There are three "light tables" with thumbnails of pictures that relate to this story:
Family and Evacuation / Combat / Civilians in War
This story was published in The Washington Post Sunday Magazine shortly after the twelve family members fled Saigon and settled in Bethesda, MD. In the intervening 24 years, we've grown to include new wives, husbands and children. There are family branches in Orange County, Oakland, Virginia, Maryland, London, Berlin, Tahiti, and Marseilles, France.
LAST EXIT FROM SAIGON
A Tale of Rescue
with Gordon Chaplin
Dick Swanson spent five years (1966 through 1970) in South Vietnam and Southeast Asia as a contract photographer for Life and Black Star. He married Germaine Loc in 1969 and in 1971 they moved to Washington where he worked in the Life bureau. He is now a free lance photographer. Gordon Chaplin is a free lance writer who was a Newsweek correspondent in South Vietnam during 1968 and 1969.
From our house in Bethesda, Germaine and I watched the headlines. Midwinter here is the time of offensives in Vietnam, the hot season, when the ground dries hard enough for war machines. In Saigon, in the Time-Life office before the great Tet offensive in 1968, 1 remembered, the suspense had grown as the heat increased. It was growing now, but Germaine, in the Vietnamese way, remained calm.
Once a month, she'd read me a letter from her family in Saigon. Very matter of fact, although we both knew the country couldn't last, that sooner or later the 12 members of her family who were left, along with thousands more, would become refugees again.
When Quang Tri fell I watched her read the news and remembered what I had written three years earlier: "I sit here in sadness and frustration . Germaine is torn between her beginnings in North Vietnam and her endings in South Vietnam and is even more frustrated and sad than I; frustrated because she cannot articulate her feelings to me and sad because of the family ties.
Family ties. As province after province fell, at least one thing became clearer to us: her family could not stay in Vietnam. Their matter of fact letters came more often, calm as Germaine herself, almost heartbreaking in their simplicity. They discussed their fate, their choices, their plans as if they were discussing the monsoon. They had fled for their lives 1954 after the fall of Dien Bien Phu from North Vietnam to Saigon and there was no question they were prepared to leave again. They would buy logs, if they had to, and float down the Mekong and ride them out to sea.
It was certain they'd have to leave. They would not stay, and just as certainly I'd have to help them. They'd need money. I thought, bribes, connections, papers, transportation, advice. Even as South Vietnam and their way of life went under they'd need an American around to help; America was the problem and I was my family's solution.
I went to Vietnam in January 1966, a hawk, my head clamped in place,looking down that famous tunnel with the light at the end. We would win over the Communist menace. And as a combat photographer I would learn the lesson of war: how to measure up. Like Hemingway and thousands of others, I'd learn how to be a man. Between battles I'd sample the spoils of the battleground,the women, the wine, lunches, the companions, the long nights in French colonial hotels when time came as close as possible to absolutely stopping.
But what I learned instead was how to love the country. I moved in with a Vietnamese family. Sometimes late at night I'd watch them sleeping all in a large room. They slept in disarray but always touching each other in their sleep as if to reaffirm their relationship. Watching, I thought I began to understand Vietnam.
I traveled by helicopter, motorcycle, taxi and Caribou troop transport north to the Danang beaches, the mist-shrouded mountains around Khe Sanh and the A Shau Valley, Hue on the Perfume River, dusty old French rubber plantations in the Central Highlands, the huge, pancake-flat Delta country where you could watch the rice grow. I lived in the jungle, in villages, in hamlets. I stayed in fire bases on top of knife-edge ridges, in Chinese hotels off back alleys in Can Tho and Nha Trang, found and lost friends and enemies.
My photographs are the record: refugees and ambassadors, riots and weddings, war and the children of war, the human side and the not so human side.
Some nights, still, the pictures flash in my mind. They appear rhythmically, brighten and fade, as I remembered them doing many times on the wall of a Tu Do street apartment; high ceilinged, tile floored, while a group of my friends smoked and talked.
