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Reliving the fall of Saigon with Vietnam vets and journalists

As Ho Chi Minh City, formerly known as Saigon, marks the 40th anniversary of the end of the war, a group of journalists and former Marines revisit the country to remember one of the most significant chapters of their lives. Special correspondent Mike Cerre, who served in Vietnam, reports.

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  • MIKE CERRE:

    Some of the most indelible images of the Vietnam War came during its final hours of April 30, 1975. After more than thirteen years of military involvement, 58,220 Americans killed, along with millions of Vietnamese. It came down to this desperate evacuation of nearly two thousand Americans and South Vietnamese dependents from the American embassy compound in Saigon.

    The former American embassy here, in what is now called Ho Chi Minh City was torn down years ago. It wasn't until 1995 after diplomatic relations were finally restored that a new consulate was opened here on the same grounds as the U.S.'s dramatic exit from what the Vietnamese call "The American War"

  • PETER ARNETT, Former Associated Press Reporter:

    The reason I stayed behind was that I was there in the beginning 1962 and covered it through the intervening years. So I felt I had to stay behind to see what would happen to Saigon when the Communists arrived.

  • MIKE CERRE:

    Peter Arnett, earned a Pulitzer prize for his Vietnam reporting for the Associated Press.

  • PETER ARNETT:

    The Caravelle Hotel is where all the news networks had their offices and we used to come up here…

  • MIKE CERRE:

    He and other western journalists have come back to a much different Ho Chi Minh City for the 40th anniversary of the fall of what they knew as Saigon in 1975.

    Many of these veteran journalists thought the eventual takeover of Vietnam was inevitable after the north Vietnamese's Tet Offensive of 1968 in several key cities closely followed by peace negotiations and the gradual drawdown of American forces starting in 1969. The North Vietnamese took over of as much as a third of South Vietnam during the Easter Offensive of 1972.

    Nick Ut's iconic photograph of a young Vietnamese girl accidentally hit with napalm during the north Vietnamese invasion of the south marked the beginning of the end of the of the diminishing public support for the war by many Americans.

    Only a teenager at the time… Nick Ut was a self-taught photographer who had replaced his photographer-brother killed earlier in the war. He covered the collapse of the south Vietnamese army and the mass exodus of retreating military and civilian, all seeking a last sanctuary in the Saigon area in April, 1975.

  • NICK UT:

    Even me I didn't think Saigon fall right away… maybe next two months, maybe two or three years.

  • MIKE CERRE:

    Photojournalist Nik Wheeler, on assignment for Newsweek and UPI covered the fall of Bien Hoa, the last major military base just outside of Saigon, and the initial shelling of the city.

    On the morning of April 29th, the advancing North Vietnamese artillery had shut down the airlift out of Tan Son Nhut airport forcing the Americans to implement their backup evacuation plan.

  • NIK WHEELER, Former Newsweek Photojournalist:

    The signal was to be through Armed Forces Radio which was going to be playing "I'm Dreaming of a White Christmas. When we heard that on the radio we were to grab our bag and head to the evacuation point.

  • MIKE CERRE:

    Wheeler's bus ended-up at the American embassy which was besieged by thousands of South Vietnamese. Many of them connected with the American war effort. They believed they would be evacuated along with the Americans.

  • NIK WHEELER:

    Once we couldn't get in through the gates was to just climb over the wall and then we were helped down had to jump down to the other side and once we were in it was a completely different scene from out on the streets.

  • MIKE CERRE:

    Makeshift helipads were created in the compound's courtyard and atop the embassy itself for shuttling the last of the Americans and Vietnamese who were able to get into the embassy compound, so they could be flown to American naval ships standing by off the coast.

    SGT. JOHN GHILAIN (Ret.), U.S. Marine Corps: When we were given the order to fall back into the embassy while falling back and looking at the people's eyes you could see the fear.

  • MIKE CERRE:

    Former marine security guards… John Ghilian and Bill Newell… were part of the last American military unit sent to Vietnam for the evacuation.

  • SGT. JOHN GHILAIN (Ret.):

    Initially, I didn't think it was the Alamo until we sat on the roof of the final two and a half hours the morning of the 30th. We didn't know what was going on. All we thought was that this could be the final hurrah.

  • MIKE CERRE:

    Forty years later Ho Chi Minh City symbolizes the enormous growth Vietnam has experienced since the war and its switch to a socialist-based, market economy in 1986. Its growth rate has been averaging better than 6 percent a year the past decade elevating it from one of the world's poorest countries during the war to one of the fastest growing economies in Asia.

    April 30th in Vietnam is now called Liberation Day or Reunification Day and is a national holiday. Only recently has it also become a show of Vietnam's military power in the region.

  • NICK UT:

    April 30 day is very sad day. Most of the old people remember. Young people don't know anything. My children don't know anything about Vietnam. Just a sad day. Black Friday. Sad day.

  • MIKE CERRE:

    For many of the estimated three million Vietnamese who fled the country often at great physical risks and personal hardships, April 30th is called "The Day of Shame" or "Black April".

    Given the amount of American blood and treasure lost here over more than a decade of fighting to save South Vietnam from a communist takeover. It's also a day of very mixed emotions for those Americans who served here during the war. Some of them have also come back.

  • VIETNAM VETERAN:

    I was with 5th Special Forces Airborne. It wasn't the outcome we were looking for when we were here. It's not the one we fought for but they won and we lost and now we're partners and there shouldn't be any animosity or living in the past for Christ sake.

  • MIKE CERRE:

    The last Americans out that day were the Marine security guards. Some of them have come back for the anniversary and to honor to of their fallen comrades who were the last American servicemen killed in Vietnam.

  • SGT. JOHN GHILAIN (Ret.):

    I think we need to close the book. I don't think another chapter needs to be written. I think it's time to close the book.

  • PETER ARNETT:

    We're not there to congratulate the Communists on their victory, me and a lot of other journalists are there to remember what we did in the war. Over 60 journalists were killed, remembering them, and remembering the brave Americans and South Vietnamese we covered who fought and died for any ideas they believed in.

  • MIKE CERRE:

    After the anniversary reunion…Nick Ut will head north to visit the family of the severely burned girl in his photograph that earned him a Pulitzer Prize . She now lives in Toronto and they speak and get together regularly.

  • NIK WHEELER:

    It's quite moving to be back here on the same grounds after forty years. The Embassy used to be the largest building in the city. Now the consulate is dwarfed by what has taken place here in Saigon the last forty years.

  • MIKE CERRE:

    The most iconic images of the American evacuation during the fall of Saigon… were not taken at the embassy. They were taken at a nearby apartment and office complex formerly used by the CIA and USAID. It's now surrounded by the new image of Vietnam today… forty years later. For the NewsHour, this is Mike Cerre reporting from Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam.

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