April 30th, 1975:
The day I left Saigon
Nguyễn Tŗi Ngọc
Edited by: Cẩm Linh
Monday April 28th, 1975:
Lying on the wooden bed in the heat of a summer day in Saigon, listening to the sound of the Huey helicopters and the transport planes C-130 going back and forth in the sky, I trembled in fear because I knew that they were evacuating the Americans along with some lucky Vietnamese people out of Saigon. On the other hand, here I was, stuck at my house with no hope of escaping. When North Vietnamese Communists started the ultimate attack, none of the military experts in the world would have guessed that the South would collapse at such a tremendous pace. The war started on March 10th, 1975. First, the Communists pounded South Vietnamese positions with a relentless artillery barrage, then they swept across the DMZ with a massive and brazen armor and infantry assault. Spearheaded by columns of Soviet-built T54 tanks, surface-to-air missiles (SAM), long range 130mm mortars and rocket launchers, divisions of the Communist force attacked and advanced into Quảng Trị, Pleiku, Ban MÍ Thuột, T‚y Ninh, and Xu‚n Lộc with impunity. Within three to four weeks, Quảng Trị, Huế, Ban MÍ Thuột, KonTum, and Pleiku -provinces in Central Vietnam- fell to the North.
In the worst strategic miscalculation in the history of military warfare, President Thiệu decided to abandon Central Vietnam and ordered South Vietnamese troops to withdraw from Central Vietnam to protect Saigon and the Southern provinces. As a result of this order, from latitude 17 to Phước Long, Định QuŠn, millions of refugees were trapped, unable to move further on their escape from the Communists to Saigon. On April 21st, the TV broadcasted Thiệu resigning from his post. Thiệu accused the Americans of not honoring their promise to defend South Vietnam. Thiệu vowed to stay back to defend the country after his resignation and he declared that it was time for the country to unite with him to repel enemy forces. However, five days later, he left Saigon for Taiwan in an American Air Forceís C-118 plane with fifteen tons of luggage. At this time, Xu‚n Lộc, a city 60 km from Saigon, was completely surrounded by Communists. The battle at Xu‚n Lộc kept intensifying because if Xu‚n Lộc fell, the North would advance to BiÍn HÚa. If the North reached BiÍn HÚa, the end of Saigon would be inevitable.
The week before, my brother and I went to see Kevinís Vietnamese wife. Kevin served as a Marine in Vietnam throughout 1968. Kevin resided in Santa Barbara and was acquainted with my brother through church correspondence. Kevin had sponsored his wife and his two children to immigrate to America, and had asked my brother to check to see if there was anything she might need. He had bought flight tickets for them to leave Saigon, the departure date: April 30th, 1975. We talked to her for about an hour and after determining that she had everything she needed, we said goodbye and congratulated her for being on the way to reunite with her husband. While sitting in the back of the motorcycle on the way home, I was depressed thinking about how she had shown us the three tickets with their names on them. I wished that it was my name instead of her name printed on that ticket. In the next few days, I would not be able to sleep, not because of fear of not being able to leave, but rather because of the excitement built up waiting for that important day- April 30th, 1975- to come so that I could depart for America with a new, peaceful life.
The schools had been closed for weeks. All of the normal daily activities were broken up, leaving me plenty of time to contemplate and to worry for our lives and our future. I thought about how life would be if The Republic of South Vietnam succumbed to the North. My parents once left their birth place in the North to seek freedom in the South, to rebuild a new life. Who would have thought that twenty years later, it was my turn to face the very same problem they had faced? However, unlike their situation, it seemed as if I had no way of escaping from the Communists. Our family didnít have anyone working for the Americans. We had no relatives abroad. We were not rich enough to buy a boat to escape via the ocean. Those were the three primary conditions needed to secure a place to freedom.
Three days ago, Thanh, a classmate, who lived only a few blocks from my house, rode his bicycle to see me:
- Ngoc, I am going to America!
- Really? When are you going?
- This coming Tuesday, April 29th . My aunt works for the Americans so she was able to secure some seats for my parents and me to leave Saigon.
Thanhís family also ran from the North to escape Communists in 1954, just like my family, so I asked him:
- Your parents must be very excited!
- Oh yes, for sure, especially my father. He has been worried sick the past few weeks.
- Remember to write to me once you get to America.
- Of course.
- Is there anyone else in our class who is also leaving?
- I donít know.
- When class resumes, I will let everyone know that you have gone to America. Congratulations and best of luck to you!
Within a week, I knew two people who were fortunate enough to have a chance to leave Vietnam. They did not have to face an uncertain future like me and millions of other people. I didnít know what Godís plan was. Why were certain people so lucky? Why were the rest of us entrenched in a bad fate?
