They Are All My Family

A Daring Rescue in the Chaos of Saigon's Fall


By John P. Riordan

With Monique Brinson Demery

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Published for the fortieth anniversary of the final days of the Vietnam War, this is the suspenseful and moving tale of how John Riordan, an assistant manager of Citibank’s Saigon branch, devised a daring plan to save 106 Vietnamese from the dangers of the Communist takeover.

Riordan — who had served in the US Army after the Tet Offensive and had left the military behind for a career in international banking — was not the type to take dramatic action, but once the North Vietnamese Army closed in on Saigon in April 1975 and it was clear that Riordan’s Vietnamese colleagues and their families would be stranded in a city teetering on total collapse, he knew he could not leave them behind. Defying the objections of his superiors and going against the official policy of the United States, Riordan went back into Saigon to save them.

In fifteen harrowing trips to Saigon’s airport, he maneuvered through the bureaucratic shambles, claiming that the Vietnamese were his wife and scores of children. It was a ruse that, at times, veered close to failure, yet against all odds, the improbable plan succeeded. At great risk, the Vietnamese left their lives behind to start anew in the United States, and now John is known to his grateful Vietnamese colleagues and hundreds of their American descendants as Papa.

They Are All My Family is a vivid narrative of one man’s ingenious strategy which transformed a time of enormous peril into a display of extraordinary courage. Reflecting on those fateful days in this account, John Riordan’s modest heroism provides a striking contrast to America’s ignominious retreat from the decade of conflict.



Last Flight to Saigon

“I HEARD A RUMOR,” I mentioned casually to the Vietnamese ticket agent at the gate. “I hear Air Vietnam is going to end service into Saigon?”

The young woman flinched, almost imperceptibly, and recovered quickly. “That’s just a lousy rumor. There’s no truth to it,” the young woman said firmly. She shook her long straight bangs out of her way and shot me an icy look. I glanced over my shoulder, but no one was behind me. I wasn’t holding up any passengers. Hardly anyone was getting on that morning’s flight from Hong Kong to Saigon. It was Friday, April 18, 1975.

The ticket agent handed me back a receipt for my one-way ticket into South Vietnam and forced a tight smile. “Don’t believe any of those rumors.” She smoothed the silky panels of her ao dai. The traditional Vietnamese dress is a knee-length tunic that the flight attendants of Air Vietnam wore in a shade of blue that matched the sky above the clouds. Despite the modesty of long sleeves, and the fact that the tunic was worn over flowing, wide-legged pants, the ao dai still managed to be suggestive. Long side slits showed a peek of skin above the waist, and the thin fabric hugged every curve. The ticket agent avoided my gaze and looked past me, blankly, waiting for any other passengers to board.

Except there were no more passengers. The flight was nearly empty. I chose a window seat a few rows from the front. Although I could have sworn there were at least a few others who got on the plane with me, I’ll admit I was preoccupied. It was my second flight to Saigon that week. Someone told me that when they had checked the flight manifest, my name was the only one on it.

Everything else about that Friday morning flight into Saigon’s Tan Son Nhut airport did seem as usual. My meal tray was distributed when the plane reached our cruising altitude. I had the ham omelet, two strips of grilled bacon, a tomato slice, and a fruit cocktail. The only reason I can recall the breakfast so clearly all these years later is because I slipped the menu into my bag as a souvenir. The Vietnamese woman drawn on the menu in orange and black ink seemed to wink at me from the cover, as if she knew exactly what I was up to.

I wasn’t used to breaking rules. But that’s exactly what I found myself doing by flying out of Hong Kong on a one-way ticket. It was direct defiance of my bosses at the bank. They had ordered me to stay away from Saigon, and I was heading right for it. There was not a doubt in my mind that I would be fired. There was also no doubt that it was the right thing to do. As for that lousy rumor, the one that Air Vietnam was stopping service from Hong Kong to Saigon? As it turned out, the rumor was right. My flight was the last trip the carrier would make from Hong Kong into Saigon’s Tan Son Nhut airport.

