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.
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.
We climbed al an astonishing angle, clawing for altitude in a tight corkscrew, trying to stay over friendly territory—now shrinking rapidly—until we were above the range of the surface-to-air missiles. I wondered how many people could fit in a C-130. Enough, I figured, to get the pilot court-martialed at any other time.
The last I saw of Saigon was the lights of the city slowly revolving in the side door, through which poured a terrific wind. The engines roared, and terrified kids clung to their mothers. Below us, people waiting for the next 130 were piled on the tennis courts in the red blackout lights like bodies in a mass grave.
I hoped that if we took a missile hit it would just take out one of the engines and not the wing spar. But no missile came, and soon we were cruising calmly over the South China Sea on the way to the Philippines. As we had pulled away from Saigon, I thought fleetingly that I was witnessing the end of an era. Then I could only think about how tired I was, and how badly I wanted to sleep.