In April 1975, escaping Saigon meant crowding into a darkened C-130 in the middle of the night.
- By Fred Reed
- Air & Space magazine, July 1992
(Page 2 of 3)
The evacuation was a compromise between the practical, represented chiefly by the Air Force, and the bureaucratic, represented by the rest of the U.S. government. Policies that were impossible to carry out were transmitted from Washington, which had no idea of local conditions, to embassy employees who didn’t have time to bother with them, to the military, which had to carry out the evacuation while pretending to follow the rules. A certain creativity blossomed to accommodate the needs of these institutions.
For example, at one point, the in-laws of American men with Vietnamese wives were allowed to fly out. Then, from afar, the rule was changed. However, if the Air Force had informed the waiting mob, about 80 percent of whom were Vietnamese, that the in-laws and their overflowing suitcases could not board the aircraft, a riot would have ensued.
Finally a fellow with a bullhorn straightened things out. “Allright,” he announced, “listen up! As of now, all sisters-in-law are sisters, Got that? All mothers-in-law are mothers. Change your documents.”
We sat on the tennis courts in the sinking afternoon sun and wailed. Helicopters fwop-fwopped overhead, an occasional rocket whistled in the countryside, and big things went crump far away. Every half-hour or so a C-130 came in, loaded up, and left. The F-5s were still racing northward in flights of three and four, although they couldn’t hope to have much effect. They carried a negligible bomb load, and the North Vietnamese army had considerable antiaircraft weaponry. A-37 Dragonflies, U.S. trainers converted for the Vietnamese air force, whined overhead, little crosses in the sky. I wondered what it was like to fly over that glowing green land in what amounted to symbolic defiance, unsure if there would be a place to land upon your return.
Despite the flow of 130s the crowd was not diminishing. More people poured in behind us. The hot air began to smell of stale sweat and not enough diapers.
Night fell, soft and cool. People sprawled on the green cement. In the distance but moving closer, artillery made its pillowy whoomphs. Occasionally a rocket sizzled in the city. Mortar flares trembled on the horizon, trailing thick white smoke under their parachutes.
Still the 130s came and went—ugly, inelegant, but indestructible. Rumor had it that Lockheed had started with a design for a dump truck and kept modifying it until it flew. A 130 will land hard on short dirt strips, scrubbing off speed with the impact, and take off from sites a civilized airplane wouldn’t dream of. Most of all, it is stolid and untemperamental.
Finally, well past midnight, it was our turn. The 130s were coming down steeply now—the rocket men with their heat-seeking missiles might be close enough to take a shot. We heard a Hercules land, furiously reverse the props, and taxi up to the embarkation point, its ramp dropping slowly like an enormous jaw.