I was there that fateful day, April 30, 1975, when South Vietnam unconditionally surrendered to North Vietnam, ending what came to be called "The American War" of more than 10 years.
|George Esper (sitting, first left) and some war correspondents in Saigon |
This was written by George Esper who retired from the Associated Press in 2000 after 42 years with the wire service, including 10 in Vietnam. He has died at the age of 79.
It became obvious weeks before that the North Vietnamese would prevail as their forces swept southward, with little or no opposition, to the edges of Saigon, the capital of South Vietnam, renamed Ho Chi Minh City.
American combat forces had already pulled out of the country two years earlier, leaving the South Vietnamese to fend for themselves.
The day before the fall, North Vietnamese gunners bombarded Tan Son Nhat Air Base with rockets and artillery for three hours, hastening the pullout of the remaining 1,000 Americans and as many South Vietnamese as possible.
US evacuation helicopters flying from aircraft carriers landed on the roof of the American Embassy and at Tan Son Nhat Air Base. Hundreds of South Vietnamese tried to get over the 14-foot wall surrounding the embassy in a stampede to get on the helicopters.
Battle-garbed US Marine guards and civilians beat them back with pistol and rifle butts, fists and feet, to keep the embassy from being overrun.
The panic was so widespread that people across the country, fearing a bloodbath that never materialized, sought ways to get out of South Vietnam, including bribery, offering gold.
Some Vietnamese followed me everywhere, even camping out at my apartment, in hopes they could go with me. One South Vietnamese general, responsible for the safeguarding of Saigon, sought our assistance in escaping. When I told them I wasn't leaving, they wouldn't believe me.
The American force of more than 40 carriers, amphibious ships and other vessels were jammed with thousands of refugees. About 1,000 Americans and 6,000 Vietnamese were evacuated by helicopter during the final US pullout.
On Wednesday morning, April 30, 1975, US Marines fired a red smoke grenade to guide a helicopter in for a landing on the roof of the American Embassy.
Eleven Marines jumped aboard and were airborne within four minutes. They had served as the rear guard and were the last Americans to be flown out of Saigon from among 800 Marines who had provided security for the evacuation.
After the American airlift ended at 7:52 a.m., hundreds of Vietnamese civilians rushed into the embassy compound and onto the roof of a nearby building, hoping for more helicopters.
There would be none.
Two hours later, Saigon announced its unconditional surrender in a radio and television broadcast. South Vietnamese soldiers marched from their outposts to stack their weapons in surrender. They were beaten men.
A police officer walked to a war memorial in the park in Lam Son Square. His eyes were filled with sadness, his voice with despair, as I interviewed him. "Fini! Fini!" he exclaimed.
Suddenly, he saluted the memorial, raised his pistol to his head and fired, falling mortally wounded at my feet. South Vietnamese soldiers tore off their uniforms and boots on the streets in efforts to disassociate themselves from the Saigon government and its American supporters.
During the 10 years I was in Vietnam, I often wondered how the war would end. Two young North Vietnamese soldiers walked into the AP offices and over some Coke and pound cake, they shared with us their feelings. They showed us snapshots of their families.
North Vietnamese, South Vietnamese, American, I realized we were much the same with the same hopes and the same emotions. That's how the war ended for me.