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50TH ANNIVERSARY: AMERICAN COMMUNITY SCHOOL SAIGON CLOSING AND EVACUATION OF AMERICAN DEPENDENTS

Submitted by Jim Cooper (ACS)

Cooper's evacuate Saigon February 11, 1965

Evacuation at Tan Son Nhut. Jim, Tom and Mrs. Cooper. Circa February 11, 1965. Jim Cooper Collection. CLICK IMAGE TO ENLARGE.

For many of us, this particular February 8th (2015) is the 50th anniversary of our Evacuation from Saigon — an exciting, nostalgic, and formative event which capped off our time in the Pearl of the Orient in a very dramatic way. For anyone interested, what follows is a short essay that I’ve written in honor of this anniversary.

I was a seventh grader at the time: we’d been in Saigon since August 1962.

By February 1965, things had gotten very tense in Saigon. The deterioration in the atmosphere in the capital city could be traced back to the summer and fall of 1963: rising unrest between students and Buddhists, terrorist incidents (including the bombing of the Alhambra US Forces theater in Cholon in September – I was in the audience), and finally, the violent and bloody November 1st coup d’etat which cost then President Ngo Dinh Diem his office and life. General “Big” Minh declared himself in charge of the military junta that now took control of the South Vietnamese government.

In February 1964, two venues frequented by dependents were bombed by Viet Cong terrorists. On Sunday the 9th, Pershing softball field, not far from our school, was bombed during a game between two military teams, and two Americans were killed. Most of you will probably remember that for us, with no satellite (or otherwise) TV, softball WAS our local sports. The American Community High School (ACHS) team actually held its own against teams of active duty soldiers representing units stationed around Saigon. Our family had a personal interest in the team, as my older brother, Mike, played catcher. I think that the bombing pretty much ended our team’s participation in off campus games.

A week later, on Sunday the 16th, the U.S. Forces’ Capital Kinh Do movie theater, in downtown Saigon, was bombed. Captain Donald Koelper, US Marine Corps, and Lieutenant William Greeves, U.S. Navy, who were in the lobby when the sappers threw the charge into the lobby, ran into the back of the theater and warned everyone to take cover, which undoubtedly saved many from being killed or injured. Tragically, Captain Koelper was killed in the ensuing explosion, and was the first Marine to die in the Vietnam War. He was posthumously promoted to Major and awarded the Navy Cross for his actions. Lieutenant Greeves suffered injuries as well and was awarded the Silver Star. Again, the Capital Kinh Do was a prime magnet for entertainment: most of us were at the theater for a movie at least once a week. And, another personal connection: Mike was at the Kinh Do that night, and, understandably, was quite shaken by the experience.

The next day, Monday, February 17th, Military Assistance Command Vietnam (MACV) placed the American Community School (ACS) under martial protection. We now had military policemen riding the busses and patrolling the walls and corridors of the school. This struck most of us as “way cool”, and I remember befriending a couple of MPs.

Instability persisted into 1964: on January 30th, General Khanh staged a bloodless coup d’etat and seized power from General Minh. In August, nation wide student and Buddhist riots forced General Khanh to resign, and on September 13th there was an attempted coup which, although unsuccessful, carried the potential for open conflict in the streets of Saigon, and the American command was very concerned. School was canceled for a day, and all Americans were told to stay home as military vehicles rolled through the streets and helicopers flew low over the city.

As conditions in Vietnam had continued to deteriorate throughout 1964, military and civilian planners in Washington had discussed options for escalating the war and for carrying the fight more aggressively against North Vietnamese territory with bomber strikes. JCS deliberations began to include discussions about evacuating all government sponsored dependents (and turning ACS into a US military hospital), but this action was delayed in order to avoid signaling panic or a weakening of U.S. resolve.

On November 1st, the first anniversary of the Diem coup, the Viet Cong staged an intensive mortar attack on Bien Hoa airbase. On December 24th, Christmas Eve, the Viet Cong succeeded in a car bombing at the Brink Bachelor Officer Quarters Hotel in downtown Saigon – I heard the loud explosion clearly at our house, some blocks away. On Sunday, February 7th, 1965, the Viet Cong staged a major sapper and mortar attack against U.S. forces at Pleiku and Qui Nhon. With these latest attacks, President Johnson and his advisors decided the time had come to act decisively. On Monday, February 8th President Johnson ordered an expanded air campaign against North Vietnamese targets. He also ordered additional ground troops into DaNang, including a Hawk missile battalion and elements of the U.S. Marines, who would be the first Marines to enter the war.

