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Saigon has fallen: a reporter's view of Vietnam War's end

Thursday, April 30, 2015 - 12:01 am

EDITOR'S NOTE _ More than two decades of war in Vietnam, first involving the French and then the Americans, ended with the last days of April 1975. Peter Arnett, who won a Pulitzer Prize for his coverage of combat for The Associated Press and later gained fame as a CNN correspondent, has written a new memoir, "Saigon Has Fallen," about his dozen-plus years reporting on Vietnam. Arnett has recounted this period before but approaches it with a fresh perspective for the 40th anniversary of the war's end. The book is published by RosettaBooks in partnership with The Associated Press (www.ap.org/books). This is an edited excerpt, focused on the war's final throes.

Artillery explosions sound a fearsome 4 a.m. wake-up call, but I'm already awake. The attackers waiting at the gates of a vanquished Saigon have been warning they would act, and now with each thump of the Soviet-made 130mm guns, sound waves rustle the curtains of my open seventh floor hotel window. As I reach for my water glass, it trembles, and me with it. The last full day of the Vietnam War is beginning.

Street lights shine below as I look out toward Tan Son Nhut airport, once described as the busiest in the world when America was waging war here. Now it is burning from one end to the other, the flames brilliantly lighting up the sky.

There will be two more hours of darkness, but this seems like a new dawn rising, an appropriate description, I think later, of the intentions of those wreaking havoc on the airport this morning, April 29, 1975. The commanders of North Vietnam's military juggernaut, pressing for victory after a 50-day rout of their South Vietnamese opponents, are pushing open the gates of the capital. They will force a new dawn on South Vietnam, America's once favored ally, as it loses its 20-year struggle to remain an independent, pro-western state.

After watching the destruction of the airport, I phone the Associated Press office a few blocks away, and my colleague Ed White answers. He and George Esper, the bureau chief, have been up all night working the telex communications link with our New York headquarters.

White tells me the American embassy confirms major damage at the airport with the runways probably unusable. American planners have been intending to airlift out of the country several thousand more vulnerable Vietnamese allies today, but what can they do now?

Soon afterward, from an upstairs hotel balcony as daylight approaches I can clearly see thick black smoke hanging over the airport like a funeral shroud. I'm joined by a few news colleagues, all of us knowing we are watching momentous history unfold right before our eyes.

As the sky brightens we see a Vietnamese air force transport plane, a de Havilland Caribou, rise sharply above the airport. Suddenly, it seems to break in half, bursting into flames and falling in pieces to the ground. Stricken silent by this horrifying spectacle, we see a second aircraft following the same path and suffering the same fate, like the first undoubtedly a victim of ground fire. It seems there'll be no escape for anyone from the airport today.

At the American Embassy, Ambassador Graham Martin is in disbelief, committed as he is to evacuating as many vulnerable Vietnamese as possible before the communists arrive. He insists on personally checking the airport tarmac. After the war, Martin would tell me, "It didn't make sense to me that we couldn't physically come in with transport planes. I wanted to check it for myself, to make my own judgment. It would have made a difference. We could have gotten five or ten thousand more people out. "

Reaching the airport, Martin finds a usable runway amidst the still-burning buildings, but little security. He worries about a repeat of the earlier airport panics in Danang and Nhatrang that had hundreds of desperate people fighting with soldiers and police to get on departing rescue aircraft. He tells me, "I decided it was not worth the risk. I picked up the phone and I told Secretary (of State Henry) Kissinger to inform the president that we have go to Option Four immediately, to the helicopter airlift for the remaining Americans, and as many Vietnamese as we can take." But Martin's urgent instruction is lost somewhere down the line. The airlift does not begin for several hours.

Option Four is code for Operation Frequent Wind, planned as a large-scale evacuation of people to American Navy ships off the coast. Most of the passengers for the final helicopter lifts have been chosen in advance, alerted to keep listening to Armed Forces Radio for a signal. Thirteen helicopter pickup points have been selected around Saigon, using the small UH-1 Huey ships for the tops of tall buildings and the much bigger CH-53 Sea Knights for the American Defense Department compound at the airport and the embassy grounds.

