The fall of three cities during the North Vietnamese conquest of South Vietnam marked significant milestones in the ending of the Vietnam war. Yesterday I told of Phuoc Binh. Today my subject is Ban Me Thuot, the capital city of Darlac Province in the highlands.
The loss of Ban Me Thuot happened to coincide with a trip I made to the highlands during the first two weeks of March 1975. I landed on an airstrip near the town after the battle had already started. The South Vietnamese general I was travelling with and I were still there when the airstrip came under fire. As described in Last of the Annamese, here’s what happened, told from the point of view of the protagonist, Chuck Griffin:
“Clouds hid the sun. Rain fell in a delicate patter. Thanh wandered between the columns [of the men in formation on the airstrip]. He spoke in high-pitched bursts, punctuated by long silences as his eyes searched the soldier’s faces.
“Small arms fire erupted far below in the valley to their west. Chuck could see tiny flashes and puffs of smoke followed by a chattering of muzzle reports. The soldiers stood stock still, their backs to the valley, seeing nothing.
“Thanh continued his speech. He moved among the troops, his hands behind his back. Tension in the ranks stiffened the soldiers. Still Thanh spoke on. Strain darkened the lined young faces as the sound of battle grew louder. At last Thanh became silent. He walked the full length of the rows, reading the faces. Now close to the plane, he called out a single short sentence three times. His voice gone soft and tired, he said something low. The sergeant screamed them to attention and issued an order. They scattered on the run.
“The rain pounded. The C-47 started its engines. Thanh, Chuck, and the junior officers dashed to it. All around them, soldiers hurried to their battle stations. They saluted and waved at Thanh as they ran by.
“A pepper of small arms fire raised plumes of mud at their feet. The airstrip was under attack. They scrambled on board the plane, which rushed down the runway before the door was closed. Once aloft, it strained into a steep ascent. Chuck held on. He hoped the bellowing engines wouldn’t fly apart.”
Ban Me Thuot fell within days. The president of the Republic of Vietnam (South Vietnam) Nguyen van Thieu, ordered the evacuation of the highlands. Chaos followed. The end result was the loss of the northern half of South Vietnam to the North Vietnamese who then turned their eyes south towards us in Saigon.