On the subject of the way the US de-assed Vietnam – mostly known as the 29 April 1975 evacuation of the US Embassy in Saigon – I make the claim of being the last American official out; leaving Vung Tau, Vietnam on 1 May 1975, two days after the US Embassy was evacuated.
That is with the following four disclaimers:
Number 1: That there may have been US POWs left behind in North Vietnam. There are accounts of US airmen shot down over North Vietnam later seen briefly in North Vietnamese POW camps, and then never seen again… so it is possible that some Americans servicemen were held in North Vietnam and/or Russia after 1975. But with the passing of time and lack of a single bit of creditable post war evidence that Americans were being kept against their will in SEA, this question must be left open.
Number 2: Several American businessmen and newsmen remained behind, including my good friend Alan Dawson who worked for UPI as a reporter.
Number 3: And there was Tucker Gougelmann. A Marine veteran of WWII, he sustained wounds in the Pacific’s Solomon Islands that took two years to heal. He wanted to make the Marines a career but resigned in 1949 to join the nascent CIA. One of his last CIA assignments was to Saigon. He began a family there with a Vietnamese woman and was living in Thailand in April 1975. With the fall of Saigon imminent he returned to Vietnam in mid-April, and missed all opportunities to get out of the country by month’s end when other Americans fled. He tried to hide in an alcove behind a refrigerator of a home in Saigon, but was found out by police and taken to the Chi Hoa prison downtown Saigon. He was taken from there several times for interrogation. While the new Government of Vietnam denied that they were holding Gougelmann for the remainder of 1975 and 1976, in 1977 they released his remains to U.S. authorities.
Postmortem examination by U.S. government officials revealed that Gougelmann was tortured during his captivity, as evidenced primarily by a very large number of broken bones which appeared to have been broken and re-broken after healing.
So Gougelmann was still there.
And then there is Number 4:
Number 4: And also Jim Lewis aka Sword. Like me, Lewis had served with the CIA in Laos before re-assignment to Vietnam in early 1974 and like me he also had a job to liaise with ARVN military commanders.
Lewis’s Tactical Area of Responsibility was north of Saigon. I was south.
Mid-April 1975, Jim was with ARVN General Nghi operating out of an airfield bunker near Phan Rang 160 miles NE of Saigon. Moving outside the bunker along a hedge row, they saw some advancing North Vietnamese across the airfield. Almost immediately a grenade landed near Lewis right front and everything went blank. When he regained his wits, he was shackled and under the control of North Vietnamese.
He was transferred to Son Tay Prison in North Vietnam, but through machinations still secret, he was released on October 30, 1975 and flown back to the states.
I met him later at secret welcome home party at Burr Smith’s and Bamboo’s house in Northern Virginia. Deep into that whiskey soaked evening he and I were talking by the living room fireplace and he said that it was amazing what information the North Vietnamese had on the CIA Lao program. He said one of his interrogators came into his Son Tay prison cell and opened a folder that containing a large amount of information on me, that included my DPOB, where I went to school and my CIA work in Laos and Vietnam.
He did not look the worst for wear, so obviously didn’t suffer the same way Gougelmann had.
Maybe Gougelmann was tortured because he wasn’t convincing that he wasn’t on some secret stay behind mission, didn’t know of others in place ready to fight the communist.
Knowing Jim Lewis, he would have looked his interrogators in the eye and said, this is what’s what. There ain’t no more. That or whatever juju got him released was keeping him safe during his captivity.
Lewis was killed by a terrorist attack eight years later in Beirut, Lebanon.
Maybe he has the most rightful claim to being The Last Man Out.
I leave that to you.
So there. It’s on the table. You wanta argue, come on. I was the last American out… except maybe Alan Dawson, and his ilk, and Jim Lewis.
I have reported on my activities during the evacuation in great detail in several different formats. The most comprehensive chronology is in my The Vietnam War Its Ownself. But the account there is cluttered with many people and things... a lot was goin’ on. Things were swirling around me.
What follows below is my account of the evacuation with a focus on significant events.
I went to Vietnam in 1965 as a 22 year old Second Lieutenant platoon leader with the US Army 1st Division.
During my year tour in jungles NW of Saigon, I chased a wounded VC down a rat hole into a labyrinth of tunnels under Cu Chi and months later led a litter detail with a dying US soldier through the ghoulish Minh Tanh spent counter-ambush battlefield, silently passing wounded North Vietnam who were trying to leave the same battlefield dragging their wounded.
