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helicopters

The following is an excerpt from a body of work in progress that relates my family’s personal experience during the events that occurred in Saigon, Viet Nam, on April 28th through the 30th, in 1975. Saigon fell to the communists on April 29th. I was eleven years old at the time.

Noise and wind from the helicopter made our approach difficult; I followed my two sisters up the ramp at the rear of the helicopter and tightened my grip on our luggage as we struggled to keep our footings against the wind and dust that came from all different directions.

I was not familiar with these larger helicopters with white “marine” letters painted on the sides of their olives bodies. I knew all the other types that flew in our sky day and night like the fast Hueys and the slower and more awkward, twin propellers, Sikorsky. I could tell by the sounds they made, coming and going some where, sometimes they flew with urgency or other times so slow as to enjoy the thrill of being aloof while stationary.

We started our walk from the tennis courts, with only luggage that our hands could carry, stopping to rest where we could along the way on a very long walk in the hot afternoon sun. To make matters worse, we all wore two layers of clothes because we were restricted to what we could fit into our small hand carry luggage, and my parents thought we would need our clothes. Hindsight told me that clothes were the least valuable items to save in a situation such as this. No one was aware of how long we must walk or where. We just followed the line of people ahead of us until we reached a large clearing of paved asphalt, shiny and black. I had ridden my bike past this same area only two weeks before and was curious to find that the softball fields with green and well-maintained grass were paved over by black tar. I never could have guessed that a landing field would be created in anticipation of the final days.

The main airport runways were destroyed in last night’s shelling and mortar attacks, so the C130s could no longer land and take off. For all I know, the helicopters we saw as we approached the landing field could have been the very first wave to arrive. Despite all that was going around us, I could not detain the excitement of getting to ride in one of those mechanical birds that so often frequented our childhood skies.

Preceded by their sounds, the helicopters arrived in pairs, flew low over the houses framing the landing field, then slowed almost to a standstill overhead as the world below erupted, whirling wind and sending dust into the air. Incredible flying machine generating small hurricanes, pushing against the ground to stay aloof and making unbearable noises in rushed beat, chopping up the quiet afternoon. At each pulse and each passing of the rotor blades, my body vibrated and my heart beat faster and faster. Heat from their engines pressed downward by the rotors forming a wavering and shimmering hot air curtain that distorted the human fence that was stretching away for miles behind us. Everyone within their flight path was bent low to the ground, clutching their belongings and holding on to each other. The helicopters hovered briefly over the black tar, and then settled down lightly one after another in a skirt of dust. Even before the landing wheels took the full weight of the helicopters, their rear hatches begun to lower. Marines poured out in their battle gear, flax jackets and M-16s, bending forward and spreading out to form an outer perimeter to the line of people and the landing field. Their presence here, though so few in numbers, provided comfort and security. Their arrival was the first time in the last two days that would assure me that, though we lacked information, directions and the knowledge of what was to become of everyone here and those outside the airport gates, there was still order to today’s events. To see Americans, after their absence from the streets of Saigon since 1972, was a welcome sight. I was too young to understand the reason for the United States’ departure from Viet Nam, but I knew very well it meant instability. It was general knowledge at the time that our government in the south was not capable of holding back the will of the people from the north with out the help of the Americans.

Groups of sixty or so people were counted off ahead of us; they were motioned forward and staggered against the wind making their way to the helicopters. Each helicopter swallowed its allotted human cargo, raised its hatch, then sprung into the air, nose tilted down and pulling upward. They were out of sight within minutes, taking with them the storm of wind and noise. The sky emptied and the silence returned to a seemingly ordinary hot afternoon. My ears rang and my heart filled with doubt. What if they did not return? I kept the thought to myself, but I am certain the anxiety of being left behind was mutual between all of us. Our faces must have shown what we dared not express in words for fear that to speak of the possibility would somehow give reason for it to become a reality. My parents were wise not to convey their fears, and we were good kids for keeping our mouths shut. We waited in silence.

