My “War” Stories
By Diana Kitt
Diana Kitt is a Mid-Atlantic tennis player with an interesting background. She worked for the Central Intelligence Agency for 40 years. She was on one of the final helicopters out of Saigon. Picture her trying to evacuate with her tennis racquets clutched to her chest. We enjoy bringing into focus some of our interesting members. Keep us in mind if you have a story to tell.
I joined the US Government within a couple of months of graduating from Washington State University in 1969. My first goal was to be able to get to Washington to participate in anti-Vietnam demonstrations—and I did just that (while not mentioning those activities to my office). My second goal was to go abroad, with no particular country in mind, spend six months there, then quit and return home to Spokane. Well, over 40 years later, I was still working with the same organization—so much for my initial career planning.
Iran: My first assignment abroad was to Iran from 1970-1972. For me it had a lot of appeal, seeing a part of the world that few saw. As a 22 year old fresh out of college, I had no idea of just how difficult it would be to reside in the Middle East. Offsetting the culture shock, Iran had a huge American official and military presence, including a large military base where softball games were held on weekends, and we partied with young “Det 333” personnel. The USG was closely aligned with the Shah working against Russia to the north. Indeed, our presence in Iran was not about Iran—ironic in hindsight—but about Russia. In the early 1970s, the Shah was riding high, trying hard to drag Iran from the 12th century to the 17th or 18th.
I took several vacations while in Iran. They included to spectacular Iranian cities like Esfahan and Shiraz, and vacations to the Caspian Sea, along with to Lebanon and Afghanistan. Afghanistan was an exciting place to “vacation” to even back then (1972). Hard to imagine that a single female would venture alone to the wilds of Afghanistan. But in those days, you thought you were invincible. I flew via “Afghan Air” from Tehran to Kabul. The flight got side tracked to Kandahar (now in Taliban hands) as the Kabul airport lacked the technology to handle night flights. The flight itself was punctuated by fights between the Afghan airline stewardesses and several passengers insisting on being served coffee or alcohol and being turned down. It was an exciting flight, ending in a bunk bed in Kandahar before we completed our trip to Kabul the next day.
Once in Kabul, I arranged to travel to the Kabul Gorge, reputed to be spectacular. It is now described as the “most dangerous” road in the world. The timeframe was interesting, as several diplomats had been killed in Afghanistan in recent days. I hired a driver to take me to the Pass—an hour or so out of Kabul. There was no sign of life or traffic on the roadway. Once at the gorge, I exited the car—leaving my purse and diplomatic passport in the back seat--and took some pictures. My driver appeared to have other ideas. Out of the corner of my eye, I could see him slowly pulling away, leaving me with no doubt that I was being deserted. My first thought was that this adventure might not end well. Fighting the urge to chase after him, I forced myself to casually walk in the direction of the vehicle. After a couple of hundred yards (it felt like miles), the driver stopped and let me enter the car. I have no idea why he stopped—maybe fear of then mighty USG or maybe just a feeling of guilt that he should not leave me there alone. Anyway, I got into the car, totally and utterly relieved that I had not been deserted, and we returned to Kabul. I was so gratified to be safe, I gave him a generous tip and hired him the next day—but this time we stayed in Kabul!!
I left Iran in mid-1972, seven years before the Shah was ousted and our embassy was seized and Americans held hostage. My strongest recollection during my two years there was that of being mumbled and grabbed at while walking down Iranian streets; the terrible traffic, where two cars could be on the road and somehow find a way to crash into each other—made worse by a belief that Allah would protect them; the excitement of skiing there, where you were just as likely to get wiped out by a ski flying alone—and unsecured to a human body-- down the ski slopes as by a body attached to the skis. Finally, I met some amazing people, including Hazel Burgess (who became a second Mom) and Arnie Raphael, an FSO officer, who years later became ambassador to Pakistan and was killed along with Pakistani President Zia when the latter’s plane was blown up in Islamabad.
