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VIETNAM: MY LAST DAYS

It’s been 40 years since Ambassador Martin announced to his inner circle in Saigon, under wraps, the withdrawal of Americans from Vietnam. Families associated with the Embassy were given directives and options. We were told we could always seek the Embassy for shelter. There would be enough macaroni and cheese available to last for years. At the time, our youngest child was Celiac and allergic to cow’s milk, so he would have starved. I decided I better leave with my children and wait elsewhere. To avoid alarming the Vietnamese and cause panic, I was told to pretend that I was going on a weekend shopping trip to Hong Kong. I packed a few things, including diapers for our youngest and a few essentials for the two other children and for myself. Everything else was left in our house, including art, jewels and my mother’s heirloom silver.
I told the Vietnamese working in our house that I was going shopping to Hong Kong. They immediately ran to the phone and made one call after another, talking in nearly hysterical tones. My lessons in the Vietnamese language didn’t help me in this case, but I could guess that they hadn’t bought my story about going on a short shopping trip.
I understand that the withdrawal strategy was intricate, skillful and ultimately proved amazingly effective, in spite of all the statements in the press to the contrary, many by people who weren’t there. At the airport, I was carrying our youngest on a baby backpack, with the two other children by my side. One of the last commercial planes was waiting to take off for Hong Kong. In spite of the well- planned, efficient and valiant effort by the American officials in charge of boarding the plane, panic-stricken swarms of people trying to reach it turned the process into a near chaos. Many trying to reach the plane kept getting in front of us. I started to wonder whether we would make it. An American who had worked at the Embassy but was there only as a hopeful passenger and not in any official capacity, shoved me back forcefully to get to the plane before us. I was scared, but more that that, I was indignant. (A couple of years later I ran into this man in Washington. He recognized me and was duly red-faced).
Finally aloft, I started worrying about my husband, who was the Minister Counselor for Economic Affairs at the Embassy. And I was concerned about our beloved dog, a black German Shepherd. Everyone said that the Viet-Cong eat dogs, favoring black ones. Our children’s Vietnamese pediatrician had expressed her worry about her two dogs. She was childless and they were like children to her.
In Hong Kong, not a place for children in our circumstances, we waited for news, which weren’t coming. Our youngest son got really sick. As soon as he got better we left for Taiwan, where we continued to wait for news. During our nerve-wracking wait we enjoyed lush and museum-rich Taipei, and its exuberant or quiet temples. I learned from my children’s Vietnamese pediatrician that from the window of her house in Saigon she had seen North Vietnamese soldiers roasting in her backyard and merrily eating her two dogs.
Finally I got the news that my husband had left from the roof of the Embassy in a helicopter with the senior staff of the Embassy, and was safe and sound aboard the USS Blue Ridge. Subsequently I learned that my husband had done the impossible and had managed to get our dog on a plane to Hawaii, where she was put in a kennel. Then came the hundreds of stories, for instance, that our house had been converted into a first stop for the "underground railroad" to get Vietnamese, under the cover of night and without lights, out to the barges and into ships, about 60 people at a time. The metal baby bath of our youngest son had been used to make rice for them.
Before I went to Vietnam I had marched and had stood vigil in front of a veteran’s cemetery to protest the war. In spite of the horror of it, which had not yet reached Saigon when we were there, I have very fond memories of Vietnam, the soft-colored landscapes, the sun drenched flowers and fruits, the cuisine—best in the world—the gracious, amiable, good-humored and talented people. Off course, I have a hundred stories to remember. Among them my hope that the Vietnamese would learn to curb their other side of the coin; ingrained corruption.
It’s been 40 years, and in the US we still haven’t learned to avoid getting into destructive and useless wars.
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