I felt relieved from the heat now that we were sitting still. The sun donned its hazy reddish cloth in preparation for its evening rest, heat subsided, the air tinted amber, leaves rustled lightly, shadows lengthened, peoples’ faces reddened by the setting sun. Never in my young life had I experienced events such as these. I was certain that even this nation, which knew nothing more than one war after another, with a long history of foreign dominations and the rebellions to get rid of those foreigners, our national anthem told of a thousand years of domination by the Chinese, one hundred years under the French and twenty years of daily fighting, was not prepared for what we were to embark upon. We were part of a long silent procession of people from all walks of life that had one thing in common, all of us were here because we were related to someone who worked for the Americans and our lives would be at risk if we were left behind. We filed behind one another and walked through the heat of the afternoon to arrive at an empty lot paved over in black tar, no monuments or edifices to pay respect to, no priests to lead us in prayers, just a black top that opened to the amber sky. Nevertheless, it was a holy site for our pilgrimage. We were there to wait for deliverance.

Time passes slowly when one waits. Twenty minutes crawled by; there was a slight murmur amongst those waiting, then two more helicopters appeared over the houses, and again the noises unfurled along with the dust and the world was once again in chaos. They touched down quickly and my family was given the go ahead. Ten, twenty, thirty and so on the soldiers counted and waved us on. All ten of us headed for the nearest helicopter. We braced ourselves against the wind and raced ahead of the adults. My thirteen-year-old brother, who shouldered the heaviest luggage, was on one side of my grandpa and Dad was on the other; together they steadied him against the propeller wash and walked up the ramp. My frail and forgetful grandpa had already fallen on the way here when the helicopters passed over us the first time. He sat on the ground and resisted my father’s help to get him back on his feet. He wanted to stay and saw no reason to leave his home. His wife, my grandma, whom I had never known except through photographs and the story of how she died, was buried in a small town by a muddy river full of leeches that clung to our legs and arms when we swam in it during our occasional visits. My dad had to make him leave because all the brothers and sisters in his family had made plans to depart the country, and to leave an old man behind with no one to care for him was not an option.

My mom, her mother, and my great aunt holding my baby brother brought up the rear. The little guy, now almost two and a half, who just bravely walked almost the entire way from the tennis courts on his own power, had became so frightened by the noise and wind from the helicopter that he turned and darted in the opposite direction. Luckily my great aunt stepped in his way and scooped him up. I learned of his attempted escape later and was sickened at the thought of him standing there by himself as the helicopter departed. He was at an age when his favorite game was to run away on unstable legs and on his toes as fast as he could the moment you let him onto the ground. He wanted to be chased and mostly, it was to anyone’s guess on how he knew, toward the street and traffic. We caught the little runaway each time, but with each escape he gained more and more distance before he was detected. This time we were lucky and he was caught quickly and brought on board frightened and teary-eyed. Once inside the helicopter, we sat on the right against the padded sidewall facing inward and quickly stowed our gear under the bench seat. Yellow light streamed through small side windows directly overhead. Surrounded by tremendous sounds, smell of machine oil and exhaust, I stared out the back, anxious for people to finish boarding so we could get into the air. My family nudged up tight against each other. We all made it aboard. As the last ones settled in, the crewman at the back hatch spoke into his flight helmet headset then gave a hand signal to his flight crew confirming that they were ready for flight. The hatch pulled closed. The helicopter leaped into the air as my stomach dropped. The floor tilted forward then to the left as it climbed and banked. We were off and safe, so I thought.

Light through those small widows slanted crazily as it righted itself on the pitching helicopter floor. Our feet swung from the bench. Up higher and higher. The noise was too much to shout over, I looked at my family and smiled. We knew from the smiles that were starting to show on strangers’ faces across from us that anxiety and fear had subsided. Our moods changed, and we all knew that the worst was over. I wriggled out of my seat and reached up for the window to look down. It was probably the last time to see to our country rushing away below. I wanted a last glimpse. The helicopter raced east toward the ocean. I turned to check on my little brother; he seemed fine, a little frightened of the noise but otherwise fine. The kid was very good and brave; he could sense that all was well with his family. Suddenly, the helicopter shook, dropped and climbed, and then the door gunner let fly with his machine guns rattling off rounds toward the ground. This got the passengers’ attention quickly; maybe it was too soon to celebrate our safety. The flight crew was dodging whoever was firing from below. As long as we remained over land, the helicopter was still a very slow and easy target for ground troops from either side to open fire. The helicopter tossed several more times as the gunner exchanged fire, then up ahead the horizon changed from brown and green to blue green. Land gave way to beaches, waves, then ocean as the helicopter headed toward the Seventh Fleet waiting offshore. I had not a notion of where we were heading and did not care, but once the ocean appeared, I knew we were done with Viet Nam and danger for a while.

