Tank 843 made history in Saigon 40 years ago
In six days, we will be commemorating the 40th anniversary of the end of the Vietnam War, a conflict that killed 58,220 and wounded 153,303 American military personnel and uncounted millions of Vietnamese.
The war officially ended on April 30, 1975, with the fall of Saigon, South Vietnam’s capital now known as Ho Chi Minh City, by the People’s Army of North Vietnam and its National Liberation Front.
South Vietnam’s capitulation that fateful day was caught by still and motion picture photographers and flashed around the world when North Vietnamese Army tank No. 843, a Soviet-made T-54, rammed through the locked iron gates of Saigon’s Presidential Palace, knocked them off their concrete pillars, sped through the palace grounds and came to a halt before the palace entrance.
Bui Quand Than, a 29-year-old North Vietnamese Army lieutenant-captain and the tank’s commander, jumped out of his 30-foot tank, ran into the palace, rushed up the stairs and hung an oversized North Vietnamese flag from the second floor balcony.
In press interviews following his dramatic feat, Than said that he and his two crew members had become lost when their tank entered Saigon with other North Vietnamese Army elements following their arrival into the city that day.
Entering Saigon via the Sai Gon Bridge, Than made a wrong turn and ended up the Saigon Zoo.
“A woman on a motorbike drove past us, and I asked her the location of the palace. She refused to help at first … but she agreed to help only after we threatened to seize her and we shot into the air.
“When we arrived at the palace, we decided to ram the gate. When I entered the palace, I met a gentleman I knew, Ly Quy Trung, a minister of information in the Saigon regime, and I asked him to lead me to Duong Van Minh, the president of the South Vietnam government,” Than told the Associated Press.
“Minh came and told Trung to lead me to the roof, where I hoisted the flag from the balcony,” Than stated.
Following the war’s end, Than remained in the army, rose to the rank of colonel, commanded a tank brigade before retiring 15 years ago and today owns and runs a shrimp farm with his family.
Than’s tank 843 was mounted on a concrete platform on the grounds of the former Presidential Palace, which has been renamed the Reunification Palace that today serves as a war museum and visitor’s center.
During my most recent visit five years ago to Ho Chi Minh City, which was named for North Vietnam’s revolutionary leader who merged North and South Vietnam into today’s Socialist Republic of Vietnam, I took the photo of tank 843 that accompanies this column.
In addition to remembering the newspaper and TV images of the capture of Saigon 40 years ago, I also cannot forget the traumatic evacuation of the city that led to its fall.
Although the last U.S. combat troops had left Vietnam in 1973, approximately 1,000 American civilians, military advisors and journalists had remained in Saigon when the North Vietnamese fought their way into the city.
The beleaguered Americans and hundreds of their South Vietnamese allies had gathered at the U.S. Embassy to flee the city by helicopters in a rescue operation known as “Frequent Wind.”
Hordes of screaming and hysterical South Vietnamese attempted to claw their way to the embassy’s rooftop where the helicopters were transporting the evacuees to offshore U.S. Navy ships, and U.S. Marines guarding the helo pad were forced to use their rifle butts to ward off the frenzied South Vietnamese trying to climb their way over 10-foot walls to enter the building.
At 3:45 a.m. on April 30, U.S. Ambassador Graham Martin left the embassy by helicopter, and at 7 a.m. the last remaining Marine guards helicoptered to the fleet.
Seven hours later, the North Vietnamese entered Saigon and tank 843 made its historic entrance onto the palace grounds.
Vietnam today is one of America’s largest trading partners, the world’s biggest exporter of instant coffee, the third largest rice exporter, thousands of South Vietnamese who fled to the U.S. have returned home to invest and visit their families and the U.S. and Vietnam maintain diplomatic relations at the ambassadorial level.
But I am confident that many in Northern Nevada, like me, will never forget those TV images on TV of tank 843 crashing through the palace gates in Saigon to end the bloody Vietnam War.
David C. Henley is Publisher Emeritus of the LVN and may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org