REVIEW: Getting Out of Saigon by Ralph White
The gripping and remarkable true story of author Ralph White’s desperate effort to save the entire staff of the Saigon branch of Chase Manhattan bank and their families before the city fell to the North Vietnamese Army.
In April 1975, Ralph White was asked by his boss to transfer from the Bangkok branch of the Chase Manhattan Bank to the Saigon Branch. He was tasked with closing the branch if and when it appeared that Saigon would fall to the North Vietnamese army and ensure the safety of the senior Vietnamese employees.
But when he arrived, he realized the situation in Saigon was far more perilous than he had imagined. The senior staff members there urged him to evacuate the entire staff of the branch and their families, which was far more than he was authorized to do. Quickly he realized that no one would be safe when the city fell, and it was no longer a question of whether to evacuate but how.
Getting Out of Saigon is the remarkable story of a city on the eve of destruction and the colorful characters who respond differently to impending doom. It’s about one man’s quest to save innocent lives not because it was ordered but because it was the right thing to do.
When I started reading this book, I wasn’t sure what kind of person Ralph White would be. White was a junior level employee of Chase Manhattan Bank and stationed at the Bangkok branch in April 1975. Sensing that Things Would Not Go Well for their employees if they were still in Saigon when the North Vietnamese reached it, several senior bank members floated the idea with him for him to return to Vietnam (he’d worked there a short period of time 4 years earlier). He was there and (to be blunt) he was expendable should things Not Go Well. One of them told him “There’s no manual of procedure for this. It will call for street smarts.”
It was very quickly obvious that he wasn’t a blinkered “yes man” there to further the Embassy Saigon official policy of “all is well here.” Equally he wasn’t a wide eyed optimist, there to save the world nor a hard bitten “take no prisoners” gonna get this shit done. Instead he turned out to be a slightly cynical man well aware of the shit show going down and of the fact that he was tasked with two opposing goals: keep the Saigon branch of Chase Manhattan Bank open until the bitter end as well as evacuate as many of their Vietnamese employees as possible. This list started small. The list got improvised.
As the sacrificial lamb, White was introduced to the extensive contacts that departing bank manager Cor Termijn, a Dutch national, had acquired over the years. These included embassy staff, restaurant owners, and the black marketeer who exchanged currency at a better rate than the bank. Without the promised help from the US Embassy, —
“The guy who was supposed to be helping me get bank employees out was asking my help in getting embassy employees out. It would be hysterical if it weren’t so tragic.”
— White soon added some contacts of his own as he tooled around the seemingly calm city that was within a 36 hour march of the North Vietnamese Army. Hell, Cor had had metal shutters put on outside his office window at the bank because it was within rocket fire range. White paid attention to the changing currency exchange rate and the blank censored spaces in the news stories of The Saigon Post as additional signs of how bad things were getting.
The official channels were clogged or closed (he is not kind in his memory of Ambassador Martin’s actions) and along with several other Americans, White tried to be a decent human being and advocate for those who were counting on him. He also met and befriended a 17 year old Saigon prostitute whose brother (a communist operative) ended up providing White with valuable intel. Truly, you can’t make this up.
The ending for most of the bank employees is that they got out of Vietnam and Chase Manhattan stood by them, finding jobs for them in the US. Some employees chose to remain in Saigon mainly due to family but before he left with the last group, White made sure all received any pay or bonuses due them.
White has a grimly humorous way of writing (I mentally “heard” Billy Bob Thornton’s voice as I read). He wrote down a detailed account shortly after it happened and had reasons for revisiting the events over the years which reinforced his recollections. His is a “shoes on the ground” account of the final days before the North Vietnamese reunited the country. In talking with Nga’s brother, he reminded White that for all the US losses, the Vietnamese lost far more dead and maimed – something White freely acknowledged.
During the roughly two weeks he was there, he came across several other people trying, via “flexible means,” to get friends, colleagues, co-workers, and total strangers out. He got a little over 100 people out but many of these other people saved thousands.
As White recollects, it was a fortuitous series of events that gave him the information and contacts he needed to get his “Family” (he gave his personal guarantee to be financially responsible for all 100+ people while filling out the paperwork needed to get them on the evacuation planes) out. When he first arrived in Saigon, they were employees, then people, then refugees, then his family. B+
The consul looked up at me and said, “Did you say sixty-two, sir?”
“I seriously doubt you can support sixty-two wards. How old are you?”
He was performing his duty as a sworn consular officer. “I’m twenty-seven, but I have very deep pockets.”
“What’s your relationship to these individuals?”
“They are my family.” I maintained eye contact, just as I would in any honest, sincere, serious conversation. If I considered them family then they were family, and that was all there was to it.
The guy paused, truly undecided. He was a government official, but he was also human.
I leaned over and said, “You can do a lot of harm or a lot of good.”
He snatched up a bundle of forms without counting them. “Should be enough here.” He stood and offered a firm handshake. “God bless you, Mr. White. Make sure you bring the forms back to this table when you’re done.”
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