12 YEARS IN VIETNAM | STATE DEPARTMENT EMPLOYEE
At 104, Doris Knauer describes herself as "ancient" and her former career with the U.S. Department of State as exciting, very interesting and enjoyable. She says it involved travel abroad and fulfilled her desire to work overseas.
Over the course of 17 years, the State Department assigned Knauer as a secretary at various posts in Guatemala, Indonesia, Manila and Saigon.
She had become a secretary after taking a college business course in her youth. Knauer said, "I felt that (being a secretary) was where I belonged and that's where I stayed."
Her first assignment for the State Department was Indonesia in 1959.
Now a resident of Garden Estates Assisted Living in Tyler, Knauer's main position during her career with the State Department was in Saigon, Vietnam.
She arrived in Saigon, now Ho Chi Minh City, in 1963 and spent 12 years there. During that tour, Knauer mostly served as secretary to the director of the U.S. AID program in Vietnam. The director also was economic adviser to the ambassador to Vietnam.
Since then, Knauer's position has been reclassified as administrative assistant.
Knauer never felt in danger during her tenure in Saigon while the Vietnam War was waged. Most of the time she was there, the war was being fought to the north, south, east and west of the city.
"I didn't feel frightened because the Marines were everywhere," she said. "They were wonderful. My mother was worried about me more than I was. She tried to get me to come home."
Soon after Knauer went to Saigon, the U.S. embassy in the middle of the city was bombed. "Our offices were
about 3 miles away and I heard the boom," she said. Afterward, a new huge embassy compound with walls around it was built.
Knauer did not work in the embassy compound. She worked instead in a building outside the compound even though her boss was an assistant to the ambassador to Vietnam.
To aid the country, the State Department program that she worked in sent young Vietnamese to participant training in the United States to educate them how to run Vietnam's farming, police, transportation, medicine and other affairs.
"What we were doing for the country was wonderful," Knauer said. "I thought we were doing a fine job. That's why I liked doing it."
Besides working in the AID program, Knauer made appointments and carried out other duties.
"We had congressmen and women over there all the time to see what was going on," she said. "They would come for several days, then go back to Washington and pretend they knew all about it. They didn't."
Many foreign news correspondents were in Vietnam during the war. They often came to offices of Knauer and her boss "pestering us all the time for appointments," Knauer said. They were interested in being briefed about the economic affairs of the country, she added, but noted that her boss did not have time for so many appointments.
Knauer heard about a general who had set aside one hour each week for the news media to could come for a briefing. Knauer thought it was a good idea and suggested that to her boss. He agreed and began scheduling a weekly briefing for the news media at 4 p.m. Fridays.
"They stopped pestering us for appointments because they knew that's when they had to come," Knauer said.
Because France had been in control of Vietnam until World War II, Knauer said the Vietnamese were still speaking that language when she and other Americans arrived in Saigon.
"We started taking French. We had a class at the embassy after working hours and we would go study French," she said.
But they soon found that they were too busy with their work and did not have time for the French class. It did not matter because "the Vietnamese were learning English faster than we could ever learn French," she said.
Saigon was a beautiful city, Knauer said, with good hotels and mostly French restaurants. While in Vietnam, she would fly on a military plane to Hong Kong every three or four months for rest and recuperation.
"There were wonderful shops in Hong Kong," she said, recalling she would shop, have clothes made, get a facial "and get myself back in order."
While living in Saigon, Knauer volunteered to work in an orphanage for Vietnamese children. On a trip to the United States in about 1970, Knauer and another woman brought 10 orphans to adoptive parents in this country.
"I'm sure they all got good homes," she said. "I would like to know what happened to those kids."
One Sunday while she and a military attache watched people go and come around a pool, the military attache observed a man come around the corner of the house and said, "I bet he thinks he looks like Yul Brynner." Knauer, who knew that the actor was coming that day to Vietnam to personally get two orphans, replied, "He is Yul Brynner."
Many children were abandoned by American "GIs" and left with their Vietnamese mothers, Knauer said.
Knauer lived in a three-story apartment building where the French had lived in the residential part of Saigon, and her boss lived across the street.
"When I had parties, his house boys could come over and help my maid," she said.
Not only did she have parties in her apartment, but the roof of the building was a perfect place for entertaining, Knauer said. The roof had a built-in bar and a kitchen. The weather was rarely a problem because of the tropical climate.
There also were frequent parties at the embassy.
"When we had visitors from the states, we had receptions," Knauer said. "Every week there was something going on and official embassy functions." Occasionally, she was invited to military bases for Thanksgiving or Christmas celebrations.
The only time Knauer felt "nervous" about the war was the night that she was at an intersection near her apartment and heard shots fired in the distance.
"I thought it was getting pretty close," she said. "I went up on our roof to see if I could figure out what was going on. I could hear it better. I thought this is not too safe and I went back to my apartment on the second story.
"I saw a jeep under my bedroom window with its radio rumbling. I thought the Marines were patrolling in the jeep and were being called back to the embassy."
Once, when the enemy came over the walls of the embassy compound, Knauer said, a retired colonel living in a house in the compound shouted for Marines to throw him a gun, which he used to shoot a Vietnamese soldier at the top of his stairs. Afterward, Knauer said, the Marines wouldn't let the colonel forget that he had not had a weapon and it became a joke.
"It took several days to get the Viet Cong cleared out," said Knauer, who was confined to her quarters until further notice along with others. The Marines came by regularly to see if they needed anything.
FALL OF SAIGON
Knauer's tenure in Vietnam ended abruptly when she escaped with a small group of mostly Vietnamese families on a special charter plane shortly before April 30, 1975, when Saigon fell.
On the airport tarmac that day, Knauer was astonished to see that the plane parked near a hangar waiting to carry them out of Vietnam was an old DC 10 and that a man installing seats while stripped to the waist was the pilot.
"I was lucky to get out with two bags," Knauer said. "That's all we were allowed to take. We were shocked to have Saigon fall out from under us."
After she fled Saigon, Knauer wanted to continue working. But the State Department did not have a job opening comparable to the position she had in Saigon, so she retired.