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SUNDAY REPORT

Reflections on Fall of Saigon

For Vietnamese and Americans, the events on April 30, 1975, would change the world forever. But no one has quite the same interpretation of what happened.

April 09, 2000|DAVID LAMB | TIMES STAFF WRITER

HO CHI MINH CITY, Vietnam — Finally, by April 1975, there was something about Vietnam that almost everyone could agree on. After a wrenching decade of bloodshed and protest, the end of the war was near.

The Communist North Vietnamese army was sweeping south in violation of a treaty signed two years earlier in Paris, an accord President Nixon had heralded as bringing "peace with honor." America's combat role was over. South Vietnam's cities were falling like dominoes in a Cold War nightmare: Ban Me Thuot, Hue, Da Nang, Chu Lai, Quang Ngai, Qui Nhon, Nha Trang. Its troops threw down their weapons and fled the highlands, trailed by a panicked mob of 200,000 refugees.

Hanoi had kept only one division, the 308th, in the north as a home guard. By mid-April, 18 other divisions were closing in on the south's capital, 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 their northern families in four or five years.

On the outskirts of the capital, Col. Vo Dong Giang received a coded message from North Vietnamese army headquarters saying an all-out attack was imminent. It ended: "Good luck. See you in Saigon."

Rumors of a pending blood bath raced through Saigon in those final days of April 1975. CIA agents estimated that thousands of people would be killed. The company providing insurance for United Press International's correspondents increased premiums 1,000%. Restaurants closed and merchants fortified their shops with sandbags.

In the 14th-floor nightclub of the Palace Hotel, a bar girl sipped ginger ale and reread a telegram. "Dear Mai," it said, "plane tickets forwarded to Pan Am office on Tu Do St. Paperwork waiting for you at U.S. Embassy. See you in St. Louis. Love." She thought for a moment and said quietly, "Sorry 'bout that, GI. I Vietnamese. I stay Vietnam."

For some, the events that unfolded 25 years ago this month would represent a hopeful prologue to a lifetime's dream. For others, it would be a dreaded epilogue to a failed mission. But no one--Vietnamese or American--would be untouched, and no one, when they share their memories today, has quite the same interpretation of what happened or how the world around them changed.

Twenty-one years earlier, in 1954, when the Vietnamese defeated France to end colonial rule, French soldiers were marched over the Doumer Bridge spanning the Red River in Hanoi, on their way back home. As a disarmed Frenchman passed, a guerrilla of the Viet Minh--the forerunner of the Viet Cong--kicked him in the rear. The Frenchman stopped, turned and saluted. The Vietnamese returned the salute.

For the departing Americans--the next Western power to get bogged down in Vietnam--the curtain would fall on Indochina with no such symbolic exchange of shared respect.

The largest helicopter evacuation in history ended at 7:52 a.m. April 30. Over a span of 19 hours, choppers took out 1,120 South Vietnamese and 978 Americans. U.S. security guards used their rifle butts to beat back many more South Vietnamese trying to storm the embassy. Now the last chopper was skirting over Saigon, carrying the remnants of a U.S. force that once had numbered 543,000 troops. The 11 Marines aboard had their weapons trained squarely on their former allies below.

Within minutes, the chopper was over the South China Sea and Saigon faded from view. For the first time since the French attacked Da Nang 117 years earlier, Vietnam was free of foreign influence. For the first time in a generation--ever since a Cold War compromise partitioned the country at the 17th parallel as France departed--there would be no North Vietnam and South Vietnam. Only Vietnam.

To this day, Vietnamese speak of the fall of Saigon as a milestone that divides everything in life into two eras: "before '75" and "after '75."

THE JUDGE: Early Morning

What Duong Cu remembers most vividly about that day is not the shooting in the streets, the mobs that looted and rampaged after the last chopper lifted off, or the terrified South Vietnamese soldiers shedding their uniforms. It was the silence that followed.

"April 30th, I remember it well," recalled the 65-year-old Cu, a senior South Vietnamese judge who had been home early that morning, tending his sick wife. He thought for a moment, his hand stroking a trim white beard, then added: "It was a day that changed my life. All our lives changed.

"The silence was so total it scared me," he said. "No one knew what to expect. But I never thought anything would happen to me."

Despite the fears of a blood bath, many people like Cu thought the North would be gracious in victory, and, in fact, its soldiers were professional and disciplined in taking Saigon. He also thought all Vietnamese, whether they had supported North or South, would band together to rebuild the country.

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