Forty minutes after our departure, the helicopter descended onto a carrier’s flight deck. We were led off the deck after the landing and down many flights of stairs two or three levels below as the sun begun to set behind hazy clouds and darkness gathered. We gathered our belongings together in a pile and stayed clustered in our group as we did in between moving from one place to another the last couple of days. . Down there, in the helicopter hanger, the space was cavernous, metallic, empty and drafty. The sides were open at places with only railings and guard posts to separate us from the sea below. I watched the waves get darker and more silhouetted against the grayish and pink horizon. Just another sunset like thousands or millions of times before. The ocean and the clouds changed colors as they have always done, but west of us toward where the sun slipped into the water, a small country was on the verge of chaos and was hemorrhaging its sons and daughters to the air and to the sea. Darkness was falling on the most desperate time for many who wanted to flee. History was about to close its chapter on an ugly war that pitted brothers against brothers and brought shame and suffering to all those who were involved. As in closing time at an theatrical event, the participants often depart a bit saddened that time had come to pass. The actors left the stage and the lights were brightened then dimmed once everyone was gone. Surely there were moments of joy, for some the last act was a triumphant scene of heroes crashing down gates and hoisting their flag declaring victory. Ideology faded quickly when families were separated and promises of last minute miracles never occurred. The helicopters, for them, did not return.

Hardly any words were exchanged between my family. I could only remember the sounds of waves and wind and the helicopters coming and going. I looked around at my brothers and sisters then searched my parents’ faces for clues on how to react or what to do, but their quietness only assured me that they were as unprepared and vulnerable as their children. Still no instruction about where to go so we waited amongst our things and looked out into the darkness.

An American sailor came by and offered M&Ms, Hershey bars and chewing gum. All us kids took some. I was not hungry and not even candy was appealing, but the gesture from the sailor was comforting. His action, though surely by order, or it could just have been out of his kindness, was true to our stereotype of the GIs. The kids in Viet Nam rarely allow an American soldier to pass without begging in broken English but with correctly pronounced words for chewing gum or a cigarette.

Hey GI, number one, chewing gum?

That simple gesture meant we were not forgotten. Their generosity was consistent.

The chaos and the logistic nightmare continued to occur through the night as helicopter pilots flew unrelieved, 10 to 12 hours continuously, back and forth from carriers to Saigon to pull out more people. From where we sat, we were oblivious to the effort of thousands of men and women who were performing the miraculous work of evacuating what appeared to be the entire city. Yet all was quiet down where we were, except for an occasional exchange over the intercom in a language that was familiar but meaningless.

Where are we going?

What is going to happen to the country?

When are we going back?

There was no going back, my parents had known months before.

More and more families arrived and clustered in their groups varying in number. Lost, confused, overwhelmed yet glad and mostly quiet. My youngest brother and sister were already curled up on top of the pile of suitcases and fast asleep. Rocket attacks early that morning combined with sleeping on the hard floor of the bowling alley amid strangers in a strange place robbed us of our needed rest. I drifted off until awaken by commotion. We were moving again.

Get your things and get up.

Wake up.

Grab the baby’s things there. Help your grandpa.

More sailors arrived and led us down more stairs to an area where people were disembarking over the side of the ship. Down below, a troop landing craft shaped like a narrow scoop with high-sided walls was bobbing in the black water. Spotlights from the carrier flooded the cargo net that spanned a watery gap, which narrowed and widened with each wave. The distance from where we stood in relation to the landing craft was only meters, but my dad was worried at the thought of his frail father, the women and the kids with belongings scaling down a net designed for able-bodied soldiers and sailors. We watched others climb down before it was our turn, so with the sailors’ help, the climb down was a cinch. We settled in front of the craft, as it was filled to capacity with its human cargo. The carrier loomed over us briefly, lights shined then disappeared behind the landing craft’s sidewalls as we pulled away. The flood of yellowish lights was replaced by the much dimmer green florescent sticks that were hung like Christmas lights for the entire length of the craft. A hundred or more people on the floor of the craft were all engulfed in darkness, as we pulled further away from the carrier. Nighttime on the ocean without a moon, inky darkness reigned. Once my eyes adjusted, darkness revealed its treasure: millions of blinking stars shone brightly above, so abundant that they formed a blinking dome over the entire world. So many stars danced and waltzed to the bobbing and weaving of the craft on invisible waves. We were invited to a dance on this dark ocean, but there was no music — just the loud droning of the engine. The invited guests were too frightened and too tired to get up the courage to celebrate, instead they chose to sit and let the ocean waltz with the craft.

