Last Days in Vietnam (2014) Movie Script

As we began to contemplate evacuation,
the question, the burning question was,
"Who goes,
and who gets left behind?"
I borrowed a truck
and I basically sent
the signal to my folks,
and this meant a group of
South Vietnamese majors,
lieutenant colonels,
colonels and their families
to muster at an address
in downtown Saigon.
I drove down there, they
loaded up onto the truck,
and I drove them to the airbase.
And I had told them, "When
you hear three thumps,
"that means hold the babies' mouths.
"Don't breathe, don't
talk, don't make any noise
because we're going
through the gatepost. "
I saluted in uniform
as a captain of the United States Army.
The guard waved me through,
and I drove straight
out to the flight line
to an aircraft that was awaiting.
One Vietnamese colonel that was
putting his family on the plane,
he had wanted to stay in
Vietnam to defend the country.
And this full colonel had,
like, eight kids and a wife.
And he was in tears, the family...
The family were in tears,
and I said to him, "Get on the plane.
"Just... go.
Go. "
It was a terrible, terrible,
terrible moral dilemma
for everybody.
We today have concluded
an agreement to end the war
and bring peace with honor in Vietnam.
We have adopted a plan
for the complete withdrawal
of all U.S. combat ground forces.
We are finally bringing
American men home.
We who made the agreement
thought that it would be the beginning
not of peace in the American sense,
but the beginning of
a period of coexistence
which might evolve as it
did in Korea into two states.
Reconciliation between
North and South Vietnam
we knew would be extremely difficult.
But I was hopeful.
Because of the Paris Agreement,
American soldiers were going home.
But I was on my way back to Vietnam.
I was assigned to Saigon
in the first week of August 1973,
so about six months after the ceasefire.
I would say that between
the State Department people
and CIA people,
the contractors who were there
to maintain infrastructure,
maintain aircraft,
as well as people like me,
we had 5,000 to 7,000
Americans in country.
A lot of the guys had
Vietnamese girlfriends and wives,
in many cases with children.
In general, things were eerily calm
and in many ways normal in Saigon.
My sense was that we
were gonna be there,
you know, pretty much
for a long time to come.
I was assigned to the
American embassy in Saigon.
I was in charge
of the 84 Marine security
guards that were there,
making sure that they kept up
with their physical fitness training.
We were there to protect American lives
as well as American property.
It was just a
day-to-day job.
The Ambassador there was
a guy named Graham Martin,
a North Carolinian, just as I was.
He spoke with a slow Southern drawl.
He was a great gentleman.
He was a cold warrior in the old stripe.
He'd lost an adopted
son in Vietnam to combat.
And he was not gonna give up
South Vietnam to the Communists.
He was determined to keep U.S. aid
flowing into Saigon.
When the ceasefire occurred in 1973,
everybody toasted it with Bloody Marys
in the U.S. embassy.
It was a grand party.
We thought peace was at hand.
But the Paris Peace Accord
was a masterpiece of ambiguity.
In order to get President
Thieu and the South Vietnamese
to go along with the Paris Agreement,
President Nixon pulled
out all the stops,
and in a letter to President Thieu,
he promised that if the North Vietnamese
were to substantially violate
the terms of the Paris Agreement,
the United States would
respond with full force.
In other words, reenter the war.
The North Vietnamese
viewed Nixon as a madman.
They were terrified of him.
They believed that Nixon, if necessary,
would bring back American air power.
But in August 1974, he was gone.
Nixon resigned because of Watergate.
And overnight, everything changed.
Hanoi suddenly saw the road
to Saigon as being open.
The South Vietnamese population
had ample reason to fear
the Vietnamese Communists.
The Communist conduct
throughout the course of the war
had been violent and unforgiving.
For example, when the city of Hue
was taken over by the North Vietnamese,
several thousand people
on a long blacklist
were rounded up...
government civil servants,
people who were known
And they were executed,
in some cases even buried alive.
So panic was but a millimeter away.
Hundreds of thousands of refugees
are in a blind rush to flee even further
from the rapidly advancing Communists.
Bruce Dunning reports.
President Thieu
broadcast a strong appeal
to the soldiers and
the people of Da Nang,
urging them to stay and fight.
As the enemy approaches,
the panic has swept
from the coastal city's
crowded backstreets and pagodas
onto runways at the airport.
Our plane is surrounded here.
I don't know how the
hell we're gonna get out.
We're racing down the runway,
leaving behind hundreds
and thousands of people.
Another dozen of them running along,
grabbing at the air stair.
We're pulling them on as fast as we can.
There's a sea of humanity jamming on.
Impossible to stop the crowd.
We're pulling away.
We're leaving them behind.
We're pulling up with the...
People are falling off the air stairs!
The plane is taking off.
It was every man for himself.
So you saw the World Airways flight
being mobbed by South
Vietnamese soldiers.
You saw ships with
thousands of refugees,
including lots of soldiers.
You saw
out-of-control panic.
Basically any boats, trucks, airplanes,
or anything going south
were besieged by people
wanting to get onboard.
The Americans were gone,
and as a result, the house
of cards began to collapse.
The North Vietnamese
decided to escalate,
escalate, escalate,
escalate at every turn
to see if the United States would react.
In April of '75, I was
with President Gerald Ford,
and we were flying across
the country on Air Force One
when one of the airplane's crew
comes and hands me a note,
and it says, "Da Nang has fallen. "
Ford was bombarded by
questions from the press
after he got off Air Force One.
Around 150,000 to 175,000
well-trained North
Vietnamese regular forces
in violation of the Paris Peace Accords
moved into South Vietnam.
We have objected to that violation.
It's a tragedy unbelievable
in its ramifications.
We are now in a crisis.
We had a wave of humanity:
500,000 refugees rolling,
rolling south towards Saigon,
and 160,000 North Vietnamese
troops moving right behind them.
I had become so concerned,
I decided to pull our
best Vietnamese agents in
out of the woodwork
to try to see what they could tell us
about Communist planning, which
obviously was rapidly evolving.
On the 8th of April,
I met with one of our best agents,
who said, "The Communists
are gonna drive on Saigon.
They're gonna be in there
by Ho Chi Minh's birthday,"
which was May 19th,
literally a month away.
Communist forces in South Vietnam,
already solidly in
control of 11 provinces,
began working on yet
another one today: Binh Dinh.