I remembered that period of my life, a period I had sought, a sort of final learning interval when I met the people and experienced the events that influenced me permanently. I had hoped it would be happy and successful, but there were too many tragedies for it to have been happy.
The tragedy of Vietnam was stupefying. Beside it individual tragedies seem selfish. But they are dead or missing: Larry Burrows, Kent Potter, Sawata, Henri Huet, Sean Flynn and Dana Stone. With them I learned the ugliest of litanies--napalm, defoliation, refugees, search and destroy, Rolling Thunder, pacification, step-ons and body count. Their photographs showed combat was not the glorious thing we'd all been led to believe. It was one human being killing another indiscriminately. The legacy of their photographs is the only thing that makes their deaths meaningful.
By the end of March this year there was not much left of South Vietnam. The Central Highlands were gone, Quang Tri was gone. Hue was threatened. We'd eat breakfast in Bethesda with the newspaper beside our tea cups. We'd chat across the table, we'd smile. I'd think: how much time? Ragged dreams like snapshots filled the nights. We'd make love as if someone else was about to walk in.
The armies moved south. Hue fell. Danang fell. Every day, it seemed, the shadows on the map were longer. I spent my days tapping contacts. I flew home to Illinois to raise money. A futile trip. Plans materialized, then fell through. I spent my nights drinking tea and calling around the globe.
The headlines Tuesday, April 22, reported Thieu's resignation. Wednesday they reported the evacuation of 4,000 Americans and Vietnamese to the Philippines although I knew that massive departures had been going on for weeks. Undressing that night, things suddenly came together. Why was I trying to make plans? The evacuation had to be done in Asian style, I realized. No plans. You don't make plans in Vietnam. You move from second to second as long as things work out for you, as we'd done at Khe Sanh, Con Tien, A Shau.
Germaine went to bed and I made reservations from Dulles to Los Angeles, Honolulu, Guam, Hong Kong, Saigon; the old route. The old flight numbers rang in my head like bells. I drank more tea and in the morning, on the way to the airport, Germaine and I discussed strategies as matter of factly as if we had been planning the trip for months. It seemed she'd always known what I decided the night before.
I'd feared that on the plane I wouldn't be able to handle the time: 26 hours of being alone with myself and my thoughts, my strategies and my fears. Incredibly, the flight was a natural high, over almost as soon as it had begun. In a strange rush of kaleidoscopic images, memories, shards of thought, I found myself in Los Angeles, then over the Pacific.
I remembered Germaine when I met her in the Time-Life office in 1968. She was a Vietnamese stringer for Life, NBC and Reuter. . .one of the few women working as such. She was brassy, tough, bright, many faceted, fascinating. As the oldest child she was supporting her family at that time (her father being ill and unable to work). She'd worked as a nurse, parachuted into combat 20 times, taught herself English. She was considered unapproachable. No dates. She had no time, with eleven mouths to feed. I had the feeling, too, that she looked down on me. I was older by two years but she seemed to think I was a child. Maybe, to her, all men were children involved in frivolities like war and politics while the women ran the country. That was a common Vietnamese attitude.
We first came to know each other during Tet, 1968. We worked together in the shell-ruined streets of Hue, Danang, Saigon. We worked well together, almost as equals. After seeing me work in the field she seemed to respect me. What had it taken to impress a woman like this, to whom fighting was as natural as going to the office?
Gradually, I came to know her family, to understand its closeness, its binding concerns. In a small, cool, dark room in the back of the family house on Truong Minh Giang street I smoked opium with her father and he talked about the old days in Hanoi when he was a rich entrepreneur with a furniture factory, a gold mine, a coffee plantation, when he worked as a commissioner of police for the French colonials.
