View From Lodi, CA: Remembering Saigon`s Fall – And Its Aftermath
Around the 30th of every April, the
anniversary date of the fall of Saigon, I get in touch
with some of my former Vietnamese ESL students to see
how life is treating them.
Twenty-seven years ago, with U.S. fighter planes
providing air cover and marines stationed on the ground
near the American Embassy, Americans entered the final
stage of a
mass exodus from Vietnam.
During the 19-hour evacuation, the nearly 1,000
Americans still left in Saigon battled their way onto
the departing helicopters. Four marines were killed
during the escape—two as a result of a bombing at Tan
Son Nhut Airport and two when their helicopter crashed
into the South China Sea.
So ended with a whimper the American involvement in
Vietnam. The cost: over 55,000 American lives.
Whatever our mission may have been at the outset, we
didn`t achieve it. Looking back on Vietnam is as painful
today as it was the day we
pulled out for good.
None of my students was at the U.S. Embassy that grim
1975 day. They were in tiny villages wondering about
Those who fled by sea became known as “boat people.”
More than 1 million landed in refugee camps between
1975-1982. Most of my students spent years in Thailand,
Singapore or Hong Kong.
When new war refugees enrolled in my class, I asked
them to tell me their story. I was always fascinated by
how diametrically opposite their lives had been from
mine. During the height of the Vietnam War, they were
running for cover while I was sitting in a cushy office
on the 50th floor of One Liberty Plaza on
Of all the students who came through my class, none
had more spine-tingling tales than Thuy Nguyen.
Nguyen was one of the
“Lost Commandos,” a group of South Vietnamese
operatives who were hired and trained by the U.S. Army
and the CIA to execute covert missions behind northern
But because the North had spies informing them of the
dates and times of the planned parachute drops, all of
the commandos were either killed or
Prior to his death, former CIA director William
Colby, who was Station Chief in Saigon during the early
years of the war, gave an interview to Mike Wallace of
“60 Minutes.” Colby confirmed that the missions were
doomed from the start and never produced a shred of
When asked by Wallace if the concept was a failure
from the get-go, Colby said, “Yeah, yeah, didn`t work.”
Nevertheless, the drops into the North continued for
seven years until Colby, finally disgusted, went to
Secretary of Defense
Robert McNamara to insist that the plan be
McNamara refused and instead turned the operations
entirely over to the military.
Nguyen was captured in 1965 and spent nearly 20 years
in a North Vietnamese prison camp. He recalls being
beaten or tortured nearly every day during his
captivity. Nguyen, like all of his captured buddies,
was in prison so long the U.S. wrote him off for dead.
When I caught up with Nguyen a few days ago, we
talked about the war. Even though he speaks no English
Nguyen, now 62, remembers the names of John F. Kennedy,
Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon, the men he
considers responsible for his ordeal.
“When we first learned that the Americans were going
to step up their involvement in Vietnam, we were
elated,” Nguyen said. Our government was weak and
corrupt. The Viet Cong were determined and well armed.
But the Americans never stepped all the way up. You`d
send 2,000 soldiers and after they were killed you`d
send 3,000. When they were dead, 5,000 more came. That
was no way to fight the north.”
“In the end,” Nguyen concluded, “I wish America had
never become involved.”
Nearly four decades after his capture, Nguyen bears
no particular grudge against the U.S. As far as he is
concerned, all past debts are settled.
The U.S., after years
of haggling, finally paid $2,000 per year for each
year spent in prison to all the surviving commandos.
This sum represents the agreed upon amount when the
soldiers first enlisted for duty with the CIA.
And in 2001 the 300 commandos living in the U.S.
received the Presidential Unit Citation for exceptional
As for Nguyen, a stroke has slowed him considerably.
But he still has goals: he hopes to become a U.S.
citizen and live to see his children graduate from
Nguyen considers the U.S. to be the best country in