Extraordinary ‘Last Days in Vietnam’ Resonates Now

PBS film’s look at exiting a war speaks to the present moment

Part of the Remembering Vietnam Special Report

There are a number of astonishing scenes in Rory Kennedy’s exceptional, Oscar-nominated documentary, Last Days in Vietnam (airing as part of the American Experience series on most PBS stations Tuesday April 28; check your local listings).

The film coincides with the 40th anniversary of the end of that painful war as the U.S. was forced to pull out.

As a Vietnam vet myself, one scene that completely took my breath away occurs during the final hours of the exiting chaos brought on by the North Vietnamese Army’s offensive on Saigon. Several South Vietnamese pilots commandeered their own helicopters and tried frantically to carry themselves and their families to safety.

Problem was, there was literally nowhere they could go.

Struggling for Survival

Undaunted, many of the pilots spotted U.S. ships off the coast and tried in desperation to land their choppers on the vessels. One of the ships was the USS Kirk, a small destroyer that received 17 helicopter loads of refugees, each of the landing choppers being pushed overboard into the sea to clear the deck for the next arrival. We’ve seen this riveting April 1975 footage before, and it’s captured here in all its spellbinding drama.

(MORE: Vietnam’s Donut Dollies: Unsung, They Served, Too)

What we haven’t seen is what happens when a much larger helicopter, a twin-rotor Boeing CH-47 Chinook, approaches the Kirk and hovers just above the water nearby. Both the South Vietnamese pilot and the Kirk’s crew recognize that the giant helicopter would capsize the ship. And we learn the chopper is running low on fuel.

At that moment, Hugh Doyle, the chief engineer on the USS Kirk, noticed “a big bundle of stuff come flying out (of the CH-47 helicopter). It was a baby.”

Newly Discovered Footage

Kennedy, the producer and director of Last Days in Vietnam, intensifies this harrowing scene in two ways. One, by presenting original footage shot by a crew member of the Kirk who’d left the undeveloped film lying in his attic until two years ago, when Kennedy retrieved the footage. With our own eyes, we witness that tiny baby being dropped from a helicopter into the waiting arms of a Kirk crew member.

Kennedy also heightens the drama by cutting back and forth to her interview with Miki Nguyen, a South Vietnamese refugee whose father, Ba Nguyen, piloted the big Chinook helicopter.

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Miki was 6-years-old at the time, but recalls his father’s bravery with quiet admiration. He also recalls thinking at the time that the whole thing was an exciting adventure. That’s what prompted him to jump from the helicopter and get caught by members of the Kirk. What happens to Ba Nguyen and his helicopter is worth tuning in to see.

I asked Rory Kennedy about this astounding scene in a phone interview last week. She modestly admitted “we got lucky” in finding the archival material.

“It was just one of those fortunate things,” she said. “We talked to a guy who was in the Navy at that time who knew someone in the Kirk who knew the guy who had the footage.” She flew to California to meet the man and gather the film.

American Sympathizers at Risk

Luck isn’t something that many of the fleeing South Vietnamese had going for them in the waning days of April 1975. The United States and North Vietnam had signed a peace agreement two years earlier and now the North Vietnamese Army had taken control of nearly all of South Vietnam and was approaching Saigon, the capital. The situation was precarious for the tens of thousands of South Vietnamese who had worked for, and with, the U.S. during the war.

(MORE: How a Piece of Shrapnel Changed My Father’s Life)

Among them was Nguyen Thi Mai, or “Miss Mai,” as the many U.S. soldiers like me who’d “adopted” her as their little sister during their tours in Vietnam affectionately called her. Miss Mai, a tiny receptionist in the U.S. Army’s command information office at Long Binh, knew that she was a “marked woman” for her many years of service to the U.S. military.

But, Mai told me when we were reunited a few years ago, the Americans had promised her and her colleagues a way out of Vietnam. Yet as Rory Kennedy shows us in Last Days in Vietnam, that opportunity was tenuous at best. Not everyone in Mai’s family — and not every South Vietnamese who was trying to leave the country — would escape Vietnam.

“Our commanding officer promised us that we would be able to get out of the country with our spouses and children when the time came to leave,” Mai explained to me.

But she was a single mother (she’d adopted her cousin’s 2-year-old daughter) with nine siblings and wanted her entire family to be able to leave with her. The U.S. authorities, however, told Mai that since she didn’t have a husband, she’d have to evacuate Saigon with just her young child. Eventually, Mai and some of her family made it out, but it was years before they were fully settled in America.

The Road to Hell

There are hundreds of stories like Miss Mai’s, several of which are depicted in Last Days in Vietnam. Also shown are the heroic rescue efforts of American personnel who did everything they could to evacuate as many South Vietnamese as possible, often in defiance of the orders of U.S. ambassador, Graham Martin.

I asked Kennedy what she thought about Martin’s apparent culpability for the evacuation chaos.

“Ambassador Martin was a complex character, and I think the documentary allows you to see him in his complexity,” she replied. “He reminds me of that old saying ‘The road to hell is paved with good intentions.’”

And what a road to hell it was. We get to see the last days of this mess in Kennedy’s excellent documentary and, to her credit, she stays out of the way of her material. There are no voiceovers, there’s no omniscient narrator. Nevertheless, Kennedy — the youngest child of Robert Kennedy — has been criticized by some for overlooking the politics of the war and exonerating America’s guilt and brutality.

Telling the Story

She quietly deflected such criticisms during our conversation.

“My intention was to tell the story of the last 24 hours of the war,” she explained unapologetically. “I didn’t want to get mired in politics and policies because that took away from the story I wanted to tell.”

Why this story and why now?

“Not many people know this story. And it has a great deal of relevance to our current struggles to get out of Iraq and Afghanistan,” she said. “I wanted to touch a nerve.”

She and her film The Last Days of Vietnam touched a nerve in me. Tune in to see if it doesn’t do so for you.

Doug Bradley
By Doug Bradley
Doug Bradley recently retired from the University of Wisconsin Sytem, where he was the director of communications and currently teaches a course on the effects of popular music during the Vietnam War Era. Doug is a U.S. Army veteran and the author of DEROS Vietnam, a fictional montage of war stories set during the early 1970s. He also is a member of the Deadly Writers Patrol (DWP) writing group that publishes a periodic magazine which includes work by veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Visit doug-bradley.com to learn more.

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