He also ordered that the U.S. mission “clear the decks”: all government sponsored dependents were to be evacuated immediately.

We heard the news on the radio in Saigon shortly after getting up that Monday morning.

Upon arriving at school, in Home Room period, we were told that we were now attending the last day of classes for the American Community School. We’d be cleaning out our desks and going home early. My buddy Pete Black and I threw spit wads with impunity, pretty secure that Miss Elson, our homeroom teacher, had only limited remedy at her disposal in the last hours that ACS had left. We all dodged camera crews from various news organizations who were focusing in on the latest big story in Saigon as they filmed us moving in long lines through the hallways. As a side note, the new wing of ACS, with a gym, had just opened, and we were to begin gym classes for the first time that spring.

It was announced that dependents would be flown out over the course of the next two weeks, at the rate of two charter flights per day. On Tuesday the 9th our family was notified that Mom, Tom, my younger brother, and I would be departing on Thursday, the 11th. Mike had left the previous summer with the Ahlgrens, and was staying with them in Brunswick, New Jersey, where he was taking his senior year of high school. My Dad and I visited the USOM warehouse on Tuesday to arrange for our packout and get some boxes. We actually had packers at our house that afternoon: in 13 moves over the course of my 30 year career in the Navy I never had such quick response by any other Household Goods office!! On Wednesday I visited Thad Johnson and Pete Black’s houses and got their U.S. addresses and bid them good bye. The excitement was now tempered by the realization that we were leaving for good, and I already began to reflect on how much I had really enjoyed our life in Saigon.

On Thursday, the 11th, we made our final trip to Tan Son Nhut airport.

Before we left our house on Hong Thap Tu Street, we made our sorrowful farewells to our live in (we called them “servants” in those days, non PC now) cook, maid, and amah, and their kids. In many ways, we’d come to be like one big family. Then, at the airport, many of our friends, their sad parents, and lots of other dependents milling about in long lines, rows and rows of luggage. Free soft drinks – Birely’s and Coke – were available for the asking. I saw Bill Young and his family, the Berger brothers, and the Adams family among the folks who were gathering for our flight. We flew out on Pan Am Airways (back then, PAA was the ONLY airline when you traveled overseas) about 2 PM, and it was a very long flight.

We stopped in Hong Kong and Tokyo, ground stops only, but with lots of free refreshments (you had use a voucher slip, available from the Pan Am hostesses). During the Saigon to Hong Kong leg a rumor circulated in economy that the folks in First Class had the luxury of inflight movies, and a group of us kids pushed our way into the First Class seating area to see, but we were wrong –there were no movies playing.

As I remember it, while we were on the ground in Tokyo there was some discussion about stopping in Hawaii. A general’s family was traveling in First Class, and in Tokyo, the general’s wife was either demanding to go back through Hawaii, or not to go through Hawaii, I can’t remember which. At any rate, we flew from Tokyo straight to San Francisco, and as I remember, that was our first real rest stop.

After spending the night in a hotel near the airport, Mom and my brother and I flew on to Minneapolis to stay with my mother’s sister and her family for 6 months. In the summer, we flew back to Bangkok and spent a year (1965 – 1966) camped out there, and Dad visited from Saigon two weekends a month. We did one more year in Asia, in Manila, from 1966 to 1967, before returning to the States for good.

I’ll always remember Saigon.

Although it was only two and a half years, it was one of the most intense periods of my childhood, and recollections of our life there are indelibly seared into my memory. Life in Saigon was always exciting. The process of the Evacuation was exciting, but back in the States, I felt like a fish out of water for some time. Right off, I realized we’d been way behind in fashion. I quickly discarded my Saigon “look”: madras shirt, dark pants, white socks and loafers, which was the “cool” look in Saigon. This look was currently way out of fashion in the States, and I had to adapt. But, I also found that I was very aware of, and deeply interested in, international events, probably a trait that most of us picked up in Saigon as a result of our lives being touched daily by national and international policies. But our contemporaries in the States had not quite yet awakened to the reality of Vietnam, and most had little knowledge or interest in the world that we’d just come from. This was troubling to me, and made it harder for me to “fit in”.

A side note – I had ordered a 1965 yearbook, but never received my copy, and was convinced for years that it had never been published. About ten years or so ago, one of my classmates, Kate Green, told me that she had a 1965 yearbook – so I began “hunting” around, and miraculously found one for sale on eBay – so now my Saigon yearbook collection is complete.

