1975: The Day I Left Saigon

When the US fled Vietnam, ABC News had to worry about its local employees. We got 101 of them out

I started looking for something familiar from the time we touched down at Ho Chi Minh City’s Tansonhut Airport on an evening flight from Danang. It had been nearly 31 years since I left on April 29, 1975, the day before Saigon fell.

Nobody calls it Ho Chi Minh City, except for a few proper tour guides and government functionaries. Just about everything for me had changed in Saigon but the name. The real epiphany occurred after we checked into our hotel and I tried to get some late news of the world on my room television. The first thing that appeared was the The Daily Show with Jon Stewart in New York. No, we were definitely not in Kansas anymore, Toto.

The next day, I paid a visit to Tu Do Street (now renamed Freedom Street) to take a look at the apartment house I stayed in for my last six months before the fall. It’s been torn down and has become a lovely children’s park.

I continued on a few blocks to the Caravelle Hotel, which housed our ABC News bureau on the 6th floor and was my home for a year on the 8th floor. The Caravelle has been greatly spruced up but most significantly its original ten floors have had an additional ten stories built on top of it. Saigon is flourishing.

I had one more surprise before our day of touring ended.  We were taken to something called the War Remnants Museum, which houses all manner of artifacts related to the war. In it I discovered an exhibit called, “Requiem,” which was a collection of photos by, and of, the 134 reporters and photographers killed during the long war.

I suspected that the list of the fallen would include two of our ABC News cameramen who were killed in a North Vietnamese ambush in Quangtri near the end of the very bloody Easter Offensive in 1972. And they were listed: Terry Khoo and Sam Kai Faye, both tough and courageous Singapore Chinese who had produced years of combat footage. Terry was regarded as the dean of cameramen and was literally on his last day of assignment in Vietnam before heading to Hong Kong to marry a woman in our Hong Kong bureau. He had volunteered to take someone else’s place on that day’s assignment.

It was the low point of my stay in Vietnam. Heavy fighting continued in the area of the ambush for three days after they went down, and by the time another cameraman and I were able to travel to the scene, we had trouble identifying their remains. I later attended their funeral in Singapore.  It was difficult, even after so many years, to see their pictures and read a description of their death.
The real tension for me in those last days in Saigon came in the ten days before my own evacuation by a Marine helicopter on April 29. It was prompted by a cloak-and-dagger evacuation of 101 of our Vietnamese staff members and their families.

As city after city fell to some 20 divisions of North Vietnamese, the people of Saigon reluctantly began to face the prospect that the capital was doomed. Our Vietnamese staff showed few overt signs of their growing anxiety until the final days, but we could sense their concern that they might be left behind.

No one could predict what would happen after a North Vietnamese takeover, but we assumed that anyone who had worked with Americans would be dealt with harshly. (That proved to be true: re-education camps for defeated South Vietnamese military forces and civilians who were employed by Americans.)

I began discussions in late March with our New York management on the possibility of getting our local staff out. ABC decided to assist all Vietnamese who had worked so earnestly and in many cases at great risk during the war years.

We compiled a list of 17 staffers and their families. With little time to make a momentous decision, 15 staff members said they and their families were prepared to leave. Only two staffers said they would remain in Vietnam—one a driver and the other an office boy, both of whom spoke little English.

My first list of staff and family members communicated to New York totaled 58. This number grew as families “discovered” sons and daughters they had overlooked. Every few nights I would call in a larger number until it reached 101. I insisted we were dealing in human lives: to their credit, the dubious NY executives accepted the final number.

But there was a Catch 22 in getting them out of the country. Exit visas and passports were almost impossible to obtain in Vietnam. In addition, government security at the airports and along the coast had been greatly increased to head off any potential exodus for fear it would even further hasten a military collapse.

The American Embassy, however, became aware that the news media were considering dangerous measures to get their staff out. To avoid such freelancing, they worked out a compromise. We would be given an okay for a certain number of staff with families to leave on a given day. If we got them through the Vietnamese MPs at Tansonhut gate, they would be driven to the Air America (CIA) terminal and flown out of the country to Clark Air Base in the Philippines.