Tuesday April 29th, 1975:
I did not sleep well last night because I heard what sounded like several rockets exploding in Saigon. When day broke, I discovered that the North had bombarded us with mortars and rockets all night long. One landed in Chợ Lớn, one landed near Hotel Majestic, a few landed at T‚n Sơn Nhất Airport, and one landed near the U.S. Embassy, killing two U.S. Marines. My brother had awoken early in the morning and had listened to the news on the radio. The Army station kept repeating that Saigon was in a 24-hour curfew and martial law was in effect. When Thiệu left office, the balance of power was transferred to his Vice President, Trần Văn Hương, but within a week, Hương was wondering if the transfer of power was constitutional. He then convened an extraordinary session and asked the National Assembly to appoint General Dương Văn Minh as President. Yesterday, the appointment of the new President was broadcasted on TV. General Minh spoke not only to South Vietnamís Army and its people, but also to the Provisional Revolutionary Government and ďour brothers and sisters on the other side.Ē He said he was willing to resolve the conflict in a peaceful way. However, in the afternoon and throughout the night, the sound of rockets exploding and of machine guns shooting was relentless. It proved that the North did not take Minh seriously. How could the North take him seriously when the South Vietnam government was about to collapse, the noose around Saigon tightening more than before? The North completely had the upper hand; the smell of victory was within their reach in a few days, if not, hours.
Up in the sky, the Chinooks were flying in formation of two and three from the sea to Saigon, signifying the last evacuation of the Americans in Vietnam. Despite the chaotic scene with the sound of the helicopter blades, the exploding sound of artillery shells, the sound of mortar and cannon fire, the fierce engine sound of Phantom jets, and the constant sound of AK47 and M16 machine guns, the residents of my poor, hard-working South Vietnamese neighborhood still behaved as though life was normal. Mrs. Ba had rolled out her sandwich cart, Mrs. BŠnh Canh was ready to transport her two pots of sweet dessert known as ďChŤĒ, Mr. TŰm Cŗng had opened up his little store and was waiting for customers. We were from the North so deep in our hearts, the ďnothing-bad-is-going-to-happenĒ feeling of Southerners had been replaced by the fear of seeing the end of freedom with a Communistsí victory. A very dark, bleak future was coming and there was nothing I could do except watch it unfold in front of me.
As I was thinking about my uncertain future, I heard someone turn off an engine of a motorcycle in front of my house. Looking out the window, I recognized that it was my brother Tuấn. He rushed into the house and told everybody:
- Everyone get ready to leave. We are going to the International Church at Trần Cao V‚n. There will be an evacuation by helicopter there.
- Are you sure? Where did you get the news? My oldest brother asked.
- No, Iím not sure, but I was told that American ministers will be evacuated at the church.
- We should get ready to leave then. We will see you and your wifeís family at Trần Cao V‚n.
- OK, I will go back to my wifeís house to get her family. See you later.
I listened to my brother, not believing what I had just heard. If we run to the International Church, then we could all leave Saigon? Would it be that simple? Finding a place to evacuate and getting into it was extremely difficult.
President Gerald Ford had applied a lot of pressure to the U.S. Embassy in Vietnam in early April. The President had ordered Ambassador Graham Martin to evacuate all Americans and their Vietnamese counterparts. However, Martin refused to comply with the orders. Martin believed that evacuating the Americans would create chaos in South Vietnam. If the Americans left, the South Vietnamese Army would not want to stay back and fight. This mentality would disrupt a peaceful, planned evacuation. Martin announced to the Americans that whoever wanted to leave had to comply with South Vietnamís law. Because of this announcement, every American who was living with a Vietnamese wife but had not bothered to apply for a marriage certificate now had to pay as much as one thousand dollars, instead of the normal fee of 20 dollars, for a marriage certificate in order for them to get their wife and family out of Vietnam.
My brother Tuấn stayed at his wifeís house in Ng„ Bẩy after their wedding. He was the only one in our family who believed in Jesus Christ. He was wholeheartedly devoted to God. He even went on a two-year mission in
Central Vietnam. My father did not believe in any religion and even though I shared the same belief as my dad, in this desperate situation, I became a believer in God because we were given hope when we were despondent.
-Where is Mom? Where is LiÍn? My oldest brother Thịnh yelled at the top of his lungs. Go find both of them!
LiÍn was Thịnhís wife. Her familyís house was close to ours, on the other side of Phan Đžnh Phýng Street. Because of its proximity, she often went to visit her family. Finding her would not be a problem. But my mother? She knew everyone in every alley; finding her would be like looking for a needle in a haystack. So, my sister and I divided the task- she looked for LiÍn, and I went to look for my mom. It seemed like I spent hours trying to locate her, but I finally spotted her at the seamstressí house, Mrs. Bẩy, in thirty minutes.