As the Saigon Kids website starts out, “A long, long time ago, in a land far, far away…”

Thanks, and the best of luck to all of you.

Jim Cooper
Lawrence, Kansas

27 comments to 50TH ANNIVERSARY: AMERICAN COMMUNITY SCHOOL SAIGON CLOSING AND EVACUATION OF AMERICAN DEPENDENTS

  • Jim Richards

    Thanks very much for a good story and a pretty accurate re-construction, Jim. I remember it all very well. I was a senior and Evacuation Day, Feb 8th, was/is my birthday! The event gave me the grand opportunity to finish my high school career at Brent School in Baguio.

  • annette lanouette burnett

    Thanks for writing this Jim! Our Saigon days will live on forever in our memories. And,we are so fortunate to be able to reconnect with some of our friends. What ever happened to Peter Black? I always think of him and Cerce Sportif! The Gecko has so many great memories!
    P.S. Love the picture!

  • Micchael Smith

    Jim, I appreciated your remembrance of your days in Vietnam, but did you ever meet my older siblings, Larry, Cheryl, Donna, Bill, Susan, or myself, Michael, or did you come to Vietnam after “62”, that was the year we left. We had arrived in “58”, and those 4 years were the Best years that I can recall in my 62 yrs. of living, and I recall it almost once a day. I guess those days, for whatever reasons, will always be remembered.

    • Kenneth R. Yeager

      Michael, I knew your family in Saigon as we lived in the same building but on the other side, top floor. I have a younger sister named Debbie Lou. Your brother Larry and I palled around somewhat…in fact, he rode me into Saigon upon our arrival there in 1961 on a HD motorcycle owned by a friend of his. I contacted Larry a few years ago, but he seems to have more on his mind that renewing old friendships. Still regards to to you, him and all of your siblings.

  • Doro Britton

    We were at the Alhambra when the restroom was bombed. Lady and the Tramp was playing.

  • Jim Cooper

    Michael, we arrived in Saigon on Sept 1st 1962, so I’m afraid we missed you. Regardless of our differing timeframes, we experienced Saigon in a vibrant, turbulent, exotic period, and we are a special group with a tight bond.

  • Ann Kelsey

    I really enjoyed reading this fascinating piece. I was especially interested in your description of coming home and feeling like a fish out of water. I felt the same way even though I was there several years later. Thank you for sharing these vivid memories on the fiftieth anniversary of the dependents’ evacuation and coming up to the fortieth anniversary of the fall of Saigon. I was a civilian librarian with Army Special Services. In the fall of 1969 I was in charge of the Army library on the corner of Nguyen Du and Le Van Duyet near the Cercle Sportif. Koelper Compound named for Capt. Koelper who died in the Kinh Do explosion was on Nguyen Van Trang, if I remember correctly.

  • Kenneth R. Yeager

    Great write up. I seems to have missed all of the action having lived the 1963 school year in Dalat. I went to the states in the fall of 63 and returned to Saigon about 4 months later. Left again in the fall of 64. Came back in 68 as a GI for a year and passed through in 1973 on my way to Phnom Penh with the State Department.

  • Jim Cooper

    Doro – Yes, Lady and the Tramp was the movie interrupted by the Alhambra bombing. I didn’t see it in full until years later when I took my kids to the theater to see it.

  • Jane Wilson

    Hi, Jim, I found this page through a post from Dori Britton on the International School Bangkok Facebook page. I was at ISB from 72-74, graduating in 74. My Dad was an embassy doc in Saigon during that time. My mother and I were not allowed to live there with my Dad (hardship post) so we lived in Bangkok. What a story you have of your time there! Now I understand why I couldn’t go to school there. Incidentally, Lawrence is my home town, and my brother still lives there. I would be interested to hear your connection. Did you go to Lawrence High? Jane from Philly

  • Jim Cooper

    Jane – I attended KU 1970 – 1974, and met my wife while at KU – she is from Ottawa. I was in NROTC at KU, did 30 years in the Navy, and my last posting was back at KU as head of the KU NROTC program, 1999-2003. I retired from the Navy in Lawrence and we’ve been here ever since. Incidentally while Dad finished out his tour in Saigon Mom and Tom and I lived in Bangkok for a year, I was in 8th grade at ISB 1965-1966.

    • Jane Wilson

      Jim, it truly is a small world. We’re all connected in some way. I grew up right across from Templin Hall until 1972. My Dad was a Navy lieutenant, then retired to be a doc in Lawrence. Then state dept doc 1972-1983. They then moved back to Lawrence. My brother lives there (works for army!) and his wife is from Ottawa! Perhaps I’ll bump into you on a visit. Do you have my email from this post? Feel free to drop me a line.

