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)
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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.

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