Wednesday, March 26, 2014

"The Light at the End of the Tunnel Has Just Been Shut Off": Becky Martin Remembers the Fall of Saigon

In 1974 I was working in Washington for the Department of Defense. I found the job somewhat boring and I wanted to see the world. So one day I just went over and I signed up for all the open government positions I could qualify for, in twenty different countries. I just signed up indiscriminately. Two weeks later Vietnam popped up and they called me.

Well, the war was over: “peace with honor” and all that jazz was in the past, I thought. So I had no misgivings at the time. And I would have gone anywhere. I thought it would be great.

They gave me two weeks to report from the date of notification. I needed to get a passport and make moving arrangements. But they took care of it. The only thing that bothered me prior to my arrival was that the flight from Guam into Manila was full – a Pan Am 747. And that plane emptied in Manila. I mean emptied. I looked around, and I was the only Caucasian aboard the flight other than the attendants and I saw four to six Vietnamese military types in their uniforms. That was it. On a 747! And as we took off from Manila, some hostess came over to me and said, “Why are you going to Saigon?” I said, “I have a job there.” And she said, “You’re kidding.” And I said, “No. How many flights do you make a week?” And she said, “We have to go in twice a week.” I said, “Do you take any more people than this?’’ She said, “No.”

Pan Am had the mail contract. They went in nearly empty. That was my first inkling that I may have made a mistake. It was obvious to me that an awful lot of people knew something that I didn’t.

I went out as an intelligence aide, and once I got into that I didn’t like it. So I got into administrative functions and worked in the Current Intelligence Section of the Defense Attaché Office.

When the war was over, supposedly, there were many enclaves that were left to the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese throughout South Vietnam. I didn’t know that. And in the first briefing I ever went to, an order of battle briefing of what was going on in the country, the first map that went up on the wall was a map of Military Region 1[MR1]. I saw these red and blue symbols and at that time the symbols really didn’t mean that much to me. I didn’t know what they meant, but the color scheme was easy to catch on to. And I noticed that most of the colors were red. I thought, “Gee, that’s unusual. Red usually is the bad guys. They’re not usually the good guys.”

Then the MR2 map went up on the board. Cripes, something was wrong. There are fewer red and more blues. And I turned to Captain Stu Herrington sitting next to me, nudged him –I only met him once before, and said, “Who’s red and who’s blue?” And he said, “Red’s the bad guys.” And I thought, “Oh, shit!”

Then MR3 went up. Well, we had more blue. But not many more. I thought, “What have I done? I’ve got to be out of my mind to be here.” Peace with honor? What a joke. My God, we left half the country to the Vietcong.

After that briefing, Jim Wink asked me, “What’d you think?” I said, “Jim, this place ain’t going to make it. It’s half gone already.” I said, “Oh, no, no, no.” And I said, Yes, yes, yes.” There’s no way in hell they can pull this out.” And they got into a big discussion, Jim and Jimmy Harris and somebody else. They said, “Oh,no, they’re going to be fine. We’re going to provide them with logistical support that they need to make it. We’re their allies….” And blah, blah, blah. I backed off. It was never a subject I harped on.

That evening Stu Herrington came to my apartment. He said, “You seemed a little upset by today’s briefing.” And I said, “Right.” And he said, “Well, I thought I’d come down and talk to you and try to put things in perspective.” So I invited him in and he tried to put ;things in perspective for me, militarily. In other words, all the symbols didn’t mean we were going to be overrun any second.

Another thing that really bothered me the first months in country was that there were an awful lot of young people on the streets. They would lie about their age, draft dodgers, have fake cards made up. There was still quite a bit of desertion. The war was not a popular thing. It had claimed so many lives and been fought for so many years. I felt the will of the people just wasn’t there.

I think Vietnam was a terrible waste. Honest to God. We spent so much in manpower, which was our greatest loss, and so much money, so many years fighting, something that should have been over with in a very short period of time. But it was so political and the politicians never permitted the army to do what they shuld have done – just go in and win it.

