APRIL 30 - THE SOUTH CHINA SEA, ABOARD
THE U.S.S. BLUE RIDGE
Most of the press evacuated from Saigon on the April 29, have managed to make their way to the flagship of the Task Force, steaming 50 miles west of Vietnam.
They had been deposited willy-nilly on various ships of the fleet and all carried film or tape that needed to be seen by the world. For me, time was running out. It was now Thursday, which meant Wednesday night in New York. TIME Magazine closes on Friday, so somehow, I had to get my film from the fleet to Subic Bay. Subic was the nearest point from which a TIME courier could get it onto a Pan Am flight to make it back to New York in time for publication.
We had gathered in a makeshift pressroom on the Blue Ridge. As each correspondent or TV crew arrived, we were able to piece together the puzzle of what had happened in the past 24 hours. Saigon was now gone - history! The North Vietnamese had raised their colors over the Presidential Palace, and all of a sudden, there was a new city…Ho Chi Minh.
As we all compared notes, I notice a lonely figure standing by the door to whom no one is paying any attention. I recognize Graham Martin, and everybody rushes toward him, pushing mikes in his face. The Ambassador looks sick - which he is. He has been suffering from the flu and exhaustion. He finally had to be physically carried out of his office to the waiting helicopter on the roof of the embassy, as the Marine security detail tossed gas grenades down the stairs to stem the rush of Vietnamese attempting to get out on the last helicopter. Everybody screams questions at the Ambassador, but he just turns and walks silently down a passageway into the bowels of the ship.
A Navy spokesman tries to regain order in the pressroom. All of the press are trying to write a "finis" to their stories, but one more intangible remains. Following the retrieval of Ambassador Martin, all lifts had been suspended. Several hours later, someone realized that the entire Marine security detail, 10 people, had been left behind on the roof of the embassy. Under direct orders from The White House, one last exhausted Sea Stallion crew took off to rescue the Marines, evacuating them just as North Vietnamese tanks rolled past the embassy.
Now, the overriding concern for the press is how to get our stories - our film, tape and notes - off this ship! We form a committee, which goes to the Admiral commanding the operation, and he agrees that one person will be allowed aboard a helicopter headed for the carrier Coral Sea. This ship has a fixed wing aircraft capable of making it to the Philippines. We draw straws, and I win. I round up all the film and tape from the wires, magazines and networks, and a few minutes later am whisked off the Blue Ridge.
1600 hours - ABOVE THE SOUTH CHINA SEA
I am on a COD (Carrier On-Deck Aircraft), a propeller-driven aircraft that had been launched from the Coral Sea. We are winging our way east with high-priority cargo. Among the passengers are the planners of the evacuation, all on the way to be debriefed at Subic Bay Naval Base.
I turn to one, a Marine officer, whose fatigues were still damp with sweat, and ask him what he thinks... he hesitates a minute and replies, "You know...we were the firemen. And the fire was out. This was America's wedding day. It is the first time we ever walked away and left an ally behind...I keep asking myself, is there something more I could have done? If I had more helicopters, more airplanes? Whatever it could have been, I feel as though I let these people down...I just walked away."
I wander up to the cockpit, and sit in
the jump seat behind the pilot and copilot. I ask whether they have heard
anything from Saigon? They point to the headset on my seat and I slip it
on. They reach overhead, and dial in the FM signal from the Saigon Armed
Forces Network. As the plane flies into the darkening sky, I can hear what
sounds like Mantovani standards on the radio. Then, a recorded voice says,
"This is Armed Forces Radio, Saigon." There is a pause, then through
my earphones, I hear Bing Crosby start to sing "White Christmas."
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