Fall of Saigon Bittersweet For Vietnamese Refugee
Thursday, April 29, 2010
Vietnamese-American Dzung Le talks about his evacuation from Saigon to the USS Midway 35 years ago as South Vietnam fell to North Vietnam.
Special Feature Live from USS Midway: Behind the Scenes
These Days broadcast live from the flight deck of the USS Midway on April 29, 2010, and posted photos during the show on Flickr.
The Bird Dog Landing
On April 29, 1975, South Vietnamese Air Force Major Bung-Ly made the decision to load his family -- his wife and five children -- into a small two-seat Cessna O-1 Bird Dog airplane. Bung-Ly took off from Saigon and made it out to sea, where he looked for a ship to land on and spotted the USS Midway. Without any radio communications, Captain Lawrence Chambers made the decision to allow Ly to land on the flight deck, even though the plane had no tail hook and it was extremely risky. USS Midway Air Boss Vern Jumper readied the flight deck for Ly's landing.
Operation Frequent Wind
April 29th, 1975, marked the beginning of Operation Frequent Wind, the largest helicopter evacuation on record. Nearly 6,000 Vietnamese refugees escaped from Saigon as the North Vietnamese attacked the outskirts of the city. For nearly 30 hours, 81 American military helicopters flew refugees to aircraft carriers offshore. Helicopters that were built for 10 people were taking five times as many. More than half of the refugees landed on the USS Midway, now stationed in San Diego. They arrived with only the belongings they could carry in their hands or fit in a pillowcase, in the middle of the ocean, with no known destination.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): I'm Maureen Cavanaugh, and you're listening to These Days on KPBS. We are broadcasting live from the flight deck of the USS Midway Museum this morning. It is a cool and breezy and mostly sunny day here on San Diego Bay. The wind’s been clocked at just about 21 miles an hour. I think we get gusts a little bit stronger than that from time to time, though. And you might hear the Midway message flags, they’re blowing right above us as we look out on San Diego Bay and the Coronado Bridge. And we're here on the flight deck to mark an important anniversary in the history of this aircraft carrier, and that is its service in the evacuation of thousands of Vietnamese from Saigon at the end of the Vietnam war. It was called Operation Frequent Wind and many of the officers and sailors who served on the Midway during April of 1975 are gathering here, joined by some of the Vietnamese people who were evacuated. The actions of the Midway crew that day are proudly remembered, but not all of the memories of that day are good. Joining us now is Dzung Le, who first set foot on board the Midway on April 30, 1975, after escaping with his family as North Vietnamese troops took over Saigon. Dr. Le now lives in San Diego and is a pathologist at UC San Diego. And, Dr. Le, welcome to These Days.
DR. DZUNG LE (Vietnamese Refugee): Thank you, Maureen. Thank you for inviting me.
CAVANAUGH: Now you were, I understand, 18 when you were evacuated from your home in Saigon. And this whole experience, the evacuation actually started for you and your family on April 28th. Tell us about that.
DR. LE: Yes, actually I landed on this carrier on the 29th or the 30th, but the whole thing start on the 28th when my father call the family and told us to prepare to go to the airport on the 28th. My father was a civilian employee of the U.S. government. So we were supposed to be evacuated by airplane, so we all get together, 8 of us, in a car and went to a place, and after that we were moved to the airport, supposedly waiting for a plane.
CAVANAUGH: Now let me stop you, if I may, there and go back in time just a little bit more. You knew that the North Vietnamese Army was advancing toward Saigon.
DR. LE: Umm-hmm.
CAVANAUGH: But what kind of plans did your family have for evacuation?
DR. LE: Well, because my father was working with the U.S. Agency for International Development so at that time we knew that all the employees of the agency will be evacuated. My father was the highest ranking employee so he would be the last person to leave, so he have taken care of many others of his workers to leave with their family. And those are the people who were leaving by plane from the airport. So we were the last wave of employee to leave. Little did we know that when we went to the airport, supposedly waiting for the plane, there was some rockets that start falling into the airport and, therefore, by dawn the next day, which is the 29th, there was some rockets falling the day before but by dawn of the 29th we was told that there was no more planes because the airport is not operable.