I kept a map every day
on the progress of the
North Vietnamese onslaught.
By the 5th of April,
the North Vietnamese
had 15, even 16 divisions
heading in the direction of Saigon.
They were bringing SA-2 missiles down
to provide anti-aircraft
cover for their forces.
There were people who were saying,
"Look, we've gotta do some
heavy, heavy planning here
"because depending on how this goes,
and it doesn't look good now,
we may all have to evacuate. "
And Ambassador Martin
wouldn't tolerate or
countenance such thought.
That was defeatism.
That was poisonous to the prospects
of the people we're here to help.
But people could see what was going on
and they started leaving,
especially the Americans.
I'm leaving Vietnam.
I'm kind of scared,
to be honest with you.
To be perfectly honest
with you, I'm really scared.
I think the situation's a
lot worse than we know about.
There was always a standing
evacuation plan in the embassy.
It held that in an emergency,
all Americans still in the country,
about 6,000 people, would be evacuated
and that no South Vietnamese
would be evacuated with them.
I was a student.
The school's not closing,
but it seemed like nobody's
interested in school anymore.
You can't stay here.
You can't live with the Communists,
especially if you have a
connection with the Americans.
Then you really gotta get out.
If we really made up a list
of endangered South Vietnamese,
the ones who really worked
closely with us during the war,
this number could be 150,000, 200,000.
Including their families,
many more than that.
But the idea of talking
about an evacuation
and of planning for an
evacuation of Americans,
let alone an evacuation of Vietnamese,
was still anathema in the embassy.
If you mean, "Is South Vietnam
on the imminent verge of collapse?"
I think the answer is
quite definitely no.
We were dealing with an ambassador
who was just convinced that somehow,
he was going to be able to pull this out
and that there wouldn't
have to be an evacuation
and therefore, there
wouldn't have to be a concern
about evacuating South Vietnamese.
The situation in South Vietnam
has reached a critical phase
requiring immediate and positive
decisions by this government.
There are tens of thousands
of South Vietnamese employees
of the United States government,
of news agencies,
of contractors and
businesses for many years
whose lives, with their dependents,
are in very grave peril.
I'm therefore asking the Congress
to appropriate without
delay $722 million
for emergency military
assistance for South Vietnam.
If the very worst were to happen,
at least allow the orderly
evacuation of Americans
and endangered South
Vietnamese to places of safety.
There was no way in 1975
that the Congress was
going to vote any money
to go to the aid of South Vietnam.
We had pulled out our troops in 1973
and public opinion
at that point shifted.
The people of the United
States, having seen Watergate,
having seen the
deception of the generals,
weren't about to give any
help in Southeast Asia.
And you know, Kissinger knew this.
We knew we were not going
to get the $722 million.
By that time it made no big difference,
but President Ford said
he owed it to Vietnam to make a request.
We've sent, so to speak,
battleship after battleship
and bomber after bomber
and 500,000 and more men
and billions and billions of dollars.
If billions and billions didn't do
at a time when we had all our men there,
how can $722 million save the day?
This is the way my map
looked in mid-April.
The North Vietnamese just
rolled down the coast.
Saigon was clearly threatened.
The situation was urgent.
Urgent understates it.
At this time, Ambassador Martin
had been back in Washington
trying to persuade Congress
to vote additional aid.
Do you have anything
to say on your arrival?
He has no statement to make.
He came back to Saigon,
and my boss, the CIA
station chief, said,
"Go down and tell the old
man what's happening. "
I went and I said, "Mr. Ambassador,
"half of the South Vietnamese
Army has disintegrated.
"We're in grave trouble.
"Please, sir, plan for an evacuation.
"At least allow us to
begin putting together
lists of South Vietnamese
we should rescue. "
And he said, "No, Frank.
"It's not so bleak.
And I won't have this negative talk. "
Young officers in the embassy
began to mobilize a black operation,
meaning a makeshift
underground railway evacuation
using outgoing cargo aircraft
that would be totally below
the radar of the Ambassador.
People like myself and others
took the bull by the horns
and organized an evacuation.
In my case, that meant friends of mine
who were senior officers in
the South Vietnamese military.
As the North Vietnamese came
closer and closer to Saigon,
these people were dead men walking.
I had arranged a signal
with my intelligence community friends
that if I said, "I'm having a barbecue,"
that meant come to a
certain pre-designated place
and bring your families
and only bring one suitcase
because we're going to have a party.
But it was understood the party meant
I was going to get them out.
Black Ops were essentially
violating the rules...
In this case meaning,
you're not allowed to bring
out Vietnamese military people
who were under obligation
to stand and fight.
We were fully expecting
if we got caught doing this
that we would be run out of country.
End of career, do not pass go.
But sometimes there's an
issue not of legal and illegal,
but right or wrong.
The deputy defense attach
moved out Vietnamese personnel
and their families to Clark
Air Base in the Philippines
without any approval whatsoever,
without any immigration
papers, anything...
Passports, you name it.
And when they began showing
up in the Philippines,
Martin hit the roof and fired him!
But that didn't stop other
State Department people
who had Vietnamese
friends and family members.
They continued to organize
these makeshift airlifts.
April, I was in Can Tho,
which was about 100 miles from Saigon.
And we were getting reports
of this town falling and that
province falling and so on.
And then we were attacked.
Sergeant Hasty came by to
give me a report on the damage.
Can Tho came under pretty
intense artillery bombardment.
The North Vietnamese had overrun
some South Vietnamese
artillery batteries
and managed to turn those around
and shell the center of Can Tho.
We knew that the situation was bad.
We could see that the South
Vietnamese Army was eroding.
Supplies had been cut off
and you could see the
armaments dwindling.
McNAMARA: We were, under the
terms of the Paris Agreement,
committed to resupplying
the South Vietnamese.
They lacked simple
things, like barbed wire
and bags for sand bags.
They were rationing
their artillery shells
because they were running out.
The military support,
the material support,
was not coming.
When President Ford
went before the Congress,
he had two major concerns.
The first was to save as
many people as we could.
He cared for the human beings involved;
they were not just pawns
that once they had lost their
military power were abandoned.
The second was the honor of America,
that we would not be seen at
the final agony of South Vietnam
as having stabbed it in the back.
Congress wouldn't pass it.
They said, "No more.
