Observing “Last Days in Vietnam”
“I was flying my airplane over Saigon, without orders and without a targeted destination. Below me I saw a city in chaos, people running in the streets carrying boxes and suitcases wrapped with rope. Over the radio I heard confused voices from many different locations. Then the president of South Vietnam’s voice came on ordering all military units to lay down their weapons. I searched around for a place to land until I spotted an airport just outside the city. After landing I walked towards downtown Saigon still wearing my uniform of the South Vietnamese Air Force. I was from Can Tho so did not know Saigon very well. I was lost amid all of the confusion. A few days later I was arrested by the communists and spent seven years in a re-education camp. After I was released I escaped from Vietnam on a boat with many other people. Some of my family was living in California so I went there. After a few years I moved to New Mexico. I live in Albuquerque.”
That story, whispered in a wavering voice by Mr. Phan Té Phiét following a viewing of Rory Kennedy’s intense documentary “Last Days in Vietnam,” distributed by PBS’ American Experience series. It was shown by KNME New Mexico PBS as part of its monthly presentation of Community Cinema at the historic KIMO Theater in downtown Albuquerque. Mr. Phiet was one of four panelists assembled by KNME to respond to the film with stories and insights into their lives on those days in April, 1975 when the North Vietnamese flooded into the streets of Saigon to celebrate their victory over the U.S. supported South Vietnamese Armed Services. The film itself is beautifully crafted with amazing footage celebrating the bravery of U.S. servicemen – in Saigon and offshore in U.S. Naval ships – and civilian employees, many of whom defied the orders of their military and civilian superiors to attempt a rescue of South Vietnamese citizens, many former employees of the U.S. Embassy in Saigon. A plan was hastily put together, out of reach of the American Ambassador and senior military officers. After several aspects of the plan proved impossible to execute, they settled on using helicopters. Vietnamese-piloted “Hueys” and Marine Corps ”Chinooks,” both workhorses throughout the war, were put to use. They transported civilian and military personnel from the American Embassy to Naval ships waiting offshore. Especially dramatic was the events leading up to the departure of a contingent of U.S. Marines that had been assigned to security at the embassy. They were the last known Americans to escape from Vietnam.
Although in essence “Last Days in Vietnam” is a spectacularly well-made film, it is nonetheless, disturbing as it reveals the stupidity, arrogance and downright meanness of the senior military command, many of them acting solely to protect their sorry asses after a series of foolish decisions that led to the events documented in the film. Pitted against these command decisions are moving stories of junior military officers and civilian employees (mainly CIA operatives) who devised clever schemes to bring Vietnamese families to the embassy in the hope that they would be transported out of the city. Some were. And many were not.
“I departed from an air base in Thailand flying a plane fully loaded with fuel and accompanied by two fighter jets on each of my wings. We were part of a squadron of Air Force planes sent to Vietnam to make sure that the North Vietnamese Air Force did not attempt to bomb Saigon. As I flew over Saigon I had a clear view of the chaos in the streets and a clear view of the 7th Fleet ships that were amassed in the South China Sea to assist in the evacuation. It was an amazing scene, like pictures I remember seeing of the Normandy Invasion of WWII. With a load of fuel my main concern was having a Surface-To-Air Missile hone in on me. I remember looking to my left and seeing what I thought was a fighter jet coming at us. One of our pilots peeled away to fend him off. I guess he was successful. Towards the end of the day we were ordered back to Thailand.”
Retired Air Force pilot Brinn Colenda, also a panelist, told this story to the audience saying, “This was nothing like the experience Captain Phiet had. We at least had orders to help in any way that was possible from the air.” The Community Cinema format is designed to encourage a dialogue from the audience. Usually the observations and comments made by participating audience members are remarkable but on this night the responses were powerful beyond anything that I had heard at previous Community Cinemas. Vietnamese refugees who live in New Mexico, some of whom had family members airlifted out in April, 1975, while others who endured imprisonment before fleeing Vietnam by boat had heartfelt stories to tell. One man tearfully said, “Americans think that the Vietnam War is over. It’s not. It continues under a brutal communist regime.” Many others wanted desperately to tell their stories, to try and make clear to the non-Vietnamese in the audience the true history of what they call “The American War.” Despite criticisms of how the U.S. government acted forty years ago in Saigon, most Vietnamese who spoke that night made it clear how much they appreciate the U.S. for accepting them. More stories could have flowed, but there was just so much time allotted to the audience response and time ran out.
As I sat in the back of the theater listening to these stories I thought of my life during those years. I served with the Navy’s 7th Fleet. Unlike many of my friends I was not ordered to Vietnam. I’ve always wondered what my life would have been like had I been. Some of the ships massing in Saigon Harbor on that day were similar to the one I served on. Their actions were central to the story of Vietnam in transition, a saga that is fully explored in the film, “Last Days in Vietnam.”