book review: Getting out of Saigon, by Ralph White
What's interesting about this compelling rescue story, is that the author, Ralph White does not consider himself a hero nor particularly noble. What he is, is a gifted writer and storyteller. His narrator's staccato voice and wry, self-effacing sense of humor reminds me very much of Raymond Chandler's cynical, hard-boiled detective, Phillip Marlow. Today, Ralph White's occupation is that of full-time writer. "Getting Our of Saigon" is White's second book.
After graduating from college, White took a job working for Chase Manhattan Bank, and being an adventurer at heart, accepted an assignment working at their branch office in Bangkok, Thailand, in 1973.
Two years later, a Chase executive approached White about managing their Saigon branch. This was in the spring of 1975 (White was then 27-years-sold), at a time when the U.S. military was pulling out of South Vietnam, and the North Vietnamese Army was armed and poised to capture Saigon. Under the circumstances, what Chase was asking for was someone to keep the Saigon Chase Bank open for as long as feasible. They hoped that whoever accepted the job, would also evacuate at least a dozen or so of their Vietnamese employees.
White knew such a rescue mission would be nearly impossible to pull off, and very likely he would not survive his assignment (out of fear, the previous branch manager and his family had already departed Saigon). However, having already spent time in Saigon, and having learned to appreciate the quirky city and its kind, gentle people, White accepted the assignment.
At the time he moved to Saigon, White knew none of the bank's employees, nor did he speak the Vietnamese language particularly well (although he did know about 300 Vietnamese phrases). Chase officials entrusted White with $25,000, in the event he needed ready cash. Apart from that White was pretty much left on his own.
What White had in his favor, was the willingness to know and appreciate the Vietnamese employees who worked for Chase Bank. He also possessed a restless desire to rediscover the Saigon he had once known and, despite the omnipresent threat of the North Vietnamese army, to take the time to know the Vietnamese people better. In this regard, White befriended and paid a Saigon street walker (aka a prostitute)--not for sex--but to help him better understand the Vietnamese language. The street walker turned out to be a very bright, 17-year-old Vietnamese girl named Nga. She not only taught him how to understand the Vietnamese language, she became his guide and confidant. Most important of all, she had an older brother in the North Vietnamese army, who provided White with protection and classified information, as well as a Honda motorcycle for White to get around on.
One of the funnier stories, is White scouting out a DC-3 Skytrain as a possible way to transport his employees out of Saigon. This was a twin-engined aircraft he managed to board without detection. He writes: "I had a strong urge to start the engines. . . . Damn, how I wanted to hear those beasts roar! I was a guy who struggled to resist an idea once it lodged in my mind. Whether it was buying something, doing something, going somewhere, or drinking something. I was anxious until I bought it, did it, went there, or drank it."
In the short time White was in Saigon (13 days) he realized his real job was not just to keep the bank open up to the last possible moment, but to rescue as many employees as possible. This would consume much of his time, and not everyone he contacted--from people inside the American Embassy, to officers in the U.S. military, to high-level managers in the Chase hierarchy--was able to help him in any significan way. Those in the military who did help him, did so by risking their very military careers.
However, with persistence--and much luck--he managed to rescue all the bank employees and their immediate family members (as well as Nga)--113 Vietnamese people in all. Many were airlifted out of Saigon aboard a U.S. transport jet (a C141 Starlifter) while several more departed on cargo boats, headed down the Saigon River toward the South China Sea.
All of these Vietnamese refugees were reunited at an airbase in Guam, and later processed for green cards at Camp Pendleton, in Southern California. Many of them continued their employment with Chase Bank's New York office, and now live in New Jersey. White arranged for Nga to live with his mother in Connecticut, where she graduated first from high school, and then from college She later would marry, and have two daughters. Today she makes a living as a school teacher.
White concludes his improbable story thus: "I never did have children of my own, and the 113 wards I adopted on April 24 and 15, 1975, were the only family I would ever know. For half a century I've speculated how their lives changed for having crossed paths with mine. And mine with theirs."
As a proud American, White was particularly pained to learn of the racial slurs and taunts his "adopted children" have occasionally endured.