By year’s end I was awarded a Purple Heart for wounds received in combat and the Bronze Star with “V” for bravery.
In the early 70s I spent two years upcountry Laos, working as a CIA case officer with the Hmong hills tribe guerrillas fighting main line North Vietnamese. I worked with only about a dozen other CIA paramilitary officers handling the CIA army of Asian irregulars. It was the largest covert operation the CIA ever ran. And it was successful beyond anyone’s expectations.
I left Laos in 1973 for re-assignment to Vietnam to work as a CIA intelligence officer handling unilateral communist agents in the delta and eventually to liaise with the last of the South Vietnamese military south of Saigon.
My principle liaison contact was General Le Van Hung, the 21st ARVN commander, who, in the spring of 1975 was transferred to Can Tho to become the number two ARVN commander south of Saigon.
Hung’s English was limited, though in the more than the year’s time we knew each other, we came to understand each other to the point we could carry on conversations of great detail.
He was easy to like and we developed a sincere relationship of trust and friendship.
Hung, when he moved up to Can Tho, introduced me to General Tran Van Hai, the 7th ARVN commander.
We would meet -Hai and I - two or three times a week in his GP medium tent-office on the Cambodian border beneath the Parrot's Peak. The NVA were building up within a couple of miles of Hai's Hqs, activity my Air America helicopter pilots could see as we made our approach to Hai's LZ.
Hai’s English was very good, including his use of American profanity. What are there, eight or nine hardcore words of profanity in the Americans lexicon? With hard, hard eyes and a set jaw, he could mix and match those words into such vile concoctions that they'd stop a sailor in his tracks. And he was not shy about his use of profanity in criticizing the way the US handled the war; it’s policy makers, its tactics and now in the spring of ’75, of its sure intention of leaving South Vietnam to its own devices. “Abandoning us on the fucking battlefield, in our darkest hour, not a word of encouragement, just political shit on top of political shit, so that it all stinks. Not a breath of honesty or honor among you guys. That includes you, you turdy American piece of shit.”
But then after he would vent at our meetings – ending when he began to repeat himself – he’d brief on what was happening to his front, right across the border in a NVA sanction run by the famous General Tich of the NVA 9th Division… how the NVA field commander was building up his forces for what appeared to be a push on the underside of Saigon. Hai always made his reporting onTich personal, and he described the fight between the two of them and ongoing battle of many years.
My reporting from Hung and Hai, initially got a muddled response from Washington, though there was one unidentified person, somewhere in the intel community, who followed my reporting closely and had great questions for me to put to Hai and Hung… who were both in close contact among other top ARVN generals in South Vietnam.
Hung would respond to my queries without queries. Hai would ‘cuss me for using him to feed the US CIA system, but he would eventually also respond in detail.
My reports for the longest time only got passing grades, because the emphasis until the last couple of months was on unilateral political reporting. My reporting was considered “liaison” and possibly biased.
And my reporting, as was other reports coming out of Can Tho, tended to go against Saigon Station reporting. In fact the COS and the Chief DI spokesman made trips down to Can Tho in an effort to deter us from “doomsday” reporting, because of their continuing position that there would be a negotiated cease fire…. that there would be many future “generations of case officers” in the Delta.
A position we though was hokey… but understandable because the Saigon Station’s insulation from the ground truth out in the field.
And there were many in the US Embassy there in the last hours who had little or no vested equity in the war. Place-keepers, just putting in time. Who had never been shot at, had no friends die in their arms, who had no close contact with any Vietnamese other than their maid and their girlfriend(s).
Unlike Laos where our small group of CIA people were totally emerged in the fighting with our Asian allies, in Saigon there were REMFs. Almost every American official.
But then come 12 March 1975 when Ban Me Thuot fell, suddenly Washington was more interested in what Hung and Hai had to say, and my intel grades soared. Suddenly reports from the country side and the South Vietnamese military were hot items and we were encouraged to do more of that type reporting.
Hung would always see me, because we were friends and I knew everyone on his staff.
I would call over and they would say he’s busy or come around 3 and you can get in – but more than 10 minutes Jim and you two guys break up your chit-chat because the good general has things to do. You hear.
And always we’d talk for 30 minutes.
And with Hai, he always saw me, I think because I was the only one at this point he had contact with that he could use his English. Plus he held a lot of anger about the way things were turning out and wanted someone to hear what he had to say… but especially that first thing… he loved to use his rough English.
