Documentary retells painful chapter in U.S. history
January 22, 2014
"After 39 years it is still a sad story," said Vietnam War veteran Stuart Herrington at the Sundance Film Festival premiere of Rory Kennedy’s documentary "Last Days in Vietnam."
Kennedy’s film painstakingly chronicles the U.S. military’s final hours in South Vietnam in April 1975, showing the ominous approach of the North Vietnamese army juxtaposed over the anti-war protests mounting in the United States. It shows, in hindsight, how public sentiment against the war, Nixon’s resignation and Congress’s refusal to extend financial support precipitated the collapse of South Vietnam.
Using archival footage and contemporary interviews with Herrington and others who were there, Kennedy paints a portrait of an American administration that was ill-equipped to face defeat and, as a result, put hundreds of thousands of South Vietnamese in grave danger.
America wanted out. But those who had spent years fighting side by side with the South Vietnamese were not prepared to abandon them. After such a bitter war, Herrington said they feared the North Vietnamese would brutalize anyone suspected of having helped the Americans.
Complicating matters, the U.S. ambassador at the time would not admit defeat and refused to prepare for an evacuation, even as nearly a million refugees poured into Saigon looking to America for protection.
Ultimately, even the ambassador came to realize America’s position was untenable but by then the airport had been destroyed and the only way out was by helicopter or by boat. No one was equipped to evacuate the thousands of panicking Vietnamese who overran the embassy grounds.
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Officially, U.S. soldiers were under orders to evacuate only Americans, but for Herrington and others, that was morally reprehensible. Instead they devised impromptu means, by air and sea, to rescue as many as they could. "Last Days in Vietnam" offers vivid footage of many of those rescues, and poignant discriptions from the brave men who carried them out.
Herrington, an Army Captain who was on duty in Saigon during the chaotic evacuation of the U.S. Embassy, explained, "It was a terrible, terrible moral dilemma for everybody: who would go and who would have to stay."
Several of the veterans highlighted in the film attended the screening, including Herrington and crewmembers from the USS Kirk. They were also joined by two South Vietnamese who were successfully evacuated and one who was not, but survived.
The emotion in all of their voices was still evident.
But "Last Days in Vietnam" is primarily about the handful of servicemen and marines who stayed to the end and saved many South Vietnamese, even at their own peril.
The film includes the stories of aircraft carrier personnel who allowed South Vietnamese pilots to land on their decks and then helped to feed and clothe them. And it shows how they guided commercial fishing boats, laden with refugees, toward safe waters in the Philippines.
Still, they could not evacuate everyone.
"I dreaded the day I would finally face one of those we left," Herrington said. But when he did, instead of recrimination, he was thanked. Binh Pho, a college student who was not evacuated and spent four years in Communist labor camps, tells his story in the film and was at the screening Friday.
Pho said he was nearing the front of the line at the Embassy where soldiers were loading South Vietnamese civilians onto army helicopters when Herrington received word that conditions were deteriorating and the operation was over. Pho was turned away and spent the next four years in Communist prison camps. But, on Friday in Park City he told Herrington, "I want to thank you for leaving me behind. The four years I spent I taught me a lot." Pho was eventually reunited with his family and is now a successful artist, "We have a happy ending anyway."
Herrington, despite helping to rescue nearly a thousand people, still feels guilty about the 420 Vietnamese who were still on the grounds waiting to be rescued and was overwhelmed by Pho’s response. "I couldn’t fathom that anyone would ever thank me," Herrington said.
While the film highlights the little-known heroics of many U.S. soldiers who were involuntarily drawn into the political debacle, it also has chilling relevance as administration withdraws its military support from Iraq and Afghanistan.
A member of the audience asked Kennedy what she hoped people would learn from the mistakes that led to the disastrous evacuation of Saigon. She replied, "Have an exit strategy. When you go into a country you are potentially abandoning a people. When you leave a war you are still responsible for those people."
"Last Days in Vietnam" screens in the Sundance Film Festival Documentary Premieres section on Saturday, Jan. 25 at 6 p.m. at the Yarrow Hotel Theatre, Park City.