The Fall of Saigon (April, 1975, by Stephen Klinkhammer)
THE FALL OF SAIGON (April, 1975, by Stephen Klinkhammer)
The end of America's direct involvement in the Vietnam War also meant the end of South Vietnam's hopes for victory against the Communist North. Led by President Nguyen Van Thieu, South Vietnam had come to rely heavily on support from the United States, which reached its peak in 1969 with some 550,000 U.S. soldiers stationed in Southeast Asia. With that support gone, Thieu's government was forced to abandon the military defense of several key outlying areas. Contributing to the South's woes was an economic crisis brought on by the war and Thieu's growing unpopularity. When the North mounted a major offensive in 1975, the situation quickly became desperate. President Thieu resigned his office and fled to Taiwan as the capitol of the South, Saigon, fell to the North Vietnamese virtually without opposition. The following day, the government of the South surrendered, Saigon was renamed Ho Chi Minh City, and the divided country of Vietnam was whole once again.
The evacuation of Saigon, the whole thing, was called Operation New Wind or Fresh Wind or Fresh Breeze or something like that. We got to the aircraft carrier Midway, and as soon as we got off the helicopter—since I was a surgical tech, my hair was always under a cap and it was rather long, about halfway down my ears—the CO, who was up in the tower, comes down and says, "Get those guys down for haircuts." So right away he gets on us for haircuts. The Midway was our base of operations. Our surgical equipment, all the green crates, never did catch up to us. That's known throughout the military, that they never catch up with you, and the Midway didn't have an operating room. This is about April 10 or 11.
We were real close to shore at that time, right off Saigon. We heard that we were taking on a whole bunch of civilians. We would be flying in and out with refugees, with American personnel, with reporters. The Tan Son Nhut airport was being bombed with big rockets. You could see the explosions from the sea. We were flying in and taking on refugees, and they were flying out whatever they could. With the refugees there were worms, women going into labor, TB and wounded lying on the choppers because there were a lot of shells coming in. There were a couple dead or dying on the chopper whom we couldn't save. We were landing in Tan Son Nhut. That was our staging point, where everybody was loading.
There were people coming out in boats, half-sinking boats. There were people who had their own airplanes who were flying out. There were all these choppers we had left there; they were using these to fly out, the Vietnamese. The flight deck was so full of choppers that we had to push them overboard because there was no room, we couldn't get our own choppers in. We were flying the big medevac choppers. We had an overload, packing in about twenty-five at a time, both Vietnamese and American. It was total chaos. The Purple Heart Trail, the road that came into Saigon from the paddies west of the city, was so jammed, from the air I could see columns of people that were at least twenty miles long. A lot of children crying. Some had clothes they picked off dead bodies. Most were barefoot. There were oxcarts and they were hauling what they had. There were wounded men on both sides of the road with battle dressings on. The NVA was lobbing these rockets all over the place, they were wiping out civilians …There were piles of wounded on the back of ambulances. They were dropping the rockets right into the crowds of fleeing people. There were trucks, buses, anything they could get into. Saigon was the last stand, the capital, where the American embassy was.
A lot of American Marines were activated and had put up a perimeter guard around Tan Son Nhut. The NVA was still lobbing these rockets in. In fact, when I took off we were also flying out from the American embassy—a lot of people had been told to go there instead of Tan Son Nhut. It was really a mess. These rockets are lobbing in and a C-130 took off full of people going out to one of the aircraft carriers and it was blown out of the sky …that was all over the runway. There were corpses, there were burned-out tanks that people had used to come in, there were pieces of bodies lying in the fields and on the streets. It was just bananas, total chaos. It was one mass of humanity being pushed to where people were being trampled. People screaming, "I want a place on this chopper!" and not being able to communicate because of the language barrier and because they would not listen.
They were raiding the American Exchange. The image I have is this one guy holding up one of those tenpacks of Kellogg's cereal and he's waving it. They were throwing American money up in the air …totally berserk …total chaos. We were trying to get the wounded first. They were piled in these old ambulances. The refugees were coming up from the Delta as well as from the North. We were trying to get the wounded out first and a lot of them we just couldn't.
Each time we went in, a bunch of Marines would get out and cover the landing zone as we tried to get the wounded on first, but sometimes they were just over-whelmed. They had orders to shoot if they couldn't maintain order. They shot mostly over the heads. I didn't see any of the Marines shoot any civilians. The Marines set up a defensive perimeter and would return fire at the enemy, but like the rest of the war, you never saw the NVA. The ARVN were running, they were coming in, they were bypassing civilians, shooting civilians, trying to get out first all the time. The best way to describe it was every man for himself. There were pregnant women going into labor right there on the goddamn landing zone. I delivered a baby right on the chopper. And I also delivered two more on the ships. It was just bananas.
