Friday, December 7, 2012

Tom Sailer's Vietnam

Tom Sailer
"I'm Going Back and Shoot That Guy"

I think when that World Airways 727 came out of Danang and we learned what had happened to it on the ground, well, the handwriting was on the wall for Vietnam. They kept losing country -- the South -- and as they did our Air America trips became more and more restricted. My trips became shorter and shorter. My last flight in the country was on April 26th -- flying supplies to some troops. After that it was pretty much over.
On April 28th I was sitting around in apartment -- on Cong Ly street -- with nothing much to do. And I decided to go out and buy some stuff. I bought presents for my family and put them all in the trunk of my car. Then I drove home and left the car parked at the curb with the packages still in the trunk. As far as I know it's still there today.
That night there was an attack on the airport. My apartment was on the sixth floor of the building and out the window I could see out near Tan Son Nhut and it was just a sea of flames out there. I had several other Air America pilots over for dinner that night and several of them said that they thought they'd never see their aircraft again. And without the aircraft we didn't know how we were ever going to get out of Vietnam. That night we watched the shelling of the city from the roof of my apartment building. My building was supposed to be a rescue point if it ever got really bad. And that night we thought it was getting pretty bad. We sat around and talked until pretty late in the night. And the other pilots said they thought it would be best if they stayed at my place that night. So they did.
We got up on the morning of the 29th and we were sitting around the table having breakfast when all of a sudden we heard a chopper approaching. We wondered who it was, since we hadn't gotten any word or anything from our terminal at Tan Son Nhut. And they said they would keep in touch with us at all times as to what was happening. As it turned out, they had been holed up out there behind sandbags and they were not able to use their radio to call us.
Now the big evacuation was on. As we heard that chopper coming in we ran out the door and up to the roof. He had already landed there. And he told us, "We're gettin' out. Right now. Bring one bag." There were five of us who had stayed in my apartment and we all ran back down, grabbed a travel bag and then ran back up to the roof. We left breakfast on the table, coffee on the stove and the door wide open on the way out.
When we got back on the roof there was a little Vietnamese kid standing there, all alone, about six years old. He said he wanted to go with us. One of the guys said, "Leave him." But he said he wanted to go and I thought, "What the hell," so I scooped him up and brought him into the helicopter with us. Then we took off for Tan Son Nhut. When we landed at the airport that kid wandered off somewhere. I never saw him again.
On the way out we were told that all hell had broken loose at the airport. They had been shelled and bombed and sniped at and now some of the Vietnamese were stealing our choppers and taking off in them. Everything was gone.
They dropped us off on the tarmac next to a C 46 and told us to get on board. We did just that. We scrambled onto the plane,started the engines and just started rolling.
One of the main tires on the plane was low, I noticed when getting in. But there was no time to take care of it. We had to go. It seemed that everybody was leaving at the moment -- there was a lull in the shelling. Dependents of the Air America personnel were there and they were streaming out of various buildings to climb aboard the Air America planes. We had about twenty on our C 46. When I taxied out onto the runway I saw a line of C 130s all ablaze and people lying dead on the ground around them. Then, as I was coming to the nearest intersection, here came a little French car. It pulled up right in front of me, just like he was preparing to ram us. And a Vietnamese major got out. He signaled to me that he wanted to go out with us. He signaled by waving and pointing into the sky. My co-pilot, a kind of hot-headed guy, said, "I'm going back and shoot that guy. He's a god-damned deserter." And I said, "Ah, what the hell. Let's take him. It's all over here anyway."
So I signaled to the major that he could come on board. He backed his car off the runway. And we threw the ladder down for him and he came on board. He was unarmed. And he never said a word the whole trip. I could have left him there, I suppose. But I really thought we should take him. At the moment it seemed like the right thing to do. After he was on board we took off.
I wasn't sure how much fuel we had at that time. After we took off I saw we had full tanks. We took off toward the west because of a westerly wind at the time. Then I turned and headed southeast toward the nearest water. The main thing was to get over water, so we could be safe from ground fire and from SAMs. My last look at Vietnam was through the clouds as we banked. I looked down and it seemed to be peaceful. Then I headed for Hong Kong.

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