BOOK MARK : Seeking Tunnel’s End in Vietnam, U.S. Left in Disarray

<i> Olivier Todd, the former editor in chief of l'Express, covered the Vietnam War from 1965 to 1973</i>

During the long years of fighting the Vietnam War, Washington never seemed to have thought about the logistics of leaving. In “Cruel April: The Fall of Saigon,” the author describes the last four months of the U.S. presence in Saigon, detailing the fall of the embassy.

At the Pentagon, at U.S. headquarters in Thailand, on the flagship Blue Ridge, they’re losing patience with Ambassador Graham A. Martin. How many evacuees are still on line at the Saigon embassy? No more guesswork, no more pick-a-number!

At 2:30 a.m. Saigon time, the ambassador reports 726 people at the embassy: 500 Vietnamese, 53 American civilians and 173 Marines. The military make a quick calculation. It will take nine CH-53 helicopter sorties to empty the embassy.

Soon after, phoning the White House, Martin revises his figures. There are almost twice as many Vietnamese.

In fact, 1,100 people are waiting, mostly Vietnamese citizens--also a German priest and a dozen South Korean diplomats, including the former deputy commander of the 40,000 Korean soldiers serving in Vietnam.


Political considerations come into play. In Washington, they want a quick announcement that all Americans have been evacuated. Secretary of State Henry A. Kissinger has promised to hold a press conference at 2 p.m. Washington time, 2 a.m. in Saigon. He postpones the conference for two hours.

They have to end it. At 3:15 a.m. in Saigon, a CH-46 helicopter lands on the embassy roof. The pilot shows a hand-copied message signed by CINCPAC: “On the basis of the reported total of 726 evacuees, CINCPAC is authorized to send 19 helicopters and no more.” The words “no more” are underlined twice. “The President expects Ambassador Martin to be on the last helicopter.”

The secretary of defense wants the last helicopter to take off at 3:45 a.m. Martin is asked to acknowledge this “presidential message.”

They try to reassure the Vietnamese refugees in the embassy courtyards. Thomas Polgar, chief of the CIA mission, figures he will shut down all transmission at 3:20 a.m.

At 3:30, the flying command post circling over Saigon, a C-130, sends a coded message. From now on, only Americans will be evacuated, and Martin will board the first available helicopter. When he’s in the air, the helicopter will broadcast a simple message: “Tiger, tiger, tiger.”

On the telephone, Kissinger tells Martin: “You and your heroes must return home now.” He postpones his press conference another hour.

At 3:45, Martin inspects the crowd in the embassy courtyard and says, “From now on, the helicopters on the roof are reserved for Americans.”

All Vietnamese in the embassy buildings are to gather in the courtyard. Martin says CH-53s will pick them up there.

At the White House, Brent Scowcroft, President Gerald R. Ford’s national security adviser, gets an urgent message, a flash from Martin: “Plan to close mission Saigon approximately 0430 . . . . Due to necessity to destroy commo (communications) gear, this is the last Saigon message to SecState.”

At 4:42, a CH-46, its name “Lady Ace 09" painted on its flank, lands on the embassy roof. The pilot presents a presidential order: ". . . for helo limits, only Americans plus crews will be carried. The ambassador should get on Lady Ace 09.”

Martin climbs aboard with his press attache, John Hogan, Polgar and Col. George Jacobson, a special assistant to the ambassador. On the helicopter they find the last Marines from the airport. If the ambassador refused to leave, there was a reserve order to arrest Martin, signed by Adm. Noel Gayler, the commander in chief of U.S. forces in the Pacific. There are still several Americans at the embassy, minister-counselor Wolfgang Lehmann among them. Two officers are quarreling--U.S. Army Col. John Madison thinks all Vietnamese are going to be evacuated. Maj. James Kean, chief of the Marine detachment, answers that he’s had orders to leave. He’s going to ask his men to fall back toward the roof.

