Bitter Memories: The Fall of Saigon

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Last Days

By 27 April we were, by dint of lying and deception, finally down to just the three of us, me and my two communicators, Bob and Gary. None of us had slept through the night for longer than we could remember, and our diet was bar snacks we’d scrounged from a hotel before the mobs surrounding us made it impossible to get out. I found out that Vienna sausages were edible cold straight from the can and that mustard on pickle relish, if eaten in quantity, could stave off serious hunger. Granted, I developed bowel problems, but my guess was that it was due less to the food than to stress. Coffee we had aplenty—Bob and Gary had seen to that—and I’d made sure I wouldn’t run out if cigarettes. From then on it was lots of coffee, chain smoking, almost nothing to eat, and no sleep.

We locked all the rooms in the office suite except the comms center, and I moved my cot and my .38 in there. Bob and Gary and I established a regimen: one guy took a two-hour rest break while the other two worked.Tom Glenn and General Al Gray Marine Commandant 1980s

Then a series of messages I’ll never forget flowed in. They asked me to get children out of the country. The requests were from American men who had fathered kids in Vietnam and wanted to save them. I shuddered to think what might happen to Amerasian youngsters when the Communists took over. But it was too late. I had no vehicle and couldn’t even get out of the compound—surrounded by panicky crowds anxious for escape—much less to the addresses the children’s fathers gave me. To this day, I don’t know how the senders managed to get messages to me.

Partly to stay awake, I maintained my schedule of recon runs, checking out the parking lot and the perimeter. I got chummy with the snuffs at the gate closest to the building exit I used. Unlike most of the Marines, these guys were willing to fill me in on any new scuttlebutt. Among other things, they told me that people outside the fence were tossing babies into the compound, hoping they’d survive and escape the Communists. Most of the infants didn’t make it over the top of the fence—it was something like two stories high with barbed wire and an outward tilt at the top to prevent scalers. That had to mean many of the babies fell to the ground and were killed.

Not long before sunset on 28 April, I made a head run. The mammoth Pentagon East was in shambles. Light bulbs were burned out, trash and broken furniture littered the halls, and the latrines were filthy and smelled disgusting. I came across men on stepladders running cables through the ceiling. They told me they were wiring the building for complete destruction. “Last man out lights the fuse and runs like hell,” they joked.

I went into the men’s room. I was standing at the urinal when the wall in front of me lunged toward me as if to swat me down, then slapped back into place. The sound of repeated explosions deafened me and nearly knocked me off my feet. Instead of sensibly taking cover, I left the men’s room and went to the closest exit at the end of a hall, unbolted it, and stepped into the shallow area between the western wall of the building and the security fence, a space of maybe ten to fifteen feet, now piled high with sandbags.

The first thing I noticed was that the throngs of refugees had dispersed—no one was clamoring outside the barrier—presumably frightened away by the explosions. My ears picked up the whine of turbojets. I shaded my eyes from the setting sun and spotted five A-37 Dragonfly fighters circling above the Tan Son Nhat runways. They dove, dropped bombs, and pulled up. The resulting concussions sent me tumbling, but I was on my feet and running before the planes went into their next approach. Back in the office, I found out shortly that renegade pilots who had defected to the Communists were bombing Tan Son Nhat.

That was the beginning. We were bombarded throughout the night and much of the following day, first rockets, later, beginning around 0430 hours local on 29 April, artillery. One C-130 on the runway next to us was hit before it could airlift out refugees; two others took off empty. Fixed-wing airlifts were at an end. Rounds landed inside the DAO compound; the General’s Quarters next door were destroyed. Worst of all, two of the Marines I had been talking to were killed. Their names were McMahon and Judge. They were the last American fighting men killed on the ground in Vietnam.

One image I’ll never forget: sometime during the night I was on my cot taking my two-hour rest break when the next bombardments started. I sat straight up and watched the room lurch. Bob was typing a message at a machine that rose a foot in the air, then slammed back into place. He never stopped typing.

Just after that, we got word that FREQUENT WIND PHASE IV had been declared. That was the code name for the evacuation. It had finally been ordered.