No more troops, no more money,
no more aid to the Vietnamese. "
Well, I had to go into President
Ford's office to tell him.
I had never heard Ford use a curse word
in all the time I'd known him.
But when I showed him
this story, he said,
"Those sons of bitches. "
I think there were a total
of 50 ships that were there.
I mean, it wasn't just us;
it was a whole bunch of ships.
We were standing by for
the evacuation of Americans.
I was a terrible letter writer.
I would write one letter
for my wife's ten letters,
and she didn't like that, so she said,
"We're going to exchange tapes. "
So I would run into my stateroom,
turn the tape recorder
on for a couple of minutes
and tell her what's happening.
I really don't know where to start.
It's been such an unusual
couple days for us.
We went with the rest of
this huge task force of ours
up into about, oh, 20
miles off the coast,
basically east of Saigon.
As most Navy operations are,
it was very carefully planned.
We planned it to death.
The chain of command, as I understood it
as a captain of the
United States Marine Corps,
and I think I got it right,
is that for any evacuation,
that decision is the
Ambassador's decision.
Graham Martin is the responsible guy.
But the military is responsible
for giving him all kinds of plans.
And this is how we got
into the four options.
The first option was
you would take commercial
ships right up the Saigon River
to a couple blocks from the embassy.
You would load whoever you wanted
to bring out on these ships
and you'd be done with it.
The second option was, you know,
United and Continental
and Flying Tiger Airlines
were still using Tan Son Nhut
Air Force Base at the time,
and you could've brought
anybody you wanted out
by commercial aviation.
The third option was military
fixed-wing aviation...
The C5As, the C-141s,
which carry a lot of people.
You could've brought them
out of Tan Son Nhut on those.
The very last option,
the very last option,
was helicopters off the carriers
in the Tan Son Nhut Air Force Base.
We had 75 Marine Corps
helicopters out there.
The helicopter option,
that was absolutely the last resort.
You know, they don't go very fast,
they don't carry that many people.
That was if everything else failed.
I got into Vietnam late
on the 24th of April, 1975.
Saigon was full of
rumor, of false stories,
whether we were going
to have a last attempt
to draw a line across the country,
that Saigon and the south
would remain a free republic,
all of these things,
and it was all churning all around.
The fighting was close to Saigon
but hadn't shown up in
the streets of Saigon.
I served as a naval officer
in three and a half tours in Vietnam,
two of those years as
a Special Forces advisor
with a 20-boat River
Division, all Vietnamese.
I could tell jokes and
hear jokes in Vietnamese.
And once you start off like that,
you eventually end up being
able to dream in Vietnamese.
In 1975, my mission
was to remove or destroy
as many ships, swift boats,
anything that I considered
to be a benefit to the enemy.
I met with Captain Do Kiem,
who was the operations
officer of the Vietnamese Navy.
The plan was to sail
all the large ships of
the South Vietnamese Navy
down the Saigon River to the sea
and rendezvous at Con Son Island.
We had to keep this secret.
If word got out, it
would have had an effect
on the morale of the
people in the street.
JOE McBRIDE: We knew that there
were roughly 5,000 Americans
still in the country.
Many of them had Vietnamese
wives, mistresses, whatever.
Just hadn't left.
And they were basically letting us know,
"We're not leaving
without our families. "
Finally, we were given
authority by the Ambassador
to bypass the immigration laws
and send these Vietnamese
out of the country.
So then we started an operation
basically to get out the Americans
and their Vietnamese dependents.
It was not an official evacuation.
We still had no organized plan
for evacuating high-risk
South Vietnamese
because we had an ambassador
who was making up his mind on the wing.
The President also asked Congress
for authorization to
use American troops here
to evacuate Americans
and Vietnamese who worked for Americans.
If it were necessary.
Do you have plans for that?
Well, of course, every embassy
in the world has plans for it.
Do you think it will be necessary?
That again, you see, is a judgment
that I can't possibly make at this time.
We have been reducing
the population here
as measure of prudency
and will take measures
to reduce it further
as a question of prudence.
The Ambassador was extremely skittish,
and I guess understandably so,
about talking about evacuation,
about sending signals that an evacuation
was being planned or even executed.
He feared it would trigger a panic.
It time to get out.
And in Saigon at that time,
it was like, "Who do you know?"
The the key word would be "connection. "
There's a lot of people,
they try to get their money
because if the people have money,
maybe they will find a
connection to get out.
You know, and so, "You want to go?
Give me this kind of money. "
One guy said to me,
"Your family, tell them
to come to the boat dock.
I'll be waiting for them. "
Of course they took the
money, but they never got us.
There was chaos in Saigon at that time.
Everybody was looking for ways
to get out as soon as possible.
Of course, the Americans we worked with
had a plan in place for us.
They told us to get
to the meeting place,
which was a safe house
near the American embassy,
and to wait for buses
to come to pick us up.
If we were gonna get people out,
we were gonna have to make it happen
and deliver the Vietnamese
to the big airplanes
in some form or fashion.
And the only way we could do that
was keeping the airport
open as long as we could.
Ambassador Martin still
hoped that somehow,
this thing would not end
with the North Vietnamese
humiliating the United
States by attacking Saigon.
But it seemed like the North
Vietnamese had other ideas.
What may be the final
battle of Saigon has begun.
Communist ground forces
have started moving in
on Saigon's Tan Son Nhut Airport.
Rockets exploded all over the base,
touching off three major fires.
The air base was under
continuous artillery fire.
I felt the rounds.
They were so close,
the shrapnel was plinking
against the fence behind us.
It was abundantly clear that
it was a whole new ball game.
We never expected any trouble out there.
And then, of course,
fear a little bit set in
because now we knew that it
really meant business, you know?
Were they gonna continue
shelling Tan Son Nhut?
They had given us a warning, you know?
"Get out. "
As the sun came up, General Smith,
who was our defense
attach out at Tan Son Nhut,
contacted the Ambassador and said,
"The plan to use the fixed-wing
"to get a few thousand people out today
"isn't gonna work.
"And we need to
consider that this is it.
"Option 4:
a heavy-lift helicopter evacuation. "
And Ambassador Martin
wouldn't hear of it.
He said, "I want to come out there.
I want to see it," and which he did.
He got in a sedan.
He didn't lack for guts.
There were still rounds coming in...
