April 24, 1995 Volume 145, No. 17
SAIGON: THE FINAL 10 DAYS
A look at the storm before the long quiet -- through the eyes of the victors, the losers, the ones who got out and the ones who didn't
BY GEORGE J. CHURCH
The signs of impending doom had been multiplying for at least a month. A headlong bug-out from the Central Highlands in March 1975 signaled that South Vietnam could no longer muster either the strength or the will to hold off the armies sweeping down from the communist North. The fall of Danang late in the month produced scenes of horror that appeared to foreshadow what might happen later in Saigon: panic-maddened South Vietnamese soldiers trampling women and children to get aboard the last American 727 to fly out; desperate soldiers clinging to the landing gear of that plane only to fall off into the South China Sea or be crushed against the undercarriage.
As the Communist troops drew closer to the South Vietnamese capital through early April, the atmosphere in both Saigon and Washington further darkened. Schools in Saigon and its suburbs conducted lessons and assigned homework as usual, but Nam Pham, then 18, and Diem Do, who was 12, noticed their classes getting smaller day by day. Says Do: ''One day a couple of guys would be gone, and then a couple more, and then the teacher wouldn't show up. Everybody was scared. They sensed that something tragic was about to happen,'' and some were already fleeing the country.
In Washington a special-action group of top officials was meeting almost daily, sometimes with a pipe-puffing President Gerald Ford, to hear the latest news -- uniformly bad. On April 17 the Senate Armed Services Committee, reflecting an overwhelming American desire to be done with Vietnam, rejected an Administration request for $722 million in emergency aid to the Saigon regime. ''Those bastards!'' exclaimed the usually calm Ford. Though nobody believed the aid would turn the tide, Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and others had hoped it might enable South Vietnam to put up enough of a last-ditch fight to persuade the North to negotiate a truce. Two days after the committee action, CIA Director William Colby told the President: ''South Vietnam faces total defeat, and soon.''
In Saigon the CIA had already begun ''black'' (secret) flights, spiriting out of the country Vietnamese collaborators who could expect only prison or death after a communist victory, and the U.S. embassy had begun burning its files. (Not fast enough: long lists containing the names of Vietnamese and specifying what they had done to help their American allies eventually fell into the hands of the Northern victors.) CIA analyst Frank Snepp, in his book Decent Interval, recalled roaming the embassy grounds on April 15 and noting a telltale sign of onrushing disaster: the outdoor swimming pool was unusable because of ashes wafting down from the incinerators on the chancery roof and floating in the water.
Yet many Americans and Vietnamese could not bring themselves to believe what they were seeing. Long after the Senate committee's rejection of aid, hope persisted for some kind of negotiated peace that would leave a nominally independent South Vietnam, possibly even a coalition government with the communists and a small continuing American presence.
Secretary of Defense James Schlesinger nonetheless argued that Graham Martin, the U.S. ambassador to South Vietnam, should begin evacuating the remaining Americans in Saigon and sympathetic Vietnamese. So little was done, though, that Lionel Rosenblatt and Craig Johnstone, two mid-level State Department officers in Washington, made a desperate effort to short-circuit the bureaucracy. They requested leave and hopped a commercial flight to Saigon to organize an unofficial rescue mission. Arriving at the embassy on April 22, they learned that orders were out for their arrest. They posed as French businessmen, holing up in an empty apartment found for them by sympathetic lower-level embassy employees and working the phones to round up Vietnamese to be smuggled out of the country.
Ambassador Martin, who died in 1990, was a strange combination of Pollyanna and paranoid. He often seemed to regard the Washington bureaucracy rather than the Vietnamese communists as his main enemy. In a just-declassified and previously unpublished cable, he ranted that State Department foes were calumniating him in the U.S. press: ''The sly, anonymous insertions of the perfumed ice pick into the kidneys in the form of the quotes from my colleagues in the Department are only a peculiar form of acupuncture indigenous to Foggy Bottom against which I was immunized long ago.'' If the ''mattress mice'' in Washington were pressing him to prepare an evacuation -- well, he knew the situation better: ''I have been right so far, which is unforgivably infuriating to the bureaucracy.'' Martin initially refused even to allow the precautionary felling of a huge tamarind tree that blocked helicopters from landing in the embassy courtyard. A U.S. embassy team hacked it down only around midday April 29, when the evacuation was entering its last hours.
