Honorable Exit: How a Few Brave Americans Risked All to Save Our Vietnamese Allies at the End of the War

Honorable Exit: How a Few Brave Americans Risked All to Save Our Vietnamese Allies at the End of the War

by Thurston Clarke

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A groundbreaking revisionist history of the last days of the Vietnam War that reveals the acts of American heroism that saved more than one hundred thousand South Vietnamese from communist revenge

In 1973 U.S. participation in the Vietnam War ended in a cease-fire and a withdrawal that included promises by President Nixon to assist the South in the event of invasion by the North. But in early 1975, when North Vietnamese forces began a full-scale assault, Congress refused to send arms or aid. By early April that year, the South was on the brink of a defeat that threatened execution or years in a concentration camp for the untold number of South Vietnamese who had supported the government in Saigon or worked with Americans.
     Thurston Clarke begins Honorable Exit by describing the iconic photograph of the Fall of Saigon: desperate Vietnamese scrambling to board a helicopter evacuating the last American personnel from Vietnam. It is an image of U.S. failure and shame. Or is it? By unpacking the surprising story of heroism that the photograph actually tells, Clarke launches into a narrative that is both a thrilling race against time and an important corrective to the historical record. For what is less known is that during those final days, scores of Americans--diplomats, businessmen, soldiers, missionaries, contractors, and spies--risked their lives to assist their current and former translators, drivers, colleagues, neighbors, friends, and even perfect strangers in escape. By the time the last U.S. helicopter left Vietnam on April 30, 1975, these righteous Americans had helped to spirit 130,000 South Vietnamese to U.S. bases in Guam and the Philippines. From there, the evacuees were resettled in the U.S. and became American citizens, the leading edge of one of America's most successful immigrant groups.
    Into this tale of heroism on the ground Clarke weaves the political machinations of Henry Kissinger advising President Ford in the White House while reinforcing the delusions of the U.S. Ambassador in Saigon, who, at the last minute, refused to depart. Groundbreaking, page-turning, and authoritative, Honorable Exit is a deeply moving history of Americans at a little-known finest hour.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780385539654
Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date: 04/30/2019
Sold by: Random House
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 448
Sales rank: 706,620
File size: 44 MB
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About the Author

Thurston Clarke is the author of nine widely acclaimed works of fiction and nonfiction, including California Fault, a New York Times notable book; Equator; By Blood and Fire; Pearl Harbor Ghosts, the basis for the CBS Pearl Harbor documentary; and the bestselling Lost Hero, which was made into an award-winning NBC miniseries about Raoul Wallenberg. He has written for Vanity Fair, Glamour, Outside, Travel Holiday, Condé Nast Traveler, and numerous other magazines and newspapers. He is the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship, the Publication Award for the Geographic Society of Chicago, and a Lowell Thomas Award for travel literature. He lives with his wife and three daughters on Lake Champlain in upstate New York.

Read an Excerpt


The Man in the White Shirt

On the afternoon of April 29, 1975, Dutch photojournalist Hubert “Hugh” Van Es looked out the window at the United Press Inter­national (UPI) office in downtown Saigon and saw a helicopter land­ing on an elevator shaft rising from the roof of 22 Gia Long Street. Van Es grabbed his camera and a 300 mm lens and hurried onto the balcony. As a man in a white shirt was reaching down to help a per­son at the top of a staircase board the helicopter, Van Es took the last great iconic photograph of the Vietnam War. A UPI editor in Tokyo misidentified the building as the American embassy, and despite later corrections the mistake has survived in books, in articles, and on the internet, perhaps because placing the helicopter on the roof of the embassy makes the photograph a more potent symbol for America’s first lost war.

