April 2000/May 2000
Escape To The Sea
By Marc Leepson
The word "honor'' has a way of coming up when you talk to Terry
McNamara about his extraordinary experiences in Vietnam. Which is not
surprising considering McNamara, whoretired from the Foreign Service in
1993 after having served three tours in Vietnam, titled his1997 memoir Escape
With Honor: My Last Hours in Vietnam.
McNamara's book described his final Vietnam tour of duty, which began
when he was named U.S. consul general in the Mekong Delta in August 1974.
It was a time when the Republic of Vietnam was falling into the anarchy
that would lead to the takeover of the country by the North Vietnamese
Army on April 30, 1975.
As the months went by and South Vietnam's end drew near, Terry
McNamara's main concern was the physical safety of hundreds of Vietnamese
citizens who worked for the U.S. Foreign Service--people whose lives would
be endangered by a communist takeover. "I felt a personal
responsibility,'' McNamara said in recent interview. "We lived with
these people for years and to just walk away from them, abandon them, was
too much. They had been loyal to us. They had been friends. It was a point
McNamara's dilemma was compounded by orders he received from the U.S.
Embassy in Saigon. "I was being told that I should leave the
Vietnamese behind and just take the Americans out,'' he said. "I
couldn't do that.'' The orders were to take out the American employees via
helicopter. The problem was that only three small helicopters were
"We could have gotten all the Americans out on the helicopters,''
McNamara said. "With three loads maybe it would have been a strain,
but we could have done it. But there was no way in the world we could have
taken any Vietnamese out by helicopter.''
Faced with his commitment to his Vietnamese employees and their
families, McNamara devised an ambitious plan. He would lead the effort to
take his American and Vietnamese employees out by water, by sailing from
Can Tho 70 miles down the Bas Sac branch of the Mekong River and out to
It was a daring plan. Ultimately, McNamara and his small staff led some
three hundred Vietnamese citizens out of the country and to the safety of
exile in America. But not before McNamara and company overcame some
daunting obstacles involving the Viet Cong, the CIA, the South Vietnamese
Navy, the U.S. Marines, and the U.S. Navy.
In retrospect, two aspects of Terry McNamara's life loom as important
factors in the success of his April 1975 escape-and-rescue mission: his
Korean wartime service in the U.S. Navy and his Foreign Service experience
in several overseas hot spots.
Francis "Terry'' McNamara was born in Troy, New York, in 1927 into
a large, extended Irish-American family. He ran away from home and joined
the Navy near the end of World War II. McNamara tried college after the
war, then rejoined the Navy in 1950, and saw action during the Korean War
aboard the heavy cruiser, St. Paul. After his Navy service,
McNamara finished college and went to graduate school at Syracuse
University before entering the Foreign Service in 1956.
He became an Africa specialist. In the early 1960s, McNamara was living
in Elizabethville, the Katangan province capital of the newly independent
Congo, when Katanga seceded from the Congo and what McNamara called a
series of "small wars'' erupted. "The UN Peace Enforcement
mission came in and we supported it, and they went to war with the
Katangans,'' he said. "I was living in the middle of all these wars.
We had our consulate sacked about five or six times. It went on for two
After several African stints, McNamara volunteered to go to South
Vietnam in 1967. He did so, McNamara said in a 1993 Foreign Service Oral
History Project interview, in part because the war "was the great
historic event of our time. I wanted to be part of it--to see it up
close.'' McNamara arrived in Vietnam in January 1968, just before the
massive Tet Offensive. His job: working with USAID in the joint
civilian-military pacification program known as CORDS (Civil Operations
and Revolutionary Development Support). After surviving the vicious
Tet fighting in Saigon, McNamara was sent to Vinh Long Province in the
Mekong Delta to replace an adviser who had been killed. He was put in
charge of the civilian development programs and a village pacification
program. His advisory team was made up of about a dozen civilians and
about two hundred and fifty military personnel.
McNamara stayed in Vinh Long until September 1968. He spent the rest of
his first Vietnam tour, which ended in April 1969, as deputy province
senior adviser in Quang Tri Province just south of the Demilitarized Zone.
