SAIGON: On the last day I was there, April 29, 1975, the North Vietnamese Army shelled Tansonnhut airport before dawn. Hit it with 300 rounds from 130 mm guns located miles away and ripped up the runway so that the American evacuation that began later in the day had to be by chopper. During the shelling the whole city shook and reporters went to the roof of the old Continental Palace Hotel to watch. They saw great billowing fireballs and one said he saw a Strella heat-seeking missile shoot up and disintegrate an airplane. I slept through the whole thing.
Another Post correspondent, Dave Greenway, was up there. I was a 30-year-old bureau chief and Greenway was a long-time Indochina hand who would never miss a dawn raid. He was dashing, and brave, a kind of legend in his own time and I was glad he was in town. In March when things had started to heat up in Indochina, Greenway had been vacationing in Switzerland. A messenger had found him on the ski slopes and passed on a cable from Post editors in Washington asking him to get to Saigon "soonest." The editors also sent out Don Oberdorfer, a diplomatic reporter with Vietnam experience. I picked him up at the airport in mid-March and as we drove into Saigon's hot smoky sprawl, I remember how he mused that every country has its own moods and smells. Saigon, he said, smelled "lemony."
I had a cook, baby amah, interpreter, political analyst, secretary and office girl -- all Vietnamese. They had husbands, wives, children, parents, brothers, sisters and grandparents. All these people wanted to escape their homeland during the final weeks as North Vietnamese divisions rolled south. But the government didn't want citizens leaving for fear it would trigger a rout. The executive editor of the paper, Ben Bradlee, sent $25,000 in $100 bills to buy a boat, charter a plane, pay bribes, whatever was necessary to get our employes out. Before we had to use it, a secret semi-official airlift was set up for Americans and the Vietnamese who had worked for them.
It was kept secret because Saigon was near panic. For a couple of weeks I spent little time reporting and long hours helping Post employes and their relatives escape on the airlift. I gave them wads of the $100 bills to help them through the refugee camps. The way it worked, nobody knew when a flight would go until a call came saying "Now!" Then I had to reach people fast. Sometimes they had to be hidden to get past guards at the airport gate. I remember driving frantically with one woman and her kids trying to locate her husband. We found him by chance. Then, as we screeched to a halt on the airstrip the family had to run pell-mell to make the flight. When I called my political analyst and said "Now!" he said, "I can't." He said his mother, who didn't want him to leave, had kidnapped his child to prevent it. Later I learned he had been a Communist all along. The baby amah decided to stay for family reasons. The "office girl" lives in Washington and is swinging a good-sized real estate deal. THE FALL OF SAIGON came quick and it was a big story. At the beginning of the year there had been a lull in the fighting and I was up to 50 laps a day at the Cercle Sportif pool. By mid-March the government had abandoned the Central Highlands and everything hit the fan. I remember Oberdorfer shouting over the phone to an editor in Washington who wanted to know how many provinces had been lost: "Hell, we're losing provinces between editions!" But I had Vietnamese friends and was overwhelmed at times with a sense of tragedy. In the end America evacuated thousands but left behind a vast number of people we had at first supported, then tainted by association and finally abandoned. Sometimes I try to imagine what America's Vietnam vets felt as they watched it on TV. I felt humiliated for my country.
At dusk on the 29th, as frantic Vietnamese clawed at the embassy gates, Greenway said quietly, "It's time to go." It had never occurred to me to hang around for the "liberation" and anyway Bradlee had ordered us out. Oberdorfer had gone out a few days earlier to report from the American evacuation fleet off the coast in the South China Sea. Staying alive in Vietnam had always been a matter of playing the odds, and if Greenway whose instincts were perfectly pitched said it was time to go, then it was. The big Marine choppers landing in the embassy parking lot seemed few and far between, the crowds outside the gates were growing uglier and night was falling. CIA station chief Tom Polgar was wondering aloud why the North Vietnamese hadn't turned their 130 mm guns on the Embassy.
