As we approach the 39th anniversary of the Fall of Saigon, it seems appropriate to re-publish this account. Saigon was captured by the People’s Army of Vietnam and the National Liberation Front of South Vietnam (also known as the Viet Cong) on April 30, 1975.
History is what people born after 1970 call Vietnam, but for many of the 2.7 million service
men and women, the million or more civilian support staff, and the protesters who battled policy, the war lives. It lives in war stories told with pride, or buried deep in souls and in walled-off psyches protecting their bearers. Arguably the Vietnam War began on September 27, 1950 when the Military Assistance Advisory Group, Indochina (MAAG) was established in Saigon to aid the French Military. It ended several years after President Nixon cut off direct funding during a process he called “Vietnamization” when, in April 1975, Saigon fell to the communists.
Twenty-five years is plenty of time for people to form strong, trust-based relationships. The time frame of reference bridges several generations, if one defines a generation as a group of people born into and shaped by a particular span of time (events, trends and developments). The Vietnam War significantly contracted the reach between generations. Some Vietnamese and American, men and women, soldiers and civilians, who lived, loved, fought and worked in Vietnam developed, treasured and strove to honor the vital social contracts that punctuated the long and ugly Vietnam War with small sanctuaries of beauty and peace.
Consider for a moment those last few days before the fall of Saigon. Imagine your friends, colleagues, relatives who, in the grip of the Communists, will be tortured then killed all because they know or work for you. Back in the day, the Communists had a deserved reputation for brutality. According to Olive Drab “In total, from 1957 to 1973, the Viet Cong assassinated 36,725 South Vietnamese and abducted another 58,499. The VC death squads focused on leaders at the village level and on anyone who improved the lives of the peasants such as medical personnel, social workers, civil engineers, and schoolteachers. For the Communist forces, atrocities were a matter of policy and were not hidden or punished.” For those already screaming the U.S. also committed atrocities, the answer is yes, but not as a matter of public policy, although enforcement could have been better. For example, one perpetrator, Lt. Calley, of the My Lai massacre, on 16 March 1968, was dealt with harshly while his commanding officer, Captain Earnest Medina, walked away scot-free.
The haunting images of the evacuation from Saigon at the end of April, 1975 illustrate heels and heroes of all descriptions. At the extremes, people tore at others to get a place on the helicopter or boat or were willing to sacrifice everything by throwing their children onto the last American bound transports to save them. The people who managed and operated the support services for the military and civilians faced a huge dilemma. How could they help the hundreds of Vietnamese nationals who worked for them, sometimes for more than one generation, and their families? On October 13 2013, 60 Minutes ran the The Oskar Schindler of Vietnam War segment during which Lesley Stahl interviews John Riordan and the fall of Saigon. The interview illustrated the desperation of the situation “…Riordan, who is still in touch with his “family,” knew some of them would be killed or severely punished when the city fell, because the attacking Communists would be harsh towards any locals who worked for Americans, especially those aligned with a capitalist institution like a bank. He and his employers at Citibank tried various ways to get the local staff and their families out, but all their plans failed. Riordan was evacuated on his own to Hong Kong, and eventually ordered – under threat of being fired – to abandon the rescue effort. It seemed, at the very end of the war, that the stranded staff would have to fend for themselves….”
Riordan was not alone. Many of us know heroes from that time; most are unsung. Most are self-effacing, claiming they did nothing but their jobs. One of my heroes drove a med-evac helicopter but refuses to discuss his amazing exploits publically. War wounds heal slowly, if at all.
Another of my heroes, although reluctant to take credit, did agree to contribute and this is John Malch’s story. With characteristic modesty, Malch calls his story Logical Action and says “This letter is my closure to my Vietnam experience. I thank God that I was able to evacuate my loving family and so many of my loyal South Vietnamese employees and their extended families.” What follows is his story:
After his hasty departure from Saigon on 7 April 1975, the general agent for American President Lines and States Lines and general manager of Getz Bros & Co., (Vietnam) had, for all intent and purposes “abandoned” the employees of his company to the fate of communism in a matter of twenty-three days after his sudden and unannounced embarkation aboard an American Mail Line vessel from the port of Saigon, South Vietnam.
On the afternoon of 7 April 1975, the employees of Getz were in a state of shock and dismay on what efforts the parent American Company (Tucor Services Inc., division of Trans Union Inc.) would do for them should the need arise to flee Saigon under a mass evacuation plan.
Since no advanced planning was made to remove loyal personnel and when the “mass evacuation” became a matter of fact and a daily practice: John Malch, manager of Getz Bros Van Line Division, a USAF captain (who arrived in Saigon two days before to get his own dependents out), and Ron Mallette, Director to Bekins International jointly decided to take matters in hand and begin their own unique plan for the escape of their employees and dependents.
Using two Ford Econoline Vans with a large empty cardboard container inside, they started moving people on 23 April 1975, transporting them from the courtyard of Malch’s villa through the Vietnamese checkpoint at the entrance to Tan Son Nhut Air Base and the U.S. Marine checkpoints at DAO compound, ending at the staging area at the gym within the compound. Three trips were made Wednesday afternoon and 27 Vietnamese were smuggled past the VN checkpoints.