On 12 or 13 April, Senator Frank Church got up in front of a bunch of TV cameras on Capitol Hill in Washington and said that the Senate this day was officially stopping all funding of the South Vietnamese. They were on their own. This news report is still out there. I never saw it at that time of course but I have seen it since.
At the end, Church, as he is turning away from the cameras and microphones, says something like “good riddance.”
I got notice from, maybe Saigon or maybe Langley, I’m not sure, about Church’s speech, and knew that Hai was going to be furious. I think Cliff Hendryx was flying the Air America chopper that next time we went out to see the General and I asked him to land close to Hai’s tent and to shut down, because I though Hai maybe was thinking about shooting me dead for Church’s comments. He was certainly goin’ be that angry, because he had some way to follow US news.
Most often the Air America pilots would not want to stay on the ground during my sessions with Hai, because his headquarters was within artillery range of the Cambodian border. Or, if they did stay, they would keep the blades turning so that they could get out fast if need-be. But I told Cliff that I was worried for my life, and wanted to know that he was close, and he did land near Hai’s tent and did shut down and he and his co-pilot sat for the meeting with automatic rifles in their laps.
I walked into Hai’s place and he looked like the Soup Nazi from the Seinfeld show, sitting behind his desk, in a cloud of cigarette smoke. He did not say a word while I walked down and sat in one of the lawn furniture chairs he had situated to his right.
Longest time went by and he just glared. Finally he stood up. He rarely stood up when I had visited before, maybe to go to a map, but this time he stood up and walked to my front.
And he had a gun in a holster on his belt.
I think he had thought about killing me but at the moment he got up from his desk I don’t think he made up his mind. I noticed – or thought I noticed – that his right arm was hanging out away from his body as if to pull his gun out.
And then the moment passed and he just started venting again, about the fact that it had come down to this predictable end. He didn’t as I remember it now, have a lot of new stuff, didn’t mention Church by name, it wasn’t like he had had a chance to work up his speech. It was just abandonment and despair. And because I was the only one he could blame, it was my fault.
I did not argue with him. He cut me to pieces, and I took it… certainly I didn’t want a confrontation. And he made very good points.
We continued to meet even thereafter. He told me the enemy force in front of him was growing every day and when they began to line with the bridge units first, followed by conscripts in their new uniforms with the known older units bring up the rear, then they would be preparing to launch into Vietnam to drive on Saigon. I asked him how long it would take for the force to reach the southern gates to Saigon and he said seven days.
So back to Can Tho that night I told my boss Jim Delaney what Hai had said, and we went back and forth about 1) whether to report it, because of Station’s instructions to stand down on doomsday reporting, and then 2) if we did, how to word it. And I was instructed to go with a short intel on Hai’s comments about the state of the South Vietnamese nation and especially the state of readiness of the large NVA group to his front and that they could be at Saigon in a week’s time.
Then on 22 April when I visited Hai, he said they were lining up. Saigon, he said, would fall in 7 days.
Back to Delaney’s office, we both knew that we had to send out this message in clear, alerting language… because Jim and I both believed in Hai’s assessment. He had always been right. And this subject involved American lives and serious American equities.
So I went down to the old map room, a floor below Delaney’s office and wrote the intel, leading with Hai’s prediction about the fall of Saigon and then spelling out why he thought that 29 April was the final day.
We expected a fire storm from Saigon station… but surprisingly it didn’t materialize. And then way, way early (maybe thanks to my unknown friend in the intel community) I got my grade for that report.
A 20, which told us that that report reached the highest level of our government.
Saigon may have not argued with the report maybe because they didn’t want to accentuate it.
Whatever we got seven days, we are thinking in Can Tho… so what we did was to identify and organize what we considered our key agent network, or our Key Indigenous Personal (KIP) and to get them to rally spots where we could pick them up by Air America. These were people we were sure would be assassinated when the North Vietnamese took over.
Ambassador Martin and COS Polgar were not helpful. Both insisted that we not start a riot towards the borders. That no one was going to be leaving anytime soon. No Evacuation.
Nethertheless on D-Day minus 2 we had our KIP grouped and ready to go. One of our case officers went up to Saigon and on D-Day minus 1 got into Ambassador Martin’s outer officer looking for anything we could use to justify getting our people out.
He finally cornered an aide to the Ambassador, Jacobson, and told him about our plans. This man at first told our officer that he was crazy, the Ambassador would not approve what we were doing, but then after some discussion – Jacobson was anxious to get on to something else – he finally said well good luck to you and yours.