Compare the Van Es photograph with the even more iconic one that Associated Press (AP) reporter Joe Rosenthal shot of six U.S. ser­vicemen raising an American flag on the summit of Mount Suribachi during the World War II battle for Iwo Jima. Both were taken near the end of a war, and both show Americans framed against an open sky—reaching up to plant a flag or down to grab a refugee. Otherwise, they seem to have nothing in common. One symbolizes victory in a war Americans have spent decades celebrating; the other, defeat in a war they have spent decades trying to forget. One represents courage and sacrifice; the other, catastrophe and disgrace. But the more one learns about the staircase on the roof of 22 Gia Long Street, the people standing on it, the pilots of that helicopter, and the man in the white shirt, the more apparent it becomes that Van Es had also memorial­ized a moment of stirring heroism.

He later described the 22 Gia Long Street stairway as a “make­shift wooden ladder.” But zoom in from a different angle and with a stronger lens, as French photojournalist Philippe Buffon did that same afternoon, and it becomes a sturdy staircase wide enough to be climbed by four people abreast. Zoom in some more and the helicopter becomes a Bell Huey 205 painted in the blue and white livery of Air America, one of the CIA’s proprietary airlines, and you can see that the man in the white shirt has a seven-day beard, a black patch over his left eye, and a cigar clenched in his teeth and that his shirt is ripped and filthy. Patrons of Saigon’s rowdier bars would recognize him as Oren Bartholomew “O. B.” Harnage, the U.S. embassy’s deputy air opera­tions officer and a middle-aged roustabout described by one friend as “a gregarious, macho good old boy, a bull-shitter of the first order . . . [and] suds-sipper of renown.” The cigar was one of the seven that Har­nage smoked daily, perhaps as an homage to his father, a Tampa cigar roller who had abandoned him at birth, in either 1925 or 1926—he was uncertain which. He had volunteered for the navy at seventeen (or eighteen) and been wounded on Okinawa. A sliver of old shrapnel had worked its way into his left eye the previous month, explaining the patch. He had joined the air force after the war, moved to the CIA as a contract employee, and after seven years in Laos and Vietnam had concluded that America had been “naïve” to involve itself in the Viet­nam War.

Earlier that afternoon CIA chief of station Thomas Polgar had asked him to commandeer one of the Air America helicopters that had been landing on the embassy roof and direct its pilots to 22 Gia Long Street to evacuate a group of Polgar’s personal friends and senior South Vietnamese officials. Risking his life to rescue some dignitaries rubbed Harnage the wrong way. He decided instead to board everyone, he explained later, “first come, first served . . . ladies and infants being the exception.” After landing on the Gia Long Street roof, he punched out a burly Korean diplomat (a Polgar VIP) who had elbowed the other evacuees aside, and threw large suitcases—some heavy with gold bars—off the roof. Parents handed him their children before climbing back down the stairs in tears. Notes pinned to the children’s shirts read, “My son wants to be a doctor,” and “My daughter is very musical.”

Van Es photographed Harnage as he was leaning down to grab Dr. Thiet-Tan Nguyen, a young military doctor who would become an anesthesiologist in Southern California. Next he grabbed Dr. Tong Huyhn, who would practice family medicine in a suburb of Atlanta. Next came Tuyet-Dong Bui, a slender teenage girl who will call herself Janet at the California university where she will earn a degree in micro­biology before becoming a biotech researcher. Hours before, a stray bullet had killed one of her high school classmates, and her mother had urged her to leave. Her brother, who stood a rung below her, had traded his motorbike to the chauffeur of a high-ranking military offi­cer in exchange for being led here. Standing below him was a Polgar VIP, Minister of Defense Tran Van Don, who had recently told South Vietnamese troops, “In the coming hours, in the coming days, I will be by your side.”

Elevator shafts like the one at 22 Gia Long Street usually have a rudimentary iron or wood ladder so mechanics can climb up and ser­vice their machinery. Yet no one seeing the Van Es photograph appears to have asked why such a large and sturdy staircase happened to be leading to the top of the elevator shaft—in effect, leading nowhere. It was there because on April 6 Marine Corps colonel Al Gray had flown over downtown Saigon in a helicopter, surveying the roofs of buildings leased by U.S. government agencies. Air America pilots Marius Burke and Nikki Fillipi had then inspected the roofs that Gray believed capable of supporting a helicopter, gauging their strength and checking for obstructions. After choosing the thirteen most promis­ing ones, they had supervised a crew of American contractors who rerouted electrical and telephone cables and removed flagpoles and washing lines. The contractors custom built two staircases for 22 Gia Long Street: a short one leading from the main roof to an intermediate platform, and a longer one connecting that platform to the top of the elevator shaft. Their staircases had handrails and short steps so that children and the disabled could climb them.

