August 2001/September 2001
Rendezvous With War Symposium
The Fall of Saigon and Phnom Penh
The End of Folly
"The Fall of Saigon and Phnom
Penh" panel was moderated by William & Mary's
Michael Finn (front row, left).
In April 2000, Vietnam Veterans of America and the College of
William & Mary sponsored Rendezvous With War, a
three-day symposium that examined multiple aspects of the Vietnam
War. The symposiumís second panel looked back at the warís
bitter end in April of 1975.
William & Mary Physics Professor Michael Finn, who served
with the Armyís Fourth Infantry Division in 1969-70, moderated
the panel. The panelists were AP correspondent Peter Arnett, who
briefly remained in Saigon after the communist takeover; Herbert
Fix, who commanded U.S. helicopter forces in Indochina in the
spring of 1975; journalist Joe Galloway, who covered the fall of
both Saigon and Phnom Penh; Sydney Schanberg, who reported from
Cambodia from 1970-75 for The New York Times; and Russ
Thurman, a retired Marine Corps captain who participated in the
evacuations of Cambodia and South Vietnam.
Michael Finn: We have a distinguished panel of eyewitnesses
to the climactic events of the Vietnam War: the fall of Saigon and
Phnom Penh. Thirty years ago I was a rifleman serving with the
Fourth Infantry Division in the Central Highlands of Vietnam.
Panelists Peter Arnett, Herbert Fix, and
In April of 1975, I--like millions of other Americans--watched,
horrified, as the final act of our Vietnam misadventure played
itself out on national television. American troops were gone by
then. We gave the South Vietnamese no help in their final hours.
Gerald Ford was only a caretaker president in the wake of the
Watergate scandal. The Case-Church Amendment of 1973 effectively
prohibited our further involvement in the conflict. As the last
Americans were being airlifted from our embassy, Saigon fell. Our
involvement there had ended as shamefully as it had begun.
That same month, Cambodia fell to the Khmer Rouge. Three
decades of folly in American policy had borne bitter fruit. The
names of 58,000 American war dead are inscribed on a long, black
wall in our nationís capital. Another 153,000 were wounded
severely enough to be hospitalized. One to two million Vietnamese
died in the conflict. Another one to two million human beings died
in the killing fields of Cambodia. No one will know the final body
Let me begin by introducing our panelists. I will ask each of
them to begin by setting the scene for us. Peter Arnett, the Cable
News Network correspondent and author, was the longest-serving
reporter in South Vietnam, having covered the war for the
Associated Press from 1962 to 1975. His awards include the
Pulitzer Prize and the George Polk Award. His Vietnam War
experiences are the subject of the 1994 memoir, Live from the
Herbert Fix retired as a colonel from the U.S. Marine Corps in
1982 after 25 years of service. He served three tours in Vietnam
and commanded American helicopter forces during both the fall of
Saigon and the fall of Phnom Penh.
Joseph Galloway, the veteran journalist and author, served as a
war correspondent in Vietnam for United Press International. He is
the co-author with General Hal Moore of the best-selling 1993
book, We Were Soldiers, Once, and Young.
Sydney Schanberg covered the Vietnam War in Cambodia from 1970
to 1975 for The New York Times. He won the 1976 Pulitzer
Prize for his reporting on the Cambodian conflict. His 1985 book, The
Death and Life of Dith Pran, is his account of the events
portrayed in the film The Killing Fields.
Russ Thurman served two tours in Vietnam and then returned, in
1975, for the evacuation of Cambodia and South Vietnam. He retired
from the Marine Corps in 1985 with the rank of captain, and he
launched a career as a technical adviser on several major
Hollywood films, including Born on the Fourth of July and Jacobís
Peter Arnett, letís begin with you. Where you were in 1975
and what did you see?
Peter Arnett: It was 25 years ago, but it seems just like
yesterday. In fact 25 years ago this day, Iíd been in Saigon for
two months covering the fast-approaching fall of the whole
country. But I was brought to New Orleans by the AP where the
annual conference of AP publishers was being held in a beautiful
hotel ballroom. I was trying to answer questions about Vietnam and
what would be happening there.
It struck me--having spent two months in Vietnam, having
watched the fall of Danang, having seen the growing chaos, the
great needs of the Vietnamese, the panic setting in--to come back
to the United States to a place like New Orleans where everything
seemed to be functioning very normally. Even though I made the
most dire predictions at this conference, no one seemed
over-concerned. I think that set the pattern for me.
While Vietnam was collapsing--and it was a terrible historical
moment for the United States-- back home there didnít seem to be
great concern. There were no demonstrations on the streets. There
seemed to be no feeling--maybe numbness would have been it.
I returned to Vietnam a few days later and decided--as the
month went by and as the country was being rolled up with
increasing rapidity, town after town, province after province--to
stay as a witness to what was going to happen, a witness to
Vietnam under the communists. A terribly dire prediction had been
made in various forums and by various people, including three or
four American presidents, numerous generals, and many patriots,
about how terrible it would be if South Vietnam ever fell to the
communists. I determined to stay and watch, and thatís basically
what I was doing.
