Recalling Saigon’s fall 35 years ago
HO CHI MINH CITY, Vietnam – I am walking in the lush gardens of the former Presidential Palace in this exotic and humid city once known as Saigon, and looming before me is a North Vietnamese Army Russian-made battle tank occupying a place of honor on a raised concrete platform.
Gazing upon the dark brown, 40-ton tank bearing the number 843, I am flooded with memories of its historic role in the final, dramatic minutes of the Vietnam War as I recollect where I was and what I was doing that fateful day 35 years ago when the devastating conflict reached its agonizing climax.
The date was April 30, 1975, my wife, three children aged 6, 8, 10 and I were living in Laramie, Wyo., where I was serving as chairman of the Journalism Department at the University of Wyoming, and like millions of Americans we were gathered at our television sets watching tank 843 of the NVA’s 324th Division come to a halt before the ornate gates that led to the palace .
Revving up its 580-horsepower diesel engine, the driver rammed the 30 foot-long tank through the locked gates, knocked them off their sandstone pillars, sped through the palace grounds and stopped in front of the building’s entrance.
Grabbing the oversize red and yellow-starred North Vietnamese flag flying from 843’s turret, one of the five crewmembers ran into the palace, bound up the main staircase and hung the flag from the second-story balcony.
In moments, more tanks, trucks, jeeps, armored personnel carriers and hundreds of infantrymen surrounded the palace.
South Vietnamese President Duong Van Minh was taken into custody in his palace office and driven to the city’s radio station where he broadcast to a shocked nation that the heavy fighting in Saigon had ended, his army had capitulated, he had unconditionally surrendered to the North Vietnamese and “My government is completely dissolved.”
The war that had cost the lives of more than 58,000 Americans and nearly 1 million Vietnamese was over. The victors immediately changed the name of Saigon to Ho Chi Minh City to honor North Vietnam’s revolutionary leader and president, who had died six years earlier, merged North and South Vietnam into one nation named The Socialist Republic of Vietnam, and declared Hanoi as its capital.
Recalling those events of late April 1975, I also am reminded of the traumatic evacuation of thousands of Americans and South Vietnamese during the hours before Saigon fell to the Communists.
Although the last American combat troops had left Vietnam in 1973, approximately 1,000 U.S. military and civilian advisers and scores of American journalists remained in Saigon as the North Vietnamese fought their way into the city, and their escape, along with an estimated 6,000 South Vietnamese soldiers and government officials, proved to be just as newsworthy and tormenting as the fall of Saigon.
Unable to flee by airplane because the nearby Tan Son Nhat military and civilian airfield had been destroyed by enemy bombings, the beleaguered Americans and their South Vietnamese allies had gathered at the U.S. Embassy in downtown Saigon to leave the city by helicopters, a rescue operation named “Frequent Wind” that ultimately turned out to be both frightening and heart-breaking.
Arriving at the embassy on foot or in buses and private cars, the evacuees were lifted over its walls by U.S. Marine guards who had been ordered to prevent the storming of the building by hordes of screaming, hysterical Vietnamese not authorized to make the helicopter flights to aircraft carriers waiting offshore.
The Marines were forced to used their rifle and pistol butts to fight off the frenzied South Vietnamese attempting to claw their way up the 10-foot walls, but some of the escapees managed to fight their way over the barrier and join the Americans on the embassy roof where they boarded Navy, Marine Corps and CIA helicopters that flew them to safety on several U.S. Navy ships.
As the airlift continued, hundreds of South Vietnamese denied entry to the embassy rooftop rampaged through the streets, stripping and stealing U.S. government and military vehicles, looting the Americans’ homes, apartments and hotel rooms and firing random shots in the air to demonstrate their anger at being left behind.
Among the last to leave the embassy was U.S. Ambassador Graham Martin.
Ordered to depart by President Gerald Ford and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, the 63-year-old diplomat, impeccably attired in dark suit and tie and carrying the embassy flag, a briefcase and small suitcase, boarded a CH-46 helicopter named Lady Ace O9 and flew off at 3: 45 a.m. The helicopter is on display today at the Flying Leatherneck Air Museum at USMC Air Station Miramar near San Diego.
At 7 a.m., the embassy’s last remaining Americans, a contingent of Marine guards, helicoptered to the fleet.
Seven hours later, the North Vietnamese entered Saigon, tank 843 stormed the palace and the war was over.
The Presidential Palace today is known as Reunification Palace and it serves as a museum and conference center.
Outside, on the teeming streets, beggars and prostitutes solicit coins and customers beneath red and yellow North Vietnamese government propaganda banners emblazoned with the Communist hammer and sickle.
• David C. Henley is publisher emeritus of the Lahontan Valley News in Fallon.