"Living in Quang Tri in those days was a little bit like being in
Verdun in World War I,'' McNamara said. "The North Vietnamese were
just across the Ben Hai River, on the 17th parallel. They would shell,
using artillery that they had dug into caves on the other side of the
river. They'd wheel them out and fire some shells at us. Quang Tri City
was just within their artillery range.''
After that eventful tour, the Foreign Service made McNamara an offer he
couldn't refuse: Principal consular officer in Danang. "There was no
consular post in the country outside Saigon since the closing of the
consulate general in Hue,'' McNamara said in 1993. "It was important
to have a diplomatic listening post in central Vietnam, the most
politically active region in the country and the furthest from
Saigon." The job was very political. He spent a good deal of
time working closely with non-communist opponents of the South Vietnamese
Terry McNamara left Danang in August 1971. The next time he saw Vietnam
was in August 1974 when he arrived in Can Tho as one of four American
consuls general in South Vietnam. He was in charge of about a thousand
employees who worked out of sixteen offices spread throughout the eighteen
provinces of the Mekong Delta in the southern part of South Vietnam.
Most of the employees were Vietnamese who worked alongside about a hundred
Americans and a handful of Filipinos and Koreans.
The North Vietnamese Army was on the march southward. The U.S.
Congress, in reaction to widespread public disenchantment with South
Vietnam's long war, had drastically reduced American aid to the South
Vietnamese government. As for the U.S. consul general in Can Tho, he was
beset with his own problems, most significantly a rocky relationship with
the CIA and the U.S. Embassy in Saigon.
Early in 1975, the military situation started falling apart. "As
things began to deteriorate elsewhere in the country, I started thinking
about evacuation and how to make sure that none of my guys in the sixteen
offices all over the Delta got left behind,'' McNamara said. "We had
an evacuation plan which was worthless. It called for closing the
consulate general and driving to Saigon. That would only work under the
most ideal circumstances.''
Failing that, the plan called for using helicopters to evacuate, which
McNamara realized also was unworkable. "When I considered our
numbers, I realized this would require a major commitment of helicopters,
as well as troops to secure LZs [landing zones]. It was just
mind-boggling,'' he said. "Finally, I looked at the feasibility of a
water-borne evacuation down the Bas Sac River to the sea.''
Then there was the daunting question of determining which Vietnamese
employees and family members McNamara could offer safe passage. McNamara
estimated that, counting family members, there were some five thousand
people associated with his operations.
"When I started to come to grips with the numbers, I knew there
was absolutely no way I could ever get the means to get five thousand
people out of Can Tho,'' he said. Then, late one night, McNamara devised a
way to narrow down that figure. "After a lot of soul searching, I
decided that setting up a system of priorities was the only way to do
McNamara, with the guidance of his American supervisors, set up three
categories of employees. Group A consisted of people McNamara
"thought would be in mortal danger if they were taken prisoner by the
Viet Cong.'' Group B consisted of "people who could make it in
another culture, in the United States or France--educated people who spoke
foreign languages and had skills so that they could get jobs.'' The C
category contained everyone else: "the guards, the char ladies, the
guy who had ten children and spoke no language aside from Vietnamese and
had no salable skills.''
Making those choices was not easy for McNamara, nor for his American
Foreign Service staff. McNamara called the selection process "a
soul-scarring experience'' in which he and others were "forced to
play God in making what might mean life or death decisions.''
Early in April, McNamara began closing consular offices and sending
potential evacuees from the top two categories to Saigon where chances
were much better that they could secure passage out of South Vietnam.
Then, on April 29, 1975, with the enemy on the outskirts of Can Tho,
McNamara set in motion the river evacuation plan.
But first he had to overcome opposition from the embassy in Saigon,
from the local CIA station chief, and from several people on his own staff
who, McNamara said, "were absolutely against going out by water.''
Those who opposed his plan, McNamara said, "were just not as
committed to the Vietnamese as those of us who had spent years in Vietnam
and who had gotten to know the Vietnamese as people and not just as paid
informants. Moreover, many were frightened. They believed their own
intelligence reports that we might be overrun any minute. They considered
going down the river just short of suicidal.''
