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Apocalypse Not, Part II

On April 29, 1975, Francis Terry McNamara, then Consul General, finally received orders to evacuate the Consulate General in Can Tho, Vietnam. By that time, the U.S. had resigned itself to the fall of Saigon and McNamara and others had been evacuating the most vulnerable Vietnamese staff. McNamara had also been preparing for a water-borne evacuation which, in his view, would be able to rescue far more Vietnamese and Americans. The second part of this story recounts how the vessel, carrying more than 325 people, was intercepted by Vietnamese “monitors,” a final act of apparent rebellion from the CIA contingent at Can Tho, and the conclusion to McNamara’s trip down the Bas Sac River.

You can read Part 1 here. Watch the PBS American Experience documentary featuring McNamara.

Final Instructions to the CIA Contingency

McNAMARA: Immediately after hanging up, I…went to the CIA offices on the third floor of the CG. There, I told the CIA chief and a group of his subordinates that I had received the evacuation order from Saigon with permission to go by water. “We have been ordered to release the helicopters immediately. They are desperately needed in Saigon,” I explained.

The CIA chief acknowledged my order to go by water, but asked that they be allowed to take their own motor boats that were fast and armed with machine guns. “We could run interference for you,” the CIA chief explained to me….

In any event, the helicopters were never sent back to Saigon. Many of the people waiting on the roof tops were never evacuated…. And so a lot of people got left in Saigon, including an awful lot of CIA agents, because they didn’t get taken out of these compounds by helicopter, as was foreseen in the plan….

I left the CG with Kassebaum, who was living in my house. We took my car to the house, where we picked up guns, changed clothes, and picked up a few things to take with us…. I had issued orders that nobody could pack their household goods and ship them to Saigon without my specific permission. Some people snuck their stuff out without my knowing it. But the reason I said this was that people were watching us very closely, and the least thing could panic them.… I’d left all of the money I had for the maids, on top of my dresser, a big stack of piasters.… I hoped that they would get it before looters invaded the house. Given my system of priorities, I didn’t feel that I could offer the maids a place in the boat.

When I arrived at the CORDS compound, the Marines had already started loading the boats…. I took up my stance near the entrance to the dock. I was determined to monitor who got on the boats. I feared overcrowding. I also wished to assure places were given those on our priority lists.

Loading the Evacuees – and Helping a CIA Clerk Destroy Codes

As we prepared to embark, I was getting people aboard the boats and the boats prepared for the trip down the river…. Several CIA men came bringing people with them. I put them aboard while the CIA people left, ostensibly to join their comrades on their own smaller boats…. Loading continued. Back at the Consulate General, Hank Cushing and Sergeant Hasty were closing up the office as if we were coming back at two o’clock after luncheon. They were showing people out, getting the place closed down, and getting other people down to us. Some of the Vietnamese that we had selected for evacuation told us no, they didn’t want to go, they wanted to stay there. We agreed that was their choice.

At the same time, my vice consuls, and others, were going about town alerting people, picking them up, getting them down to the boats. The consular officer, Dave Shiachitano, went to people who were on his consular list: American citizens or those having close American associations, for instance women who had children born of American fathers. He tried to convince them that their children, who had a claim on American citizenship, should be given an opportunity to go to America. He was able to convince some but not others.

As they were closing the consulate, Cushing and Hasty heard noise in one of the building’s back rooms. Investigating the source of the noise, they found the CIA code clerk, trying to destroy his codes. For some reason, he wasn’t able to do so; he just wasn’t strong enough. He couldn’t do it by himself. His colleagues had all departed leaving him alone. In their haste, they must have forgotten the poor devil. Fortunately, we had some cooler heads with us…. Cushing and Hasty helped him destroy his codes and other classified gear and brought him with them down to our boat. At the time, I couldn’t figure out what was holding Cushing up. I was on our radio calling to him to hurry, as the tide was ebbing fast. Further delay risked hopelessly beaching our boats for hours until the next tide came in. Of course, I had no idea that our CIA colleagues had abandoned their communicator with his codes….

