I arrived in Saigon six weeks before North Vietnamese troops captured the South Vietnamese capital. Weeks that marked the end of the Vietnam War.
Panicked South Vietnamese fight for space on a plane during evacuation to Saigon after the fall of Qui Nhon to North Vietnamese troops, 1 April 1975 (AP Photo)
I arrived in Saigon from my reporting base in Jakarta in March 1975 — six weeks before North Vietnamese troops captured the city.
It was not entirely clear when I first arrived, but those weeks would mark the end of the 20-year-long Vietnam War and culminate in the frantic evacuation of the capital of South Vietnam.
American troops had left Vietnam two years earlier, but in early 1975 there were plenty of restaurants and bars to cater to the journalists and NGOs, the only foreigners left after non-essential personnel had made their exit.
The daily U.S. military briefings, known locally as the “Five o’clock Follies,” were still going on, although they became briefer by the day as designated military zones disappeared off the map, swallowed by the advancing North Vietnamese/Viet Cong forces.
Trips to the front for journalists were becoming scarcer. The absence of the huge U.S. military back-up system made them increasingly risky as the hard-pressed South Vietnamese military struggled to reassure the West that they were in control.
After I arrived, the local army PR worked hard to persuade a group of foreign journalists to do a day trip to a strategic South Vietnamese army base. Some of the less experienced hacks went, and they returned three days later, shell-shocked, after the base came under heavy bombardment.
In Saigon itself, a six o’clock to six o’clock curfew meant that journalists and others were confined to barracks, although the Caravelle and Continental hotels where most were staying were comfortable enough. For a carton of cigarettes or a couple of dollars, you could hire your own military escort to take you back to your hotel.
“It was clear the communists were close.”
The Reuters operation in Saigon — later renamed Ho Chi Minh City — was still reeling from the death of two of its correspondents in the 1968 Tet offensive. As the security situation worsened, there was a reluctance to get out into the field.
Still, it was eventually decided to send me north in a light plane to Danang, a major U.S. air force base threatened by communist forces. On arrival I hitched a ride on the back of a local motorcyclist headed north. From the booming of artillery and the stream of people heading to the city, it was clear the communists were close.
In Danang, we were told our plane had been requisitioned by the U.S. military to fly a wounded American pilot to hospital. We were ushered onto a C47, a cargo version of the DC-3 built in the 1930s that was supposed to take a maximum of 34 passengers, and were joined by a few more.
A New York Times journalist aboard, something of an aviation buff, had a front-page story the next day announcing a new world record of 94 people on board. The record was broken a few weeks later when 98 orphans were flown out of the town of Du Lat in a similar plane.
A day later, a Boeing 727 belonging to World Airways, brought in by its swash-buckling owner Ed Daly, flew into Danang, just as communist forces entered the city to pick up passengers. The plane with a normal capacity of 120 left with over 300 after South Vietnamese soldiers fought to get on board.
An American journalist on board, Paul Vogle of UPI, filed a memorable story:
DA NANG, March 29 (UPI) – Only the fastest, the strongest and the meanest of a huge mob got a ride on the last plane from Da Nang Saturday. People died trying to get aboard and others died when they fell thousands of feet into the sea because even desperation could no longer keep those fingers welded to the undercarriage.
No restrictions on journalists’ movements
The fall of Danang sent journalists scurrying for news from the city, now under communist control. Our ever-resourceful translator came up with the goods a couple of days later from a Vietnamese Red Cross worker who had fled the city by boat a week after its capture and who recounted life in the city under the new communist rulers.
I handed the story to Ronnie Bachelor, a Reuters veteran who had reported the World War Two D-Day landings. Recognizing a scoop, he whisked the story out quickly and locked the original copy in a drawer to keep it from other journalists tipped off by their desks and looking to match it.
It’s hard to believe today when we consider the extreme risks that journalists run covering current conflicts, but in Vietnam there were no restrictions on journalists’ movements. “Embedding” reporters with troops had not even been thought up by the authorities.
In the early years of the Vietnam War, hacks wore battle fatigues with “PRESS” stamped across their chests. That all ended when the U.S. forces pulled out in 1973.
When Daily Mail editor Sir David English arrived in Saigon in the dying days of the war on an “operation baby-lift” to ship out Vietnamese orphans sponsored by the paper, he stepped out of the plane in immaculately tailored fatigues with “bao chi” (press) across his chest, to the bemusement of waiting hacks who had long since moved to shorts, sandals and tee-shirts.
In the next big war — the first Iraq War — the United States military banned journalists completely, recalling that it was graphic press coverage of the Vietnam conflict that helped turn the American public against it.
That decision to ban hacks back-fired when freelance journalists doing their own thing uncovered stories that contradicted official reports. In subsequent wars, the generals turned to embedding as a way of allowing in the hacks but keeping them under control.
The final push
A highlight during my six-week stint was the attempt by a lone South Vietnamese pilot to bomb the presidential palace, which produced a classic attempt by a New Zealand journalist to find a local angle with his first paragraph:
“A lone South Vietnamese airman flew over the New Zealand Embassy in Saigon today on his way to bombing the presidential palace.”
As the plane screeched overhead, a group of Western reporters hurled themselves on the ground, mistaking it for incoming artillery. A group of Vietnamese men stood around laughing at them, until the bombs exploded next to the nearby palace and the locals threw themselves on the ground.
After I had been there for five weeks, Reuters decided to rotate me out for a week’s R & R in Singapore in preparation for what everyone expected would be the final push. As it happened, the push came earlier than expected as South Vietnamese forces in the Central Highlands collapsed, along with any major resistance.
A week later, the big evacuation came. Over two days and nights, some 6,000 people were evacuated by the U.S. military and more than 130,000 escaped by boat, South Vietnamese army helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft.
By then, it was too late for me to return, and my flight back in was cancelled.
Colin McIntyre led Reuters coverage of the end of communism in Eastern Europe as chief correspondent in the region in the late 1980s. During 34 years at Reuters, he covered the last days of the Vietnam War and was posted to Indonesia, Ireland and London.