The 70-mile trip McNamara envisioned, he says, "wasn't suicidal,
nor was it without risk.'' He was aided immeasurably by his Can Tho staff,
especially his deputy Hank Cushing and Cary "Kass'' Kassebaum, a
former Peace Corps volunteer who served as a province
representative. "My ex-Peace Corps volunteers, like Cary
Kassebaum, did not panic,'' McNamara said. "They and my junior FSOs
were rock solid. Moreover, these two groups were among the most insistent
on our moral responsibility to take care of those Vietnamese who worked
McNamara put his plan into action early in the morning of April 29. He
and his staff rounded up hundreds of Vietnamese civilians and their
families and ushered them aboard a rice barge and a former Vietnamese Navy
LCM, a lightly armored landing barge known as a "mike boat,'' which
McNamara had quietly procured for the river journey.
McNamara personally oversaw the loading of the boats, determined, he
said, "to monitor who got on,'' he said. "I feared overcrowding.
I also wished to assure places were given those on our priority lists.''
To lighten the tension, McNamara donned a helmet liner several of his
Marine guards had given him. Painted navy blue, it was adorned with a
large gold star and the inscription, "Commodore of the Can Tho Yacht
Club.'' The helmet "was a joke,'' McNamara said, but "I put it
on because I felt that one of the best ways of maintaining morale and
preventing panic was to appear confident, even lighthearted. So I tried to
joke with people and relieve tension.''
It was a very anxious morning. "The Vietnamese, naturally, were
worried and scared,'' McNamara said. "My young Marines and CORDS
old-timers were businesslike but joined in my show of bravado. We tried
hard to maintain a calm, matter-of-fact front. As we started on this
adventure, I was not as full of self-confidence as I tried to
After several mechanical glitches, McNamara's two-vessel convoy set out
down the river. They soon joined forces, as planned, with a second LCM
piloted by a former Vietnamese naval officer who knew the river well.
Altogether, the small flotilla carried some three hundred Vietnamese,
eighteen Americans, and six Filipinos.
The Journey Begins
As they continued down the river, McNamara and company could hear
machine gun fire as the final hours of the Vietnam War raged around them.
Then, about seven miles into the trip, the convoy took fire--not from the
enemy, but from a group of South Vietnamese navy "monitor'' boats.
"The lead monitor fired a machine gun volley over the bow of the
leading LCM,'' McNamara said. "The signal was unmistakable. I gave
the order to stop.''
A young Vietnamese Navy lieutenant told McNamara he had orders from
South Vietnamese Army (ARVN) Maj. Gen. Nguyen Khoa Nam, his corps
commander, to stop the evacuation because McNamara's group contained ARVN
personnel and draft-age males. A very tense standoff followed.
"The navy people wanted to come onboard our boats. I refused to
let them,'' McNamara said. "We were at an impasse surrounded in
midstream with awesome 40- and 20-millimeter guns pointed down our
throats. Most of the males on our three boats were heavily armed. If the
navy people had come on the boat and tried to take any of the Vietnamese
off, there could have been a shootout. I could not allow this to happen.
All three boats were full of women and children.''
McNamara decided to pull some strings. He asked the Vietnamese Navy
lieutenant to contact Commodore Thang, who was in charge of the South
Vietnamese Navy in the Delta. Not coincidentally, McNamara had gotten the
commodore's wife and children evacuated through Saigon several weeks
earlier. Ninety minutes later the commodore showed in a small boat.
"We greeted each other as friends,'' McNamara said. "He
smiled at me, [and said] 'You don't have any officers, soldiers, or males
of military age on your boats, do you?' ''
"Of course not,'' I replied. "The people in our boats are all
my employees and their families.''
The commodore said the evacuation could continue, but first introduced
McNamara to a young sailor whose elderly father was on one of McNamara's
boats. "He encouraged the sailor to say goodbye to his father in full
view of all of the other sailors,'' McNamara said. "It was a very
touching goodbye. The young sailor was staying behind. This disarmed the
other sailors whose animosity disappeared.''
To ease tensions further, McNamara gave the rice boat, which was
limping along on a broken propeller, to the South Vietnamese sailors.
