APRIL 25 - THE BRITISH EMBASSY, SAIGON
Clouds of black smoke pour into the sky above embassy chimneys. The English are burning their records. The gate of the embassy swings open, and Ambassador John Christopher Wydows Bushell, in a pressed safari suit drives out in his silver Jaguar, past a crowd of yelling embassy employees on the way to Tan Son Nhut Airport and evacuation.
On the opposite side of the street, I turn to Nik Wheeler, who says, “Well, at least it’s better than the bloody Canadians. They told their employees to come back today to be taken out, and when they got there, they found everyone had buggered out during the night.”
SAIGON, A CATHOLIC NEIGHBORHOOD NEAR TAN
A procession - almost a parade - is marching down the dusty, hot side street toward us. There are signs everywhere that bear such slogans as, "We will Fight to the End....Long Live the Republic of Vietnam." Occasionally there is a different banner in blue and gold that reads, "For Peace and Negotiation , Not Bloodshed." Although all of the banners are written in Vietnamese across the top, they are also written in English across the bottom, for the benefit of the American TV crews shooting on the sidelines.
The procession reaches a stage in front of the church. With great cheering, their hero is hoisted onto it. This general of the Vietnamese Air Force, former Prime Minister of Vietnam and former Vice President of Vietnam is none other than Nguyen Cao Ky. Ky sports a jaunty scarf on his neck above his flight suit and a pearl-handled revolver on his hip as he addresses the crowd.
Ky calls for the people to resist the communist advance. “They are mice,” Ky yells, “and will never enter Saigon.” He vows to continue the fight. "Let the cowards who are leaving with the Americans go," he shouts, "and let those who love South Vietnam stay and fight!"
A Vietnamese reporter turns to us and mutters,
“He is fou (mad).” We leave the rally, and with Ky's voice following
us on the loudspeaker reach the main street. As we await a taxi, sirens
cut through the din of traffic. A Quanh Canh jeep, 50-caliber machine gun
mounted on the back, cuts through traffic, followed by a long black Mercedes
and a follow-up Ford, filled with Vietnamese Secret Service. "Who was that?"
I ask, as the cavalcade disappears down the street. The Vietnamese reporter
smiles and replies, "That was Mr. Thieu. He goes bye-bye now."
SAIGON, THE TIME/LIFE BUREAU
Roy Rowan, the acting bureau chief for Time is holding a staff meeting. I look around the room. There is Mark Godfrey, a Magnum photographer who has joined us.
New instructions have been issued for us
from both New York and the U.S. Embassy. TIME has placed a lid on additional
staffers coming into Saigon. They want us to reduce our numbers as quickly
as possible. The orders from New York are clear...get the Vietnamese staff
out, then pull down the rest of the staff. Only a skeleton staff will remain
till the end. The Embassy has told the bureau chiefs that in the event
of an evacuation of Saigon, the Armed Forces Radio Network will issue a
special weather report stating that, "The temperature is 105 and rising!"
At this signal, all western news personnel should report to their evacuation
staging areas, which are being set up around town. We are told that the
evacuation will be in full swing when Armed Forces Radio begins broadcasting
Bing Crosby’s “White Christmas.”
SAIGON, THE BAR OF THE CONTINENTAL PALACE
A lot of the Saigon press corps has gathered around a table to listen in awe to the latest-arriving superstar. Hunter S. Thompson has just flown from San Francisco to cover the fall of Saigon for Rolling Stone. The good Doctor is in his usually zonked-out state, rambling about stories he has covered around the world.
I notice a silence begin to fall over one
end of the table and the murmurs of my colleagues begin to spread inexorably
toward me. One by one, reporters and photographers drift away from the
table. I catch up to Nik Wheeler as he descends the steps of the hotel.
His jaw is clenched. Turning to me he says, "Michel Laurent has just been
SAIGON, THE TIME/LIFE BUREAU
Roy Rowan is at the tele-type machine. He is communicating directly to the TIME offices in New York, through the Vietnamese PTT. He is in the middle of a message when the TIME Hong Kong bureau breaks in, "This is Eddie Adams. I am in Hong Kong and booked on a flight to Saigon tomorrow morning." Rowan replies that according to New York's instructions, no more Americans can come in. Adams replies that John Durniak, the picture editor has given instructions that Dirck Halstead should come out, so Eddie can come in. Rowan looks at me...sighs...then returns his reply, "Sorry your message is garbled," and breaks off contact.
