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The Last Days Before the Fall of Saigon: Evacuating Vietnamese Refugees

The Fall of Saigon is perhaps one of the most infamous moments of the Vietnam War. Following the fall of other large cities to the North Vietnamese Army, the U.S government launched covert operations to evacuate Americans and Vietnamese civilians from the country. These evacuations would become some of the most famous in history.

U.S government personnel help transfer refugees from a barge to a Navy ship |  U.S Navy Archives
U.S government personnel help transfer refugees from a barge to a Navy ship | U.S Navy Archives

In 1974, Congress reduced funding to the South Vietnamese government. This reduction in funds increased the vulnerability of South Vietnamese forces, and in December 1974, the North Vietnamese invasion began. As city after city fell to the North Vietnamese Army, refugees fled in droves while being shelled by North Vietnamese artillery. In Washington, President Ford appealed to Congress for emergency aid to Vietnam, but was turned down. When it became clear that evacuation would be necessary, controversy brewed over how to handle the evacuations. Some members of Congress insisted that only Americans should be evacuated, while others stressed the importance of evacuating “vulnerable” Vietnamese nationals. These were Vietnamese citizens who had worked with the U.S government, and would be at increased risk when the North invaded. Ultimately, the government decided to evacuate Americans, vulnerable Vietnamese, and Vietnamese relatives of American nationals.

In March of 1975, Americans and Vietnamese employees of the U.S. government began to be evacuated from other cities around the country, but the evacuations sparked chaos when many members of the public found out about the evacuations and begged to be included. Throngs of people attempted to board U.S. vessels and planes, creating widespread panic. For this reason, the Saigon evacuation was kept secret from the public up until the last minute.

As North Vietnamese forces approached Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City), Department of State employees frantically tried to evacuate thousands of Vietnamese civilians. One such employee was Peter Tomsen. Tomsen had spent several years in Vietnam as a member of the CORDS (Civil Operations and Revolutionary/Rural Development Support) program. In 1970, Tomsen’s tenure with CORDS ended. He was transferred to India, and he and his family began a new life there. But in the spring of 1975, Tomsen realized he would need to return to Vietnam. Tomsen’s wife Kim Dung Nguyen had been born in Vietnam, and her family was living in Saigon. With the fall of Saigon imminent, Nguyen knew that her parents and other family members would need to leave the city as soon as possible. Tomsen made the decision to return to Vietnam to help his in-laws and other relatives evacuate. In order to do so, Tomsen risked defying the orders of the Department of State, which wanted to keep Americans from entering Vietnam. But he was determined to rescue his family, so he found a loophole—he would enter the country using a visa from a previous trip.

When Tomsen arrived in Saigon in April 1975, a small handful of Embassy staff were overwhelmed trying to evacuate a huge amount of people. In addition to evacuating his own relatives, Tomsen helped the employees of the U.S. Embassy in Saigon with the evacuation. They quickly encountered challenges. For example, one major issue for the Embassy staff in Saigon was that the U.S. INS (Immigration and Naturalization Service) required the Vietnamese relatives to have a sponsor in the U.S. who could support them financially. Tomsen and the Embassy staff had no time to track down actual sponsors, so they frantically filled in paperwork with the names of fake sponsors to allow people to leave the country.

Perhaps the most harrowing moment of Tomsen’s experience was when he agreed to become a driver for the evacuation proceedings. He would be participating in a complex process that involved refugees being transferred to a safe house and an evacuation hall before being smuggled to the airport. Tomsen was able to borrow a van from the Embassy to transport the evacuees. This officially-marked vehicle would face less scrutiny from Viet Cong soldiers. Tomsen’s in-laws’ house became a meeting point for those preparing to escape. Word got out, and crowds surrounded the house, hoping to join the evacuation. Tomsen and other Foreign Service Officers tried to evacuate as many people as they could, but ultimately had to make difficult choices about who would be evacuated. In the end, the evacuees that escaped in the van were mainly relatives of Americans, and relatives of the relatives. Tomsen tried to fit as many people as he could in the Embassy van, and smuggled over twenty refugees, including his own family, to the airport.

