Forty years later, a rag-tag exit brings deep emotions


I was lucky enough to leave Vietnam in the standard way -- end of tour, scheduled airline, no hurry. Many people weren't as fortunate; they were caught up in the final flurry, as Americans and their Vietnamese supporters rushed to get out. Now, 40 years later, Rory Kennedy has made a compelling documentary that airs Tuesday (April 28) on PBS, Here's the story I sent to papers.

By Mike Hughes

Forty years ago,
chaos put these men in the same quaking spot. There was:

-- Stuart Herringon,
an Army captain at the U.S. embassy during the 1975 withdrawal from
Vietnam. “I (was) the guy on the ground who spoke Vietnamese, who
reassured these frightened people that nobody would be left behind,”
he said.

-- Binh Pho, in the
crowd and hanging on every word. “I was barely 19 .... To me
(Herrington) was a big, giant guy, American, with a uniform .... I
just heard his promise over a megaphone.”

Both are featured in
Rory Kennedy's “Last Days in Vietnam,” which airs Tuesday on PBS.

Thousands of people
were packed into the embassy courtyard, Herrington said, each fearing
reprisals because of working with the Americans. The North Vietnamese
army was advancing, but helicopters were whisking people to U.S.
ships; there was, he said, enough time to get everyone out. And then
...

“A presidential
order intervened,” Herrington said. “When there were 420 of them
left ... I was ordered to leave and I did ... I thought about those
420 people for the better part of 37 years.”

Then he met one of
them. After the airlift suddenly ended, Pho had scrambled.

“I left the
American embassy very scared,” he said. “Then I tried to escape
with my uncle and go through Laos to get to Thailand, and we got
caught.” He spent a year in a “re-education camp,” had two more
failed escapes (using fake identites) and then – three years after
the fall of Saigon – succeeded.

After eight months
in a refugee camp, Pho was reunited with relatives in St. Louis. He
went to college, became a wood artist in suburban Chicagto ... and,
three years ago, thanked Herrington. Had he been rescued in 1975, Pho
said, “I would be a spoiled-rotten kid. (In those) four years, I
really learned a lot.”

Such memories ripple
through the Vietnam-withdrawal story. For Kennedy, it's familiar
turf.

“My father, Robert
Kennedy, ran his (presidential) campaign in 1968 because he wanted us
to get out of Vietnam,” she said. “I've recognized from as early
as I can remember how important Vietnam is.”

Born after her
father's death, she's become a top filmmaker. “Ghosts of Abu
Ghraib” won an Emmy, three other documentaries have been nominated
... and “Last Days” received an Oscar nomination.

It's a subject
filled with rich details, she said, involving the rag-tag efforts.

“Our ambassador
(Graham Martin) was in denial up until almost the very end,”
Herrington said. “He simply didn't believe that the country would
fall.”

He belatedly
realized the situation, said Mark Samels, who commissioned the film
for PBS' “American Experience” series. “Ambassador Martin ...
came around at the end and personally was responsible for saving so
many Vietnamese, packing them on those helicopters. That's what makes
him such a compelling character: He starts from such a place of
head-in-the-sand.”

With no official
plan for an orderly withdrawal, Herrington said, people improvised.
They “did everything they could – borrowed trucks, for example,
loaded them with people.” They took boats, helicopters and more;
one baby was dropped from a hovering chopper, into the arms of a U.S.
sailor.

“These little
micro-events steamrolled” until 130,000 Vietnamese were rescued,
Herrington said.

And many werte
abandoned, including the last 420 at the embassy. Still, there were
make-do heroics.

“That's one of the
things that makes us strong under adversity,” Herrington said. “And
hopefully, we won't have to do that again.”

-- “Last Days in
Vietnam”

-- 9-11 p.m. Tuesday
(April 28), PBS, under the “American Experience” banner (check
local listings)