I felt a real need to be able to record the events of the
takeover, just as Iíd recorded the previous decade of the war.
Herbert Fix: When the year began in 1975, I was stationed
in paradise, in Hawaii, one place a lot of Marines love to go and
serve their time. I had the best job a lieutenant colonel could
have. I was commanding officer of the helicopter squadron at
Kaneohe on Oahu.
I was interested, of course, in watching the events that were
taking place in Saigon and in Vietnam. After I talked to a few
friends about what they expected, I knew that our sister squadron
was sitting off the coast of Cambodia and trying to go into
Cambodia. I mentioned to the officers on the staff that if they
needed any help, my squadron was ready to go to work.
They took me up on my offer. The 23rd of March we received an
order from headquarters of the Marine Corps to deploy aboard the
U.S.S. Hancock. The Hancock was going to be in Pearl
Harbor on the 26th of March. We got the order to execute our goal
on the 23rd. We sailed out of Pearl Harbor on the 26th of March,
which is a feat in itself. The squadron was 36 officers and about
270 enlisted, and 16 CH 53D helicopters.
We steamed across the Pacific, and we went through the
Philippines where I picked up sixteen 46s that were assigned to
me--two different detachments from sister squadrons there and some
Cobra aircraft. An entire battalion of the second Marines joined
We pulled into Cambodian waters on the 11th of April and went
into Phnom Penh on the 12th. We thought the situation in Vietnam
was getting a little better; it appeared that the Army troops were
going to withstand some of the attacks. It looked like the
situation was going to change for a little while, so the Hancock
was ordered to go to Malaysia.
We went to Singapore, supposedly for a ten-day port call. We
got there on the 16th. Twenty-four hours later, we got notice to
sail in four hours. By some act of God, I donít know how, we
sailed out of there with all of the Marines aboard the aircraft
carrier, but we were pretty frantic trying to find exactly where
some of them were.
We arrived in Saigon waters on the 20th of April. We sat there,
off the coast of Saigon from the 20th of April until the day we
executed and went in and started flying on the 29th.
Joseph Galloway: I was based in Singapore at the time for
UPI and was ordered into Saigon in February. Things had gotten
very dicey in Cambodia. Because UPI was so desperately cheap, it
wouldnít buy the sort of communications that worked between
Phnom Penh and New York, and instead found a cheap line that
worked between Phnom Penh and Saigon. So weíre desking the story
out of Saigon, and they asked me to go in and do that. I was
sitting there, working the Cambodian story, when all of a sudden,
something started happening in the Central Highlands, which is a
place that always--ever since November 1965--made the hair rise up
on the back of my neck.
Joe Galloway: "In ten years of this
war, I had never seen an establishment coming apart at the
seams like that embassy and that mission did in that
Something started transpiring there, an attack on Ban Me Thuot
by North Vietnamese regulars in massive strength. They quickly
overran the garrison and started to roll up the South Vietnamese
forces, turning from Ban Me Thuot toward Pleiku and the beginning
of a panicky withdrawal of civilians and military. Other things
started to pop around the country.
Iím looking at this on an hourly basis and suddenly things
start rolling up. Theyíre rolling up Hue, Phu Bai. Decisions are
being made by President Thieu--we wonít defend Hue; then, yes,
weíll defend Hue. It was total chaos, and the panic was
building. These were the stories we were writing.
At the same time, itís almost a Catch-22. We would have
American businessmen coming in the bureau saying, "What do
you think is going on?" Weíd say, "I think the country
is falling." And theyíd say, "But I was just at a
briefing at the embassy for American businessmen, and they told us
everything is fine, and we shouldnít panic, and just keep our
money working here, and democracy will prevail." And youíd
say, "Iíve got to tell you that things are not looking
good. Whereís your plant, Dalat? Okay, I wouldnít go up to
check it out."
Other things were happening that I--in ten years of experience
of covering Vietnam--had never seen before. Career CIA field
agents walked into my bureau and said, "Theyíre all crazy
at the goddamn embassy, and I canít get them to listen to me
about an orderly evacuation plan."
At Tan Son Nhut, they were flying out bar girls and fishermenís
wives. They said, "Iím sitting here with North Vietnamese
colonels who have defected, and if you think they arenít going
to die when the bad guys come in, along with all of the other
defectors, and Iíve got a list here and a prioritized list, and
hereís what we need. I go to the embassy, and I canít get
anybody to listen. Will you take this plan and write a story about
it? Maybe somebody will listen to you."
In ten years of this war, I had never seen an establishment
coming apart at the seams like that embassy and that mission did
in that moment.
I sat there and worked this story up until early April. Funny
things go on in a war. The ambassador had a mobile phone in his
car. We had a Japanese radio--it probably cost forty bucks at the
PX--that would pick up the frequency the ambassadorís radio
phone worked on. So thatís what we kept it tuned to.
We were listening to it one morning, and he had gone out to the
airport to see off a C5 baby lift aircraft, which itself was a
cover operation. What was really going in it besides the babies
were the women employees of the State Department, the CIA, the NSA.