We had a MISTA [Monthly Intelligence Summary and Threat Analysis] the morning after Nixon resigned. General John Murray, the Defense Attaché at the time, was devastated with emotion. He said, “Gentlemen, the light at the end of the tunnel has just been shut off.”

The Communists had never been able to key in on Tricky Dicky, really. He was an unknown to them. He didn’t think like other Occidentals think. As a prime example, when Kissinger was at the peace talks in Paris, things ere going very well with Le Duc Tho, the chief North Vietnamese negotiator. And all of a sudden Hanoi was bombed. They could not agree to terms and Richard Nixon turned around and unleashed firepower. The North Vietnamese went back to the table in a very short period of time. And we had the making of peace with honor. But that bombing hit them very hard. It just didn’t hit them in Hanoi, in logistic grids and depots, not only in the north, but in South Vietnam too, the northernmost part.

Then Nixon resigned. That bothered me. Where we were, things would be printed in the press about Watergate, but we weren’t consumed with it. We didn’t have it thrown at us on our TV news. We didn’t have a news station. We only had the one English-language paper and Watergate was not or paramount importance to them. In fact, if you talk to most people who lived overseas at that time, they’ll tell you that most foreigners do not understand the big deal about Watergate. They don’t understand the way Americans crucify themselves over something that’s hoo-hum to them.

So the Nixon resignation changed things for us. We started winding down. We spent two or three months microfiching documents and destroyed everything we had microfiched as soon as the film came back and it was good. We shredded and burned everything. Our security officer would have a heart attack ever time he came through because he would see volumes of papers. And all that stuff had to be destroyed. We just couldn’t leave things behind. The consensus was to get it down to a manageable size, when and if there’s a need.

Still, I never really felt that Vietnam would fall apart, until Danang Fell in late March of 1975. That for me was very symbolic. I saws the reports by the DAO personnel up there. Collection and Liaisons had representatives there and we saw their reports and their accounts of what was happening. Suddenly, here they come! Fourteen or fifteen divisions!

We had another MISTA on April 4 and that morning a colonel came into the office and said, “We’re going to have our first evacuation. It’s going to start today.” Earlier we had made up a priority list of who would leave and when – the least essential individuals were to go out first. He said the people on the first list were to go out that very day – April 4th. I knew that included my message man and one of the secretaries. It also included three junior analysts from our office. And I said, “Since we have the MISTA, why don’t we go ahead and just keep verybody? We’re going to be here for a while and they can go out on one of the later flights.” He says, “Gee, I was thinking the same thing.” I said, “Great.” He came back later and said that Colonel William LeGro aftreed. “We’ll leave everybody in place.”

And so our office, the Current Intelligence Section, was the only one that didn’t lose anybody on the fourth of April because that was our big production day.

But they went ahead with the evacuation that day. They decided to evacuate a large number of Vietnamese children. And they thought, “What a beautiful way to cut down on personnel and go ahead and evacuate mostly women from the DAO.” They could help care for the children, the orphans, being taken out on the flight, too. So they let the women know that morning after they came to work. They were called to a meeting center and told them that they were going to leave and they were given time to go home and pack (I think two bags is what they culd take with them), and that arrangements would be made to send their effects on later. So most of the women did return to the pickup point and were taken by bus from the DAO over to the air base and loaded on this big C-5A. A couple of women did not want to go who were supposed to go. Some other women felt they had commitments to some Vietnamese families and they didn’t think they should go without making an effort to get them out too. They didn’t come back to work until the next day.

We were at work late in the afternoon and one of the guys from security came in and said, “The C-5A crashed returning to Tan Son Nhut. So we all went out and piled into a pickup truck and went over to the air base and stood there and waited for helicopters from the crash site. Not very many came in.

A few dead came in at first, but most were survivors, initially. And most of the survivors were children. The C-5A is a triple-decker plane. Most of the children were on the upper level and they survived but they had burns. I think the thing that just shocked me or intrigued me was that all the kids seemed to have injuries. You could see where the skin had burned and they had wet themselves or excreted but none of them cried. They just lay there like limp dolls. I would have expected them to be just screaming their lungs out, but they made no sound at all – nothing. No response.