Sporadic, but there was
still artillery fire.
And he could see that the main runway
was full of craters from
North Vietnamese artillery.
And it was understood that General Smith
was not being premature with
the recommendation for Option 4.
McBRIDE: Ambassador Martin's
concern very clearly up to now
was that once we started
an official evacuation,
it's pretty obvious
that the game is over.
You've got to remember,
this is an ambassador
who had lost his only
son in combat in Vietnam.
One becomes pretty
invested in that country.
He had been holding out hope
that some kind of third-party
solution could be worked out
so that South Vietnam could continue
with some form of
independence or autonomy.
And he was being encouraged
to think that this might be possible.
But the morning of the 29th,
he came to accept the fact that
that wasn't going to happen.
And I picked up the phone
and told Secretary Kissinger
to inform the President
that I had decided we would
have to go to Option 4.
When I tell President Ford
the airport is being shelled
and that it's now time to pull the plug,
he keeps coming back time and again,
"You really think we have to do it?"
That's how heartbreaking it was for him.
He finally reluctantly
gave the go-ahead
for the final evacuation.
This is the American
Forces Vietnam Network.
The prearranged signal
for the evacuation
was broadcast on
American radio in Saigon.
The message was,
"The temperature is 105 and rising,"
and then Bing Crosby's
"White Christmas. "
And sure enough, about
10:00 in the morning,
I believe, on the 29th,
there was Bing Crosby on the airwaves.
I'm dreaming of
a white Christmas
Just like the
ones I used to know
Where the treetops
glisten and children listen
To hear sleigh
bells in the snow...
That morning, Ambassador Martin
received a message that
said within 24 hours,
the U.S. presence in
Vietnam had to be closed out,
meaning we had to be gone.
It was obvious that there was the need
for a hasty plan to be developed
for a helicopter airlift out
of the embassy to the fleet.
And we had less than
24 hours to pull it off.
McBRIDE: That morning, there
must have been, I would guess,
at least 10,000 people
literally ringing the embassy.
The embassy compound was
the size of a city block.
It was big.
And all sides of it were
filled 200, 300 feet back.
Fortunately, people were by
and large very controlled.
They were very patient.
They were just hoping
desperately to get in.
It's like the whole of Saigon
want to get inside the American embassy.
So you have to know somebody, you know?
If you're like me, I find my friend
and got a little paper
to ensure us to get in.
So several of us went to the embassy.
Then my friend, he showed
the paper to the guard,
and he's just kind of
pointing at each one of us,
and we, one by one, could
go inside of the embassy.
When I first got in, I feel so good.
"I'm in America... I'm almost there. "
They have a courtyard
and a swimming pool,
and we mostly gather
around the swimming pool.
And 1,000 people there, and
they just keep coming in.
That morning, CIA choppers
began picking up evacuees
off the roofs of
buildings around the city
and bringing them to the embassy.
There was an old pilot
named O.B. Harnage.
He was blind in one
eye and lame in one leg.
And I said, "Harnage, we
got people at 6 Gia Long.
You gotta go pick them up. "
It was the deputy CIA station
chief's apartment building.
There were a number of
very high-risk Vietnamese,
including the defense
minister of South Vietnam,
all waiting to be rescued.
As they climbed up
the ladder to the roof,
a photographer took
that famous photograph.
Many people thought that
was the U.S. embassy.
It wasn't.
But it indicated to what
extent chaos had descended
on this entire operation.
Inside the embassy,
everywhere we looked was
teeming with Vietnamese.
We counted them, and the total number
was about 2,800.
There was no hiding it that somehow,
people had to have let these
people into the embassy.
Was it, you know,
Marine security guards who
kind of looked the other way?
Was it American employees in the embassy
who were doing kind of
what we did with black ops
and taking care of their own?
We never got to the bottom of that
and frankly, we never pursued it.
One of the Marines said to me,
"You know, we should
take out the tailor. "
There was a tailor who made
all our civilian clothes.
So I said,
"Why don't we take out the cook too?"
He said, "Well, you should
take out the cook too,
"and all the other cooks.
"They should get out.
They had business with Americans. "
So they took the bread truck
and they rounded up the tailor,
the cooks and the dishwashers,
a few others and their families,
and drove them into
the embassy compound.
There was in the parking
lot of the embassy
a great tamarind tree,
which the Ambassador
had often referred to
as "steadfast as the American
commitment in Vietnam. "
The CIA station chief
that last morning said,
"Mr. Ambassador, we have
to cut this tree down. "
You could not land any large
helicopters on the parking lot
unless the tree and all
the shrubbery was all gone.
The Ambassador had resisted
us cutting that tree
because he did not want
anybody to be alerted
that we were doing
any sort of evacuation
or were going to do
any sort of evacuation.
He was upset.
But finally he succumbed,
you know, to just common sense
and gave up his, uh...
I guess you could call it a dream.
And we cut it down.
He had also, for the past few days,
prevented us from burning
classified documents
for fear that it would
panic the South Vietnamese.
So that morning of the 29th,
we had thousands of pages
of classified documents
we had failed to destroy beforehand.
Our next job was just looking
at that classified document idea
and getting rid of that.
So we went to every office
and told them to start pulling stuff,
and piles and piles of
paper began coming out.
And we began shredding.
There was a small building
where we handled the pay
for the Vietnamese who
worked for the embassy.
And in this building,
there was over $1
million in U.S. currency.
So we had to send a message to the Navy,
who sent it to the Treasury Department,
who came back and said, "Destroy it. "
So I assigned a few Marines
to get rid of the money.
And I said, "Oh, by the way,
we're gonna lock you in there. "
It took them eight hours
to burn a million dollars.
That morning,
fear and desperation
were the order of the day.
But I had a job to do,
and it was an important
job to do, I thought,
to deny the enemy the South
Vietnamese Naval ships.
We had expected, frankly,
a longer time period to get ready.
We had been told by people
in our intelligence community
that we might have as
long as the 4th of May,
but the North Vietnamese
were closing in quite tightly,
and clearly it was time to
send the signal to leave.
I knew this,
but I didn't know how many civilians
were gonna be on board.
I had no idea.
I was the first one into the embassy.
And my only mission at this time,
this is early in the afternoon,
was to bring the Ambassador out.
It was actually a mission that
was called "Embassy Snatch. "
I was just supposed
to get the Ambassador.