Those waiting to depart include the large contingent of international journalists covering the story. During the past week some have considered the possibility of remaining behind and seeing what transpires, but their home offices expect them to leave with the last Americans because of the uncertainty of the future. I know that Esper wants to stay. He's been here too long to miss the final moments of his most important story. Me too, and I message AP president Wes Gallagher, explaining that because I was here at the war's beginnings it's worth the risk to document the final hours. With us is Matt Franjola, an AP reporter in the region for several years. Esper sends a message to his boss, "Request you please reconsider..." Gallagher does. The three of us will stay.

As I drive through the city, I see crowds gathering at intersections and arguing. Several million people are now estimated to be living in Saigon, many of them recent refugees from the countryside. Not everyone wants to leave, but several hundred thousand believe their lives have been compromised in the eyes of the communists by their association with America and its policies, and are desperate to get out. I drive by Saigon's port and see small ships crowded with people setting off down the river.

The former CIA analyst Frank Snepp remembered that time in an interview with me after the war: "The city was holding its breath. We had always feared that the Vietnamese would mob us if we ever tried to leave. But they realized on that last day that we were their last hope. If they turned against us, there was no way out of the country."

No one is killed in the shameful melees that are to follow, but the mad scrambles to go anywhere but Vietnam remain today an ignominious coda to the already bleak history of America's last years in Vietnam. The main crisis unfolds in and around the U.S. Embassy, a six-story building with a concrete lattice facade that serves to keep the building cool and deflect incoming missiles.

When the helicopters start emerging from the leaden afternoon skies to pick up the chosen few, a stampede begins. By late afternoon an estimated 10,000 desperate Vietnamese have advanced on the embassy, shoving to get close to the iron gates and the high walls, and when they do get there, endeavoring to claw themselves over. The U.S. Marine security force strives to get control, only to meet with shouted protests and insults.

That evening, I write a story for the AP that begins: "Ten years ago I watched the first U.S. Marines arrive to help Vietnam. They were greeted on the beaches by pretty Vietnamese girls in white silken robes who draped flower garlands about their necks. A decade has passed, and on Tuesday I watched the U.S. Marines shepherding Americans out of South Vietnam.

"They were the same clean-cut looking young men of a decade ago. But the Vietnamese were different. Those who didn't have a place for them on the last helicopters - and there were thousands left behind - hooted, booed and scuffled with the Marines trying to secure the landing zones. Some Vietnamese threw themselves over walls and wire fences, only to be thrown back by Marines.

"Bloodshed was avoided seemingly only by good luck and bad aim on the part of some angry Vietnamese who shot at a few departing buses and helicopters."

There are mixed signals and questionable decisions. By evening, there is a growing awareness that some of the 13 designated pickup points have not been visited by any helicopters, leaving some of the most vulnerable Vietnamese, many of them CIA workers, to the mercy of the arriving communists.

Snepp is inside the embassy that night, and tells me later, "Americans have been criticized that day in Saigon for their sins of omission, but the heroes that day were the embassy officers who pursued their way through the crowds and risked their lives to get their friends on those helicopters. If the Americans salvage anything of their honor from the last day of the war it is due to the young men who did the legwork during the evacuation while the ambassador and his aides sat back in the embassy trying to figure out what went wrong."

The monsoon is coming to Saigon, arriving along with the North Vietnamese who from the beginning of this offensive have been in a race against the weather. They know the heavy tanks and artillery pieces they use to support their overwhelming conventional attacks can easily bog down in the mud. From the slippery roof of the Eden Building where the AP office is located, I watch through the rainy mist as the dark shapes of helicopters come and go.

At 2 the following morning, April 30, the U.S. embassy needs to destroy all its communications equipment in preparation for final departure.

Martin refuses to leave until all the people he feels responsible for are evacuated. Around 5 a.m., a young helicopter crewman comes into his office and hands him a note scrawled on the back of a pad. Martin tells me later: "I will never forget it... The message says, 'The president of the United States directs that Ambassador Martin come out on this helicopter.'"

Around 7:30 a.m., another helicopter, a Sea Knight, swoops low over John F. Kennedy Square (soon to be renamed) and settles on the roof of the embassy. Through binoculars I see a group of Marines running to the open doors of the big ship. It zooms across the city on its way to its carrier offshore. I eventually learn the Marines were part of a security group commanded by Maj. James Kean, and were temporarily forgotten in the confusion of the evacuation.

Eventually, the sounds of the helicopters are replaced by human voices. Hearing angry shouting, I spot a dozen people in the middle of Lam Son Square arguing over possession of a king-sized bed. The looting of America's abandoned buildings has begun.

