D  e  s  e  r  t     E  x  p  o  s  u  r  e  April 2005


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After the Fall

On the 30th anniversary of the fall of Saigon, a Las Cruces woman who was there at the bitter end recalls the chaos and heartbreak that still haunt her.

By Jessica J. Savage

It was the last time the American would ever be in her quarters. They'd had to bribe their way through the crowds with money and cigarettes at midnight to reach the downtown BOQ (Bachelor Officers' Quarters), where she would pick up some clean clothes and try to get four hours of sleep, which wouldn't come at all. Everything had been arranged according to the plan she had devised two years earlier when she arrived in Saigon as the civilian chief disbursing officer of the Defense Attache's Office. Ed Hinson, her deputy, would be putting $3 million cash in barrels to be burned in 24 hours at midnight by the Marines. The $9 million in negotiable instruments was in the vault. She planned to have the $9 million with her when she was evacuated by helicopter later that day, Tuesday, April 29, 1975—the day Saigon would fall easily into the hands of the North Vietnamese troops. A new era was awaiting her and thousands of others. In fact, it had already begun.

Ann Hazard in her Las Cruces apartment, where
she's surrounded by the souvenirs of her many
years living and working for the US government
in Vietnam and elsewhere in Asia.

Thirty years later, now 82 years old, Ann Hazard sits in the living room of her Las Cruces apartment, surrounded by the souvenirs of her many years living and working for the US government in Vietnam, as well as in Japan and Korea. Much like military veterans who fought in Vietnam and struggle with closure because they were never properly acknowledged for their sacrifice, Hazard also found her life became stuck at the juncture of the abrupt evacuation of Saigon. That $3 million in cash, stuffed in two barrels in Saigon, would become an albatross, cursing a career that had been the great love of her life.

Later this month Ann Hazard will attend a reunion of employees of the Defense Attache Office (DAO), who will mark the 30th anniversary of the fall of Saigon. Hazard says it is the last time she intends to go. What she wants most as she enters the twilight years of her life is for others to hear her side of the story of what happened in the days and weeks leading up to and following April 29, 1975. Her account of that time was included in a written documentary five years ago, but she wants this account to be more personal.

As Hazard lay awake in her bed that day 30 years ago, the bombing started again and she recalled how the last month had been anything but normal. Her boss, fellow American and Vietnamese employees, Saigon citizens and the whole country seemed to be unraveling since the evacuation began on April 4, 1975. As the head of the disbursing office, Hazard was charged with paying salary to DAO employees, which included many Vietnamese.

An arm of the US Department of Defense, the Saigon office was guarded by US Marines and staffed by civilian officers, many involved in intelligence. The DAO and the embassy were the last remnant of US presence in the war-torn country following the withdrawal of troops after the Paris Peace Accords in 1973. The whole US operation was headed by Ambassador Graham Martin. "The ambassador is God. He speaks for the US Government," Hazard explains. Desperation increased daily as the North Vietnamese Army worked its way south, as did refugees trying to reach Saigon in an exodus called the "Trail of Tears." The advance meant there was no enforcement of the peace treaty. With no American troops to stop the North Vietnamese soldiers, it was up to the Army of the Republic of Vietnam—the South Vietnamese military—to fight for their country. Full of fear, these soldiers were busy deserting, abandoning their posts and equipment to join the exodus south.

The marine guard cocked his M-16 as a hysterical and angry Vietnamese woman, crying and screaming in her native tongue, moved to the front of the pay line. It was the morning of April 4, 1975. Hazard was overseeing the payment of Vietnamese refugees from Nha Trang who had worked for the US State Department. The young woman had agreed to be left behind to operate the communications equipment when the Americans left, with the promise of returning to retrieve her. But they didn't and when she tried to board a commercial river ship in the chaos of deserting troops, the woman had dropped her infant child into the river, where it drowned. "I couldn't blame her for being angry," Hazard recalls.