All of these people were being evacuated in a non-evacuation. The
ambassador was insisting there be no sign of an evacuation. The
ambassador had gone out and seen them off. He was on his way back
when he received a call--which we heard--saying the plane had just
gone into a rice paddy.
Someone said, "You go to Seventh Field Hospital, you go to
the rice paddies." I went to Seventh Field Hospital. I was
standing there when they backed the first ambulance up and they
brought a stretcher out, and they piled on it the bodies of
babies. There were 20 or 30 on one stretcher. I looked at that.
Thatís the only time in a long life and long career that the
last thing I could think of was to file a story. I turned around
and found a taxi and went back to the bureau. I didnít want to
see it. I thought to myself, "Even when we try to do
something right, we have screwed it up."
I left Vietnam about a week later. I was actually in Bangkok
working on the people coming out of Phnom Penh when Saigon fell
and a bulletin came across. It was a sad moment. It was, in
essence, a betrayal. We had made certain promises to the
Vietnamese people that encouraged them to fight on when they might
have otherwise found some settlement short of killing a million or
two of their own.
We had given them assurances, and we did not live up to them.
What we are here, right now, talking about is the 25th anniversary
of a very shameful moment.
Sydney Schanberg: I find when people ask me about Cambodia
that there is very little known in most circles about the history.
So Iím going to touch on some moments of history.
Sydney Schanberg:"The Khmer Rouge began
using the bombing as a recruiting tool saying, "There's
the enemy, 30,000 feet up...'and it worked."
Like Vietnam, Cambodia was a French colony. After World War II,
it became independent. It was never a democracy. Mostly it was a
monarchy. Prince Sihanouk, from the Norodom family, was ruling in,
letís say, the 1960s. He was always described as walking a
tightrope between the Americans and the North Vietnamese, trying
to please them both enough so they wouldnít draw his country
into war. He allowed the Vietnamese to use his only deep-water
port to bring in supplies and also to set up the Ho Chi Minh Trail
through border areas of Cambodia. He allowed the Americans to
bomb, secretly at that time. That was between 1969 and March-April
In the middle sixties, he broke relations with the Americans.
Hanoi was giving him a very hard time about American interference,
and the North Vietnamese were the biggest threat, so he broke
relations with Washington. In 1969 he restored them. So we set up
a very tiny consulate at first, with about five people in it. It
had a consular officer and others who pretended to be
communications officers. A couple of them were CIA. It wasnít
much of an embassy. Early in the next year--March--a junta of four
men (the only name youíre going to remember is Lon Nol) led a
coup that ousted Sihanouk while he was on one of his annual health
trips having his intestines washed out in southern France, which
was a custom at that time for the elite in Cambodia.
They took that opportunity to stage a coup. It was bloodless.
They closed down the airport so that he couldnít return. He went
to the Americans, and then he went to the Soviets, and then he
went to what was then Peking, now Beijing, and they said they
would help him out. Meanwhile, he couldnít get back into his own
In Washington, an opportunity was seen. That was, now we have
an ally, a pro-Western-type person, Gen. Lon Nol, and now we can
do some of the things weíve been trying to do for years--one of
which was to invade those North Vietnamese sanctuaries inside
Cambodia that were at the bottom of the Ho Chi Minh Trail.
So we told Lon Nol that he was our ally and that made him feel
so brave that he gave the North Vietnamese 48 hours to get out of
his country. That was like a traffic cop telling a tank to leave
the city. Of course, they didnít leave the country. They came
further inside, and on April 30th, President Nixon went on
television and announced that he had sent several tens of
thousands of American troops into Cambodia to disrupt the
sanctuaries. At some of those press conferences, Melvin Laird held
up a piece of pipe and said it was their oil supply line. We
learned later that it was just a piece of pipe that looked like it
might be an oil supply line.
We captured a lot of weapons. The war spread into Cambodia.
Mostly we were still fighting the Vietnamese there. But now we
turned to the Cambodians who had a kind of army, but for the last
several decades had only been repairing roads. There had been no
war for them. They knew how to fill a pothole, but not much about
We eventually began shipping in captured AK-47s and some M16s,
and we sent some T28 trainer planes that could be equipped to drop
bombs. The idea was to develop a light infantry army that could
distract one or two North Vietnamese mainline divisions so that we
could withdraw from Vietnam more quickly and with fewer
This sounds okay on paper in terms of the American
self-interest. In fact, the first head of the American military
equipment delivery team told me one night that the policy went as
follows: "We hired them to fight the Vietnamese, and for
every Vietnamese they pull away from battlefields in Vietnam, thatís
a plus for us."
And when I asked him, "Didnít that sound like we were
hiring mercenaries?" he said, "Yes, you could call them
mercenaries." We really didnít have much interest in
Cambodia; we had no national security interest there certainly. It
was a country of seven or eight million people.
When we began to bomb, the bombing that was secret now became
public. The Khmer Rouge, we have learned from their documents,
used the bombing to recruit. Thereís one thing you have to keep
in mind that Henry Kissinger would rather you not be told. At the
beginning of the war, the Khmer Rouge, a revolutionary band of
guerrillas led by Paris-educated visionaries or madmen (depending
on which words you want to use) had been active for several years,
disrupting commerce and stopping a train, blowing up a bridge, and
generally being a nuisance but not a major threat in Cambodia.