Behind the embassy walls, Vietnamese jostle and stamp and shout:

“Take my child.”

“I have gold, dollars.”

“My wife and children have left. Take me too.”

They beg, they weep. For many Americans, the dilemma is excruciating. If more Vietnamese are allowed into the embassy, those already inside will never be able to board and leave. The Marines use their rifle butts, find it hard to hold a shrinking perimeter and fall back from the outer wall. Some Vietnamese climb over the wall. Some start up a truck and break down the gates. Madison is appalled. Now there are 400-500 people, mostly Vietnamese, many of them embassy employees, including firemen. They’ve all abandoned their baggage. The firemen offer to help. Refugees are organized into six groups. Two officers, Madison and Col. Harry G. Summers Jr.--a member of the commissions set up to supervise the 1973 Paris Agreement--feel helpless. The Vietnamese understand they’re going to be left behind. The Marines fall back to the stairs.

Landing on the helicopter carrier Okinawa shortly afterward, Madison begs that six helicopters be sent to pick up the six groups in the embassy courtyard. His request is denied. The first diplomats reaching the ship “forgot” to say that 420 refugees remained in the embassy courtyard, before it was overrun by the outer throng of Vietnamese.

5:10 a.m. Two hundred Americans, including 170 Marines, are waiting in the embassy. At Kean’s order, the last Marines go upstairs. They block the doors behind them with steel bars. They dump dressers, tables--anything that comes to hand--into the stairwells and elevator shafts. The Marines take two hours to move from the ground floor to the roof. They throw tear gas grenades. One tosses a combat grenade. The Vietnamese cannot follow.

Armed Vietnamese soldiers roam the embassy. On the roof, an unlimbered machine gun covers the perimeter. The Marines are applying rule D on engagement: No random fire--commence firing only by order of an officer or a noncom in command.

5:47: Aboard Lady Ace 09, an exhausted Martin consoles himself. In the end it was a good job of work . . . they did their best . . . . Some colleagues think he took too many decisions too late. Martin feels he avoided panic and even fooled the North Vietnamese. All Americans are out; the Marines were not forced to fight. Martin might have stayed longer, but he’s been a disciplined diplomat for 45 years.

To him, the President’s order was a terrible ordeal. He thinks the President was misled by Defense Secretary James R. Schlesinger. Headquarters officers think Martin gave misleading responses. Martin thinks he himself has been misled.

So it goes in war. So it goes in any debacle.

In Washington, they weren’t ready for any of this, the ambassador reflects. They were coasting on the success of the evacuation from Phnom Penh--300 evacuees, mostly Americans! In Saigon, in Vietnam, by ship, plane, helicopter, they had to evacuate 130,000 Vietnamese. And surely even more by unreported flights.

On the embassy roof, Cpl. Stephen Bauer wonders whether he and the other Marines won’t have to take cover in the French Embassy. Mortar shells are crumping closer. Dawn is clear, without fog or haze. Finally the last chopper arrives. It sets down. Its blades turn slowly, sucking up tear gas from the grenades tossed down the stairwell. On the roof, Marines are blinded and choking--10 still wait to board. The last, pushing his men, is Juan Valdez. A master sergeant, he knows each of his men would rather have followed him--to be able to say what he will: “I was the last one.”

7:53 a.m. This last helicopter flies off, escorted by Cobra gunships. For the first time in 10 years, there are no American fighting men in Vietnam. A few deserters are holed up in the suburbs. When the chopper reaches the coast, the Marines on board applaud and take pictures.

In the embassy courtyard the Vietnamese and the South Korean general are milling and pacing. Offical U.S. reports will speak of “about 420 persons.” Out front, a crowd is screaming. Communist propagandists are shouting slogans: “The Americans have gone, the country is free, independent, democratic.” Inside the embassy, looting has begun.

* REVIEW: A review of “Cruel April” by Olivier Todd appears on Page 2 of today’s Book Review section.