As he once confided to White House photographer David Hume Kennerly, Martin feared even whispering the word ''evacuation'' would set off a Danang-style panic. But the ambassador also believed more fervently, and longer than almost anyone else, in the possibility of an accommodation with the communists. As late as April 28 he was cabling Kissinger that he foresaw Americans staying in Saigon for ''a year or more.'' By then, Gotterdammerung was well under way.
Though any of several dates could be picked as the beginning of Saigon's final agony, April 20 stands out. For one thing, it marked the fall of Xuan Loc, a small town 38 miles northeast of the capital and the site of just about the last prolonged and bloody battle of the war. If arvn, the South Vietnamese army, could not hold there, it was unlikely to hold anywhere.
In Saigon on April 20, Martin called at the Presidential Palace for a long interview with President Nguyen Van Thieu. The South Vietnamese leader bore no small share of the blame for the impending catastrophe: it was his order to the army to withdraw from the Central Highlands without much of a fight that touched off the final rout. In the last few weeks, he had shuttled from one villa to another, increasingly out of touch with his aides and allies, and with reality. He even speculated that bombing strikes by American B-52s might halt the NVA's onslaught. Hanoi also had visions of B-52s, but it was a mirage. Nothing could have persuaded the U.S. to resume the active fighting role it had relinquished after the Paris peace accords in 1973.
Thieu had another caller on April 20: Nguyen Van Toan, commander of the arvn third corps. Says Tran Can Van, Thieu's Minister of Housing who was at the Presidential Palace that day: ''Toan normally swaggered around, but that day he was like a robot, in a trance. I said, 'Hello, General,' but he didn't answer. He kept walking toward Thieu. Thieu was really tough, one of those guys who, if you looked right into his eyes and tried to shoot him, you wouldn't be able to pull the trigger. But that day when Toan came in, Thieu lost it. He wasn't noticing anything anymore. His spirit was broken.''
Whatever Toan's exact message may have been, Martin's was surely even more harrowing. The communists had repeatedly declared they would never deal with Thieu. If there was to be any hope of a compromise peace, Thieu had to go, and Martin said as much. On his return to the embassy, Martin told an associate, he took a long shower and, with Pontius Pilate symbolism, scrubbed with strong soap.
Thieu went, but not quietly. Appearing in an open-necked bush shirt before the National Assembly on the night of April 21, the President delivered a long and at times tearful resignation speech excoriating the U.S. as ''unfair ... inhumane ... irresponsible.'' Said Thieu: ''You ran away and left us to do the job that you could not do.''
Moreover, Thieu would not turn over power to Duong Van Minh. ''Big'' Minh, as he was universally known, was a former general who headed what he described as a neutralist ''third force'' and was acceptable to the communists. But Thieu chose to follow the South Vietnamese constitution, and yielded power to Vice President Tran Van Huong, who was 71, ailing and nearly blind. Huong did call for a cease-fire and peace negotiations, but vowed, if the North refused, to fight ''until the troops are dead or the country is lost.''
Huong's moment in the sun was brief and illusory. The communists had announced in advance that they would not deal with him. Throughout the seven days of his presidency, South Vietnamese politicians and their American and French advisers intrigued furiously to arrange another transfer of power. Air Marshal Nguyen Cao Ky, a former head of government and advocate of dead-end resistance, alternately got the impression from American visitors that he was being urged to stage a coup and fight to the last, or that the U.S. wanted him to smooth the way for Big Minh to take over. Ky remembers telling an American general that if Minh did take power, South Vietnam would surrender unconditionally within 24 hours. Close. It took 42 hours.
Vietnamese on both sides of the war recall watching Thieu's resignation speech and concluding that the South's last hopes had collapsed. And even if Big Minh had taken over immediately, he most likely would not have been able to moderate the outcome. Communist sources are quite clear that only an immediate and total surrender could have deflected the North Vietnamese army's drive to complete military victory.
Preparations for the final assault were well under way by Thieu's resignation. Responding to an urgent request from the forces in the South for more ammunition, Hanoi had sent thousands of trucks racing down the coastal highway loaded with rockets and shells. Bui Tin, a colonel and journalist for an NVA newspaper, arrived in Danang on April 21, en route from Hanoi to join the final push. Two days later he flew south on a helicopter that, he says, ''was filled with new military maps of Saigon that had been rushed into print and flown from Hanoi'' to guide the invaders.
