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Memories Of The Fall Of Saigon

Twenty-five years ago, on April 30, 1975, the last Americans were evacuated from Vietnam. Then, and now, there were many conflicting opinions about our presence in Vietnam. wants to hear from you - telling us where you were when Saigon fell and how you felt about it, then and today.

A Teen-Age Greetersize>color>

In 1972 my mother and I joined my stepfather at his new tour of duty at Clark Air Force Base. My father was in the Security Police. We knew before anyone else on base that the POWs would be coming to Clark directly from Hanoi. We followed the story very closely. When they started coming home I, and many others, met every plane that came in. I also went and said goodbye to every plane as they headed for the states. I remember the first group that came. We didn't realize they would still be in prison clothing. These men got off the plane, obviously not knowing what to expect.

We were the first Americans that they saw. At first they walked timidly, then realized they were very welcome and smiles would spread across their tired thin faces. There was such sadness behind the smiles. I never got tired of going to the airport and welcoming them. It was hard to say goodbye when they went home - especially when we started hearing reports of the bad treatment they were getting stateside. We would line up outside the BX when they went shopping. They would come over to the lines and shake hands, give hugs, take a few of their first precious moments of freedom to talk to us children. When they came to our schools I was privileged enough to be picked to show Gregg Hanson around. I was chosen because he was from my hometown. I was a 15-year-old girl who fell in love with every man who came home. I became pen pals with one, Terry Boyer. It lasted for years. I received letters from Laird Gutterson, and Gregg Hanson. I have autographs from Mo Baker, Laird "Tat" Gutterson and Charlie Zaheski.

I was was very involved in "Operation Homecoming". To watch our men arrive as prisoners and leave for the states free men was an amazing thing. You could see it in their faces, their walk, and their demeanor. I know that at Clark they received a hero's welcome - I wish that had happened everywhere they went. I cried when they arrived, I cried when they left. I learned then what empathy meant. I had never seen people that had been so downtrodden; but they all had one thing - hope.

Mary Pattison

Too Latesize>color>

I was drafted into the South Army while still in high school.

Several weeks before Saigon fell, I went to the post in Long Binh. Taking a 3-wheeled motorcar, I passed by the long bridge separating Saigon and Long Binh. A bloody leg had been left in the middle of the hihway. Rumor had it that a small group of VC had tried to destroy the bridge but failed. It was the first time in my life that I had experienced such violence.

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For the U.S., the Vietnam War was a watershed event. But even now, 25 years after U.S. Marines and embassy personnel evacuated Saigon, bitter feelings still flow through the veins of American society. Did the U.S. learn its lessons from the decade-long war it lost?

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Later, I saw lines and lines of evacuees from Long Khanh province. They tried to carry as much as they could on their bicycles or on their carts pulled by either cattle or human power. The heat was extreme, the sun so strong, and there were lines and lines of people trying to get to Saigon. They all feared revenge from the North Vietnamese.

My dad refused to depart for the U.S. by means of ship (my brother was a Navy lieutenant) because he was afraid that he couldn't support the family once he was in the U.S. He was an official in the Ministry of Interior Affairs. Because he hadn't lived with the Viet Cong, he didn't expect that life would be so tough after they came.

They came in, with red bands on their shoulders. It was a scary feeling - my family was a big target because members had worked for the South Vietnamese government. They came in jeeps taken from South Vietnamese Army. With big flags of the South Revolution (as they claimed themselves) waving they showed their first presence as victors.

The whole family was scared. My dad realized how wrong he had been. It was too late.

Kent Ninh

Taking Care of Familysize>color>

I was about 9 1/2 years old at the time of the fall and my memories are a bit hazy. Only in the last few years, have I realized my mother's heroic deeds during those times and what she had to give up for our safety. And my father is a hero. He did what many American soldiers didn't - he took care of his Amerasian family.

My mother was very young when she ran away from Hanoi to make a life for herself in Saigon. She met a Vietnamese man and had me (out of wedlock). She had to go to work and earn a living so she put me in a misson style boarding house. I stayed there until I was 3 years old. One day a big American military man came towards me with my mother by his side. He was going to marry my mother and make me his daughter. I was quite frightened and not too receptive towards the friendly American. I remember the feeling so distinctly even though I was only 3.

