Sunday, May 4, 2014
"Holy Christ, I Think They're Gonna Shoot Us All!" George Lumm and the Fall of Saigon
Holy Christ, I Think They’re Gonna Shoot Us All!
George Lumm Remembers the Fall of Saigon
My family was living in Saigon in the spring of 1975 while I was working in Hong Kong. My children, of course, were US citizens by birth and the U.S. Embassy did give us passports for them. But in order to leave Vietnam, they had to have exit visas. Even Americans who left Vietnam had to have an exit visa.
I believed that we would come back and support the government, mainly because I was thinking of the oil off the coast of Vietnam. There were those islands off the coast – the Spratly Islands -- and the Vietnamese had a dispute with China over them. They claimed there was a lot of oil out there. And I figured, hell, if there’s an energy problem in the future, there’s so much oil out there that the United States will definitely support South Vietnam if only for that. So I wasn’t thinking any more in terms of protecting freedom or democracy. By that time I was thinking that the whole war was nothing but a way to make money. I figured there’s so much money in the oil, surely they’re going to protect South Vietnam for all that oil!
I did not start to get real nervous until about a month before we left. That was when Danang fell – at the end of March, 1975.
One of my wife’s cousins lived up around Danang. They had six kids and her husband worked on military calls – picking up trash, that kind of stuff. And they were scared to death. She showed up in Saigon alone and said they had killed her husband and kids. Her husband told her to go out and get some supplies because they were going to try to get out of Danang before the North Vietnamese arrived. He told her, “They are coming and they are going to kill me.” I don’t know how he knew that. But that is what happened. They killed him and the kids. After that she walked all the way to Saigon from some place near Danang. She said that the Viet Cong had gone crazy, just crazy, in Danang when they arrived with the North Vietnamese Army. They were shooting people and killing people almost indiscriminately. I wanted her to come with us when we left Vietnam but she wouldn’t. She said she didn’t have anything to live for anymore and so she would stay in Vietnam to die.
But we did manage to get 32 other Vietnamese out in the end. I flew into Saigon on Air Vietnam. I had return tickets for my wife and my children. But even before that I was worried. I had gone to the American consulate in Hong Kong because I wanted to get my wife’s mother, father, brother and sister out. And they gave me the runaround. They said, “Oh, yeah, there’s no problem. You just go to the American Embassy in Saigon: they’ll approve it. They’ll give you entrance visas to the United States for your wife’s family.” My wife had become a US citizen. So I went to the American Embassy in Saigon about a week before the country fell and I was panicking. I said, “Jesus Christ, what’s going on? I got to get my family out of here, my wife and kids. My wife can’t leave without her family. She’s an American citizen. You’re supposed to get the families of American citizens out.” And this guy I talked to, this son of a bitch, was vice-consul or something in Saigon. And he says to me, “I’m going to give you this letter and you take it over to the Vietnamese immigration to get your exit visas. They’ll give you visas for your wife’s family. No problem.”
Well, shit, I went over there, and I waited hours before I could even see the Vietnamese receptionist. In Vietnam you always paid to see who you wanted to see, so I paid the receptionist and I got to see this guy the vice consul told me to go see. I explained what I was there for, and he said, “What are you talking about?” So I gave him the letter they gave to me at the Embassy. And he just laughed at me. He said, “I don’t know what’s wrong with him. He knows damned well that we don’t issue exit visas. We have too many things to worry about. I told him personally not to be wasting my time by having any of you people come in here asking for exit visas from Vietnam for Vietnamese.”
I went back to this vice consul and he would not see me anymore. So I had to see some new guy. And I said, “Hell, I need an exit visa and they won’t give it to me. They say they’ve got too many things on their mind. My own son with a U. S. passport, they won’t give him an exit visa.” So he said, “There’s nothing to worry about. There’s no reason to be panicking about getting them out of here.” And I said, “There’s an evacuation going on and I need an exit visa.” And he said, “No, there’s no evacuation” – he said that a week before the Goddamned thing fell apart. I said, “You’re telling me there’s no evacuation? Jesus Christ, all the American companies are gone; the Bank of America is gone; the construction companies are gone. What do you think these people are lining up outside the Embassy for, anyway? We are US citizens. I want to get my family out of here.”
He said to me, “Well, I’m too busy. There’s no big problem. There’s no evacuation. You are just overly excited. We’re not going to abandon South Vietnam.”
Then I went back, I think it was the twenty fourth, and what a mess. There were Vietnamese and Americans and everybody all over the God-damned place. And I swear – I am not lying to you – there were at least 400 people lined up outside the Embassy. We waited for about four hours. They wouldn’t let me see anybody but this nice Vietnamese girl who was working there. And she told me that indeed everybody was leaving and that they had promised all the Vietnamese working in the Embassy that when they left they would take them all out of the country and to the US.
And I said, “Well, hell, I think they should. I think they sould take anybody that’s ever worked for the Americans.” And I told her I was trying to get my family out of there. She showed me these forms and she said, “These are the forms that people are taking down after they’re filled out and stamped, and they take them to Tan Son Nhut to be evacuated.” So I grabbed a bunch of them. She gave me one completed form with the Embassy stamp on it. I went to the printer and said, “I need a stamp right away.” He made it in a couple of hours. So I forged the same signature that was on the copy she gave me and I put down my wife’s family. I put down the neighbors, we put down friends, too: thirty-two Vietnamese altogether.
