APRIL 29 - SAIGON
The streets of Saigon lay deserted. The curfew begun at sunset the previous evening remains enforce. It is as if the capital has become a ghost city.
On the roof of the New Palace hotel, we are looking out over the city towards Tan Son Nhut. The NBC crew has set up their tripods, handkerchiefs cover their heads against the broiling morning sun. A Vietnamese waiter from the hotel's restaurant brings up plates of sandwiches and glasses of beer.
As we look north, we watch a C-119 "Puff" make lazy circles over the airbase. Every few seconds we hear its gattling guns pour fire into the ground. Suddenly, we see the plane explode in a brilliant flash, then parts of it slowly fall to earth, twisting and smoking. "Jesus," Neil Davis exclaims, "that was a SAM!"
I feel someone tap on my shoulder. I turn to see one of the people I have been most haunted by these past few days. Nguyen Van Thom stands behind me. I had asked everyone I knew from the old days if they knew where he was. Thom was my darkroom man in the two years that I ran the Saigon photo bureau for UPI in the 1960s. He had avoided being shipped off to the Army by primarily living in the darkroom. He had printed pictures that had gone on to win World Press Photo Awards and Pulitzer Prizes, getting the most out of the negatives of brave photographers. Nobody had heard from him in months...now here he was.
Thom looked at me and said, "Mr. Dirck, I am so happy to see you! Can you get my family out?" It is the same request so many of us have heard. I have no idea how I am going to do it, but I tell Thom to round up his wife and children and get back to me here on the roof as soon as he can. As he turns to go, I ask him if he can pick up a few batteries for my monitor radio on the way back. He scurries down the stairs.
He is no sooner gone than Harry Griggs, holding his radio, yells, "We just got the word! This is it! Evacuate! Everybody Out!
I race down to my room, and call the bureau. Rowan says the Embassy has just ordered all American personnel to report to evacuation stations immediately. Our station is right behind the bureau at the Continental Palace Hotel. New York wants to make sure that we leave immediately. It has already been decided that Mark Godfrey, who wants to stay, will be the only staffer remaining. Everyone else has been told to report to the staging area without delay. I flip on the radio by my bed, and there is a weather report playing over and over, “The temperature is 105o and rising!"
I run back up to the roof. The NBC crew is already gone. I look over the side, and can see Americans suddenly emerging from hotels and offices, moving up Nguyen Hue. I start to gather my cameras, and remember Thom. Shit! Where is he? I wait 10 minutes. The streets are deserted again. A jeep filled with Marines in combat gear tears down the boulevard.
I wait another 10 minutes. I can hear distant
helicopters overhead. Shit! I look up and down the street one more time.
No Thom. As I reach for my camera bag, I see a small bag next to
it. I open it. My batteries! Oh God! Where is he?
I feel like I'm beginning to panic...just wait for a few more minutes...A
shadow passes over me, and I look up to see a Marine CH-54 Sea Stallion
pass overhead. I've got to go...NOW!
SAIGON, GIA LONG STREET
A group of Americans cautiously walks through the deserted street alongside the Continental Palace Hotel. They are carrying bags, typewriters, cameras and recording equipment.
Vietnamese peer at us from behind locked doors and windows. I know there is no mistaking the look in those eyes. They know we are bugging out.
The erie silence continues as we assemble in front of a building at 35 Gia Long. On the wall is a faded sign, "University of Maryland, Saigon Education Center." We are joined by other Americans and Westerners. In short order, there are several hundred of us standing on the corner, waiting.
Two big black buses come down the street, and glide to a stop in front of us. A U.S. Marine in flack jacket and helmet steps from the bus and exclaims, "Let's go people!" One by one, we mount the buses. A few Americans help a Vietnamese friend onto the bus. The temperature inside the bus is sweltering. It has no air conditioning. We lurch a block down the street, and find ourselves behind the U.S. Embassy. A crowd of Vietnamese, numbering in the hundreds, is trying to climb over the walls as Marines inside the compound beat back the advances. Seeing our busses, a crowd starts to form a line in front of us. The Marine officer inside the bus yells to the driver, "Move it!"
The driver is panicked. He is immobilized.
Fists start to beat on the wire mesh covering the window. Blood starts
to run down the grenade shields from their hands. The Marine pulls his
45-automatic, points it at the driver and yells, "Move this bus! Now!"
the vehicle lurches ahead and suddenly we feel a wheel roll over a body.
The crowd is screaming. The Marine pushes the muzzle of his gun against
the driver's neck and repeats, “MOVE IT!" We feel sick as the bus clears
TAN SON NHUT AIRBASE
The gate of the airbase is deserted as our busses race past the huge memorial in front dedicated to "Our Noble Allies...Their Sacrifice Will Never Be Forgotten."
The lead bus crashes through the wire that had been the last barricade, and swings through the gate of DAO compound. Alongside the gate is an Embassy sedan, upside down. Huge columns of smoke rise from the Air America complex across the street. A helicopter lies abandoned in a ditch, one skid missing, its rotors still turning. The busses screech to a halt inside the gate in front of the thick-walled Defense Attache's Office.
Hillary Brown and I are just off the bus when a huge explosion throws us forward onto the ground. A 130-mm shell has just hit the Air America terminal 50 yards away. The Marine in the flack jacket crouches over Hillary, to make sure she is OK, then stands up and yells, "Let's go people...don't panic!"
Crouching and running, we dash into the DAO office. Incoming rockets fall right behind us. One Vietnamese woman falls, and the AP's Mal Browne picks her up and pulls her inside.
Inside the long hall, the explosions outside can hardly be heard. Hundreds of Vietnamese and Americans are sitting against the walls, bags in front of them. Marines in full combat gear are passing out tags. "These are for you, not for your baggage," they explain.
Sitting in the hall, a few reporters unlimber
their typewriters and start to write. A nun kneels over her suitcase and
prays. The building occasionally shakes as a shell lands outside. A Marine
officer walks the hallway and attempts to calm us. "Don’t worry," he says,
"the helos are on the way."
TAN SON NHUT COMPOUND
Marine Colonel Alfred Grey, helmeted, but wearing only a T-shirt under his flack jacket is lying in a ditch of water outside the DAO building, next to the movie theatre. The Colonel is shouting into a field pack radio held by a terrified-looking younger Marine. The two repeatedly duck their heads into the water-filled ditch as shells land around them.
The Colonel has contacted the approaching helicopters coming in from carriers off the coast in the South China Sea. Suddenly, his words are drowned out by the roar of diving jets. Navy F4s dip and wheel overhead, spewing rockets and bombs. Fireballs erupt just outside the compound. The Colonel looks up and sees me taking his picture. "The show's about to start,” he exclaims! With a big smile he points at the abandoned theater. Marines dash into the center of the compound as clouds of yellow smoke billow up into the gray sky.
Skimming low over the horizon, the lead Sea Stallion helicopter fills the sky, followed by another. The two helos settle to earth inside the compound, their rotors continuously turning at full pitch. The rear loading ramp comes down and a squad of Marines, carrying M-16s, M-50s and mortars, dash out. In seconds they have formed a perimeter around the compound and dig in.
Simultaneously, another Marine, holding the hand of the nun, leads a group of 100 Americans and Vietnamese on the run from the DAO building. They crouch as they race down the corridor connecting the DAO with the movie theatre...through the theater lobby...past the young Marines…into the courtyard and onto the waiting helos.
Less than 90 seconds after Colonel Herbert
Fix's lead Sea Stallion has settled down, it takes off at full pitch, carrying
its precious cargo, as another helo lands in its place and the process
|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|