Major General Homer Smith, the U.S. defense attaché and senior military officer in South Vietnam, approved Burke and Fillipi’s prepa­rations, but Ambassador Graham Martin was furious when he learned about their makeshift helipads. He believed that any indication that the United States was preparing an evacuation would demoralize South Vietnam’s military, undermine the government of President Nguyen Van Thieu, and lead to revenge attacks on American civilians. He refused Burke’s request to pre-position barrels of fuel on the roofs, park helicopters on them overnight, and paint an H in green Day-Glo paint on them that matched the dimensions of a Huey’s skids so that Air America pilots could see which ones had been converted to heli­pads and where to align their skids to ensure a 360-degree clearance. Martin argued that the H might alarm the Vietnamese washerwomen who dried laundry on the roofs. On his own building’s roof, Burke painted the outline of an H in green dots that he later connected. Other Air America pilots ignored Martin and painted a green H on other helipads.

Bob Caron and Jack Hunter piloted the helicopter that landed on 22 Gia Long Street. They were among the thirty-one middle-aged Air America pilots who had volunteered to make these hazardous flights. Before Harnage recruited them to rescue Polgar’s VIPs, they had been setting down wherever they saw people standing on a roof with an H. Caron was a West Point graduate and Vietnam War veteran who, like Harnage, did not give a hoot if the people he collected from these roofs were high or low priority, government ministers or their chauf­feurs. He was rescuing them, he said, “to preserve America’s honor.” By the time Van Es took his iconic photograph, Caron and Hunter had made three pickups from Gia Long Street. Each time they lifted off, Caron shouted to the people being left behind on the stairs, “We’ll make as many runs as we can!”

A Huey could carry twelve combat-loaded American soldiers, but because Vietnamese are smaller and many of the evacuees were women and children, Harnage packed twenty people onto every flight. To make more room, he rode outside, standing on a skid while holding a Swedish machine gun in one hand. A passenger gripped his other arm to prevent him from falling to his death in case he was hit by ground fire from North Vietnamese troops or disgruntled South Vietnamese soldiers. (Earlier that day, while stopping at Tan Son Nhut to transfer his passengers onto one of the larger Marine Corps helicopters that were shuttling out to the U.S. fleet, Caron had noticed a bullet hole in his drive shaft.) Harnage had suffered wounds on Okinawa while fighting for his country and his comrades; on April 29, he was risk­ing his life to turn a few more Vietnamese strangers into American citizens.

Van Es had captured Caron’s last pickup from Gia Long Street. Caron was almost out of gas and would have to fly half an hour out to the U.S. Navy fleet to refuel. As he lifted off for the last time, he met the eyes of those he was leaving behind—people who were unlikely to become doctors, musicians, biotech researchers, or anything else in the United States and might instead be among the hundreds of thousands of “class enemies” that the Communists would send to a gulag of “reeducation” camps. Some would be incarcerated for as long as seventeen years, unless they died first from malnutrition, disease, hard labor, and mistreatment. It was in their eyes, Caron thought, that “you could see they knew we were never coming back.” Harnage never forgot their “pleading eyes” and would remember his last flight from Gia Long Street as a “nightmare” of people “waiting on a ladder for a helicopter that does not return.” All across Saigon on April 29, Ameri­cans avoided Vietnamese eyes. As a group walked down a boulevard toward an evacuation bus, passing Vietnamese watching silently from the doorways of their homes and shops, one man kept saying, “Don’t look in their eyes. . . . Don’t look in their eyes. . . . Don’t look in their eyes.” A reporter who had refused to help her Vietnamese translator and his family escape, telling herself they would be “better off” in Sai­gon, never forgot “the look of supplication in the eyes of his wife and children.” Decades later, an American diplomat remained haunted by “the look in the eyes of those I had to leave behind.”