Within an hour, Hazard's employee, Rachel Metcalf, called to say that Comptroller John W. Clarke, Jr., wanted to see her in his office. Still shaken from the emotional confrontation, Hazard rode back to the base with Celeste Brown, an intelligence officer who had just been called back to duty after working all night. Hazard soon learned the reason when her supervisor gave her a classified briefing. A short while later, Brown was in the office telling her that she had just received the unwelcome news to report to the theater and she didn't want to go. Hazard now knew the theater was the rounding-up point for the first group of women and children to be evacuated in "Operation Babylift," but she didn't tell Brown. "I wish I would have told her to do what she thought was right," Hazard says. Instead, she advised Brown to report to the theater as told. Dorothy Howard was also told to pack and be ready to leave in two hours; she too was reluctant and came to Hazard's office, pleading, "Hazard, help me," over and over. Keeping mum, Hazard also advised Howard to follow orders.

"Two hours later they were both dead," Hazard says. "It always has bothered me."

Vietnamese children from orphanages and female government employees boarded an Air Force Galaxy C-5A transport plane. The evacuation had begun. But as the first plane in the evacuation ascended to 29,000 feet, the rear cargo doors blew out, causing the plane to decompress and killing passengers in the lower cargo area. Among the dead were 38 civilian employees.

"I had to submit to Navy Finance death benefits for the victims of Operation Babylift," Hazard says. Among the victims were the two women she had advised to follow orders, against their own intuitive urgings.

Ann Hazard's appointment in Saigon was the pinnacle of her career. It had been a difficult career choice for a woman in those days, working for high-level military and government officials who didn't always appreciate her as both a woman and a civilian.

But Hazard fit in, as she hadn't in the civilian female world. Growing up in the Depression, she'd been ridiculed by other girls for her shabby clothes. "I felt inferior. To this day I die a thousand deaths," Hazard says. "I cover it up but it's still a wound." So she'd learned to prefer the company of males, who were more accepting. Her career was the husband she'd never had, and she became as committed to it as any spouse to a marriage.

She'd started right after college, working as a file clerk in the finance office at Fort Des Moines in Iowa. Her real break, though, came in August 1947 when she answered an ad for a clerk typist to work in Japan during the reconstruction following World War II. She arrived at her duty station in Tokyo and was put to work typing. After a few hours her supervisor called her aside and said, "You can't type, can you?" Hazard confessed that she couldn't. But her deception led to a promotion to a GS-3 and a transfer to the accounting section. By the time she left four years later, Hazard was a GS-5 working in finance as a civilian payroll clerk.

"When I was still a clerk, I knew I would be a financial officer," she says. "I worked all my life to be a finance officer. I learned every job in the finance office. I loved every minute of it."

When her career finally wrapped up, she stopped being an official world traveler and moved to Las Cruces in 1987. But Hazard has never stopped traveling or wanting to be back where the action is. She frequently visits her best friend in Florida and other friends in Boston and New Jersey. Last summer she called a government contact and offered her services in Iraq. The man gently refused her offer, saying, "You've done your time."

At 0400 a driver was supposed to pick up the disbursing officer, but that's when attacks at the DAO compound began. Two Marine guards were killed. Earlier the previous evening, Than Son Nut Airbase, where the compound was located, had been bombed. The ruined runways meant the evacuation had to be by helicopter. Hazard went downstairs to round up Alice Harvey, who had spent the evening partying. Hazard insisted they leave right away and the still-tipsy Harvey replied, "I'm not leaving without my washing machine," which she had bought the previous day. Forget the washing machine, Hazard advised, and instead coaxed her out by suggesting Harvey bring a bottle of booze.

Before she left the building, Hazard thought to call her boss, Clarke. When he came on the line she warned him not to touch anything in the office. It was an eerie moment when she heard her boss's voice over the line: "People have been killed out here," he said with a laughing sneer, then hung up.

Hazard and Harvey were the first ones to board a bus waiting outside the building. A Marine captain told them, "It's a good thing you came down, because we thought you were gone."

