I’m watching a documentary on the fall of Saigon but finding it too distressing to continue. Thirty eight years ago today, on April 30, 1975, the people of Vietnam watched their city fall to the Viet Cong.
I can’t take the images I’m seeing. People dispersing in the streets after realizing the city had been taken, stopping everything they were doing to flee imminent gunfire. Mothers clutching their babies into their shoulders to shield them from smoke. Panicked men flinging briefcases. Students filing out of school. People clamoring on US helicopters, parents pushing their children into the arms of US soldiers. Crowds of people in front of a walled US embassy, covered in barbed wire.
I wasn’t alive when this happened. I didn’t experience the horrors firsthand. Still, it hurts. More than the conflicts that did occur in my life time this hurts because I think about how my parents or their friends could have been one of the nameless panicked and frightened people on the screen. I shudder to think that they might have been shot, raped, beaten or killed. I wonder if they were panicked about missing relatives and did inventory of their closest friends and family members. I wonder if there was a system to the killing, or if the ones chosen to die were indiscriminately and randomly picked. I wonder if I would have what it takes to push my child into the arms of strangers, sacrificing my own life and hoping a kind soldier would save a helpless infant if not a Vietnamese adult. This stuff cuts into my soul.
I’m left to guess and wonder because I’m too scared to ask my parents, I don’t know what trauma it would unearth and, frankly, I don’t know if I myself could handle it. I’ve heard some stories and I know they’ve had friends and family members killed but I don’t want to make them relive it.
When I’m not traumatized by the violence I’m instead consumed by the heartbreak. I once heard about this little known story of the USS Kirk that rescued thousands of Vietnamese refugees. The US wanted retrieve the ships they had loaned to South Vietnamese fighters, but more importantly they wanted keep it from the hands of the Viet Cong. Though they didn’t intend to, the US Navy ended up saving 30,000 refugees.
The most heartbreaking part for me was when the USS Kirk was heading into the port of the Philippines. Officials in Manila didn’t want to complicate relations with the newly communist-controlled Vietnam so they radioed ship operators to tell them that the ship couldn’t port until they lowered the South Vietnamese flag. Because Saigon had fallen, this vessel was the last sovereign territory of the republic of Vietnam. This one ship in the ocean was the only official remaining sovereignty the South Vietnamese people had. To port, the ship had to transfer their South Vietnamese flags to American ones.
When the Vietnamese flag was lowered, soldiers - American and Vietnamese alike - took off their hats and put it on their hearts. Everyone started to sing the national anthem as they watched the last vestige of their country descend down the flag pole.
I was on the freeway while hearing this and had a constant stream of tears the entire length of the story. War is real and its effect is felt through entire generations; the hurt remains. I want to commemorate today - for all the people who died, for the people who survived, and for all the vietnamese people who every year, on the anniversary of our fallen city, recall what we lost.