As to timing, says General Vo Nguyen Giap, the top North Vietnamese commander, ''the key was April 21, when Thieu resigned. Then I knew, we all agreed, we had to attack immediately, seize the initiative.'' That night at the NVA's forward headquarters in Loc Ninh, 75 miles from Saigon, General Van Tien Dung, commanding the armies moving on the capital, gave the go-ahead to start the climactic offensive.
EVACUATION SPEEDS UP
That push proceeded swiftly and smoothly. On some days, reports spoke hopefully of a near cessation of fighting. In fact, that was an ominous sign: it meant that the NVA was methodically encircling Saigon without encountering much resistance. There was enough fighting, however, to impress Nam Pham, then a college freshman. Every night during that last week of April, he would climb to the roof of his family's house in a Saigon suburb and watch the flashes of bombs and gunfire coming ever closer. Says Pham: ''It gave me kind of a weird feeling, watching something you love so much lost a little bit every day.''
In Washington some advisers were urging Ford to reassure the American public that there was no chance the U.S. would be dragged back into the war: Vietnam was lost. But Ford was in awe of Kissinger, and, says Robert Hartmann, chief White House speech writer, ''Kissinger, for negotiating reasons, was not ready to throw in the towel.'' Hartmann persisted, telling Ford ''nobody declared this war, but you can declare the end of it.'' He remembers that Ford's ''brow furrowed and he said 'I'm not sure Henry would approve.'''
Nonetheless, Hartmann's team wrote a crucial sentence -- without Kissinger's knowledge -- into a speech Ford delivered at Tulane University in New Orleans on April 24. At a packed field house, Ford called for a return to pride in the U.S., then declared, ''but it cannot be achieved by refighting a war that is finished, as far as America is concerned.'' Hartmann recalls, ''As soon as the students heard the word 'finished' they almost literally raised the roof with whoops and hollers. They jumped up and down on the bleacher seats, hugging whoever popped up next.''
In Saigon, as the NVA closed in, Major General Homer Smith, head of the U.S. defense attache office, had by now finally got a major evacuation going out of the giant Tan Son Nhut air base just outside the capital. Even in early April, Smith's operation was moving out 500 people a day. April 20, says Smith, ''was when we really started to pick up the pace and started moving people out.'' That was the date when simplified paperwork rules for departure went into effect -- and two days before embassy officials tried to arrest Rosenblatt and Johnstone for attempting to do unofficially exactly what General Smith was doing officially.
For the next week, long lines of Vietnamese, and some Americans, snaked through a former gym at Tan Son Nhut, waiting to be cleared to board the American C-130s and C-141s that were leaving constantly during daylight hours. Stamping of their papers continued all night. The U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service, under pressure from the State Department, had agreed to let the Vietnamese enter -- mostly through Guam and the Philippines -- if they could find an American to vouch for them. To help Vietnamese women get out, Smith adds, ''we just married them right in the lines, sometimes,'' to American men. Says Smith: ''It was a quick thing: 'Do you? I do.''' Then out.
This system had its inequities. Bar girls, waiters and others who could easily find American sponsors in Saigon got out, while villagers who had risked their lives to supply vital intelligence to the Americans were sometimes left behind. General Smith, however, did call in 16 U.S. Marine guards from the embassy to keep Vietnamese army and air force officers from elbowing civilians aside and filling the planes. On April 25 he had to summon an entire platoon of 43 Marines to hold at bay frantic Vietnamese airmen who had climbed over the fence at night.
By April 26 NVA forces had surrounded Saigon. That night ex-President Thieu was persuaded to leave while he still could; Ambassador Martin organized a group of cars to spirit him out of the city to Tan Son Nhut. Snepp, who went along on the ride, half expected Thieu and his American escorts to be hauled out of their cars and shot at some checkpoint by arvn soldiers incensed at being abandoned. Nothing happened, but the little caravan took the precaution of racing onto the air base with lights out and braking to a skidding stop alongside a runway. Thieu was bundled up a ramp and into a waiting plane with the briefest goodbye.
SAIGON IS SHELLED
The next day, April 27, Huong finally stepped down as President, and the National Assembly quickly elected Big Minh; the same day, four rockets hit the capital. Minh formally took office at 5:30 p.m. the next day. Only half an hour later, Saigon was jolted by a bigger series of explosions signaling that the war had finally embraced the capital.