Upon arriving home with my mother, I saw that my sister and LiÍn were already there. My brother was yelling out orders, telling everyone to bring along their personal IDs, documents, and whatever else we deemed necessary. I took a look around the house. The first thought that came to my mind was to bring some food because even Napoleon realized that an army could not march on an empty stomach. However, there was no food in the house because we did not have a refrigerator and we consumed all of our food daily. I ran upstairs. I thought about all of the families that had lost their loved ones during war time -husbands separated from wives, children separated from parents- so I decided to take the family photo album. But the album was too heavy. I removed about ten photos and made sure that I had a picture of every one in my family. If something were to happen to one of us, at least I would still have their photo to cherish. I then thought about means of communication. We would need to listen to the news to know what was going on, so I snatched the portable radio. Thus, I left home with three things: some family photos, a radio, and the clothes on my back.
Running downstairs, I heard my sister crying:
-I canít go. I donít have pants.
-Where are your pants? My brother asked.
-I only have two sets of pants and both of them were washed last night. They are not dry yet.
-Well, there is nothing wrong with wearing wet pants.
-No, I canít. I have my period. Give me a few minutes so I can iron them.
-We have no time. The enemy is at our footsteps. We cannot wait for you to iron your pants. Use Momís pajamas.
My sister cried uncontrollably, but put on my momís pajama pants. My momís waist size was much larger than my sisterís, so she had to use a safety pin to tighten the waist band and the pant opening so that the pajama wouldnít get caught in the spoke of the bicycle when she pedaled. We locked the house and then we checked everyone once more: my brother Thịnh and my mother on his Mobylette, Thinhís wife and their 5-year old son on a moped, my two sisters on one bicycle, my younger brother and I on another bicycle. Everyone was accounted for, so we departed for our journey.
All of our neighbors had gathered in front of our house because they had heard all the commotion. Many people asked us where we were going. My oldest brother never talked to our neighbors, so his face was stone cold. Mrs. Tư Rỗ asked my mother:
-Where are you going?
-Oh we just want to find a place to take refuge from the war.
-Then when will you come back?
-When the war is over.
The old jeweler across the street from my house in white pajamas threw out a guess:
-I think theyíre going to America.
His nephew, who was the same age as me, pointed and made fun of me:
-Yes, Ngoc is going to MỹÖTho (ďAmericaĒ in Vietnamese is ďMỹ,Ē one word. There is a province in Vietnam named ďMỹ Tho,Ē two words. So when he started to mention the location in the first word, what he said was America, ďMỹ,Ē but by adding the second word, ďMỹ Tho,Ē it meant a province in Vietnam).
I pushed the pedal so the bicycle could move forward, but my eyes were looking down on the alley. I did not attempt to lift my head up to face the hundreds of curious eyes looking at us. I did not muster the courage to reply to them because I did not know where I was going and I did not know whether I would be picked up by the Americans. My mind wandered in fear because there was the possibility that the Police or the Army would order us to turn back due to martial law. But upon looking at my brother in the front with his Rangers uniform, my fear subdued a little because he was a Army doctor. If we were stopped by the authorities, he could tell them that he was a doctor going to a hospital with his family. They would probably not do anything to us.
There were not many civilians on the street. Most of them were police or soldiers. Every time we reached an intersection, I dared not make eye contact with the policeman guarding the street, fearing he would look at me, blow the whistle, and order our family to stop. Sometimes, my sister pedaled slowly. It made me nervous being so far behind my brother, so I constantly hurried her up. Wherever Thịnh went, we followed right after him. I was a nervous wreck; I could not even determine where we were in Saigon. About half an hour later, at 8:30 in the morning, we reached our destination. Tuấn and his wife had arrived earlier, and greeted us at the front door of the church.
The large front yard of the church was paved with cement and it was empty. I thought that few people knew about this evacuation location because it looked sparse, but upon walking into the church, I saw a couple hundred people inside. Once we discovered an empty spot, we all sat down. My brother was talking to a few people and I was somewhat happy to hear that they were confident that helicopters would land soon to evacuate the American ministers.
Now it was 11AM. On the other side of the Pacific, Kissinger ordered the last phase of Operation Frequent Wind, evacuating American personnel to aircraft carriers waiting in the ocean outside of Vũng Tầu. Operation Frequent Wind had four phases:
1. Evacuate all personnel by civilian aircraft from T‚n Sơn Nhất Airport.
2. Evacuate all personnel by military aircraft from T‚n Sơn Nhất Airport.
3. Evacuate all personnel by boats and ships from Saigon River to South China Sea.
4. Evacuate Americans only by helicopters to aircraft carriers waiting at sea.
Congress had made specifically clear that in the last phase, U.S. Marines could only evacuate American citizens, but both Ford and Ambassador Graham Martin turned deaf ears on this decree. In a period of twenty hours, with 865 Marines flying 630 sorties, the U.S. evacuated 1,373 Americans, 85 foreigners from other countries, and 5,595 Vietnamese out of Saigon. From the U.S. Embassy in Saigon, the total number of evacuees was 2,100 people, including 978 Americans.