My friends from the DAO were all killed. It was like losing my family. I had a feeling they were dead even before, when one helicopter came in and they off-loaded the children. So many people rushed to help and I stood there and I watched. And I thought, “They’re all gone.” A numbness crept from the back of my head and spread to my whole brain. I was so overwhelmed at the sense of loss. Something chemically happened to my body to enable me to cope with it. I had never experienced this numbness before.

Another helicopter came in very quickly and it had a lot more children on it. I went out and helped transfer them from the helicopters to the ambulance. Then I saw they had a woman’s body, and it was Barbara, a gal that worked in our office. Her daughter survived, sitting right next to her. Barbara’s nose and mouth were filled with mud. Other than that there was not a mark on her. And they said later that she had died of fright. She had a heart attack. Another helicopter came in and it had the body of a crew member on it. His head was bashed in. He must have died instantly. They had twelve body bags on the next helicopter and when I saw that I just turned around and left.

I always believe in celebrating family holidays, wherever you are. You always have a lot of people in and you do it right. Set the table and sit down and don’t eat off paper plates, a little bit more like home. So I always went all out to have American-style holidays. Easter had just been celebrated that Sunday and all of the women who came to my Easter dinner were dead within a week.

That night we went back to the office and tried to find out who was on the plane and who was not. At that time there was no consolidated list. There was another Becky Martin on that plane. She was form Texas. She worked in the Air Force division. One of the guys in security asked me, “Do you want me to call your parents?” I said, “Can we get a line out?” He said, “I don’t know.” They really shut down communications at that point because they didn’t want calls going out to families and they didn’t want calls coming in. They wanted to control it until they got a handle on who was on the plane and sent out official notifications. You don’t want somebody calling and giving out, “Yes, I’m sorry, your mother’s dead.” And then your mother may not be dead.

One of the guys in security called my parents and got my mother on the line and told her, “Mrs. Martin, there’s been a very serious accident here, a plane crash, but your daughter is safe. She was not on the plane.” And they cut him off. He didn’t get a chance to say my name might be on the list because there was another Becky Martin on the plane and she had been killed.

My father had friends in Thailand and evidently knew someone in Saigon and they called me at the office and got back to my parents and said, “She really is okay.” Someone from California had sent the list to them and so they were really uptight. My mother still didn’t believe I was okayuntil she talked to me about a week and a half later.

After the accident I packed up some of my friends’ belongings and went through their papers making inventory lists of everything they had. This was supposedly done for all the crash victims so that later, if they belongings didn’t get out of the country in time, the families could be compensated. There was a lot of jewelry, a lot of expensive things, and mementos and picture albums. It was tough but in a way it helped me, also, and I felt that somehow they were with me.

I had a dream about a month before the accident. All of us were in a room and it looked something like our office. It was a huge room, very long and wide, and the desks faced in different directions. And we had a music system in the office. It was great. We used to listen to Monday night football on Tuesday morning. But we had the music system turned on and all the ddesks were turned upside down, the drawers had been opened and papers were taken out and everything was empty. And I was sitting there and some of the people – Anne Reynolds and Joan Prey and others – came whipping through the office. Joan had access to the bank area where we were and she came in and said, “Come on, let’s go.” I said, “Well, not yet. We’re not supposed to go yet. It’s not time for us to go.” She said, “Okay, I’ll see you later.” I said, “All right.” And she went out. I got a call from Ann and the others and they said, “Come on over, we’re all going to meet over at such and such a place.” And I didn’t know where that was. In my dream it was raining like crazy and the door was flapping back and forth in the wind. I heard a Vietnamese talking, a Vietcong, and I got worried and I wondered, “Where are they? They were all supposed to be here and now there’s nobody here but me.” And as the Vietcong opened the door I woke up.

That dream bothered me. And the next day I went to Anne’s place for a drink. I gave her hell and said, “You turkeys left me.” And she said, “What do you mean?” I told her about my dream. And she said, “No, we wouldn’t ever leave you Becky.” But they did. They all left. It was a weird dream and it haunted me for a couple of days and then I just kind of shoved it aside.