We ended up with three thousand civilians aboard the Midway. We had taken all of our squadrons off because they had been there for offensive purposes. The civilians all stayed where the squadrons used to be. There were people sleeping on the floors, all over. Of course, they didn't know what a bathroom was. They were packed in, I'll tell you that. So we'd all take turns walking duty and if someone was puking or if someone had diarrhea or worms, we'd treat that.
On April 30 Saigon fell. South Vietnam had fallen. The Vice-President, Ky, flew out to the Midway in his own Cessna. Ky had with him an immense amount of gold bars. A lot of these people, some of the higher-ups in the ARVN and so on, had with them a lot of American money. We confiscated everything from civilians when they came on board. There were pounds and pounds of pure heroin, pounds and pounds of nice marijuana, which I really wanted to sample. People had little cherry-bomb grenades. We picked up guns. A lot of canned fish had to be tossed out. A lot of fever, they had a lot of malaria. So we had these three thousand people packed in there. That was the best we could do. We had a twenty-four-hour watch on a couple of kids down in the sick bay who had 104-degree temperatures. We had an interpreter down there and a bunch of families stayed with him. There were dead bodies we were bagging and bagging. There were still people fleeing Saigon in small boats.
The Vietnamese were scared. I have to put myself in their place—leaving my home, not being sure where I'm going to go, what's going to happen to me. They were very calm, almost in shock. We fed them and had interpreters tell them what to do, and I think the interpreters helped a lot. We had gunnery sergeants, old Marines, who spoke the language. I knew enough to get by, enough to say, "What's wrong with you?" or "I need this" or "I need that." They were basically very calm, sleeping on the hangar deck. They were treated very nice. They were in, I guess you could call it, shock—just a panic, the intensity of the five-or ten-day span there.…The adrenaline runs for so long, then it all stops. The war's ending cut you off just like that. You say okay, but the adrenaline is still running.
I have cried my ass off. I don't have any tears left. I first started letting it out in April of 1977. It took two years. I did that because I just couldn't handle being a soldier anymore.….I got out of the Navy in June of '76, but I still acted like one. I guess I still do in a way. I still sleep with one eye open, you know. And I wake up with bad dreams that I have of taking fire and watching people being murdered and being a part of that process. In fact, around this time of year—Christmas time—it gets really heavy for some reason. My wife knows it. Sometimes she feels inadequate because she doesn't know how to deal with that. I get really upset and I have to cry a lot and talk. Once I start it's like for three or four hours. I'm completely exhausted. I cry myself to sleep wherever I am, or I need to go out by myself. People feel inadequate. My wife feels inadequate. I tell her, "There's nothing you can do that can be any more adequate than just to be here." There is no understanding. My mind isn't mature enough. It wasn't then and it isn't now and it's never going to be able to understand murder.
It's a dull pain, you know. Just a whole lot of knowledge that I think I've gained, and I think I've grown from it. And I have to deal with that maturity, too, in myself. I grew up real fast. Real fast. It seems like a whole block of my life that I can't account for and I want to find that block because I know it's important. I have a certain pride, too, because I was a damn good medic—I have problems with that. I think a lot of times that it's my fault, and it's not my fault—there is no blame. The actual emotions are a fact. I'm a fresh veteran, I'm really not that old—I'm twenty-five, I'm just out. And there's still a lot of things that I'm real close to in there. A lot of that system I didn't mind. But the people I know say, "Steve, forget it. It's over." The last thing I need is pity. The last thing I need is someone to feel sorry for me.
My mother told my brother, "Leave Steve alone, he's not the same anymore." This was after my first tour in 'Nam. I guess I was changed and didn't know it. You're the last person to see yourself change. And the fact that you're not going to get any pats on the back, you're not going to get a parade, you're not going to get anything but spit on and misunderstood and blamed—I still feel that sometimes. Maybe I could have done better.
People want me to bury it. I can't bury it. I did learn something and I'm not sure what. But I know it's affected me a whole lot. And I think it's in a good way and I think I've really grown from that, because I don't want to see it happen again and I really care about people. To really try to help people to work through the problems of their own.
SOURCE: Klinkhammer, Stephen. "The Fall of Saigon." In Everything We Had: An Oral History of the Vietnam War by Thirty-Three American Soldiers Who Fought It. Edited by Al Santoli. New York: Random House, 1981.