The sound of the Chinook was very close to the church, so I thought that the U.S. Embassy was nearby. Stepping out of the church and looking up in the sky, I was thinking about which Chinook would land at the church. But after hours of expecting and not seeing any helicopter landing, I grew disappointed. By this time, the rumor must have spread out to the general public because wave after wave of people were pouring into the church, filling up the inside and outside of the compound. Now I was very depressed because there was not a single empty space in the yard. How could a helicopter land? I looked at my watch: 12 oíclock noon.
I made my way back into the church to eat some sweet rice. With every passing minute, my fear grew stronger. I then realized that there would be no helicopter landing at the church because I could not find a single American minister in this crowd. The evacuation, if it were to happen, would have been carried out earlier in the morning. At about 2PM, a lot of people had the same mode of thinking, so one by one, they started to leave the church. Eventually, the front yard became empty again. My brother thought that even if the evacuation turned out to be a hoax, it was better for us to spend the night inside the church since it made a better bomb shelter than our house. We decided not to leave the church.
4PM, April 29th,1975:
From about 500 people in the morning, the number of people dwindled down to about five families by the afternoon. At 3PM, Prime Minister Vũ Văn Mẫu ordered all Americans to leave Vietnam. This was it, I thought to myself. When the last American left, Saigon would fall, and nothing could save it. I had never felt so much despair. I felt the same as a pig that had just escaped out of the slaughter area thinking that he was going to gain freedom, but then discovered that the fence of the farm still kept him in, preventing him from finding true freedom. Eventually, he would be rounded up and brought back to the slaughter house. At the very last moment of this thought of despair, a person on a Vespa rode in to chat with my brother. His name was Bằng, Tuấnís friend. After the chat, my brother was excited and told us:
-Bằng told me he saw a lot of boats leaving from the port of Bạch Đằng. We might have a chance of finding an escape route there!
For the second time, someone threw us a life preserver when we were drowning.
Tuấnís father-in-law had a multi-purpose van, so almost everyone got in the van. Trung, the oldest son of Tuấnís father-in-law, was at the wheel. Thịnh rode the Mobylette with his wife, LiÍn. Tuấn rode the Honda motorcycle with me in the back. We all left for the port of Bạch Đằng with the van following closely behind the two motorcycles. Within ten minutes, we arrived. Whoever thought that because of martial law he should stay at home and not come to this port made a big mistake. Thousands of people were flooding the port to ransack everything on their path. Most of the people in the street were breathless, and a seething group of barefoot, ragged looters were entering buildings to steal chairs, desks, mattresses, refrigerators, drapes, television sets, radios, sewing machinesÖ They took anything they could get their hands on. The other groups of people ignored what was going on around them and climbed onto any boat or ship docked at the port.
We ran to the biggest ship still docked at port. Upon seeing a person who looked like a sailor of the ship, my brother looked up and asked:
-Excuse me, where is this ship heading?
The man was visibly upset and replied:
-No, this ship is not going anywhere. People just climb on board for no reason, without knowing whether it goes somewhere or not.
My brother said thanks. If we were unable to escape Saigon by air, then sea was the only available option to us. But how? If we went on a small boat that was leaving port, it might be perilous at sea and if we went on the big seaworthy ships, the ships may not even move. With the incessant sound of machine guns firing, helicopters hovering, jets flying, and mortars exploding, it was difficult to think straight.
-Thịnh, look! Tuấn yelled out, with his finger pointed to a barge slowly moving on the river.
A barge is a floating foundation with a rectangular shape about the size of a tennis court. This barge was enclosed by four walls of sandbags, and it was a little less than ten feet high. From the edge of the barge to the wall, the gap was about three feet, all the way around. In the back and on one side of the barge, there were two large openings used as entrances, measuring six feet by ten feet. The Army used barges to move supplies along the Mekong River. The sandbag wall protected the contents inside the barge from enemy fire along the river bank. Barges have no engines, so tow boats are needed to push barges along the water.
I saw two U.S. Marines standing guard with guns on their hands. They were the reason Tuấn pointed the barge out to Thịnh. If we followed the barge, it would lead us to the Seventh Fleet.
Leaving all of the people at the dock behind to compete among themselves for boats and ships, we went back to the van and motorcycles to follow the barge. It moved slowly on the river, and we followed it closely on land. Although its speed was very slow, it eventually reached a destination point in KhŠnh Hội where it disappeared behind a facility with a sheet metal fence. We stopped the motorcycles and assumed that the van was following us, but when we turned around, the van was nowhere to be found! Both my brothers panicked. Thịnh was especially scared because his son was in the van. Tuấn told Thịnh to stay put. He then turned his motorcycle around and went back to look for the van.