The strangest feeling of calm came over me the moment the plane’s wheels touched down on the tarmac. I was in Saigon on my own, under my own authority. Instead of feeling alone or scared, I felt fine. That feeling took me completely by surprise.

“John, you no longer work for the bank,” I told myself, tentatively probing the thought, the way I might test a bruise. I wanted to see how bad it would feel. But it wasn’t so bad at all. I seemed to have left any fears and doubts at high altitude above South Vietnam. Logically, that made no sense. Things were, by all reasonable measures, bleak. The North Vietnamese Army was approaching, and South Vietnamese cities were collapsing faster than people could leave.

I heard horror stories of fleeing refugees dropping dead of exhaustion by the side of the road. Mothers in the countryside were handing their babies off to anyone with a white face, anyone who might get their child on a boat or a plane. The capital city of Saigon and the surrounding areas were the last refuge. No South Vietnamese citizen was allowed to leave the country. Technically all they needed was an exit visa and immigration papers. But those had proved impossible for the average citizen to get. The bank had tried. My friends and colleagues at the bank would be stranded. They would be at the mercy of the Communists unless I thought of something. That was worth getting fired for.

I had no suitcase, and my carry-on was almost empty in my hands. I was hoping I wouldn’t be in Saigon long enough to need much more. I had brought one fresh shirt and a toothbrush, and the souvenir menu. Light-handed as I was, I made my way easily through the airport. Things were oddly quiet in the arrival area. The immigration officer looked to be barely out of his teens and couldn’t be bothered to do more than glance at my paperwork. Coming into the country was easy enough; it was getting out that was going to be the problem. My papers were in order, but I was just as glad not to have to answer any questions about why I was here on a one-way ticket or how I was leaving. I was still hoping an exit plan would come to me.

A fleet of blue-and-yellow Renault taxi cabs waited by the arrival gate, and I hailed one easily. I gave the driver the address of the bank’s Saigon branch, 28–30 Nguyen Van Thinh Street, and leaned back, shifting against the springs under the seat cushion. The view out the taxi’s window looked the same to me as when I had left, two weeks ago, at the beginning of April. Tiny apartments nested together like cells in a honeycomb on the edge of the city. Alleys teemed with city life and crisscrossing laundry wires. Silk pants fluttered next to sun-bleached Army uniforms. Cyclos, the traditional Vietnamese open-air carriages for one or two, were pedaled from behind by drivers on high bicycle seats. Someone had told me to expect not to see any cyclos; their drivers were said to have been banned from the city center because too many of them were feared to be Communist infiltrators. But I saw plenty. Those not in use had drivers waiting for customers, straddling their pedals, smoking and chatting as usual. They looked at ease. Market stalls were open and women in conical hats bobbed up and down the boulevards. I rolled down the glass and hung my elbow out the window, breathing in the sour and musty smell the city took on when it needed a good rain.

First National City Bank’s Saigon branch was located in the downtown commercial area, a short walk from either city hall or the Saigon River. All the big international commercial interests had their offices in that part of town. Bank of America was across the street, and Chase Manhattan was just a block away. There were plenty of Vietnamese stores, restaurants, and small hotels, along with sidewalk food vendors and mechanics repairing bikes, motorcycles, and cars. Most of the buildings were just a few stories high, though a few ambitious constructions might have reached seven or eight. The buildings were a combination of brick and concrete, painted or whitewashed various colors. The French architecture was left over from the seventy years Vietnam was a French colony. Many of the buildings would have looked at home on the boulevards of Paris but for their prominent colors—a deep yellow and white. Saigon’s streets were lined with small street lights and lots of lighted neon advertising signs, but no garish glow could distract from the charm of the city. Though the bank’s street was fairly sparse of greenery, the surrounding blocks had lots of old trees, often planted in parkways, which led to the city being called the “Pearl of the Orient.”

