Click on a picture for more "Fall of Saigon" stories
How the Vietnam War changed:
The Virtual Wall an interactive remembrance of the Vietnam War and its veterans who served.
Vietnam Online developed to accompany Vietnam: A Television History, a television series produced by WGBH Boston.
Vietnam: Yesterday and Today designed for teachers and students and includes print, film and Web resources about the Vietnam War.
The Wars for Vietnam 1945 to 1975 A good resource consisting of primary documents relating to the Vietnam War.
Battlefield: Vietnam A look at the military history of the Vietnam War.
Fall of Saigon Stories Accounts of Vietnamese men and women who lived through the fall of Saigon. Marianne Brems, an ESL instructor at Mission College in California, worked with her Vietnamese students now living in the United States on this project. She's shared her material with Extra for our report.
"On April 28, 1975, I was playing with my brother in the garden," says Tu Trinh Tran.
"Suddenly we heard the sounds of helicopters and gunfire everywhere. We were scared and ran back to the house."
That was just the beginning of the nightmare for Tu Trinh Tran and her family.
Growing up in Saigon she'd overheard her parents talk about the war. She sensed their concern as the North Vietnamese moved toward the city. She watched T.V. with her brother. Sometimes she saw scary cartoons of the enemy. Based on the cartoons she figured they looked like devils or cruel monkeys.
It was frightening-- but not real, until that day in April.
Inside her house, Tu Trinh's parents were frantically throwing stuff into bags. Minutes later they were out the door, running in the direction of the Saigon River, running from their comfortable home, running from life as Tu Trinh had known it.
Across town at the U.S. Embassy, 19-year-old Ken Crouse was busy shredding documents.
A young Marine, he'd signed up the minute he graduated in 1973 from Woodlawn, a California High School.
"I was anxious to leave my conservative Baptist home and I loved the Marine uniform," says Ken.
He'd only been in Vietnam on "Embassy Duty" for two months. "We weren't told much but I knew something was up because I was regularly reading an American newspaper."
The Tran family didn't really have a plan when they ran toward the river. Noise, confusion and violence met them at the waterfront.
"Everybody shouted, cried out, pushed, and even killed each other to take a seat on the boat," Tu Trinh recalls.
The military took control and civilians were ordered off the streets at dusk. So the family trudged home through the chaotic streets of Saigon.
Saigon was about to fall.
The Vietnam war. The one we didn't win. A long and unpopular war. Simply put, the war was an unsuccessful effort by South Vietnam (supported by the United States) to prevent the communists of North Vietnam from reuniting the north and south under communist leadership-- but there's much more to the story.
About 58,000 Americans lost their lives. Over a million Vietnamese fighting men and women from both sides are thought to have lost their lives. In addition, more than a million North and South Vietnamese civilians were killed during the war.
American soldiers were active in Vietnam from 1965 until the cease-fire of January 1973. When American troops were withdrawn, a small number of Americans remained-- mainly advisors, diplomats and marines on duty at the Embassy.
The cease-fire was supposed to stop the fighting but it didn't. The North Vietnamese marched into Saigon two years later on April 30, 1975. They met little resistance from the South Vietnamese.
A military government took control and on July 2, 1976 the country was officially united as the Socialist Republic of Vietnam with it's capital in the northern city of Hanoi. Saigon was renamed Ho Chi Minh City.
Seeds of War
To understand the causes of the Vietnam, you have to look at the 1930s. Before World War Two, Vietnam was a French colony. The Japanese took control during the war, but the French were prepared to return to power following the defeat of Japan. However a group seeking independence from France, called the Viet Minh, decided it was time to break free. A charismatic young man named Ho Chi Minh led the fight.
For eight years the Viet Minh fought for independence. The group became openly communist in the mid-1950s.
In 1954, an international conference in Geneva negotiated a cease-fire that left the Viet Minh in control of the northern part of Vietnam while the southern half became South Vietnam. The line was drawn at the 17th parallel.
The United States decided to support the President of South Vietnam, Ngo Dinh Diem. The goal: to stop the spread of communism in Southeast Asia.
The Geneva conference had called for free elections with the aim of reunifying Vietnam under a popularly elected government. But Diem decided not to hold the election. In response, the North Vietnamese decided to unify the North and South through military force.
Other factors added to the growing tension. The Viet Cong-- as the South Vietnamese communist forces were called-- were gaining strength. Diem was becoming unpopular and was ultimately assassinated during a military coup in 1963.