Tuấnís parents-in-law, Mr. and Mrs. Khoa, came to the South in 1954 when Vietnam was divided in half, with the North belonging to the Communists and the South belonging to the Republic of South Vietnam. Mr. and Mrs. Khoa had one son and two daughters: Trung, Nhŗn (Tuấnís wife), and Diễm. Trung was married to Thủy, and they had three young daughters. Their whole family was in the van with my mother, sisters, and Thịnhís son.
Tuấn raced back to the same street we were using before, with his eyes on the lookout for the van. He wondered why the van did not follow the motorcycles. Was it broken down? Were we going too fast? Did the police stop the van? Within two minutes, Tuấn saw the van parked near an intersection. All were still in the van, except for Tuấnís father-in-law and Trung, who stood talking on the street. Tuấn stopped the Honda, curious to find out why the van was stopped, and asked:
-Why did you stop here, Dad? Is there a problem with the van?
-No, nothing was wrong with the van. Mr. Khoa answered.
-Thịnh is already at the place where the barge has stopped- we have to hurry up. Why did you stop here?
-Trungís wife, Thủy, doesnít want to leave because she doesnít know what danger lies ahead. His wife doesnít want to go so he wants to stay back with her. Iím trying to convince him to go.
-Trung, we have gone this far, we cannot stop now. We have to go. Remember, your family is not the only one in the van. My family is in there too. My brother told Trung.
-My wife changed her mind, so I have to stay with her and the children. Trung replied.
-All of us are here together, we can take care of your family. Letís go!
Trung hesitantly agreed, went back in the van and followed Tuấn to the location where we thought the barge had stopped. I had some time to observe the surroundings. Even though the high sheet metal fence blocked our view, we were confident that the barge was inside this facility. Four or five U.S. Marines stood guard in front of the closed gate with M16 rifles, forbidding anyone to enter. The fence was about eight feet high, high enough to prevent outsiders to see what was happening inside. After loitering around for about five minutes, we saw a yellow bus filled with Americans approach the facility and as the bus got close to the gate, the Marines opened and closed the gate with just enough time for the bus to drive in. At this point, I realized this was one of the evacuation locations in Operation Frequent Wind. Americans, foreigners, and Vietnamese who worked for the U.S. government were given an address and a secret code to be broadcast on an American FM frequency. When this secret code was played (it was changed several times, and the last one used was the song ďWhite ChristmasĒ sung by Bing Crosby), people were supposed to go to the pre-determined location to be evacuated. In this case, the evacuation route was by sea.
Knowing that the gate would swing open again, we patiently waited for the next bus to arrive. Our plan was to follow the bus and rush through the gate with it. We succeeded ten minutes later. There were two or three barges on the river, docked waiting. I thought this place was secure with the American soldiers, but I was wrong. Outside, there was chaos, but not robbery. Here inside, as people were trying to get onto the barge, young teenagers robbed people right in front of their eyes. LiÍn wore a gold necklace. The minute she stepped out of the van, a kid quickly snatched it off her neck. When Tuấn turned off the motorcycle, a person approached Tuấn and told him to surrender the the key to the motorcycle if Tuấn intended to climb onto the barge. Tuấnís mother-in-law cooked a huge pot of sweet rice and it was in the back of the van. When the van parked, one person opened the back door, reached for the pot, and carried it out right in front of all of us! Without the presence of the police, robbery was rampant.
Thịnh, being used to military discipline, asked all of us to line up. He then walked over to Mr. and Mrs. Khoaís family and asked them to get out of the van and do the same. Trung and his parents got out of the van, but his wife and children stayed inside. Our family was ready to move, but the other family was nowhere near ready; Thủy flinched at the idea of getting onto the barge because it was too dangerous for her. This made my brother Thịnh mad, and after a few more minutes, he ordered all of us to get onto the barge, leaving the other family behind. Nhŗn and her sister Diễm were following us to get on the barge, and upon realizing that their family would not come along, burst into tears:
-Trung! Thủy! Hurry up and bring the kids with us!
-Dad! Mom! Leave everything there! Follow us to get onto the barge!
Mr. and Mrs. Khoa now faced a life and death decision that was not easy to solve: to leave Saigon and follow their two daughters onto the barge, abandoning their oldest son, his wife, and their three granddaughters, or to stay in Vietnam with their sonís family and abandon their two daughters. Knowing that either decision would leave them losing a son or two daughters, tears soon rolled off their face. Nhŗn and her sister Diễm now had climbed onto the barge, but were screaming and crying uncontrollably. They yelled out from the top of their lungs:
-Mom! Dad! Get on the barge!
