Last week the world paused if only briefly, to remember the fall of Saigon and South Vietnam on April 30, 1975.
I thought it might be of interest to hear what some of those who covered that event were thinking as they gathered for a 40th reunion of sorts in the city that was once called the “Pearl of the East.”
Those of us who covered the war in its various stages between the early 1960s and that final frantic day 40 years ago belong to a loose-knit confederacy called Vietnam Old Hacks.
It was under its sponsorship that some 30 old hacks gathered in Saigon to, among other things, toast one another for still being around, recall former lives as war correspondents and generally reflect on a war that is little by little disappearing into the dustbins of history.
I am sorry I missed this event. Maybe I will make it to the 50th anniversary.
I am reprinting a story that appeared in the Australian newspaper about the reunion and the old hacks who participated.
By Matthew Clayfield ,
SAIGON, May 4–Correspondents who covered the fall of Saigon gathered on a rooftop bar in Ho Chi Minh City last Wednesday to honour the 40th anniversary of the end of a war that made many of their names.
Numbers were down to about 30 from the 80 who attended the first reunion in the city in 1995. Many former colleagues have died and gone, in the words of former Newsweek reporter and Melburnian Tony Clifton, to “the big FCC (Foreign Correspondents’ Club) in the sky”.
And yet, 40 years to the day after Operation Frequent Wind started spiriting many of them out of South Vietnam, spirits remained high. The wounds of yesterday appeared sutured if not healed, and memories flowed as freely as the wine and beer.
British photojournalist Tim Page, who was wounded four times in the war and who has been back more than 60 times since it ended, seized the opportunity to catch up with old friends — while pausing to remember the dead.
“You don’t see this sort of camaraderie among Bosnia or Iraq hacks,” Page said. “You don’t see this sort of Fourth Estate, Band of Brothers type syndrome that we Vietnam hacks have.”
Page, who lives in Brisbane and whose Diggers in the Nam exhibition recently opened in Townsville, said Vietnam was an important war for journalism in general rather than just for the journalists who covered it.
“We were the first freelancers, the first to televise war in colour, and, most importantly, the first to cover a war that the Americans totally lost,” he said.
For others, it represented a chance to revisit a city that many of them hadn’t seen in years, in some cases since the end of the war itself, and in others since rapprochement 20 years ago.
“When I returned for the first time in 1995, it looked exactly the same as it did in 1975,” Clifton said. “Now it’s completely different. I get lost.”
He had left on holiday two weeks before the city fell. “I thought it would be months before the (North Vietnamese) got here.”
Former American Broadcasting Company cameraman Barry Fox left the night before the fall. “When the light disappeared, it became impossible for us to shoot and we all kind of said, ‘Well, what the f..k’s the point?’ and began to leave,” Fox said. “I left without paying my hotel bill and, the other night at the Caravelle, they told me I owed them 40 years’ worth of back rent.”
Stewart Dalby stayed behind to witness the North Vietnamese victory for the Financial Times. “In some ways, leaving actually resulted in better stories than staying did,” he said.
“Those who left got to cover the evacuation whereas (those of us who stayed) wound up just spending a lot of time wandering around a bit aimlessly. (The North Vietnamese) left us alone.”
English freelancer and former AP correspondent Sarah Errington was glad they stayed to the end. “I came here at the beginning of 1975 specifically to report on the end of the war,” she said.
“It was an amazing time. The naked fear you sometimes see in people’s faces — that very specific look — had been in people’s eyes for days. And then, gradually, despite how eerie it could sometimes be, with tanks moving up and down the streets, it slowly began to disappear as people began to realise that they were still alive.”
Back in the city for the first time since it fell, Errington said the visit was worth it just to catch up with the Vietnamese photographer who, unbeknownst to the correspondents with whom she worked, had been a North Vietnamese agent. He presented her with a copy of her famous photograph of North Vietnamese soldiers using a map to show AP correspondents the route the army took into the city.
This was the first reunion in Ho Chi Minh City to be hosted by Vietnam’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. It organised tours to the city’s War Remnants’ Museum — for which Page curated the excellent Requiem exhibition, dedicated to the photojournalists who lost their lives during both the French and American conflicts — the VC tunnel system at Cu Chi and local universities.
Page and Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer Nick Ut, who took the famous photograph of “napalm girl” Phan Thi Kim Phuc, had their every move recorded by foreign and domestic reporters and appeared several times in the local newspapers.
The correspondents’ gumption was apparent, too. After the Reunification Day parade, James Pringle, who covered the Vietnam and Cambodian wars for Reuters, Newsweek, and London’s The Times, followed Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung into his Reunification Palace office to get in an few unscheduled questions about Vietnam’s relationship with China. Age, as they say, has not wearied them.
Carl Robinson, the former AP correspondent who organised the reunion, said, “there is a certain amount of hypocrisy involved in the government’s inviting us”.
“We pointed out South Vietnam’s human rights abuses and are now expected to be apologists for the current regime. The fact of the matter is that, while the war ended, the repression didn’t.”
Robinson said: “It’s always sort of depressing, coming back. I experience a lot of really mixed feelings. It was actually a very sad time for me. I was forced to leave a life — and a country I had loved for more than a decade — behind.
“That’s why I encourage the old hacks to come back. When I first came back, it helped me to get over a particular mindset about the old days. PTSD is overrated. Go back to the scene of the crime. Make a new set of memories.”