Getting Out

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

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

Evacuations following military catastrophes have occasionally been successful, such as the one the British staged at Dunkirk in 1940, when, by fearful effort and improvisation, they managed to save most of their army from capture. The April 1975 evacuation of Saigon was not in this league.

Since the fall some five weeks earlier of Ban Me Thuot, a town of 65,000 in the central highlands, it had become obvious that the defeat of South Vietnam was imminent. The North Vietnamese army had been charging southward virtually unopposed. Yet thousands of Americans were still in Saigon—many of them contract bums, former employees of the big international contractors who had built things during the halcyon days of the war and had stayed when the GIs left, hoping that work would return. Although history has shown that the capture of an Asian city is never a good event to participate in, the state department was dragging its heels on getting the Americans out.

Politics had caused the delay. Withdrawal might have started a panic or signified that the United States lacked confidence in the South Vietnamese army—an army now obviously fleeing in terminal collapse. The U.S. embassy had put out the word that Americans could leave on the military transports that regularly flew between Saigon and the Philippines. However, neither the embassy nor the Vietnamese government would allow Americans to take out their Vietnamese families.

So the evacuation was delayed until the last moment, and then anybody could go. The result was chaos.

At 3 a.m. every morning, under the lights of the tennis courts al Tan Son Nhut, an airport and military base outside Saigon, what seemed like three-quarters of the world’s population would wait in groggy exhaustion for the great hulk of a C-130 or C-141 transport to carry them from a lost cause. With artillery thumping softly in the distance, Vietnamese babies slept on their mothers’ ratty suitcases. Children, too tired to care, lay on the bleachers like sacks of rice. Asian faces stared blankly, as did round-eyes, who were growing testy. Every few minutes one of the lumbering transports, usually a C-130 Hercules, would roar in, load up evacuees, run up the engines, and leave.

As a stringer for several military newspapers, I had been determined to stay until the end. But I had a Vietnamese friend named Sandy who had worked for the Americans and could have had her throat cut for it when the city fell. I decided to take her out.

On the day we were to leave, Sandy and I went to the American Legion Post near the airport and boarded a blue bus with anti-grenade screens on the windows. It was hot. The bus inched through mobs of scooters and decaying Citroëns to the main gate of Tan Son Nhut. A mean-looking Vietnamese military policeman boarded the bus to check credentials. He examined Sandy’s papers, which alleged her to be my wife. As I held my breath, he stared hard at her, and then moved on.

The bus stopped at the tennis courts and we piled off in the ghastly heat. U.S. military police herded us into a sort of corral to begin the endless processing that would consume much of the day. F-5s screamed overhead in a futile attempt to slow the advancing North Vietnamese army. “All right, form three lines!” shouted the MPs. “‘Three lines, not five lines. Get out your papers for examination. Now.”

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.

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