Finally, Cushing and Hasty arrived with the code clerk sitting between them in near hysteria. He could not find his girl friend. They had stopped by her house, but she was nowhere to be found. Finally, Cushing and Hasty had to drag the communicator with them, for he was reluctant to leave without his friend.

We forced him to get on the boat. Suddenly, I heard shouts of joy. The girl was on the boat. She had come along with the Consulate General employees fearing abandonment. They had a happy reunion. Incredibly, the CIA people had forgotten their communicator, who was responsible for their most secret codes. They simply forgot him in their anxiety to get away….

I then gave orders for those still on the dock to get aboard. The Vietnamese crew of this LCM had jumped ship. I told Traister, who’d been guarding the boat, to start the engines…. I took over the controls in the coxswain’s compartment. I had been in the Navy and the Merchant Marine, but I had never run a boat like the LCM. I did understand the principles. In any case, there was no one else who had any significant nautical experience. So I took the controls of the boat and started trying to maneuver it off the mud bank. By this time, the tide was running out fast.

Suddenly a group of Filipinos came rushing down the dock dragging children, Vietnamese wives and girlfriends after them. They were CIA employees who had been abandoned. I stopped everything. Hasty rushed up the dock, grabbed them, and helped them get aboard. I too got off the boat to hustle them aboard. I was the last to board.

The boat was stuck in the mud but still in the water. With Traister’s help, I violently maneuvered with both propellers until she became unstuck and off the bank…. My comfort was short-lived…. In getting off the mud bank, the rice barge’s propeller had broken…. Mike boats have two powerful diesel engines…. With the barge under tow we started out into the main stream of the river.

”There’s no way we could outfight them”

Just as we were getting underway, two helicopters flew overhead. The deputy chief of the CIA informed us by radio, that they had gotten permission “from Saigon” to use the helicopters in their evacuation. Therefore, they were taking the helicopters out to the evacuation fleet. Would we like some assistance, he asked? I could only conclude that they had disregarded my orders and taken the helicopter despite the desperate need for them in Saigon. I was never able to ascertain who might have given them permission to take the helicopter…. I was furious, but I was trying to maneuver the boat. So I told whoever was talking to them on the radio to tell them to please remind the Navy that we needed help when we arrived at the mouth of the river. We could also use some air support on the way down the river. I was never able to learn whether they made any effort to pass this information on to Naval authorities.

Anyway, whzzt, they were gone. I heard later that when they were taking the helicopters, their Nung guards (Chinese Nung’s who were supposed to be very reliable mercenaries) held them up at gunpoint. They relieved our CIA friends of gold and dollars.

We were now on our way down the river. The second Mike boat that had been tied up at the Shell dock was also on its way down river, just ahead of us. We took up position behind it. The crew of this second boat had not run away. A former Vietnamese naval officer was in charge. He knew the river very well. I still had the rice barge in tow. In total there were some 300 Vietnamese, 18 Americans, and five or six Filipinos in the three boats.

We continued on down the river for some 6-7 miles past Can Tho. To our north, over Vinh-long, the river there is very wide. We could see a helicopter firing its machine guns at something on the ground. We could see the tracer bullets flying in both directions. The war continued.

Off to the port side, some Vietnamese navy boats were approaching on an intersecting course. They were “monitors,” whose armored turrets mounted 40- and 20-millimeter guns. Pretty formidable stuff. Suddenly, the lead monitor fired a machine gun volley over the bow of the leading LCM. The signal was unmistakable. I gave the order to stop. There wasn’t any way that we could outrun them, and there was no way that we could outfight them. The only thing to do was stop and talk to them. I had women and children in all three boats. Good God, we could have had a massacre if they’d ever started shooting with the 40- millimeter guns at our boats. 