Thousands of Vietnamese were lined up in the compound waiting. Americans could go when they wanted, so we went to the head of the line. Inside the roaring chopper we strapped into canvas webbing. It shuddered and lifted off. We nosed out over the French Embassy and the cathedral. The door gunners clutched heat grenades to drop in case of Strelas. I looked down and saw the apartment where I'd lived with my wife and two children, Heather and Willow, for 17 months. As we gained altitude I saw Saigon spread out below, ringed with fire and smoke against a darkening sky. Tears streamed down my face.
The North Vietnamese arrived the next morning and it was no longer Saigon but Ho Chi Minh City. Some 1,300 Americans and 5,600 Vietnamese were evacuated that last day and another 5,400 and 39,000 had gone out on the earlier secret airlift. The Americans included diplomats, military advisers and grizzled private contractors who had built roads and repaired warplanes. U.S. Ambassador Graham Martin later said "well over a million" Vietnamese would have left given the chance. The fiasco was a historical turning point. Suddenly we were a long way from Washington's Farewell Address: in decades of entanglement in Indochina we had spent billions and lost 57,000 troops only to be defeated.
I don't smoke, but in those last weeks I smoked Ruby Queens, the local cigarettes that came in a pink package. A protected upbringing hadn't prepared me for the crumbling of a civilization. The masks came off. Sane people went insane with fear and many bright Vietnamese simply couldn't see that their world was ending. A senior official told me with a straight face that Saigon would be safe because high school kids were being armed. I oiled a leftover M16 rifle in my apartment and threw some clothes into a getaway bag. I spent an entire morning getting my cook's cat off on a Pan Am flight and was scratched up so badly I had to stop by the hospital to be disinfected. There were long lines at the U.S. Consulate and you could make $35,000 by marrying a Vietnamese girl and getting her out.
My family and I had gone out to Saigon in the fall of '73 on an SAS flight out of Copenhagen called the "Trans Orient Express." It made a midnight fuel stop in Tashkent in the central U.S.S.R. and I remember the grim Soviet guards and then later, airborne again, how we woke at dawn and saw the great thrusting rim of the Himalayas in the distance. Earlier I'd been in Vietnam as an Army sergeant. Returning now as a correspondent I plunged into the story, which concerned the two sides blowing each other up under the so-called Paris "cease- fire" signed by Henry Kissinger and Le Duc Tho in January 1973. The last American troops had left March 29.
In 1974 there was heavy fighting and diplomatic pressure on President Nguyen Van Thieu to soften toward the communists. Congress was balking at the big aid bill but Thieu remained firm and I remember one speech in which he used a memorable phrase. He said freedom had cost "rivers of blood and mountains of bones." But his government was deeply corrupt and there were demonstrations against him. At year's end the war wasn't going well and on Jan. 7, 1975, communist troops overran a province capital 80 miles north of Saigon.
Then came the lull. In late January Thieu granted me an interview in which he declared "I won't give up!" and appealed to Congress for aid. But there were signs of trouble. An American diplomat said of the precarious military situation, "This is the worst it's ever been." A Vietnamese woman joked weakly, "I think we had better learn how to swim."
On March 11 Banmethuot, a city in the lush jungles in the Central Highlands 150 miles north of Saigon fell to an overwhelming North Vietnamese attack. I dropped by the office of a rival correspondent who screamed in my face, "This is it!" Paul Leandri of Agence France- Presse reported strongly on Banmethuot and was summoned by Saigon police to disclose his source. Before going, he telephoned me and others to say nervously that he wanted someone to know where he was "in case anything happens." Hours later, the National Police shot him dead at their headquarters.
