Daring rescue days before the fall of Saigon

The untold story of a young, American banker's 1975 return to Vietnam to save his stranded Vietnamese colleagues and their families

The following script is from "Rescue" which aired on Oct. 13, 2013. The correspondent is Lesley Stahl. Shachar Bar-On, producer.

You've heard of the brave and ingenious rescue of Jews from the Nazis by Oskar Schindler and the courageous and unlikely rescue of the American hostages from Iran depicted in the movie "Argo." But nobody's heard of the daring and dangerous rescue of the Vietnamese from Saigon by John Riordan. It's a story that's never been told before.

It happened nearly 40 years ago at the very end of the Vietnam War, when everyone was trying to escape the Communist incursion. No one was paying attention to an unassuming American banker -- who had already been evacuated -- going back in to save his stranded Vietnamese colleagues and their families.

Lesley Stahl: You got everybody?

John Riordan: Everybody.

Lesley Stahl: ...everybody who worked at the bank, spouses and children?

John Riordan: Right.

There were 105 in all who John Riordan, risking his own life, rescued in the last days of the war -- even now, four decades later, when they see him you know they know he's the reason they're alive.

Today, they're leading prosperous lives as American citizens with children who are doctors and lawyers, and with grandchildren.

[John Riordan shakes hands w kids: Isabel, do you know my name?

Isabel: John Riordan.

John Riordan: You even know my last name! It's even more than I know.]

John Riordan was as far from Rambo and Mission Impossible as you could get. Back in 1975, he was a young banker, handsome and unattached, working as the assistant manager of Citibank in Saigon.

Lesley Stahl: They gave you a villa.

John Riordan: They gave me a villa.

Lesley Stahl: And you lived well.

John Riordan: I lived well, yes.

He hosted barbecues at the villa for the bank's 34 Vietnamese employees - tellers, secretaries, accountants -- they were like a family, tying their future to American banking.

But that April communist tanks were barreling toward Saigon. Hundreds of thousands were leaving or trying to. Three weeks before Saigon fell, John got an order from Citibank in New York: burn everything important and get out.

John Riordan: They said, "John, we've chartered a 747 Pan Am that's coming in. And we want to take all of your staff and leave the bank and get out to this plane."

Lesley Stahl: By this point it dawns on you what would happen to those people if you didn't get them out.

John Riordan: Some of them would be killed.

Cuc Pham-Vo: It's scary. It was very scary.

Cuc Pham-Vo worked in personnel; Chi Vu was the head teller. They were hearing rumors of reprisals by the Viet Cong against anyone working for the Americans.

Lesley Stahl: Would you have been seen as traitors, as spies?

Cuc Pham-Vo: The closer you to American, the more they think you spy.

But their own government set up checkpoints to keep people from leaving the country. Without exit papers, the staff had no way to escape. John didn't want to leave without them. But the bank ordered him out. So he boarded that Pan Am flight to Hong Kong alone. And the employees were left to fend for themselves.

Lesley Stahl: Did you feel abandoned?

Cuc Pham-Vo:: Yes.

Lesley Stahl: Did John say anything to you when he left?

Chi Vu: I was crying so much. I was worried about my kids, my husband. And he said don't worry. I'll be there for you.

John and his bosses at Citibank spent day and night in Hong Kong cooking up rescue plans. They tried to send in helicopters, even an oil tanker. And they asked the U.S. government to help -- all in vain.

John Riordan: I felt we had all those people back in there and they were counting on us. And many many times in the conversations we had with them they said to us: "Don't let us down. Please do everything you can."

But after two weeks of trying, Citibank said "enough." A manager told the Hong Kong team, "If you try some daring rescue mission. You're fired!" That night John's immediate boss, Mike McTighe, a former Marine, asked John to dinner:

John Riordan: And just as my steak arrived and I was picking up my knife and fork and he's making small talk. And then he suddenly he says, "You know, John, one of us has to go back." And I put down my-

Lesley Stahl: Oh!

John Riordan: --knife and fork and pushed that steak back and I can feel tears coming out of my eyes and he said, "Would you go back?"

Go back even though it meant losing his job, possibly losing his life. And yet, 11 days before Saigon would fall, the mild-mannered banker defied his bank and better judgment, caught the very last commercial flight into Saigon, and walked into the branch.

John Riordan: And everybody comes running around me and said, "What do we do? What do we do? How are we going to get out of here?" and everything.

Lesley Stahl: But you're there under the authority of who? You're not working for

Citibank

John Riordan: No one. No one. On my own.

On his own authority, John moved them with their families - all 105 of them, into his villa and another one nearby so they'd all be ready to go as a group when and if he came up with a plan. He told them to tell no one where they were. Four days went by. Nothing was working, until a CIA agent told him: the only way out now is on U.S. military cargo planes that are evacuating Americans and their dependents.

John Riordan: He says, "The evacuation has been begun. Take your family and go out to the airport and process them through." And I said, "Well, I don't have a family." And he said, "Just create a wife and children, no matter who they are, and go out there and sign the documents."

Lesley Stahl: This is the first time you're hearing of this?

John Riordan: Yes, yes.

Try and pass off his Vietnamese colleagues, their spouses and children as his family? There were 105 of them!

Lesley Stahl: Do you say to him, "Are you kidding me?" You don't say cockamamie? You don't say--

John Riordan: No, no. 'Cause there'd been so much cockamania before that, this was a time to jump on anything that looked like it was going to float.

Lesley Stahl: You were at the end of your rope.

