Johnson, 65, of Upper Marlboro was a staff sergeant in the U.S. Air Force’s 3rd Security Police Squadron in 1975. His unit evacuated primarily foreign nationals, U.S. State Department officials and Vietnamese orphans from Saigon at the end of the Vietnam War in April 1975, according to Barry Spink, an archivist for the U.S. Air Force.
“We were called in to help evacuate noncombatants through the embassy, who we thought at the time wouldn’t survive if we didn’t get them out,” said Dave Hetzel, a retired Air Force colonel and former city councilman in Georgia who was Johnson’s commanding officer during the evacuation.
Johnson said he called his wife, Hong Johnson, 62, who was staying in Gaithersburg with her friend, Mary Barone, both Vietnamese expatriates, to see whether either had friends or family who wanted to leave Vietnam.
Although Hong Johnson’s family chose to stay in Vietnam, Barone gave him the address she had been using to keep in touch with her family, which included her sister, Tu, he said.
“It was chaos,” Johnson said of the final days before the fall of Saigon. “People were just getting out, so I commandeered a vehicle and went to [Barone’s family’s] address.”
Johnson said because the evacuation was not ordered by the U.S. government, he could not use military property to retrieve Tu and her family. He said people trying to leave the country abandoned their cars outside the U.S. Embassy, and he found a van with the keys inside and drove into the suburbs of Saigon.
The United States evacuated more than 100,000 people that year, according to the U.S. Air Force Historical Resource Agency’s Web site.
When Johnson made it to the address Barone had given him, he loaded everybody who wanted to leave into the vehicle, he said. One of the refugees was Tu’s cousin, Chien Le, 64, now of Oakton, Va., who presented challenges for the makeshift convoy. Le said South Vietnamese officials were allowing the elderly, women and children to leave but wanted young men to stay and contribute to the effort to fight off the North Vietnamese military.
“It was difficult because I was of the age to use and to carry a rifle,” said Le, who was 26 at the time. “My father actually had to bribe local officials at several checkpoints to allow me through. At one point, they actually yanked me out of the truck and kept me until we came up with more money.”
Le’s father, who died in 1993, also left Vietnam.
Johnson said he was inspired to start taking groups of refugees not officially sanctioned by the United States when he saw South Vietnamese officers abandoning their posts to flee the country.
“It was disheartening because they were going to leave their families,” Johnson said. “So I said, ‘Go get your families and come back [to the embassy for processing].’ ”
After Barone’s relatives left Vietnam, the government took them to Arkansas, where they met Barone. She took them to Gaithersburg, she said. Many stayed in the Washington area and have remained in touch.
Tu works as a fuel supervisor at Dulles International Airport, and Le is the executive director of the project planning and management division of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in Silver Spring.
“I don’t consider my professional status my success,” Le said. “We all overcame a lot of barriers, from language to culture. It was like starting life all over again.”
Johnson said it has been great to see everyone adapt to life in the United States and eventually achieve success.
“I’m just glad that I got to be there,” he said. “But it makes me wonder, if I hadn’t been there and hadn’t known Mary, what would have happened to these guys?”