In celebration, sort of, of Bug Out Day — April 30, 1975 — and how it changed countless lives

Bugging out of Saigon

On this day 40 years ago the United States military “bugged out” of Saigon, leaving South Vietnam to fall to its communist invaders from the north.

There are stories in many newspapers across the country today marking this anniversary, but few if any refer to the anniversary by the name most veterans actually use: Bug Out Day. Not even stories penned by Vietnam-era veterans.

I’m not sure how the event got that ignoble appellation, but perhaps it came from Henry Kissinger. Here is a clip from a HistoryNet account of White House talks:

“Declassified transcripts of the meeting reveal Kissinger’s candid assessment of the unfolding situation in Phnom Penh and Saigon: ‘We have two nutty ambassadors. Dean wants to bug out. Martin wants a new version of the Easter Rebellion. He is supporting Thieu too strongly.’

“(President Gerald) Ford asked his secretary of state, ‘Supposing Ike, Kennedy, Johnson or Nixon were president, what would they have done?’ Kissinger responded, ‘Kennedy would have ratted out. Nixon may have bombed, he was vicious in these things.’

“‘How about Johnson?’ asked Ford.

“‘He wouldn’t have bugged out,’ replied Kissinger. ‘His advisers would have tried to bug out.’

“Then Ford took a shot at President Kennedy: ‘Without appearing to do so, Kennedy probably would have bugged out, with some famous statement that would have disguised it.'”

The Vietnam police action, it never was a real war, altered the lives of millions of Baby Boomers, who were either drafted, dodged the draft in one way or another or joined the military to avoid the draft. I joined the Air Force, the branch of the military where the officers were the ones being shot at.

They told me my high test scores guaranteed me my pick of jobs. I picked journalism. No, you have to make three choices, they said, but you’ll get your top pick for sure. So I picked something else and my third pick was intelligence. Yes, I was sent to Denver to train for intelligence. I can’t tell you what planes our Air Force flies, but I can tell you what planes the Soviet Union had. We used to joke that there are three kinds of intelligence — human, animal and military, in that order.

After months of waiting for my top secret security clearance, apparently the FBI had a hard time finding anyone in the backwoods of north Texas to vouch for my character and integrity, I was shipped out to Thailand to work on McNamara’s Wall.

Never heard of it? Don’t feel bad, some histories claim it was never built, though I seem to recall spending a year with my thumb in a chink of that wall.

Robert Strange McNamara was secretary of defense in the late 1960s. In his autobiography “In Retrospect,” he said he had misgivings about the conduct of the war as early as 1967, which, coincidentally, was about when his Air Force decided to send me to Nahkon Phanom Royal Thai Air Force Base — Naked Fanny, as we called it, which was a short but perilous bus ride to the town of Nahkon Phanom on the banks of the Mekong River just across from Laos, where Johnny’s Ice Cream Parlor kept the Singha in the ice cream freezer — to work on his wall.

For me and thousands of others whose lives were changed, it might have been better for him to express his misgivings sooner.

My little piece of McNamara’s war deserved only a brief mention on page 246 of his book (The braces are mine, parens are his.):

“They concluded the bombing [of the Ho Chi Minh freeway, as we called it] had indeed been ineffective and recommended building a ‘barrier’ as an alternative means of checking infiltration. This concept, which had first come to my attention in the spring of 1966, would involve laying down a complex belt of mines and sensors across the Demilitarized Zone and the Laotian panhandle to the west. (the sensors would guide our attack aircraft to enemy forces on the move.) The barrier would be costly [that was the most secret aspect of the whole damned thing], but because our bombing was ineffective, I authorized it … Once it was put in place, the barrier was intended to increase infiltration losses. And it did.”

His intelligence from people with brass on their shoulders, and mine from inside a computer-filled, air-conditioned tin shed in the jungle, tended to differ.

Thomas Mitchell, next to never used bunker outside his hooch on Nakhon Phanom Royal Thai Air Force Base just across the Mekong River from Laos.

Each of those sensors was said to cost the same as a Volkswagen beetle, which then was about $2,000. They would drop a series of them from aircraft. Some sensed seismic motion, some sound, some smell. How a jungle dwelling Loatian smelled any different than an infiltrating Viet Cong with his heavily laden bicycle was a mystery to the enlisted men manning the computers.

In those computers we kept track of what was being bombed, secondary explosions and fires, even sightings of POWs, which the F4s were supposed to avoid. But based on the assumption the POWs were moved frequently, the sightings were to be scrubbed after five days. After a while, not being a fan of assumptions or bombing of POWs, I stopped removing them. But someone else would later.

It was all so antiseptic, so high-tech compared to what was on the ground, beneath the three-tiered canopy of jungle, in the mud and the rain, the insects and the snakes.

McNamara said the project came to be known as McNamara Line, without mentioning the derisive allusion to the Maginot Line. We just called it McNamara’s Wall.