I land and I said to the people,
I said, "I'm here to
get the Ambassador. "
Well, not quite.
The Ambassador refused to
leave until he could get
as many Vietnamese on as
many choppers as possible.
The evacuation of Vietnamese happened
because Graham Martin
wanted it to happen.
So they loaded some
Vietnamese onto my helicopter
and because I'm supposed to
have the Ambassador on board,
we go right to the command
ship, the USS Blue Ridge.
We land on the Blue Ridge,
General Carey comes out,
wants to know where the Ambassador is.
I said, "Well, he didn't get on. "
I mean, I don't know
who I'm supposed to tell,
but I told everybody I was
supposed to get the Ambassador
but the Ambassador didn't get on.
So that starts the lift.
Like I say, we had 75
Marine Corps helicopters.
You and your wingman
would fly into the embassy,
get your passengers loaded,
and fly back out to the ships.
It was a little over
an hour back and forth.
On the USS Kirk, our mission was
to protect the helicopters moving
from the embassy out
to the aircraft carriers
and back and forth.
We were very close to the action.
You could stand there on the deck
and you could watch it all happening.
We thought that the USS
Kirk was just going to be
an observer to this whole thing
and when all of a sudden
on radar we started
seeing these little blips
coming out from the shore.
I really don't know where to start.
We looked up at the horizon
and all you could see
were helicopters all heading toward us.
These were not Marine Corps helicopters.
They were small helicopters,
the little Hueys,
which were never part
of the evacuation plan.
But they were flying over top of us.
We were watching them fly
over top over and over and over again.
We viewed them as enemy until
we could verify who it was.
Then we realized that these
were South Vietnamese trying to escape.
I figured if we could save one,
at least we'd save 15, 20 people.
They were packed in there like sardines.
So I made the decision.
Land the helicopter.
One of our sailors could
speak rudimentary Vietnamese.
So we put him on the radio
and he started broadcasting.
"This is ship 1087.
Land here. "
So, we got his attention.
He came flying over and
landed on our flight deck.
And it turned out that
the pilot, he was the pilot
for the deputy chairman of
the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Real high up.
And he had the general with
him, who was a two-star general,
and the two-star general's
nephew, three women,
and about four children.
It was a big deal for us.
When it landed, we got everything off.
And I looked up because
there were five, six,
seven stacked up ready to land.
Turned out all throughout
the southern part of Vietnam
there were South Vietnamese
Army and Air Force installations
with one or two or three
or four helicopters.
And those helicopters were flyable.
Their pilots were there.
And when they realized that
the evacuation was happening
and they weren't going to
be part of it, they said,
"Oh yeah, we are. "
These young Vietnamese pilots
would go to their homes,
land right in their front
yards, pick up their families
and anybody else, and head out to sea,
hoping they can rendezvous with a ship.
Well, we're one of the
first ships they saw.
Our flight deck will only take
one helicopter at a time landing.
There are no wheels on them.
They just have skids.
We couldn't think of what else
to do and these other planes
were looking for a place to land
so we just physically pushed them.
Of course, this was a big old
helicopter, thousands of pounds,
so we had to figure out
how to get it 15 feet over
to the edge of the flight deck.
You don't have time to
think about what you did,
you just had to do it.
So, we open up our flight
deck and they begin to land,
one right after the other.
Some of them were
shot at, holes in them.
Most of the Vietnamese
who came out, I'm talking
about the flight crews,
they were heavily armed,
all with side arms,
some with M-16 rifles.
They had no idea what was
going to happen so they came out
ready for anything, really.
So we had to disarm them.
None of them had ever
landed on a ship before.
They were Vietnamese Air Force.
Everybody had a gun and we took
all the guns away from them.
Then about five minutes later
another one came in and landed.
And we pushed his
airplane over the side.
That was the second one.
I helped push that one over, too.
Then the third plane came in.
It landed also.
We pushed it over the side.
So meanwhile, we've thrown three
helicopters in the water so far.
This is incredible.
I know you probably
don't believe any of this,
but it's all true.
By late afternoon,
the chopper flow at the
embassy really started.
And each time a bird came in,
here would go another 40, 50 people.
But did the right mix of people get out?
You know, who says that
these were the people
who either deserved or
should have gone out?
At the embassy a lot of
the people who got out
happened to be good wall jumpers.
The choppers started coming
in at ten-minute intervals.
One would land on the roof
and one would land on the parking lot.
They would put all the
Vietnamese in groups,
they would search them,
and if they had any weapons
all those weapons were
thrown into the swimming pool.
And as soon as the chopper
would land they would be brought
into the restricted area
where a couple of the Marines
would escort them into the aircraft.
Then they would raise
the ramp up and take off.
I remember I talked to my friend
and he said, "Oh, it's our turn now.
We're almost there. "
You know, so we're all excited.
And I remember very
distinctively that every time
the helicopter coming
down it just blew us away.
We have to kind of duck down
to fight with the wind of the chopper.
Three of the choppers that
came in each landed a platoon
of 40 Marines from the task force.
And they had to be brought in
because we didn't have enough
Marines in the embassy security
guard to secure the walls.
I went with my wife to the embassy.
A lot of people, they clenched
to the top of the wall,
but they couldn't get in.
Each gate was besieged like that,
although the side gate was the
principal place where they came.
People holding letters saying,
you know, "I worked for the Americans.
Please let me in. "
Journalists were arriving and
counting on being recognized
to be let in by the Marines.
There was a sea of people
wanting to get out by helicopters.
But, well, they looked up
at the helicopters leaving
and I could see their eyes.
Desperate eyes.
My dad flew a Chinook helicopter
in the South Vietnamese Air Force.
He had been waiting for
orders but his captain had,
you know, basically just left.
So he and some other pilots
picked out the best
Chinooks and took off.
He said it was the
Wild West at this point.
Just you and your horse and
you just do what you had to do
to survive and take care of your family.
He had given my mom a heads-up
that if she did hear a
Chinook coming, to get ready.
I was six and a half years old.
I can still hear the rumbling,
a very, you know, familiar
rumbling of a Chinook.
When you hear the Chinook
coming, you know it's coming.
I knew my dad was coming.
In Saigon, during my childhood,
it was like, say, living
in the middle of busy L.A.
So, there's really not a
big area to land the Chinook.