As the fall of Saigon had begun to seem imminent, evacuating Americans had tried to get out anything and everything: money, possessions, girlfriends, children and themselves. Everyday employees of the DAO had kept coming to Hazard's office, wanting favors and trying to convert Vietnamese piasters to US currency. But regulations limited her to exchanging only up to $40 worth of piasters. "When I wouldn't do that they called me all kinds of names," Hazard recalls. "It was awful."

It got so bad they posted a Marine outside her office door. The guard would let in only one or two at a time. "It didn't bother me in the slightest," Hazard says of having to refuse the requests. She knew where the money came from: "They were taking money that their Vietnamese girlfriends or concubines had and converting it into dollars because that would help them in the United States."

One evening Hazard had passed Clarke's office and saw the light on beneath the door. She knocked and when no one answered she went inside. "There were several well-dressed and well-fed Vietnamese waiting in there, and they hid when they saw me." The Vietnamese were likely friends or relatives of Clarke's Vietnamese wife, Keli, a prominent Saigon businesswoman who owned several bars including a notorious brothel, Eden Roc.

Hazard prized her own reputation as a straight shooter. "Nobody ever said anything against me. I just didn't violate the regulations," she says. "Don't accuse me of being dishonest. I was strict as hell." She'd made it her life's motto to be fair because everything in the first 18 years of her life had been unfair. When she was 11 she'd sold a calf she had raised at the Iowa County Fair for a handsome profit. As soon as she got home, her father, William "Lying Bill" Hazard, demanded she surrender her prize. Beaten, verbally abused and given to hired hands when he couldn't pay them, Hazard was afraid of her father throughout her childhood. When her older sister died of a heart condition, her father told the doctor, "If she dies, Ann killed her." He kept her in line with guilt and intimidation. "Why don't you go down to the cemetery and look at the two graves that you caused," he often jeered, referring to her sister and mother, who'd died when she was a small child.

As Hazard gained more authority in her government career, she made a conscious decision to be fair. "I wasn't going to forget my roots," she says. "Employees wouldn't be able to say that I showed preference. The Vietnamese said I was all right because I was fair."

As Hazard and Harvey rode on the bus, she realized she hadn't heard "White Christmas" play—the song that was supposed to signal the start of the final phase of the evacuation, dubbed "Operation Frequent Wind." She sat behind the driver as the bus made its way through the desperate crowds to the office of the chief of construction to pick up more evacuees, who weren't ready to leave. Frightened refugees climbed up the side of the bus and rocked it while Marine Captain Tony Woods tried to maintain order. Finally the Americans got moving again and made their way to the base.

A rocket attack erupted as they arrived, but instead of hiding in an air raid tunnel, Hazard hurried to her office. It had been eight hours since she'd left to get clean clothes for her and her deputy, Ed Hinson, the longest he had been left alone. "He was scared to death and rightly so," Hazard recalls. The pair had been awake for more than 48 hours, hyped up with amphetamines, working around the clock.

She told her deputy about the strange phone call she had with Clarke. Hinson said, "Clarke's gone. He left on a helicopter with all the money he could carry." What he had was a suitcase filled with $100,000 in US currency that was under Hazard's accountability. Hinson handed her a plain manila envelope filled with $9 million in negotiable instruments. It was time to go.

Hazard was no stranger to defying death and narrowly escaping danger. One night, during the Tet Offensive in 1968, Saigon was under marshal law, and although they weren't supposed to be out at night, Hazard and another woman went to a restaurant for dinner near her house. After a night of struggling to find escorts back home, Hazard finally arrived in front of the house where she stayed with a Vietnamese family. They were outside waiting up for her. "I don't know to this day—it just wasn't my time—why I looked down as I went into the apartment house I lived in. All these wires were across there and I gingerly stepped over them." The wires were set by the South Vietnamese military and would trigger mines. The people waiting up for her said, "We were praying that you'd see them."