In 1970, when we sent our troops in and stirred the pot and
spread the war, the Khmer Rouge numbered perhaps 3,000, maybe
5,000 maximum. Thatís the highest figure anyone has ever
estimated: 5,000 bandits running around the country, occasionally
trained by the Vietnamese but not heavily armed.
The Khmer Rouge began using the bombing as a recruiting tool
saying, "Thereís the enemy, 30,000 feet up, B52s, theyíre
trying to destroy you," and it worked. They began to gather
adherents in the deep villages, tribal areas, far from towns and
In 1973, the bombing was intensified. Thatís because we had
pulled out our combat troops from Vietnam, and all the B52s from
Guam and Thailand that were being used to bomb in Vietnam could
now be directed at Cambodia. There were more bombs dropped in
Cambodia in a six-month period in 1973 than in huge segments of
Europe during World War II.
More than once, the capital and the country came close to
falling. The bombing was ended by congressional edict on August
15, 1973. The last I heard from an American fighter bomber was the
voice of a pilot speaking to one of his squadron colleagues, as
noontime approached, the cutoff hour: "See you in the next
Things went downhill after that. The countryís economy had
been disrupted since 1970. A lot of starvation set in. Children
began dying in greater numbers. Middle-aged people were stronger
and, therefore, their physical health allowed them to last a
little longer. The Khmer Rouge now numbered 70,000 to 100,000, had
been fiercely trained and fiercely indoctrinated, and had done a
lot of murdering, slaughtering, and massacring in the areas they
controlled, which was by then about 80 percent of the country. All
that was left was a few provinces, towns, and the capital. They
started an offensive on New Yearís Eve of 1974, and from then it
really went downhill.
As the circle closed around Phnom Penh in late March, early
April, the embassy began destroying documents--not just shredding
but burning. The ashes would come out of a chimney at the top of
the embassy and would scatter down into the embassy yard. So it
was always filled with black remnants of burned paper.
April 12 was evacuation day, and weíd been expecting it for
several days. The embassy had a plan. They were going to notify
everybody on the morning of the day it was to take place. So on
the morning of April 12, there was a knock on my hotel door from a
colleague saying, "Todayís the day." Iíd been up
until about 3:00 or 4:00 filing copy, so I said, "I donít
know if I can pack in time." That was the first irrational
thought I had.
Then I sent someone to get my Cambodian
friend-colleague-brother, Dith Pran, and he came running in. We
had about 15 minutes to talk about this. We had already had some
conversations. We both desperately, irrationally, obsessively
wanted to stay, because weíd been there--Iíd been there for
five years; he, his whole life. We wanted to see what was going to
The entire population of this city, pretty much, engaged in
some wishful thinking, including the press corps, including me. It
was a triumph of hope over experience. We all came to hope that
when the Khmer Rouge came into the city, since they were
Cambodians and the population was Cambodian, there wouldnít be a
need for any more massacres or killing. Although some officials
would be killed, the population would not be slaughtered. That was
complete wishful thinking.
But we wanted to stay. So Pran and I were sitting in my hotel
room, and I say, "What do you want to do?" And he says,
"What do you want to do?" Here was the long-nosed white
man being asked by his brown friend. I didnít want to be
responsible but, obviously, if I was going to stay, I would want
him to stay, and he knew that. All of those vibrations were in the
Pran said, "We agreed that if we didnít feel personally
in danger, that weíd stay. Do you feel in danger?" I said,
"No, not at this moment." He said, "I donít feel
in danger either," taking us both off the hook. I said,
"Go home and get your family," because weíd already
arranged with the embassy that theyíd be evacuated when the
I went to the embassy and checked them in. There was no panic
at the embassy, unlike Saigon. People came, curious, wondering
what was happening. The embassy had alerted some 300-plus
Cambodian officials, telling them that on the day of the
evacuation they would be notified early in the morning and taken
out with their families. Exactly two of those officials showed up.
One was a retired general; another was a low-level cabinet
minister, the minister of mining.
That was it. Every other Cambodian official chose not to leave
his country, which tells you something about the pull of homeland
and also something about how little we knew about these people. We
assumed they would come, just to save their lives. They didnít.
Down the road in a soccer field next to a middle-class housing
project, with an island across the river from which, eventually,
the Khmer Rouge began sending in either mortars or recoilless
cannon fire, the helicopters were landing. Pranís family, his
wife and four children, were the last people on the last
helicopter because they came late to the embassy, and I was going
a little berserk, doing something unimportant when they got there.
They went out on the last flatbed truck.
A defense attachť at the embassy was a gun aficionado, and he
had a sawed-off shotgun he was taking out that had been tooled
especially for him. This was something he loved, something he
valued. He saw Pran and I. He got stunned and startled and said,
"Youíre staying?" I said, "Yes, donít make a
fuss," because I didnít want to make the family think we
were at risk. He said, "Take this." He tried to hand me
this sawed-off shotgun. I said, "Look, Iíll blow off both
feet. You know that, donít you?" We made a joke and waved
and then drove to the landing zone and saw the family off.
