On Presidents Day: neglecting translators & other allies

Tales of Iraqi translators being denied U.S. visas after endangering their lives to aid the American military remind me of a scene — and harrowing moment in history — from Tom Bissell’s The Father of All Things: A Marine, His Son, and the Legacy of Vietnam.

South Vietnam has fallen. North Vietnamese soldiers are marching into Saigon. Yet the Soviets have “let it be known that the North [will] let the U.S. evacuation continue until midnight”; they’ve implied that evacuation of “many thousands of South Vietnamese” will not be opposed. Indeed, the North’s leaders will later admit “that the expatriation of so many southerners had helpfully prevented them from having to reeducate them.”

Soldiers, Americans, and South Vietnamese promised rescue flock to the embassy for the airlift. Guess who gets screwed?

Hundreds of translators working for the CIA — men and women who were, in [the words of Frank Snepp], “the best acquainted with CIA operations and personnel” — were left behind because the officer in charge of their evacuation took an early choppper out. Snepp also wrote of the loyal U.S. Embassy guards of Nung descent — the Nung are one of Vietnam’s eternally oppressed aboriginal people — with whom he exchanged words. . . “Remember us,” one Nung guard said to Snepp. It was “one of his few English phrases. That was the last I saw of him. He and all the rest would be left behind.”

The embassy’s switchboard could scarcely handle the number of calls coming in. Lacy Wright, as State Department officer, picked up one call. “We’ve been up here all day and nobody has come to get us,” the caller said, through heavy sobs. Wright swallowed hard, offered some useless advice, and hung up. More calls. One hundred and fifty people were trapped here. Two hundred more were trapped there. “We were told to come here. What do we do?” “I’m a Vietnamese, but I got my American citizenship in 1973. I’ve got three kids. What can I do?” Eventually, the embassy’s phone was simply not answered. Meanwhile, according to Snepp, Graham Martin overheard this exchange over the walkie-talkie in his office: “Hey, there’s another gook climbing over the wall. Shoot him!”. . . .

By 12:30 a.m., the approaching rumble of PAVN artillery could be heard within the embassy’s reinforced walls. Parties of eighty Vietnamese at a time were slowly making their way up stairs to the embassy roof “like toothpaste through a tube,” in the words of one American. On the roof itself, a few Marines, no doubt driven to something resembling madness by the day’s activity, began to “conduct” the crowds of Vietnamese to sing. The Marines, CIA agents, and embassy factotums not on the roof were going through the embassy destroying everything of possible use. One Marine was seen reading a copy of The Fall of Rome. . . .

At 4:15 a.m., [Ambassador Graham] Martin cabled the White House for the last time: “Plan to close mission at about 0430 30 April local time. Due to necessity to destroy commo gear, this is the last message from embassy Saigon.” Minutes later, the embassy’s communications officer whacked the “commo gear” with a sledgehammer, and Marines destroyed the rest with explosives. Martin made his way to the roof, which was, in Snepp’s account,

a vision out of a nightmare. In the center of the dimly lit helio-pad a CH-47 was already waiting … its engines setting up a roar like a primeval scream. The crew and controllers all wore what looked like oversize football helmets, and in the blinking under-light of the landing signals they reminded me of grotesque insects rearing on their hindquarters. Out beyond the edge of the building a Phantom jet streaked across the horizon as tracers darted up here and there into the night sky.

After an aide checked the courtyard to make sure he didn’t “see any white faces,” Martin climbed aboard the Lady Bird 9 carrying the American flag. It was 4:47 a.m. . . .

[A]nywhere from 400 to 420 Vietnamese were still in the embassy waiting for their promised evacuation. Army Captain Stuart Herrington was with some of them. As Martin’s helicopter left, Herrington screamed at them in Vietnamese, “Khong ai se bi bo lai!” Nobody’s going to be left behind! “And I believed it,” he later [said]. Among those left behind were Vietnamese firemen who had been providing crowd control (their families had gone out earlier), a gaggle of drunk and unconscious South Korean diplomats, and a German priest, who, in Herrington’s words, “helped out,” Before they could board choppers, the evacuation was terminated by White House order. The remaining Americans were told to be on the next flight out. Herrington argued, but it was no use. He informed the Vietnamese waiting with him that he was going to the bathroom and ducked away for the roof. . . .