Even years after the fall of Saigon, she was still experiencing close calls. On Sept. 11, 2001, Hazard was back east visiting friends who had recently moved from the Boston area to New Jersey. She was scheduled to take the early-morning flight back west when all flights were cancelled. If she had been in Boston, she would have been on the American Airlines Flight 11 that crashed into Tower One of the World Trade Center. "I always took the early-morning flight out of Boston."

Up until the evacuation, Clarke had always been fair and Hazard had enjoyed working for him. "I couldn't have had a better boss because he really knew finance," she says. He had always defended Hazard, including one time early in the evacuation when Clarke agreed she didn't have to pay a visiting Marine who lacked written orders. "It was the last logical decision he made," Hazard says. "I don't know. I think he fell apart. He didn't want to admit to himself the country was falling apart."

John W. Clarke, Jr., had been one of the Americans who'd enjoyed a comfortable life in Vietnam and planned to live out his days with his wife in her country. As the pandemonium increased, Clarke ordered Hazard to Cam Ranh Bay, which was swelling with 100,000 refugees, to disburse severance pay. "He told me to take millions of piasters and get on a South Vietnamese helicopter with South Vietnamese guards to pay Vietnamese employees of the State Department and DAO," Hazard recalls. "There's no way I could have lived through that because they all knew I would have money." Fortunately, two CIA agents went to the deputy chief of missions to have the flight cancelled. Clarke was out of touch with reality and oblivious to the danger he was putting his employees in, Hazard says: "His kingdom was falling apart."

Today, Hazard believes the South Vietnamese should have fought for their country instead of fleeing. "I didn't believe in the evacuation but I made sure that people who came to me for help got out," she adds. Over time, Hazard came to view the South Vietnamese as a people steeped in corruption, from their personal lives to their government. "They didn't want to fight for their country. They let people come into power who would rip them off."

She had more respect for the North Vietnamese people. "I don't know what they believed, but they were willing to fight for it."

Carrying the $9 million in negotiable instruments in her diddy bag, Hazard and Hinson went to the theater to catch a helicopter flight out of Saigon. The city was now surrounded by North Vietnamese troops and swollen with panicked masses of refugees. It was about 1330 hours. Every time rockets bombed the airfield, the waiting evacuees hit the deck. Hazard saw a man break a vodka bottle hidden in his pants pocket. Another lady, taking out her pet cat, ended up taking the cat's tranquilizers herself.

The helicopters started arriving. It was about 1500 hours when they boarded the second helicopter out along with about 100 other Americans. The craft had just started to get airborne when an Army major called a halt and ordered it back down—he wanted to put his Vietnamese girlfriend aboard. "We could've been killed," Hazard remembers.

The helicopters were landing on smaller vessels beside the US Navy ships, called landing ship docks. As Hazard arrived on the USS Mt. Vernon, she looked up to see the air full of helicopters. A Marine ordered her to Customs and she yelled over the noise that she was the financial officer and gave him a look inside her diddy bag. He ordered military police to escort Hazard to the ship's distribution officer, who had never handled that much money. He reluctantly put the money in his safe and issued Hazard a receipt.

Instead of a bag with $9 million Hazard should have been carrying the suitcase with $100,000 that Clarke had taken from the disbursing office the morning of the fall of Saigon. All the US currency, negotiable instruments, treasury checks, signature plates and other money in the care of the disbursing office was supposed to be taken to a US air base in Thailand. Hazard had arranged for the flight, which was to leave at 1100 hours on Sunday before the fall. An Army finance captain called on Friday and asked if some of General Homer Smith's personal effects could be on the flight. Hazard replied, "I don't care if Hogan's goat is on that flight as long as my records get out of here." The next day Hazard told Clarke about the flight when he came into the office. "He didn't say anything for or against it," she remembers. But the next morning the Army captain called and asked Hazard what was going on: "Clarke said you were relieved and he's taking over." She replied, "If I am, I'm still here counting money." Altho
ugh she wasn't really relieved of her duties, Clarke had cancelled the flight and there was nothing she could do about it.

After handing off the $9 million on the Mt. Vernon, Hazard could rest at last. She'd spent 72 hours working around the clock with no sleep. She closed her eyes and slept for two days.