We gave up trying to rest. The air in the comms center, the only room we were still using, was faintly misty and smelled of smoke, as if a gasoline fire was raging nearby. After daylight, I got a call from the Vietnamese officer I’d visited a few days before. He wanted to know where his boss, the general, was. He’d tried to telephone the general but got no answer. I dialed the general’s number with the same result. I found out much later that the general had somehow made it from his office to the embassy and got over the wall. He was evacuated safely while his men stayed at their posts awaiting orders from him. They were still there when the North Vietnamese arrived.

Next I telephoned the embassy. “The evacuation is on. Get us out of here!”

The lady I talked to was polite, even gracious. She explained to me, as one does to child, that the embassy could do nothing for us—we were too far away, and, although I probably didn’t know it, the people in the streets were rioting. Of course I knew it; I could see them. I uttered an unprintable curse. She responded, “You’re welcome.”

By that time, the Marines from the 7th Fleet had landed. I tracked down Al Gray and asked if he could fit us in with his guys. He reassured me he would.

We got word that armed South Vietnamese air force officers had forced their way into the building and were on the loose, demanding evacuation at gun point. Offices were to be emptied and locked. We were to proceed at once to the evacuation staging area, an office the Marines had secured. We sent our last message announcing we were closing down. It was a personal message from me to my boss, General Lew Allen, Director of NSA:

1. HAVE JUST RECEIVED WORD TO EVACUATE. AM NOW DESTROYING REMAINING CLASSIFIED MATERIAL. WILL CEASE TRANSMISSIONS IMMEDIATELY AFTER THIS MESSAGE.

2. WE’RE TIRED BUT OTHERWISE ALL RIGHT. LOOKS LIKE THE BATTLE FOR SAIGON IS ON FOR REAL.

3. FROM GLENN: I COMMEND TO YOU MY PEOPLE WHO DESERVE THE BEST NSA CAN GIVE THEM FOR WHAT THEY HAVE BEEN THROUGH BUT ESPECIALLY FOR WHAT THEY HAVE ACHIEVED.

Even though the message was from me to General Allen, I still began the third paragraph with the words “FROM GLENN.” I wanted to be sure he knew it was me speaking.

We destroyed out comms gear and crypto and locked the door as we left for the staging area.

The remaining events of 29 April are confused in my memory—I was in such bad shape I was starting to hallucinate. I know that, as the shelling continued, I begged Al Gray to get my two communicators out as soon as possible. I couldn’t tolerate the idea that, after all they’d done, they might be hurt, captured, or killed. Sometime in the afternoon, when finally they went out on a whirlybird, my work was done.

I recall being locked in a room alone and told to wait until I was called for, trying to stay awake in my chair as the building pitched from artillery hits. I didn’t want to board a chopper until I got confirmation that my communicators were safe aboard a ship of the 7th Fleet. And I wanted to get to a telephone to confirm that our Vietnamese counterparts were being evacuated. As far as I knew, they were still at their posts awaiting orders. But there was no telephone in the room, and I couldn’t leave because the South Vietnamese air force officers were still on the prowl.

The next thing I remember is being outside.

It was getting dark, and rain was pelting the helicopters in the compound. I protested to Al Gray that I wanted to wait for confirmation that my two communicators were safe, but he ordered me, in unrepeatable language, to get myself on the chopper now. I climbed aboard carrying with me the two flags that had hung in my office—the U.S. stars and stripes and the gold-and-orange national flag of the defunct Republic of Vietnam.

The bird, for some reason, was not a CH-53 but a small Air America slick. As soon as we were airborne, I saw tracers coming at us. We took so many slugs in the fuselage that I thought we were going down, but we made it. All over the city, fires were burning. Once we were “feet wet”— over water—the pilot dropped us abruptly to an altitude that scared me, just above the water’s surface, and my stomach struggled to keep up. It was, he explained to me later, to avoid surface-to-air missiles. All I remember of the flight after that is darkness.

Tom Glenn and daughter Saigon Tet 1963I was conscious when we approached the USS Oklahoma City, flagship of the 7th Fleet. The pilot circled four or five times before coming down very slowly on the ship’s small floodlit helipad. He told me subsequently that he, a civilian employee of Air America, had never before landed on a ship.

As we got out of the slick into the lashing rain, flashbulbs went off and someone took my .38. Sailors immediately tipped our Huey over the side and dumped it into the sea. I faintly remember some kind of processing, answering questions and filling out forms, but I was only half there. The next thing I recall clearly is shivering—I was very cold. I was in berth, a sort of canvas hammock, in a room lit only by a red bulb on the bulkhead. I could hear the ship’s engine, low and far away, and men above, below, and on all sides of me were sleeping.