My father and mother were married and they had my brother and my sister. I remember my mom's family was not very friendly towards my dad and made a lot of "noise" about it, but my father wanted my mother not to be isolated from her family and friends. He bought a house in Saigon and lived among the Vietnamese people. It was a challenge for him to become accepted into this community, but he held his ground.

We knew we had to eventually leave for America when the news became bad. One day my father came home and said, "We have to leave, and we have to leave now!" We gathered two suitcases worth of clothing for 5 people and said our good-byes. My father gave all the help a year's worth of wages and wished them well. I remember driving in the jeep and seeing my grandparents out the back window and knowing that this was good-bye. I was very close to my grandparents. It was tough and as a 9-year-old, I sensed deep inside that something big was going to happen.

We went to the Embassy and had to stay on the grounds for the night. We waited until our names were called to board a military helicopter. My dad was not high ranking enough to go right away. We finally got to leave the next day and it was very hectic. We went to Guam for a day or two and then to Hawaii. From there we went to San Francisco. It was quite a scary ordeal, since I knew only about 3 words of English (hello, yes and no). I did not spend that much time with my father in Vietnam, because of school and his jobs in different parts of the country. I was regarded as "the Vietnamese granddaughter" by my grandparents and they had guarded me from Americans as much as they could.

We barely had enough money to buy a station wagon to drive across American so we could stay with my father's family. He had to use all his money and other assets to bribe us passage to leave Vietnam. He wanted to ensure that ALL his family was going to go with him to American. He even changed my birth certificate to state that he was my biological father rather than my adoptive one - he wanted no questions asked.

We made it to Iowa and we met all of my father's relatives. Fortunately for us, his family was very receptive and warm towards my mother and us.

I always count my blessings when I hear others telling me their stories and how they escaped from Vietnam. I was one of the more lucky ones.

My wish someday is to go back to Vietnam and visit my family, but I am hesitant. I am afraid that they may see me as a traitor for not having any Vietnamese accent or being able to speak Vietnamese. When we moved to a small town in Iowa, my faher wanted us to assimilate with the other children. He said that we had to speak mainly English and somehow along the way I lost the ability to communicate in Vietnamese (Ironically, I speak German a lot better!) But now that I have children of my own and want to know more about my roots and where I came from, I plan to take Vietnamese language classes, before I make my pilgrimage to my birthplace.

Loan Arkenberg

A Souvenirsize>color>

I was a petty officer on board the USS Blue Ridge during the evacuation. Our participation began Easter Sunday 1975 and lasted for over a month. We started up north where we assisted ARVN and Viet Marines with their retreat to the south. During this time we were witness to, and participated in, fights all the way down the coast. Our part in the evacuation of Saigon began on April 28 when Vietnamese pilots began flying out and landing on us. By mid morning on the 30th the ship seemed to be under siege by helicopters.

To the best of my recollection we had five choppers crash on us that day - not to mention the ones that ditched or were shoved overboard. One crash in particular comes to mind. I still have a piece of the offending chopper. The pilot wanted to ditch on the starboard side but chickened out. As he flew around to the port side he regained his courage and bailed out on the high side; the chopper turned back toward the starboard side and bore down on us. At our position, just above a 50cal mount, we were yelling at the gunner to open fire in hopes of stopping the chopper. But before he could commence fire the chopper hit us full force in the starboard quarter showering the main decks and helo pad with debris hitting an offloading chopper and causing its' rotors to shatter and shower us with more debris.

Although the Blue Ridge and her crew, to my knowledge, never received any awards or commendations, when people ask if I saw combat in Viet Nam I tell them about this incident and let them make up their own minds.

Lawrence Dickerson

A Patriot Leavingsize>color>

I was a doctor assigned to the 4th Naval Riverine Command, headquartered in CanTho since March 1975. On April 30, 1975, I knew that the families of my commander and his deputies were being evacuated by the American Consul in CanTho. That morning there was a meeting and we were told that there would be an evacuation later that night. Whoever wished to leave should bring their families inside the compound before the night curfew.