Franjola and I walk up toward the American Embassy. We see a few bodies on the streets, maybe thieves killed by angry citizens, or the thieves' victims. We see a crowd outside the embassy in a mood opposite the anger of the previous day. They are laughing, comparing looted stuff they've dragged out. Inside, smiling locals are trying to smash open a heavy safe with a sledgehammer.

On a pile of wet documents and broken furniture on the back lawn we find the bronze plaque engraved with the names of the five American servicemen who died in the attack on the building in the opening hours of the Tet Offensive in 1968. Together, we carry it back to the AP office.

Esper insists on manning the office, just as he has done for most of the previous 10 years. He is listening to Saigon Radio in the monitoring room with our interpreter who soon shouts, "Surrender, it's surrender!" President Duong Van Minh is announcing complete capitulation; it's now official. Esper rushes to message New York.

Esper is looking gaunt, his eyes burning with exhaustion. He hasn't left the office in days, and now he decides to take a walk around outside. Within a few minutes he is back, pale and disturbed. Esper explains that while strolling across Lam Son Square he was approached by a distraught Vietnamese police lieutenant colonel in full uniform, a man he later identifies as Nguyen Van Long, who mutters to him, "It's finished." The officer then walks away about 10 feet, makes a sharp about face, salutes a nearby statue commemorating Vietnamese infantrymen, and raises a .45-caliber pistol. He blows his brains out. For a second, George thought he was to be the target. He writes the story with shaky hands.

Franjola has been doing the rounds. He returns and says he was nearly side-swiped by a jeep careening through the streets. It is packed with laughing, shouting young men in black pajamas and waving Russian rifles. I rush downstairs to Tu Do, the main street. I hear the roar of heavy engines and look toward the old French cathedral where a convoy of Russian Molotova trucks is approaching. Each is loaded with young North Vietnamese soldiers in battle garb, their green pith helmets tilted back as they peer in wonder at the tall buildings they are passing, probably the first they have ever seen. A few local Vietnamese are standing near me. They are staring, speechless. I see a large Communist flag unfurl from a room at the nearby Caravelle Hotel.

I notice a group of South Vietnamese soldiers running down a side street, kicking off their uniforms, tossing their weapons into shop doorways. I run back to the AP office, my heart beating wildly as I scramble up the narrow stairways. In the hallway there are a dozen Vietnamese neighbors who clutch at my clothing and implore me to save them. I push into the office and look across to Esper.

"George," I shout, "Saigon has fallen. Call New York."

I check my watch. It's 11:43 a.m. I type up a news bulletin about what I've just seen and hand it our Vietnamese telex operator, Tammy. He reads it and rises from his chair in alarm. He's looking at the door. I push him down and order him to send my bulletin. He does, then bolts out of the office, and we never see him again.

Around noon, Franjola and I walk the city streets. Russian tanks are arriving in greater numbers now. Local people are spilling onto the sidewalks, their fears of catastrophe gone. I walk through the open gates of the defense ministry building. A South Vietnamese officer is in consultation with several North Vietnamese. He turns to me and says, "No pictures," and I continue shooting. After all, there are new sheriffs in town, and they don't seem to mind.

I meet the Australian cameraman Neil Davis who is walking from the presidential palace. He'd watched North Vietnamese tanks crash through the palace gates. He says President Minh has been arrested and taken away. I return to the office, and soon afterward one of our stringer photographers walks in with a North Vietnamese officer and his aide, who are amiable, talkative and appreciative of the snacks we offer them.

Later that afternoon Esper suggests that with international communications still up, I write my reflections of the final day. I start punching a telex tape and it winds to the floor as I write. I feed the tape into the transmitter and it chugs its way through the machine. I write:

"In 13 years of covering the Vietnam War I never dreamed it would end as it did at noon today. I thought it might end with a political deal like in Laos. Even an Armageddon-type battle with the city left in ruins. But a total surrender followed a short two hours later with a cordial meeting in the AP office in Saigon with an armed and battle-garbed North Vietnamese officer with his aide - and over a warm Coke and stale pound cake at that? That is how the Vietnam War ended for me today."

The tape stops running. I punch a few keys but the machine just coughs a couple of times. I try the key again, no response. The AP wire from Saigon to New York is down - and out. The new authorities have pulled the plug.

I call out to Esper, "That's it, George. It's over."