Cashing In a Favor

We were stopped. A lieutenant, junior grade, who was in charge of the flotilla of navy boats said that he was under instructions from the corps commander to stop us. General Nam believed that we had South Vietnamese army personnel and draft-aged males on the boats. He wanted us to be brought back to Can Tho, to check the boat for deserters.

The navy people wanted to come on board our boats. I refused to let them come aboard. We were at an impasse surrounded in mid-stream with awesome 40- and 20-millimeter guns pointed down our throats. Most of the males on our three boats were heavily armed. If the navy people had come on the boat and tried to take any of the Vietnamese off, there could have been a shootout. I could not allow this to happen. All three boats were full of women and children.

Certainly General Nam had good reason to have us stopped. A senior Vietnamese air force colonel was on my boat. He had been the deputy base commander at Ben Thuy. I knew him very well. He had come down at the last minute. I thought he was there to bid goodbye to the Shell Oil manager who was a close friend. Unbeknownst to me, he shed his uniform and hid on the boat. One of my Americans identified him only after we

had begun our voyage. By that time, there wasn’t anything to do except throw him over the side. I could not do that. I was angry and disgusted with him, but I didn’t feel there was anything I could do about it. I would not have minded the navy taking him, but I couldn’t give him up without giving up some of our employees who were of military age.

Luckily, two weeks before, I had made an agreement with Commodore Thang, who was in charge of the South Vietnamese navy in the Mekong delta. I got his wife and children evacuated through Saigon in return for a promise of help should we have difficulty in our river-borne evacuation. He owed me a favor. I wasn’t very sure whether he would or could honor our agreement under these circumstances. Nevertheless, I asked the navy lieutenant to get in touch with Commodore Thang and inform him that we were being held. I offered to allow the Commodore to inspect the boats if he would meet us in mid-river. I did not want to return to Can Tho, not knowing whether we would ever be able to leave again.

The lieutenant was friendly, but some of his sailors were not. They looked potentially dangerous. Obviously, they resented our leaving. As requested, the lieutenant got Thang on the radio. The Commodore offered to come immediately to resolve the impasse.

We were held for about an hour and a half waiting Thang. When he arrived in a small boat, we greeted each other as friends. He smiled at me, “You don’t have any officers, soldiers or males of military age on your boats, do you?”

“Of course, not,” I replied. “The people in our boats are all my employees and their families.”

“Right. Then I see no reason to bring you back to Can Tho. I’ll go back and tell the corps commander that I have inspected the boats and found no one on the prohibited categories.

He was really a smart cookie. He had taken the precaution of bringing a young sailor with him whose aged father was on one of our boats. He encouraged the sailor to say goodbye to his father in full view of all of the other sailors. It was a very touching goodbye; the young sailor was staying behind. This disarmed the other sailors, whose animosity disappeared.

To further ease tensions, I gave the sailors our rice barge. It was more a hindrance to us with its broken propeller. We took the people who had been on the rice barge and divided them among the two LCMs. This meant that all our people were in modern, sea worthy craft behind protective armor. I was greatly relieved….

While we were stopped, I told my Americans to disarm all Vietnamese. The fact that they’d give their guns up to us was important. It was a sign of trust. Perhaps, they had no choice, but we got no resistance. My men circulated among the Vietnamese reassuring them in their own language. We kept all of the guns on the top of the engine compartment behind my steering post. The Marines were there to guard them. We also had a machine

gun off one side and a BAR [Browning Automatic Rifle] off the other side. All of the Americans were armed. As my own protection, I had my Gurkha kukri from Katanga. It meant a great deal to me. I could not leave it behind. Besides, it might come in handy.… My kukri was one of the few things I brought with me in the evacuation. Other than that, I had little more than the clothes on my back, an old pair of dungarees and a sports shirt. However, I did have the damned helmet the Marines had given me. We took some pictures on the boat with me at the helm of the boat. One of those pictures got into the State magazine.

“We’ve just been fired on by a rocket!”

