Saigon - This story was originally published in Newsday on April 30, 1975
Saigon—The Saigon government surrendered unconditionally to the Viet Cong today, ending 35 years of warfare, and within hours North Vietnamese and Viet Cong troops began moving into the city.
President Duong Van (Big) Minh announced the surrender and ordered the South Vietnamese army to lay down its arms in a five-minute broadcast at 10:20 AM (10:20 PM yesterday New York time). He spoke a few hours after an armada of U.S. Marine Corps-helicopters completed the evacuation of nearly 900 Americans—almost all those remaining—and thousands of South Vietnamese.
Columns of South Vietnamese troops pulled out of their defensive positions in the city and marched to central points to turn in their weapons. A short time later, 20 tanks loaded with soldiers and flying the red and blue, gold-starred Viet Cong flag rolled into downtown Saigon and onto the grounds of the presidential palace.
The Viet Cong took over the government radio station and announced that they had raised their flag over the presidential palace and occupied all strategic points in the city. “We representatives of the liberation forces of Saigon formally proclaim that Saigon has been totally liberated,” the broadcast said. “We accept the unconditional surrender of Gen. Duong Van Minh, president of the former government.” They announced they were renaming the South Vietnamese capital “Ho Chi Minh City.”
A curfew was ordered from 6 PM to 6 AM. The broadcast also called on all government employees to return to work and on students and other youths to participate in a demonstration at a time to be announced later. Otherwise life returned to a semblance of normalcy in the city. People strolled the streets, greeting the arriving Viet Cong and North Vietnamese troops with smiles and handshakes. Motorbike traffic picked up. Viet Cong flags appeared on many buildings. Government soldiers tried to lose themselves amid the civilian population. But there were periodic outbursts of gunfire—some from pockets of resistance and others from celebrating Viet Cong and North Vietnamese firing into the air.
The surrender ended 35 years of fighting in Vietnam, starting with the Japanese takeover in 1940. The United States invested 14 years, $150 billion and more than 50,000 lives in its effort to block the Communists.
“This closes a chapter in the American experience,” President Ford said in a statement. “We must now close ranks, avoid recriminations, look ahead to new goals and work together on the task we face.” For their part, the Viet Cong said through a spokesman, “We are facing an immense victory of historic importance.”
The U.S. role in Vietnam ended yesterday when Ford approved “option 4,” sending scores of helicopters protected by Navy Phantom jets into Saigon to pick up about 900 Americans who wanted to leave and transport them to ships waiting in the South China Sea. Left behind was a handful of Americans, including newsmen, who elected to stay.
In his radio address, Minh said: “The Republic of Vietnam policy is the policy of peace and reconciliation, aimed at saving the blood of our people. I ask all servicemen to stop firing and stay wherever you are. I also demand that soldiers of the Provisional Revolutionary Government (Viet Cong) stop firing and stay in place. We are here waiting for the Provisional Revolutionary Government to hand over authority in order to stop useless bloodshed.”
Four hours later a jeepload of North Vietnamese soldiers brought Minh back to the microphone, and he appealed again to the government forces to give up. They then left with him for an unknown destination.
Gen. Nguyen Huu Hanh, deputy chief of staff, then went on the air to order all South Vietnamese troops to carry out Minh’s orders. “All commanders must be ready to enter into relations with commanders of the Provisional Revolutionary Government to carry out the cease-fire without bloodshed,” he said. As they spoke, Saigon fell silent and shellfire subsided along the northern rim where Viet Cong gunners had been bombarding the airport.
At the defense ministry building, about a dozen North Vietnamese soldiers talked with a South Vietnamese army colonel and several junior officers. There was no interference with western newsmen taking pictures. North Vietnamese machine gunners sitting in two trucks outside the defense ministry posed proudly.
Officials in Washington reported that about 6,500 persons, including, the Americans, had been airlifted to U.S. Navy ships in the South China Sea during the two days of evacuation. The choppers picked up the evacuees from the roof of the fortress-like American Embassy, the embassy parking lot and the tops of onetime American billets. This morning, 21 hours after it had started, the airlift ended when a big marine helicopter swooped down onto the embassy roof and picked up a number of marines who had remained overnight as a rear guard.
Marine pilots who arrived aboard the USS Blue Ridge, a command ship, said they were fired on flying over Saigon. One of the last civilians to leave was U.S. Ambassador Graham Martin, who boarded the final regular lift of 19 helicopters and was taken to the Blue Ridge.
Reporters aboard the Blue Ridge said seven Vietnamese helicopters arrived unexpectedly and made a dash for the helipad at the rear of the vessel. One pilot dropped his chopper on the whirring blades of another that had just landed, and chunks of metal ripped through the air, according to a reporter on board the carrier. The top helicopter with its load of women and children nearly toppled into the sea, but they were rescued and there were no injuries.
Four American marines died during the final hours of the U.S. presence in Vietnam. Two were killed in the heavy bombardment of Tan Son Nhut airport yesterday morning when a rocket hit the compound of the U.S. defense attaché’s office where they were on guard. The other two died during the evacuation when their helicopter plunged into the South China Sea.