All that ended in 1954 with the country's fall. Now the family lived in Saigon, at first on Germaine's wages alone. Eventually Bernard, now 34, (four years younger than Germaine) would become a teacher, Albert, now 32, would become an economist, Rene, now 29, would be a teacher in Can Tho, and Long, now 20 and the youngest, would join the Navy. Gabrielle, now 36, would marry well, a colonel in the Air Force. Far better than 1 knew at the time, in fact, for without the colonel's pull I never would have been able to evacuate the family.
Thinking about it as the plane circled Honolulu airport in the dark, I had never really questioned the family's need to leave. Others were staying, certainly, including Time's Vietnamese reporter Pham Xuan An, but who was I to decide what these people should do? I was helping because they feared for their lives, because in any case it seemed their right to choose. I was helping because I love Germaine.
Honolulu airport at midnight. The old familiar layover in the damp night, this time for the last time. My mission has picked up an odd counterpoint, a Goyaesque troop of misshapen longhairs who say they too are on their way to rescue Vietnamese. Wearing backpacks, they flit across my speeded perceptions like a flock of blackbirds. They are not quite right. Something seems askew with them. One is wall-eyed, another is on crutches. They are strangely out of proportion, awkward, yet terribly earnest. Their concern seems misguided, misplaced. As I sit on the hard bench in the buzzing, tropical night, one of them plays a guitar, one chord, over and over.
Now we're nearing Guam. They fill the plane with talk, hold lunatic conferences in the aisles. They clutch the latest papers, talk about the headlines with their strange misguided concern. They made a lot of friends in Vietnam, one tells me, when they were there for a few months in 1967. A few months! So they'd like to help out now.
I thought I was badly off with only $200 in my pocket and no idea if the family was still in Saigon, but these people have no money at all and apparently haven't seen their friends for years.
They rush for the latest newspapers in Guam. In Hong Kong, as I call a friend in the Time-Life office for news, they cluster around the phone booth begging for scraps of information. I say my friend could tell me nothing about conditions in Saigon and he really couldn't. They hang on my arm. They seem to be trying to absorb me. Will they dog me this way through the streets of Saigon?
The China Airlines flight into Saigon is the last commercial flight, as it turns out. There's no special feeling as the plane circles. It's 1 p.m.April 26. It's quiet. When the plane lands and the door unseals, the hot air feels like my natural element.
But Tan Son Nhut has changed since I was last here in 1972. Then it was a beehive: helicopters, C-141s, Caribous, fighters. Today the commercial plane seems the only visitor. Inside, too, where the cramped rooms used to brim with GIs, ARVNs, CIA, construction mercenaries, hawkers, journalists and pickpockets, there are only a few officials.
They are not friendly. Moving like molasses, they go through my papers and draw away for a conference. They take me to a small room. Am I being detained? I think back on friends who have been incarcerated here for days, people like Tim Page, adept at yelling and screaming and throwing his weight around. He was finally released. But those were the old days. What might happen now, with the country crumbling like stale French bread, is anybody's guess.
An hour later suddenly I'm free to go. Thrusting my passport at me, the officer asks sharply: "Have you come to take out your Americans?" I don't answer. Almost by instinct I'm going through the old motions, walking through the buildings to where the taxis always gathered. They are still there. Outside the gates is the usual crowd of Vietnamese. No difference.
But there is a difference, very subtle. A strange, subtle silence in the middle of the familiar noise. I move quickly to a taxi and give him the old directions: 11174/42A Yen Do street." We drive through the hot tamarind lined lanes, past the sandbagged villas where the generals lived. A girl in a white Ao Dai, riding a Honda, draws level with us in the shade and looks at me. I find I can't look back. There's a new feeling between me and the driver, not fear. Guilt is closer. The American and the Vietnamese; one stays, one goes.
The family house. As I walk down the lane from the main road I can hear Germaine's mother shouting "anh (big brother) Dick. Anh Dick." Up the familiar steps and in the door. Albert seizes me, kisses me on the cheeks. We embrace.
