw it all." I debated holding myself hostage and saying "I'm not going until you send the choppers." And I realized that the Marines were leaving, that they would never let the choppers in a landing zone that wasn't secure, that I would be detained and then repatriated. I would never get the people out, which was the goal, after all. I just wouldn't get them out, and my Army career would be ruined because I disobeyed a Presidential order, and it was obvious to me that however sick I was about it, that I could not get those people out. "Don't be a fool, you'll never get these people out. You have a wife and kids, you have an Army career. You won't get them out. So what good will it do you? You'll accomplish nothing." That all went through my head when I did what I did.
There were families there with kids. And I remember very clearly the Vietnamese firemen were there in their yellow coats. I'll never forget the firemen. And there was a German priest who spoke some Vietnamese, who'd helped out. But there were these firemen. And I remember the firemen because I asked them earlier if they wanted to go and they said, "No, we have to stay. If there's a chopper crash we can work the equipment." They wanted me to take their families out so they would be free to work. So I took their families and put them all on a bird about mid-afternoon.
So I stayed there. And you know a bird came in and landed on the roof and took off and I realized there was a whole other plan. Madison didn't say how long I should stay down here. And then a bird landed and took off and I thought, "Geez, was I supposed to be on that one?" It was dark and I was looking for some sign. Could I see them up there? And finally after fifteen or twenty minutes, during which time I was pretending to talk to helicopters who weren't there, I looked at the Vietnamese closest to me, and I said, "I gotta take a leak." And the Vietnamese closest to me laughed, and I sneaked into the bushes like I was going to go to the bathroom.
There was a house there and there were shrubberies around the house, and I just walked into the shrubbery and I beat it around the house and out of their sight and I went in the back door of the Embassy.
Earlier in the day, there was the plaque, it was a piece of history, and I had permission to take it. I got a Navy Chief, a retired Navy guy who was the Embassy engineer, and he found me a crowbar and the two of us pried this thing off--the plaque's very big, very heavy. We pried it off the wall. We put it on the floor right inside the door, leaning against the wall. And I was going to take it with me when I went.
Inscribed on the plaque were the words, "In memory of the brave Americans who died defending this Embassy during the Tet Offensive, 1968," and then it listed the MPs and the 101st Airborne, the Marines and the U.S. Military Police who died. There were five guys who died and their names were on it. I just didn't think it should be left behind and so I got ready to take it. But when I came through the lobby and it was laying there, I was so upset and so angry at being ordered to leave, that in retrospect, the logic doesn't flow, but it went through my mind, "After what those guys did here, to have died right here where I'm standing and for me to have to dishonor -- they died to defend this Embassy and now I'm running away from it with the communists outside the gates of the city, and leaving those people out there, they'd roll over in their graves." And I just said, "To hell with the plaque." And I left it there.
I ran up to the second floor. I ran into the Ambassador's office suite area. It was empty. I ran four or five more steps, peeked into Martin's office. It was in order as if he were ready to hold a meeting. I ran back to the stairwell, checked the political-military office to see if our stuff was there. Everything looked like it was gone, and I ran up the steps. And I got to the top of the steps and Gunnery Sergeant Pace and Bill Bell were at the top of the steps. Madison and Summers and Bill Herron were gone. The chopper that had taken off had gone with three of them.
Bell and Pace and I got on a CH 46. Bell was exhausted. He was at the end of his rope, because, I remember, he literally crawled up the ramp of the 46. I got on. One Marine came waltzing out of the darkness and got on with us. And that 46 took off with a total of me, Bell, Pace, and one Marine. Four Americans!
That was the sickening part of it. It could have carried forty-five more people. And it took off. It took off and I looked down out the back ramp, and you could see the people waiting down there and the street lights of Saigon, and the Embassy. There was dead silence in the chopper.
I could just see the people and I was sickened naturally. I never in my life felt worse, never will feel worse than that moment walking away from those people.
After the bird took off, and got up to some altitude they closed the cargo ramp door. I remember when we took off the bird ascended, it banked and there was the Embassy, there was the parking lot, there were the street lights. And the silence. Quiet street, no traffic, no crowds, no nothing. Looked like the curfew was being obeyed.
Madison sought out Jim Bolton on the Okinawa when we got there. And I saw Bolton but I was not privy to the conversation that Madison had. They came to me, Summers and Madison and told me that they talked to Bolton. See, we were mad. We were damn, damn angry because we had, in our judgement been forced to betray the Vietnamese. We had lied, unwittingly albeit, we had lied to the Vietnamese. We had left those poor people behind. There wasn't a one of us who at that point in time, were not alienated by that.
A guy was on the Okinawa from the Cleveland Press and he interviewed Summers and then me. We were in the belly of the Okinawa at that time. And Summers asked the guy, "Do you know what you just saw?" And the reporter said, "The fall of Saigon." And Summers said, "You saw betrayal of the worst order."
