‘Day of Anguish’ Still Grips Those Who Fled : Surrender: Fifteen years ago today, the fall of Saigon irrevocably changed a multitude of lives forever.
Saigon radio went dead at 10 a.m. on April 30, 1975. From the air traffic control tower at Can Tho, the only airport then still functioning in South Vietnam, Liem Huu Nguyen looked down and saw soldiers shooting each other for a seat on the last helicopters.
Twenty minutes later, South Vietnamese President Duong Van Minh announced unconditional surrender.
“I felt, I’m glad it’s over,” said Nguyen, then 18, now a Northern California attorney. “The killing has been going on for so long. . . . But what the hell are these communists going to do to me, my family, the country as a whole?”
Under fire, Nguyen jumped on one of the last helicopters to leave. Fifteen years later, he still has nightmares in which he again sees the guns of former comrades pointing up at him.
Televised images of desperate Vietnamese clinging to U.S. helicopters linger uncomfortably on the fringes of the American psyche. Those memories are central, however, to those Vietnamese who fled their ancestral homeland on planes, barges or battleships in 1975 or on rickety boats later. After 15 years, the fall of Saigon remains a bitter and potent symbol. They still call April 30 “The Day of Anguish.”
The collapse of South Vietnam eventually brought nearly 450,000 Southeast Asians to California, and about 100,000 Vietnamese to Orange County, the largest such community in the nation. Many of these exiles share suburban neighborhoods with Americans who fought in Vietnam, or marched against the war. Both groups are still grappling with the aftermath of the Vietnam War.
Tonight, Duc Au, a 24-year-old philosophy student at UC Irvine, plans to meet friends to commemorate the surrender and reflect on the changes in their lives since.
“It’s neither sad nor happy, but very solemn,” Au said. “It’s a time for retrospection.”
But for Au’s father “it’s a day of grief and tragedy,” Au said. “The better half of him is still over there.”
Au himself expresses defiance.
“I don’t feel a sense of shame at all. It wasn’t my fault,” Au said. “It was the older generation’s fault. They’re the ones who messed it up. . . . We think we must make something of ourselves here, and then maybe someday we can return and help (Vietnam).”
When the surrender was announced in 1975, the normally restrained citizens of Hanoi celebrated wildly in the streets, and from Tokyo to Paris to Berkeley there were happy demonstrations by those who saw the communist takeover as a long-awaited victory of the Vietnamese people over various foreign invaders they had battled for a century.
Observers in what had been Saigon, but was now the newly named Ho Chi Minh City, said one-third of its citizens greeted the conquering army with smiles of welcome; one-third with indifference, and one-third with deep apprehension.
One of those who was apprehensive had spent the week before the takeover shredding and burning personnel files at the Vietnamese Ministry of Information. A longtime Vietnamese employee of the U.S. Information Service, he had been evacuating colleagues by cargo plane from the Tan Son Nhut airstrip. When Tan Son Nhut was bombed April 28, he said, the chaos began.
By April 29, the streets were jammed with traffic, crowds and looters. The man, who asked not to be identified, said his American bosses left for the U.S. Embassy compound at noon. “They just said farewell to us, and they never returned.”
About 30 Vietnamese employees sat and waited for the Americans. At first they called the embassy, and were assured they would be evacuated. Later they could not get through. They waited until early morning, but nobody came.
“When we no longer saw any helicopters in the sky, we knew we weren’t going to go,” the man said.
As he was walking home, he noticed that the streets were full of abandoned Amerasian children, some as young as 2 years old.
“Their mothers were so scared, they sent them into the street,” he said. It was a few days before the women realized that they would not face retribution for past liaisons with American GIs and retrieved their children, he said.
The man said he was never harassed by the new government but could not find a job “because nobody would trust me.” He left Vietnam for California in 1985.
Decisions made in a single day of chaos irrevocably changed some lives.
Hung Le, a former member of South Vietnam’s Green Berets, left two children behind, thinking that he would soon be able to send for the toddlers. They were teens when he next saw them.
Like many others, Le had fled south with his wife and a 6-month-old daughter when Da Nang fell, but left a 3-year-old child and another nearly 2 with their grandmother for safekeeping. Le and his unit were still fighting on April 29, but their commanders had left the country. Lacking orders, the men decided to sail down the Saigon River and make their way to Phu Quoc Island, where they would regroup and plan a counterattack. But when they reached the sea, they learned of the surrender. It was impossible, he said, to return for the children.