As Caron’s helicopter lifted off, a passenger noticed her teenage son standing on the stairs and burst into tears. Tuyet-Dong “Janet” Bui had been excited to take her first helicopter ride, but as Saigon slipped away, she thought, “Oh my God, I don’t know where I’m going. I don’t know anybody. Where are my parents?” and began weeping. She and the other passengers were, in their way, as courageous as Caron and Har­nage. They were leaving behind friends, family, country, and culture to become exiles in a nation where, according to a recent poll, two-thirds of its citizens did not want them. On the same day that Harnage’s evac­uees were flying over Saigon, U.S. senator George McGovern, who had run for president in 1972 on an antiwar platform, was telling reporters in Ohio, “I am opposed to large numbers of Vietnamese coming, not only because I think it is not in our interests. I don’t think it is in their interest. I think the Vietnamese are better off in Vietnam, including the orphans.”

Harnage looked down from the skids of Caron’s helicopter and saw smoke: puffs of smoke rising from backyards where South Viet­namese were burning photographs, documents, and anything else con­necting them to the United States or the Thieu government; plumes of it spiraling from the American embassy as diplomats fed files into a rooftop incinerator; black clouds of it billowing from oil tanks and warehouses along the docks; and more smoke marking the bridges and boulevards where some South Vietnamese soldiers were mounting a brave resistance so that politicians like Tran Van Don could escape on helicopters like this one.

Caron’s helicopter joined dozens of others stitching a patchwork of contrails across the sky. Helicopters had become symbolic of the Vietnam War, and their whomp-whomp-whomping was its descant. They flew troops into battle, rescued the wounded, retrieved the dead, and brought journalists and generals back to Saigon for clean sheets and French restaurants. Before Senator Robert F. Kennedy opposed the Vietnam War, he had told a reporter that the United States would win it because it had helicopters. “We have them,” he said, “the French did not.” Instead, America’s first helicopter war would become its first lost war, one ending with the largest helicopter evacuation in military history.

The passengers on Harnage’s last run were among the 1,000 evacu­ees whom Air America pilots extracted from rooftops and paddies on April 29. Between noon and 5:00 a.m. the next day, U.S. military and civilian helicopters airlifted 1,373 Americans and 5,595 South Viet­namese and third-country nationals to the U.S. fleet. Add them to the 45,000 South Vietnamese and third-country nationals that U.S. Air Force transports had evacuated during the month of April, the 73,000 South Vietnamese that the U.S. Navy rescued at sea, the 2,000 Vietnamese airmen and their families who escaped to Thailand, and the others who had already left on Air America fixed-wing planes and so-called black flights, and you have more than 130,000 South Vietnamese refugees whom the U.S. government and military would process through transit camps in the Philippines, Wake Island, and Guam before flying them to relocation camps on the U.S. mainland. It would be the greatest evacuation under wartime conditions since Dunkirk and the largest humanitarian operation in American history, although at the time few Americans recognized or celebrated it as such. It occurred largely because U.S. military personnel, government employees, and private citizens staged a spontaneous, uncoordinated, and clandestine mutiny against the policies and inaction of senior U.S. officials in Saigon and Washington, and against the wishes and preju­dices of a majority of Americans and their elected representatives in Congress, risking their careers and lives to evacuate South Vietnamese who they believed were facing years of incarceration or worse under a Communist regime.