So he came in and
landed in a play field.
Caused a lot of wind,
caused a lot of commotion.
My mom grabbed my little sister,
who was about six months at that time,
and I have a little brother who was
about three or four
years old, and myself.
We quickly ran into the
Chinook and we all flew off
out into the Pacific Ocean.
My dad was afraid for
not having enough fuel,
afraid for a lot of things.
He was just flying blind.
And then he saw a ship out there.
In the middle of the
day, after we had taken
those first helicopters aboard,
this huge helicopter called a Chinook,
it came out and tried
to land on the ship.
And oh, we almost... the thing
almost crashed onboard our ship.
This big Chinook showed up.
There's no way he could land
on Kirk without impacting the ship.
He would have killed everybody
on this helicopter plus my crew.
It was way too big to land.
We thought that the
helicopter would just fly away.
But as the ship was moving
forward probably four, five,
six knots, something like
that, the pilot communicated
that he was running low on fuel.
He opened up the port side of
the helicopter and he hovered
across the stern of the Kirk.
Then, all of a sudden,
here comes a human.
One by one, we jump out.
I jumped out, my brother jumped out.
My mom was holding my
sister, obviously very scared.
And she just, you know, just
trustingly, just with one hand,
with her right hand, holding on
with her left to brace herself,
you know, just dropped my baby sister.
One fella is standing there
and he said he looked up
and he saw this big bundle
of stuff come flying out
and it was a baby.
It was the
one-year-old baby.
And then the mother jumped
out and he caught her, too.
Then the pilot flew out on
our starboard, right side.
He hovered with his wheels
in and out of the water.
He hovered there for like
ten minutes and we couldn't
figure out what he was
doing and it turned out
what he was doing was
taking his flight suit off.
Here's a man flying a twin
rotor helicopter by himself,
and at the same time he's
taking off a flight suit.
How you do it, I've
talked to helicopter pilots
and they can't figure out how
he did that, you know, how...
like a Houdini, trying
to get out of this thing.
And finally, he made the
helicopter roll to the right
as he stepped out the door on the left.
Just thunderous loud noise.
The shrapnel is just blowing up.
And suddenly just quiet.
And he pops up.
And he's alive.
And he swam away.
And the helicopter was
only about 20 feet from him
when it hit the water; it was amazing.
We went out and picked him up.
He was none, no worse for the wear.
He was a little bit wet.
Only one unfortunate thing is
he had some small bars of gold,
which was all his worldly possessions,
that were in his shirt
pocket and it sank.
So he lost everything.
He didn't own a thing but his underwear
when he finally came aboard the ship.
He was a tremendous pilot.
The guy was just so cool and calm.
We've so far taken a
total of 17 helicopters.
We ended up with 157
people aboard this ship.
And that crew was very special.
They went, they took their
money, went to the Navy exchange
and commissary, bought all the
clothes and food they could get,
took it up and gave it to the
refugees they had befriended.
They were unbelievable.
We laid mats and all kinds
of blankets and stuff out
on the deck for the babies.
And there were all kinds
of... there were infants
and children and women,
and oh, it was a scene
I'll never forget.
We were happy.
My mom was just, you know, wow.
Symbolically, it was like,
you know, the first step
onto not American soil,
but American freedom.
When we started the evacuation
we were very, very excited about it.
Then your next emotion probably was
just determined to get this job
done and get these people out.
And then, later as it
went on you became fatigued
and frustrated that you could
never make a dent in the amount
of people that were
coming out of the embassy.
You'd ask questions like, was
the crowd getting any smaller?
"When are we going to
finish this?" you know.
And they'd say,
"You know, we're under
orders from the Ambassador.
We're doing the best we can. "
Carrier pilots were saying,
look, it's an
uncontrollable sea of people
and Ambassador Martin
has lost his objectivity,
that Ambassador Martin
is trying to evacuate
all of Saigon through the U.S. embassy.
But he was doing his best
under terrible circumstances.
JOSEPH McBRIDE: Ambassador Martin
was dragging out the evacuation
as long as he could
to get as many South
Vietnamese out as possible.
Each helicopter took about 40 people.
He knew that once the
Americans were gone,
the evacuation would be over.
So they just put one or
two Americans on each one.
You're very tired and you're
not seeing an end to this thing.
So I got the word out,
"You know, we could
use some help out here.
We only have 75 helicopters. "
And the word comes back, "No.
No, Marine pilots don't get tired. "
Back at the embassy under
the Ambassador's direction,
we, of course, were taking advantage
of the presence of the aircraft
to evacuate threatened folks.
But there were other independent
efforts to get people out.
McBRIDE: Several of us at the embassy
agreed that we would drive vans
down to the docks on the Saigon River.
I had an assigned assembly
point in the middle of Saigon,
and I crammed about 15
people into a nine-person van
and then drove through
the streets of Saigon
through various checkpoints
down to the docks.
People would get out
and go running for these
commercial boats and get on.
I made a number of runs
and there'd just be more
and more and more people.
Finally, as the sun was going down,
we were running out of light.
Man came up to me.
I turned to him and said,
"This is my last load.
I, you know, I can't take anymore. "
I said, "Well, get your family. "
And he said, "Can't do it.
"My family's too big.
My family's too big. "
And he just shook my hand
and said, "Thanks for trying,"
and walked away.
So I came back to the
embassy and parked the van.
It was already getting
well into twilight.
Got my way through the crowd.
It was a big crowd.
I had nothing more I could do.
So I went to get on the helicopter
and Ambassador Martin pulled
me out of line and he said,
"I know what you've been doing.
"I know you've been out there.
"We've been talking.
I want to thank you. "
I thought that was a kind gesture.
By that time it was definitely dark.
The lights of the...
of the helicopter inside
radiated very clearly.
I sat down, looked around.
I was one of maybe
two or three Americans.
The rest were all Vietnamese.
And we flew out.
It was very dark.
I remember that.
And people started to elbow
each other and try to get
in the front line.
And that's when the
Captain Herrington started
speaking to us in Vietnamese.
"Nobody is going to be left behind. "
And then he said, "When
you are in American embassy,
"you are in American soil.
"I promise, me and my
soldier will be the last one
leave the embassy. "
So after that announcement
everybody feel relaxed.
Literally, we totally relaxed.
We have nothing to worry about.