Next Stop – Saigon: My Iran assignment ended in mid-1972. Even though Id planned on quitting within months of joining the Agency, I found myself hooked on the work. So in early 1973, I volunteered for Vietnam, a place that had used up hundreds/thousands of State/Agency/DOD employees and taken the lives of over 57,000 soldiers, sailors, and marines. My preparation was minimal unless you include my involvement in two major war protest marches in WDC. For context regarding the 1973 timeframe, the Paris peace accords had been finalized in early 1973, and all was relatively quiet. Or at least it seemed so on the surface. (The PBS series and the unclassified “Studies in Intelligence” on Vietnam provide fascinating detail on the war; the latter details disputes between DOD and CIA about the feasibility of supporting the Saigon regime and the prospects that DOD and US military leaders were underestimating the challenge North Vietnam and the VC presented to us and their determination, however long it took, to drive out the foreigners.)
Saigon was a pretty comfortable place to live as a US diplomat in 1973 and 1974. It retained the remnants of the French colonial period with lots of French restaurants and French-style residences still in evidence. I resided in a nice apartment, had a house cleaner on a daily basis, drove a government-provided Ford, and learned to play tennis on courts across the street from the embassy. We had a two-hour lunch, which made a 12-hour, six-plus day a week work schedule manageable. I used the lunch hours to drag out one State Department officer after another to play with me and almost always stomp me into the ground. I also joined others in water skiing down the Saigon River. It is horrifying to think of the bodies in that river, rats and far worse, but certainly an incentive not to fall off ones skis.
The final few months of my Saigon assignment were the most remarkable and scary. By late 1974, we were aware of major planning by Hanoi to initiate attacks in the South (having bided their time since the signing of the Paris agreement). In March 1975, two months before our evacuation, the North launched attacks on key cities in Military Region I (roughly the Danang area). As attacks stepped up, the South Vietnamese Government of President Thieu made a series of disastrous military decisions, calling for the evacuation of all forces, personnel, tanks, etc., to southern South Vietnam. It was total chaos as tanks and military personnel got tangled up in their withdrawal to the South. If the goal of the Saigon Government was to consolidate forces in the south and preserve the Thieu Government, that plan collapsed amidst the chaos of the withdrawal.
Watching the country slide into chaos meant, for me, making a decision about staying or leaving. We were free to leave, if we desired, and many did. But I was on a Station chief’s list of people asked to remain behind--a long list--and I was curious to see how things would end. A sign of the times was symbolized by my “new” office. I was transferred from a tiny, shared office to having my own lavish office--following the departure of a senior officer. That new office was the clearest signal that things were amiss.
There were a few light moments in the final days. Among them, my boss and I would play tennis on the embassy courts, across the street. That spare time had increased as the situation deteriorated. My work at this stage was almost totally focused on shredding many hard-copy files, I.e., work that mainly involved shredding safes full of paper documents. My final tennis outing with Jim (my boss) took place a few days before we were evacuated out. The Station chief, Tom Polgar, on hearing that Jim and I had been spotted playing tennis announced at his next staff meeting that the last thing he wanted to see -- as Saigon was collapsing -- were two of his officers playing tennis. So much for tennis as an outlet for the work pressures around us.
Even though Ambassador Martin was insistent that Embassy folks not appear to be leaving en masse, there nonetheless were preparations to get us out. One such plan involved landing a helicopter on my apartment building. This plan was dismissed shortly before the end when we learned the building would collapse if anything landed on it, let alone a helicopter. The second evacuation plan was to leave from the embassy, go to the international airport at Tan San Nhut, and leave via larger aircraft from there. Once again, that plan would prove unworkable when the North Vietnamese bombed the landing field, a fact I learned only after my first helicopter attempted to land at Tan San Nhut.
Some time on 27 April I left the embassy for my apartment. Ironically there was some optimism among us that an agreement had been worked out with North Vietnam that would allow us to remain behind. Clearly we were misled. When I got to my apartment, the woman who cleaned many of our apartments greeted me. She was shocked to see me and asked why I hadn’t left Saigon; I responded that it appeared all would be OK or words to that effect. Within minutes of my entering my apartment, I could hear gunshots close by. At one point I crawled down the stairs to see if our Hmong guards were still there. They were there, sitting just outside the apartment holding their rifles. (I do not know what happened to them).
My upstairs neighbor, a top analyst and eventual writer of “A Descent Interval” (a very fine book), finally made it to the apartment, knocked on my door, and advised me that all was OK. He was not persuasive as he was carrying an M-16, wearing a helmet and flack jacket). That night, those of us who had made it to the apartment debated next steps. There were three of us, our analyst, a Green Beret, and me. The Green Beret suggested arming us to the teeth and marching back to the embassy the next morning. I was less than excited by this plan. Instead we opted to take our chances and drive back to the embassy. To our surprise, the drive was uneventful other than being stopped by a policeman who sought a bribe and cigarettes from us. That was the last time I would see my Saigon apartment.