We are leaving the bureau when once again
the tele-type comes back to life. It is the PTT operator in the Saigon
office transmitting, “...please, can you get me out?"
A small knot of American newsmen sit around a table on the open patio of the Continental Palace. The old hotel has seen its way through occupying armies. First, the French, then the Americans. While newer hotels have been built around it, some of which were later destroyed in terrorist bombings, the Palace has managed to come through it all...largely by paying enormous "taxes" to the communists. There is even a feeling that some of the press who work in the hotel may in reality be communist agents.
As a result, the hotel has become a favorite of journalists, who somehow manage to pretend, for at least a short time, that they can taste the pleasures of a Colonial world, now long gone, given over to chrome and glass.
Street urchins, keeping a wary eye out for the waiters, duck into the patio to shine shoes, sell magazines, their sisters...or for that matter, their brothers or themselves.
In one corner, a table of elegantly gowned women is being served morning tea. The more experienced journalists know that in fact, these women are transvestites, and take great delight in watching younger suitors make fools of themselves as they offer propositions.
This morning, however, none of the newsmen are paying any attention to the circus around them. They can only speak of the fate of Michel Laurent. He had been with a TV cameraman when they found themselves under an artillery attack on Highway 1. The TV cameraman managed to make it out, but the last he saw of Michel, he was running away from him, right into enemy fire.
Maybe Michel had just been wounded. He
is a veteran who had spent five years covering this war, plus another two
in Africa with the French, to say nothing of Bangladesh, where he won a
Pulitzer Prize. After all, he is French... but somehow they know,
as they always know...when a friend has gone, that he will not return.
And we all begin to think about ourselves.
THE ROOFTOP BAR OF THE MAJESTIC HOTEL
A group of us, possessing more than 30 years of experience covering the Vietnam war, are finishing brandies and Cuban cigars. The group includes TIME Magazine's Roy Rowan, who had witnessed the fall of China to the communists at Shanghai. He has earned a nickname as the “man who shut down countries” within the New York offices of TIME. Also there are Catherine Leroy, a feisty but diminutive Frenchwoman, who scored her first big scoop for LIFE Magazine by going behind NVA lines during the siege of Hue; Dave Greenway of the Los Angles Times; Mark Godfrey; Nik Wheeler and I.
For a long pleasant hour, we are surrounded by damp night air, rich with the fragrances of the Orient, and it seems just briefly as though there is no war. The food has been good, the wine superb, and as the warmth of the brandy spreads through our heads and chests, it seems as though our Saigon could go on forever.
As waiters begin to close the bar, our conversation turns to what happens next. What do we do? None of us think that any real danger will come from the North Vietnamese. The disorganized, leaderless South Vietnamese army and police force, however, do worry us. They could go berserk in the interim between the departure of the Americans and the time it takes the communists to establish order. We have had this discussion scores of times, but unfortunately, the answers seem no clearer now than before.
Nik Wheeler and I rise from the table and look out from the fourth-floor terrace of the old hotel on the Saigon River waterfront. We find ourselves looking down at the My Canh floating restaurant, now shrouded in darkness. I was nearly killed one night when a blast from a claymore mine went off behind me as I photographed the scene. I was saved by a wounded friend whom saw me, and called to me. As I knelt beside him, mine fragments ripped through the air over my head.
There were so many friends dead now. Henri Huet, who had been my first staff photographer for UPI in Saigon; Dana Stone and Sean Flynn, adventurers whose pursuit of excitement took them into the hands of a Cambodian execution squad; Larry Burrows, the gentle artist of LIFE Magazine; Kyoichi Sawada, who had won his first Pulitzer Prize while working in my UPI bureau; and now Michel.
As we walk down the stairs, we pass a large room that has been set up by the new government for holding peace negotiations. A huge circular table occupies the middle of the room. In its center lies an I-ching symbol, flanked by two doves. It is the new seal of the conciliation government. We laugh upon seeing the night watchman asleep on top of the table.
I walk out into the silent night.
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