Mrs. Khoa tried to talk to her son:
-Trung, you should convince your wife to go. Your sisters are already on the barge.
With an elbow on the van window, Trung begged his wife:
-Honey, letís go.
-I donít think so, the barge looks very dangerous.
-There is no danger. Look at other people. If they can go, we can go.
-But our three children are still so young.
-We have our parents and everyone is here to help us. That is not going to be a problem.
-But how long will we be gone for? And then where we can find food and milk for our kids?
-Once we are out past Vũng Tầu, the Seventh Fleet will help us.
-You donít know for sure if that is the case or not. What if a stray bullet will end our life? If we stay at home, we will not die. The Communists might conquer the South, but we were not in the Army, we did not do anything bad, so there is no reason to fear them for retribution. My mind is already made up. Iím not going.
Turning to his mother, Trung said:
-Well, my wife is determined not to go, so I canít go either.
Mrs. Khoa turned to talk to her husband:
-If our oldest son doesnít go, then I will not go either. I will stay home to watch his kids.
-But you donít remember our painful memories running from the Communists in 1954? Mr. Khoa asked his wife.
-Oh, I still remember. But I am old now, and there is nothing that they can do to me.
-I fear the Communists. There is no way I would stay in Saigon if I had an opportunity to leave. We are husband and wife. We live together and will die together. Weíve been married for more than thirty years, how could I leave if you decide to stay?
-I know that, but I cannot abandon our grandchildren.
Mrs. Khoa was determined not to lose her grandchildren. Mr. Khoa knew that he could not convince her to change her mind, so he cried in frustration and waved goodbye to his two daughters. The barge suddenly started leaving port. Now, along with Mr. Khoaís two daughters, Nhŗn and Diễm, everyone in my family cried.
Nhŗn fell onto the floor of the barge, crying hysterically:
-Mom! Dad! We are now separated forever! You have spent so many years raising us but now we will never see each other ever again...
I cried for the longest time, then after realizing that I could not do anything to change the present situation, or determine the fate of each person, I lied facing up toward the sky and wondered about my own fate.
The barge left at 5:45PM. In less than an hour, the sky became dark. The flares brightened up the sky with the thundering sound of mortar and of rockets in a far distance. At 9PM, I could not hear the engine sound of the tow boat, and then I realized the barge had come to a full stop. Nobody knew why and we were afraid that the Communists could attack us along the river bank. But we all took comfort in the fact that the night was completely dark, and that the Communists were probably concentrating in attacking Saigon. About an hour later, we were on our way again.
Wednesday April 30th, 1975:
At 2AM, the tow boat changed position. Instead of pushing the barge along the side, it went to the front of the barge and pulled the barge forward. I assumed that we were close to the ocean because the river width was larger. Sometimes, a fishing boat would approach from the darkness and ask for permission to join us in the barge. It was pitch black. There was no way to identify friend from foe, so the soldiers on the barge volunteered to go to the back and stand guard. They would allow people from the fishing boats to climb onboard under one condition: they had to disarm if they possessed a gun. About an hour later, the barge stopped again. This time, we heard a Vietnamese voice coming from the barge through a loud speaker. In front of us was a Vietnamese battleship from the South Vietnamese Naval Force. They ordered us to stop.
A few weeks ago, the South Vietnamese government banned males ages 17 to 43 from leaving Saigon because the country needed soldiers to fight off the imminent Communist threat. Concern spread rapidly across the barge because almost every family had a son or a father in this age group. But then in a flash, most people agreed with a soldier who voiced his own opinion:
-Who are they to make the decision as to who can go, and who must stay? Donít follow their order. If they have guns, we have guns as well. Letís see who is afraid of whom.
Everyone was on high alert, but only half an hour later, the tense situation diffused. Upon discovering that there were U.S. Marines on the barge, the people on the Vietnamese battleship asked if they could follow us to go to the Seventh Fleet!
We arrived to the sea at 4AM. In darkness, I saw hundreds of lights flashing out on the horizon. These lights came from fishing boats, lying in wait. Everyone knew that the Seventh Fleet was off the coast of Vũng Tầu, but no one knew its exact location or how far the fleet was from the shore. This was why these fishing boats came here and waited. All of the lights in our tow boat were turned off, so a fishing boat could not detect us unless it was close enough to hear the sound of our engine.
At about 7AM, rain began to pour hard. Most of us didnít have raincoats and some people even resorted to using their luggage to cover their bodies. For hours, the rain did not let up. When I was younger and it rained, I always went out to the street and played for hours, never feeling the cold, but today, for the first time in my life - I was freezing. It was so cold that I thought it was better to die than to suffer from shivering cold in the rain.
