Page 128

Page 128(The Bitter End)




Da Nang Airfield or better still, on the requested helicopter lift. Staff Sergeant
Sparks even said to some of them, "What are you still doing here? Get out
of here!" But they would reply, "You're here.' To which I said, 'Yes,
partner, but maybe there ain't going to be room on the helicopter that I'm
leaving
on.' "13


The helicopter option would never materialize because the day after Chu Lai fell. General Burns, the overall operational area commander, learned that the anticipated helicopter lift from Nha Trang was impossible because "Eagle Pull assets on hand now are not adequate to permit this."14 As the fixed-wing evacuation limped on, nearly overwhelmed by the sea of refugees, U.S. Secretary of State Henry A- Kissinger sought the assistance of the Military Sealift Command (MSC), The request to use MSC ships to evacuate U.S. citizens and other designated civilian refugees was initiated at 0529 on 27 March. Unfortunately, the earliest estimated time of arrival of any of these ships in the area was the afternoon of 28 March. Until then, the airfield would serve as the only exit for the Americans in Da Nang. Later in the day on 27 March that door slammed shut after crowds of refugees started mobbing aircraft landing at Da Nang.


The panic actually began when waiting Vietnamese spontaneously rushed a World Airways plane loading for a scheduled departure of 0900. After that incident, the crowd could not be controlled and smaller aircraft, like the C-47, were diverted to the helicopter airfield nearby. Located east of the Da Nang airport. Marble Mountain, which earlier in the war had served as home to some of the 1st Marine Aircraft Wing's helicopter squadrons, possessed a relatively short runway, but offered a luxury the Da Nang airport no longer had, security from the crazed crowds. At 1029 on 28 March, because of the chaos, the Saigon government suspended all airlift flights into Da Nang. Sergeant Sparks remembered a creeping sense of finality: "I was talking to the Air America guy who runs the terminal out there and he wasn't panicked. At least on the radio, he was calm. He said, 'It's all over. We can't get them out anymore; the planes won't land.' "15


Fortunately for those Americans who at that moment were waiting at the airport for the next flight, and for Consul General Francis, who was at the airfield checking on the airlift, a CH-47 from Marble Mountain whisked them away before the crowds could react. Later in the day, Francis returned to the consulate in another helicopter, and after some discussion gave the order for all Americans to leave Da Nang. At 2000 that Thursday evening, he halted all U.S.-controlled flights except those from Marble Mountain. Francis had the few Americans still remaining at the Da Nang airport moved back to town so that they could be evacuated with his remaining staff.


The plan called for a pick-up by an Air America helicopter at the International Commission of Control and Supervision's landing zone. Staff Sergeant Sparks said, "We [those to be evacuated] drove down there, this was about 1830, we got to the LZ and it was very calm and quiet there."16 The staff, the Marines, and the remaining Americans (Consul General Francis and a few other officials had decided to postpone their departure*) stayed at the LZ until they received word that there would be no more helicopter flights because the pilots had used up all their fuel and the Vietnamese would not give them any more. By then it was 2100 and the remaining Americans reassembled at Francis' house where they realized, in discussing their options, that the only way out was by tugboat and barge. At 0150 on 29 March (Friday), Consul General Francis requested that Alaska Barge and Transport Company use one of its tugs to push a small barge to the dock in front of the consulate and place another slightly larger one in the open water where it would be visible to the Vietnamese. They were to be in place by 0330. This they hoped would assure the South Vietnamese soldiers guarding the pier that they too had an alternate means of escape, thereby precluding the need for seizure or destruction of the barge docked near the consulate.17


Less than two hours later, everyone, including the Marines, American civilians, and the Vietnamese staff, left the consul general's house and climbed into the back of a Vietnamese garbage truck (which was covered) and rode a half mile to the dock. Sergeant Sparks described the horror of what happened next:


"We got off the truck and helped the people on this barge. That . . . was one of the most tragic things I have seen in my life, and I have been m combat a few times .... Women and old people were throwing their babies to that.barge for people to catch, and they were missing and falling in the water. Old people crawling up this rope, trying to get to the barge and


*Consul General Francis eventually escaped Da Nang shortly after midnight on 30 March by swimming from a beach near Monkey Mountain to a South Vietnamese Navy patrol craft. He had remained behind on 29 March to continue to oversee an ad hoc airlift operation at Marble Mountain, (Fall of the South, p, 80). Several orhcr Americans who had remained behind escaped Da Nang on board the Oseola, an Alaska Barge and Transport Company tug captained by a New Zealander. Fall of Saigon, p. 171.








Page 128(The Bitter End)