Escape With Honor: My Last Hours in Vietnam, by Francis Terry McNamara with Adrian Hill, Brassey’s, Inc., Washington, D.C., 1997, $21.95.
The last days of the Vietnam War are vividly portrayed by former Consul General Terry McNamara of the U.S. Foreign Service. McNamara served for 37 years with the U.S. Foreign Service, including three tours of duty in Vietnam. He was a provincial adviser with CORDS–Civil Operations and Rural Development, an American program centered on pacification efforts–at Da Nang, and served in the Mekong Delta as consul general at Can Tho in IV Corps. McNamara’s memoirs describe the final phase of America’s commitment to Vietnam and the personal courage of those men and women who desperately tried to save as many Vietnamese as possible who were sympathetic to the American cause.
There were four consular offices in Vietnam, under the suzerainty of the ambassador at the U.S. Embassy in Saigon. Can Tho City was the provincial capital of the fertile Mekong Delta area. The surrounding countryside was controlled by VC guerrillas, whose continual harassment by rocket and mortar fire on installations such as Can Tho, Soc Trang, Sa Dec, My Tho and Ca Mau kept ARVN units on the move. The slick nightclubs, villas and remains of the French colonial influence at Can Tho and other delta cities made the region an area of contrasts, where the war at times seemed dormant. The VC dominated the rural countryside at night, using unconventional guerrilla warfare to keep pressure on those who were committed to the South Vietnamese cause. It was a nerve-wracking war of attrition rather than a confrontation of conventional warfare methods.
McNamara was assigned a post in an already deteriorating military situation as morale within the ARVN units in the area began to decline after they lost a series of major battles.
Consul General McNamara had the awful task of choosing the Vietnamese allies who should be evacuated, while simultaneously preventing a general panic among the rest of the population–many of whom fought alongside the Americans on a daily basis. He did manage to successfully evacuate members of his American and Vietnamese staff whose lives would have been in jeopardy if they had fallen into the hands of the VC. McNamara also writes about the feuding and conflict between CIA officers, who had their own hidden agendas for evacuating many contract agents and families.
It was clearly the beginning of the end when ARVN units felt the full onslaught of NVA regiments moving south toward Saigon. After repeated requests, McNamara–a former member of the submarine service–managed to get Saigon’s approval to use boats to get his staff out of harm’s way. On April 29, 1975, he commandeered two LCMs (landing craft, mechanized) and a rice barge and planned an evacuation route down the Ba Sac River to the South China Sea. He hoped to meet up with American ships waiting offshore to pick up evacuees.
McNamara’s own evacuation plan was frowned upon by higher-ups as utterly impossible, given the existing conditions. But his plan to hook up with U.S. naval ships waiting offshore proved successful and ultimately saved the lives of more than 300 Americans, Vietnamese and Filipinos.
During the voyage downriver, the consul general had asked for air cover and for a naval vessel to meet his LCMs on the open sea after they exited the Ba Sac. His requests were not met. After a relatively uneventful trip down the Ba Sac–with only a few moments of panic when a B-40 rocket was fired at them from the shoreline and there was an exchange of small-arms fire–the boats made their way to the mouth of the Ba Sac. Another moment of anxiety occurred when a Vietnamese patrol boat refused to let the group past until Commodore Thang, of the Vietnamese navy, arrived and ordered the patrol to let the boats pass. The Vietnamese naval commodore had been told not to allow military personnel of the Vietnamese armed forces to desert their units along with evacuating Americans, but McNamara notes that Commodore Thang turned a blind eye when he spotted a few of their civilian staff members.
The small flotilla then continued toward the mouth of the Ba Sac. After they drifted around offshore in the dark for a time with a boatload of seasick passengers, the United States Lines ship Pioneer Contender took the refugees safely aboard. Following a transfer to a Korean LST (landing ship, tank), the group finally arrived aboard USS Blue Ridge amid much confusion and calamity and joined the group of survivors and refugees, closing the final chapters of a bloody and costly war.
McNamara’s memoir is another part of the puzzle that makes up the total picture of U.S. policy in South Vietnam. In order to understand what happened in Vietnam, it is important to understand the many different aspects and viewpoints. State Department policies, American military analysts and CIA approaches at problem solving often undermined one another’s agencies, causing ineffectual and often costly mistakes
McNamara’s book clearly illustrates the vast differences between the war in the delta and the war in other areas of the country, as well as how State Department foreign service officers and their staff reacted under the duress of evacuation during the final hours of the American presence in Vietnam.