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Chaos and the human costs of the Vietnam War’s final days

The fall of Saigon is a story we think we know, says filmmaker Rory Kennedy. But in "Last Days in Vietnam," a new documentary airing on PBS' American Experience, the people who were there tell the almost unbelievable stories of what actually happened. Kennedy joins Judy Woodruff to discuss the chaos of those final hours, the human cost of war and lessons for the U.S. today.

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  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    This week marks the fortieth anniversary of the fall of Saigon, when the North Vietnamese army finally took over the city, bringing a two-decade-long conflict to a close.

    Tonight’s American Experience on PBS tells the story of those frenzied final days in an Oscar-nominated documentary, “Last Days in Vietnam.”

    I sat down with filmmaker Rory Kennedy recently about her film, which shows harrowing evacuations, the city under assault, and efforts to save Americans and South Vietnamese.

    We began with an excerpt about those final hours.

  • FRANK SNEPP, Former CIA Operative:

    That morning, CIA choppers began picking up evacuees off the roofs of buildings and bringing them to the embassy.

    There was an old pilot named O.B. Harnage. He was blind in one eye and lame in one leg. And I said, Harnage, we have got people at 6 Chalang. You got to go pick them up.

    It was the deputy CIA station chief’s apartment building. There were a number of very high-risk Vietnamese, including the defense minister of South Vietnam, all waiting to be rescued. As they climbed up the ladder to the roof, the photographer took that famous photograph. Many people thought that was the U.S. Embassy. It wasn’t. But it indicated to what extent chaos had descended on this entire operation.

  • STUART HERRINGTON, Former Captain:

    Inside the embassy, everywhere we looked was teeming with Vietnamese. We counted. And the total number was about 2,800.

    There was no hiding it that somehow people had to have let these people into the embassy. Was it, you know, Marine security guards who kind of looked the other way? Was it American employees in the embassy who were doing kind of what we did, black ops, and taking care of their own? We never got to the bottom of that, and, frankly, we never pursued it.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Rory Kennedy, who has created the documentary “Last Days in Vietnam,” thank you for being with us.

    And, as we just saw, a remarkable story, there was chaos, but it was also an incredible human story, wasn’t it?

  • RORY KENNEDY, Director, “Last Days in Vietnam”:

    It is a human story.

    And I think that the film ultimately is a reminder of the human cost of war. The way we tell the story, we don’t have a narrator. We don’t have any historians. It’s all people who were in Saigon, who were on the front lines and telling us what happened.

    And it really is told like a thriller. You know, these extraordinary events unfold and the people on the ground acted with incredible courage. And I think what is — one of the things that’s remarkable about the story is, it’s really been largely untold. I think it’s a story we think we know. For example, that helicopter, we all think was on top of the embassy. It wasn’t on top of the embassy.

    And that’s what we know of the story, but we don’t know what happened. And I think for the first time, this story is told in the film, and it’s really eye-opening.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Well, you said, we think we know so much. And it’s true. So much has been written and said and filmed about Vietnam.

    What drew you back to it and especially what drew you back to those final hours?

  • RORY KENNEDY:

    Well, I think, in part, I felt that the story had not been told and needed to be told.

    I think that Vietnam is a seminal moment in our nation’s history, and to go back and tell the story of these final days seemed important, but also timely. I think we’re struggling with how to get out of Iraq and Afghanistan. And there are a lot of lessons to be learned from what happened in Vietnam, how we got out of that war, what we failed to do, our responsibility to the people left behind, particularly the people who worked so closely with Americans who, because of their association with the Americans, faced greater vulnerability.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    There were some truly courageous people, are truly courageous people in the telling of this story.

    In fact, you really — you focus on the heroes, the ones who went against what they were being told by their bosses, whether it was the White House or the ambassador, and worked very hard to get as many Vietnamese out as possible.

  • RORY KENNEDY:

    I think the film takes an unflinching look at American policy and the fact that ultimately we abandoned our Vietnamese allies. But, in the face of that, there were handful of Americans and South Vietnamese who were on the ground who really acted heroically, who went against U.S. policy, who certainly risked their jobs and arguably their lives to save as many Vietnamese as possible.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    And you were able to get remarkable video from on board the ships that were out just offshore from Vietnam, some with helicopters landing, jammed, crammed with people who were just, some of them miraculously, able to get them to safety.

  • RORY KENNEDY:

    Yes, well, it’s an extraordinary story.

    What happened was, the U.S. fleet was in the South China Sea, and the U.S. helicopters were heading out to that fleet. The South Vietnamese air force had disintegrated. But there were still South Vietnamese pilots with their helicopters, so they started chasing the U.S. helicopters out to the fleet, and first ship they came to the was the USS Kirk.

    And the captain of the Kirk said, who are these people? We don’t know. Let’s bring them down, brought the first helicopter down. So many Vietnamese came out. They were so grateful. They didn’t have room for more helicopters. The crew said, what do we do? And he said, throw that helicopter overboard. Let’s make room for the next one.

    There is an amazing story in the film of a Chinook helicopter that comes to the Kirk. It’s the double-prop helicopter. It can’t land because it’s too big. The helicopter pilot opens the door of the helicopter. He has his 8-month-old baby, his 2-year-old, 5-year-old, and he throws them out the door on to the moving ship that’s 18 feet below.

  • MIKI NGUYEN, Former South Vietnamese Refugee:

    One by one, we jump out. I jumped out. My brother jumped out. My mom was holding my sister, obviously, very scary.

    And she just — you know, just trustingly, just with one hand, with her right hand, holding on with her left to brace herself, just dropped my baby sister.

  • HUGH DOYLE, Former Navy Officer:

    One guy was standing there. And he said he looked up and he saw this big bundle of stuff flying out and it was the baby. It was the 1-year-old baby.

  • RORY KENNEDY:

    Can you imagine throwing your child out of a helicopter and…

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    And the baby was caught.

  • RORY KENNEDY:

    And the baby was caught by the crew. And it’s all on film.

    And the story after story like that in this film that, I mean, I certainly didn’t know going into this, and it has just been a great honor to be able to share it with people.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Is part of this to say, it wasn’t all bad, that there were — as you just said, there were people who were doing things, who were trying to save as many South Vietnamese as they could who had been important to Americans?

  • RORY KENNEDY:

    It’s what happened on the ground.

    We really tell the story of what was going on in Saigon in those last 24 hours. The airport was bombed. The North said, you have got 24 hours to get out of here. The evacuation was moved to the embassy. It was based on a helicopter airlift. So the perspective we tell is what was going on at that airport, what was going on in the embassy, what was going on in the fleet.

    What were the helicopter pilots doing? What about the Marines who were left behind? What was happening? And the reality was, they were doing everything they could to save South Vietnamese. And that’s an extraordinary story and a wonderful story.

    And I think it does adjust our understanding a little bit of those final days in an important way.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Rory Kennedy, the documentary is “Last Days in Vietnam,” on American Experience.

    We thank you.

  • RORY KENNEDY:

    Thank you so much.

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