Shortly, the engine slowed as we neared a ship. It loomed to the side of us closer and taller.

There was no more room; they could not take us.

The landing craft engine revved, we turned way and again the larger ship and its lights disappeared, blocked by the sides of the landing craft. The stars took over and the dancing recommenced at once as we headed for another ship somewhere out there in the darkness. Three hours of changing horizon, bobbing and weaving as we ferried from ship to ship. The waves took their toll on the old and young alike on that shifting floor. A chain reaction started once someone succumbed to seasickness and the odor reached other passengers.

Good news, someone mentioned; it would only happen once on a trip, we would all be used to the waves tomorrow. I hoped to God that was true.

The landing craft found its way back to the carrier where this evening’s cruise had begun. What had been a pleasant adventure into the night under the stars had turned out to be a slow torture. We were so glad to be off that landing craft. Everyone’s faces were drained of color and the stench left behind was unbearable. All I wanted to do was to lie down; they could leave without me, I was so nauseated, I just wanted to find a place on the carrier’s floor and close my eyes.

There were a great many more people huddled in small groups than when we left. The carrier, as big as it was, even on a gentle sea, was not immune to the dark swells below, but its motion only rocked us to sleep. Another night of restless sleep out in the open in another strange place with stranger loud noises from equipment and engines. The intercom crackled as men called to each other. I closed my eyes briefly to be roused awake again and again by people moving back and forth, talking, or crying.

Morning came, signaled by a pencil line of pink just above the water line, a slight blemish in otherwise perfect darkness. Helicopter hanger lights stayed on all night and apparently sailors never slept, judging from the intercom exchanges. As day approached, more and more activities could be heard as men prepared for another day of intensity.

Morning lights washed over the ocean. Pink, reds, oranges and blue gray gave way to hazy yellow. I love the ocean, I was named after it, and in daylight it was friendly and familiar, its mystery receded under the surface. The cool air drifting off the water surface and that rich smell of life at that early hour was no different than at the beach during our holidays. My brothers, sisters, and I often went crazy at the mention of us going to Vung Tau, a coastal town west of Saigon. Going to the ocean was everything to us. It was a magical place. We would carry sand from the beach home in containers so that we could touch its silky smooth coolness later and imagine that we were there.

Blue green waves below surged and receded against the dignified gray side of the carrier. Each time a little higher but they could never quite free themselves from some other forces that held them in a slow rhythm. The deck under my feet rose and fell slightly over each swell. Out here the water was clear and vibrant; but closer to shore as it tumbled on the beaches where we often played, the water turned sandy brown. The Mekong, which carries nutrients and silt from such far away places as the Himalayas and empties into the ocean just south of Vung Tau, probably had to do with clouding up the ocean near its mouth.

I felt fine; there was only a slight impression of last night’s seasickness left in me. Standing there against the railing, watching another landing craft nudge up to the side of the carrier where the cargo net hung partially in the water, I was not sure I would last half an hour this time around without seasickness. Mom grumbled about how we were going to endure another trip so soon. If seasickness had a memory, I was about to find out.

It seemed we waited among new faces. How could one tell from the darkness last night? I thought. Families, who climbed back on the carrier with us last night settled nearby, but were gone when I awoke. A sense of urgency prevailed. I knew Dad wanted to go earlier that morning. Even though the destination and the length of time to get there were complete mysteries, the desire to go on and to reach safety wherever it was occupied his mind. These were first time experiences for all of us and with our fear behind us, along with everything else that had happened in the last three days, I was ready for what would come.

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