Through an incredible stroke of coincidence and luck the family is all together in Saigon. Three days before an underground friend had told them he would try to help. Gabrielle and Rene were in Can Tho at the time and would still have been there if he hadn't called them. There would have been nothing I could do.
So we make plans. Suddenly it seems terribly urgent, almost the last possible moment. As we talk, the family tells me that the General Assembly is debating whether or not to ask Huong, the president of less than a week, to resign. The huge Bien Hoa military base 15 miles from the city has fallen. All highways to the city have been cut. Enemy troops have been reported in the suburbs.
There will be 12 of the family going: Germaine's 62-year old mother, her brothers Bernard (but not Bernard's wife, a South Vietnamese by birth, who has decided to stay), Albert, Rene, his wife and two children, Long and her sister Gabrielle and her three children. Gabrielle's husband, Colonel Ba, has elected to stay at his base in the delta.
The most serious problem will be to get on the air base. The family tells me that security guards at the various gates have been unpredictable and ill-tempered, reluctant to admit any Vietnamese, even with the necessary clearance papers. But Gabrielle suggests she call the base as the colonel's wife and demand an official air force truck to take them out at five the next morning before the curfew lifts. The truck should have no problem getting through, and if it does, Gabrielle always has her airbase pass to flash.
For the first time, I feel it's going to work. Early evening now and I leave the family to their last minute preparations . I will make my own way to the base in a battered Time-Life Mini-Moke auto, itself a veteran of years of war, several shootings, theft by helicopter and countless Thunder Road rides.
With the refugee paperwork system apparently breaking down and the base being mobbed, daily by desperate Vietnamese, things are too unpredictable to chance being seen in the truck with them. At least to begin with, they could be more unobtrusive without an American.
Six of us who add up to more than 30 years of war coverage in Vietnam have dinner at Ramuncho's in front of the misshapen statue of two Vietnamese soldiers that has come to be known as the National Buggery Monument: Time bureau chief Roy Rowan, who was at the fall of Shanghai, Cathy Leroy, a prisoner of the North Vietnamese in 1968, Dave Greenway of the Washington Post, Mark Godfrey of Magnum and Dirck Halstead of Time. We talk about the fall, how far away it is. The end. And we watch each other.
After dinner I drank wine with Greenway in the garden of the Hotel Continental, then I drift upstairs and have Cambodian Red in Godfrey's room. Walking past the louvered doors the numbers ring in my head the names of friends who'd stayed there: 11--Keith Kay, CBS, 5--Zalin Grant, Time and New Republic, 39--Bob Shaplen, New Yorker, 7--Siestas with Germaine. Inside, the ceiling fans, the patterned tile, the taped window panes. Outside, the curfew--as if it were ten years ago.
No sleep for 52 hours. I go to the Time office and sit with a long time friend, Pham Xuan An and talk about the war. An works for Time Magazine and we always suspected he worked for the Viet Cong also. I ask him in the elliptical way of the Vietnamese: "Will my family and I be safe if we stay behind"? His answer is , "probably" (years later our suspicions were confirmed. He was a Colonel in the Viet Cong). At 3a.m. I lie down in the dark and switch on the radio...Armed Forces Radio, who knows where from?... 3a.m. had always been the time of rockets in Saigon, although there hadn't been any in years. I waited, wide awake.
A rocket makes an unmistakable soft explosion, a swish followed by a fragile, thin-shelled crump. My watch reads 4 a.m. Is the noise in my head? Or are there really rockets in Saigon? And no doubt panic as in Hue, Danang and Nha Trang. My mouth tastes like metal and I think: what if I have to choose? In the end, I knew, I could get on the last helicopter and fly like some immortal comic-book figure out of the collapsing city. The family could not. They were only Vietnamese. Of course I could choose to stay: the honorable course. I wouldn't have to bug out. But even as the rockets fall I can't imagine the actual moment, how I'd act. Would they be watching me if I left? Would we be able to see each other's faces, each other's eyes?
