From 1971 to 1975 I lived on the island of Puerto Rico. As my father was an employee of the Federal Government, my siblings and I attended school on a military base. I went to Antilles Middle School on Fort Buchanan from third to seventh grade. I remember two things most clearly from this time. First, our classrooms were WWII era barracks and secondly, every couple of months the entire school was sent down the hill to cheer on various military leaders who were coming in by chopper. On a couple of occasions, we were told that we were cheering for Army Chief of Staff William Westmoreland, the former Commander of US Military Operations in Vietnam.
Viet Nam was something that I was aware of as a young boy, as I was a voracious reader of newspapers (because they were in English) and magazines. The only time I heard my father, a WWII and Korean conflict veteran, mention it was in the context of him moving his family to Canada if they drafted his sons. Not that any of us were anywhere near draft age, but it gives you a sense of the feeling that the war would never end. Certain images from the front pages of newspapers of that time are burned in my memory, including the image of the rooftop helicopter evacuation of Americans from Saigon.
That evacuation is the focus of Last Days in Vietnam, a new documentary by Rory Kennedy. With archival footage, newly released recordings and interviews with pilots, evacuees, and those left behind, Kennedy tells the gripping tale of the men who did their damnedest to uphold American honor and personal responsibility. This is the story of how they dealt with the “terrible, terrible moral dilemna” (as said by one of the interviewees) of deciding who to evacuate.
Devoid of most of the politics of the day, Kennedy focuses on the men who, while not specifically given the responsibility for getting as many people out as they could, took it upon themselves to rescue those who faced certain death at the hands of the approaching North Vietnamese forces. The marines on the ground, the chopper pilots in the air, and the naval commanders at sea are all given their due for the incredible work that they did in evacuating approximately 170,000+ people in an amazingly short period of time.
There are no villains in this film. Ambassador Graham Martin, the person responsible for ordering an evacuation, is treated fairly, as questions are raised and answered as to why an “official” evacuation had not begun earlier, and why thousands were left behind. Heroes are plentiful, from the American pilots who flew for 24 hours straight, to the South Vietnamese pilots who did whatever it took to rescue their families and friends. Most telling as to the emotional toll this event took on those involved is the overwhelming sense of regret and sorrow you get from interviews with US Marines responsible for Embassy security, and the images they witnessed as the last chopper departed Saigon – thousands of people left on the Embassy grounds that had been assured they would be rescued.
The evacuation of Saigon is probably the least known component of the Vietnam War as it occurred two years after the Paris Peace Accords had been signed and the US had withdrawn all combat troops. It deserves to be better known and understood and the people involved appreciated, and this film goes a long way in recognizing the honor and bravery of those tasked with an impossible mission. It’s a tribute to Kennedy’s skill as a filmmaker that she manages to take a story to which we all know the end and writes a seemingly new, riveting chapter. While the Vietnam experience is often looked at as the nadir in American foreign policy and military engagement, Last Days in Vietnam shows us that, even at its lowest point, there were those who stood tall and went above and beyond the call of duty to uphold American honor and simple human dignity.
Last Days in Vietnam is currently playing in the San Francisco Bay Area at Landmark Theatres’ Opera Plaza Cinemas. Check your local theatre listings.