  • Juris Jurjevics

    Jim,
    Was there a guard posted at school prior to the Alhambra bombing in ’63? And did MPs always escort school buses? JJ

  • Ken Berger

    Jim/Jane: Very interesting update and indeed a small world. I stayed behind, after the evacuation, as I had graduated in June of 1964, and was working in the embassy. I departed Vietnam in June 1965 and started college. Is Mike Cooper your older brother? If so, we played on the softball team together. I completed a 27-year Army career in 1997, and recently retired after a follow-on 14-year career as a DoD consultant in January 2011. My oldest daughter, Debbie graduated from Junction City High School in 1989 and enrolled in KU. After graduation, she married her husband (also a KU alum) and settled in Lawrence (determined not to live a life of a Gypsy she had grown up with as an Army brat). She and her husband have a home on the west side of Lawrence. I visit frequently so perhaps we can get together the next time I visit. I currently reside in Clifton, VA (Northern VA).

    • Jim Cooper

      Ken – Yes indeedy, I’m Mike’s kid brother (#2 of 3). I remember watching you guys play ball out at Pershing Field. My Navy career was in P-3s, like Larry Lindquist. Our son stayed in Lawrence and has blessed us with grandkids, but our daughter is a Navy nurse currently stationed at Yokosuka, enjoying life as a footloose single.

  • Larry Lindquist

    Ken Berger!! How great to see your post. I, as you and others, often think back to those days at ACS and all the wild things we did in Saigon with Eric Collier, Paul Reichers, Larry Moses, and others… Not to mention the Collegiate Coalition with the great patch that Eric created. Riding on the back of your DKW was my first introduction to motorcycles.

    I started college at Caltech, but wanted to contribute to my friends in Viet-Nam. I was talked out of joining the Marines and ended up in the Navy for 23 years until 1991. Many of my years hunting Russian subs with the P-3C. Been a high tech and healthcare project manager until retiring in 2013.

    I like to contact you directly and have no problem posting my email: lalindquist@comcast.net Hope to hear from you.

  • Deb Martin

    Many may not know that Vietnam had done very well economically. Because of this, their currency is set to revalue at a much higher rate, any day now. Having lived there, for 4 years from 1962-1966 I was happy to invest in their currency. The Vietnamese dong is set to go up to 8 cents and shortly after around 47 cents. I purchased my Vietnamese currency through a reputable dealer Sterling Currency. Anyone interested in making a good chunk of money should look into this investment. I can’t wait to see how Vietnam is going to once again enrich my life. Maybe I will even be able to afford to return there and share my memories of life there with my husband. If anyone is interested in this investment they should do it immediately since it may go up in value in the next 2-3 days. You need to buy the currency at its low rate now before it goes up. Many blessings to all. Deborah Martin.

  • Laurie Methven

    Great recollection Jim – thx. I was there from 1962-1965 and my most memorable moment about the evacuation is that my mother refused to fly and so we took a boat down the Mekong river!It was so scary as there was shooting going on.
    Thanks to my mothers fear and refusal of flying we had many cruises across the pacific ocean and train rides across the USA.

  • jim lou

    I remember that I was no longer going to school. I was a young man who had come to SVN with my mother, who was from the area, from Kansas, in 1960 at the age of 9. All of a sudden my mother was notified that the school would stop operations.

    My parents, who were separated at the time, had to communicate back and forth. It was finally decided that I would “go home” to Kansas to my father at the age of 14.

    I left in middle of June 1965, taking PAN AM to Manila, Guam, Honolulu and then SF. I was put up for the night and caught a flight to KC, where I was met by my father and the sister who had stayed with my father when our parents separated.

    I have never gone back.

  • Deb Martin

    A New Book a must read!! The book “A Year In Vietnam:1964 Memoir of a unique Experience” by Doris Gracy is out on Amazone. This book is about a young woman, Doris, who went to Vietnam, unauthorized on a visitor visa, to accompany her US Air force pilot husband. Doris became a very close friend of my families. She lived at our home in Saigon for a few weeks baby sitting my brother, sister and myself while my parents went on a vacation to Hong Kong. My family met Doris through St Christophers Church that we attendened in Saigon. The book brought back such vivid memories for me of what life was like in Saigon and there are many pictures of the city, my family, myself, and our servants included in the book. To this day I have maintained a close friendship with Doris. The book is available on Amazone.

