WEDNESDAY, APRIL 23
A child is being washed from a large water-filled tomato can. We are in a bowling alley in the former American compound at Tan Son Nhut. Vietnamese are sprawled everywhere, sleeping on the lanes. Garbage and human waste fill the gutters. I wind my way through the bowling alley. I watch as an American construction worker, wearing a cowboy hat, fills out papers for his young Vietnamese companion, who is hanging onto his arm, a worried look on her face. She is obviously a bar girl, her miniskirt hiked high over her glossy patent leather boots. An Embassy official is explaining that it is only necessary that the man sign an affidavit for her support in the United States in order for her to leave the country. He knows full well that this girl is not the only one leaving in this manner. Several enterprising Americans have signed for entire bars full of girls. God only knows what will happen to them when they get back to the United States. I think to myself that we may not only be adding to the roles of prostitution in America, but that the government may be subsidizing a whole flock of instant pimps.
Outside the bowling alley, thousands of Vietnamese and Americans mill about the area. The lucky ones sit in the shade of an occasional roof or tree, their belongings piled around them. Many are well dressed. Some are wealthy, their suitcases curiously heavy from the gold bars they obtained from Chinese merchants in return for their money and valuables.
At the end of the compound, Air Force personnel gather groups of 100, and as soon as the group is complete, they are loaded onto a bus to be taken to the flight line. Overhead there is the constant roar of jet engines as giant Star Lifters approach on their landing patterns, or take off for Guam, Manila and San Francisco.
1400 hours - HIGHWAY 1, 35 MILES NORTH OF SAIGON
I am taking pictures of ARVN troops carrying chickens on their shoulders, followed by angry villagers in conical hats, yelling at them. The nearly constant thud of incoming artillery rounds jolts the ear and mind as they hit the highway a half-mile away from our position.
Suddenly, a column of ARVN armored personnel
carriers tear by. They hit one of the chicken-stealing troops on the road,
but don't slow down. I look at Nik Wheeler, as he yells, "Jesus Christ!
This is a rout! The 18th Division has been routed!"
THURSDAY, APRIL 24
The main street of Saigon looks very much as it has for the past 10 years of American presence in Vietnam. Already, some of the bars are open, and pretty girls in miniskirts beckon invitingly from the doors. At street stalls, Vietnamese squat at the curb, enjoying their morning Pho.
The only evident change noticeable to the more practiced eye is that suddenly there appear to be many more Vietnamese soldiers on the streets. Strolling aimlessly or moving in packs, demanding, not begging, for handouts. A brawl erupts as a group of soldiers demands to be fed for free at a street stall. A Quanh Canh jeep screeches to a stop and disgorges MPs. Shots are fired in the air, and civilians and soldiers alike run for cover, trampling over a double amputee, a veteran, who has been begging for food from his small wheeled cart on the corner.
Farther down the street, a Ford pickup truck quietly pulls up to the curb in front of a tall building by the waterfront. A U.S. Marine, dressed in fatigues steps from the vehicle, followed by a handful of Vietnamese women carrying paint buckets and brushes. Quickly, they duck into the building, take an elevator to the roof, and set to work. An hour later, they are through, back in the truck, and on their way to the next stop.
Atop the building they just left sits a
huge, yellow, freshly-painted number 2.
THE CERCLE SPORTIF
The passage of time has been gentle to the Cercle Sportif. Built by the French for their amusement during the colonial days, the lush country club behind the Presidential Palace has shut its eyes to war since its construction.
Americans and Vietnamese fill the tennis courts, even in the heat of the noontime sun, while around the pool, waiters serve tall, cool, citron presses as Americans, Frenchmen and beautiful Eurasian women bask in the sun.
Michel Laurent, a French freelance photographer, dressed in blue jeans and field jacket is anxious to get out of Saigon. He thinks we are wasting our time sitting by the pool. Nik Wheeler and I remind him of what we have seen on the highway the day before. Now that the 18th Division has crumbled, there is simply no place to go outside of Saigon.
We plead with him, that even if he is able
to get past the roadblocks, what happens if an evacuation signal is given.
He would be stuck in the boondocks while the real story is going on in
Saigon. Michel doesn't buy it..he stalks away, his cigar clenched between
his teeth. We order another Citron Presse.
THE NBC BUREAU, SAIGON
The NBC Bureau overlooking Nguyen Hue Street is a beehive of activity . Besides the correspondents, camera crews and production personnel, there are at least a dozen Vietnamese standing patiently in line against the wall.
In his office, Henry Griggs, an NBC field producer from New York filling in for the moment as the bureau chief, draws a sigh as one more of the Vietnamese is ushered into his office. Tearfully, a Vietnamese woman, well-dressed, but her hair in disarray, pleads for his help in getting her family out of Saigon. She tells him that her cousin, who was killed while in the army during the Cambodian incursion had once worked for NBC as a courier, taking film to the airport. He had always talked highly of the American company, and surely now NBC would get her family out of the country.
Griggs knows that this scene is being repeated in every American news agency in Saigon. He starts to explain that it will be all he can do just to get out the immediate NBC staff and their families. The night before, he had been awake until the early morning hours with a special group of bureau chiefs devising exodus schemes. Nothing seemed to work. The same group had even chartered a jet for evacuating their Vietnamese staff a few nights before, but the plane had been refused permission to land. The week before, Griggs had gone to Hong Kong to place a call to White House photographer David Kennerly to ask him to intercede with the President to see if something could be done. Kennerly, who had made his own fact-finding tour of the collapse of South Vietnam promised to do everything he could to help, but so far, goddamnit...nothing!
Griggs looks out the window, across the
street to the Rex Cinema, where crowds of Vietnamese are buying tickets
to watch a new Bridget Bardot movie, "Boulevard De Rhum." He looks up to
the now deserted roof of the Rex, and remembered when it had been the posh
restaurant of the U.S. Officer's Club. He had had good times there, made
good friends, back in 1966. God, it all seemed so simple then.
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