On one trip, Mallette was stopped at the VN MP checkpoint, at which time he quickly responded that he was carrying blankets and cots for the American Red Cross. On Thursday one more trip was made, with sixteen smuggled people. On Friday 25 April 1975, two trips were made. During the second trip the van was stopped at the VN checkpoint and Malch was detained at gunpoint for 5 minutes while the MP’s forced nine Vietnamese out of the van. All were detained until $20 US Dollars was paid to obtain the release of Malch and the Vietnamese.
In all 43 employees as well as the families of the three Americans were smuggled to the evacuation area at DAO compound annex. Two other Getz employees with eight dependents were to be processed through the American Embassy channel on Monday 28 April 1975; however, at this time their fate is unknown. Mallette remained behind to insure the expeditious departure of these people and to close down operations for both companies.
All employees of Getz and Bekins were assured sponsorship as far as Guam. It was expected that the mainland offices would resettle them in the States.
Malch and the Captain arrived on Guam late Monday morning 28 April 1975. They hoped that Mallette would escape from Saigon with the remaining employees and dependents through the American Embassy (Final) operation: “Frequent Wind”.
While all of this was occurring, between 1 and 28 April 1975, Malch and Mallette had the responsibility for packing, crating and shipping over 450,000 pounds of personal effects and household goods for the American Embassy, USAID, DAO and commercial personnel. Their efforts were not in vain, as 95% of the personal effects and household goods embarked Saigon by 26 April 1975.
There is a Post Script that was written two months after John Malch’s the 25 June 1975 letter:
Two months have passed since the fateful end of our involvement in South Viet Nam.
Malch and his family are resettled in San Diego, California. Mallette got out safely, quit Bekins, and joined his family in Alabama where he intends to raise apples. The Captain went back to his base in Japan. Oh yes! Those loyal Vietnamese who served Bekins and Getz for years, still remain encamped at the various refugee centers. The two big American corporations have done very little, if anything to help these people who supported them during their “GOLDEN PROFIT MAKING ERA IN VIETNAM”. Signed John T. Malch
John Malch and the others in this story are heroes. They are men of courage, outstanding achievements, and noble qualities. They fought and won, at their own peril, the right to life for those who would have suffered and died. No one told them to do this and their government didn’t support them. They just did what needed to be done and damn the torpedoes. There are still many good guys in America. Thank you for your service.
Resources and Side Stories
1) Company Overview of Getz Bros., & Co. Inc.
2) 64 Employees + 446 Dependents + 510 people
3) Photo of Captain Nick & Oanh
Captain Nick spent two consecutive tours as a Civil Engineer with 7th Air Force, Saigon. At the end of March 1973 he left South Vietnam with all other US Military personnel (Minus 50 who remained with DAO) Nick returned to his permanent overseas duty station in Okinawa. On 21 April 1975, Nick arrived in Saigon to evacuate his wife’s family. He volunteered to assist with mass evacuations within DAO compound and positioned himself at the gym. He was my ‘insider’ who helped with our evacuation of our families and Getz employees.
4) Photo of Nick & Oanh and John Malch & Kim Le
5) Ron Mattette was my counterpart who also assisted with evacuations.
I want to say a little more about Ron Mallette. Ron spent four years in the Marines. He attended Vietnamese language school at Monterey and after completion, spent two tours in I Corps RVN as an interpreter for his unit. After separation from service in 1967 he went to work for Bekins in early 1968. (He was in Saigon during the famous ‘Tet’ offensive.) His Vietnamese language skills gave him a key position with Bekins. When I joined Bekins in January 1969, Ron was General Manager for their entire Vietnam operations at the ripe young age of 25. After two field assignment (building warehouses at Tuy Hoa and Vung Tau) for Bekins, my reward was the prime assignment as their Saigon Station Manager. I held that position until the troop withdrawal when Bekins began their RIF policy. Since I was hired in-country, I was one of the first they let go.
In fall of 1974, Getz Bros., had an opening in their shipping division for Van Line Manager. Well, the rest is now history. I was hired and renewed my business relationship with Ron. He shared an office adjacent to mine at the Getz compound as director of Bekins International. When he passed away in April 2000 (age 56) it was a personal shock; thinking back to what we both experienced during the month of April 1975.
6) Is a letter of gratitude from my executive secretary, Miss Tran Buu Xuyen, aka Marion.
 Olive-Drab; Vietnam War Atrocities; http://olive-drab.com/od_history_vietnam_atrocities.php
 University of Missouri-Kansas City; Doug Linder; An Introduction to the My Lai Courts-Martial; http://law2.umkc.edu/faculty/projects/ftrials/mylai/myl_intro.html
 60 Minutes; October 11, 2013; The Oskar Schindler of Vietnam War; http://www.cbsnews.com/8301-18560_162-57607088/the-oskar-schindler-of-vietnam-war/