Jackie Bong, the widow of a South Vietnamese politician assas­sinated by the Vietcong, later compared the Americans who spirited her out of Saigon to the Righteous Gentiles of the Holocaust, men like Raoul Wallenberg and Oskar Schindler. The wife of a U.S. Foreign Service officer arranged to have Bong and her children collected in a car with diplomatic plates. As they neared the airport, their chauf­feur pulled in to a villa that American diplomats were using as a safe house for stashing their Vietnamese evacuees. Bong and her children were hustled into a large black sedan flying an American flag from one bumper and a South Vietnamese flag from the other. Jim Eckes, a longtime American resident of Saigon who managed a charter airline, sat in front next to the driver. Bong and her children climbed into the backseat to join Pat Barnett, an American in his late thirties whom Eckes introduced as “your husband.” President Thieu had ordered the MPs and national police manning the gate at Tan Son Nhut airport to arrest South Vietnamese attempting to leave without passports and exit visas. Eckes explained that they would bluff their way through by having her pretend to be the Vietnamese wife of a senior U.S. official. “I was being shipped out clandestinely with the help of Americans,” she wrote later. “It reminded me of the stories of Jews being helped to flee Europe during World War II.”

Others made the same comparison. Teenager Linh Duy Vo escaped from Saigon on an American helicopter on April 29. He settled in California, where he raised a family and became a poet. He credited the U.S. defense attaché in South Vietnam, Major General Homer Smith, with saving his life, writing in a poem, “The general issued an order, / His soldier put my name on the list . . . / I will never forget my American Schindler.” He established the General Homer Smith Prize, awarded annually to “a U.S. citizen’s distinguished contribu­tion which makes one proud to be an American.” In 2011 he traveled eighty-seven hours round trip on Greyhound buses to attend Smith’s funeral in San Antonio, writing in a tribute, “You had saved thousands of lives, a repeat of the Schindler’s List. I was among them.”

Many among the approximately seven thousand Americans resid­ing in South Vietnam at the beginning of April 1975 had fallen in love with the country and its people. Two decades earlier, author Graham Greene had written of falling in love with Indochina “by chance,” seduced by the “tall elegant girls in white silk trousers,” “the pewter evening light on flat paddy fields,” and “that feeling of exhilaration which a measure of danger brings to a visitor with a return ticket.” General Marcel Bigeard, the commander of the French paratroop­ers who had suffered a catastrophic defeat at Dien Bien Phu in 1954, claimed to have “left half his heart” in Vietnam and later asked to have his ashes scattered over the battlefield. White House press secretary and former war correspondent Ron Nessen thought there was some­thing “seductive about Vietnam and its people.” During Nessen’s first posting to Saigon, the noted French journalist Bernard Fall warned him that he had contracted “the yellow sickness,” an incurable affec­tion for Asia and Asians. But the two most powerful Americans in South Vietnam in 1975 were resistant to its charms. Ambassador Gra­ham Martin admitted never developing “any great attachment to the Vietnamese, North or South,” adding, “I don’t particularly like any of them. I love the Thai.” And CIA station chief Thomas Polgar con­fessed to being “not one of the people who was wedded to Vietnam,” saying he lacked “a great emotional attachment to it like some of my colleagues who really fell in love with the country.”

There had always been romantics and idealists among Americans posted to South Vietnam: diplomats who believed in winning hearts and minds, soldiers risking their lives to protect noncombatants, gen­erals skeptical of the Pentagon’s body-count mentality, members of John F. Kennedy’s “ask not” generation who still considered government service an honorable calling, and others who had crossed the tracks—making close Vietnamese friends, fighting with Vietnamese units, and falling in love with Vietnamese women. After the 1973 treaty and cease-fire reduced the size of the U.S. civilian and military community, they became a larger percentage of the remaining Americans, and many of the Righteous Americans came from their ranks. Many believed that their country’s political and military leaders had mismanaged the war, that Americans had a moral duty to evacuate their South Viet­namese allies, that a nation built by immigrants had room for more, and that they were saving Vietnamese from years of imprisonment in a Communist gulag, or a bloodbath like that occurring in neighboring Cambodia. And so they cobbled together underground railroads of safe houses, black flights, disguises, and fake flag vehicles, and smuggled friends, co-workers, and strangers past the police checkpoints at Tan Son Nhut airport in ambulances, metal shipping crates, and refrig­erator trucks with airholes drilled in their floors. They impersonated chauffeurs, generals, and hospital patients, and they embossed docu­ments with counterfeit consular stamps and signed affidavits stating that they would be financially responsible for the Vietnamese adults whom they claimed to have “adopted.”

