Daylight came with the sound of artillery shells bursting in the city on Saigon’s last morning.
The sound could only mean that the North Vietnamese army had broken through the outer defenses and that the end of nearly 30 years of American effort - some would call it interference - was now at hand.
It was April 29, 1975. My journalist colleagues were already gathering in the halls of the gracious old colonial hotel that housed many of the press corps. One had a radio that could pick up American Embassy traffic.
“Tan Son Nhut” airport “being heavily shelled,” said a disembodied voice. “Four rounds in five seconds on the flight line.”
With this we knew that the frantic effort to evacuate Americans and Vietnamese by plane that had been going on for weeks was over, and that the only way out now would be by helicopter or by boat down the Saigon River.
The North Vietnamese offensive - a violation of the 1973 peace treaty that had removed the last American troops - had begun in January. In March, the entire South Vietnamese position collapsed when President Nguyen Van Thieu’s decision to abandon the highlands and fall back to the coastal provinces ended in a panic-stricken rout. After than, cities were abandoned faster than the North Vietnamese could capture them, amid horrific scenes of deserting troops holding on to helicopter skids and civilians foundering at sea in overcrowded flotillas.
We had been given evacuation maps showing places to assemble when the end came. We were told to listen to the radio for a weather report saying the temperature was “105 degrees and rising,” followed by 30 seconds of Bing Crosby singing “White Christmas.” If the broadcast was made, I never heard it. The artillery shells landing in the city were enough.
In previous days the entire city had been overwhelmed by an infectious anxiety. Strangers would clutch at foreigners in the streets begging to be rescued. Vietnamese crowded at the gates of foreign embassies - the air filling with ashes as the diplomats destroyed their papers. Suicides became frequent. Fathers asked Americans to marry their daughters to get them out. Vietnamese whom I had known for years asked for assurances I could not give. Desultory rockets came in over the city burning 500 houses in a crowded slum. A society that had put too much faith in foreigners was about to pay the price.
Later on that last morning we went across the street to the roof of a high-rise hotel to see fires burning out of control toward the airport. We watched the lazy arc of a heat-seeking missile rise up to meet a plane, which was flying over the city and promptly disintegrated in midair. None of us could meet another’s eye as we knew what would happen should the Vietnamese oppose the coming evacuation.
At the American Embassy there was a surreal scene of embassy guards chopping down a tree. For weeks embassy officials had urged Ambassador Graham Martin to chop down the tree so that helicopters could get into the embassy garden.
The ambassador had refused, believing that such an act could set off a panic among the Vietnamese. But to many on his staff the tree symbolized the tardiness of Martin’s evacuation preparations that was now about to end in tragedy for hundreds of Vietnamese about to spend the next 10 or 12 years in concentration camps, enduring what the Vietnamese communists euphemistically called “reeducation.”
It wasn’t until afternoon that the population of the city finally seemed to realize that the Americans were pulling out that very day. When they did, the anxiety and despair turned to wholesale panic. Hundreds, and then thousands, turned up at the American Embassy, pressing in on the walls and wire fence, the younger ones trying to scale it only to be thrown and kicked back by embassy guards. All the while a moaning filled the air as if from a sea of mourners.
Faces were forced against the wire from the ever-increasing crowd behind. A note was handed through, identifying the possessor as an agent for the CIA and asking me to alert the station chief. Pathetic telephone calls came through on jammed embassy lines from Vietnamese saying: “There are 30 of us here. What are our instructions? When are you coming for us?”
But for those not already inside the embassy, no help would ever come. The embassy staff was shredding the last of their documents and burning money lest it fall into enemy hands while the storm of humanity raged outside.
The twin fear was that South Vietnamese soldiers in the city, who were already taking off their uniforms to meld into the crowd, might turn on the Americans in their rage at betrayal, or that the North Vietnamese army might turn their guns on the embassy compound. Neither happened.
But a British colleague, James Fenton, now a professor of poetry at Oxford, later described my green-about-the-gills look as that of “a man convinced that he was about to be shelled, but was far too polite to mention the fact.” But no shells came. North Vietnamese Gen. Van Tien Dung would later write that he received instructions from Hanoi to press the attack but not to obstruct the American evacuation - an order that was obeyed.
It wasn’t until late in the afternoon that the helicopters swept in from the sea where an American evacuation armada waited. They came in low over the city and settled where Graham Martin’s tree had been. Evacuees were told to abandon their luggage and go aboard.
In came the helicopters, one after another, as they would all that evening and night and into the next dawn - the last of them leaving from the embassy roof as the maddened crowds finally broke down the fences and swarmed into the compound.
I left Saigon just as darkness was falling - up over the twin towers of the cathedral and the broad French avenues just as a rain squall broke over the city. Away to the north I could see the ammunition dumps along the Bien Hoa road blowing up in billowing flame.
Out over the coast and across the water we flew to the waiting ships in the South China Sea; only to be told to line up on deck while our orifices were probed by rubber gloved fingers - looking for drugs, they said. A final gesture to the press, said we.
All that evening and night, South Vietnamese helicopters, like butterflies borne on an offshore wind, landed briefly before being tossed overboard to make room for more. The day revealed hundreds upon hundreds of overcrowded boats bearing the first sea-hemorrhaging of Vietnam’s population, lying about us on the sea’s surface like the flotsam from an unimaginable shipwreck.