"We took the people who had been on the rice barge and divided them
among the two LCMs,'' he said. "This meant that all our people were
in modern, sea-worthy craft behind protective armor. I was greatly
Then the two LCMs resumed their journey, but not before McNamara had
the Americans disarm all the Vietnamese on board. "Perhaps they had
no choice, but we got no resistance,'' he said. "My men
circulated among the Vietnamese reassuring them in their own language. We
kept the guns on the top of the engine compartment behind my steering
post. The Marines were there to guard them. We also had a machine gun off
one side and a BAR [Browning automatic rifle] off the other side. All of
the Americans were armed.''
In the middle of the afternoon, about a half hour after the South
Vietnamese Navy incident, McNamara's convoy again took fire--this time
from the Viet Cong. "Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a flash,''
McNamara said. "I turned my head instinctively in that direction. To
my horror, I saw a long rocket with flame at the rear. I jammed the
throttles to full speed.'' He ordered the Marines to return fire. "We
put up a tremendous volume of fire. Some of the Vietnamese got hold of
M-16s and supplemented fire by the Marines and my CORDS people. One or two
rockets were fired and we put up such a volume of fire that they must have
decided to leave us alone.''
The convoy escaped unharmed. That short but intense Bas Sac River
skirmish, though, is historically significant. McNamara believes--and no
one has challenged his assertion--that "these were the last shots
fired by Americans'' in the nation's longest and most controversial
Soon after that incident, about midway in their journey, the tiny
flotilla approached a known Viet Cong infiltration route that crossed the
river. "The VC held the banks on both sides of the river and often
occupied the islands in midstream,'' McNamara said. "The channel
narrowed as it passed between the island. We would be dangerously close to
Just as they were about to enter what McNamara called "the most
perilous part of the trip down river,'' there was a tremendous downpour of
rain. "The rain covering our passage through this very dangerous
patch was another piece of extraordinary good luck,'' McNamara said. The
convoy made it through the area without encountering the enemy. The rain
stopped soon after they emerged into the wide river below the islands.
At about seven o'clock, after some twelve hours on the river, McNamara
and company reached the mouth of the South China Sea. He decided to push
on out to sea to rendezvous with the U.S. Navy ships he knew were waiting
to pick up Americans and South Vietnamese. McNamara had sent several radio
messages to the fleet telling of his convoy's imminent arrival. As night
was falling, McNamara's two LCMs headed into the open sea with only a
rudimentary navigational system. There was no compass in his boat, and he
could not be sure of his direction as the night became increasingly dark
and low clouds obscured the stars. Gun flashes from a bigbattle onshore
provided McNamara with his only reference point.
Adding to his navigational woes, McNamara did not know how much fuel he
had, and he had problems communicating with the Vietnamese captain of the
other LCM. He considered laying in for the night near the shore but
finally decided to make a run for some bright lights he saw in the
Those lights turned out to the Pioneer Contender, an American
freighter contracted by the CIA for evacuation purposes. "The ship
had a Marine contingent aboard as guards. As we came alongside, they were
not happy about these strange boats coming out of the night. Initially,
they were reluctant to let us come aboard. Finally, we convinced them that
we were fellow Americans and not pirates or VC saboteurs.''
The Marines hauled McNamara and company aboard using rope slings.
"We were on the ship; we were safe,'' McNamara said. "But they
hadn't been waiting for us; they didn't expect us. There was no Navy
ship anywhere near the mouth of the Mekong. The Navy had simply
The ship then made its way to Vung Tau before taking the Vietnamese to
Guam, where they stayed in a resettlement camp until being flown to the
United States. McNamara and the Americans hitched a ride aboard a Korean
PT boat, which took them to the evacuation ship, U.S.S. Blue Ridge,
which soon sailed for the United States.
The harrowing journey was over. Terry McNamara overcame great odds to
deliver his Vietnamese and Americans out of Vietnam. Would he, in
retrospect, have done things the same way?
"I can't think of anything else,'' he said in 1999. "I'd have
to do it again. I was being told that I should leave the Vietnamese behind
and just take the Americans out. I couldn't do that.''
It was a matter of honor.