I sent my wife and children to Bangkok. The fall of Banmethuot was the beginning of the end. Soon the highland cities of Pleiku and Kontum fell and Saigon's troops in the region were in ragged flight. In the history of war in Indochina, the highlands had been key. "When I was young I learned geography," an officer who had fled North Vietnam two decades earlier told me, "and you cannot possibly hope to hold the coastal strip in Central Vietnam without controlling the highlands." On that strip are the old imperial capital of Hue and the country's second largest city, Danang. By the end of March both cities had fallen.
The fall of Danang was a horror as mobs of refugees and defeated soldiers rampaged. There were gunfights and babies were lost in the sea as their terrified mothers fought to get on ships. The normally placid Oberdorfer wrote that it was "a scene from the inner circle of Dante's Hell."
Danang fell March 30 and it was feared panic would grip Saigon with its millions of inhabitants. If its defeated armies fell back on the capital, an American evacuation could have been impossible. Martin walked a tightrope because mob violence could follow if he appeared to think Saigon unsafe. I remember realizing on March 21 how bad things were. I was in line in the U.S. post office at Tansonnhut chatting with an American fluent in Vietnamese. He said, "I don't know if you realize this, but the Vietnamese are just panicked out of their minds." It suddenly dawned on me that I had failed to report a major story: panic was news. I returned to the office, cranked in a sheet of paper and wrote:
"SAIGON, March 21 -- There is despair, fear and outrage here. People are hoarding rice and pacing their belongings to flee, but they don't know where or when. Girls who have lived with Americans are talking about suicide. There are no firm indications that Saigon itself will be attacked soon. But people and officials here are shocked into numbness by the vast magnitude of what has happened to their country. 'When my dad heard about the abandon- ment of the highlands, he broke down weeping,' said a secretary. 'He told me the last time he wept was when the country was partitioned in 1954.' The movement of refugees out of the highlands and in the extreme northern part of the country is of biblical proportions . . . "
I chartered a light plane and flew to Tuyhoa on the coast 240 miles north of Saigon to see the "convoy of death" out of the highlands, as local papers called it. At Tuyhoa the pilot turned inland toward the mountains for a look at the convoy -- 200,000 refugees and the remains of an army running a gauntlet of enemy fire. But before we reached the convoy there was a pop in the air and the pilot, thinking he'd been shot at, wheeled back to Tuyhoa. As we landed, government halftracks were sprinting south across the runway. Starving refugees with tears in their eyes said relatives, including babies, had been killed by communist machine gun fire. Jittery and armed deserters wandered the streets. I remember one man shaking his fist at an American TV crew and shouting, "My wife and children are dead -- dead, dammit -- and these guys are going around shooting pictures!"
On March 29 Oberdorfer wrote: "After 21 years, a million dead and a devastating impact on life and thought here and across the seas, the second Indochina war seems to be lurching toward its end." This story by a widely respected reporter sent shockwaves through official Washington. Two days later I wrote, "A deadly panic is beginning to grip this city of despair . . . My friend of years, an astute Vietnamese who analyzes the political scene here, broke down with compulsive heaving sobs, grasping my hand. 'Nobody can believe in the government's ability to defend Saigon or in American help after the fall of Danang,' he said . . . The agonized realization has dawned on my friend that in a short time, possibly in weeks, the Vietcong flag may be flying over Saigon." I remember how we were alone in my apartment with the sun streaming in, how he said maybe he would get a small boat and how the thought made him break down -- his precious wife and children adrift on the sea! Later this man and his family got out on the secret airlift and now live in Washington.
Saigon's collapse seemed inevitable by April 2. The government had only seven divisions left and 19 NVA divisions -- a quarter of a million well armed troops -- were rolling south. Gen. Frederick C. Weyand visited Saigon to report to President Ford and he brought along a top CIA guy who told a wonderful story at dinner: Back in the '50s he had been the Saigon station chief and one night he and some friends went tiger hunting out near Tayninh. As they walked under the moon near a dark and crumbling villa, they were suddenly transfixed by a spotlight from its balcony. It was the Vietminh and this CIA guy remembered in that instant thinking: I can roll and fire but the others will be killed, or we can try to bluff it out. Somehow they talked their way out.