Ho Chi Minh was determined to reunite Vietnam. The U.S. President, Lyndon B. Johnson was just as determined to prevent it. South Vietnam was on the verge of collapse. The undeclared "Vietnam War" was about to take off.
America Gets Involved
After 1965, U.S. involvement grew rapidly. In just two years, 1.5 million Americans left home to fight the war in Vietnam.
Back in the U.S. the war was becoming unpopular. There were peace marches and demonstrations. Some questioned whether the war could be won; others wondered why we were involved in a Vietnamese civil war.
Meanwhile, the war was expanding U.S. and South Vietnamese troops invaded border sectors of Cambodia to destroy North Vietnamese sanctuaries and staging areas. U.S. planes bombed northern Laos.
While American and Vietnamese soldiers continued to clash in battle, diplomats in Paris argued about making peace. After more than four years, they reached an accord.
A Peace Not Kept
Despite the peace agreement of 1973 and the departure of most American troops, the fighting continued with both sides accusing each other of cheating.
In March of 1975 the North Vietnamese began an invasion of the South. By early April, the northern half of South Vietnam fell to North Vietnamese forces. North Vietnamese tanks smashed into Saigon on April 30, 1975, and the long war ended with South Vietnam's surrender.
April 29, 1975
In the early hours of April 29th, Ken was on night guard duty on the roof of the U.S. Embassy, one of the tallest buildings in the area. He heard explosions and saw fireworks. Advancing North Vietnamese gunners had begun shelling the military complex at the airport.
"The other marine on duty and I looked at each other and knew something was wrong, " said Ken. Just then, it dawned on Ken that one of his best friends in Vietnam, his roommate, was on duty at the airbase.
Later Ken would learn that his friends, Darwin Judge and Charles McMahon Jr., Marine security guards at the airbase, had become two of the last American servicemen killed in Vietnam.
By daybreak, thousands of Vietnamese had massed at the U.S. Embassy hoping to be evacuated. The crowds were already desperate-- many tried to climb over the walls.
The marines secured the gate as a massive evacuation operation was put into motion.
Tu Trinh and her family decided to head for the airport. By now everyone was desperate. People were running and screaming. It was as if the whole city had gone crazy.
The Tran family waited and waited at the airport for their names to be called- praying they would be lucky enough to get on a plane.
Back at the U.S. Embassy, marines were frantically destroying about four million dollars of brand new U.S. currency, records and files.
Ken's job was to hold organize groups of people so they could board choppers as soon as they landed. A fleet of helicopters circled in the air and one would touch down, pick up a load and head straight back out. Larger choppers went straight out to ships waiting in the South China Sea. Smaller ones had to fly first to the military compound near the air base from which people were transferred by more powerful helicopters.
Operation Frequent Wind, as the airlift was called, was amazing. In all, 682 flights went out-- 360 at night. 5,000 people were evacuated by helicopter from the military compound near the airport; about 2500 from the U.S. Embassy.
If just one chopper crashed, the operation would have shut down. The landing zones were tiny and called for direct descent, the crowds on the ground were always on the verge of getting out of hand and getting in the way, and pilots had to worry about sniper fire.
As dusk approached, the Tran family gave up. Exhausted, they returned home to await an uncertain future.
"That afternoon, my brother and I went up to the roof and we saw people were standing in line to get into a helicopter on top of a big building in the distance," says Tu Trinh. "We were sad that we weren't there."
The airlift went on all night. At about 3:30 A.M. the word was passed from marine to marine that the operation was ending.
Hundreds of Vietnamese remained within the walls of the embassy compound. As the marines moved inside the embassy building, the crowds realized they were being abandoned and rushed the building's doors.
Ken and about 60 other marines sent the elevators to the top floor and locked the controls. "Floor by floor we cleared the building," says Ken. Someone in the crowd hot wired a fire truck and drove it through the doors of the embassy. Hundreds dashed inside the building and began racing up the steps. On the top floor there was a passageway to the roof. The marines defended it with gas grenades.
Ken was on the second to last chopper out. "As we lifted off the sky was just getting light," he recalled. "I could see North Vietnamese tanks rolling on to the runway as we flew over."
Tu Trinh has been in the U.S. for eight years along with her parents and three brothers. Ken lives in California and works in the telecommunications industry.
What do you think? Should the United States have become involved in the Vietnam war?
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