The raid was carried out by five captured American F-5 and A-37 jets, flown by South Vietnamese pilots who had defected to the North. Such use of enemy personnel and equipment was not unusual, says NVA Lieut. General Hoan Phuong, who planned the attack. Not only were arvn forces fleeing precipitously and abandoning much valuable equipment but also some changed sides and ''wanted to show their new devotion to us. So many pilots and tank drivers from the other side helped out in the last days.'' In the case of the air raid, says Phuong, ''the idea was to bomb the concrete hangars and the runways at Tan Son Nhut. We didn't think we'd do much real damage, but we wanted to have maximum psychological effect. We wanted to create chaos.''
That they did. The shock of the explosions, which could be felt in downtown Saigon, touched off wild rumors: Air Marshal Ky's planes were bombing the capital as part of a coup; the NVA was launching its final assault. Actually, that did not happen for more than 24 hours. But the capital obviously was no longer safe. Time for the last Americans, and the Vietnamese who had tied their fate to the U.S., to get out -- quick.
But get out how, and from where? The air raid on Tan Son Nhut was soon followed by a rocket and artillery bombardment. The rockets killed two Marines: Lance Corporal Darwin Judge of Marshalltown, Iowa, and Corporal Charles McMahon Jr. of Woburn, Massachusetts. Two Marine helicopter pilots also died on April 29 when their chopper crashed into the sea near an aircraft carrier taking part in the evacuation: Captain William Craig Nystul of Coronado, California, and First Lieutenant Michael John Shea of El Paso, Texas. They were the last four Americans killed in action in Vietnam.
By the time the NVA infantry moved in, Tan Son Nhut could be used only by helicopters. Bao Ninh, a corporal with a reconnaissance team of the North Vietnamese Third Army, recalls lying on the roof of a three-story concrete building at the edge of a runway on the morning of April 29 and studying the vast air base through binoculars, ''trying to find troop placements. And you could see it was just chaos. People running back and forth. Some people -- mostly women and children, no men -- just waiting, with bags and suitcases. I guess they were hoping to get out, but the airport was already blocked.'' An American C-130 did manage to land at noon, says Ninh. ''It swerved all over the place because of the shelling. And ((when it touched down)), the pilot and some passengers got out and ran off to the military side of the base.'' That was the end of American fixed-wing flights. A most anticlimactic end; NVA soldiers searching the plane next day found it had been bringing in only bundles of the newspaper Stars and Stripes.
It was not only enemy action that closed down the runways. Says General Smith: ''At first light ((on the 29th)) the Vietnamese air force took off,'' dumping loads -- sometimes including bombs and sometimes on runways -- to lighten their planes. Then ground crews moved bulldozers and other heavy equipment onto the runways -- out of ''pique,'' says the general, who speculates that the soldiers left behind didn't want those who abandoned them ever to come back. Amazingly, even then Ambassador Martin would not order a helicopter evacuation. He insisted on fixed-wing flights because they could move more people and refused to admit they were impossible.
By then, though, the decision was shifting out of his hands. In Washington the Administration had been wracked by tension: spats between Kissinger and Schlesinger, frustration over conflicting reports about just how bad the situation in Saigon was. Ford had suffered an unprecedented insult a few days earlier when two Congressmen walked out of a joint session at which he pleaded for unity. Late in the afternoon of April 28 (early morning of the 29th in Saigon), Kissinger's deputy Brent Scowcroft burst into a meeting of Ford with his energy and economic advisers, bearing a message about the rocket and artillery attacks on Tan Son Nhut. The President called an emergency meeting of his National Security Council and issued an order. At 10:51 a.m., April 29, in Saigon, Armed Forces Radio burst forth with White Christmas. That was the signal that Option IV, the helicopter lift, was on.
So was the panic. Some arvn helicopters were already flying to a fleet of 40 U.S. warships standing 20 miles out to sea. Allen Kent, then chief warrant officer on the U.S.S. Blue Ridge, the command ship, and now head of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, recalls that some arvn flyers ''were just jumping out of their helicopters into the sea'' alongside the American ships. ''The South Vietnamese were not obeying our orders when or where to land. It was terrifying. If they landed, we took their weapons and escorted them into the holds of the ships. We threw their weapons and ammunition over the sides. We pushed 10 or 12 helicopters over the sides'' to keep the decks clear for American choppers.
