Submitted by Jim Cooper (ACS)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.