After Thang released us, we recommenced our journey down river. It was about two or three o’clock in the afternoon. The tide was running out fast, which was useful in giving us additional speed. This was important in my calculations, as I wanted to reach the mouth of the river during daylight. I was not so confident of our ability to navigate on the river in the dark…. Luckily, the Vietnamese commander of the other boat knew the river well. I followed him, for the most part, through the seventy miles from Can Tho to the sea.

About 30-45 minutes after our release by the Vietnamese navy, we were cruising down the river when, out of the corner of my eye, I saw a flash. I turned my head instinctively in that direction. To my horror, I saw a long rocket with flame at the rear. I remember the smoke coming out of the back of the rocket, with the flame. Jesus Christ, I jammed the throttles to full speed. If I could have pushed them any further, I would have. I said to the Marines, “Hey, we’ve just been fired on by a rocket! Shoot at the source of the fire on the right bank!”…

We put up a tremendous volume of fire. Some of the Vietnamese got hold of M-16’s and supplemented fire by the Marines and my CORDS people. One or two rockets were fired and we put up such a volume of fire that they must have decided to leave us alone.

The rockets passed near our stern, scaring the hell out of us but doing no damage. It’s pretty hard to hit a moving boat in the middle of a wide river.

We were now approaching the narrowest part of the river. The channel flowed between islands. It was a well-known infiltration route used by the North Vietnamese, moving from one part of the Mekong delta to another. The VC held the banks on both sides of the river and often occupied the islands in mid-stream. The channel narrowed as it passed between the island. We would be dangerously close to shore. This was certainly the most perilous part of the trip down river.

Before we got to this narrow part, a U.S. Navy F-4 flew very high over us, and did a barrel roll. I optimistically thought, “The Navy now knows where we are. They will protect us. We even have air cover.” I had asked for air coverage to suppress anybody who wanted to screw with us. There it was, our U.S. Navy’s F-4 fighter plane up in the sky, doing a barrel roll.

Less encouraging, the CIA communicator that we had rescued after his abandonment had several radios. He used every frequency imaginable. No one would answer. Finally, we put out an international “May Day” distress signal. Still no reply. Just as we were coming to the narrow part of the river, heavy rains began to fall. Providentially, a deluge obscured us as we passed between the islands. At times, the banks seemed close enough to touch. The VC aren’t stupid, however;  they get in out of the rain. Navigation was a problem during the rains. I could see very little ahead of our boat. We would have had difficulty following the channel without the experienced Vietnamese captain in the lead boat. I might have run the boat onto a sandbar.

The rain covering our passage through this very dangerous patch was another piece of extraordinary good luck. Oddly, it stopped soon after we emerged into the wide river below the islands.

We continued down the river…Normally, that river was full of traffic. That day there was none. I suppose, the river folk were also frightened of what was happening.

Gooooodbye, Vietnam!

At about seven o’clock, we reached the mouth of the river….. I did not want to stay in the mouth of the river. I was fearful that someone might come to interfere with us in the middle of the night…. But most of the people with me were land oriented. They were afraid of the sea. The unknown was what frightened them.

Since I was in charge, I decided to put to sea. No one questioned my decision, or my right to make it. We could discuss options, but, when a decision was taken, all loyally followed instructions. To maintain morale, I insisted that the U.S. Navy must be just over the horizon. They’ve probably got us on radar right now. They wouldn’t abandon us. The American Navy has traditions to uphold. Honor would never allow them to abandon friends in peril on the sea. Moreover, the Task Force representatives had promised that a ship would be waiting for us. We only had to get far enough out to sea. The water’s too shallow in here for them to bring a ship in, I reasoned. They will find us with their radar if we get away from the land….

Symbolically, as the sun set, we left Vietnam. I could see the channel out to sea marked on my map. Depths were deepest on a line going in a southeasterly direction. Obviously this was the main channel. We just went in that direction. In any case, I had the captain of the other boat to
follow, so I didn’t have any problems.

I remember looking back as the sun set over the Mekong Delta for the last time. God, it was beautiful. A beautiful big red-orange sunset over the flat, lush region. I had been entranced with the beauty of the delta ever since I first arrived some five years before. It was so beautiful,

especially at sunset.