I discovered I could walk and found my way to the latrine where, still shivering, I brushed my teeth, shaved, and showered for the first time in weeks. Somebody directed me to the wardroom where I ate a breakfast and a half, surrounded by the scruffiest mix of Vietnamese and Americans I had ever seen. Their clothes were torn and filthy. The men were unshaven, the women disheveled. In the midst was a distinguished older gentleman in a ruined suit, but his tie was still knotted at the throat.

When I’d eaten my fill and went on deck, it was daylight—I must have slept a long time. South Vietnamese helicopters flew close to the ship, cut their engines, and dropped into the water. The pilots—and sometimes their families—were rescued and brought aboard as the choppers sank to the bottom.

The sea, between and among the ships of the 7th Fleet and to the western horizon as far as I could see, was filled with boats—sampans, junks, fishing vessels, commercial craft, tugs, even what looked like large rowboats, each overloaded with Vietnamese waving and calling to the ships.

Someone found out I spoke Vietnamese and asked me to broadcast a message on a common frequency telling those in the boats that the ships of the 7th Fleet were already jammed to the rafters and couldn’t take any more onboard. Numb to the implications of what I was saying, I repeated the message four or five times before my voice gave way from coughing and I had to quit. Only later did I understand that many of those boats were so far from shore that they couldn’t make it back. Many didn’t make it back. The people on them perished at sea.

After circling for days, we finally set sail for Subic Bay in the Philippines. Once there, I booked a flight for Hawaii because I knew I’d be required to brief Commander-in-Chief, Pacific—CINPAC—about what had happened in Saigon.

When I arrived in Honolulu, still carrying my two flags, an NSA official met me at the airport. Rather than congratulating me for getting out alive or asking if I was all right, he took one look at me and said, “You can’t be seen around here looking like that.” I was still in the clothes I’d been evacuated in and hadn’t shaved for days. I knew I’d lost weight and my face was a map of lines. He assigned a subordinate to gussy me up. That guy took me to a barber and a good men’s clothing store to get a decent suit to brief the brass at Pearl Harbor.

That briefing didn’t go well. I couldn’t talk. I was coughing constantly. I couldn’t focus my eyes. I was sweating and felt like I was running a fever. When I sat down, I passed out.

I finally admitted to myself that I was suffering from more than exhaustion. For days, as the ships of the 7th Fleet circled, I’d done nothing but sleep. Despite that, I was getting worse. Any sensible person would have gone to a doctor immediately. But I didn’t. I can’t tell you how much I yearned to go home. Dressed in my new suit and tie, I booked the earliest flight possible for Baltimore. During the stopover between flights in San Francisco, I tried to find a doctor. But a physician’s strike was in progress, and no doctor would see me. I flew on to Baltimore. The day after I landed, I found a doctor who diagnosed me with “pneumonia due to sleep deprivation, muscle fatigue, and poor diet.” He relished adding that heavy smokers are more susceptible to pneumonia than “normal people.”

Looking Back

I’d be remiss if I didn’t credit Al Gray, a Marine intelligence officer who became a combat commander, with saving my life and the lives of my two communicators. I don’t call him Al anymore. That stopped the day he became Commandant of the Marine Corps. These days I call him “Sir.” General Gray is the finest leader I have ever seen in action and a man I am privileged to know.

None of the 2700 Vietnamese who worked with us escaped. All were killed or captured by the North Vietnamese. Many could have been saved but for two factors: (1) The Ambassador failed to call for an evacuation—by the time he was countermanded, the North Vietnamese were already in the streets of Saigon. And (2) the general in command of those 2700 abandoned his troops. They were still awaiting his orders when the North Vietnamese attacked them.

Ambassador Graham Martin’s career was effectively ended by the debacle he authored in Saigon. He retired not long after the fall of Vietnam. Bob and Gary, my two communicators, survived and went on with their careers. Bob died about six years ago, but I spoke to Gary a few months ago. He’s doing fine.