The terrible question remains moot, for now. At 6 a.m. the curfew is lifted and a rush of adrenaline washes me absolutely clean. Godfrey cranks up the Mini-Moke and we putter out to Tan Son Nhut and through the main gate with no problem. How easy it is for an American to save his own life.
We spot eight of the family nervously waiting about a half mile inside the base gate, the easiest to get through. The two other gates, like the steps of purgatory, become progressively harder. The family had come out in two shifts with an M-16-toting friend of Colonel Ba's, also a colonel. Where are the four others? Somehow, Rene, his wife and two children missed the ride and won't be out until 8. It's now 7. 1 have an hour to worry about them.
The colonel takes half the family to the second gate, at the Defense Attache Office compound, which we must get inside to have the papers processed. Godfrey and I take the other half. As the Vietnamese police at the gate hesitate ominously, we simply barge on through. The U.S. Marine guard grins and says "Good luck," as we go by.
But the colonel's car is stopped. I run back through the gate waving my White House press pass at the guard. It has the U.S. seal on the back and looks very official. I wave it in his face and yell "Chinh phu, chinh phu (government, government). That and the M-16 on the Colonel's passenger seat seem to convince him. He waves the car through.
I have been told the police sweep this compound regularly of the Vietnamese that seep in constantly in spite of the guards so I settle the family under a banana tree in a far corner where hopefully they'll be unobtrusive. By this time Rene and his family are probably outside the main gate. Godfrey takes Gabrielle with her special base pass to find them.
The processing center does not open at 9, when it is supposed to, and about a thousand people, Americans and Vietnamese, mill in the compound. Some Vietnamese have been waiting for days, infiltrating the gate, getting swept out and infiltrating again. In the past few days, as pressure increased and people became more desperate, infiltration has become an art form.
At 10:30 when the U.S. embassy people finally appear and unlock the center door, the pack of people behind them on the wooden stairs is so tight I can hardly breathe. A second flight of stairs, at the other end of the second floor walkway, collapsed the day before from the weight of the pack.
Inside the room, the only clear spaces are around the desks. They hand us forms, we fill them out. We wait. I have a strong feeling, suddenly, that this is it. If we don't make it today, if somehow our momentum is blunted, we will never make it at all. Old survival instinct. Already, I seem to be bogging down, slowing, stopping. The officials say they have forgotten their stamps.
Time passes, who knows how much. I notice a door with a no-admittance sign. Official-looking Americans are going in and out. I barge in, show the man at the desk my press pass and say I want to interview him. We look at each other: a vignette from Fellini, insubstantial, unreal. He nods. Fine, he says, but only on background.
Only on background. The vignette, amazingly, does not dissolve. As I sit down I see the magic stamp on his desk. My God. The room whirls. I play my role, asking questions as if I know what I am doing, nodding wisely. He plays his. Abruptly 1 stand and tell him I have to get back in line or I will never be able to get my family out. Unless he can help. The vignette freezes. We watch each other. He looks at my completed form and then at me. Am I sure all these people are my dependents? Slowly, slowly his hand moves toward the stamp. I am caught in the tableau. Bam!...he uses the stamp.
Incredibly, after stamping the escape papers, our interview continues of its own accord.
I'm back out under the banana tree with the precious papers. I wave them. Germaine's mother, smiling calmly, takes a cold face towel from somewhere and pours a little Old Spice on it. Calmly, she hands it to me.
Meanwhile, Rene and his family have made it inside. Gabrielle's ingenuity had worked again. She called the base motor pool and ordered a truck sent to the main gate for them. She went off in it while Godfrey waited with the Mini-Moke inside the gate but outside the processing compound. He watched the truck leave, stop, pick up Rene, turn, start back and then BLOW UP.
Geysers of water spouted from the radiator, floods of oil from the crankcase. Inside the cab he could see Gabrielle's hands moving, waving. The truck came on through the gate like a Texas dust devil. Nobody wanted to get close enough to stop it. They all jumped into the Mini-Moke and once more negotiated the gate into the processing compound.