No one knew where the tow boat was going and no one knew exactly where the Seventh Fleet was, so every minute that passed was one of anxiety. At about 9AM, numerous dark dots lined up on the horizon. Iíll never forget that image because I thought those dark dots were ships form the Seventh Fleet. We finally reached them after a long trip on the barge, but were all astounded once we got close to those dots; they were hundreds of fishing boats waiting for directions to go to U.S. ships! When the sun began to rise, these boats could see us and they quickly pulled behind our barge.
11AM: It was the most beautiful sight I have ever seen in my life: a U.S. battleship on the open sea! It represented freedom! The towboat brought the barge to the apt of the ship and soldiers secured it by rope. A ladder was lowered from the ship onto the front of the barge. The fishing boats following us knew that they were close to freedom, so they increased the speed to try to reach the barge. But every time they got close, sailors on the ship would open fire, turning all of them away. The American soldiers announced that guns could not be brought onto the ship, so whoever had a gun was to throw it into the ocean. One by one, all of the Vietnamese soldiers on the barge, including my brother Thịnh, removed their hand guns and grenades, and then discharged them into the sea.
From the ship, the soldiers barked orders:
-Women and children go first! Women and children go first!
Everyone rushed toward the ladder. In the first group of people, men didnít obey the soldiersí order. They pushed women and children back so they could get to get to the ladder first. The U.S. soldiers on the ship fired warning shots and ordered the men to get down and wait. Most of the women and children successfully boarded the U.S. ship when the VC began firing artillery from the shore. I could see rockets landing in the ocean, creating huge water sprays that were about 20 or 30 feet high. The hundreds of fishing boats gathering around the ship quickly dispersed in all different directions to avoid being near the U.S. ship that was now a shelling target. Some soldiers pulled up the ladder and the ship started to move further away from the shore, leaving hundreds of men still in the barge. There was a great panic among the men because they were now being separated from their wives and children. Some of them rushed to the front and screamed:
-Let me get on the ship! My family is in there!
The soldiers in the ship ordered the men to sit down and after failing to restore order, they fired more warning shots into the sky. The sound of live ammunition restored order very quickly and the men squatted down in fear. I felt ashamed that the young American soldiers had to resort to using their guns for the Vietnamese men to obey their orders.
After running for about half an hour, the battleship stopped. The ladder was lowered to the barge again. When the first barge was emptied, a second barge attached to the first barge, allowing people to get on the ship through the first barge. This scene was then repeated for many barges thereafter.
Four of us brothers got on the ship but since we didnít know where the women were, Thịnh went to look for them in the front of the ship while the three of us went to the rear of the ship.
We did not know that once you were settled on one part of the ship, you were required to stay there for the duration of the voyage. As a precautionary measure, soldiers guarding the middle of the vessel would not allow anyone to reach the opposite side of the vessel.
During the entire week that it took the ship to reach the Philippines, our family was separated with half in the front and half in the back. Luckily, Thịnh volunteered to serve as a doctor onboard the ship. Therefore, he could travel freely on the ship. On the last night, before the shipís arrival to the Philippines, Thịnh came and took us one by one to the front of the ship, posing as doctor and patient. Reunited at last, we disembarked at Subic Bay and on the next day, we were transported to Guam by airplane. The people on the rear of the ship were unlucky. They stayed onboard and continued with the ship until it reached Guam.
After settling down in one spot inside the ship, I turned on the radio and heard that Saigon had fallen to Communist forces. While on the ocean, we witnessed the last presence of Americans in Vietnam.
At 5AM, Ambassador Graham Martin got on a Chinook to leave the embassy. Once the news hit that the ambassador had safely left Saigon, President Ford ordered U.S. Marines to bring the evacuation to a close. There were only 30 U.S. Marines left to deal with more than 400 Vietnamese inside the embassy and more than 5,000 people outside the embassy, who were trying to climb the wall to get in. In order to defend the last escape route, the Marines had set up three defensive perimeters. The first perimeter was a large gate that was chained shut to prevent people from getting in. The mob climbed up the gate and many people threw themselves over the fence, but the Marines were quite successful in throwing them back. When receiving orders to terminate the evacuation, the Marines withdrew from the first and second perimeter without any problems. But, at about halfway through the third perimeter, the Vietnamese who were already in the assembly areas waiting to be loaded realized that the Marines were going to isolate themselves inside. They began to panic and started running toward the lobby. At the same time, people who were outside the gates began coming over the top. Now, all of these people rushed toward the lobby. The Marines inside the lobby were able to close the double doors and started to go up to the Embassy roof. For thirty soldiers facing thousands of angry Vietnamese rioters, their most effective line of defense was using tear gas, but they did not want to use it. They didn't want to upset the crowds any more. They thought if they used tear gas, the people would have thrown the canisters back. On top of that, many Marines had already discharged their gas masks, leaving them without a means of protecting themselves.
