In the early 1970s, Richard Pena couldn’t catch a break. Or maybe he really did. Just barely.
In 1972, the Austin lawyer — his family doesn’t use tilde over the “n” in Pena — was among the very last American draftees sent to the Vietnam War. It was going badly for the U.S. and its allies.
On March 29, 1973, he was among the very last American combat troops evacuated from Saigon.
That’s the subject of his brief memoir, “Last Plane Out of Saigon,” released earlier this year.
“The Paris Peace Treaty said we’d be out of Vietnam in 60 days,” Pena says over subway sandwiches in his law offices near Interstate 35 and Ben White Boulevard. “The commander came by and gave everybody an ‘X + number,’ which stood for the day we’d leave. I got X + 59. Later, they said, can we have that back? You gonna be X + 61. You are going to turn the lights out on Vietnam. Good luck soldier.”
The American military indeed proved that they could evacuate a country in 60 days, although they left behind a lot of equipment and local allies.
“Flights came in and out constantly,” Pena recalls. “Finally, there were two American planes left on the runway. We were walking toward our planes and a rumor circulated that the South Vietnamese had stormed the gates and were coming with machetes and guns. Were they mad because we were leaving, or because we were there to begin with?”
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