Video Transcript

E. Allan Wendt—Saigon 1968:

It was January 31, 1968, in Saigon, and I was the duty officer in the American Embassy.  Unlike most embassies at the time, and I don’t know what the practice is today, in Vietnam – because there was a war going on – we had someone who actually spent the night in the embassy.  There was a room set aside for the duty officer, a small room with a cot.  And those were my quarters.  I was there all evening.  I had something to eat.  And I think maybe around midnight or 1:00 in the morning I went to sleep in this room on the cot, which was on the fourth floor of the embassy not very far from the code room.  I think that was done deliberately.  There were a few other people in the building, but very few.  All of a sudden at about 2:00 in the morning, 2:30 I guess – I was sound asleep – and there was an enormous explosion and the tinkling of masonry all around.  And of course at first I didn’t know what was going on, but when you hear an explosion that close, you know it’s something serious.  I had been told that, as a safety precaution, when something like that is going on, going under a bed is a very good form of shelter.  So that’s what I did.  A lot of people misinterpreted that afterwards.  That was one bit of advice that I recalled that I actually followed.  Now, I didn’t stay under the bed very long.  The explosions continued, accompanied by machine gun fire, sounded like AK-47s.  Rockets were thudding into the building.  It was all bedlam, and I finally after a few moments realized it was pointless to stay under the bed.  I got up and I went into the code room and my first instinct of course was not to save myself – but I didn’t know what I was going to save myself from – but to find out what was going on.  So, we have a Marine Guard on the ground floor.  Maybe he will surely know what was going on, so I called the Marine Guard, and he confirmed what I had begun to suspect – that the embassy was under a fullscale assault.  And he estimated that there were about 20 Vietcong guerillas.  They had blown open the outer wall.  We were in a compound.  There was a concrete wall surrounding the embassy property – and a courtyard in front, and a parking lot in back.  So they blew open the wall, and they poured into the compound, about twenty of them, and started firing rockets and AK-47 assault rifles into the building.  So we were under full-scale attack.  There had been a lot of damage on the ground floor, and the Marine Guard who had still been functioning, to my amazement, said that he had one wounded Marine on his hands.  Anyway, that was the setting.  

Response

Once I found out what was going on, I started making phone calls.  I made phone calls to the military assistance command, our headquarters at Tan Son Nhut airport on the outskirts of Saigon.  I made calls to Washington.  I spoke to the Situation Room in the White House.  I spoke to the Operations Center in the State Department.  I made calls around town.  I called one of my colleagues who was a political officer and an aide to the ambassador.  And by that time it became clear that we were under full-scale attack.  But it also seemed to be a case that the Vietcong were not yet in the building.  At first I thought, “There is no way we’re going to survive this incident, with twenty heavily armed guerillas in the compound, at any moment they’ll break into the building.  And if they break into the building, and if they break into the building – since there were only a few civilians in the building, only one or two had weapons.”  I did not have a weapon at first.  I had not been instructed on what to do in a situation like that.  So I set about doing the obvious thing – find out what was going on, get in touch with Washington, deal with the wounded Marine, which we did.  We took the elevator down to the ground floor of the embassy, which was a mess.  There was damage all over the place.  But there was one lone heroic Marine Guard, who could hear everything going on outside the building.  It was also obvious that the Vietcong had not yet actually penetrated the building.  But we thought it was only a question of time before they did.   It was only after about the first 45 minutes that I began to think that maybe they’re not going to get into the building.  If they haven’t gotten into the building already maybe they’re not going to be able to.  And by that time we reacted on the outside with MPs who got themselves under the rooftops of adjoining buildings, and started firing down into the compound at the Vietcong guerillas.  We also had some civilian State Department security people who were doing the same thing.  We began to react, but the whole process was very slow, because these Vietcong were heavily armed and we simply didn’t have the strength to assault the compound and try to retake it, at least not in the beginning.  So at that point it was a question of how quickly the American military could respond, and I was on the phone constantly with our military command headquarters at Than Son Nhut airport, pleading with them for relief.  And I pointed out that the American Embassy is “the citadel” of the American presence in Vietnam.  And for it to be in the hands of a Vietcong guerilla squad did not look good.  And indeed, as we knew subsequently, did not look good at all.

I kept telling myself that I was intact, I was alive.  I looked horrible, because one of the things I had to do, with the help of one other person, was pick up the wounded Marine from the ground floor of the embassy while the fighting was going on.  We got him up to the fourth floor, and actually put him in the cot that I had been sleeping in as a Duty Officer.  I hadn’t had any first aid experience.  He kept asking for a corpsman, a trained medic.  That was obviously impossible.  Then we carried him up to the helipad, off to the side, so that when the first helicopter did finally get in, they would be able to evacuate him.  And that is in fact what happened. But it was only five hours later that this took place.  But anyway, I looked awful, because I was covered with blood.  But it wasn’t my own blood.  That was this poor wounded Marine’s blood.

Personal Qualities

I functioned.  This is what I did do.  And I would say at the outset that it’s almost impossible to predict how a human being is going to react in a situation like that when exposed to it for the first time.  I was not prepared in the sense that I had been instructed on what to do in the event of an emergency, in the event of an attack on the embassy.  I was not instructed at all.  The Duty Officer’s Manual contained no useful information.  So what I would say is that what was helpful to me is that as long as I was alive and intact, that there was so much I had to do that it concentrated the mind.  I knew I had to alert people around Saigon.  I knew I had to deal with the wounded Marine.  I knew I had to monitor what was going on at the rooftop of the embassy.  The military needed to know how much ground fire approaching helicopters were drawing.  I had so many things that I had to do.  The telephone was ringing off the hook.  People were calling from all over the place.  They were calling from Saigon.  They were calling from the White House.  They were calling from the State Department.  I didn’t have time to worry too much about my own skin.  I just kept telling myself, “I am alive, I’m intact, I’m not wounded, I can function.”  And I did function.  Now, I've often wondered, “What if I had panicked?”  And some people do and some people don’t, and it’s very hard to predict.
 
I can’t really talk about personal courage, because that’s an indefinable quality and I cannot say that I displayed personal courage.  I can only say that I did what I felt I had to.  I did what I felt needed to be done.  I’m very happy in retrospect that I was able to do all those things. 

Advice

It’s difficult to give general advice to people entering the Foreign Service or people already in the Foreign Service, because each situation is different and almost any general advice you give is not worth a great deal – though it’s easy to say to stay calm, stay cool, stay collected.  But until you’re thrust into a situation yourself, you just don’t know how you’re going to react.  But I do think that each of our posts should have some kind of a manual of how to react in an emergency.  We do, and did even then evacuation drills, and that sort of thing, but this was an all out military assault, and that’s what we were not prepared for.  And that’s what I say – particularly in dangerous zones, dangerous not necessarily because there’s a war going on, but maybe because of civil unrest.  We have embassies in countries with a lot of civil strife.  In the event of an armed attack, checklist, a list of things to do, people to alert, that kind of thing would certainly be helpful.  And I’d imagine we have that now.  I assume lessons were learned after 1968 in Vietnam.  Now, of course, if an embassy is attacked by armed people with weapons, civilians are generally not trained.  We’re not soldiers, we’re civilians.  We’re not trained in combat.  We’re not trained in the use of weapons.