There are a lot of other things that happened in the next five
days before the Khmer Rouge came. The highest casualties of the
war--civilian casualties and military--occurred on the last day of
The night before, at the entrance to the city, a big battle
took place. You could see flames rising into the night sky. I saw
them from a building which housed a Chinese radio transmitter (the
main telegraph office had broken down, so weíd gone to this
other place). We got it working for a while, and then it conked
out. When we left, the sky was lit up.
Five days later, on the 17th, the Khmer Rouge marched into
Phnom Penh--which was a city swollen with a million and a half
refugees, to a total of more than two million people. Weíd never
seen anybody like them. They were rigid, cold, dead behind the
eyes. You could tell immediately that to them we were just
insects. We didnít mess with them; we took sanctuary in the
We were evacuated early in the morning on May 1st. We could
hear planes overhead; those were the planes of pilots fleeing
Saigon because Saigon had fallen.
It all came together in that dawn of May 1st. Indochina had
fallen, and three days later, we reached Thailand and safety. But
our Cambodian friends had been forced out of the embassy because
they had no passports, and we had to watch them march up the road
to God knows what and for most of them it was God knows what. And
Iím one of the lucky ones, because my best friend survived, and
that was my miracle.
Russ Thurman: Itís a real honor to be here. In April
1975, I was a gunnery sergeant assigned to Third Marine Division
headquarters. I was tougher than Chinese arithmetic. I had also
broken my collarbone in a touch football game in December of 1974,
which I kept a secret because it would prevent me from
participating in the shipping, or the mount-out, of one of the
military expeditionary forces which was being sent.
Russ Thurman: "Saigon was significantly
surrounded. We were significantly outnumbered. It got very
close, very scary."
While thereís always a Marine unit at sea in that area, we
knew our primary purpose was to evacuate Phnom Penh and later,
Saigon. The only questions to us were when it would happen--not
if, but when--and what options we would use. There were several
We also knew that when it got down the wire, in Saigon, that
the probability of us getting involved in one hell of a fight was
very high. The city was significantly surrounded. We were
significantly outnumbered, and for whatever reason we didnít
have to make that fight. It got very close, though, very scary.
We shipped out of Okinawa in January. I was aboard the U.S.S. Okinawa.
We sailed around; we drilled night and day for all the options
that we would have. Meanwhile, back in the United States, no one
cared. Life was normal, people went about their lives just as
normal. Yet in Southeast Asia, things were going to hell.
For those of us who fought in Vietnam--I was there in 1966,
pulled a tour, pulled a double tour in 1967--some of us invested
an awful lot of our lives there. A lot of us made a lot of
investments. So in 1975, there was no way that I was not going to
be involved in the final days.
We shipped out, and we drilled, and we drilled, and we drilled.
Quite frankly, the evacuation of Phnom Phen was textbook. It was
in and out. The helicopters came off the Hancock and the
U.S.S. Okinawa. It was precision. Ground security force
landed and secured the airfield where there was nothing going on.
Mortars started popping into some of the buildings on the sites,
but the evacuees were in and we were out. A few rounds were
hitting in the LZ when we left, but it was just like they wrote it
in the book.
We went back to the Philippines for a couple of days. We
figured we were going to be there two weeks, but we were there
less than 24 hours. We pulled back, took station off of Saigon,
and went to drills. Up early in the morning, draw your weapons,
draw your gear, go to debark stations. Stand down. Get up early in
the morning. Draw your ammunition, go to debark stations. Stand
down. And we did this day after day after day, and tensions were
We had parties going in, working very closely with the
evacuation forces. The thing that overwhelmed the evacuation force
was the number of people. It wasnít supposed to be that way. We
expected pretty much the same way as Phnom Penh: get in, get out.
I think we had designated about six hundred people, maybe a
It didnít work that way. A lot of people wanted to come out,
and as long as we could fly birds, we were going to fly birds.
We had one pilot who spent over 18 hours in a helicopter in a
20-hour period. Most people donít know that. Iím very proud to
be part of that operation--not because of what I did, but because
I was standing alongside these people. I saw what they went
through. In 1975 the military services, including the Marine
Corps, were experiencing whiplash from the sixties. Not always the
very finest Marines who ever pulled on a pair of combat boots were
in the Second Battalion, Fourth Marines, the ground security force
at the evacuation of Saigon.
Let me tell you something: There was not one accidental
discharge, not one, when we were surrounded. We knew that we had a
chance of 80 to 90 percent casualties in the first wave of
helicopters. And we still went. You donít think Iím proud to
have been part of that organization? Most Americans donít know
On April 29th, early morning hours, Lance Corporal Darwin Judge
and Corporal Charles McMann, two embassy guards guarding alongside
the fence at Tan Son Nhut were killed in a rocket attack, and we
knew that was it. The next day, though, was a massive operation. Iíve
never seen so many ships in one place in my life. I mean the U.S.S.
