April: Anniversary of the Fall of Vietnam (11)

Today is the forty-first anniversary of my escape under fire as Saigon fell to the North Vietnamese. I pick up the story where I left off yesterday:

Partly to stay awake, I maintained my schedule of recon runs, checking out the parking lot and the perimeter. I got chummy with the snuffs at the gate closest to the building exit I used. Unlike most of the Marines, these guys were willing to fill me in on any new scuttlebutt. Among other things, they told me that people in the mob outside the fence were tossing babies into the compound, hoping they’d survive and escape the Communists. Most of the infants didn’t make it over the top of the fence—it was something like two stories high with barbed wire and an outward tilt at the top to prevent scalers. If they did clear the fence top, they fell to the hard pavement below. There was no one there to catch them. Without question, whether they made it over the top or not, most of the babies fell to the ground and were killed.

Not long before sunset on 28 April, I made a head run. The mammoth Pentagon East, what we called the DAO building, was in shambles. Light bulbs were burned out, trash and broken furniture littered the halls, and the latrines were filthy and smelled disgusting. I came across men on stepladders running cables through the ceiling. They told me they were wiring the building for complete destruction. “Last man out lights the fuse and runs like hell,” they joked.

I went into the men’s room. I was standing at the urinal when the wall in front of me lunged toward me as if to swat me down, then slapped back into place. The sound of repeated explosions deafened me and nearly knocked me off my feet. Instead of sensibly taking cover, I left the men’s room and went to the closest exit at the end of a hall, unbolted it, and stepped into the shallow area between the western wall of the building and the security fence, a space of maybe ten to fifteen feet, now piled high with sandbags.

The first thing I noticed was that the throngs of refugees surrounding the building had dispersed—no one was clamoring outside the barrier—presumably frightened away by the explosions. My ears picked up the whine of turbojets. I shaded my eyes from the setting sun and spotted five A-37 Dragonfly fighters circling above the Tan Son Nhat runways. They dove, dropped bombs, and pulled up. The resulting concussions sent me tumbling, but I was on my feet and running before the planes went into their next approach. Back in the office, I found out that renegade pilots who had defected to the communists were bombing Tan Son Nhat.

More next time.

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