Fall of Saigon

WESTERN OUTSKIRTS OF SAIGON

“WHAT IS THIS?” Nguyen Sinh Tuan said, raising his Leica M3 camera and focusing on Nguyen Duc Cui as he sat on the ground, massaging the leather of the brown oxford shoes that he had carried in his pack since the day he had made the blood-bound promise to his dying friend.

“I thought you had no film,” Cui said, smiling as Tuan released the shutter.

“I had no more film for photographs of darkness,” the photographer said. “They wanted pictures of that battle, and all that my lens could see was blackness and streaks of light. I had no film for that. However, I do have this roll of film to photograph today, Liberation Day!”

“It has not yet ended,” Cui said. “We still have ARVN entrenched here at Hoc Mon.”

“In a few hours,” Tuan said and snapped another photograph, “their President Minh will formally surrender. He has already ordered his forces to lay down their arms.”

“Those gunshots in that village tell me that these ARVN did not hear their president’s orders,” Cui said, still rubbing the leather.

“Then why do you soften your shoes so that you can wear them when we march into Saigon today?” Tuan said, smiling.

“I also heard about the trucks taking us into the city, once our troops have quieted these guns here,” Cui said and smiled back at his friend.

COURTYARD OF THE AMERICAN EMBASSY, SAIGON

“NEIL!” A VOICE from outside the opened American embassy gates shouted.

“Here, over here,” Neil Davis said, raising his hand above the back of the couch where he lay, watching the embassy roof.

“What are you doing lying on that couch in the embassy parking lot when we have ARVN soldiers running in the streets, shedding their uniforms, shooting, looting, burning? Hugh Van Es shot an outstanding still of an Air America Huey on the Pan American building, and a ladder of people climbing up to it. He’ll get the Pulitzer Prize, and you’re out here sleeping,” Al Dawson said, stepping around the leather sofa that the South Vietnamese had dragged from the building after the Marines had locked themselves on the roof.

“We still have Marines on the roof, and I am waiting to see what happens. They’ll no doubt send a helicopter for them, and I will have film of the last bird to leave Saigon,” Davis said, lying back with his camera poised to shoot upward, should anything break.

Dawson sat on the arm of the couch and began watching the roof too.

“How do you know there are Marines up there?” the UPI bureau chief said.

“I had lain here to take a snooze about sunrise,” Davis began. “Then I heard five or six shots. Pow, pow, pow, pow, pow from up there. So I start looking to see who did it. Once in awhile I get a peek of a head or upper body. They’re not oriental, so they must be Americans, still on their own embassy. You know that the diplomats and brass all left first, so these guys must be Marines. Very simple deductive reasoning, my friend.”

“What the heck are they still doing up there?” Dawson said, now captivated.

“You’re the reporter,” Davis said. “Go find the answer to that question. I’ll wait here and film it.”

ROOFTOP OF THE AMERICAN EMBASSY, SAIGON

“QUICK, COME HERE, Top,” Jim Kean called, kneeling behind a stack of sandbags and looking at the street beyond the embassy compound fence.

“Big Minh!” Master Sergeant Valdez said. “Headed to the office to close up, I guess.”

“What is this, six sedans and an armed escort?” Kean said. “They must be headed to the Presidential Palace to wait for the North Vietnamese to come knocking.”

“I hope I don’t see that,” Steven Schuller said, now limping as he walked, suffering increasing pain from the wound in his side.

All the Marines crowded by the boss and watched as President Duong Van Minh and Premier Vu Van Mao drove to the Presidential Palace, where the Republic of Vietnam’s leaders of two days would receive politburo boss Le Duc Tho and formally surrender South Vietnam to the Communists.

“What time you got, Top?” Sergeant Terry Bennington said, cupping his hands above his eyes, searching the distant horizon, as the other ten Marines kept their focus on the motorcade procession below.

“Why?” Valdez said, hopefully. “What do you see?”

“It’s a helicopter!” Sergeant Bennington said, dropping his hands and beaming.

“Yeah, and the people on the ground hear it coming too. Look at them run!” Sergeant Duane Gevers said, now rushing to the steel door with Gunnery Sergeant Bobby Schlager and Corporal Stephen Bauer.

“Get deployed for his landing,” Kean said. “Be ready for any ground fire too.”

Screams and shouts echoed from the concrete stairwell behind the steel door that the Marines had now reinforced to keep shut.

“Go ahead and pop that big canister of riot gas,” Kean said.

“This won’t be pretty,” Bauer said as he pulled the pins on two small CS grenades and dropped them inside the broken window in the center of the door.

Duane Gevers set off the big can of CS riot control agent on the roof, releasing a great white cloud of the irritating fog.