  • Deb Martin

    The Vietnamese Dong has still not revalued! It looks like you still have time to purchase its currency through any reputable dealer like Sterling Currency. I tell my friends to try to purchase at least $30.00 of either the Vietnamese currency or the Iraq currencies so they can have some fun money, when these countries revalue their currencies to a much higher rate. Right now one can purchase these currencies at a very low rate. We all know, having traveled and lived in Vietnam, that you can’t loose having foreign currency because you can always turn it back to a dealer and exchange it for US dollars. It is not like investing in the stock market where you could loose a lot. Maybe some of you will be able to afford to attend the Saigon Kids reunion with your Vietnam fun money. All the best to all of you. Deborah Spohr Martin

  • Deb Martin

    My mother Betty (Elizabeth) Spohr wrote a book called ‘
    Little Long Tail about our dochound who lived with us in Saigon. It is a very cute children’s book. My mother was an artist and drew pictures of what life was like for our dog in Vietnam. My mother was also the art teacher at the Saigon American Community School for a while, so some of you may remember her. I have photographs of her students at the school working on art projects.

  • Stacey Christian

    Dear Jim, Thank for your posting this. My father was with the attache’ in Saigon. I was only in 2nd and 3rd grades at the American Community School. I have so many memories, fear being at the forefront of most of them. We lived at 58 Don te Diem (sp?), next the the French Ambassador’s home. You have put names to places I couldn’t remember. Our exit was swift from Saigon. I have vivid memories being at the airport on my birthday, Feb. 11th. My mother kept telling me I was lucky because we would celebrate twice because we’ d be crossing into another time zone. I sit in my home tonight with memories of their travels. My grandmother ran and purchased items for the embassy gift shop while we were there. I can’t wait to read more on your site. Thanks!

  • jim lou

    I want to comment about the following:

    “The next day, Monday, February 17th, Military Assistance Command Vietnam (MACV) placed the American Community School (ACS) under martial protection. We now had military policemen riding the busses and patrolling the walls and corridors of the school. This struck most of us as “way cool”, and I remember befriending a couple of MPs.”

    I remember that period. I was civilian kid living in Cholon. I had a school bus sent to pick me up. One morning the school bus didn’t show. I later found out that it had been target of a bomb. When the driver opened the door, someone threw a bomb in.

    Also, I remember the patrolling of the perimeter by MPs. I had classmate who was somewhat obtuse. We challenged him to climb the wall. Needless to say the MPs shot at him. Fortunately, he wasn’t hurt.

  • Chuc Van Dang

    On or about 2015-11-09 I read an article sent to me by my brother Chi
    and I wrote the following to the writer:

    Dear Ms Sally Bush Lynch,
    Kindly let me introduce myself. I am one of those VNese kids you mention in your “Through the Eyes of a Child.”
    My brother, who sent me your written recollection, is another.
    An elder brother, Bob DANG (1951-2011) was another.
    I believe I attended ACS from 1961 to Feb 1965. Names I remember include: Mrs. ARMISTEAD, my homeroom teacher;
    Joe MOTTO, a very close friend; and David BLACK, an excellent swimmer.
    Bob LUTZ, I recall, was in my elder brother Bob’s class.

    On the last day of school (Feb ?, 1965), a classmate, whose name I cannot remember, was crying his heart out because his father was very recently captured by the VCs. I drew a picture of a tender plant and gave it to him, telling him that the plant will grow into a mighty tree, and he’s that tender plant. I wish I know who he was/is.
    I believe our yearbook is The Gecko and would love to see what’s in it.
    After ACS closed and was converted to Army Third Field Hospital, my brothers and I attended various make-shift classes, including some held in our house.

    My elder brother Bob came to the USofA in the fall of 1965 and eventually owned a computer service in Berkeley, CA until metastatic cancer untimely stopped him in Mar 2011, forty-six years after ACS closed.

    Eventually, I believe, a Christian organization created AVIS (American Vietnamese International School) which my younger brother and I attended until we arrived in Flint, MI in Mar 1967, two years after ACS closed, at LBJ’s order because of the ‘escalation’ in the war.
    My younger brother Chi and I did ‘return’ to VN for five weeks in the summer of 1969, when astronauts Niel ARMSTRONG and Buzz ALDRIN left their boot prints upon the lunar surface.
    Memories will eventually fade away but written works will last.
    Thanks for writing ‘Through the Eyes of a Child’.
    Regards,
    Chuc

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