We were told
that the North Vietnamese
tanks were coming very close.
So we asked, we in
the White House, asked
the Defense Department how
many South Vietnamese were left.
"Left" meant inside
the embassy compound.
And then we calculated
how many helicopters
it would take to get them out.
We told Martin that he had
to be on the last helicopter.
All I know is that in Washington
there was confusion about
the numbers on the ground.
At 1:00 a. m. there were
1,100 people left to evacuate.
After we'd had a flurry of choppers
and cleaned out more than half of them
and there were 420 people left,
we received an order from Washington
that the lift was over
other than the extraction
of the remaining Americans.
About 4:00 in the morning, 4:30,
I land on the USS Blue Ridge again.
So, General Carey comes
out, gives me an apple
and a cup of coffee
or something and says,
"We're under orders from the President.
You got to get the Ambassador out. "
So we fly in.
I land on the roof exactly at
4:50 in the morning and I said,
"I'm not leaving until
the Ambassador's onboard. "
One of the Marines lowered
the flag, folded it up
and escorted the Ambassador
up to the landing zone
up on top of the embassy
and he gave him the flag
and, uh, that was it.
Major Kean came to Colonel
Madison, said, "No more.
Only Americans from this point on. "
And Madison said, "The hell you say.
We've got these people over here. "
And Kean said, "Sir,
not going to happen.
It's a presidential order. "
And Madison said, "I'll take
this up with the Ambassador. "
He was very hot under the collar.
And Kean said, "You can't, that's him,"
and pointed to the CH-46
that was just flying away.
So the Ambassador's on board.
And out we go.
We land on the Blue Ridge.
15 or 20, maybe 25 people
get off with the Ambassador
and that was the end of it.
I flew 18.3 hours straight through.
Graham Martin looked very
tired, extremely haggard.
I mean, he looked like... I'm
sure the pressure was immense.
And at what time were
you to cease evacuation?
Cease evacuation?
We could still be flying if we
hadn't gotten the Ambassador out
because he refused to stop the lift.
I think about 3:00.
3:00 in the morning?
No, 3:45.
Colonel Madison says
to me, "We're screwed.
"Stu, you stay down
here in the parking lot
and keep these 420 people warm"...
Meaning if they see us
all leave at the same time
they'll panic... "and then
make your way to the roof.
We gotta go. "
And he was very angry
and very disappointed.
So they disappeared into the embassy.
And I went to where
the remaining Vietnamese
who were waiting and told them...
"Big helicopters about to
come," and waited a few minutes.
Then I saw a chopper
take off and I thought,
"Shit, was I supposed
to be on that one?"
So, I looked at the
Vietnamese and I said...
"I got to take a leak. "
And I left into the shadows.
I made my way around
in a circuitous route
and went into the embassy.
I thought about how this
really, really was wrong.
I thought maybe I should
just say, "I'm not leaving
till they go, because I promised them. "
And then I said, "Don't be a fool.
"Maybe they've started
shooting down helicopters
"for all you know.
"You're not going to
get anybody else out.
"It's a presidential order.
This decision has been made. "
So, I got to the roof and a
CH-46 alighted on the rooftop,
put its ramp down and we got on board.
As it took off, the door was open.
And down in the parking lot
I could see the group of 420 of them.
They were right were we
had left them marshaled
on this little patch of grass.
I felt absolutely awful.
It was just so... serious
and deep a betrayal.
Later that night I was
quite surprised that I got
a call to "Come alongside the flagship.
The Admiral wants to speak to you. "
My first reaction, as any
CO, is, "What did we do?"
not realizing we had been
picked for a special mission.
We were supposed to pick up this person.
He was 30 years old, came
aboard, civilian clothes.
And the Captain was just told
to take his direction from this guy.
I went aboard the Kirk and
met with Captain Paul Jacobs.
And the first thing he said to me is,
"Young man, I'm not accustomed
"to strange civilians
coming aboard my ship armed
in the middle of the night. "
And I said, "Captain, I
assure you, neither am I."
He smelled like a
Naval officer, you know.
You know, one officer
can smell another one.
So, I looked him up in the blue book.
He's a graduate of the Naval Academy.
So from that point on we were fine.
"What do you want to do?"
And we worked together as a team.
We steamed down to Con
Son Island and we could see
on the radar display that
there were a lot of blips.
And I remember dawn breaking
and the sun coming up,
and seeing what I had seen
as a radar display in person.
There were dozens of ships.
And not just Vietnamese naval ships,
but also civilian ships.
And they were all totally
crammed with people.
There are no words to describe
what a ship looks like that holds 200
and it's got 2,000 on it.
I don't think anybody really
understood the magnitude of it
until we looked at what
we got in front of us.
It looked like something out of Exodus.
Our mission was to help the
ships into international waters.
But now they had all these people.
My reaction is, "How the
hell are we going to do this?"
Most of the Vietnamese Navy
ships were dead in the water,
some were anchored,
some were just adrift.
So, we sent over our
engineering, technical people
to see what we could do to
help them and get them underway.
We had worked a plan out to sail
the ships to the Philippines.
And the Kirk was going to escort them.
But the fact that they're
going to be crammed
with an unknown number of civilians
was somewhat problematic.
The U.S. government already
had a refugee problem
with the U.S. Naval ships.
This was another 30,000 or
more people to deal with.
We were up all night talking about it.
And I'm convinced that if we
sent them back or took them back
they would have killed them all.
And Armitage decided to bring them.
And he didn't get permission
from Washington to do that.
I thought it was a lot
easier to beg forgiveness
than to get permission.
So the decision was made.
And they all went with us.
We had finally got out
the last of the refugees
that we could get out.
Now we had to evacuate the Marines.
They were all inside the
embassy building except for us.
I was still on the embassy
grounds with two of my sergeants
and I said, "You two stay right with me.
Don't leave my side. "
We slowly walked backwards
to the embassy door
and a couple of
Vietnamese came towards me.
I said, "We have no more helicopters.
"That's it.
"I'm sorry.
We cannot take you. "
And they began to argue with me.
They spoke good English, too.
"We can ride in your helicopter. "
I said, "I'm sorry, no more. "
So we spun around and
slammed these huge doors,
and we locked it from behind.
I kind of fall asleep off and on,
but what gets me woke up is the noise.
It's a different noise.
So I kind of look up.