John Riordan: Yes, absolutely.

It was worth a try, but not for all of them at once. He took the bank van and went out to the airfield alone to see if it would work.

John Riordan: I walked into that processing area and I-- somebody gave me a piece of paper. He said, "List your dependents on here." And I was fumbling for what piece of paper I was going to have to write this all down. They said, "Just attach that to this piece of paper and keep going."

Lesley Stahl: There were 15 names--

John Riordan: It was a bit of a rush.

Lesley Stahl: You had a wife and 14 names.

John Riordan: Right. That was kind of ambitious.

Lesley Stahl: Daughter, son, daughter--

John Riordan: Right.

Lesley Stahl: --son. Yeah.

This is the paper: wife, daughter, daughter, son...14 kids, some older than he was. He was certifying on a U.S. government document that these were his children.

Lesley Stahl: Is your heart pounding?

John Riordan: Yes, a little bit.

Lesley Stahl: Palms sweating?

John Riordan: I certainly was nervous. Yes.

He was stunned when the officer - no questions asked -- stamped it and handed John evacuation tags. He rushed to the villa to pick the 15 up -- amazed that such a crazy idea was actually working.

Lesley Stahl: Do you remember when he came back what happened?

Cuc Pham-Vo: We so happy and elation to see. He is a life-saver. He an angel.

Lesley Stahl: But you had to keep it secret, right?

Chi Vu: Yes.

Lesley Stahl: You never told your parents?

Cuc Pham-Vo: No.

Lesley Stahl: So you never said goodbye?

Cuc Pham-Vo: No.

Over the next four days as fear gripped the city, John repeated this ruse - going back and forth to the airport 10 times, filling out papers with groups of six or eight.

Lesley Stahl: Did any of these officers ever question you in all this time?

John Riordan: This one man, he said, "Haven't I seen you here before?" I said, "No, sir. Absolutely not." Bang. I know he wanted to get going too. And then another time this man said, "Well, you've got one heck of a big family here, huh? You've been busy when you've been." I said, "Oh yes, I've been here a long time," and [stamp noise].

Lesley Stahl: You just went back and back and back.

John Riordan: Hard to believe it would be that simple to do.

We recently met with seven of his "daughters." They didn't think it was all that simple since John was separating them from their husbands.

Lady: All the staff women will go first and the husbands will leave in a separate group. At that moment I was thinking: will I ever see my husband again?

Getting the husbands out was the most dangerous.

Lady #2: Yes, because they were either in the army or working for the government, and if the MP they saw anybody like that or caught anybody like that, they would shoot right away.

John was able to get the husbands fake adoption papers as his sons. And managed to get some of them on what he thought was safe: a U.S. embassy evacuation bus like this one to the airport. But the bus was stopped by police looking for deserters.

John Riordan: The driver of the bus stopped at the checkpoint, opened the door and a Vietnamese police officer stepped onto the bus and he looked up and down the aisle and I thought, "This is it. We are all going to be taken off this bus and shot." But in a split second a woman sitting in the front seat, a Vietnamese woman, leaped up toward the policeman and poked her hands into his stomach. I thought she knifed him and then I saw a bag of something move from her hands to his hands and I thought "Aha! It's a bribe!"

Lesley Stahl: Bag of money?

John Riordan: Bag of money, yes.

The bribe worked, he waved them through. The last group of men at the villa were afraid to risk another bus, but John was out of ideas. Finally one of the men thought up an ingenious plan: they pretended they were delivering bundles of money to the airport in the bank van. They even called the police for an escort like this.

John Riordan: And they had rifles and everything. And they just led us right through the gates of the airport.

Lesley Stahl: You just went right on the plane with these guys?

John Riordan: Right. They were safe.

Lesley Stahl: All of them?

John Riordan: All of 'em.

One of them was Chi's husband.

Lesley Stahl: Every time I ask you about John, you cry.

Chi Vu: He's so kind, you know, to stay behind and take-- took us out. He did so much for us. Saved my kids and my husband.

They flew on one of the last planes out of Saigon.

After that the only route of escape were the helicopters at the U.S. embassy. Within a few days Viet Cong tanks rolled into the presidential palace. The war was over. What followed were years of starvation and brutal repression. Many who tried to escape by boat, drowned at sea.

But thanks to John, the Citibank employees were flown out to either Guam or the Philippines and then all reunited at Camp Pendleton in California.

Lesley Stahl: Do you think all this time you've been fired?

John Riordan: Yeah, I do still think that. I'm not worried about it though. I'm still alive. They're all alive. Important things.

Well, he wasn't fired. He was given a big bonus and hailed as a hero.

At the reunion for John in Long Island with a group of his "children" - we found out they call him papa.

[Group: Papa John...

John Riordan: Do you remember me? [Yes, I do.] I haven't talked to you in a long time. ]

Citibank spent a million dollars to resettle all the employees, giving them and many of the spouses, jobs.

[John Riordan: I will never forget you too.]

At the time in Saigon, he thought of his colleagues at the bank as his Vietnamese family. Forty years later - still his family, but now as American as--

[Group in photo: "Cheese!"]

Lesley Stahl: Do you think the people who came here have had good lives?

John Riordan: Yes, I do.

Lesley Stahl: How many children do you actually have now, and grandchildren?

John Riordan: I just keep using the number 105. But the grandchildren, don't ask me. I can't keep up with that.

  • Lesley Stahl

    One of America's most recognized and experienced broadcast journalists, Lesley Stahl has been a 60 Minutes correspondent since 1991.

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