APRIL 21 - 0800 hours - SAIGON
The street in front of the U.S. Embassy is jammed with an unruly mob. Hundreds of Vietnamese are shouting and waving documents in front of the massive gate.
Along with other photographers, I weave my way through the crowd, snapping photographs as I go. Suddenly a jeep and two truckloads of Quan Canh, the Vietnamese police, screech to a stop on the edge of the crowd. They take up a skirmish line to one side of the embassy wall. They carry wicker shields in one hand, and long poles in the other. An officer shouts, and they charge the crowd.
Stumbling, falling over each other, the crowd falls back before the onslaught to a position across the street.
We duck through the gate into the Embassy grounds just a white Air America helicopter sits down on the roof.
Ambassador Graham Martin, impeccably dressed in a suit and tie, stands under the branches of a huge tamarind tree. He doesn't seem to be the slightest bit concerned that Communist forces are now poised less than 40 miles from the capital. For the members of the Saigon press corps, there are urgent and personal questions. Most of the news organizations have staffs of Vietnamese who have worked for them for years. Now, the main question is how to get them out of the country.
At a hastily convened press conference, Martin refuses to even discuss the problem. One reporter asks how many Vietnamese Embassy staff have left Saigon. The Ambassador replied, “that to his knowledge, only 444 American and Vietnamese personnel had left the country in the preceding 24 hours.” For Martin, the question of evacuation is an idea he simply doesn’t wish to entertain. He feels that if too many people are seen leaving, a panic will start that could undermine the government of President Nguyen Van Thieu. After Martin leaves the press conference, bureau chiefs button-hole the press attache, and begin crafting their own evacuation plan.
We drive the yellow mini-moke up Highway 1, 35 miles north of Saigon. We come to a stop at the last government command post. For me, it is deja-vu all over again. Three years ago, it was almost exactly in this spot that David Kennerly and I had been pinned down in a fierce fire fight. It was the first time I had ever seen North Vietnamese troops that weren't either dead or prisoners. We had been surrounded for hours. Now, in 1975, the front line has hardly moved a thousand yards. ARVN soldiers sit near their foxholes, cooking meals, as occasional artillery shells pass over their heads. The deserted highway, pockmarked with shell holes, stretches out to the horizon where we can see black clouds of smoke and hear muted thumps.
Nik Wheeler, a photographer on assignment for Newsweek wants to go farther up the road into no-man's land. I think it is a lousy idea. I've been to Xuan Loc once...been there, done that. It's no longer a story about what happens on Highway 1. The big story is coming… and it’s clear that it will be the fall of Saigon.
A mood I have never seen is descending over Saigon. Tudo, the bustling main street that has always been filled with a cacophonous din is strangely quiet. There are no street urchins yelling, "You give me money." The art shops filled with classic Vietnamese paintings, and strange Chagal-type large canvases depicting the horrors of war have no visitors. The bars with high-heeled hostesses asking patrons, "You want Saigon tea?" are empty. The Indian bookshops that sell Vietnamese Piastres at 5 cents to the dollar, are completely without customers.
Instead, anxious faces peer out from shuttered doors. Military police chase ARVN deserters down the alleys. A group of children attach themselves to me shouting, "You take me to U.S.A?"
A curfew has been declared. A group of us gather around a TV set in the bar of the Caravelle Hotel. President Nguyen Van Thieu is making his most important speech to the nation. A farewell. Dressed in an open-collared uniform shirt, he delivers a bitter valediction. He blasts President Ford, Secretary of State Kissinger, and the U.S. Congress for letting down Vietnam. Tears flowing down his cheeks, Thieu ends his speech by adding, "I depart today. I ask my countrymen, the armed forces and religious groups to forgive my past mistakes I made while in power. The country and I will be grateful to you. I am undeserving. I am resigning, but I am not deserting."
We all look at each other in disbelief. This guy was almost single-handedly responsible for the mess that Saigon is now in. His decision to pull his troops back from the North to reinforce Saigon was the catalyst that led to the undoing of Vietnam's strength.
The streets of Saigon are deserted except for an occasional Quanh Canh jeep, and a few Vietnamese police quietly pedaling bicycles on their rounds. All of the bars are silent. The curfew is in force. Lights out, several black busses slip nearly unseen down the street, stopping in front of the Palace Hotel.
Quietly, an American in civilian clothes leads a group of Westerners and Vietnamese into the street in front of the busses. A child starts to cry, but the sound is immediately muffled by the mother. The group steals onto the waiting busses, as similar groups are doing that moment throughout the city. As noiselessly as they came, the busses slide into the night.
In the morning, Vietnamese on their way to work will notice a few shops closed. Friends calling on families will find the doors locked. A few empty bags and boxes will be piled on the sidewalk.
The evacuation has begun.
|Contents Page||Editorials||The Platypus||Links||Copyright|
|Portfolios||Camera Corner||War Stories||Dirck's Gallery||Comments|
|Issue Archives||Columns||Forums||Mailing List||E-mail Us|