When I escaped from Saigon on the night of 29 April 1975, the Air America Huey I was on—a small bird that could only carry a maximum of 14 people—was hit repeatedly by ground fire. I thought we’d crash, but we didn’t. In the pitch black and pouring rain, the little bird carried me out to the South China Sea where the U.S. 7th Fleet was cruising. The pilot flew straight to the Oklahoma City, the flag ship of the fleet. Above it he circled and circled, then finally, very slowly went down to land on the flood-lit helipad of the ship. He told me afterwards that he, a civilian Air American pilot, had never before landed on a ship.
I learned later that I was part of the largest helicopter evacuation ever attempted. It lasted 19 hours, involved 81 helicopters, and moved more than 6,000 people.
Equally remarkable is that, as far as I know, no helicopters were lost during the operations. The North Vietnamese, by that time in and around Saigon, had plenty of weapons that could shoot down helicopters, so why didn’t they shoot us down?
I’ve concluded that they had no desire to kill more Americans and invite retaliation. They just wanted us gone.
But then who shot at the helicopter I was on?
It must have been the South Vietnamese military. We Americans were abandoning them to their fate at the hands of the North Vietnamese. Furious as being left behind, some of them turned their guns on us. They were among the mobs filling the streets of Saigon and surrounding the U.S. compounds.
I find the rage of those deserted understandable. They had risked their lives to fight by our side against the communists, and at the end we flew away and made no attempt to rescue them. The North Vietnamese killed many of them outright. Others they sent to “re-education camps,” really concentration camps where the death rate was very high.
So when I remember the terrified mobs in the streets as Saigon fell, I remember, too, the Vietnamese soldiers who fought next to us. I still grieve over their loss.