But then, how do you get into Tan Son Nhut, even with papers? You had to pay the god-damned guards at the gate. You don’t get inside without paying. I had to take on an additional Vietnmese, an ARVN (Army of Vietnam) colonel who worked at Tan Son Nhut, and he wanted to get his family out, too. So he said, “I can get you inside if you can take me me and my family with you.” So I said, “Fine. I’ll take all I can.” So he got us inside.
We put thirty-two people into three cars and we drove into Tan Son Nhut. It was hotter than hell that day. We were all hungry and thirsty and there was no way to feed everybody. They did give us water once we were inside.
The American Embassy was just a bunch of shit! Goddamned politicians! But the US Air Force, on the other hand, they were terrific. You had to take these forms over to these Air Force personnel processing people for evacuation. This noncommissioned officer says to me, “All right, Mr. Lumm, do you know that you are only allowed to take immediate family members of American citizens out of South Vietnam?” I had a Catholic priest with me who was in his 80s, and I had the names and the birthdates of everyone else with me listed. He looked at my papers and he asked, “Are these people all related to you?” And I said, “Yeah. Either directly or by adoption.” And he looked at the papers and he looked at me and he said, “What the hell is this? Here is an eighty-year old Catholic priest.” And I said, “Well, he’s my adopted son!” The guy laughed out loud and then approved the whole lot of us. “You guys all got in here,” he said, “and we’ll do our best to get you out.”
Originally I wasn’t going to go with the evacuation because I had tickets on Air Vietam but I wanted to make sure that my wife’s family got out and that all these other people with us got out too. My intention was to get them inside the airport, sign the papers for them, and then leave and take my family on Air Vietnam. But then the Air Force guy tells us that all civilian flights are cancelled. “There are no more civilian flights,” he says. And I’m saying, “Holy shit, what am I going to do now?” I mean I had a job in Hong Kong. At the time I was working for DHL – a courier service – and they had an office in Hong Kong and another in Guam.
We waited there –inside Tan Son Nhut-- for two days. Finally, they gave us a bus – just for us – all thirty-two Vietnamese plus my wife and myself. The Vietnamese bus driver was also trying to get out. But to get to the plane that was scheduled to take us out, we had to go through the Vietnamese part of the airport where they had Vietnamese guards. And of course they stopped our bus. I knew that the females on our bus would have no problem but military-age males were on the bus, too. They were a definite problem. So these Vietnamese guards stopped our bus and opened the doors. Meanwhile, I’m trying to get my wife to tell me what in the hell is going on. The question our bus driver, our stupid bus driver, and he tells them, “Oh, no, I’m not leaving. I’m just driving the bus for them!” They immediately drag his ass off the bus. Most of the buses had US Air Force personnel driving, but with our luck, we had a Vietnamese. So then this one soldier tried to get onto the bus and like a fool – I do not know where I got the courage because I was about to shit my pants – I jumped up and grabbed the bar by the door and say, “You are not allowed access to this bus. This is U.S. Government property and these are U.S. personnel,” and all of this shit. And the guy doesn’t know what in the hell I’m talking about. Clearly, he could see, I was the only non-Vietnamese on the bus. He starts talking on his radio and my wife is telling me what he’s saying and he’s calling some captain and telling him that some American would not let him get on the bus. So, that captain tells him, “Well, push him aside.” And he says, “I tried but he insists. I’m afraid he’s from the Embassy.” And he then says, “We’ll have to talk about it. Come here.” So the soldier left to go confer with his captain.
I had never driven a large vehicle before. I didn’t know how to drive a stick shift or anything. This bus is sitting there and the engine is running. But nobody aboard knew how to drive it. Then I saw an empty bus was coming back across the airport and it had an Air Force guy – a black guy – driving it. My God, I loved the sight of that guy. I’d kiss him today if I could ever see him again! That son of a gun stops his bus beside us and he yells, “What’s going on?” And I say, “Holy Christ, I think they’re gonna shoot us all!” I told him quickly what had happened. But meanwhile, here comes that god damned soldier again and he’s yelling and screaming, “Stop! Stop!” because the Air Force guy is now climbing into our bus. This Air Force guy turns and looks at the approaching soldier and he shouts, “Fuck you, buddy!” And he takes off with our bus. And suddenly the Vietnamese guards are shooting at us. They are actually fucking shooting at us!
When we got to the plane – now this is funny – the young males were really scared because they figured they were going to get stuck. I don’t know what kind of plane it was, but it’s one of those where the tail comes down and you just get inside that way. And they didn’t have seats on it. You had to tot down on the floor. Well, when our bus stopped I never before or since saw anybody run so fast in my life. Those young kids left that bus and were on the plane in a split second. All of us were scared, but I tell you that was really something to see!
But you know I actually thought we were going to get stuck there and be killed.
They buttoned up the plane and we took off and they flew us to Guam. At first they told us nobody could leave the air base in Guam. And I said, “Hell, I’m a U.S. citizen. Why can’t I leave? I’m not military or anything. Here’s my passport.” So they let me leave and I went to the DHL’s office in Guam. I asked DHL, “What are you going to do? Here I am on Guam and I don’t know what’s going to happen to us.” They said, “Don’t worry. We’ll arrange to bring you back to Hong Kong. You can be couriers. So my wife and I and our kids went back to Hong Kong as couriers for DHL. And that’ how we got back to Hong Kong.