“For the first three or four years, every night I dreamed about them,” said Le, who first settled in Florida and moved last year to Riverside County. “Ten years later, we got them here.”
Hoang, 18, and Mong-Hang, 16, thought their grandparents were their parents until they were told the story in 1981. When the exit permits finally came through in 1986, they did not want to leave Vietnam and the only family they had ever known.
“There are more things to enjoy here, but it’s also sadder here,” Mong-Hang said. “Little Saigon is nice, but it’s not the same.”
Her eyes reddened as she said she was writing to her grandparents and classmates. She confessed that she doesn’t really understand the war.
Hours before Saigon fell, former Air Force Lt. Col. Nhi Van Ho forced his way onto a cargo plane by chasing it down a runway and pointing his Colt .45 at the pilot’s head. Ho was saved but lost all contact with his family, who had been evacuated earlier. They had been told that he was probably dead. Ho ran into his son 10 days later in a refugee camp in Guam.
“We were only saved through God’s grace and miraculous power,” said Ho, who now lives in Cypress and credits the experience for his family’s conversion from Buddhism to Christianity. Ho, his wife and a son received degrees from the Southern California Theology Seminar in Stanton and now help run the Vietnamese Full-Gospel Church of Long Beach.
Leaving the country was just a lark for Pung Trong Nguyen, a 19-year-old Saigon University law student, who jumped aboard a helicopter amid the chaos. “I thought: Let’s go to U.S.A. for a week or two weeks, and then when the war ended, I’d go back.”
Nguyen, now a computer programmer in Sun Valley, did not say goodby to his parents for fear they would forbid him to go. He hopes that they will soon be able to leave Vietnam and settle here.
Departure was not optional for Thanh Lien. The grandson of a former Vietnamese emperor, he was the police chief in the old imperial capital of Hue. Lien says he also ran the Phoenix program, a secret American counterintelligence operation, in the city and surrounding 13 provinces and would have been executed had he stayed. Lien drove through Saigon with two bodyguards on the night of April 29, noting the inferno at the bombed-out gas storage tanks at Nha Be, the helicopters flitting across the sky, and the communist artillery on the outskirts of town.
“The communists didn’t shoot the U.S. helicopters,” he noted. “I don’t know why. Maybe they had a secret agreement. If they wanted, they could (have shot down) the helicopters, but they didn’t.”
Lien brought his police files on the ferry from Saigon Harbor. He now works for the Fullerton-based Cuong De Foundation, which helps refugees, and his files have helped him vouch for many refugees he knew in Hue. He shows a visitor cartons of letters he has written in support of their claims of political persecution.
Dr. Ton-That Niem, a former minister of health and now a psychiatrist specializing in refugee mental health at Metropolitan State Hospital in Norwalk, says he understands firsthand the guilt that survivors feel. A general who had been his classmate gave up his seat on a helicopter from the roof of the Swiss Embassy so that Niem could leave. Later, Niem was told that it had been the last helicopter. “Two years later I saw him in Virginia,” said Niem, now a psychiatrist specializing in refugee mental health. “I cried because I felt so guilty.”
UC Irvine student Duc Au’s family was lucky. His father, Ho Ngoc Au, was a former minister of economic affairs and a wealthy industrialist who had advised Westinghouse on Third World investment. The family was to be evacuated by airplane, but the airport was bombed. Then buses were sent to fetch them, but the buses never arrived. Finally, they were told to make their own way to a barge on the Saigon River.
“The buses never came,” explained Shep Lowman, who was in charge of part of the evacuation for the U.S. Embassy and helped the Aus leave. “People with keys to buses ran away. People with keys to gas pumps ran away.”
Ho Au drove to the docks in a friend’s car jammed with 11 adults and children. Though it was only two miles, it took them three hours. People pounded on their windshield as they parted the crowd, but there was no violence. They had brought some cash, a little jewelry and all their documents in Au’s briefcase in the trunk.
“By the time we stopped, we opened the trunk to get the luggage and 2,000 hands reached in and took it all. I had my wife, my five children, the clothes on my body and that’s all. Even my wristwatch they snatched away.”
Duc Au said his mother managed to hold on to her family photo album and her husband’s old love letters.