It was after eleven a.m. when I pushed open the main doors to the bank. We should have been bustling that time of day, and just before a weekend. But it was quiet; there were no customers. The glass door closed behind me, leaving me alone on the polished terrazzo floor in front of the long tellers’ counter. Ten pairs of eyes turned toward me.

The head teller, Chi, was the first to let out a yelp of surprise. She called to the woman next to her, who called to the woman next to her, and so on. An excited chatter circled the lobby: “Mr. Riordan is back!” I heard someone cheer. Young women who worked in the retail area of the bank beamed at me as they rushed out from their stations. Someone must have slipped upstairs because I could hear a flurry of feet suddenly thundering down. They came from the operations stations and the now-defunct marketing department on the second floor. So much for composure—I was surrounded by a cheering crowd.

“I always believed it!” Chi later told me. “You said you were coming back, and then you did. I was very happy to see you, though.”

The voices and faces blurred around me. The magnitude of what I had done, and what I was about to do, was hitting me all at once. Two dozen of my colleagues were pressing around me in a tight circle.

Not everyone had had as much faith in me as Chi had. People got very emotional and cried right there on the banking floor. Others were clapping and shouting, “He’s come back!” Emotions kept in check for weeks, all for the sake of the bank and of normalcy, came rushing out. A din echoed off the high ceilings and glass partitions. I was glad to see my bank colleagues too, but I didn’t want to make a fuss.

Questions began to fly at me from every angle. “What do we do?” “How are we getting out of here?” I looked around at their worried and questioning faces, but I was at a loss for words.

Our bank put a big emphasis on teamwork. I had met each employee’s family a few times, at the occasional holiday party or bank gathering, and I was very fond of all of them. We always had a pleasant work environment. But the truth was, outside our bank jobs, I didn’t know anyone that well. We didn’t socialize together unless we were entertaining clients, and in my role as assistant manager responsible for marketing for FNCB Saigon, I was mostly focused on the clients.

As I took in the faces surrounding me, I suddenly realized that my focus had changed. I might not have a job at the bank anymore, but I had the most important task of my life in front of me. The safety of my colleagues, and their families, was in my hands.

How many of them, I wondered, were thinking of their families at that moment? Lien, the senior clerk typist, had three boys and was married to a fighter pilot in the South Vietnamese Air Force. Chi had six children and was married to a high-ranking official in the military. Huy had three kids and was expecting his wife to give birth to their fourth any day.

Chuyen, the most senior Vietnamese official at the bank, had a wife and a two-and-a-half-year-old son. Chuyen had fled the Communists in North Vietnam as a young man, studied in the United States, and served in the South Vietnamese Army. His high-ranking position in our bank, itself a shining emblem of American capitalism, made him a prime target for Communist punishment. But Chuyen was calm. He picked his way through the staff until we faced each other. That finally quieted the others down. They wanted to hear what we were going to say to each other.

A smile tickled the corners of Chuyen’s mouth behind his beard. I could read the relief in his face. It had been a trying few weeks. The exhaustion of it showed in circles under his eyes.

“Thank you for coming back, John. It is good to see you here.” He took my outstretched hand in his. “What are the arrangements?” Chuyen asked so casually that it was almost conversational.

“Well, I don’t know yet,” I confessed.

Chuyen gamely nodded as if he understood. As the most senior of the local staff, he had to be strong and hopeful to inspire confidence in the rest of the employees. I didn’t want anyone to be too hopeful, I realized. I didn’t want to lead anyone astray.

“Before we go any further, I’ve got to tell you all something.” I gathered myself up to my full height, just over six feet and one inch. I stood as straight as the army had taught me and looked Chuyen squarely in the eye. It was dead quiet now, and the staff was staring at me. It was time for the honest truth. “I don’t think I work for FNCB anymore. I’m not a bank officer anymore.”

