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Here’s a whole new twist on the song I’m Dreaming Of A White Christmas – Broadcaster Chuck Neil describes its significance during the fall of Saigon.

I’M DREAMING OF A WHITE CHRISTMAS

By Chuck Neil

I had been in Vietnam since 1967 working for various companies. In 1973, I was working for Federal Electric Corporation-ITT, and a friend said to me, “Hey, the military are leaving and they’re going to have civilians take over their radio station. Why don’t you apply? I’ve gone through your records here and I see that you’ve had radio and TV experience.”

And I said, “Yeah, but mostly behind the cameras in TV, and in radio, I’ve done some announcing but it’s been years.

He said, “What the hell, give it a whirl. Call Colonel Hutchison at the radio station.” He was the military manager of American Forces Radio.

So I did call the colonel and he set up an appointment for me. I went in and auditioned and interviewed. They had a master sergeant who was one of their program directors. Hell of a nice guy. He got in the engineer’s booth and I got in the announcer’s booth opposite him. He gave me the material to read–one page with a lot of words, names, place names, including President Nguyen Van Thieu’s name, and he had Cairo, Egypt, and Cairo, Illinois. They wanted to see if you knew they were pronounced differently. Then they had a script to read, some type of Public Service Announcement. And they had me rip and read some news. They had three teletypes there at that time. AP, United Press International, and Armed Forces Radio & Television Service Washington.

I forgot about it, for about ten days.

Then I got a phone call saying, “you got the job.” So I went to the station I met E. M. Turvett who had been with FEC and I recognized him. I was acquainted with him. And they had a young fellow who had been an Army lieutenant there, by the name of Mike Monderer. He was the other announcer who had won the job. A real sharp kid, young guy. And at the University of Colorado, Colorado Springs, he was on the radio station part time. He majored in communications. Then we had a chief engineer. There were four Americans. As an alternate engineer we had a fellow by the name of Ed Powers, so if our engineer wasn’t available for the transmitter, Ed would come in and troubleshoot.

Of course the military was still there when we first came in and they sort of segued us into the job gradually over the period of a couple of weeks. And when the military left in March, they kept one American GI there who’d been at the radio station for several years. They kept him to help in the transition. He was supposed to be invisible, because all of the American GIs were supposed to be gone. But he was still there along with several others a month or so after the official exit. They were sort of shadowy figures. Some wore uniforms so they could claim they were attached to the Defense Attaches Office (DAO); which actually they weren’t.

So there we were, four Americans, taking over American radio. In fact, we changed the name. Ian and I got together and said, what can we call it? We can’t call it American Forces Radio, or Armed Forces Radio, any more, so we came up, simply enough, with American Radio Service, Vietnam.

We had a regular format–news, music, sports, twenty-four-hour day, one hundred thousand watts, FM radio.

My job title was “news announcer.” But when we got there it was expedient that I do everything. The first few weeks we were on the air I did quite a lot of live broadcasting. News, live DJ shows, et cetera. We had Vietnamese personnel who were fluent in English who’d been with Armed Fores Radio and we retained them.

Several things were taped for us. We call them “actualities”; tape with a congressman or senator making a statement. But we got those primarily from the feed that we had, the twenty-four-hour-a-day feed, a satellite shot to the Philippines, and cable over to Vietnam. We were getting shortwave and a feed from Washington, D.C. and we had a bank of tape recorders and we’d just take that right off the feed.

The station was Number Nine, Hong Thap Tu, right in town, only about six blocks from the Embassy. It was a separate entity, a compound. I’d say about half an acre, quarter of an acre.

Well, about ’74 we started to feel that Congress was going to take a hands-off approach to Vietnam, which they subsequently did. I wasn’t aware how serious that was until just a couple of months before the fall. I kept hoping. Most of us did that were there, that Congress would allocate some money to the Vietnamese to subsidize them and keep them going. And they didn’t. That’s what caused the fall…..

We were privy to a lot of news from DAO, and when we heard they were abandoning the Central Highlands, Jesus Christ, we were flabbergasted. We thought, uh oh, it’s the beginning of the end…..

I don’t remember how we got started on this thing of the early warning, but we knew that somehow we were going to have to notify the Americans there. A lot of Americans there were not connected with the government. They were working for private U.S. government-invited contractors and they might not have any means of knowing, “Hey it’s time, get your butt out of here. Just about a hundred percent of the Americans there listened to American radio because it was the only radio station around. There were a couple of Vietnamese stations, but it was all Vietnamese or Chinese music mostly. As a matter of fact, a lot of Vietnamese listened to American radio because we had great music on the station. I could walk down the street by some Vietnamese villa or apartment house and hear my radio station, hear my voice come on.

Ann Bottorf of DAO and some of the security people got together and said we’d have to have an early warning. So Turvett and I were called up to the Embassy to the security office and we tried to figure out what we could do on the radio to alert people to move out to their evacuation point or staging area for immediate evacuation.

So I said, “Why not play a recording of something that every American will recognize in a split second?” Plus the incongruity of the thing being played in the middle of summer would alert them to the fact that they’d have to take a hike. So why not play “I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas?” Of course I was thinking about Bing Crosby’s rendition, the biggest seller, but of all the thousands of records and tapes we had at the radio station, I couldn’t find Bing Crosby’s recording, so I got Tennessee Ernie Ford’s. It didn’t matter who I had; but I noticed Frank Snepp and several other people said that it was Bing Crosby. It doesn’t make that much difference.

