GOOD-BYE TO ALL THAT
TAN SON NHUT AIRBASE
One of the last departing Sea Stallions, Swift 22, hovers over the landing zone at the DAO compound. Most of the Americans and Vietnamese have gone. Colonel Gray turns to me and yells, "Let's get out of here." The Marines who dug in around the compound grab their weapons, and we dash to the ramp of the helicopter. Scott Butterfield of The New York Times, and Mal Browne help a Vietnamese woman and a child onto the helo, as it begins a rapid climb away from the airbase. We are very conscious that once the evacuation started, incoming North Vietnamese fire virtually ceased. Unfortunately, I also vividly recall the C-119 I saw shot down this morning. What is happening with those SAM batteries?
The noise in the helicopter is incredible. These are combat birds, with little acoustic padding. The whine of the engines, running at full pitch, assaults my eardrums. I look across at an American holding a child. The child is crying, but I can't hear a thing. I look out the window and see a Navy F-4 flying escort, skimming over the outskirts of Saigon. Our helo pulls into a sharp 90-degree turn, and heads across the city toward the coast. I look down, and watch as the city that has been so much a part of my life slips over the horizon. The bends of the Mekong lie before me. I realize that I’m feeling as though a vital part of my life is coming to a close. Having first experienced this place in my early 30s, it had become the thing that meant the most to me. I could leave it for months or years, but each time I came back, it was a grounding experience. How can it be that in a place of war, I found the happiest times I had ever known? How could I possibly explain to someone whom didn’t experience it, how much more alive you felt just returning to Saigon at the end of a day - living and enduring in a place you weren’t even sure you would survive? Now I was losing it...and I knew a part of my life was coming to an end.
THE SOUTH CHINA SEA, ABOARD THE U.S.S.
Hillary Brown is standing on the wind-swept flight deck, being pelted with rain. Her hair streams out behind her. The camera crew alongside her, she tapes her standup and portrays the flight from Saigon to the carrier. "After 30 years of fighting occupying armies," she closes the standup by saying, "the long war for the Vietnamese people is finally coming to an end.”
As she signs off, there is a flurry of activity. The ship's public address system booms out, “FLIGHT DECK CREW, PREPARE TO RECOVER HELOS!" The horizon is filled with tiny specks, fluttering towards the carrier. As they draw closer, Hillary realizes they are not the lumbering Sea Stallions that shuttled back and forth between the fleet and Saigon, but rather much smaller and swifter Hueys. On their sides is emblazoned the insignia of the South Vietnamese Air Force.
The first helicopter sits down on the flight deck, as the Landing Crew boss races toward it, cursing, "Goddamnit," he screams into the wind and noise, "get that fucker off! We've got our own birds on the way!" As he screams at the crewmen on the deck, the doors slide back and nearly 20 ARVN soldiers tumble out onto the flight deck. Marines scurry to disarm them. The flight deck boss is screaming at the pilot through the window. The pilot gives a thumbs-up, as the ship's PA system booms urgently, "CLEAR FLIGHT DECK! CLEAR FLIGHT DECK! SWIFTS DOWNWIND! PREPARE TO RECOVER HELOS!"
The ship's claxon blares as the VNAF chopper rises into the air and flutters out beyond the bow of the ship. As an astonished Hillary Brown watches, gaping, the chopper slides to the left, the pilot jumps clear, and the Huey ditches in the ocean. The Midway's claxon blares. "MAN OVERBOARD! MAN OVERBOARD! RESCUE AFT! FLIGHT DECK IS CLEAR! PREPARE TO RECOVER SWIFT 19!"
Everyone on the deck is on the run. Frogmen appear from a hatch in the island. A boat is being lowered simultaneous with the carrier turning into the wind. A flight of Sea Stallions bear down on the landing zone, as the Vietnamese pilot is pulled from the water. The ramp of Swift 19 is lowered at almost the moment of touchdown, and more Americans and Vietnamese spew from the helo.
Overhead, American and VNAF choppers amass in a mix of sight and sound.
The last Sea Stallion of the squadron flutters off, back toward the coast. Once more, the flight deck prepares to recover the circling Vietnamese helicopters, buzzing overhead like angry mosquitos.
As Hillary's camera crew rolls, another VNAF helicopter settles onto the deck. As its rotors come to a stop, the pilot's door slides back, and General Nguyen Cao Ky, debonair in his baseball cap with scrambled braid on the visor steps out. He is no sooner on deck, when crewmen rush forward and push the Huey overboard. Other Hueys land, and as quickly as the crew and passengers are off, the choppers are pushed over the side. The same thing is happening aboard The U.S.S. Coral Sea and other ships in the task force. The Claxon blares again, as the Air Boss, overhead on the bridge yells "UNIDENTIFIED AIRCRAFT DOWNWIND!" Hillary watches in astonishment as a small airplane buzzes the carrier.
The cessna banks, turns, and makes another pass less than 100 feet overhead. The Deck Boss yells, "That crazy fucker can't land here!"
As the plane passes overhead one more time, flaps down, at nearly stalling speed, the loudspeaker announces, "THAT AIRCRAFT IS BEING PILOTED BY A CIVILIAN. IT HAS BEEN ADVISED TO DITCH. PREPARE TO RECOVER SURVIVORS."
Once again, the small plane passes overhead, circling and an object tumbles to the deck.
The Deck Boss picks up a woman's pocketbook. Inside is a note that reads, "I have my family, with our four children aboard. I cannot ditch, please help me!"
Moments later the loudspeaker announces, "AIRCRAFT WILL ATTEMPT TO LAND! AIRCRAFT WILL ATTEMPT TO LAND! CLEAR FLIGHT DECK! CLEAR FLIGHT DECK! CRASH CREW STANDBY!"
Sirens scream as a small red tractor with a foam gun wheels into position. Crash crew personnel don their asbestos helmets. On deck, crewmen frantically push back to the sides the few aircraft left there.
Hillary and her crew are unceremoniously hustled from the deck. Moments later they reappear on a walkway beneath the bridge. Next to Hillary is a Navy Commander. She turns to him and asks, "What's that plane's chances?"
"Not very good," the Commander replies,"a civilian pilot with no carrier experience...no deck hook…it's like trying to land a plane on a moving postage stamp. I wish the poor bastard luck."
The PA system barks to life again, “AIRCRAFT DOWNWIND! PREPARE FOR RECOVERY!"
A hushed silence falls on the ship. Hundreds of crewmen line every walkway on the superstructure of the carrier.
The tiny Cessna approaches from the stern, it bobs and weaves in the turbulence...it is too low…frantically the Landing Officer waves it off, as the plane screams by overhead, makes a lazy turn, and tries again. On its next approach its position is better. The PA system announces, "AIRCRAFT IN THE GROOVE! RECOVER AIRCRAFT!"
The plane settles to the flight deck, a perfect three-point landing. Shapes can be seen through the windows. It comes to a stop fifty feet short of the A-deck bow. Its propeller stops.
Suddenly, the whole ship explodes in cheers
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