By 5 a.m., Herrington and three American civilians were the only non-Marines left in the embassy. One was the journalist Bob Tamarkin. The others, an American man and an American woman, refused to give Tamarkin their names. History will know them only for their deluded bravery, as they had come to help their Vietnamese friends escape the country before realizing the situation was hopeless. . . . The last civilian helicopter left the U.S. Embassy with only four people on it. Herrington: “I was sickened, naturally. I never in my life felt worse, never will feel worse than at that moment walking away from those people. I just couldn’t stop crying.” In his memoir, Henry Kissinger would claim that he had no idea how the roughly four hundred Vietnamese had been abandoned. This is strange if only because the military officials present at the embassy said the evacuation had been terminated “by presidential order” after it had been made clear that many Vietnamese were behing left behind. As he was borne aloft, Tamarkin looked down into the embassy courtyard. There, “hundreds of Vietnamese looked up,” waiting for the next helicopter. . . .

Operation Frequent Wind was not, by any metric, a victory, despite its success in extracting from Saigon 1,373 Americans, 5,595 South Vietnamese, and 85 third-country nationals. . . . Over the month of April, 51,888 people (45,125 Vietnamese and 6,763 Americans and other foreigners) had been airlifted from South Vietnam. Another 6,000 left by barge, and an unknown number thought to be in the low thousands excaped on unrecorded “black flights” engineered mainly by the CIA. Another 65,000 South Vietnamese excaped on their own. But the number of Vietnamese abandoned must exceed this total number by factors of five, ten, fifteen. In a war of such endless ambiguity and suffereing, it is somehow fitting that even the stunning success of the evacuation was qualified with so many dismal failures and betrayals.

Nor was it over. Shortly after Herrington and Tamarkin’s helicopter cleared the roof, Kissinger learned that “elements of the 9th Marine Amphibious Brigade protecting the evacuation — comprising 129 Marines — had been left behind for some inexplicable reason.” The airlift was resumed. Major Jim Kean, the commanding officer of the Marine unit responsible for protecting the evacuation, later told Larry Engelmann that he knew the Marines’ withdrawal could trigger “a big donnybrook” in front of the embassy door. After slinking away from their posts unnoticed, many of the Marines in Kean’s command were thinking, “My God, we’re only thirty seconds away from pulling this thing off without a fight.” Of course, “all hell broke loose. The crowd outside realized what was happening … and they panicked.” The Marines retreated deeper into the embassy, locking out the Vietnamese charging after them and littering the stairway to the roof with “big old fire extinguishers” to slow any who made it past the bolted doors. A CH-46 arrived, and the Marines were forced to leave behind their flak jackets and helmets in order to squeeze more men on board. Soon only eleven Marines were left. They were, as Major Kean notes, the last U.S. ground forced in Vietnam. . . .

Eventually the Vietnamese smashed through the barriers the Marines had established and were now pounding against the locked rooftop door. “An arm smashed through the window of the door under the helipad,” David Butler wrote. One Marine “got to it fast and pulled the arm into the broken glass, and it was yanked back with a cry. . . . More arms reached through the broken window. So they kept a man there to grab the arms and jam them into the glass.” This Marine also sprayed the intrusive Vietnamese with mace. One Vietnamese man had succeeded in crawling up the side of the embassy, but someone dropped something heavy and knocked the man off as though he were nothing more than a barnacle. The final chopper set down on the roof at 7:53 a.m. Major Kean ordered that the helipad be teargassed as they lifted off. The last Marines to leave Vietnam thus caught a rotored-up miasma of gas while keeping their weapons fixed on the Vietnamese still trying to break through the rooftop door. The last words spoken by a Marine in Vietnam: “Hey, Major, they want to know what kind of pizza you want in Manila!” Kean was not sure if he would be court-marshaled for using tear gas. “Ultimately,” he told Engelmann, “they gave me a medal.”

Throughout The Father of All Things, Bissell weaves his own father’s pain through a clear-eyed account of the disaster that was U.S. intervention in Vietnam. “Of course,” he writes, “I do not intend to equate the destruction of my parents’ marriage with the collapse of South Vietnam, yet in my mind they are endlessly connected, just as the largest house can be entered through the smallest door.” The book is out next month.


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