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U.S. Marines ushering Vietnamese refugees into helicopter at the U.S. Embassy.
Courtesy of Juan Valdez
U.S. Marines ushering Vietnamese refugees into helicopter at the U.S. Embassy.

Airs Monday, June 8, 2015 at 8 p.m. on KPBS TV

April 1975. During the chaotic final days of the Vietnam War, as the North Vietnamese Army closed in on Saigon, South Vietnamese resistance crumbled. City after city and village after village fell to the North while the few U.S. diplomats and military operatives still in the country contemplated withdrawal. With the lives of thousands of South Vietnamese hanging in the balance, those in control faced an impossible choice––who would go and who would be left behind to face brutality, imprisonment or even death. Directed by Rory Kennedy and airing in conjunction with the 40th anniversary of the fall of Saigon, “Last Days In Vietnam” premieres on AMERICAN EXPERIENCE on Tuesday, April 28, 2015 on PBS.

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Experience the power of personal narratives by exploring previously unpublished photos and listening to first-hand accounts of Vietnamese American refugees and Vietnam War vets -- testaments to resilience and bravery in the face of great odds.

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The 1973 Paris Peace Accords had forged a tenuous ceasefire between North and South Vietnam, and mandated the removal of almost all U.S. forces. Following this latest ceasefire violation, President Gerald Ford asked Congress for an emergency appropriation to aid the beleaguered South Vietnamese government. The White House expected that neither Congress nor the American people would support a re-engagement in Vietnam.


Says then-Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, “We knew we were not going to get the $722 million. By that time, it made no big difference, [but] President Ford said first he owed it to Vietnam to make a request.”

By early March 1975, huge swaths of territory were overrun daily and, by the end of the month, the North Vietnamese Army had surrounded the capital, preparing to launch its final assault on Saigon––11 months ahead of schedule. To the U.S. diplomats and military operatives still in Saigon, one thing was clear—a Communist victory was inevitable. The Americans grew increasingly concerned for the safety of their South Vietnamese allies, co- workers and friends who faced imprisonment or possibly death in the event of a North Vietnamese victory.

As the North Vietnamese troops drew dangerously close to Saigon, U.S. Ambassador Graham Martin, himself the father of a fallen Vietnam veteran, steadfastly refused to discuss an evacuation, both for fear of panicking the South Vietnamese population and out of a stubborn reluctance to admit defeat. With the clock ticking and the city under fire, American officers on the ground found themselves faced with a moral dilemma: whether to follow official policy and evacuate U.S. citizens and their dependents only, or to ignore their orders and save the Vietnamese men, women and children they had come to value and love in their years in Vietnam. At the risk of their careers and possible courts-martial, a handful of individuals took matters into their own hands. Engaging in unsanctioned and often makeshift operations, they waged a desperate effort to evacuate as many South Vietnamese as possible.

In the days leading up to the final attack, U.S. Army Captain Stuart Herrington was one of a number of American officers who bypassed the ambassador and organized a “black op” evacuation effort, transporting his South Vietnamese contacts to an airbase and sneaking them aboard an outbound U.S. cargo flights to the Philippines.

As the situation became increasingly dire, Department of Defense official and former Navy officer Richard Armitage arrived by plane in Saigon. In consultation with his former counterpart, South Vietnamese Navy Captain Kiem Do, Armitage developed a plan to remove U.S. Navy ships before they fell into Communists’ hands. When evacuation day came, Armitage discovered the Vietnamese sailors had packed the ships with nearly 30,000 South Vietnamese refugees. Recalls Armitage, “I thought it was a lot easier to beg forgiveness than to get permission. So the decision was made.”


On April 29, the Saigon airport was attacked, forcing an immediate evacuation. Floating offshore in the South China Sea was the USS Kirk, part of the fleet sent to facilitate the evacuation of Americans. The crew and the ship––with its single, tiny helipad––was entirely unprepared for the role it was about to play in the scramble to evacuate the city. Soon, a seemingly unending stream of helicopters, piloted not by Americans, but by South Vietnamese airmen fleeing for their lives with their families and friends, descended upon the American destroyer.

However, most of the action on that final, fateful day took place at the besieged U.S. Embassy in Saigon, where thousands of South Vietnamese hoping to secure a last-minute evacuation scaled the walls while a U.S. intelligence analyst ran his own underground railroad of evacuees to barges on the Saigon River. In the final hours of the evacuation, Ambassador Graham Martin used American resources meant for his own protection to extract thousands of South Vietnamese during an 18-hour airlift from the embassy compound.

"Last Days In Vietnam" is on Facebook, and you can follow @LDVFilm on Twitter. Past episodes of AMERICAN EXPERIENCE are available for online viewing. AMERICAN EXPERIENCE is on Facebook, and you can follow @AmExperiencePBS on Twitter.

Last Days in Vietnam Preview

"In April of 1975

"I Had Lost Everything" - A Clip from Last Days in Vietnam"

"Kiem Do

"We Jumped Out" "

"When a South Vietnamese helicopter was too large to land on the US Navy ship

"Desperate Eyes"

"South Vietnamese veteran Dam Pham and U.S. Army veteran Stuart Herrington describe the chaos at the U.S. Embassy during the final days of Saigon in April

"We were the last eleven" "

"As North Vietnamese tanks rolled into Saigon

Why We Made Last Days in Vietnam

"American Experience Executive Producer