A look back over Peter Arnett’s dozen-plus years reporting the war that deeply divided Americans.
Forty years after the fall of Saigon (present-day Ho Chi Minh City), Peter Arnett has written a new memoir, “Saigon Has Fallen.” Arnett won a Pulitzer Prize in 1966 for his coverage of the Vietnam War for The Associated Press and later gained fame as a correspondent for CNN.
In this vivid recounting, Arnett describes his experience of reporting a war that divided Americans and altered the lives of those who covered it.Learn more >
BY PETER ARNETT
The artillery explosions sound a fearsome 4 a.m. wakeup call, but I’m already awake. Impatient for victory, the attackers waiting at the gates of a vanquished Saigon have been warning they would act, and now with each thump of the Soviet-made 130mm guns, their shells landing a mile or so away, sound waves rustle the curtains of my open seventh floor hotel window. As I reach for my water glass, it trembles, and me with it. The final full day of the Vietnam War is beginning.
Street lights shine below as I look out toward Tan Son Nhut airport, once described as the busiest in the world when America was waging war here. Now it is burning from one end to the other, the flames brilliantly lighting up the sky. There will be two more hours of the darkness, but this seems like a new dawn rising, an appropriate description, I think later, of the intentions of those wreaking havoc on the airport. The commanders of North Vietnam’s military juggernaut, pressing for victory after a 50-day rout of their South Vietnamese opponents, are pushing open the gates of the capital. They will force a new dawn on South Vietnam, America’s once favored ally, as it loses its 20-year struggle to remain an independent, pro-western state. As I write these still vivid memories of the end of the war, and the role that my reporter colleagues and I played in covering it, I find it hard to believe that four decades have passed since April 1975.
After watching the destruction of the airport, I phone the Associated Press office a few blocks away, and my colleague Ed White answers. He and George Esper, the bureau chief, have been up all night working the telex communications link with our New York headquarters. Our editors are anxious for the latest developments in a story that has gripped the world. White tells me the American embassy confirms major damage at the airport with the runways probably unusable. American planners have been intending to airlift out of the country several thousand more vulnerable Vietnamese allies today, but what can they do now? The popular adage, Murphy’s Law, which warns, “anything that can go wrong will go wrong,” will be proven time and time again today, in the final hours of bitter defeat for the losers and a historic victory for the winners.
As I write these still vivid memories of the end of the war, and the role that my reporter colleagues and I played in covering it, I find it hard to believe that four decades have passed since April 1975.
As the sky brightens we see a Vietnamese Air Force transport plane, a De Havilland Caribou, rise sharply into the air high above Tan Son Nhut airport. Suddenly, it seems to break in half, bursting into flames and falling in pieces to the ground. Stricken silent by this horrifying spectacle, we see a second aircraft following the same path soon afterward and suffering the same fate, like the first undoubtedly a victim of ground fire. It seems there’ll be no escape for anyone from the airport today.
At the American embassy, Ambassador Graham Martin is in disbelief, committed as he is to evacuating as many vulnerable Vietnamese as possible before the communists arrive. He insists on personally checking the airport tarmac, alarming those who warn of great risk from approaching enemy.
Reaching the airport, Martin finds a usable runway amidst the still-burning buildings, but little security. He worries about a repeat of the earlier airport panics in Danang and Nhatrang that had hundreds of desperate people fighting with soldiers and police to get on departing rescue aircraft. He tells me, “I decided it was not worth the risk. I picked up the phone and I told Secretary Kissinger to inform the president that we have go to Option Four immediately, to the helicopter airlift for the remaining Americans, and as many Vietnamese as we can take.” But Martin’s urgent instruction is lost somewhere down the line. The airlift does not begin for several hours.
Most of the passengers for the final helicopter lifts have been chosen in advance .... When the time comes to move they will hear the signal, Bing Crosby’s song “White Christmas.”
Option Four is code for Operation Frequent Wind, planned to be the biggest such evacuation in history, moving people to American navy ships off the coast. Most of the passengers for the final helicopter lifts have been chosen in advance, alerted to keep listening to Armed Forces Radio. When the time comes to move they will hear the signal, Bing Crosby’s song “White Christmas,” playing continuously, with an occasional break for the Sousa march “The Stars and Stripes Forever.” Thirteen helicopter pickup points have been selected around Saigon, using the small UHI “Huey” ships for the tops of tall buildings and the much bigger CH 53 “Sea Knights” for the American Defense Department compound at the airport and the embassy grounds.
With Saigon surrounded by North Vietnamese units and Tan Son Nhut Air Base under attack, fixed-wing evacuation flights out of the capital were suspended on April 28. President Gerald Ford ordered Operation Frequent Wind, the helicopter evacuation of Saigon.
More than 7,000 people — American, Vietnamese and other foreign nationals — were evacuated to U.S. Navy ships by U.S. Marine Corps and Air Force helicopters on April 29 and 30, primarily from the U.S. Defense Attaché Office compound and the U.S. Embassy.
Excerpts below are from the United States Marine Corps Command Chronology for Operation Frequent Wind, April 29-30, 1975
*Timeline is not included in the book 'Saigon Has Fallen'
Excerpted from the declassified U.S. Marine Corps Command Chronology/National Archives and Records Administration
In 13 years of covering the Vietnam War I never dreamed it would end as it did
The essential personnel waiting to depart include the large contingent of international journalists covering the story for the world’s media. During the past week some have considered the possibility of remaining behind and seeing what transpires, but their home offices expect them to leave with the last Americans because of the uncertainty of the future. I know that Esper wants to stay. He’s been here too long to miss the final moments of his most important story. Me too, and I message AP president Wes Gallagher, explaining that because I was here at the war’s beginnings it’s worth the risk to document the final hours. Gallagher is less supportive of the presence of Matt Franjola, an AP reporter in the region for several years. Esper sends a message to his boss, “Request you please reconsider...” Gallagher does. The three of us will stay.
Later that afternoon Esper suggests that with international communications still up, I write about my reflections of the final day. I know the AP generally frowns on using the personal impressions of its reporters on its new wires, but I do it anyway. I start punching a telex tape and it winds to the floor as I write. I feed the tape into the transmitter and it chugs its way through the machine. “In 13 years of covering the Vietnam War I never dreamed it would end as it did at noon today. I thought it might end with a political deal like in Laos. Even an Armageddon-type battle with the city left in ruins. But a total surrender followed a short two hours later with a cordial meeting in the AP office in Saigon with an armed and battle-garbed North Vietnamese officer with his aide—and over a warm Coke and stale pound cake at that? That is how the Vietnam War ended for me today.”
The tape stops running. I punch a few keys but the machine just coughs a couple of times. I try the key again, no response. The AP wire from Saigon to New York is down—and out. The new authorities have finally pulled the plug.
I call out to Esper, “That’s it, George. It’s over.”