Okinawa and three other ships had been bobbing around out
there like lonely corks. All of a sudden, youíve got ships on
the horizon, everywhere.
The next morning the sky was absolutely black with helicopters.
Everything that flew, flew. Some of you have seen the pictures. We
pushed hundreds of them off our deck--hundreds-- because we were a
reload ship and we needed to have the deck space. We took them
off, we threw their weapons overboard, we searched them, we tied
up the cowboys. The operation was only supposed to last a couple
of hours, but it just went on and on and on, and late that night a
helicopter off the Hancock, a CH-46, was lost at sea. The
last four Marines were drowned.
It was one of the toughest operations I ever was part of. It
was the hardest day of the war for me--not the biggest battle, not
the longest battle, not the one with the most casualties. It was
the toughest day. Because at that moment, as good as what we were
doing--and we were doing good--your mind canít help but go back
to í66, í67, í68, Tet Offensive, and all the enormous things
that happened, all that long line of energy.
The worst was, we didnít keep our word. Thatís the worst
part. There was no high-fiving when that operation was over. In
fact, one of the quietest ships Iíve ever been aboard was on
April 30 when I stood on the deck of theOkinawa and took a
picture of the last 11 Marines to come out of Vietnam. There was
nothing happening on that ship. No one was bragging, because all
of the officers on that unit--almost all of the staff and COs and
some of the younger ones--had actually fought in Vietnam. We had
retreated in style, but we had retreated.
Let me tell you something: We didnít keep our word. Thatís
probably why the war still goes on for some of us and maybe always
will. How emotional was it in those last days? After the
Ambassador left, and that was a tough situation (some of you know
more about that story than I do), and the Marines were pulling
off, and the last 11 Marines were on top.
Thereís a myth going around that we didnít know they were
there. Itís not true. We had to get those last 11 guys off.
There were tense moments. Let me tell you something: The bad guys
were already there, it wasnít like they were down the street a
hundred miles. They were there. So it got a little intense. It
would have been one hell of a fight if they had popped one of
Michael Finn: Itís very hard for people who have not
served in Vietnam or covered the war to understand the depth of
passion that the war still evokes in peopleís memory. Iíd like
to ask Joe Galloway a quick question. You talked about the total
denial that the embassy had at the end of the war. Werenít we
totally in denial during the entire war?
Joe Galloway: Tough question. You know, as Gen. Moore said,
there were different armies and different wars that were fought in
Vietnam. I came in in March of 1965 right behind the first
battalion of Marines to land at Danang. You come into a situation
like that, and what you know about war maybe you picked up from
John Wayne movies. You have the impression that youíve got to
get there in a hurry, because itís going to be over quick. And
it takes you a week or two to figure out that thereís going to
be a lot of war, and itís going to last a long time. So
illusions tended to die quickly there.
All war is insane, but that was a special brand of insanity
when you have an ambassador in total denial at the end, an
ambassador who refuses to believe that whatís happening is
happening and wonít pull the chain on an orderly evacuation when
he should have done it 30 days before or 45 days before. A lot of
people get left behind and pay a hell of a price for it.
Peter Arnett: There was a very good book written after the
fall of Saigon called Decent Interval, by Frank Snepp, a
CIA operative. He meant Kissingerís decent interval.
The peace agreement of January 1973 pulled America out of the
Vietnam War, leaving a handful of diplomats and Marines in Saigon,
a considerable amount of aid but no firepower, no bombers. Every
Vietnamese in the South said without American planes, without
B52s, without American forces, weíre lost. What had happened in
the preceding decade, the U.S. had built up a half-million-man
army, and the North Vietnamese had built their forces to match
that army. You move the Americans, what have you got left? Youíve
got a strong North Vietnam a weak South Vietnam that just was not
able to rebuild.
So it was a losing war. Most Americans by 1974, from what I
could see, had written it off anyway. The last act was brutal and
terrifying for those who participated, but there is an aftermath.
We had the dramatic account, and it was truly dramatic--the radio
message of the 11 Marines leaving the embassy.
I had the pleasure, and it was a pleasure, in 1995 to take
eight of those Marines back to Saigon on their first visit. Thatís
20 years after the war. I was with CNN. Not only did we go back to
Saigon, we went back to the roof of the American Embassy, from
which they had so dramatically departed 20 years earlier at
sunrise on the morning of April 30. Amazingly enough, there were
still sandbags on the roof that they could recognize. There were
still markings of ammo cases. It hadnít changed much. It was
weathered, the bags were rotten, but it was pretty much the same.
What was interesting to me about those Marines was that they
had accepted the fact that the war had been lost, that they had
played a role in it. But theyíd come back to Vietnam. They shook
hands with a lot of North Vietnamese, and they were willing to try
to come to terms with what had been a losing war and with those
last dramatic days of that war.
Herbert Fix: There were a few things I wanted to add. In
January 1973, I was the executive officer of the Marine Heavy
Helicopter Squad 462 in Okinawa. The commanding officer, Lt. Col.
Don Webb, was sent to the CTS 78 staff to start for the planning
of Phnom Penh and the mine sweeping and the POW exchange.