To this day I wonder if there was not some cosmic joke in the fact that as we walked from our monsoon-soaked hooches to that tin shed the lizards in the trees would make a mocking call that distinctly sounded like: “(Expletive) you.”

Thankfully, my wife’s uncle, who was in the military police on the base while I was there, never came around when we went over to the Jolly Greens’ (the guys who dangled from helicopters to rescue downed pilots in Laos) hooches to drink beer and smoke our nickel bags. Yes, a walnut-sized wad of seeds and stems wrapped in newspaper cost one baht, a 20th of a dollar.

The fact that the whole operation and its billion-dollar-plus price tag were top secret made it clear to me who the enemy really was. Those Viet Cong on bicycles didn’t care what it cost, though perhaps the taxpayers might, but it was secret.

By the time Saigon fell, I had finished college on the G.I. Bill and was working as a city editor at a small Texas daily newspaper. After working in an outfit were information was on a need to know basis, I had chosen to work in a field where the watchword was right to know. So, I guess you could say it changed my life, as I’m sure it did many others, including the 58,000 whose lives it ended prematurely.

Forty years later, is it pointless to ask what might have been?








12 comments on “In celebration, sort of, of Bug Out Day — April 30, 1975 — and how it changed countless lives

  1. prlarry says:

    “…altered the lives of millions of Baby Boomers, who were either drafted, dodged the draft in one way or another or joined the military to avoid the draft.” My draft number was in the 300s and so I was not drafted, but I was not one who “dodged the draft in one way or another….”

  2. Winston Smith says:

    “In war, truth is the first casualty.” – Aeschylus (or was it Princess Leia?)

  3. nyp says:

    No, of course, Aeschylus never said that. It appears to be a WWI-era abridgment of Samuel Johnson: “Among the calamities of war may be justly numbered the diminution of the love of truth, by the falsehoods which interest dictates and credulity encourages.”

    But I will give you a mulligan just this one time, since the modern version is so true and so good.

    Incidentally, in the event you have not already read it, Mr. Mitchell, I commend to your attention Paul Johnson’s terrific book “The Great War and Modern Memory.”

  4. JT says:

    Excellent article, As a member of a younger generation I could not overstate the importance of memories expressed from the Vietnam generation. There is much to be learned of the impact of Vietnam on the individuals who willingly or more often unwillingly experienced a slice of Hell. Unfortunately the majority of us are now well acquainted with F****d-up governmental decisions but it did not and does not have to be that way. It is in these personal individual reflections that the core of the argument can be brought to an identifiable position, thanks for sharing your memories Mitch, PS; Great photo

  5. Winston Smith says:

    “Death is better, a milder fate than tyranny.” – Aeschylus

    “The oldest cliché is that truth is the first casualty of war. I disagree. Journalism is the first casualty. Not only that: it has become a weapon of war, a virulent censorship that goes unrecognized in the United States, Britain, and other democracies; censorship by omission, whose power is such that, in war, it can mean the difference between life and death for people in faraway countries.” – John Pilger

  6. Jim Day says:

    I was not lucky: my lottery number was 76. I enlisted in the U.S. Air Force and after basic training I was assigned to HqUSAF Security Service at Kelly AFB,Tex. I was shipped across the highway from Lackland AFB, Tex., and got a 66 cents for travel pay. I had gone to war.

    I served in that foreign country of Texas for my full four, one year in San Angelo and the other three in San Antonio. When in San Angelo I learned the hard way not to speak ill of Lyndon Johnson because everyone in that town was either beholding to LBJ or they were related to him — more than likely both.

    In San Antonio I watched the end of the Nixon presidency; I saw the classified telex advising all major commands how to respond to any orders issued directly from the White House during Nixon’s last days in 1974.

    I took my final leave in April 1975 and Saigon fell. Two months later I was separated — honorably — from active duty. The war was over and I was a civilian again. I don’t regret enlisting, I served with some very fine and memorable people, but was it all in vain, I don’t know.

    Forty years later I still ponder that one.

  7. nyp says:

    I salute all of you who served our country in our armed forces.

  8. Steve says:

    57CRS F-15 Manual Test Station and Component Specialist.
    My hitch was during the Grenada years….those who deployed kicked ass! (And enjoyed some great beach time.)

  9. […] On May 11, 1961, Kennedy announced he was sending 400 Special Forces troops to Vietnam in addition to 100 advisors.  He also ordered an infiltration of Laos to locate and disrupt supply lines. That later become known as McNamara’s Wall. […]

  10. […] The paper reports that Red Flag was established after so many aircraft were shot down during the Vietnam conflict in order to train to train pilots for air-to-air combat. (Though I’m not so sure the outcome of that dustup could be attributed to airpower or to the bicycles loaded with supplies that came down the Ho Chi Minh Freeway, despite the efforts of those who manned McNamara’s Wall.) […]

  11. […] my year in Thailand working on McNamara’s Wall inside an air conditioned building on a computer the size of my house, the most danger I was ever […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s