A tugboat pulled their barge out onto the Saigon River. But the barge was too big to take through a canal; instead, they had to travel on a main waterway.
“We were told to be quiet, no cigarette smoke, nothing, just lie down on the deck. And they pulled us through an area completely controlled by the Viet Cong,” Ho Au said.
Hungry, thirsty and exhausted, they lay down on the deck and went to sleep. At 3 a.m., Ho was startled awake by the rocking of the barge and realized that they had reached the South China Sea. They were picked up by an American ship and eventually joined Ho Au’s brother, who had immigrated to California earlier and was working for TRW in Redondo Beach. Now Ho Au lives in Manhattan Beach, is a business consultant and is president of the Vietnamese Chamber of Commerce of America.
But in late April of each year, according to his son, Ho Au often begins to talk about their house in Saigon. Ho had designed it himself, and the family had moved in just the year before.
This was not the first generation of Aus to be shattered by war. Ho Au had been orphaned at age 9 when his father, a resistance activist, was killed by the French. But Ho Au won scholarships to study in America and returned to become a cabinet minister.
To young Duc, his father’s dream house was a mansion to equal any in Bel Air, with marble floors and a large swimming pool. To the father, however, it was the symbol of his success and the fulfillment of his dreams. The Aus have heard that the house is being used as a vacation home by top Communist Party officials.
While the Aus floated downstream on the barge, Shep Lowman left Saigon by climbing through the wall of the French Embassy into the adjacent U.S. Embassy, with the mayor of Saigon and several other top officials in tow.
They left late on April 29 on a helicopter from the embassy roof. At no point did Lowman encounter violence--just shock and resignation.
“I was nervous when I went into the city alone, but the people never had anything but courtesy and kind of sad faces,” he said.
“It was a terribly tragic and sad time because most of us in the embassy had served a number of years there,” Lowman said. “Most of us had many friends among the Vietnamese that we couldn’t do a damn thing for.”
Lowman now runs the Saigon Palace restaurant in Arlington, Va., with his Vietnamese wife, Hiep, and their child. The sense of helplessness in the face of tragedy motivated Lowman and many others to help other Southeast Asian refugees. Lowman, who is a director of Refugees International, sees the plight of refugees now as the most pitiful since the 1979 boat crisis, when several hundred thousand people took to the sea.
The refugees haven’t stopped coming, but the world wishes they would, Lowman said. “Malays are turning away all boats that arrive, sending them to Indonesia. We don’t know how long Indonesia will put up with it. Hong Kong wants to send them back by force.”
Despite the odds, the boat people persist in leaving.
“They are put into prison camps, threatened with forcible return and have very little chance of resettlement elsewhere,” Lowman said. “One of the largest surges has been people out of North Vietnam to Hong Kong. It just suggests a deep, deep malaise in the society.”
Douglas Pike, now director of the Indochina Studies Project at UC Berkeley, said the fall of Saigon had devastating effects on many of his former State Department colleagues, who were unable to evacuate Vietnamese friends and later learned that they had been sent to “re-education” camps or in some cases shot.
“It utterly destroyed a number of friends of mine,” Pike said. “I’m not saying they went bonkers. . . . It just ruined their outlook on life--and their careers in many cases.”
But most Americans saw the fall of Saigon on television. Melba Bishop, now an Oceanside city councilwoman, and her husband, Lucky Bishop, a former Marine who served three tours in Vietnam, watched from their living room in Oceanside on April 29 as a Marine friend supervised the lowering of the flag at the U.S. Embassy.
Melba Bishop had once told her husband in jest that she knew an easy way to end the Vietnam War: “You have a band play, and you take down the American flag and you put up the Vietnamese flag and you go.”
But when they saw frantic Vietnamese trying to scale the embassy wall and the flag going down, “my husband started to cry and it was the first time I’d ever seen him cry about Vietnam,” she said.
“I said, ‘What are you crying for?’ and he said a lot of his friends died for that. . . . He said the Marines have a tradition that they don’t lose any men if they don’t take the ground. Well, they lost a lot of men, and they didn’t take the ground. And that hurt.”
Lucky Bishop did not wish to talk about the memories.