As for the $3 million is US currency back in Saigon, it was in two barrels scheduled to be burned at midnight. The cash should have been burned right away, but the barrels were wired to the satellite that was the only communication to President Gerald Ford and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. So the DAO commander, Major General Homer Smith, ordered a hold. Hinson had filled out all the Navy-required forms for disposing of US currency, recording the first and last serial numbers of each bundle of crisp, new bills. He and three lieutenant colonels witnessed the money being put into the barrels next to the DAO compound. An American female employee of the DAO—who was married to a guard of South Vietnamese President Nguyen Van Thieu—was assigned to guard the barrels of cash.

Waking up in her cabin, Hazard smelled the stench of people who hadn't showered in two days and the smell of several stowaway cats. No one was supposed to go on deck, but the odor was overwhelming and she went to get some fresh air. Hazard was seen by a shipmate and she casually mentioned the cats when asked why she was up on deck. Her comment led to a kitty raid; the pets were safely stowed in a carpenter shop with sawdust-lined floors for the remainder of the five-day journey across the South China Sea to the Philippines.

A landing ship was sent to retrieve the human passengers, but the doors of their ship wouldn't open to let them cross. At 52 years of age, weighing 240 pounds and once again carrying her money-filled diddy bag, Hazard had to climb a rope ladder up the side of the ship and back down to reach the landing ship.

Two of her civilian employees were anxiously waiting for her when the ship finally reached the Philippines—Hazard was a wanted woman. There were signs up everywhere seeking her whereabouts. She went to see the Navy commander, who barked, "Come with me." Hazard defied him and said, "No. I have three employees under me and I'm not going until they're taken care of." The commander took her to a supply office and demanded she call Hawaii. She responded, "It's 2 a.m. in Hawaii." The commander said, "Call anyway."

A captain on the other end of the line demanded to know where Hazard had been. He said the money in the barrels back in Saigon didn't burn. He added, "I'll be retired by the time they're through with you." While Hazard was still on the USS Mt. Vernon, the ship's captain had sent for her and shown her aerial pictures of the DAO compound taken from 30,000 feet. The DAO building and the satellite transmitter had been melted with thermite but the barrels of money were still there.

When Hazard finally caught up with Clarke at Subic Bay, all the temper she had held for the last month was released. "I have only hated two people in my life and you're one of them," she fumed. She ticked off all the problems of the past month. Clarke merely replied, "You're tired," and walked out on her. She would see him only once more, in a similar confrontation in Hawaii.

Hazard never found out why the barrels, which were filled with layers of thermite and cash, didn't melt with the building or what happened to the $3 million. In Hawaii she was charged with and then cleared of "loss of funds." She had to write to President Jimmy Carter to have her Navy account cleared of responsibility for the money.

Nevertheless, the charges ruined her government career and haunt her to this day. Every job she applied for came back stamped, "Most Highest Qualified—Not Selected." People who had worked with her for years continually ask her at reunions the heartbreaking question, "What did you do with the money?"

At the last reunion Hazard attended, former DAO employee Frank Tierney, now a councilor for the city of Coronado, Calif., said in front of many people, "Hazard, you know you were set up." But she never learned why or by whom.

In a painting that today covers an entire wall in Hazard's entryway, a lone Vietnamese figure walks through a rice field carrying a bundle of grain on her back. "I asked him to paint a picture like that one," she says, pointing to another painting of a mountainous Indochina countryside. It wasn't exactly the scene she wanted, but she paid for it so it hangs on the wall.

The painting cost her $200, a sum she's reminded of every day when she sees it. Whatever became of the $3 million in Saigon, whether it was somehow destroyed after all or made some bureaucrat rich, there's no sign of it in Ann Hazard's modest Las Cruces apartment. There's only that lone figure, forever stuck in Vietnam with her burden.

Jessica J. Savage is a freelance writer living in Las Cruces. She works at White Sands Missile Range and is a publicist for the astronomy outreach organization, the National Public Observatory.

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