Nominated for an Academy Award in 2016, tonight’s documentary LAST DAYS IN VIETNAM looks at a war that we have all heard about time and time again, but tells it from a refreshing – for want of a better word –new angle.
The Vietnam War has been depicted on film and in documentaries for nigh on forty years, and many of us are familiar with the iconic image of the last US plane leaving the country. It signaled the end of an event that had affected a generation of young people most acutely, and that moment of escape was fraught with difficulty. This documentary tells the historic tale of that particular moment in time from the point of view of those who were there – and examines the emotional turmoil they faced.
Like most wars, the war in Vietnam was a goddamn mess. The end was no different, but it came swiftly. The Fall of Saigon, or the Liberation of Saigon - depending on who you talk to – was in effect the capture of Saigon, the capital of South Vietnam, by the People's Army of Vietnam and the National Liberation Front of South Vietnam (also known as the Việt Cộng) on April 30, 1975. The event marked the end of the Vietnam War and the start of a transition period to the formal reunification of Vietnam under the Socialist Republic.
North Vietnamese forces, under the command of General Văn Tiến Dũng, began their final attack on Saigon on April 29, 1975, with Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) forces commanded by General Nguyễn Văn Toàn suffering heavy artillery bombardment. This bombardment at the Tân Sơn Nhứt Airport killed the last two American servicemen to die in Vietnam, Charles McMahon and Darwin Judge. By the afternoon of the next day, North Vietnamese troops had occupied the important points of the city and raised their flag over the South Vietnamese presidential palace. The South Vietnamese government capitulated shortly afterward and the city was officially renamed Hồ Chí Minh City, after the Democratic Republic's late President Hồ Chí Minh.
The capture of the city was preceded by the evacuation mentioned earlier of almost all the American civilian and military personnel in Saigon, along with tens of thousands of South Vietnamese civilians associated with the southern regime. During those chaotic final weeks as the North Vietnamese army closed in on Saigon, American soldiers and diplomats alike confronted a soul-destroying moral quandary: whether to obey White House orders to evacuate U.S. citizens only…or to risk treason and save the lives of as many South Vietnamese citizens as they could. Slowly, they began the difficult mission of evacuating as many friends, family members and South Vietnamese collaborators as possible before Saigon fell to the North Vietnamese.
The evacuation culminated in Operation Frequent Wind, which was the largest helicopter evacuation in history. The images from this chaotic mass evacuation have become iconic. They show people being helicoptered away, sometimes under fire, to waiting American warships. Such was the speed of the evacuation and the number of people involved that the ships soon became overwhelmed with humans and the helicopters that had brought them. Orders were given to push surplus helicopters over the sides of the ships to make room for more. Some pilots were told to drop off their passengers, then ditch their machines in the sea, bailing out at the last moment to be picked up by waiting rescue boats. It was utter madness, and a messy end to a messy war.
Exhausting, heartbreaking and also heart warming at times, LAST DAYS IN VIETNAM paints a picture of ordinary people with human consciences who are caught up in a truly crazy war. It shows them defying their orders to do the right thing when bureaucracy fails them, and refreshingly, the film makes no apologies or justifications. A great watch.
LAST DAYS IN VIETNAM premieres Thursday 24 November at 8.30pm on Rialto Channel