40 years after the fall of Saigon, Ken Kashiwahara returned to the scene of the one of the most signature images from that historic day. The photo by Hubert van Es shows panicked South Vietnamese citizens hurrying up a ladder to grab one of the last seats aboard a US helicopter that could take them out of South Vietnam before the communist takeover.
It was a scene Kashiwahara witnessed as a correspondent for ABC News. He was one of the first Asian Americans ever to work as a reporter for network news.
He recalls that day vividly–April 29, 1975.
“I was awakened by gunfire,” he wrote in the Honolulu Advertiser on the 25th anniversary of the fall of Saigon. “North Vietnamese soldiers were just outside the city limits. They had bombed Tan Son Nhut Airport and shut it down. Nervous South Vietnamese soldiers were patrolling the city. Helicopters were flying overhead. As my ABC News cameraman and I drove around Saigon, we saw one chopper land on the roof of an apartment building. People were climbing up a ladder to get to it. It became one of the signature photo images of the fall of Saigon. In another part of the city, residents were looting the American Commissary, taking everything from cereal to appliances. Panic was setting in. Anarchy wasn’t far behind.”
Now fast forward 40 years later to Kashiwahara return trip under much more pleasant circumstances. His trek down memory lane he took with Thuan, a former ABC office secretary, showed a much more tranquil Saigon. Thuan was one of of ABC’ Vietnamese employees, who along with their families, was resettled in the US a week before the fall of Saigon and given a job with ABC News. She eventually retired from the network’s Washington Bureau and happened to be visiting Saigon in January the same time Kashiwahara returned.
Thuan rented a van and a driver and the two visited many of their old stomping grounds.
“That’s where we worked!” the two said in unison in excitement as they drove by the Caravelle Hotel and pointed to the 6th floor where their old ABC office was situated.
They then ascended to the hotel’s roof where Kashiwahara recalls “journalists used to gather at the bar every night watching the flashes of gunfire as the Viet Cong closed in on Saigon.” Only this time the gunfire was replaced with the sight of construction cranes and high rises and what seemed like a million motorbikes and scooters. “Saigon is booming, the non-explosive kind.”
Next stop, the old American Embassy. It was there that Kashiwahara climbed the wall to the helicopter that would be his escape.
“The embassy is gone, but it looked like the same wall, though I’m sure it’s not,” he said.
Getting to the Embassy that day 40 years ago proved to be a monumental challenge. U.S. Embassy buses were supposed to pick up Kashiwahara to take him to the airport. A crowd of Vietnamese panicked by false rumors the communists were systematically executing South Vietnamese citizens tried to push their way onto the same bus. Kashiwahara was never able to get on. Fortunately he got on the next bus to go to the helicopter landing at the airport.
“We never got there,” he recalls. “South Vietnamese soldiers, angry that the Americans were pulling out, fired at our driver, refusing to let us pass. The evacuation process broke down. Our Embassy driver didn’t know where to go or what to do. He drove around aimlessly, hitting cars and fruit stands. He had never driven a bus before. Vietnamese were throwing things at us and shouting anti-American epithets. “Yankee, go home!’”
The driver then headed to the Port of Saigon hoping they could get out by boat.
” We got off the bus and found the waterfront just as chaotic and frantic as everywhere else in the city,” Kashiwahara wrote in the Honolulu Advertiser. “Thousands of panicked Vietnamese were crowding on anything that floated just to have a chance of escaping. For us, getting on a boat was impossible. When we Americans began getting back on our bus, the crowd surged toward us. I was the last to reboard. The bus began moving. Several men grabbed the shoulder straps of the bags I was carrying, trying to prevent me from getting on. I looked back into their angry faces, dropped the bags and ran for the bus. The driver opened the door and I hopped on. Just then, a Vietnamese man came running along side, carrying a baby and shouting, “Take my baby. My baby. Take my baby!” He at least wanted his baby to get to safety. The bus kept moving. The man tripped and fell. The baby fell under the wheels of the bus and was run over. Everyone on the bus was stunned. Some were hysterical, screaming at the driver that he had just run over a baby. He kept going.”
The next stop would be the American Embassy. There he saw a scene of mass chaos. Thousands of Vietnamese trying to get into the Embassy. Many climbed the walls, only to reach the top where the Marines would kick them back down.
Like the Vietnamese, Kashiwahara also climbed the walls, hoping he would not have the same fate as the countless Vietnamese sent plummeting back to the ground. Would his Asian face work to his disadvantage? Would he be mistaken for a Vietnamese?
“In that moment of frenzied desperation, I decided to identify myself by shouting, “The Dodgers won the pennant!” Fortunately, I didn’t have to embarrass myself. For some reason, the Marine pulled me up. I didn’t stop to ask how he knew I was an American.”
Looking back at the day today is as frightening as it was back then.
“I was exhausted, both physically and emotionally. It was the most intense and traumatic experience of my 30 years as a journalist. I had been a witness to history and tragedy. I had watched the disintegration of a society, the collapse of a country, the ignominious end to America’s involvement in Vietnam. And I had been a part of it. It is something I will never forget: the fear, the panic and, most of all, the man with the baby.”
Kashiwahara filed a report the next day when he made it to the Philippines. You can see it in the clip below.