April 30 is a day of mixed emotions for Vietnamese people and veterans of the Vietnam War. It is the day of the reunification of Vietnam but it is also the day the Americans and the South Vietnamese lost the war/their country, respectively. Sometimes it is called Black April because the lead-up to the end lasted throughout the month of April.
Last Days in Vietnam, an Academy Award-winning documentary by Rory Kennedy, depicts the events throughout that last stand of April 1975. The story is told from the point of views of various American naval and military men and South Vietnamese soldiers and civilians. Starting with a brief synopsis of the situation in January 1973, the documentary then fast-forwards to April 1975 and the surrender of Saigon to North Vietnamese troops.
The documentary is available on various platforms, including Netflix. It was a difficult documentary to watch but I highly recommend it for those who would like a brief history into what happened and why the evacuation of South Vietnam/Saigon was so chaotic and heartbreaking. On that note, it is not intended for young audiences as a few video clips were graphic, but I do suggest perhaps skimming over those parts and continuing to view the rest if it.
My knowledge of The Fall is not as solid as I believed. After watching the documentary, I found myself much more educated (and a little ashamed, but how could I know what I had yet to learn?). However, because it is a story told from the POV of those on the American sides, it is not as eye-opening as a story told from a refugee's. That is not to say it isn't important, but as always, it is crucial to keep in mind the biases and each person's individual truths.
By April 5, North Vietnamese troops had overcome much of Vietnam and was rapidly approaching Saigon. Ambassador Graham Martin was in charge of giving permission for an evacuation, but he held hope that the South might still be able to hold off the North. The four options for evacuation were:
- Boats down the Saigon River to Con Son Island;
- Commercial planes at Tan Son Nhut Airport;
- Military fixed-wing aircrafts from the airport; and
- The last resort: helicopters (of which there were only 75).
The U.S. evacuation plan stated that only Americans in South Vietnam were to be evacuated; no South Vietnamese individuals were to be included. That was a huge problem, because many Americans had befriended and created families with the Vietnamese. Therefore refusal to leave them behind could have been a major turning point in changing the evacuation statement. Another, from what I understood in the documentary, was Ambassador Martin's extreme guilt at leaving so many people whose lives would be endangered by the simple association to America.
By April 24, there were rumors on the streets of Saigon that the South was going to either fall to the North or close its borders somehow. People were becoming restless, the soldiers especially. Supplies had already stopped coming by April 14 despite President Gerald Ford's plea to Congress that supplies be sent. With no additional aid coming, some young officers in the U.S. Embassy were carrying out black operations to evacuate through outgoing aircrafts. Despite the month of April being a month of decreasing morale, it was the last two days that changed everything.
In the early morning of April 29, Tan Son Nhut airport was fired on by North Vietnamese artillery. The commercial planes were destroyed; the first (and most likely number one) evacuation option was removed. This forced Ambassador Martin's hand and an evacuation began.
"The temperature is 105 degrees and rising."
Above was the evacuation message played on radio stations in South Vietnam in April 29, 1975, which was immediately proceeded by Bing Crosby's "White Christmas." Vietnamese people surrounded the U.S. Embassy on all sides, trying to get onto a helicopter to evacuate. Binh Pho, one of those evacuees, explained that many Vietnamese people had to have connections and money to get onto the helicopters. Panic was widespread, and with President Ford's order that within 24 hours all U.S. presence was to be evacuated, the rate at which evacuations occurred was alarming.
Although the embassy was bombarded by people, there were also other manners of evacuation. There were trucks driven by Americans from the embassy to the docks to help people leave through commercial boats. There were Vietnamese air force pilots who flew Chinooks and helicopters into where their families were and self-evacuated those people to naval ships where they disembarked. Various methods were being carried out to leave the country, but it was a trying process and many, many people to save.
The evacuation continued well into the evening when daylight had disappeared and choppers were navigating in the darkness. Ambassador Martin persisted to stay, but President Ford ordered that he and the rest of the Americans must leave despite 420 Vietnamese people still within the walls of the embassy. It was a difficult decision with so many left. Many Americans felt they were deserting the people they had promised to evacuate. It was with a lot of guilt that these Americans got onto the helicopters.
On April 30, some the Vietnamese people within the embassy walls sat on the rooftop, hoping for another helicopter to come by. The others fled for fear that their association with the Americans would mean execution by North Vietnamese hands. Still more were searching for ways to leave the country. And with the North Vietnamese troops approaching the edges of Saigon, General Minh of the South Vietnamese Army surrendered Saigon to avoid further bloodshed. The streets of Saigon were littered with the South soldiers' apparel, people were burning their embassy IDs/documents, all associations to the U.S. and Southern Army were abandoned in hopes of survival.
Out on the sea, ships were awaiting entry into the Philippines from Con Son Island. The Southern VN flags on commercial ships were changed out with U.S. flags in order to be recognized, and that seemed the most symbolic act of defeat.
Although the American story ends with April 30, that is simply the beginning for Vietnamese Boat People. T.T. constantly reiterates that history does not end there, that the end of the war was a catalyst for many other difficulties. Many were lucky to be saved, but many more suffered re-education and execution. The documentary encapsulated the last few days in an amazing tale of perseverance and community, but it does not go beyond those days. Which is why T.T. and J.H. highly recommend watching Journey From the Fall by Ham Tran, a film about what happens after Black April.
Watch the documentary (both of them). Watch and learn the histories of those forgotten and unvoiced. It is not without a sense of graciousness that we should look upon our lives in the U.S. today.