The family's intact at last, on paper, signed, stamped and ready to be delivered. Godfrey leaves: a heartfelt goodbye The thirteen of us walk from the shade of the banana tree through the final gate to the inner compound where we are manifested on U.S. Air Force evacuation flight 202 to Guam, one of' 30-40 leaving through the day. We are the last ones to be evacuated, although we do not know it. In a few short hours the airport will be rocketed, killing two U.S. Marines, and shut down for good.
There is a deserted bowling alley up against the wire separating the final compound from the base and I park the family here in the dusty gloom to wait for our flight. Outside, pressed against the wire, Vietnamese, four deep, watch silently. They will be staying. They have no money for bribes, no connections, no comic-book Captain Marvel American to help. What do they see? I can't look back. For the first time in my life I can take no pictures even though my equipment is ready. Their fingers push at me through the wire.
At dark., finally, our flight is called. The 150 passengers board buses and we drive out through that dense and silent crowd. No one talks. We drive in convoy to the waiting airplane.
We are the last bus. As we arrive on the tarmac I see Vietnamese military police lined up on each side of the loading ramp, arbitrarily pulling draft age men out of the line, draft age men like my brothers in law. Falling through a cold, quiet second of space, I remember what I'd almost forgotten: this is Vietnam, right up to the bitter end.
All right. Germaine's mother will play sick and 20-year-old Long will help her on the plane. The other three brothers will grab children and hold them in front of their faces as they run to the plane. The bus pulls up. I'm out first, standing in the corridor of police, trying to block their view. Long's off now, sauntering, sightseeing, completely out of role. Behind him my mother in law, in tragicomic pantomime, plays hers to the hilt, limps, moans, clutches her head. They're in. Now the three brothers running with the babies.
And, marching down the long corridor as if to my wedding, I'm in last.
The family decorates our house in Bethesda now like potted trees, uprooted, fragile. They exist officially only on the 1-94 forms I pilfered on the way through Guam. In the bureaucratic vernacular, they're "temporary alien residents." They don't even have alien registration numbers, much less Social Security numbers. The morning after their arrival Bernard, the oldest son, handed me a small, leather bag. In it was the entire family fortune, $1,400 in U.S. dollars and $400 in gold they'd carried out sewn into underwear. I was head of the family now, he said, and this was mine to do with as I pleased.
Only by sheer luck are they even out of the long, drab refugee pipeline that starts with Tent City in Guam where the paper shuffle has buried entire families for weeks. The magic 1-94 forms just happened to be handy. So was a sympathetic immigration official. Journalist friends saved them from up to three months of orientation classes, security clearance investigations, various kinds of briefings and debriefings in Camp Pendleton, California. We arrived at Dulles 5 p.m. Wednesday, April 30, 1975, 12 hours after the fall of Saigon and 144 hours after I'd left Washington. Our reunion with Germaine was as calm as my departure.
From Bethesda they wander downtown. So few police. Such order: people stop when the light's red and go when it's green. They've rubbernecked around the White House, the Capitol Building, the National Gallery of Art, like any old lady from Dubuque. They've made some small beginnings. Bernard and Albert have volunteered to help the D.C. public school system with refugee children. With their training in French they have applied for teaching positions with the Archdiocese of Washington. Rene, his wife and two children have applied for resident status in France. And there is a corner station down the street where they might work pumping gas.
There are sixteen people in our house now, but Germaine's cooking keeps the food costs to $25 a day. Travel for the evacuation cost $4,000. The great Immigration and Naturalization paper chase was going to cost about $2,000 in lawyer fees until that service was offered free by a very involved man. Meanwhile other gifts came pouring in: clothes, food, money and housing. And to complete the parley, Colonel Ba flew to safety at the last minute and is here with us now.
When the morning paper comes the family doesn't look at headlines first.
They search the pictures out of Saigon for the faces of their friends.