On top of the stress of the evacuation, Tomsen was continually dodging his superiors at the Department of State, who were trying to force him to leave the country. However, he was determined to remain until he could get his family to safety. Finally, on April 23, Tomsen drove the refugees to the airport, where they left the country on flights bound for U.S. Air Force bases in Guam and the Philippines. From there, refugees would be transferred to the continental United States. With his in-laws safely evacuated, Tomsen was ready to rejoin his wife and children in India. On April 30, Saigon fell to North Vietnamese forces, bringing an end to the war.

In the days before the city fell, Embassy staff managed to help thousands of Vietnamese civilians escape, in what was one of the largest evacuations in history. For all Foreign Service Officers involved, the evacuation was one of the most impactful moments of their careers, but for Tomsen the experience was particularly striking because he was on a deeply personal mission to rescue his own family.

Peter Tomsen went on to work throughout Asia, including as a political officer in India, and as the U.S Special Envoy to Afghanistan. He would go on to become the U.S Ambassador to Armenia.

Peter Tomsen’s interview was conducted by Mark Tauber on June 17, 2016.

Read Peter Tomsen’s full oral history HERE.

For more Moments on the Fall of Saigon click HERE and HERE.

Drafted by Artemis Maria Katsaris

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Excerpts:

A Final Appeal for Vietnam: On April 10, [President] Ford addressed a joint session of Congress. The ARVN [Army of the Republic of Vietnam] successes at Xuan Loc [Vietnamese town] and in IV CORPS [Vietnamese army unit] reinforced his appeal for aid. He blamed Congress for not permitting adequate assistance to Saigon. He requested $722 million in emergency military assistance and the lifting of Case-Church restrictions [amendment to end funding for military operations in S.E Asia] in the event U.S. military intervention became necessary to help American citizens in Vietnam. He asked for a response by April 17. On April 16, in a speech, Ford publicly denounced Congress for preventing his administration from keeping America’s commitments to Vietnam.

Fighting for an Evacuation: Isolated in New Delhi, I knew nothing about inter-agency battles in Washington raging over the issue of evacuation of Vietnamese endangered by their association with the U.S. after Saigon’s fall. Declassified documents on secret White House meetings released decades later reveal that Secretary of Defense Schlesinger, CINCPAC [Commander in Chief, Pacific Command] Commander Admiral Gayler, the Chairman of the Joint Chief of Staff, General Brown, and CIA Director Colby pressed for an Americans-only evacuation. Ambassador Martin in Saigon in coordination with Kissinger in Washington insisted that the U.S. had a moral 204 obligation to evacuate 150,000 Vietnamese –those who had worked for the U.S., were relatives of U.S. citizens, or were at “High Risk.” During a briefing at the White House hosted by President Ford for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee members, Democratic senators -including Javits and Biden- were unanimous in insisting on evacuating only Americans. Ford supported Kissinger and Martin’s mixed evacuation option. Martin and Kissinger used their private one-on-one secret communication channel to evacuate over 60,000 Vietnamese refugees and 6,000 Americans during the last weeks of April. On several occasions, Martin exercised his Chief of Mission authority to send military and CIA officers back to Washington for running independent evacuation operations without his personal approval.

The Trail of Tears:…In early March, Thieu’s [South Vietnamese President] orders to his II CORPS [Vietnamese army unit] commander to abandon the Central Highlands and retreat to coastal enclaves produced more disasters. Thousands of Vietnamese civilians clogged narrow roads in the mountainous Central Highlands and the North-South Highway 1 along the coast. Panicked soldiers intermingled with the refugee throngs. North Vietnamese artillery pounded the inter-mixed civilian-military masses of humanity on the mountain road from Ban Me Thuot to Nha Trang [Vietnamese cities]. It was called the “Trail of Tears.”

           
Vietnamese refugees on a U.S carrier ship |  Wikimedia Commons
Vietnamese refugees on a U.S carrier ship | Wikimedia Commons

