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South Vietnamese refugees walk across a U.S. Navy vessel after fleeing their homes in April 1975. (U.S. Navy)

Getting Out

In April 1975, escaping Saigon meant crowding into a darkened C-130 in the middle of the night.

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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.

We staggered through the darkness, fighting a wind that reeked of burned kerosene. The crew had elected to keep the engines running, Loose articles sailed into the night. Sandy and I were surrounded by slender girls in ao dais that whipped in the blast, dazed-looking children, grandmothers in black carrying wicker baskets that held all they had left in the world.

There were no seats in the roaring cavern of the fuselage, and no lights, which could attract ground fire. Thick nylon cargo straps ran across the floor. Men, women, and kids squatted on metal flooring with gaping expansion joints. A crewman in earphones trailing a wire that kept him in touch with the rest of the crew yelled over the din, “Keep the kids’ fingers outta the cracks or they’ll lose ‘em!” A young airman stood guard on the ramp holding an M-16; I wondered if he knew how to fire it.

Very quickly the fuselage was full; the ramp was closed and the pilot taxied to the runway. Airplanes were arriving more frequently now, and a lot of rules and regulations were being flat-out ignored. We reached the runway, turned sharply, and got a rolling start on a takeoff.

The Hercules set off like a scalded cat, turbines howling, skin rattling, the whole airplane squealing and hissing. This was not your gentle peacetime takeoff roll. The pilot wanted to be somewhere else pronto and had communicated his desire to the four large turboprops.

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