Chuyen’s face paled, and his eyebrows shot up.

He immediately grasped the magnitude of what I left unsaid. I had come back to Saigon for him and the rest of the staff, and by doing so, I had sacrificed my job. Chuyen was shocked.

I was too. I’ve always been the kind of guy who follows rules. I don’t tend to rush into things, and I respect authority. But it sure felt good to be in Saigon. It felt good to know that I was doing the right thing and to see that my presence brought relief—and hope.

Then I had a sudden realization that stopped me cold. I hadn’t considered it before, but without the bank’s backing, was I still the kind of man people would follow? I looked at Chuyen. Would he, or anyone, still want to come with me? And how would I pay for any kind of escape, whether by boat or plane or helicopter, without the bank?

Chuyen seemed not to notice the sudden appearance of sweat on my upper lip. He was thinking about something intently. He absent-mindedly stroked the long hairs of his beard. Vietnamese men of a certain age and rank tend to grow these whiskers. They compel deference and respect, and when Chuyen spoke, it was quiet and slow, as if he were considering a matter of some great weight.

“When you left, didn’t you, legally, officially, and fully appoint me to be the acting manager of FNCB Saigon?”

I nodded yes. When the bank had ordered me out of Saigon on April 4, I had handed the mantle to Chuyen. He had been acting as manager of the branch for two weeks. I couldn’t see where Chuyen was going with this line of thinking, but he paid me no mind. Chuyen’s eyes were bright now, and he had stopped pulling on his whiskers. Instead, Chuyen’s words picked up steam, and he began talking through a toothy smile.

“Yes, yes, you did. You fully, legally empowered me to take acts on behalf of the bank,” he said.

I was very aware that the whole bank was watching us, and I wondered where Chuyen could possibly be going with this, reasoning like Perry Mason in front of a jury.

“I hereby resign,” said Chuyen with theatrical flourish. He looked up at me and stuck out his hand for me to shake again. Chuyen then pronounced over our shaking hands for the whole staff of the bank to hear: “I appoint you, John Riordan, the new acting manager of FNCB Saigon, legally, officially, and fully empowered to act on behalf of the bank. And this is to be effective immediately!”

I could have hugged Chuyen right then and there. It was brilliant. As branch manager, he had the authority, at least temporarily, to hire anyone he wanted. It seemed he had done just that. If we ever had the chance to argue it in front of the bank’s top management, his maneuver might even hold some water—we did have a bank full of cheering witnesses. But that was assuming that we were going to make it out of Saigon. And that was still a very risky assumption.


April 3, Saigon

The Call

THE CHAIN OF EVENTS that led to my coming back to Saigon at the end of April started with a phone call. I hadn’t heard the phone ring, but I looked up from my desk to see Betty Tuyet, the branch manager’s secretary, standing in the door to the office with a memo pad in her hand. “That was Pan Am on the line. New York called for you.”

I must have had a quizzical look on my face because she patiently explained that although the call was from our bank’s Head Office in New York, it came to Pan Am’s Saigon office instead of to the branch.

Betty continued. “Mr. Topping suggests that you can take it there, if you can come right down?”

Betty was younger than I was, but she had been at her job longer. In fact, Betty was the branch’s very first hire in Saigon. The bank I worked for, First National City Bank of New York, wouldn’t begin calling itself Citibank until later in 1975, and Citigroup still later after that, so in April we were still using the bulky acronym FNCB to refer to it.

Betty had come from American Express when its Saigon office closed down. Unlike our bank, American Express had run military banking facilities, which had been very profitable. But it had no interest in trying to do business in South Vietnam after the Americans left the war. American Express openly stated its opinion that FNCB was crazy to try to make money in such a volatile climate. But Betty had come with the highest recommendations. “If you want someone to get something done in Saigon, Betty’s your best bet,” an American Express executive had told Bob Hudspeth, the first branch manager who set up the Saigon branch for FNCB. Bob and Betty had started FNCB’s Saigon branch out of a two-room suite at the Caravelle Hotel. The manager had since moved on to a new position with a new bank somewhere else in Asia, but Betty had stayed on. Now her boss was supposed to be Mike McTighe, but since he was out of town, it was me.