Anyway, I remember thinking, “This will be the last time that I’ll see this.”

Floating into the Dark

Then I turned around to more important things, like which direction we should take once clear of the channel. To my sorrow, I discovered, at this late date, that there was no compass in my boat. Someone must have stolen it. We could not be sure of our directions. The night became increasingly dark with low cloud cover obscuring the stars.

There were many lights out at sea. I found they were attached to fishing nets laid there in the shallow water. At first, we were fooled by these lights thinking they might be boats from our expected navy ship. There was no one….

After several hours of searching in vain, we had all but given up for the night.

First, I tried to tie the two boats together so that we would not be separated in the night. This did not work. The boats beat against one another in the swell. We risked putting a hole in one of the boats.… The next morning, either the Navy would find us or we would run northwards parallel to the coast, to where I knew the evacuation fleet was anchored off Vung-tau. All you had to do was keep the coast to your left. It would be uncomfortable to spend a night on the open sea but we were safe enough….

As we were about to lay to for the night, we saw some especially bright lights in the distance. I didn’t know for sure if it was a ship. But we decided to make for the lights. It turned out to be a ship, called The Pioneer Contender, an American freighter owned by the President Line. In fact, it was the freighter that the spooks had asked be sent down to lay off the coast to evacuate their people. There it was, anchored off the coast. It was well lit. The ship had a Marine contingent aboard as guards. As we came alongside, they were not happy about these strange boats coming out of the night. Initially, they were reluctant to let us come aboard. Finally, we convinced them that we were fellow Americans and not pirates or VC saboteurs.

It was a ship on which they’d had some awful experiences in the evacuation from Danang. Vietnamese soldiers had run amok raping, stealing, and killing. There was mayhem on the ship. The crew locked themselves up in their quarters and ran the ship. Vietnamese gangs took over the rest of the ship.

Understandably, the Marines were apprehensive. They didn’t know who these madmen were, coming alongside in a boat in the middle of the night off a hostile coast. The unknown is always a little frightening, and they didn’t expect us….

Still wary, the Marines agreed to take us aboard. Rope slings were lowered into our boats. Our passengers were loaded into the slings and hauled up onto the deck. The Vietnamese were put down into the hold, where there were other Vietnamese. Some of them, maybe all of them, had been evacuated by the CIA people from the delta.

We got on the ship. The Marine captain in charge of the security detail was very officious and not very welcoming. It was difficult to explain to him who we were and what a Consul General was doing wandering about in the South China Sea. Still skeptical, he took me to the ship captain’s stateroom. The captain was there with his chief engineer and chief officer. They knew what a Consul General was. Quickly, they sat me down and gave me a cold beer. Then they put me in a stateroom that the CIA man had occupied. I even got a shower. Sadly, I was the only one in my crew who got a bed that night. Well, the Vietnamese were okay, because they were down in the hold where it was dry and clean. They had facilities there; with food and water. My Americans had to sleep on deck. It was cold and wet; it had been raining, and they had to sleep outside….

Anyway, we were on the ship, we were safe. But they hadn’t been waiting for us, didn’t expect us. There was no Navy ship anywhere near the mouth of the Mekong. The Navy had simply forgotten. Later on, I asked a Navy captain in the evacuation fleet, “Didn’t you hear us on the radio?”

“Oh, yeah, sure,” he replied.

“Then, why didn’t you answer?” I asked.

“Oh, communications security. Our communications were blacked out because of communication security,” he told me as a matter of fact.

I thought for a moment of “Catch-22,” or was it Alice in Wonderland? Unbelievable, but true….

We were really the only people who weren’t traumatized in the whole thing, as far as I could see. Others looked beaten and depressed. My gang were upbeat. We had done what we had planned to do. We’d gotten ourselves and our people out. Nobody helped us. I was very proud of the guys that I was with, and they were all proud of having been part of what we’d done.