CAVANAUGH: That shut down all of the aircraft that were trying to leave by the airport, the regular airplanes…
DR. LE: Yes.
CAVANAUGH: …and that’s when the evacuation began by helicopter.
DR. LE: Yes, and that was a very chaotic situation because I remember looking around, people were crying a lot because they thought that this is the end. Many actually left the airport because they said that, well, there’s no more planes and, therefore, we should go home and protect our home because, as you know, we abandoned our home. So many actually left. My father went and saw some of his colleague, American colleague, and they said that the American will come back by helicopters.
CAVANAUGH: I see. So your family trusted the words of that colleague and that’s why you didn’t go home.
DR. LE: Yes, and basically we develop a way to be assure is that we just look for those familiars American and we talk among ourself. We got to see them there. If they left, that’s the end of it.
CAVANAUGH: I see. I see. And they didn’t leave.
DR. LE: Right, yes. Umm-hmm.
CAVANAUGH: Okay. I’m speaking with Dr. Dzung Le, I’m sorry, Dr. Dzung Le, and he is telling us about his experience leaving Saigon in 1975 and being evacuated to the USS Midway. We are broadcasting live from the flight deck of the USS Midway Museum. So what happened next? You decided to watch what the Americans did. They weren’t leaving. They were waiting for the helicopters to come.
DR. LE: Umm-hmm.
CAVANAUGH: So what happened then?
DR. LE: Well, we were told to abandon most of our suitcase. Everyone has a little bit, whatever you can take with your hands only. So there’s no suitcase. And there’s also another unreal situation where you see an airport fulls of thousands of people with all suitcase are open and clothes are flying all over the place as people are frantically trying to decide which to bring. And then we were told to sit down on the deck like this and waiting. And I remember distinctly that there was some noise from far and it becomes louder and louder until it becomes deafening in a way. And that’s when the, probably about ten or so, humongous, gigantic helicopters show up on the horizon. And as they landed, it was also a scary situation because the first thing that came out those helicopters are soldiers, fully armed soldier. Because I realized later that they need to secure the area as a standard procedure so the first thing they did was pour out soldiers about maybe a couple dozens or so and they all lay down pointing all the guns at us.
DR. LE: And we were kind of scary and not knowing what to do. But after that, they spread out and start evacuating us.
CAVANAUGH: Now as you were – so they got you onto these helicopters.
DR. LE: Uh-huh.
CAVANAUGH: As they were doing that, were families separated?
DR. LE: Yes, at that time we were just standing – were sitting in lines but when they start moving, we move very fast. Then my parents and one of my older sister were sitting in the back row and so as we moved toward the plane, I turn around and they were hold back. Basically, they are supposed to go on the next wave and, therefore, I look back and my parents there. Me and my other four sisters go on in the first wave.
CAVANAUGH: Now that, in and of itself, is scary as well.
DR. LE: Yes.
CAVANAUGH: Now did they check that you were allowed to get on these helicopters before you got on them?
DR. LE: Well, that’s another story. We were at the – one of the waiting house before we even went to the airport. We were going there and supposed to board a bus to the airport. So I was standing around. At that time on the 28th, the government of South Vietnamese are still in control. And they have agreement with the U.S. government that only employees of U.S. government and children under 15 – or 16, I think, is allowed to evacuate. And I was about 18 at the time so obviously I was not legal to leave at that time. My father decided that, of course, he would not leave unless the whole family was allowed to leave and, therefore, we actually got some fake IDs. Well, fake…
CAVANAUGH: Fake ID.
DR. LE: …birth certificates.
DR. LE: Because the nice thing about birth certificates is that you don’t need to have pictures. But you have to realize that in my country at that time, mens 15 and above has to have a picture ID. So I was standing in the – at the halfway house there around waiting, and there’s an American approached me. He spoke perfect Vietnamese. He said, you are too old. You’re not 15. Show me your ID, Vietnamese ID. And they spoke perfect Vietnamese, so I have no way to say, no English, no English.