“Sure, I’ll take the call there,” I said to Betty as I nodded and stood, casually patting the pockets of my suit jacket to make sure I had a pen and small pad of paper. It didn’t occur to me to think twice about the rerouted international call. Pan Am was only a few blocks away from our office. The phone lines had always been unreliable, and I did think they seemed to be getting worse. I supposed it was one of the hazards of doing business in Saigon.

“I’ll go right to my morning meeting from there. See you later, Betty,” I said, following her out, and closing the door to the manager’s office behind me.

I hurried down the half flight of stairs to the main level. The bank had just opened for the day; only a few customers stood in front of the long tellers’ counter conducting business. One of the two Pakistani guards stationed next to the door tilted his head, acknowledging me on my way out as I headed into the rising heat of the day.

Pan Am was not one of our clients, though Lord knows, we had been trying to land that account ever since FNCB set up shop in Saigon. The airline had huge operations in Vietnam and Cambodia, all of them directed by an executive named Al Topping. I had never met Al, but he and his wife were good friends with Bill Walker, FNCB Saigon’s senior operations officer, and his wife. As I walked toward Pan Am, I thought how very thoughtful it was of Al to let me know about the rerouted call. At FNCB, we all took seriously what the Head Office called “relationship banking.” We were nice to people, whether they did deals with us or not; their interest was our bottom line. It was a sincere business in those days, but it was still nice to see the favor returned. I thought Pan Am might have been having its own share of phone issues; what did not occur to me was the thought that my bank’s headquarters in New York might have called me out of the office and into Pan Am on purpose.

I had to cut across Tu Do Street to continue along Nguyen Van Thinh Street in order to get to Nguyen Hue Boulevard, where the Pan Am office was located. It was a three-block walk that shouldn’t have been more than five minutes from our branch, but I still tried to hurry. Long distance was expensive, and I didn’t want to keep waiting whoever was on the line. My undershirt was completely pasted to the small of my back by the time I pushed through the plate glass doors etched with the airline’s blue globe logo.

My eyes slid past the long line of people already formed at the counter. Not even a week had passed since the evacuation of Danang, a port city 528 miles up the coast and only about an hour-long flight away from Saigon. The city had been swollen with refugees, and attempts to get them out before the Communists arrived had been a debacle. I knew only the vaguest details, since the news was censored in Saigon. Some mornings, the papers didn’t have time to fix their layout after the censors had made their cuts, so visible chunks of white space dotted the pages. Only later, when I had the chance to read the article that ran in the New York Times on Easter Sunday, did I understand how dire the situation in Danang had actually been:

Only the fastest, the strongest and the meanest got out today on what may be the last refugee plane from Da Nang. . . .

I saw a South Vietnamese soldier kick an old woman in the face to get aboard. . . .

People fought one another and died trying to get aboard. Others fell thousands of feet to their deaths in the sea because they could no longer cling to the undercarriage.

It was a flight out of hell.1

Bruce Dunning’s televised account of the Danang evacuation brought the horror into American living rooms for five and a half minutes on the evening news. CBS anchor Dan Rather introduced Dunning’s segment with the words “Da Nang has become a Dunkirk.”

The broadcast showed throngs running for the plane as it landed, and then Dunning described how it filled—almost instantly—with young Vietnamese men, some armed and “menacing.” The aircraft’s mission was to gather as many women and children as it could hold, but as Dunning reported, the crew counted 268 persons, among them just five women and “two or three young children.” He described the scene: “We’re pulling away; we’re leaving people behind. People are falling off the air stairs!” The camera then captured the plane’s copilot, Ed Daly, who also happened to be the president of World Airways, punching young men still trying to get onboard while the overloaded airliner was taxiing. Daly, at six thousand feet up, was pulling in one last straggler after seven others had fallen.