Herbert Fix: "Directly below me was one
of the largest NVA tank and truck convoys I'd ever seen in my
life, sitting alongside of the road going into Saigon. The first
thing that crossed my mind was,'What are they waiting for?
Fortunately the did not shoot. They let us do the
When the POWs were released and the mine sweeping started, I
was the acting CO for the squadron. I was in the Philippine
Islands when the POWs were released and came out. That was very
dramatic to see the POWs finally being released.
When I went back to Okinawa, I was listening to the planning
for the evacuation of Phnom Penh and other cities in Southeast
Asia. Routinely for Marine operations, weíd operate for about 20
miles beachhead, and here we were talking about going 130 miles
over hostile territory. It seemed to be a completely crazy idea to
a lot of us. When I left Okinawa, I was thinking, "Iím glad
Iím not going to be going back into Phnom Penh. Iím going back
to Hawaii and take it easy."
But two years later, I was back for that evacuation. That was a
textbook exercise. We arrived off the coast and picked up what was
supposed to be, I think, the last intelligence reports. Of about
561 American citizens and indigenous personnel out of Phnom Penh,
we picked up 287. The Second Battalion, Fourth Marines dispersed
and went out and held a crowd back. There were a lot of crowds,
but they seemed to be there more out of curiosity than anything
On the route in I learned something, and I was glad to hear it.
A T28 flew by me, and I thought, "Where did that airplane
come from?" I had never seen a T28. I knew we didnít have
any T28s in South Vietnam. I had no idea until tonight. It didnít
belong to Col. King, who was the airborne commander. They didnít
know who it was. So we just kept our eye on it and it had
strange-looking markings. I donít know what the markings were.
He had several 50-caliber machine guns pointed at us for a
period of time. I donít know whether he knew that or not. So we
picked them up and went back into the ship, and we went in and
picked the people up. It was a very good exercise.
The President of the United States was getting a blow-by-blow
description of what we were doing. Immediately after that
evacuation, President Ford sent out a very complimentary message
to the people who were participating in it.
When we went back and sat off the coast of Saigon, we sat there
for ten days. That ten days was just about as interesting as the
actual exercise itself because there were hundreds, I mean
hundreds, of helicopters that flew out of Vietnam looking for a
safe haven and they landed on any place that they could. Theyíd
find an open spot. They landed on the Hancock on two
occasions. The deck was locked; it was too full. There was not
room for them to land.
A Huey helicopter hovered close to the aircraft carrier and the
passengers crawled out and jumped to the fly deck. Then the
helicopter pilot moved off to the side. In one case, he just
landed in the water and got out and was picked up. In another
case, he did something I had never seen before. The pilot crawled
out of the Huey helicopter, got out on the skids, and jumped clear
himself, and the helicopter kind of staggered there for a moment
and then went in the water. Fortunately it didnít hit him, but
the helicopter came down very close to him.
When the exercise took place, it was trying enough. It was
supposed to be a three- or four-hour operation. Between getting
prepared and drawing the ammo, rolling the airplanes, briefing and
getting ready to go, nobody slept more than one or two hours per
day. When we finally went in, we were already exhausted. Then we
flew almost continuously for 24 hours.
I do remember very vividly going in, at about 2:30 in the
morning, at the defense attachť compound just outside of Saigon.
That night there was no moon. It was a typical South Vietnam
spring or summer night. The thunderheads rolled in, and we had
ceilings at 400 feet. This might not mean much to anybody whoís
not a pilot, but the ceiling was low.
There were big thunderhead buildups, and we had to
circumnavigate around them. With no navigational aids, it got to
be very interesting--especially with as many helicopters as we had
going into the same place, trying to land on the same zone. I
marveled that we went through the night without a mid-air or
without somebody running into one another. We did not. But it was
At 2:30 I started to land at the DL compound. I picked up the
last of the American Marines who were there out of the defense
attachťís office. They told me to hover out there a little ways
because the landing zone--the parking lot--was full. I had to wait
until the other helicopters moved out of the way.
A couple of bolts of lightning lit up the very, very dark night
like daytime. Directly below me was one of the largest NVA tank
and truck convoys Iíd ever seen in my life, sitting alongside of
the road going into Saigon. The first thing that crossed my mind
was, "What are they waiting for?" Fortunately they did
not shoot. They let us do the evacuation; they let us get out of
there. The next morning, a little after 8:00, a tank convoy
crashed through the palace gates, and I would bet just about any
kind of money you want that that tank convoy was the one that was
sitting off the side of the road there in Saigon.
We went back out to the ship, and then the communications
continued. President Ford was still on the line. At 3:30, he
called and wanted to know if Ambassador Martin was out yet. Brig.
Gen. Richard E. Carey, who was the CG of the amphibious operation,
told him no, that Ambassador Martin was still at the Embassy.
President Ford told the airborne command center to order the next
helicopter to land on the rooftop, to go in and bring out
Ambassador Martin, physically if necessary.
The person he was talking to was a CH-53 pilot. He said he
couldnít land on the roof because the roof couldnít hold it.