Other Vietnamese, mostly civilians, reached the fleet by jamming aboard barges and boats that loaded at docks in Saigon, along the Saigon River, or nearby ports. ''They were packed like animals,'' says Kent. Ed Griffith, a medical hospital corpsman, who helped pull some aboard the U.S.S. Peoria, a transport ship, remembers that ''most of the people were frightened to death. There were old ladies and men, just crying and scared. It was extremely hot. On the first boatload that came out, they were handing people up over the sides. We couldn't put the kids on the deck because they'd burn their feet.'' Sailors hung huge canvases to shade the dazed refugees.
Though the advancing NVA generally did not interfere with the evacuation, some Vietnamese in this first wave of boat people did leave under fire. Diem Do, 12, boarded one of three South Vietnamese naval ships at a small port just outside Saigon at about 6 p.m. on April 29. He and his family had just fought their way aboard the middle ship, says Do, when "the shells started hitting. Out of nowhere, there were bullets and shells coming from the other side of the ((Saigon)) river. Smoke and flames were coming out of the first and third ships. And people were still scrambling and trying to get on." The crush on the dock was so terrible that the captain of Do's ship could not board. Instead, says Do, the captain "screamed at his crew, 'Leave! Get the hell out!' and yanked loose the ropes holding the ship back."
On the streets of Saigon there was just as much shoving and panic. An Nguyen, a reporter for a Catholic newspaper, recalls, "I saw on the streets - you wouldn't believe it. You can hear the bombs, the guns ((outside the city)). Everyone running out in the street, shouted, cried. They run, run, run, look for a boat, someplace to move. I saw - right now I remember - their eyes open, suffering."
The mob scenes badly interfered with the evacuation. Buses that were supposed to pick up Vietnamese and Americans at designated points and take them to Tan Son Nhut or to buildings in Saigon that had rooftop helicopter pads often could not move through the jammed streets. At the U.S. embassy, thousands of people milled around outside the gate and compound wall. When Marine guards opened the gate to let in some people marked for evacuation, they had to beat back by force others who tried to squeeze in. Vietnamese who appeared in the crowd and were recognized by Americans eventually had to be dragged up by their arms over the wall to avoid opening the gate - the crowds would not have let it be shut again.
Army Captain Stuart Herrington, deputy to Colonel Harry Summers on a small American military team that had been negotiating with the NVA, remembers that the scene inside the embassy also "was a monstrous mess. Adjacent to the back wall were four or five buildings and a pool. People started coming out of the woodwork in that area. I saw people surrounding the swimming pool with suitcases. Who were they? They were families and extended families of the embassy Marine guards, employees, the Vietnamese contract guards. Everybody who worked in that embassy had Vietnamese people their consciences told them they couldn't abandon, and by hook or by crook they all ended up there."
Summers and Herrington moved through the crowd shouting through bullhorns "things like, 'We're not going to leave you. Don't worry about it,"' as Summers recalls. "And we believed it at the time, which made it more bitter at the end."
The officers formed the Vietnamese into groups of about 60 to be loaded aboard the helicopters that were landing on the roof and in the courtyard. During daylight, officers set off colored smoke bombs to help helicopter pilots locate the embassy. After dark, Herrington rigged up a different system. He found an old carousel slide projector, mounted it on the roof of one building, and had all the embassy's Ford cars parked around the landing zone with their headlights on. Whenever he heard helicopter rotors overhead, Herrington switched on the projector, flooding the landing zone with light.
The helicopter lift went on for about 21 hours, from roughly 11 a.m. on April 29 to almost 8 a.m. on the 30th. Pilots flew for 10 to 15 hours straight; each trip took about 40 minutes in the air and 10 to 15 minutes on the ground loading up. Marine Captain Glynn Hodges landed at the embassy in midafternoon; his H-53 chopper was too big to perch on the roof, so it came down in the compound. "My troops couldn't believe the scene," says Hodges. "People were climbing fences. It was bedlam. We were afraid of the crowds. We had to wear gas masks, though we saw only smoke, no gas. We also wore flak vests. They were hot and heavy. We were really uncomfortable and scared too."