A Covert Evacuation: Declassified cables exchanged between [Ambassador] Martin and Kissinger in their private channel at the time highlighted their determination to prevent the Saigon evacuation from descending into the panic and chaos that characterized the evacuation of Danang [Vietnamese city]. Beginning on March 28, civil and military discipline completely broke down in Danang. Mobs of armed soldiers, desperate men, women and children swarmed departing boats, 205 capsizing them, violently fighting one another for space to escape. Many drowned. An angry mob broke into the consulate’s front door while the last consulate Americans fled out the back running for the barge. Consul General Al Francis, who had gotten separated by the crowds, escaped to a Vietnamese naval vessel off the coast. The twin dangers of anarchy and retribution against Americans surfaced at the Danang airport when an American chartered civilian aircraft was mobbed by a massive crowd of soldiers and civilians. Deserters swinging and firing their weapons fought their way on board. The crew desperately closed the doors and the plane started to taxi through the crowd. People attempted to lay down under the wheels and clung to wheel axles. Shots were fired at the Boeing 727 as it lifted off. The same scenes of disorder, violence, everyone for themselves threatened the April 2 evacuation from the U.S. Nha Trang consulate further down the coast. Only the American consulate staff got out on helicopters. Martin and Kissinger’s foremost concern was that a similar wave of anarchy and possible retribution against Americans could erupt in Saigon –derailing the evacuation and endangering the lives of Americans and Vietnamese associated with Americans. They considered it imperative that the embassy’s evacuation be discreet and hidden from Saigon’s population as much as possible. In Washington, Martin and Kissinger took steps to keep evacuation operations out of the American and international media. To prevent leaks, only select national security offices were aware of the secret airlifts’ huge scale and organization.

A Desperate Attempt: A few days prior to my April 21 arrival, Ambassador Martin ordered a covert evacuation of Vietnamese relatives of American citizens and “High Risk” Vietnamese. High risk was broadly interpreted to mean all Vietnamese who had worked for or had worked directly with the American diplomatic mission and U.S. military in Vietnam. The Ambassador had no choice but to make the evacuation a covert one hidden from the Saigon population and the media. The brief time remaining before Saigon fell made it impossible to comply with GVN [Government of Vietnam] passport and immigration requirements for the thousands of Vietnamese evacuees…the massive evacuation underway was in the “Black,” (clandestine) channel.

An April 19 INS [Immigration and Naturalization Service] cable had permitted evacuation of relatives of U.S. citizens, but only after the citizens had signed financial sponsorship affidavits guaranteeing transportation and resettlement costs for the Vietnamese relative refugees. The embassy Front Office composed and printed hundreds of these evacuation affidavit forms. They were distributed to those conducting the evacuation. The forms were used, or it could be charged, purposefully misused by POL [Political Section of Embassy], DAO [Defense Attache Office] and CIA [Central Intelligence Agency] officers managing the covert movement of Vietnamese evacuees to the airport. We were in a rush. We liberally wrote down the names of fictitious sponsors in the U.S. with their fictitious addresses in the U.S. That was sufficient to satisfy the U.S. DAO contractors at the Tan Son Nhut Dodge City evacuation hall clearing passengers for evacuation on military aircraft. In the evacuation’s final weeks, the contractors did not even bother to look at the forms while tens of thousands of evacuees paraded by them on the way to board airplanes. The evacuation qualification guidelines gradually morphed into any Vietnamese lucky enough to be a friend of an American conducting the evacuation, or a friend of a Vietnamese evacuee, or a frightened GVN [Government of Vietnam] employee on the street seeking to escape, or someone by chance latching onto a group of evacuees at an assembly site waiting for an embassy bus…

The evacuees would be quietly picked up and taken to a safe house, sometimes called a “staging” house or area…The evacuees would be grouped, placed in vehicles, and in some cases buses, and driven past the Vietnamese and American military guards at Tan Son Nhut [evacuation hall] to the gigantic Dodge City hall at DAO’s “Pentagon East.” From there they were boarded onto C-130s and C-141s [aircrafts] spiraling down from the sky to avoid anti-aircraft fire, and flown out of the country. Most evacuee flights went to Guam. Many also went to Clark Air Base in the Philippines.