Danang may have been the reason why people were visibly nervous in the Pan Am office, but I didn’t give them a second thought and just continued looking for Al. From what I understood, he would be hard to miss. He was six foot two and towered over his Vietnamese employees working the ticket counter. Al was also black; at the time there weren’t many black American executives working in Saigon. Later there was a movie about Al and his heroic attempts to get people on a flight out of Saigon; James Earl Jones was cast as Al, a perfect fit as far as charisma and physical presence.

Al had started off as a ticket agent himself. When he showed up at JFK airport wearing a suit and tie one day instead of his standard airline uniform, he explained to his superior that he had had some trouble with the dry cleaner. Al’s boss at the time had remarked, “I like you in that suit,” and Al’s swift promotion trajectory was launched.2

By 1975, Al was director of operations in Saigon, in charge of running flights in and out of Tan Son Nhut. It had been the world’s second busiest airport during the war. Commercial flights carried American troops on R&R (rest and recuperation) from Saigon to the Philippines, Hong Kong, Bangkok, Malaysia, Hawaii, and Australia. Things had definitely slowed on the military accounts since the Paris Peace Accords, but the uptick of regularly scheduled flights in and out of Tan Son Nhut pointed to the fact that plenty of other businesses were thriving in Saigon. Al’s own staff was big, and included plenty of secretaries, but he stepped out from behind a tight row of offices with beige doors to greet me himself. With a wave, he indicated that I should wind my way past the service desks to where he stood. “Glad you could make it.” He clasped my outstretched hand in his and guided me toward an open office. “Take the call in here, and take all the time you need.”

Thanking him, I sat down behind a desktop littered with someone else’s paperwork and picked up the phone. “John Riordan here.”

“It’s Tom Crouse and Peter Howell here.” They were important enough figures at headquarters that, although I had never met either of them in person, I knew them both by name and by title—vice president. They dispensed with any niceties and came right to the point.

“John, we want you to know that we’ve decided to close the bank.”

“The bank?” I inquired dumbly. I knew they didn’t mean New York, or any other branch. I heard what they said but was having a hard time immediately processing it. They meant to close us down in Saigon.

I drew a breath to protest but was cut off rather unceremoniously.

“We have chartered a Pan Am 747, which will arrive tomorrow at two p.m.”

“That’s two your time,” Howell or Crouse clarified. I could no longer catch who was speaking, as I could barely make sense of what they were saying.

“Now hang on just a minute here . . .” I tried to say, but I was edged out.

“We feel that it would be appropriate for you, before you go, to take the keys and vault combination and go see the governor at the National Bank.”

“If it is safe,” one of them qualified.

“Oh, yes,” said the other one, “only if you feel it is safe for you.”

I pictured the vice presidents in their suits nodding at each other over a desk in New York.

“You need to tell him, if not verbally, at least in writing, that FNCB is officially closing its Saigon branch tomorrow.”

With that, Crouse and Howell began to lecture me on the logistics: what I should do with the local staff, how I should pay them, details about the closing. I heard them say something else about my personal safety several times.

Crouse and Howell arranged the Pan Am flight, and then they gave me just twenty-four hours’ notice to wind down millions of dollars of operations. They probably hadn’t wanted to call me directly at the bank office because word would get out. They were afraid of panicking the local staff.


On Sale
Apr 7, 2015
Page Count
256 pages

John P. Riordan

About the Author

John Riordan is a former vice president of Citibank. He served in the US Army, landing in Vietnam at the end of the 1968 Tet Offensive, and then went on to a career at Citibank, with a focus on the bank’s branches in East Asia. Riordan now owns and runs an environmental farm in Wisconsin.

Learn more about this author