By now (26, 27 and 28 April) it was chaotic on the embassy grounds. (I apologize for the many times I’ve used the word “chaos”.) The embassy grounds were completely full of Vietnamese and Americans seeking a way out. The helicopters began arriving and departing. At this stage, my only job (shredding was done) was to make calls to our Vietnamese friends and contacts, providing them with details on where they would be picked up. I reached only one Vietnamese politician, after hundreds of calls. That senior politician was able to receive my message, meet us at a departure point, and escape Vietnam. Those who have seen the PBS series on Vietnam or read any of the writings on the final hours know that the Ambassador (Martin) was preventing a more-rapid departure by refusing to have a major tree cut down on Embassy grounds to allow for larger helicopters to come in. Eventually, he lost that argument and the tree was cut down and larger choppers began arriving. In his defense, he had left Vietnam for medical reasons several weeks before and had been absent as South Vietnam unraveled. He was slow to recognize that Vietnam had changed dramatically in his absence.
I left the embassy via helicopter twice. My first departure (27 April?) took me from the embassy to Tan San Nhut Airbase; the pilot quickly turned back when it became clear that the landing area had been rocketed by the North Vietnamese. My second departure the next day was successful. I had in hand for my departure no passport, but a change of underwear, a wad of cash (which I returned to the USG months later), and my two Dunlop racquets. Even those meager holdings were too much for the helicopter pilot--who told me the racquets had to go; I pointed out they would take up no space if I held them tight to my chest. The guy behind me loudly hinted that I was delaying the evacuation of Saigon. I tossed the racquets.
Photo left: Diana (second from left) aboard the Midway.
The helicopter flight itself was unmemorable, although those of us packed inside wondered whether an angry South Vietnamese officer would start shooting at us as we were deserting him and his country. Next stop was to the USS Midway. It was hectic. Hundreds of tiny Vietnamese choppers were landing one after the other, then being shoved off the carrier as quickly as they arrived to make room for the next tiny helicopter. Undeterred by the confusion, I asked one of the sailors on debarking where the gym was (no gym), then I asked where the bar was (no bar). Instead a second female and I were ushered below deck to sparse living quarters and told by a junior sailor --who crossed his toes in front of our cabin--that we were not/not to set foot across that line. My female roommate (who had held final conversations with the last soldiers killed at Tan San Nhut in the final days) stuck her foot across the invisible line and pronounced: “you mean this line?” For the next five days, our lives involved our bunk bed (lacking a blanket), a bathroom (hour-to the half hour), and ventures to the mess hall for meals. We did manage to get better treatment from one of the Navy officers who allowed us to eat with the officers. Eventually, we were allowed to leave the Midway for Thailand, but only after a 24-hour delay while the Thai Government “reevaluated” its posture towards the USG.
Vietnam was my most emotional, traumatic assignment, and memories of it remain. Following Vietnam, I spent another half-dozen years in places like Thailand, the Philippines, and Japan. Those places were thankfully less exciting than Iran and Vietnam, although the Marcos’ Government collapsed during my assignment and Southeast Asia remained tense with the rise of Pol Pot and the Chinese invasion of Vietnam (which laid to rest any thought that the Communist regimes operated in lock step). Once permanently back in Washington, I continued in a variety of jobs that took me briefly to many parts of the world: to the “Ickies”: Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgistan, Western Africa and Ethiopia, Russia, as well as several European and Middle Eastern countries. To this day, my favorite is Jordan with its friendly government, people and ancient Roman remnants. The past 18 years I worked as a “consultant” on Middle East matters, a job that seemed to go from one chaotic situation to another. The only thing missing in my work was boredom!
A final thought on the value of tennis to my life. Tennis provided me with access to many other diplomats and foreign professionals who were eager to play tennis or golf. It allowed relationships to develop naturally and friendships to form. This great sport helped me ease into retirement last year and I will always be grateful to this sport for opening so many doors. Among them, this great sport has introduced me to many people across this country and closer to home, Bethesda, Md., where I play with many women and men, including the son of my wonderful boss in Saigon.