41 years after the fall of Saigon, a search for closure

Peter Arnett, David Hume Kennerly, Laura Palmer, and CBS News Senior White House Correspondent Bill Plante tell their stories of covering the end of the Vietnam War in April 1975
Peter Arnett, David Hume Kennerly, Laura Palm... 02:52

If you had to boil down the entire Vietnam War to one moment in time, it would be 5:20 a.m. on April 30, 1975.

Stu Herrington. CBS

"It was a microcosm of the whole war," retired U.S. Army Col. Stu Herrington recalled. "There's no doubt about it. I mean, we promised the Vietnamese for years and years, 'Don't worry, we're with you all the way.' Then it ended the way it did."

Herrington, then an Army captain, had been herding panicked South Vietnamese aboard the last helicopters out of the American Embassy in Saigon and he had promised them over and over.

"As long as I'm here, you don't need to worry."

But then orders came from President Gerald Ford.

"We gotta go. It's a presidential order and the ambassador is already gone and there's nothing we can do about it," Herrington recalled.

Before he snuck away to a helicopter, Herrington uttered these less-than-immortal words to the waiting Vietnamese:

"Excuse me, but I've gotta take a leak."'

Bien Pho. CBS

Bien Pho was one of the some 400 left behind. The communists sent him to an education camp, which he described as a "nice, fancy word for a prison."

Bien spent a year in that prison and three more trying to find a way out of Vietnam. He made it to the U.S. in 1979, married, got a job and discovered a talent for woodworking.

Herrington continued with his Army career.

"There wasn't an April that went by for the better part of 37 years that I didn't think 'What would I say to these people if I ever met them.'"

Then he got a phone call.

"I said 'Stu, this is Bien Pho. I don't think you know me, but I was one of the ones that got left behind,'" Bien said.

"I felt like I needed to explain and apologize," Herrington said, "but he wasn't really wanting explanations or apologies as much as to call me up and to say 'I'm okay, I did fine, don't worry about it.'"

Stu Herrington and Bien Pho visit the Vietnam Memorial together. CBS

It's now been 41 years since Herrington ended the Vietnam War with his cheap little lie to Bien Pho. But seeing them walk together past the Vietnam Memorial tells you that the only way to really end a war is through forgiveness.

  • David Martin

    David Martin is CBS News' National Security Correspondent.