DR. LE: So at that time I pretty much froze and I didn’t know what to say. I said, no, I’m 15. And then he said, no, you’re not. So at the time my father just happened to came by and he said, no, he’s not. So he then opened his little things there and then produced the birth certificate and so the American looked at that and basically satisfied. But I think at that time he forgot that even if I’m 15, I still have to have an ID and he knew enough to ask me specifically for the picture ID but I think there’s some intervention from above to tell him that let the guy go and therefore he just turn around and leave. And after that, I just basically sit down, keep very quiet, not looking around any more.
CAVANAUGH: And, Dr. Le, because you – Dr. Le, I’m sorry, I keep doing that, you feel very strongly that your whole family would have decided not to leave if you couldn’t go.
DR. LE: My father already said that from the beginning. That’s why he went and find ways to make a – to get a, basically by bribery, to get a fake certificate, birth certificate so that we can leave. And he told his boss at the U.S. Agency for International Development that—because they know that how old I am, obviously—that if he cannot take his children then there’s no point in going. And they decided that okay.
CAVANAUGH: Tell us what it was like to travel on this U.S. military helicopter and land on this flight deck.
DR. LE: Well, first of all, I was never, as well as my sister, was never on a plane period. So it was the first time I’m going up the air. I remember looking down. We are about 50 or so in the helicopter, all sit down, and I remember looking down through the little windows there. It’s surreal. The city from above is very beautiful. It’s greens and with the rivers, thing like that. But I never thought that I would not be back until now, 35 years later. It – Everybody was quiet, as something everyone for themself. And then after an hour or so, we landed on the – at this very deck on actually today is the very same day, on the 29th. And I remember, it was chaotic but, strangely enough, it’s also a feeling of comfort, of safety, because I knew that at the time, as we land, we are saved. The only thing in the back of our mind is what happened to our parents and my sister who were left behind. There’s another story that – and that the soldier lead us to – Actually, we were the first wave so we went straight down to where we actually had a bed to sleep on and then have food. One of my sister was quite ill at the time from dehydration, I guess, so the soldier helped carry her down there. They are very tender. And to us, we pretty much weighed about 100 pounds at the time for all of us, and these are 200 pound soldiers. They are like a gentle giant at the time, very tender. Very tender. I still remember those moment.
CAVANAUGH: Now it’s interesting to hear that until recently, even though you live here in San Diego…
DR. LE: Umm-hmm.
CAVANAUGH: …you hadn’t been back on board the USS Midway…
DR. LE: Yes.
CAVANAUGH: …in all those years. What kinds of feelings does being here engender in you?
DR. LE: Well, I knew that the Midway came here several years ago and many, many amongst my friends also visited here. But to me, as the Vietnamese escape from the Communist and 35 years later our country, 80 millions people, are still under the Communist rule. There’s no change there. So me being here brought a lot of good warm memories from the American friends here that helping us but it also very much reminded me that – of that day and, more importantly, what happened to the peoples that I left behind, my good friends and all relatives. And as of today, 35 years later, I’m in the comfort of the freedom of America but millions of millions of our people are still suffering, and that is the – why I didn’t really want to come here because of that, because those two mixed emotion won’t come as it is happen today or a couple weeks ago.
CAVANAUGH: But in an interview you did with KPBS television reporter Sharon Heilbrunn, you say you still feel guilty for leaving Vietnam. Do you feel guilty?
DR. LE: One of our free Vietnamese who came here, not by choice but because we need to escape, feel collectively guilty up to today, 35 years later. We guilt – we feel sad, we feel sorrow, we feel guilty because we are the lucky one. And if the country’s turn around and become a free democratic country, then perhaps this reunion will be a very joyous reunions, like looking in the – our bad day from the past but unfortunately at this time we are not there yet. So we don’t feel – the day, the 30th of April is not yet a day of just memory. We still feel very, very, very guilty. At the same time, feel fortunate that we are one of those lucky one who can be here.
CAVANAUGH: Dr. Dzung Le, thank you so much for speaking with us today. I really do appreciate it.
DR. LE: Thank you very much. Appreciate it.
CAVANAUGH: You can see Dzung’s interview on our website, KPBS.org/thesedays. And stay with us. When we return, our live broadcast from the USS Midway Museum continues with a conversation about what happened to one woman who was not able to evacuate from Saigon as it fell to North Vietnamese troops. You’re listening to These Days on KPBS.
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