Our officer called down to Can Tho and said an aide to the Ambassador had wished us good luck, which Delaney took as an OK to go ahead, and I received a radio message to start picking up our KIP.
George Taylor was the co-pilot of one of the two Air America helicopters we had that day. We had worked together in Laos for two years and were good friends. I told him we would be flying by the seats of our pants this day, making our way ahead as best we could in an effort to get our KIP out.
We would start by picking up the group coming in from Chau Duc and taking them out to the US Navy at sea. If we could not talk our way on board any Navy ship, we would have to go south of Vietnam to the island of Phu Quoc and land them on a beach there, or near an island village.
I flew with George when we got word that the group was departing Chau Duc and we flew in their direction. We got radio contact with the two truck convoy and as we approached had them pull to the side of the road, and we picked up the KIP and some of their family in a bordering dry rice paddy.
We told them we were going to a rally point in Saigon.
And we flew out to the South China Sea. As we cleared the coast we could see the US Navy armada out to infinity it seemed.
George tried a number of international radio freqs before we got a ship in the US Navy group to respond. George told him we were coming from the US consulate in Can Tho with refugees for evacuation and that there was an American Embassy officer on board who could explain.
The USS Vancouver began to separate itself from the other ships; George contacted with the Captain of that boat, who allowed us to land. Once on the back deck I was taken up to see the Captain and explain the situation as best I could, without identifying the KIP as former CIA agents. I told him the mission had been approved by Ambassador Martin’s office.
And he did not like to be put on the spot with making a decision on what to do, and he was made equally uncomfortable when I told him there were others on the ground in the delta who would be coming out later in the day, 100 or more.
But he finally agreed.
And the KIP were offloaded and George flew me back to South Vietnam.
All day long George and the other helicopter took our KIP out to the Vancouver. I wanted him to land on top of the apartment building where most of us lived who remained in Can Tho there at the end, but he was unsure where exactly to go, and reminded me that it would be dark when he got back, so I went with him.
When we landed on the Vancouver, US Marines surrounded the helicopter and I was told to go up to the top bridge to see the Captain… who was not happy, because he told me when I arrived in the driving station, that he could find no one on this good earth who approved this evacuation of some very scroungy looking people, who themselves didn’t want to be on this ship… they all expected to go to Saigon.
So he told me that I was going to go down to that helicopter and tell the pilot that I was staying with these smelly people and that he could pick me up the next morning. And then I was going to lead this group over to an old merchant marine ship sitting at anchor nearby, The Pioneer Contender.
I told George to come back to get me the next morning, I was going to move our people over to the nearby ship and to tell Delaney what had happened.
117 bedraggled KIP including their families – and me – were moved to the Pioneer Contender within the hour, where I had to face the Master of that ship, Mr Flink, who also didn’t want any part of this this, though his crew helped my 117 aboard. (Note... both US Navy records from the Vancouver and US Marine records on the Pioneer Contender list the number of Vietnamese refugees as 177. However once on board the Pioneer Contender I had one of my agents get a list of everyone we brought aboard, and the number is 121. I have that list on my desk and would welcome anyone who came out with us to get in touch with me through the Contact Us portal, so that I can verify the name according to my master list. Please if anyone who knows any of the Vietnamese KIP would accompanied me from the Vancouver to the Pioneer Contender and then over to the Philippines. Please let me know.)
Master Edward Flink
When the sun broke the next morning, there were no US Navy ships around the Pioneer Contender, they had moved a little north… because this day – exactly the day Hai had predicted – the US Embassy in Saigon was being evacuated.
I was later to drive a landing boat from the Pioneer Contender up to Vung Tau where I helped load the ship with refugees off the Vung Tau harbor.
Then later that night I stood on the top deck of the Pioneer Contender – the day after the US Embassy had been evacuated – there were no other Americans to my front.
I was the last man out.
I remembered all I served with who fought the good fight, gave a firm salute and went below deck.
Early the next morning, we pulled anchor and steamed east towards the Philippines.
The war was over.
This same day my friend General Hung, who still remained in Can Tho, called his wife, his children and his mother in law to his office that I had visited so often. He told them that he could not leave this country he loved, and could not surrender to the communist. He was left with no choice… so he was saying good bye. He went into a side room, and committed suicide.
That morning out at the ARVN 7th Division Hqs, Hai’s aide came into the General’s tent, to find the general dead from a poison-laden shot of whiskey.
Duty, Honor, Country