The guy interviewed me about what happened in the Embassy because I was the one who was the last to leave. And I remember I just couldn't stop crying as he interviewed me. Every time I thought about leaving those people, I just couldn't talk about it without crying. I was so ashamed and felt so badly that those people had been left behind.
Later I flew to Subic Bay and then to Thailand. No sooner had I gotten out of the Philippines and got to Thailand when I was summoned back to Subic Bay. The purpose was a Joint Chiefs of Staff investigating commission on the evacuation. The reason I was summoned there, Madison and Summers had been called to Hawaii, I guess, to report on what had happened and I was the only officer left who was an eyewitness to the Embassy events. And the big mystery as they tried to put together what had happened in the evacuation, the big X factor was the Embassy. There had been no plans for any big evacuation out of the Embassy. The Embassy plan was a very simple plan of several hundred, max, would be bused out to Tan Son Nhut and some 50, 60 or so, the ambassador and his inner circle, would be Air America'd off the roof of the Embassy. And the buses were there as part of the plan to take several hundred max out to Tan Son Nhut. So when the Embassy became the focus of a major heavy lift helicopter extraction, that happened by circumstances. It was not planned for. And because it was not planned for, they didn't even know about it. There was no communication after a certain hour between the Embassy and the DAO apparently, and no-one knew what was going on in the Embassy.
To the very end when the evacuation ended, all the people who were out with General Smith, who were at the DAO, and the people who were out on the ship, and CINCPAC, and the Thailand headquarters, nobody knew what the hell was going on there. So I was called down to Subic to testify before a joint chiefs of staff board that was dispatched to Subic to interview the Marines. And I did. The difficulty was that the Marines when they briefed the board, briefed a picture of the overall operation of Frequent Wind.
I don't necessarily believe there was any deliberate attempt to misrepresent what happened although there are those cynics who say the Marines are embellishing the facts again because the Marines want to look like they were the first to fight and the last to fight alone. I don't necessarily believe that, although I believed it at the time.
The Marines came to the Embassy off the fleet, with, first of all, word that they had two guy KIA already. There was no secret about the fact that Saigon was surrounded by sixteen divisions. There was no secret about the fact that Saigon was under heavy artillery fire which meant they were within twenty, thirty kilometers, at least. And there was no secret about the fact that the North Vietnamese could and would enter Saigon. The enemy was encircling the city with sixteen divisions, it was no secret that the enemy had brought up surface to air missiles down the same tubes, down Route One from North Vietnam, from the Khe Sanh area. They brought SAM 2s all the way down to the Saigon Circle. So this was the intelligence estimate. So when the Marines came in, they came in with a notion that this was clearly a case of a small Marine force that could be under fire by the entire North Vietnamese army. And then two guys get killed, and there's rocket fire, artillery fire.
Apparently -- we know -- there were North Vietnamese attacks against Saigon on the morning of the 30th. That a column came in from the direction of Tan Son Nhut. Another column came in from the Newport Bridge, from the North if you will. And there was a pincer of at least three column thrust against the city of Saigon with the objectives being JGS headquarters, the National Police compound, the Presidential Palace.
But the Marines when they briefed in Subic, created the impression that we got out by a cat's whisker and there was a lot of hostile fire and resistance to the evacuation. They included the impression that the Embassy was hot. And I remember it at that point in time, I sat through these briefings at Subic. I had to get on a flight, get myself to Subic Bay and I was the missing link to put the whole picture together. The Marines were about thirty strong in the conference room. General Carey was there, and they briefed him. At that point in time, I had a problem. I'm hearing them tell about the Embassy, and it doesn't bear any resemblance to what I saw and lived through in the Embassy. And I wrote a note to General Cleveland who was the head of this commission. And I said, "I got a problem. I'm supposed to get up and brief on the Embassy, and I'm going to contradict all these Marines." And General Cleveland, before they broke for lunch said,"I understand you have a problem, Captain Herrington."
I said, "Yes sir. If that's the Embassy that they described, then I don't know where I was, because it wasn't that way at all." He said, "Well, that's why you're here. I want you to tell it like it is. Maybe you better stay here over the lunch hour and get your act together." And I said, "Yes sir." So I stayed over the lunch hour and I drew a big butcher paper map of the Embassy compound, the pool, the wall, the walls of the Embassy, the whole bit. And I briefed. And it was a tough briefing to give, because the Marines bristled right away.
What I briefed was that the Embassy evacuation had taken place unopposed. That there was no hostile fire at the Embassy. We were not under small arms fire, machine gun fire, artillery fire, no kind of fire, and that the end at the Embassy was premature, that we could not understand it, that it was not a clean sweep. The Marines briefed that the evacuation was completed at the Embassy and this was all one great big success. And -- now Kean wasn't there, because if Kean had been there, Kean could have told them that it wasn't a big success. I don't know how Kean depicts it or what his memory of it is, but see, Kean wasn't there. The Marines who briefed clearly weren't there. They were briefing what they understood, based on what helicopter pilots were telling them over the radio.