One Vietnamese who had come to the United States to study and then became involved with the U.S. anti-war movement, remembers that he joined happy demonstrators celebrating the surrender in the streets of Berkeley. He believed that the fall of Saigon would at last bring his country peace and unification. Yet he could not share the simple joy of his American friends and worried about the fate of his family, including two brothers who were serving in the Southern army.
“The general American anti-war sentiment was one thing, but as a Vietnamese I know better than that,” said the man, who asked not to be identified because his liberal views could endanger his safety. “All the personal hatreds and problems. . . . Even if it’s not a matter of policy, who’s to say people wouldn’t take things into their own hands?”
April 30 is still a happy date for the man, but as the years have passed and Vietnam remains mired in poverty and bitterness, his joy has faded.
“Because 15 years after that day make me feel that we as a people blew it,” he said. “And the leadership of the communist government, they blew it.”
The Socialist Republic of Vietnam has proclaimed 1990 the Year of the Tourist and has encouraged Vietnamese living overseas to return. Many have done so secretly, such as the former anti-war protester; a few have made no attempt to hide their return, such as attorney Liem Huu Nguyen, who has made two trips back.
Nguyen grew up in a tiny village in central Vietnam, where his family, like his country, was split in two by war. Nguyen’s uncle went to fight for the North, but Nguyen followed his father into the Southern army.
“In the day (the nationalists) came by asking, ‘Did your uncle stop by last night?’ And at night (the National Liberation Front cadres) say, ‘When is your father coming home?’ ” he said.
“My grandmother was in a pitiful state. If they were fighting at night, in the morning she would wake up very early and go looking for her son” among the dead.
The village was leveled by B-52 bombers in 1972. “A single bamboo tree didn’t survive,” Nguyen said.
But the Americans were long gone by the time news of the surrender reached Nguyen in the Can Tho airport control tower. Planes carrying the South Vietnamese military brass--and most everybody else with clout--had already taken off. In fact, so many soldiers had already deserted that Nguyen, who was 18 and trained only as a meteorologist, was acting as air traffic controller.
“The reason why I didn’t run away . . . was that I didn’t know where to go,” Nguyen said. “The base was encircled. And my family was in Central Vietnam. It was just like Kennedy said--'How did you become a hero in the Philippines?’ ‘They sank my boat.’ ”
News of the surrender triggered panic inside the base, and from outside, shooting from the communist troops intensified.
“People were running like wild, crazy, and they were shooting at each other,” he said. “I looked down the runway and there were a crowd of people running after an airplane that was taking off. And I saw people shooting each other to get a place on the airplane.”
Nguyen remembers issuing orders over the loudspeaker that all helicopters were to take off facing south. In fact, wind direction is not critical to helicopter takeoff, but Nguyen hoped the choppers would all move in one direction and not collide.
The frantic pilots ignored him and took off every which way. Nguyen swore into the microphone. Then a voice came into his headset.
“It said, ‘Liem, it’s over.’ It was a friend of mine. ‘It’s over. Get the hell outta there and we’ll take you out.’ I looked down and saw the helicopter was rotating its blades.”
It was one of two helicopters reserved for VIPs. The first was so jammed that he had to stand on the landing gear and hang on to the machine gun turret outside. Someone inside warned him to let go or he would lose consciousness and fall as soon as the helicopter reached a high altitude.
Nguyen remembered that in 1972, when his home province fell to the communists, villagers had died that way.
“I jumped off. I ran to another helicopter nearby. Only two left, and people were fighting to get on,” he said. “On my way to the second helicopter, I saw the first helicopter crash before my eyes. Because they didn’t have enough power and too much weight.
“Then I run to the second helicopter. Same problem, people fighting to get in. But there was a big box, an ammunition box. I pulled that ammunition box out and threw it away and I was able to get inside the helicopter.
“When it took off, the people who were not able to get on board shot at us. . . .
“Sometimes I have nightmares about this. I remember the dark guns pointing up at us. The bullets were actually going in our direction. And I saw the fire burn out from the top of the gun.”
The helicopter landed on a small fishing island, and a Filipino fishing boat took them to the 7th Fleet. The Americans ordered them to throw down their weapons and form a single line before coming aboard.
“We stood in line and held up our weapons and sang the South Vietnam national anthem for the last time,” Nguyen said. “We all cried. Then we threw our guns into the water and we formed a single line and got on board the American Navy ship.”
Times staff writers Tony Marcano and Thuan Le contributed to this story.