Heart-Wrenching Pleas: [From Tomsen’s evacuation diary] The evacuation will be difficult but still possible. Ambassador Martin must be given credit for moving ahead with a flexible interpretation of Vietnamese evacuees. He’s allowing the smuggling operation to go forward with a cover of evacuating U.S. citizens…How disconcerting to plunge into these cables [from people asking to be evacuated] that one can never read in total. All heart-rendering, most from Vietnamese wives [of American citizens] desperately trying to get their relatives out. Through the lines of the telegrams and letters one can glean the tremendous hope and trust the writers have invested in their written appeals. It’s their last chance and only hope. Yet there are now only five of us working on all evacuation efforts in the political section. Including getting out the Vietnamese employees working in the embassy and in the consulates. U.S. press reports that the White House is assessing the possibility of evacuating from 500,000 to 1,000,000 Vietnamese. The six- or seven-man consular section is completely devoted to handling the exit of U.S. ex-servicemen, deserters, drug addicts, contractors, and their Vietnamese dependents. DAO [Defense Attache Office], Political, and CIA personnel are running the blockade at the airport with their own little covert operations, carrying groups known to them, such as (for us) the (POL) [Political Section] families of FSOs [Foreign Service Officers]. Tens of thousands in the letters (and faxes) will never be contacted.

Getting Involved in the Evacuation: [From Tomsen’s evacuation diary] …I agreed to be a driver for the DAO [Defense Attache Office] evacuation channel. Shep [political officer at Embassy] was relying on the DAO channel to evacuate some of his relatives in the Vietnamese military, in addition to some High-Risk Vietnamese officials and their families who were POL [Political section] section contacts. Shep gave me lists of CIA and AID [United States Agency for International Development] Vietnamese employees to evacuate. On Tuesday afternoon, I visited the embassy motor pool and met the same Vietnamese dispatcher I had known during my previous tours in Vietnam. He permitted me to check out a 3-row embassy van that was ideal for smuggling evacuees to the airport. The vehicle’s diplomatic NG (Ngoai Giao) license plates boosted its authority. It could carry up to 20 crammed-in Vietnamese at a time!

Making the Escape: [From Tomsen’s evacuation diary] Earlier in the day, at 7:00 am, I phoned Kim’s father at 210 Gia Long Street [Nguyen’s father’s address]. I gave him the address of the staging house the family should go to, arriving about 8:00 am. To mitigate further suspicion by neighbors (later it was confirmed that the next-door neighbor had been a VC informant for many years) and neighborhood security personnel, I informed that I could not return to the house. I would meet the family with their luggage -which I had collected the night before- at the staging house later that morning. Adroitly, each member of the family left the house per their normal daily routine. Older brother and Army Captain Dat departed on his motorcycle towards the Ministry of Defense where he worked. He changed direction and arrived at the staging house gate entry. Another brother, Nam, did the same. Kim’s father, mother, Nam’s fiancé and family long-time nanny and helper transited the sprawling vegetable market at Cho Ben Thanh on the way to the staging house….

Surrounded by the Enemy: [From Tomsen’s evacuation diary] Wednesday began with my unsuccessful attempt to lift a high-risk evacuee’s suitcase loaded with gold bullion into my embassy van. Tensions were rising in Saigon. On Tuesday, the day before, outnumbered and flanked by 3 North Vietnamese divisions, the 18th Division [South Vietnamese Army division] had been forced to pull back from Xuan Loc…More NVA [North Vietnamese Army] divisions were flooding south. The final Battle for Saigon would begin on April 26. After we met on Tuesday, April 22, Kim’s aunt had spread the word to the others on Kim’s father’s list of 11…to gather at the Gia Long street house…Then more relatives beyond the 10 moved into the house, probably relatives of relatives and friends too of the family and some other Vietnamese from off the street. The numbers in the house climbed above 30. At mid-day on Wednesday, I drove by the Gia Long family home. There was no surrounding wall, no gate entry. The knots of people in front the house the day before had grown to throngs of on-lookers milling around.

Reaching Safety:…Our forays (to the airport) go smoothly. Utter a sigh of relief after each convoy drives past the VN guards to the U.S.-managed Dodge City evacuation hall. Outside the hall, VN men, women, and children are lined up on all sides of the building with their luggage, waiting for the lift-off to safety.

Table of Contents Highlights:

Education
BA in Political Science, Wittenberg University 1958–1962
Master’s Degree in Public and International Affairs, University of Pittsburgh 1962–1964
Joined the Foreign Service 1967
Can Tho, Vietnam—Foreign Service Officer CORDS 1969–1971
Mumbai, India—Political Officer 1971–1975
Kabul, Afghanistan—U.S. Special Envoy for Afghanistan 1989–1992
Yerevan, Armenia—Ambassador 1995–1998