The Marines withdrew to the last line of defense and began securing the final door to the roof. They put wall lockers, file cabinets, and large fire extinguishers against the wall to barricade the door. On the roofís helicopter pad at the other side, 30 to 40 people had forced their way up, but they were not able to reach the Marines. All were ordered to remove their packs so more people could get on the helicopters. Then, everything came to a standstill and all they could do was wait. They could hear the mob on the other side of the door getting louder. Meanwhile, they were afraid the Communists might re-direct their artillery and rocket fire to the top of the roof. The Marines thought that the helicopter might never come, but finally after a grueling half hour, the CH-46 arrived to evacuate the last U.S. Marines out of Saigon. The time: 7:53AM on April 30th, 1975.
At 10:00AM, Dương Văn Minh announced South Vietnamís surrender on the radio.
Looking down from his room in the Caravelle Hotel just across from the National Assembly building, Italian reporter Tiziano Terzani witnessed Police Lieutenant Colonel Nguyễn Văn Long pull his gun from its holster, put it to his temple, and pull the trigger as he stood outside in front of the Soldiersí statue. A few minutes later, a person on a motorcycle stopped by only to take the Colonelís gun. Shortly after, another looter came and removed the Colonelís watch from his wrist.
The battleship Muller took us to Subic Bay, Philippines at 6PM on May 4th, 1975. After spending some time in the refugee camps at Orote Point, Philippines and Asan Annex, Guam, on May 30th, we were transferred to a military compound, Fort Indiantown Gap, in Pennsylvania. In early July, all of us except for my mother, my oldest brother Thịnh, Thinhís wife, and son were sponsored by a church to live in San Diego. Thịnh elected to stay in the camp to serve as a doctor until it shut down three years later.
Ever since I left Vietnam, I never thought that I would sit down to write the story of that fateful day, the day where I was able to leave Saigon and come to the United States. The main reason was because I felt that there was nothing interesting about my story and there were thousands of other stories more treacherous than mine. But my children have all grown up now and sometimes they ask me how I came to the U.S. Even though I have told them the story many times, I have never told it in full detail. Now, my hair has turned gray and I am running out of time. †I realized that I should write it down so they will know how their father, now a proud naturalized American citizen, came to America.
We tend to be attracted to many materialistic items in life and forget the hard times, the grace, and the favors that other people have bestowed upon us. We also tend to complain that we are unlucky, and think that we endure hardships while other people are happy and prosperous. By sitting down and writing this story, I am reminded that before that fateful day on April 30th, 1975, I thought that a bad and wretched future lie ahead, but my future became hopeful when I was given a chance to come to America. It taught me the lesson to make the best out of what you are given in life, just like the American saying: ďWhen life gives you lemons, make lemonade.Ē
Writing this story reminded me that without my brother Tuấn coming home that morning on April 29th to tell us to go to the
International Church, we would have not left . Writing this story also reminded me of the generosity of the American people who sacrificed their children and spent their own money to bring Vietnamese refugees to their land of freedom. They did it out of their compassion, without expecting anything from me in return. I should follow their example and carry that torch, that good American tradition, to extend an unconditional helping hand to other people I encounter in life. Vietnam
Nguyễn Tŗi Ngọc
You can listen to this story in American Public Media:
1. My friend Thanh, who came to say goodbye to me, went to the U.S. Embassy with his parents. They were allowed to get in the embassy, but time was not on their side as they were there on the last few days before Saigon fell. Having to rush the refugees out, the Americans divided them in two groups: Women and children, and men only. Women and children were allowed to board first, while the men stayed back. His mother went first. His father and him were left behind and waited for their turn. That turn never came: The U.S. terminated the evacuation, leaving his father and him in the embassy on April 30th, 1975. However, three years later, they successfully escaped Vietnam by boat, along with the Exodus of the ďBoat People.Ē
2. After our barge left, Mr. Khoa spent another half hour trying to convince his wife to leave. She still refused to go. He then boarded another barge and left Saigon alone. Later on, he arrived in a refugee camp in Fort Chaffee, Arkansas and was reunited with us in San Diego.
3. Trung and his wife discovered true life under Communist rule. They could not endure the hardship, so four years later after our departure, they escaped Saigon on a boat with their three children and Mrs. Khoa. They also reunited with the rest of the family in the U.S. years later.
4. Kevinís wife and his two children were not able to leave Saigon. Their flight departure date was April 30th. That was the day North Vietnamese Communists conquered South Vietnam.
5. Number of people officially evacuated by US government in April 1975 (including 6,000 people by barge): 65,000.
Number of people escaped on their own (just like our family): 65,000
Total people evacuated: 65,000 + 65,000 = 130,000.
-Decent Interval, Frank Snepp
-Newsweek, Time magazines, April, May-1975 issues
-Giai Phong, Tiziano Terzani