And the first thing in my sight was
I didn't see that soldier
there anymore on that wall.
There were people throwing
blankets or jackets
and materials over the barbed wire
so they can climb over
the wire to come in.
It was like, "Where are the soldiers?"
We were going up the stairs.
Below me I could hear feet
running on the stairway.
When we got to the roof, Master
Sergeant Valdez was there.
He says, "We got everybody?"
"Yeah. "
I said, "Man, there's somebody
chasing me up those stairs. "
There were wall lockers up on the roof
and those big fire extinguishers
with wheels so we tilted
all those wall lockers
and the fire extinguishers,
put them against the door.
There was a little window there
that we could see them in there,
al the Vietnamese trying
to get to the roof.
The Marines started going
out as choppers came in.
Then all of a sudden choppers all cease.
There was 11 of us still left there.
The briefing was delayed until
the evacuation was completed
and the last helicopters
are now in the air.
The President commends the
personnel of the armed forces
who accomplished it, as well
as Ambassador Graham Martin
and the staff of his
mission who served so well
under difficult conditions.
We were told that Martin had
left on the last helicopter
and that the evacuation had ended.
I'm confident that every
American who wanted to come out
is out.
So we held a briefing.
Well, turned out not to
be the last helicopter
because there was another
horrendous screw-up.
There were no helicopters.
You know, we were just
kind of sitting down around
looking at each other,
wondering, you know,
what's going to happen here,
you know, whether they
truly had forgotten about us.
So I got on my radio and I began
saying, "U.S. Navy, U.S. Navy,
American embassy, request
extraction immediate. "
And I repeated this
over and over and over.
The only option we had
was sit on the stupid roof
like a sitting duck.
And I kept thinking, "Where
are the North Vietnamese?"
About 7:45 in the morning
you could start seeing
North Vietnamese coming down the road.
My thoughts were, "What's
to keep them from bombing
the top of the embassy roof
and blowing us off," you know?
A tank is going to take one shot.
If it hits the building, you're gone.
So I didn't like the
idea of being up there,
but where else are you going to go?
Finally I looked out
and I saw a black dot.
When that chopper landed,
I told the Marines,
"Go. Get in. "
I was the last one out.
And as I was putting my foot
on the ramp, I fell down,
and I'm just hanging on
and the ramp's going up.
The ramp is closing
and I did what I was trained
in my first tour... count.
So I went, "One, two, three,
four, five, six... ten.
"One, two, three,
four, five, six... ten.
Ten. "
And I looked at the crew chief
and I said, "Put it down. "
I knew I was missing one man.
I remember looking at the ramp
and two hands were over the top of it.
So the Marines just kind of grabbed me
and then just pulled me in.
We left, by my watch,
at 7:58 Saigon time.
And we were the last 11.
My cameraman, Neil Davis,
and I decided to stay.
We saw the last helicopter
leave from the roof.
We then tried to scramble
into the embassy ourselves.
Neil got to the roof.
I did not.
And he saw dozens of Vietnamese
just sitting on the helicopter
pad on the roof of the embassy,
waiting, wanting to get out.
And of course no more
helicopters were going to come.
I didn't join them.
I actually... scared.
If the Communists come in,
the last thing we want them to see us
is in the American embassy.
So we get out.
People were coming in
and out of the buildings.
Literally, anything that
could not be fastened down
or was not fastened down
was being taken away.
Any souvenirs from
the Ambassador's office
were taken away.
Almost brick by brick the
embassy was being dismantled.
It was ordinary looting.
But more than that, I think it
was just frustration and anger
and an opportunity to get
back, perhaps, at the Americans
because in the view of
many in that crowd that day,
we had deserted them.
NBC news correspondent Jim Laurie
is one of the few Americans
still left in Saigon,
in the city when President
Duong Van Minh went on the radio
and told the Viet Cong
that his country would
surrender unconditionally
and that he had told its
army to lay down its arms.
Here from Saigon radio hookup
is Laurie's report on the surrender.
In the words of General Minh,
"We are here to hand over
the power of government to you
in order to avoid bloodshed. "
It is a unilateral ceasefire
and an unconditional surrender.
The 30-year war in South
Vietnam is at last over.
The first thing I did was
to destroy my documents,
my badges, just keeping the civilian ID.
And then I went around
Saigon to see what happened.
I saw a lot of South Vietnamese
soldiers in underwear.
They took off all their
military clothes, boots,
and they threw them away.
And I thought, well,
what would happen to them?
And to me, to myself.
I thought of my friends who were
killed in action and I thought,
"Well, is this what we fought for?"
"Is this what the Americans came for?"
And I didn't have the answer.
I have wrestled with this ever since.
I realized that I had become
the quintessential American in Vietnam.
I had all these causes, all
these big things I was doing.
I was trying to get the
truth back to Washington.
I was talking to agents, trying
to persuade the Ambassador,
and I forgot that what was
at stake were human lives.
For years after that, I
hear that sound in my head,
that sound like,
"Tchk-tchk-tchk-tchk-tchk. "
In the middle of the
night I just jump up.
I thought the helicopter
come pick me up.
I called it "dream in the wind. "
Later we found out the
big fleet is out there.
You can just take a boat and go there.
They take everybody.
If you can get out
there, you're on board.
And I just didn't know that.
You know, so...
As we approached the
Philippines with our refugees,
there was a big problem.
They wouldn't let us in.
And the reason they
wouldn't let us in is
because the government
there had recognized
the new regime in Vietnam
and these Navy ships we were escorting,
they were all flying
South Vietnamese flags.
And the solution was to
reflag all these ships
as American ships.
They lowered their Vietnamese
flag, people crying.
It was very emotional for
them to lose their country,
their flag, their ship.
Everything was gone.
And then we raised the American flag.
We tried to do that with
as much dignity as we could.
There were thousands and
thousands of Americans
who served in Vietnam who were
sitting at home heartbroken
at watching this whole
thing come to naught.
The end of April of 1975 was...
the whole Vietnam
involvement in microcosm...
Promises made in good
faith, promises broken;
people being hurt because we
didn't get our act together.
You know, the whole Vietnam War
is a story that kind
of sounds like that.
But on the other hand,
sometimes there are moments
when good people have
to rise to the occasion
and do the things that need to be done.
And in Saigon, there was no
shortage of people like that.