Hodges kept flying for 12 straight hours, well into the night; all his other trips were into Tan Son Nhut. "After dark, you could see fire fights coming in from the coast to Saigon," he says. "Air traffic was very crowded at night, ((and)) we didn't have night-vision goggles. The worst fear I had was of running into another airplane. The Vietnamese I saw, I remember looking at them and they were just confused - how I'd feel if I'd just left my home forever."
THE NORTH ARRIVES
Though the first loads from the embassy were mostly Vietnamese, more and more Americans came out as the evacuation progressed. Snepp caught a chopper out at 9 p.m. on April 29. His description: "The roof of the embassy was a vision out of a nightmare. In the center of the dimly lit helo-pad, a CH-47 was already waiting for us, its engines setting up a roar like a primeval scream. The crew and controllers all wore what looked like oversized football helmets, and in the blinking under-light of the landing signals they reminded me of grotesque insects rearing on their hindquarters. Out beyond the edge of the building a Phantom jet streaked across the horizon as tracers darted up here and there into the night sky."
On the flight out, Snepp saw "fiery stitching in the plastic window across from me" and realized it was ground fire. "The chopper groped for altitude as the motors wailed in protest. A small radar screen behind the pilot's seat began pulsing with a pale green glow, converting the navigator's face into a ghoulish mask. For three or four minutes the tracers continued reaching up for us, slowly burning out as they fell short ... I thought to myself, How absurd. To be shot down on the way out."
It did not happen. Indeed, not one of the 120,000 Vietnamese and 20,000 Americans and others evacuated in the last month was lost to enemy action. But some Vietnamese were left behind when Ford early in the morning of April 30 ordered the evacuation ended, except for the handful of Americans still left.
Herrington estimates that 420 Vietnamese were still in the embassy when that order came. Anguished, he made his way upstairs to the roof, after telling the Vietnamese that he was going to the bathroom. As the helicopter left, he caught sight of the embassy's all-Vietnamese volunteer fire department waiting patiently in their yellow coats in the parking lot. Herrington had asked them earlier if they wanted to leave but they insisted on staying to the last in case they should be needed to put out a fire that might disrupt the evacuation. Aboard the U.S.S. Okinawa, Herrington was reunited with Summers, who told him, "You saw betrayal at its worst."
Not all the Vietnamese left behind, however, were so stoical - or friendly. Kenneth Moorefield, a foreign-service officer and former infantry captain who put the dazed Ambassador Martin on one of the last choppers out, climbed aboard one himself shortly after. His last look around the embassy contrasts with Herrington's: "Hundreds of Vietnamese had swarmed over the walls and were looting the warehouse, the offices, the snack bar. Some were driving embassy cars around and around in almost a maniacal frenzy. On the other side of the walls, crowds were shouting chants against the U.S., celebrating the imminent victory of the communists. In the distance, our jets were still flying cover, chased by tracer rounds." From the air, "I could see the dao ((defense attache office)) headquarters ((at Tan Son Nhut)) burning in the distance. Yet the city itself had this unearthly calm. It was pitch black. No movement, no light, no sense of what was coming."
What was coming was the North Vietnamese army, and it did not take long to arrive. At 9 a.m., almost exactly an hour after the last American helicopter left the embassy roof, NVA General Tran Van Tra, operations commander for the final push, ordered his columns to move into the city from five different directions.They had waited, says Tra, because "our main purpose was to seize Saigon, not to kill people. We didn't want to stop the evacuation." In fact, Nguyen Huu Hanh, who had come out of retirement as an arvn brigadier general to join Big Minh's government, says "it was our troops" that fired at least some of the tracer bullets so prominent in accounts of the helicopter flights the previous night. "They were angry at the U.S. for leaving."
All that final week, the Northern armies had encountered little arvn resistance. A unit commanded by General Ly Tong Ba did put up a fierce fight at Cu Chi, about 12 miles from Saigon, through the night of April 28 and on into the afternoon of the 29th. But, finding his position untenable, Ba decided on a fighting retreat to Hoc Mon, a bit closer to Saigon. "I bring my staff with me, working, fighting," says Ba. "Oh, the bullets just go bup-bup-bup-bup."
The NVA ambushed Ba's troops on the road to Hoc Mon. Ba remembers yelling "Shoot, shoot, shoot!" at his force, only to have a captain tell him, "Sir, we cannot shoot. I think it's all over now, sir." At NVA command, Ba's men meekly laid down their weapons, while the general and his bodyguard hid in a flooded rice paddy, lying face up with eyes half shut and only noses poking above the murky water. That bought Ba less than 24 hours of freedom. He tried to get through the NVA lines by passing himself off as a farmer but was captured.