And me? Besides the pneumonia, I sustained ear damage from the shelling, and I’ve worn hearing aids ever since. Worst of all, I suffer, even today, from a condition we didn’t have a name for back then—Post-Traumatic Stress Injury (PTSI). It resulted not just from the fall of Saigon but from earlier experiences in the war. When I got back to the states, my marriage crumbled. The home I yearned for didn’t exist, and I was afraid I was going to lose my children, my reason for staying live. I knew I needed help, but my job was intelligence, and I had top secret codeword-plus intelligence clearances. Had I sought therapy, I would have lost my clearances, and therefore my job. I had to grit my teeth and endure the irrational rages, flashbacks, nightmares, and panic attacks. As it happens, my vocation and my need to help others saved me.

I have always been a writer, and I wrote and wrote and wrote about what had happened. That eventually led to two books, Friendly Casualties (2012) and The Trion Syndrome (published in 2015 by Apprentice House of Baltimore). I found out much later that one of the most effective therapies for PTSI is writing down the searing experiences. So to some degree, I healed myself.

Instinctively, I knew I had to help others who were worse off than I was. So I volunteered to care for AIDS patients during the years of that crisis, worked with the homeless, ministered to the dying in the hospice system, and finally worked with sick and dying veterans in the VA hospital in Washington, D.C. I learned that when I gave all my attention to suffering people, my unspeakable memories receded into the background.

I still have occasional nightmares, and I can’t abide Fourth of July fireworks. But these days, on the whole, I’m rational.Tom Glenn Saigon 1974

On the positive side, for my work during the fall of Saigon, I was awarded the Civilian Meritorious Medal. It remains my most cherished possession.

And finally, as irony would have it, Bob, Gary, and I were in more danger at the end than we realized. George Veith, author of Black April, told me in January, 2012, what his perusal of newly translated North Vietnamese documents has brought to light: Before dawn on the morning of 29 April, as we waited at Tan Son Nhat to be evacuated, the North Vietnamese 28th Regiment was en route to attack us. But as the unit’s tanks passed over the last bridge into to Saigon before dawn, the bridge collapsed. The regiment was forced to take a detour and didn’t arrive at Tan Son Nhat until the morning of 30 April. By then, we were gone.

Had the regiment reached us on schedule, my communicators and I would have been at worst killed, at best taken prisoner. Because we were intelligence personnel—spies—torture and long incarceration would have been inevitable. That was the fate of a CIA employee, James Lewis, captured in mid-April when the coastal city of Phan Rang was overrun.

There, but for the grace of a fallen bridge, went I.

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Author’s note: Prior to the NSA declassification, a rudimentary report of some of the unclassified events in this article was reported online in 2013 on the Baltimore Post-Examiner web site.

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About Author

Tom Glenn has worked as an intelligence operative, a musician, a linguist (seven languages), a cryptologist, a government executive, a care-giver for the dying, a leadership coach, and, always, a writer. Many of his prize-winning short stories (sixteen in print) came from the better part of thirteen years he shuttled between the U.S. and Vietnam as an undercover NSA employee on covert signals intelligence assignments before being rescued under fire when Saigon fell. With a BA in Music, a master’s in Government, and a doctorate in Public Administration and trained as a musician, actor, and public speaker, he toured the country lecturing on leadership and management, trained federal executives, and was the Dean of the Management Department at the National Cryptologic School. His writing is haunted by his five years of work with AIDS patients, two years of helping the homeless, seven years of caring for the dying in the hospice system, and Post-Traumatic Stress Injury, a consequence of his time in Vietnam. These days he is a reviewer for The Washington Independent Review of Books where he specializes in books on war and Vietnam. His Vietnam novel-in-stories, Friendly Casualties, is now available on Amazon.com. Apprentice House of Baltimore brought out his novel, No-Accounts in 2014. His newest novel, The Trion Syndrome, will be published by Apprentice House in 2015. This year, the Naval Institute Press will publish Glenn’s novel set during the fall of Saigon, The Last of the Annamese.

2 Comments

  1. Tom Glenn’s account of the fall of Saigon and the loss of the war substantiates what others have alluded to regarding Ambassador Martin and CIA station chief Tom Polgar and their fantasy disco behavior as the NVA overran Saigon. This account convinces me once again that the modern use of intelligence is to back-up the decision makers plans rather than to inform them so that they can make rational decisions.
    Greg Murry
    author of: “Content With My Wages.”

  2. Patrick Garland, 1st Lt, MI, MACV, Kontum, VN on

    God Bless our military & intel sources, God Bless America & most of all God Bless our Marines! May our American leaders not forget our mistakes. Leave our military alone to do it’s job….& win.

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