REFLECTIONS ON THE FALL OF SAIGON

BY THE TIME NORTH VIETNAM made its final push to liber¬ate or conquer, depending on one’s point of view—Saigon in April 1975, I had left UPI and was working for the Los Angeles Times in Washington, D.C. My time in the army had taught me never to volunteer for anything, but suddenly I was obsessed again with Vietnam and its unfolding drama. I volunteered to return. I updated my will, asked the newspaper’s Washington bureau chief to notify my brother if any-thing happened to me, and caught a Northwest flight to Seattle with connections to Hong Kong and Saigon. Thirty hours later I stepped off the plane at Tan Son Nhut. Everything felt familiar: the heat, the odors, the blinding sunshine, the swirl of military activity. It was as though I had never left.
On Le Loi Street, Lieutenant Anh, who had been South Vietnam’s as¬sistant spokesman at the daily briefing the media labeled the “Five O’clock Follies” and who, for a monthly stipend, used to call UPI—and, I suspect, AP and our other competitors as well—with daily news tips, stepped out of the shadows. His face was ashen. He clutched me with both hands but offered no greeting to span the five years since we had seen one another. “Can you get me out?” he asked. “Everyone says the Americans are put¬ting together an evacuation list. I’ve got to get on it. I’m a dead man if the communists take Saigon.” I said I had just arrived and had no contacts, but I’d see what I could do.
Rumors raced through Saigon, all of a pending bloodbath. “AT LEAST A MILLION VIETNAMESE WILL BE SLAUGHTERED” read the head¬line of one of the last editions of Stars and Stripes to reach the capital. The CIA was more conservative, estimating that thousands would be killed. A company that provided insurance for U.S. correspondents increased pre-miums 1,000 percent. Restaurants closed and merchants fortified their shops with sandbags. The black market for the Vietnamese piaster spi¬raled so wildly out of sight that with Yankee money a shot of whiskey cost a dime, a hotel room a dollar.
In the Palace Hotel’s fourteenth-floor nightclub, I bought a bar girl a drink. She showed me a telegram she had just received from a departed LJ.S. serviceman she had dated. “Dear Mai,” it said, “plane ticket for¬warded to Pan Am office on Tu Do Street. Paperwork waiting for you at U.S. Embassy. See you in St. Louis. Love.” I asked her what she was go¬ing to do, and she replied quietly, “Sorry ’bout that, GI. I Vietnamese. I stay Vietnam.”
North Vietnam had started its offensive four months earlier. The draft had been expanded to include forty-year-olds. Deferments for critical jobs were cancelled. Political officers, all Party members who often had more power than military commanders, were assigned to each unit. They made sure the troops got their rations and maintained discipline. They led self-criticism sessions and assigned soldiers into categories, either progressive or backward. They were unpopular, and the troops frequently called them “Mr. Argument.” The North Vietnamese Army swept south out of Quang Tri Province in the first days of 1975, a violation of the treaty signed two years earlier in Paris. The Paris Peace Agreement ended the U.S. combat role in Vietnam and was hailed by President Richard Nixon as “peace with honor.” South Vietnam’s cities fell like dominoes in a Cold War nightmare: Ban Me Thuot, Hue, Danang, Chu Lai, Quang Ngai, Qui Nhon, Nha Trang. South Vietnam’s troops threw down their weapons and fled, followed by panicked mobs of refugees that numbered in the hundreds of thousands. Hanoi kept only one division, the 308th, in the North as a home guard. As I sat drinking with Mai, eighteen divi¬sions were closing in on Saigon, with tanks, artillery, and bo doi—peasant soldiers in threadbare uniforms and sandals cut from rubber tires, men who had passed from adolescence to adulthood in the jungles and likely as not hadn’t seen families in the North for four or five years.
On the outskirts of South Vietnam’s capital, NVA Colonel Vo Dong Giang received a coded message from North Vietnam’s army headquar¬ters, saying an all-out attack was imminent. It ended: “Good luck. See you in Saigon.”
Twenty-one years earlier, in 1954, when Vietnam defeated France at Dien Bien Phu to end colonial rule, French soldiers were marched over the Doumer Bridge spanning the Red River in Hanoi. As one disarmed Frenchman passed by, a Viet Minh guerrilla kicked him in the ass. The Frenchman stopped, turned, and saluted; the Vietnamese returned the salute.
No such symbols of respect awaited Americans this time around. Americans were to gather on April 29 at prearranged pickup points in Saigon upon hearing a secret warning broadcast by Armed Forces Ra¬dio—Bing Crosby singing “I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas.” Over a span of nineteen hours, 100 helicopters evacuated 5,595 South Vietnamese and 1,373 Americans. U.S. security guards used their rifle butts to beat back many more Vietnamese trying to scale the walls of the embassy compound and scramble aboard a chopper. Now the last chopper in OP¬ERATION FREQUENT WIND—the largest helicopter evacuation in his¬tory—was skirting over Saigon, carrying the remnants of a U.S. force that once numbered 543,000 troops. The eleven U.S. Marines aboard had their weapons trained squarely on their former allies below.

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