Two days after that crash some of us went to a security meeting down at the Embassy. They presented their plans for the evacuation of Americans from Saigon. They showed us a couple of buildings they had plans to land helicopters on top of and fly people out. They had plans for third-party nationals to be admitted to these buildings so they could also be evacuated. Some of the helicopters would only hold three or four passengers at a time and that’s not very many people when you get a panicky situation. They thought the North Vietnamese would let us leave. Why tear up a city that you can take whole and intact? But what if the South Vietnamese panicked and wanted to go out? Where are they going to go? They’re going to go for the American helicopters! And we’re supposed to maintain crowd control and we don’t speak their language?

At that point I thought I’d better write to somebody, get my affairs in order. I didn’t have a will. So I sat down and wrote a letter to my father and got a power of attorney – talk about ignorant! I got blank power of attorney. I wrote the letter to him and said, “In case I don’t come home by the end of May do this with my car, do this with my savings account, do this with my belongings.” I just made a list of the things I wanted him to do and I took it down and I had Stu address it because I was afraid my mother would open it if she saw my handwriting. And we put “personal” on it. My mother never opens my father’s mail but I felt she was in such a turmoil that if she saw my handwriting it wouldn’t make any difference if it was addressed to him or not. She would open it.

My mother opened it. My God, she had a fit. Because it was from Saigon, she was sure it pertained to me, and my father was not there to open it when it arrived and she was. She could not wait for him.

Sending that off was like having a weight lifted from my shoulders. Doug Dearth said later that day, “What are you grinning about?” I said, “You know, in case we’re a little late in getting out of here, I’ve taken care of all my affairs.” He said, “What did you do, send a will home?” And I said, “Of course not. I sent a power of attorney.” He said, “A power of attorney, Becky, is no damned good if you’re dead.” I said, “Well, it’s too late now. Things will be okay.”

We started sending people out, then, section by section. As a supervisor I was the last one in my section to leave. We left in pretty much an orderly manner. Because of the accesses we had, when we were told to get out, we got out.

I went over to Tan Son Nhut to leave the night that President Thieu resigned, April 21. I was up all night waiting in a staging area. They had C-130s coming in around the clock. All you had to do to take anybody out with you was to go over and tell them, “My name is such and such. I work for so-and-so, I’ve got X number of people I’m taking out” and they’d give you a card and that was that. Then your name and number went on a list and when they got to you, you got on a plane. The C-130s were taking about a hundred people at a time. Just around the clock. And that had gone on for a couple of days.

I didn’t actually leave Vietnam until the next morning at daylight. We were bused over to the boarding area, were body-searched and baggage-searched by Air Force security cops – Americans. They had also brought in a contingent of Marines to beef up security around the perimeter. The largest staging area was over by the DAO swimming pool, a bowling alley and a gymnasium. It was totally packed. You just waited your time to get on and go.

We were getting on the plane and a couple of Vietnamese fighter pilots went by, taxiing to take off in jet fighters, and we gave them a thumbs-up signal, keeping up the front, everything was fine! But the city knew better and they knew better. It was never officially admitted that the Americans were evacuating.

The plane was packed. The engine was loud. It was cold. I think I counted five Caucasians on the plane. The rest were Vietnamese and there were a hundred on each plane. Family units. After we got out over the water for a distance I cried.

We landed at Clark Field in the Philippines and I then tried to get a flight out. I finally got on a plane escorting Vietnamese children to the US. It turned out that some of them had survived the C-5A crash. The plane was a converted C-141. It had the passenger seats facing the tail and toward the tail end of the plane they had a bunk arrangement, baskets for kids so that they were safe.

I said I’d escort the children. I thought this was ironic. But I went ahead and did it. I didn’t think any more about it, though. Too much had happened. Too many people had died.

They strap the children to you when you land on those planes so that if there’s any kind of an accident or anything the child doesn’t go flying through the aircraft.

I held a baby. Well, he wasn’t really a baby. He looked like a baby. He must have been three but he looked like he was maybe one. He was so emaciated. And I had two other children beside me in the seat, sisters. They held tight to me, their fingers digging into my legs. They were afraid the whole way home.

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