So the next guy behind him was in a CH- 46 did land, and
Ambassador Martin was picked up at, I think, 4:58, because the
President of the United States had ordered him to leave on that
helicopter. Thatís the kind of communication that was going on
between the forces.
The nine days that we spent off the coast was quite
interesting. Practically every press, every magazine, every
network had representatives there. We would go out to the flight
deck and look up at what we called Walterís Row. There were
maybe fifty correspondents, waiting and watching for the operation
to take place. All the news that we would get from home, letters
from our loved ones, letters from our families, would have press
clippings. Our families knew more about what was going on with the
fall of Saigon than we did sitting off the coast. We got most of
our information out of the press crew, the news, the regular mail.
Audience Question: The bottom line was, we didnít lose
the war. How could we have won the war when the troops themselves
could not win the war for their own country?
Peter Arnett: From the beginning that was the issue. From
the earliest days when I was there as a reporter in í62,
American advisers like John Paul Vann said, "The Vietnamese
are not fighting the war the right way. Their heart is not in it.
Bring in more advisers." By 1965, the advisers were doing a
good enough job.
Overall, the military command was corrupt, and in 1964, 1965,
there were a series of coup díetats. American troops came in
1965. We know how they fought: bravely. When President Johnson
decided not to run for office and sue for peace and the American
withdrawals began, it seemed clear that that was going to be the
end of the war. All that happened in between--President Nixonís
secret plan to bring peace and so forth and so on-- was really a
prelude to 25 years ago and the fall of Saigon.
I have a note here from a member of the audience: "Tell us
what happened when the VC came into your office during the
fall." Soon after the communist troops actually drove into
Saigon, drove down the main thoroughfares, occupied the city
basically without a shot being fired, I was working in the office
with two AP colleagues when the door burst open.
One of our photo stringers, a Vietnamese, was standing there,
very proudly, and behind him were two machine gun-toting North
Vietnamese, dressed in the uniform, looking very stern. We feared
the worst, naturally, even though we were optimists. But our photo
stringer says, "Welcome. Meet my friends." Iíd been
with him for about a decade. Thank goodness. But actually they
came, and we interviewed them. We gave them Cokes and some
cookies, and we actually interviewed them and typed it out and
sent their story by Telex. Many Vietnamese had connections to the
other side, and it was something we didnít really understand
through much of the war.
Audience Question: I understood that Congress cut off aid
prior to the collapse. I wonder if any of you have any awareness
of that and the effect it had, if any, upon either the morale or
the material wherewithal of the South Vietnamese?
Joe Galloway: Congress did indeed vote to cut off the aid,
but as with so many programs, on the day that they voted to cut
off the aid, there was something on the order of a year to a year
and a half worth in the pipeline. In other words, there was ample
fuel, there was ample bullets coming in that had already been
bought and paid for and put into the pipeline.
But it was a morale-destructive thing. They knew that
eventually that pipeline would run dry. They knew that there was
no hope that in a major North Vietnamese, armor-led offensive,
that the B52s would come back. Congress had spoken. The American
people, through their representatives, had said, "Enough of
this war, we donít want any more." And it was done, as far
as the American people were concerned.
For the Vietnamese, it was a loss of confidence; it was an
ultimate stab, if you will, in the back. And then you had Thieu
vacillating on where to draw the line, where to fight, where to
defend, and that, itself, further destroyed morale. Then you had
the communists moving down.
It devolved into a panic situation. We saw Hue fall. We saw
Pleiku fall. We saw the Trail of Tears across that abandoned
highway that turned into a disaster, and then here they came to
Danang and on down Route One, and it just rolled up. It rolled up
and it was over.
Audience Question: Do you think that Kennedy is the one who
started it all?
Joe Galloway: Oh no, thereís plenty of blame to go
around, and we wonít stop with Nixon or Ford or Lyndon Johnson,
although I like to linger on Lyndon a lot. It goes back to Harry
Truman and the immediate post-World War II time. The French were
determined to regain their colony, and the British were determined
that nobody was going to lose the colony. Franklin Roosevelt, who
wanted everybody to give up their colonies, got old and tired and
was dying. He didnít get to make his vision for the war or after
the war stick.
Harry Truman was facing communists in Greece, and he wanted
France aboard in NATO. He had troubles in Korea, so we got
ourselves sucked into it, even though we should have learned our
lessons from Dien Bien Phu, from the French experience. By the
time Dien Bien Phu fell, we were financing 70 percent of the
French war against the Vietnamese. We paid the tuition; we didnít
learn the lessons.
At one point, sitting on Clark Airfield in the Philippines, a
few days before the Dien Bien Phu fortress fell, were something
like 200 American B 29s. Theyíd already painted French insignias
on the tail and the wings, and they were waiting for a go
situation out of Washington, a decision to go in and bomb Giapís
supply lines out of China. They were also having discussions about
Fortunately, Eisenhower wanted no part of it. And there was a
senator named Johnson--Lyndon Baines Johnson from Texas--who
argued in the quiet councils most vociferously against any nuclear
war and any American intervention at all.
But they all forgot the lessons and we were sucked in. And
there we are.