Ba's stand at Cu Chi was a model of lionheartedness compared with what the NVA columns entering Saigon proper found on April 30. The South Vietnamese soldiers confronting them did not just flee; they threw away everything that could identify them as soldiers and tried to melt into the general population. Bui Tin, an NVA colonel and journalist, says he spent that last morning "with one of our units taking a fortress that had been held by a South Vietnamese division. All the South Vietnamese soldiers who had fled had abandoned their uniforms. Everywhere you looked on the road, they had left all their military clothing and supplies: canteens, caps, coats, pants, boots, belts - they must have ended up fleeing in their shorts!" Some, in fact, had done exactly that. Nam Pham, venturing into the streets of Saigon on April 29 before shoving aboard a barge at the river docks, noticed among the crowds a number of young men clad in nothing but boxer shorts.
That set the stage for the final, and almost comically unheroic, scene of the war. NVA Major Nguyen Van Hoa, commanding tank No. 843, a Soviet-made T-54, with six other tanks following, had entered Saigon before dawn. His little column ran into a brief fire fight at the Thi Nghe bridge, knocking out two arvn M41 tanks. Rolling into almost deserted streets, the column kept going toward its target, the Presidential Palace. But where was it? Says Major Hoa: "The only directions we had were to go through seven intersections and we would find the palace." His column split up; at the head of three tanks, 843 clattered down a boulevard so lined with leafy trees that "we couldn't see what was at the end. We met a woman on a motorcycle, and we stopped to ask her where the palace was. It was right there."
By then, says the major, "we had only two shells left. I ordered the gunner to fire one at the gate. But it misfired. So I decided we would just drive through the gates into the palace and raise our flag." Inside the palace, some South Vietnamese officials had shown up to attend the swearing-in of Duong Van Minh's government (he had barely had time to select a Cabinet). But Minh was at the gates waiting to greet NVA troops. He and his entourage, however, scurried inside when tank 843's gunner fired his single shot.
Accounts of what happened then differ, but all start with a bit of bureaucratic farce: while Minh waited inside the palace for someone to surrender to, NVA troops milled around on the grounds waiting for an officer of sufficiently high rank to show up and receive the surrender (according to their regulations, this could be done only by a colonel or general). Colonel Bui Tin says he was the man. He walked into Minh's office around 11:30 and found that Minh had already written out a surrender that he had read over the Saigon radio.
Nguyen Huu An, then an NVA major general, tells a different story. He says he entered the Presidential Palace at 11:30, only to find that "the men who had taken the surrender, Lieut. Colonel Bui Van Thong and Deputy Commander Pham Xuan The, had taken Big Minh to the radio station to read it. Colonel The had drafted the surrender for Big Minh, but when Minh looked at it, he complained that The's handwriting was so bad he couldn't decipher the document. So he asked The to read it to him or write a new one. But Van Thong finally wrote up a new surrender document."
At any rate, by noon on April 30, the NVA was broadcasting that it had captured Saigon and renamed it Ho Chi Minh City, after the communist leader who had started the rebellion in what was then a French colony all the way back in 1946. There was more to come: for Vietnamese, the "re-education" camps, the flight of the boat people, the gradual softening of a harsh communist regime. For Americans, the new sensation of total, undisguisable defeat. But amid all the joy, bitterness, fear and misery, the overwhelming sentiment of Americans, and even of some Vietnamese, was probably the one voiced by Kenneth Moorefield. The war had dominated his entire adult life: he had studied its strategy as a West Point cadet, fought in it as an infantry officer from 1967 to 1970, returned to Vietnam as a foreign-service officer in 1973, driven himself through 48 sleepless hours helping run the evacuation from the embassy. As his helicopter headed for the U.S. fleet, he says, "I was numb with exhaustion. Physically, I was beyond sensation. But I felt the tremendous weight of all that pressure lift off me. I realized my war, our war, was finally over."
Reported by Bonnie Angelo/Washington, Hannah Bloch/New York, William Dowell/Ho Chi Minh City and Frank Gibney Jr./Hanoi
Copyright 1995 Time Inc. All rights reserved.