I was assigned to an LCM carrying dependents. We left after midnight April 30, 1975 with instructions to rendezvous with other ships somewhere in the China Sea.

We refueled at 5 a.m. at a naval base near the coast. At 10 a.m. on My 1, we were stuck due to a low tide. We heard the surrender over the radio. Choppers and planes flew above heading toward the sea. Around 3 p.m. we saw a naval hospital ship where I briefly served in 1973. We boarded it, but stayed on the deck because there were so many others down below. The ship was somewhere south of ConSon Island. There we saw other ships of the South Vietnamese Navy. On the sixth or seventh day out, our ship was painted with USS Navy markings and a US Lt. j.g. came on board. We saluted our flag and sang the national anthem for the last time. My eyes were wet. It finally struck me that we lost our homeland. The US flag was raised and the ship entered Subic Bay. We then boarded a Marine Merchant ships and came to Guam 3 days later.

Giap Phuc Hai M.D.

Left On The Stoopsize>color>

I was abandoned on the doorstep of an orphanage in a province in Southern Vietnam in 1972. Later, I was transported to New Haven Nursery in Saigon, where I spent most of the first year of my life. In 1973, I was adopted by my parents, who were working in the U.S. Embassy at the time.

Twenty-five years later, I returned to my native land. The trip home was an emotional one. I was fortunate to visit my orphanage, which is still in operation. Even though my nursery is no longer operating, I wanted to see the very building that kept me safe during the war. I also met with Ambassador Pete Petersen in Hanoi. It was very interesting to hear what his views were of the war, especially since he was captured by the Vietcong while serving in Vietnam.

The highlight of my trip was taking a boat trip to the region where it is believed that I was born, the Mekong Delta. While in the Delta, I kept imagining how different my life would have been had I not been adopted. Would I be performing backbreaking work in the rice fields? Perhaps make a few dollars a day working in a little store on the side of the road? Or would I have even made my way to Saigon?

The effects of the war are very personal to me. After visiting Vietnam, I am even more thankful for being adopted. I am especially thankful to my (adoptive) parents for the life they have allowed me to lead.

I often wonder what it would be like to see my natural parents. Would they recognize me? What would they say to me? Are they even alive? Every picture that I see of a Vietnamese person, I cannot help but ask myself, "Am I related to that person?"

E. Peters

Disarming The ARVNsize>color>

During the crisis I was stationed aboard the aircraft carrier USS Midway as a member of VA 115. I was a maintenance greenshirt working on the A6 aircraft. My job that day was to strip the ARVN soldiers landing on the flight deck of their weapons and to search them and the civilians that came ith them for any contraband. They were then sent down below for processing to refugee camps.

I remember watching the Marines preparing to embark on Air Force helos heading for Saigon. I also remember seeing hundreds of aircraft, mostly helicopters desperately trying to land on the crowded deck. Most were low on fuel and some had to ditch in the ocean. There are many things that happened -- too numerous to recount here, except to say that it was one of the saddest periods of American history and should never be repeated.

Greg Smith

Missing Familysize>color>

When we got the signal that we could leave my family divided into two. My four brothers went with my uncle's family. My three sisters and I went with my parents. We left by boat, my brothers and my uncle went by helicopter.

We've never found them. My parents tried to find them through the American Red Cross. They looked everywhere but have never found them. My parents lost four sons. It was a very painful experience. We still aren't over it...and probably never will be.

Anne Pham

Remorse and Sadnesssize>color>

I served in Viet Nam from late 1969 to mid 1972 in the U.S. Army. I was assigned to the Phu Bai-Hue area. Later when the 101st stood down I was assigned to the Pleiku-Kontum area.

I watched with great remorse the end of Saigon in my hometown of Madison, Wisconsin. As many know Madison was a hotbed of anti-war fervor. Thousands took to the streets to "celebrate" the victory of the Viet Cong! Wrong -- the as-usual naive students did not know, or care to admit, that the victory was owned by the hard-core NVA troops. But that's another story. Those of us who had served in Viet Nam almost to a man felt a sadness and loneliness that we thought had been put to rest.

Donald G. Saur, Jr.

Read more letters in PART 2.
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