Sunday, May 4, 2014
"Sweet Jesus, I'm Back in the World" -- Vietnam Johnny Remembers the Fall of Saigon
“Sweet Jesus, I’m Back in the World”
John Walburg, ‘Vietnam Johnny” Remembers the Fall of Saigon
When Danang fell I figured we had three or four months left before the dNorth Vietnamese took over. I knew they were coming. But my wife kept telling me that it wasn’t going to happen. She thought the U. S. Marines would come running in at the last minute – just like the cavalry in the movies – and save everything.
I had been living in Vietnam since 1969. I was married there and my wife and I had three kids. We lived between Bien Hoa and Saigon. I actually planned on living there for good. But then the war went bad for the South and everything changed.
Outside Saigon there was this big supply depot where all of the stuff that the Americans gave to the Vietnamese was stored. They had a big Cyclone fence around it. And whenever I drove into Saigon I passed the place. And week after week I watched the supplies dwindle, until in mid-April it looked like a big, empty parking lot. As I watched that supply depot get smaller and smaller, I knew what was happening and I knew that the end was coming.
It took me two days to get our papers to get out of the country. Two days of standing in line and filling out forms. We were supposed to be on a flight out of Saigon on April 28. But then they bombed and rocketed the base before the plane could take off, and we had to make other plans.
We finally got inside Tan Son Nhut on the morning of April 28. The guards at first didn’t want to let us in, but we paid them some money and they let us through. Inside the gate we were told to proceed to the Defense Attaché Office annex, which was to be the departure point for us. We went there and had to get some more papers and wait in line some more. We got our papers stamped and got a number. We had Number 29, I remember, our plane number. And at that time they were up to Plane Number 17. And everybody kept asking, “What plane are they on now?” Everybody seemed worried about getting out and there was a lot of praying going on.
After we got our number we had to sit on the ground and wait. They had parachutes spread out overhead to protect us from the sun. Finally we got on a bus that was supposed to take us out to our plane. And we were all sitting on the bus when all of a sudden a rocket came in and hit the building next to us. It blew the top of the building off—the roof flew over and landed in the DAO swimming pool. We heard that rocket coming in. And I really thought we were going to get it, right there on the bus, on the steps. The door of the bus was closed. I grabbed my son and ran to the front of the bus and pushed the door open and kicked the driver out the door. There was a real panic inside and everybody was screaming and running and pushing for that door. My wife was right behind me with our two daughters. The three of them got off the bus and ran across the street and lay down in a ditch with other people. I lay down in the street with my son and protected him with my body.
Then all of a sudden I thought to myself, “This is really stupid. I was in the middle of the street. So I picked up my son and carried him off to the side of the street. We lay there the rest of the night. Rockets and artillery fire kept coming in. And everybody around us was screaming and crying and praying. Everybody was trying real real hard to become part of the ground. When daylight finally came we were still taking some incoming fire. With daylight knew what to do. The bus driver had disappeared – gone! So I took charge and told everybody to get back inside the bus. I saw helicopters landing and loading and taking off at the DAO headquarters right around the corner. I drove that bus full of people – the driver had left the keys in the ignition, thank God – to the gate of the DAO headquarters. There were Marine guards posted there. They wouldn’t open the gate. “This is a secure post and nobody can come in,” they told me. I told them that all of our names were on a manifest to go out on a plane and that there weren’t any more planes and we wanted to get out. Then one of the Marines said, “Well, we can let you in because you’re an American citizen. But we can’t let those other people in.” But, damn, there was no way I was going to leave my wife and kids and all those other people sitting on that bus. So I just sat down in front of the gate and said, “Well, buddy, we got nowhere else to go now. So we’re just staying right here.”
Finally an officer came out to the gate to see what was going on. I showed him our papers and he let us come in.
They led us to the communications building in a corner. By this time the people with me had not eaten in more than a day. So I walked over to the PX. Nobody was in charge, it seemed. I loaded up with some apple pies, some sandwiches and some Twinkies and carried them back to our group. I passed them out to everybody. Then I went back and got some more – candy bars and more sandwiches and Twinkies. There were seventy people in our group and I was taking care of all of them.
We were left alone in that building without any escort. I started looking around the room. I found an army helmet on the floor and put it on. In a desk drawer I found a .38 pistol and I stuck it in my belt. I was really in charge now.
After a while I really began to worry that the Marines had forgotten we were there. So I walked over to the main building which I found was packed with people They were processing people there to go out to the helicopters. I found a guy who looked like he knew what he was doing. He was in the library of the DAO and he had a stack of cards that people were supposed to carry. They were all TWA baggage tickets, it turned out. He told me to write numbers on the cards starting with 1-1 and then 1-2 and so on. I was go to up to sixteen and then start over at 2-1 and 2.2 and so on up to 16 again. Everybody in my group had to have a card with a number on it. There would be sixteen people in each helicopter. The first number was the helicopter you were going to get on.
So I went back to my group with a big batch of those baggage tags and all of a sudden everybody was yelling, “ME FIRST! ME FIRST!” A Vietnamese congressmen in my group came over and offered me $400 – in US dollars -- for the first tags so he and his family could be the first to leave. I knew that all of us were going, so I took his money and gave him the tags. Then I started filling them out for everybody else. There was a priest there and some pregnant women and I put them on the first helicopter with the congressman and his family. It was something like assigning lifeboats on the Titanic, I suppose. Everybody in our group was suddenly quietly and politely mobbing me! There was this very old man and his wife, I remember. They were just absolutely scared to death. Terrified. He came over and offered me five dollars to put him and his wife on the first chopper. I told him to keep his money and I put him and his wife on the first chopper. My wife and kids and I were on the last helicopter for our group.
Then I lined our group up and led them all over to the main DAO building. There was a long line inside and we stood in that line with our numbered tags. As we got near the front of the line they suddenly told us, “No suitcases!” We could only bring one small bag per person. I had a briefcase and my wife had a small travel bag with clothing and that was all we brought out.
It seemed like forever standing in that line. In fact we were there all day long. Finally, very late in the afternoon we go to the front of the line and they led us out to the helicopter – a big Chinook. We got in but then they stopped our group right after my wife. There were two young Vietnamese women behind her and they signaled that those women had to go back inside and wait for the next helicopter. But they were really really scared by now. They apparently did not believe there would be a next helicopter. So they grabbed hold of my wife and starting crying and screaming and they wouldn’t let go of her. The ramp started to close and they were still clinging desperately to her and I tried to push them back but they hung on and continued screaming and wailing “Help me! Help me!” They were Vietnamese nurses and they had worked for the Americans. Finally, the Marines put the ramp back down and lifted the two women inside with us. Then the ramp went up and we took off.
I stood next to the door gunner as we pulled up. I was thinking, “Man, I’m finally out of here.” I was happy to be in a helicopter again. I had not been in one since I’d been in the Army. They had me pass out cotton balls to the passengers so they could stick them in their ears because the engine was so loud. We flew out over Vung Tau and I looked down at the beautiful beaches there. That was my last look at Vietnam.
I started looking ahead to see where we were going to land. Then I suddenly saw the American fleet – the whole goddamned beautiful fleet just sitting out there in the South China Sea. Oh, what a beautiful sight!
We came down on a helicopter carrier. I jumped out first and then helped my wife and kids out. There were American photographers, Marines and sailors all around and everybody was speaking English on the deck. Everything was under control. We were safe, I felt. We’d made it. And I looked around and said to myself, “Sweet Jssus, I’m back in the world.”