On April 22, the day President Nguyen Van Thieu resigned and Xuan Loc, the last South Vietnamese Army stronghold, was about to fall, we were informed that 22 of our ABC News Vietnamese group should be ready to leave later that day. Anguished scenes took place as the families loaded into two vans. A mother or a younger brother had to be left behind for a future group—assuming there were such shipments. But after much waving of expired documents at tough MPs at the gate, our vans were allowed through and the group successfully left the country.

Three days later—as President Thieu was flying out of the country with ease—we were instructed that 36 more of the ABC group should be ready to go. Crammed into two large vans, we arrived at the main gate only to have a nasty-looking Vietnamese MP officer ignore our pleading.

We drove around the base to a back gate only to be waved off again.  Time was running out to get to the CIA Terminal and we went back to the main gate for one last try. I asked the heads of households to give me all of their Vietnamese piasters—soon to become worthless. We collected a wad of piasters, probably worth about $100. I gave them to cameraman Minh, the senior Vietnamese there and he headed for the gate.

The MPs tried to wave Minh away but he kept waving his documents and talking at a machine gun pace, all the while getting the money into position behind the documents—until the cash finally touched the MP’s hand. He hesitated for a moment and then his fist suddenly closed around the money.

“Thank God for corruption,” I thought.

The MP waved us onto the base a minute later and when we were safely inside we all clapped and pounded each other in sheer joy. I can hardly recall a more thrilling moment.
The same scene repeated itself three days later when out last batch of people were shipped out—all 101 of the ABC group. This time we had to bribe our way through in seven different carloads. There were a few close calls but all made it to the Philippines.

They soon were flown to the refugee center in Guam and continued on to a new beginning in the States. All 15 of the staffers were given jobs within the ABC organization, some are still working for ABC News and others have earned their retirement.

By the time it was the Americans’ turn to leave a few days later, it almost seemed anti-climatic. In mid-morning on April 29, the embassy put out the word that everyone was to report to assembly points right away—there would be only one evacuation as the situation was turning desperate for the South Vietnamese military. 

The largest group of news personnel headed for the nearby collection point on Gia Long Street. The first few busloads to Tansonhut went smoothly. Then whole families of Vietnamese civilians started arriving and began pushing onto the buses, determined not to be left behind.

Cameraman Tony Hirashiki and I crowded onto a bus to Tansonhut. We arrived to find it still under attack by Vietcong units—with U.S. marines fanning out to protect the evacuation effort. Exploding shells and small arms fire provided a constant background for the arrival of group after group. Tony and I were not sure where the rest of our ABC crews were so we started shooting film and preparing a news story.

Finally they roared into view—big U.S. Marine helicopters—the famous Jolly Green Giants—and one could sense the soaring confidence of the evacuees that they were going to exit from Vietnam.

The choppers loaded up, and after about three hours the Marine officer in charge said: “You can continue filming, but if you’re leaving today, this is it.” We didn’t argue and ran for the last helicopter from Tansonhut. Marines surrounded the chopper pad with guns at the ready; the Jolly Green Giant blew skyward and rapidly out of range of Vietcong missiles bracketing the airport.

As Saigon disappeared from view, the enormity of the event registered on the faces of Americans and Vietnamese alike at the realization that they could be leaving Vietnam forever.

We passed over small fleets of boats leaving the coast line with more fleeing Vietnamese. Thirty miles from the coast a beautiful sight came into view: the flight deck of the USS Midway, one of 10 Navy ships participating in the evacuation. As the day went on chopper after chopper disgorged more than 7,000 Vietnamese and Americans on landing pads, making it the largest helicopter evacuation ever.

We were able to get our story about Saigon’s demise on a flight of news materials to the Philippines and on to Hong Kong. It was satellited from there to New York and led ABC’s broadcast that evening.

The evacuation was over for many Americans and Vietnamese, but not for the many South Vietnamese who were left behind and had to resort in succeeding years to all manner of boats to try and escape the country. It was not quite the end of that somber chapter in American history called Vietnam.

Kevin Delany was Saigon Bureau Chief for ABC News from 1971-73 and at the end of the war in 1975. delany.kevin@gmail.com A longer version of this appeared in the Williams Alumni Review.

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