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Don Anderson: How I fled the fall of Saigon 40 years ago

Published 30/04/2015

Don Anderson reporting for the BBC in 1975
Don Anderson reporting for the BBC in 1975
The evacuation of Saigon on April 29, 1975
Don Anderson today

Don Anderson was one of the BBC's television reporters in Saigon during the final days of the Vietnam War. Vietnam had been partitioned and the Communist North disputed the South's right to exist. They made war against the South and in the end, despite the military might of the Americans, they won.

The South Vietnamese soldiers at the last roadblock before the front line in the countryside were in an ugly mood.

Armies are blunt instruments at the best of times, but an army in retreat and disarray is additionally ready to lash out at anything seemingly in its way. We journalists, myself, the cameraman and the sound recordist, were chronicling their defeat and that made us fellow travellers of the enemy, just over the hill.

We had arrived by taxi, bizarrely, but there was no other way.

The soldiers harangued the local driver until one of them fired his rifle. There was petrified silence. All three of us believed we had pushed our luck for the last time.

Suddenly the officer spoke. The taxi driver told us to get back in the car fast. With wheels spinning we streaked off back towards besieged Saigon, believing that a hail of gunfire would hit any moment.

When out of range I asked the shaken taxi driver how the officer had prevented more gunfire. He said the officer had bellowed: "Not here, you fool, not here".

We had been visiting the front line day after day, with the journeys becoming shorter each time.

The North Vietnamese were pushing fast towards the last stronghold of Saigon, the capital. By now the Americans had substantially pulled out and told the Vietnamese to get on with it alone.

As we sped back, we passed convoy after convoy of South Vietnamese soldiers driving brand new American vehicles. The Americans were giving and giving; this largesse would all shortly fall into enemy hands.

We regained the city, which was preparing for the street battles to come. Earthen chicane barricades were being bulldozed into position. The enemy tanks were soon to ride roughshod over them and other makeshift defences. There was an atmosphere of resignation mixed with fear in Saigon. That night we ate on the rooftop restaurant of the Caravelle Hotel and watched rocket and artillery fire hitting the city from several directions. The streets below were empty. We were witnessing the death throes of a society.

Overhead American helicopters were taking the last refugees out to aircraft carriers, where those helicopters were then being pushed overboard because there was no more room on the ships.

It was panic, despair and confusion. We managed to get aboard one of the last airport flights. It was going to Bangkok but we cared little where. As we took off, buildings on the edge of the airport were on fire.

About 8.30am on April 30, 1975, the last Americans, 10 marines from the US embassy, were airlifted out. North Vietnamese troops poured into Saigon meeting little resistance. By 11am the red and blue Viet Cong flag flew from the presidential palace and the South Vietnamese president broadcast a unconditional surrender. Decades of war were over. South Vietnam was no more.

Vietnam emerged from the war as a military power in southeast Asia, but its cities and towns, its agriculture, business, and infrastructure were damaged. Its countryside was scarred by bombs and defoliation and dotted with landmines. The United States, its military demoralised and its population deeply polarised, began coming to terms with humiliating defeat after its longest and most controversial war.

The political fallout remains to this day, though the two countries resumed diplomatic relations in 1995. Vietnam is back on the tourist map. Do visit. Its people and scenery are beautiful. Experience a peace has been dearly bought.

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