So I finished my briefing. General Carey was there, and General Carey took exception to what I said, and I said, "Sir, the only thing I can tell you is, I have briefed you. The collective, confirmed, cross-checked memories of a Marine Corps gunnery sergeant, an Army E-7, and Army E-8, and Army O-6, an Army O-5 and myself. Between the six of us we probably have twenty-five or thirty years combat experience. If the Embassy evacuation was opposed, then why did not a single Marine fire a single round? The first rule of engagement is to return fire. Since we commanded the heights, no one fired. There was a lot of -- the Marine pilots for example, mistook the toxic fumes from the CIA crypto destruct devices that were destroying radios on the roof, they took that to be the Embassy was under a gas attack and that went out over the air. "The Embassy's under a gas attack." And fire on the roof of the Embassy, which was documents being destroyed, translated into "The Embassy's on fire." Every time a shot was fired around the Embassy out in the city of Saigon, -- during the course of the morning, you'd hear a rifle go off -- and even in peacetime, normal days and nights, you'd hear these crazy Saigon teenagers who had carbines firing shots. Every time there was a shot fired the Marines - a squad size element of Marines would come crashing across the Embassy compound screaming "Penetration of the north wall", "Penetration of the south wall". And repeatedly during the course of night, several times I know for sure, vividly, Marines crashing from one side of the Embassy wall to the other, screaming that there was a penetration here or there. And it wasn't there. What you had was frightened young Marines who had two guys killed, who'd heard about that. The pucker factor was there. And they were a problem.
The Marines were definitely a problem. But they were young and frightened, and they heard what they heard. But as far as the Embassy coming under attack, or that the Embassy evacuation happening under combat conditions: No!
So I briefed it that way, and I briefed to include about the four hundred and twenty people who were left behind. I had the distinct impression that the Marines didn't like my briefing one bit, because it depicted a situation that was not the same as they were depicting. And again I don't believe any Marine stood up to tell a lie about what happened in the Embassy. I believe that they told the picture as it came through the fog of war, if you will, told the picture as they heard it from the chopper pilots. And there was a lot of misconstruing of events on the ground. Still the fact was, a dozen Marines stood up and briefed on what had happened during this thing and the overall impression they left was that we barely got out of there and NVA tanks were knocking at the door.
And you know, it didn't happen that way.
I have visited the Vietnam Memorial several times. The first time I was there I looked for the names of people I'd known in Vietnam. I looked for Judge and McMahon's names. I was not deeply moved by the Vietnam memorial. Unlike a lot of guys who have trouble handling their experiences in Vietnam and the Memorial triggers them into another fit of depression and melancholy, sadness or shame or remorse or a combination of all of that, that did not happen to me. I thought it was a dignified memorial, that basically didn't turn me emotionally one way or another.
I can't get excited about the architecture itself one way or the other. It's a wall. I don't see where it's either stunning architectural idea, or something offensive. I see it as a wall with a bunch of names on it, and I don't see what the controversy was all about myself. I think that it makes a statement because when you see fifty-eight thousand names carved all in one spot, it gives one the idea of the enormity of the human sacrifice, or at least somewhat of an indication of the enormity of the sacrifice. But I didn't have a problem handling it. Even though I spent a lot of time in Vietnam and I have a lot of reasons to feel pretty terrible about what happened, I'm also lucky because I'm one of the vast silent majority of Vietnam veterans who handles it well.
I believe, a strong belief, that the picture of the average Vietnam veteran that has been foisted on the American people is a picture of a very small percentage of the Vietnam veterans who run around in old field jackets, unshaven and scruffy, blaming all of their failures in life on the Vietnam war, and that's not the typical Vietnam vet. The typical Vietnam vet is a pretty well adjusted healthy guy who is in his mid-40s and pretty successful in either business or some other pursuit.
And I do not accept the notion that the average Vietnam vet is like the vet that you see in the tiger cage outside the Vietnam Memorial trying to convince people there are still live prisoners. I basically am one of those who finds myself to be a lot healthier as a result of the Vietnam War in many ways, because of the perspective that it imparted to my overall philosophy of life. And I think there are a lot more of us than there are of the kind that wear field jackets and jungle hats and embrace one another tearfully every Memorial Day.
I don't mean to be uncharitable about that, but I'm sorry, the collection of veterans who are the most visible to the American people, that picture of the Veteran population is as cloudy and as inaccurate as the picture of the war and what happened. I shouldn't be surprised that the picture of the Vietnam veteran has been distorted by the American media? The whole war, the reality of the war was distorted.