Swift Two-Two came in hot, dropping just over the deck and squatting on its wheels as the eleven Marines ran toward the open rear ramp. Tear gas spiraled and swirled over the roof and drifted toward the ground.

Despite its irritating properties, causing a person’s eyes, nose, and sinuses to flood, the gas did not phase the screaming, anxious South Vietnamese who had waited all night for the helicopter and now saw it come. They rushed up the stairs and poured onto the roof just as Swift Two-Two parted from the deck.

“You getting this?” Al Dawson said to Neil Davis.

“I waited all night for this,” the Australian responded.

NGUYEN GIAP TY RESIDENCE IN SAIGON

THE SUN BURNED Nguyen Giap Ty’s eyes as he looked through the sheer lace curtains that hung over his living-room windows. Outside he saw a group of his neighbors walking toward his door and pointing. Although he could not hear their words clearly, the Viet Cong soldiers that his so-called friends led seemed intense and agitated as they tromped across his courtyard and garden.

The ARVN officer, recipient of America’s Bronze Star Medal, answered the door when the Viet Cong slammed their fists against it, rattling the windows.

“Quiet, children,” Ninh Thi Tran whispered, watching her husband unlatch the entrance to their home.

“May I help you?” Ty tried to say.

“Stand aside!” the first soldier who seemed to have authority over the troop said and pushed Ty away as he led his soldiers into the house.

Nguyen Giap Ty looked at the angry faces of his neighbors who crowded outside his front door.

“Why?” Ty said. “What have I ever done to hurt you? I thought you were my friends.”

“He was an officer!” one of the neighbors shouted to the Viet Cong. “A criminal who lives on the sweat of our people!”

“Please simply take me, and do not harm my family,” Nguyen Giap Ty pled.

“Yes,” the senior Viet Cong said, “you will come with us now. Also, this woman, Ninh Thi Tran!”

“Why, sir?” Ty said, clasping his hands together in a prayerlike fashion, showing respect and subordination. “She has done nothing but secretarial work all of her life and has raised our five children. Please, sir, she has done nothing!”

“Quiet!” the senior soldier snarled and then turned to two of his soldiers who now held Ty. “Take him out of here now. You men take her.”

Two other Viet Cong held Ninh Thi Tran by her shoulders and led her out the door behind her husband through the growing crowd of jeering neighbors. While the people watched, the soldiers tied both Ty’s and Ninh’s hands behind their backs.

Then the Viet Cong leader looked at Ty’s oldest son, Nam, and growled, “You have two minutes to gather what you want of your personal belongings and leave this house. Don’t come back.”

Living as homeless orphans on the streets of Saigon for more than a year, Nam and his sister Bich-Van Nguyen took care of their three siblings. Tuong-Van Nguyen, the eldest daughter of Ty and Ninh, suffered most because of her Down syndrome disabilities. Vanny, the youngest daughter, and Son, the younger son, helped Nam and Bich with Tuong-Van, and together the four of them scavenged for food and shelter.

Eight years of hard labor, so-called re-education, took their toll on Nguyen Giap Ty and his wife, Ninh. Abandonment took its toll on their children.

Somehow, though, a resilient spirit among the Nguyen family kept them going through it all. Their children grew up and finally managed to escape from Vietnam aboard the clandestine boatlifts. They came to America and Australia. So did Nguyen Giap Ty and his wife and their disabled daughter, Tuong-Van, finally.

PRESIDENTIAL PALACE, SAIGON

AT 10:24 A.M., President Duong Van Minh issued a statement, broadcast to the North Vietnamese, offering the surrender of the Republic of Vietnam.

The announcement seemed to represent the latch on the gate because in a matter of minutes parades of victorious Viet Cong and North Vietnamese soldiers, walking, riding in trucks, and sitting on tanks and armored personnel carriers came streaming into Saigon from every direction.

Seeing President Minh’s motorcade driving to the Presidential Palace, Neil Davis and Al Dawson ran to the capitol building after they had witnessed the last American forces leave Saigon. While Dawson found a good perch to watch from a distance, the Australian motion picture news photographer set up his camera on the front steps of Big Minh’s headquarters.

He had his camera rolling when the Soviet-built T-55 tank, with soldiers waving the PRG flag, crashed down the palace gates and rumbled up the wide walkway to the great building’s front steps. The Australian photojournalist stood, waved at the Communists, and kept his camera rolling.

Safely aboard the USS Okinawa, Major Jim Kean accompanied Brigadier General Richard Carey to the captain’s bridge. As the last commander of American forces on the ground in South Vietnam, Kean signed the log beneath the signature of Graham A. Martin, America’s last ambassador to Vietnam.

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