Friday, February 8, 2013

I'm Dreaming of a White Christmas

Ken Kashiwahara
I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas

On the 28th of April all hell broke loose. The North Vietnamese bombed and then shelled Tansonnhut. And all of the soldiers were firing their small arms into the air in hope of shooting down planes. And again the next morning I was awakened by gunfire. Saigon was in a panic by this time. Helicopters were flying over the city, back and forth. And people were being evacuated from the embassy and from some other buildings.

Everyone at the ABC bureau headquarters had been told to go to a predesignated evacuation point to get picked up by a bus. On the way out of our hotel I saw an American at the reception desk checking out. He was paying his bill, but he was also arguing loudly with the desk clerk. I thought to myself, “This is ridiculous. The whole country is falling and these two guys are standing her arguing over a few piasters.” The whole scene was like an island of one kind of insanity in a world of another kind of insanity. The signal for the evacuation was the playing of Bing Crosby’s “I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas” over the armed forces radio. It was April 29 and they were playing “White Christmas.” We were all standing there waiting for our bus and every time a bus would pull up there was pushing and shoving as the Vietnamese tried to get on with the Americans. I got separated from my cameraman and from the bureau chief. The two of them pushed their way onto a bus and I didn’t make it on.

I got on the next bus. But by that time the South Vietnamese soldiers guarding the entrance to the airport decided that they didn’t want to let any more buses in. Our driver didn’t know what to do. He had also never driven a bus before – that became obvious as we drove around. He hit cars parked on the street and fruit stands on the corners. Finally, he decided to take us down to the port to put us on board a boat. We all got off the bus. But it was the same kind of scene at the port that we had found in other parts of the city -- thousands of people at the port trying to get on boats and barges and get out of the country. It was hopeless. So we decided to have the bus take us back to the airport. But when we tried to get back on the bus again, a riot started around the bus and I, unfortunately, happened to be the last one in the line outside the bus.

The driver started to pull away. The crowd started pulling on me, trying to bring me back into the mob. I had on some shoulder bags and there were people hanging on to them to hold me back. I remember looking back into all those angry faces. I finally just threw off the bags and ran for the bus. The driver opened the door and I jumped on. But I had lost everything that I was taking out of Saigon.

Then as the bus was pulling away – and I remember this very clearly and I will remember it as long as I live – a Vietnamese man came running out of the crowd. He was carrying a baby. And he ran alongside the bus and he held out the baby and he was pleading, “Please take my baby! Please take my baby! Please take my baby!” The bus kept moving and the man tripped and fell and dropped the baby. And the rear wheels of the bus ran over the baby.

People inside the bus were screaming now. And somebody at the back of the bus kept yelling over and over again that we had just run over a baby. But the driver kept on going.

Several of us on the bus said at the same time, “Let’s go to the embassy!” But when we got there we found that it also was surrounded by a frantic crowd of Vietnamese trying to get inside. We made it to the back of the embassy where there was a mob of people trying to climb over the wall. There were American Marines on top of the wall kicking the people down, kicking them in the head with those big boots.

I had been mistaken for a Vietnamese lots of times in the country and it had always worked to my advantage. Now I was sure that when I started to climb that wall, the American Marines were going to mistake me for a Vietnamese. And I figured, “When I get to the top of that wall I’m going to get a great big boot right in my face.”

So I had to think of what I should say to the Marines to prove that I’m an American. The only thing I could think of was, “The Dodgers won the pennant!” But I never had to use it because I was with other American journalists and the Marines recognized us. And instead of kicking me off the wall, one of them grabbed me and pulled me over.

Once I was over the wall I understood why they were trying to keep all of the Vietnamese out. The embassy grounds were just packed. We stood in line and waited for a helicopter. About sunset we got one. A bunch of us raced inside and the door closed. And then the helicopter tried to take off. He got up to about 20 or 30 feet and stopped and then came crashing back down. There were too many people on board. So they opened the door again and they put some people off. Then they tried to take off again. It got up a little higher and then came crashing back down again. This happened three times.

Finally they got enough people off and we were light enough to take off. The sun was setting and I was looking out the window as we went up. The ammunition dump at Long Binh, which was just outside Saigon, was exploding and the sun was setting and in several parts of the city there were big fires with flames rising high into the sky. As we flew out over the South China Sea I could see other fires around Saigon and around Vung Tau. It really looked like all of Vietnam was burning.

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