It is just after midnight on a morning in late March 1975, and I am at the bar of La Frégate Hotel and Restaurant in Nha Trang, Vietnam, talking to the owner. We are both sipping cognac and noting the quiet outside where there is a dusk to dawn curfew. Vietnamese Army soldiers have cordoned off the city ostensibly to protect it from attack by North Vietnamese forces. They are also surrounding the city to keep their own, South Vietnamese soldiers who are retreating in a rout from the Central Highlands--Ban Me Thuot and Dalat--from entering and looting the city.
I am in this beautiful seaside town to meet with several intelligence officers who work for me, although I am stationed in Bangkok, Thailand, with an Army intelligence detachment. This is my first visit and I have been briefed on their operations and on current intelligence in the area. That is why I know about the South Vietnamese forces, some of whom are retreating in a rout, stripping off their uniforms and tossing their weapons aside.
The owner of La Frégate speaks French as well as Vietnamese and English. We chat in French, mostly unconcerned by what is taking place in the Central Highlands. She knows what I know, but through her own sources. At that time, the collective wisdom was that it was likely that any advance of enemy forces would probably halt and leave the southern third of South Vietnam, to include Nha Trang, in South Vietnamese hands. I tell my host that although I live in Bangkok with my wife, I will bring her with me on my next trip to Nha Trang. That will never happen, but I was unaware at the time.
The next day, I fly back to Saigon on a small aircraft, probably a Gooney Bird (Douglas C-47) where I meet with several other intelligence officers from my detachment who work out of Saigon at the MACV* compound. Also on the plane are some U.S. civilian family members of some of the contractors working on projects in the Nha Trang area. Just to be safe, these family members are moving to Saigon due to the unstable situation. There is no panic, but some have heard that the North Vietnamese forces have brought ground-to-air-missiles to areas much further south along the mountain ridges than had been expected. Surprisingly, a woman seated across from me with two children asks me about the missiles. I say don’t worry because the pilot will fly out to sea and follow the coast to Saigon, avoiding the mountains and the hidden missiles. She sighs in relief and after take-off the pilot announces he will instead be making a straight shot over the mountains to the capital. Her knuckles go white as she clutches the armrest and I then remember the pilot and his white scarf from a large drinking party at La Frégate the night before.
The evening before I return to Bangkok, one of my intelligence officers and his wife invite me to dinner at their spacious apartment in Saigon. Their Vietnamese cook prepares a delicious meal with spicy pork tongues, the likes of which I have never had since. Having fulfilled my ten-day mission, I return to Bangkok where our attention is turned to the events in Cambodia. A few of our intelligence officers are still able to get from Bangkok to Phnom Penh. On one of their last trips they bring back the wife of a Cambodian Army colonel as the situation deteriorates in the Cambodian capital. Our officers speak with him by phone several times a day and then one day his wife takes the phone and he tells her that he and other officers will try to escape to Thailand up the Tonle Sap (river/lake). She will never see him again.
Phnom Penh falls in several days.
It is mid-April and Vietnam looms large again. We are on the phone with our intelligence officers in Saigon but the U.S. ambassador hesitates on calling for an evacuation so as not to spark a panic. His hesitation then sparks the very panic he wanted to avoid and pandemonium ensues. We are on the phone to one of our intelligence officers in the MACV* compound. He is destroying intelligence documents by burning them in huge drums located in the courtyard of the compound. He comes out with a new batch of documents, looks in the barrel only to see hundreds of thousands of dollars in U.S. currency that has not yet burned. He hesitates, but then throws his stack of classified documents on top and ensures the fire begins to consume them… and the pile of cash.
It is now the 29th of April and chaos reigns. Panic everywhere. Jammed streets. Failing communications. We lose contact with our intelligence officers who are now largely on their own. Days later we send messages out to the Pacific Fleet and other U.S. installations around the China Sea. Eventually our officers pop up. One on an aircraft carrier, one in the Philippines, one on Guam, etc. All are ultimately accounted for and they make their way back to Bangkok for debriefings and to find out if there are any intelligence operations that we can keep in place to report on Vietnam after the fall of Saigon.
Then comes decades of processing Vietnamese refugees in the U.S. Huge centers are set up and our intelligence officers interview refugees to find out where our former Vietnamese military and civilian counterparts are. Did they make it out? Did they see any Americans left behind in the chaos? Decades later, the search for military missing in Vietnam continues full force. I work for ten years in an office dedicated to that purpose. Then one day in the 1980s, I open the Yellow Pages to find a listing for a restaurant in Washington, DC and fall upon... La Frégate.
And so it is and will be in Afghanistan. The chaos. The futile and the successful searches. The recriminations. The prisons. The misery. The Afghan family activists in the U.S. Make your own list. The fault is nobody's and everybody's.
And a rout is a rout is a rout…
*Military Advisory Command, Vietnam