Then I announced after the song, “The temperature is 105 degrees and rising.” That was the signal, then, that the evacuation was on. We recorded that and put it on a tape cartridge.

That was the plan, but by the time it all came down, every Vietnamese in town must have known what was happening….

The night of the twenty-eighth of April, even the twenty-seventh, was bad news. A lot of heavy concussions and explosions. By the twenty-eighth, some of our radio station personnel, most of them young ladies and their families we had already gotten out…But some of our loyal personnel elected to stay and help us through the final days–about four or five Vietnamese. They got their families to come down to the radio station for the last two days, because we all knew there was going to be an order to evacuate but we didn’t know exactly when. They were so afraid of being left behind that they were sleeping and living right there at the radio station.

These Vietnamese families are not small. We must have had two hundred people in there. The toilet facilities were only built for a couple dozen. They were overflowing and inoperable. The place started to stink, and it was just awful, but there wasn’t anything we could do about it. You couldn’t say, “Clear out.”

So on April 29, about 11:30 or 11:40 in the morning, I got the call from DAO, some colonel. I answered the phone and said “This is Chuck.” And he said, “Chuck, how many Americans do you have there right now?” And I said, “Four.” And he said, “Well you are ordered as of right now to evacuate immediately and proceed to the U.S. Embassy for evacuation flight.”

I hung up the phone and went in to Turvett, and said, “Hey Ian, this is it. Evacuate now.” So we had a little plan with our Vietnamese employees that we were going to take them first because they had elected to stay and we had assured them we would get them out. We didn’t want to panic the Vietnamese who were there, but we had no means of getting them to the Embassy–two hundred people. We had a van and two pickup trucks there. So we took the van around to the side and alerted our Vietnamese engineers. We said, “just don’t say anything to anybody. Just walk out this side door into the van.” Which they did….

We had a big Gates Automatic Programmer. We programmed most of our day on that machine. And I went back in there and took the cartridge with “105 degrees and rising” and “I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas,” and popped it in the slot and punched it up. And that was my final act at the radio station….

So we were armed to the teeth. We got into that van. By this time there were hundreds of people outside the radio station. The only thing that kept them back was a big chain-linked fence. People were trying to climb the fence. Some were succeeding.

But we got out. We had to honk the horn and people had to part for us to get out. They couldn’t see that in the back were our Vietnamese engineers and a couple of Americans. So we started down the street. It was only about six blocks to the Embassy, but right at the intersection there was a checkpoint and they wanted to see–they didn’t want to see any Vietnamese being taken out. These guys had M-16s locked and loaded. And I don’t know if you’ve heard but these ARVNs were quick to pull the trigger. Just shooting in the air even. And they looked mean.

Turvett was driving. I was sitting on the passengers side on his right. So we stopped and said a few words. I reached into the glove compartment where I had a carton of Salems and I just threw the carton of Salems and the guy said “Thank you,” and waved us on.

Reference Sources:
1. Arm Chair General
2. Radio Vietnam

I find it interesting how facts get distorted over time about historical events.

Since 1975 there have been 100s,if not 1000s of articles, books, videos, movies, etc. created about this event – they all say the Bing Crosby version of this song was played over the radio in Saigon.

The more research I do to find content for this blog site, the more distortion of facts I seem to encounter. I really wish those who attempt to document historical events would *verify* there information to determine what the *true* facts are before creating their masterpieces – *sigh*

As always, you’re welcome to leave your comments below.

Bob

4 comments to Here’s a whole new twist on the song I’m Dreaming Of A White Christmas – Broadcaster Chuck Neil describes its significance during the fall of Saigon.

  • Mike McNally

    Bob, thanks for your interest in historical accuracy. For your next task, please go thru the entire internet and change all the “TON Son Nhut”s (or “TON Son Nhat”s,the Hanoi version) to the correct, Tan Son Nhut (Nhat). After that,for extra credit, please go back in time and get Brian Daniel Carenard, the rapper, to pick a stage name other than “Saigon”. LOL…Happy New Year to all…Thanks…Mike McNally

    • Mike – I’m ROFL! I know what ya mean … *Saigon Kid* and *Miss Saigon* drive me crazy when doing research on the Internet. Well anyway, before I learned how to use Google’s *do not show these sites* in search results feature. I suppose I can credit them with forcing me to learn how to improve my search methods – LOL.

      While researching this I came across a very interesting and good read by the last MSGs to depart Saigon. I’ll be posting it to the blog in the near future. I found it interesting that their account of White Christmas, states it was the Bing Crosby version – yet, nobody at the Embassy *actually* heard it playing on the radio – LOL.

      Have a great New Year filled with many, many blessings! 🙂

      Bob

  • Sarah Rogers

    That was SO interesting. Chuck, did your Vietnamese people get on the plane out? I had always heard we did not honor our commitment to fly out our VN allies when we left Saigon.

  • wonderful to read your account, chuck. i’m assuming the only vietnamese to get out with you were the engineers you had with you in the vehicle
    i am reading a wonderful book about the vietnam era and it’s lasting effects on all of those of us who lived and died during same. the book’s title is ” long time passing: vietnam and the haunted generation” by myra macpherson. it was published in 1984 and gives accounts of those affected. it begins to fill the terrible gap that has been with me since i left saigon in 1962. all those horrendous years while i was going to art school in florence then marrying a scot and living in europe, raising children and listening to afrts from germany and the bbc. the book gives me the chance to share in the stories and past hauntings. thanks chuck and bob and may this new year bring peace to the middle east and everywhere else.

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