An American who had served with the CIA and the U.S. Agency for International Development (AID) in South Vietnam and had flown back to rescue his friends wrote afterward that many of his fel­low countrymen in Saigon were “determined to protest [U.S. gov­ernment inaction] in their own way by getting out as many people as possible.” He believed that their mutiny had ultimately forced the U.S. government to relax its immigration restrictions and increase its evacuation flights, and concluded, “When one considers that these Americans had to accept responsibility—financial or otherwise—for these Vietnamese for an indefinite period, it becomes apparent that this impulse to save the Vietnamese was an act of conscience as well as a gesture of contempt for Capitol Hill.”

The Righteous Americans faced anguishing decisions. Many began by evacuating co-workers and friends but were soon including friends of friends, and strangers. Some favored those whom the Com­munists seemed most likely to punish; others wanted to rescue the bravest South Vietnamese or those who had sacrificed the most or were most likely to flourish in the United States. Some, like O. B. Harnage, followed a first-come, first-served policy. Others were like U.S. marine colonel Al Gray, who commanded the ground security force of marines who flew into Tan Son Nhut on the afternoon of April 29. Although the Pentagon was pressuring the marines to evacuate Americans as quickly as possible, and although two marines had been killed by a Communist rocket earlier that day, and North Vietnamese units had reached the northern perimeter of the airfield—despite all this, Gray told his officers and men, “We’re not going to play God. We’re taking everyone who wants to go. And we’ll stay here until we’re finished.”

Many Righteous Americans believed that evacuating Vietnamese who faced retribution under a Communist government represented a last chance to accomplish something noble at the end of an igno­ble war—to replace President Nixon’s discredited peace with honor with an honorable exit. While Harnage was rescuing twenty Vietnam­ese at a time from the roof of 22 Gia Long Street, several blocks away at the U.S. embassy Lieutenant Colonel Harry Summers climbed onto the roof of a soft drink stand in the recreation center and, shout­ing through a bullhorn, told the several thousand Vietnamese who had taken refuge there, “Every one of you folks is going to get out of here. Let me repeat that: all of you people here with us today are going to be flown to safety and freedom. None of you will be left behind. I will only go after the last of you has left. And the United States ambassador has assured me he will leave right at the end, after you and me. On that we give you our solemn word.” Then he climbed down and walked through the crowd saying, “Don’t you worry,” and “Sure, you’ll get a job in the States.” A journalist who witnessed Summers’s performance called him “a man of honor and of compassion,” writing that he had “taken it upon himself to sweep up some of the dust of America’s honor in Vietnam.”

Table of Contents

Principal Characters xi

Prologue: The Man in the White Shirt 1

Chapter 1 Omens 13

Chapter 2 Walter Martindale's Convoy 29

Chapter 3 Who Lost Vietnam? 46

Chapter 4 Designated Fall Guy 63

Chapter 5 "I'd Tell the President That!" 84

Chapter 6 "In the Shadow of a Corkscrew" 97

Chapter 7 Palpable Fear 108

Chapter 8 Operation Babylift 127

Chapter 9 "People Are Going to Feel Badly" 141

Chapter 10 "No Guarantees!" 158

Chapter 11 Playing God 177

Chapter 12 "Godspeed" 194

Chapter 13 "Make It Happen!" 212

Chapter 14 "I Won't Go for That" 234

Chapter 15 Kissinger's Cable 247

Chapter 16 Richard Armitage's Courageous Silence 260

Chapter 17 Eighteen Optimistic Minutes 276

Chapter 18 Frequent Wind 289

Chapter 19 Ken Moorefield's Odyssey 305

Chapter 20 Into the South China Sea 327

Chapter 21 The 420 339

Epilogue 357

Acknowledgments 369

Notes 373

Bibliography 399

Index 407

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