On April 4 I was with U.S. Information Service chief Alan Carter in his office when he received a call. His face fell and he said, "Oh God." A Galaxy C5A full of Vietnamese orphans on a "babylift" to the States had crashed near Tansonnhut. I drove out as close as possible and then ran a mile across rice paddies to the smoking wreckage. The sight is a blur in memory but I remember breaking down with convulsive sobs when I saw it; 135 of the 330 passengers had been killed. A few days later I was having breakfast with ex-finance minister Chau Kim Nhan at his downtown apartment when a South Vietnamese air force pilot bombed the nearby presidential palace in an unsuccessful effort to kill Thieu. Nhan, who had been a heroically honest civil servant in a den of corruption, now works in suburban Maryland.
During the last weeks I spent some time destroying office records, God knows why. Greenway, Oberdorfer and I would gather for dinner in the Post apartment before writing the day's dispatches. The embassy had distributed evacuation instructions designating departure points. When "White Christmas" played on the radio you were supposed to go to a departure point. I never heard it played. Sometimes Terry Rambo, a scholar, joined us for dinner and I remember one night he picked up a copy of The New Yorker from the coffee table, scanned the ads and dissolved in laughter. It wasn't possible in Saigon that April to understand why anyone would pay $8,000 for a crystal figurine.
On April 28 there was fighting at a bridge on the northern edge of Saigon. North Vietnamese troops were holding it and I drove out to watch the skirmish. By then Thieu had fled the country and that afternoon Gen. Duong Van "Big" Minh became president. As he was giving his speech, the first monsoon storm of the season lashed the city. I was in my office writing the Minh story when I heard machinegun fire outside. I dropped to the floor and crawled to a back room. Later I peeked out the window and saw a jeep with a mounted automatic weapon and a soldier firing it into the sky. It turned out that communist warplanes had bombed the airport and were flying over the city.
The next morning after sleeping through the shelling of Tansonnhut, I learned that Martin had driven out there to check the condition of the runways to determine if a fixed-wing evacuation were feasible. I was still bleary- eyed but the ambassador in a combat zone seemed like a good story and I got in the car. The streets were empty. I drove out to the gate at Tansonnhut and there was small- arms fire crackling and the scream of incoming artillery and I remember leaping out of the car and sprawling in a ditch. Then I got out of there.
Martin saw the runways were bad and called for "Op- tion IV," a helicopter evacuation. Word went out and Americans went to evacuation points. Things were still calm late in the morning when Greenway and I went to the embassy, but soon crowds of Vietnamese were in the streets. The embassy gates were locked against them. As the day went on the crowds grew and people became desperate.
There was a restaurant in the embassy compound and at lunchtime I went there with quite a few other people. No restaurant employes were working so everyone went into the kitchen and helped themselves. It was an orderly crowd at first, mostly Americans, but over the course of a very few minutes it grew unruly and then desperate. Suddenly people were grabbing for food and rushing around and things were spilling on the floor.
The choppers didn't start arriving at the embassy until late afternoon. When the first one hovered into the embassy parking lot, two lines of U.S. Marines in full battle dress sprinted out the back. I remember the sound of their gear slapping as they ran. They circled at full speed and formed up near the embassy gate. I walked over and looked at them and they seemed young and scared but nonetheless Marines. The evacuation lasted all night and Martin left at dawn.
Out on the gray ships we watched boats and choppers full of Vietnamese arrive. Some choppers were pushed overboard to make room for refugees and I remember how they would tilt slowly and then drop into the sea. Greenway and I walked up to one that was tied down on deck. It was green and scratched and smudged with the red clay of Vietnam. Greenway touched it and said, "I hope I never have to see one of these again." Then e steamed east for Subic Bay in the Philippines, and I spent hours on deck looking at the flat sea. You could look down into the bow wave and see flying fish that seemed to keep up with us. I remember the flying fish.