Local author Clarke writes of the fall of Saigon

“Honorable Exit” is another important, and very readable, history from Essex County resident Thurston Clarke, scheduled for publication in April.

Clarke begins his examination of the time surrounding the fall of Saigon, marking the end of the war in Vietnam, focusing on a photo, which he calls “the last great iconic photograph of the Vietnam War.”

It is, of course, the familiar picture of the helicopter on the roof of the American embassy in Saigon in April 1975. It shows a man in a white shirt reaching to people on a staircase, mostly Vietnamese who had worked as soldiers and civilians for and with Americans over the decade-long war. He is guiding them onto the chopper that would take them to safety on a U.S. Navy ship, and eventually to America.

The helicopter on the roof of the American embassy is for many of us the final image of America’s failure and retreat in Vietnam, hardly an honorable exit. But after pointing out that the well-known photograph is often misidentified — that was not the American embassy it landed on – Clarke goes deeper, finding stories of heroism and ingenuity. In April 1975, about 1,300 Americans, and 50,000 Vietnamese refugees, some of them children, were transported out of South Vietnam before the conquering Communists from North Vietnam took over the city. Had those 50,000 remained in Saigon, they would have faced incarceration or worse at the hands of the Communists.

Such a successful Dunkirk-like mission of mercy was not a well-organized, top-down operation, according to Clarke. Rather, “It occurred largely because U.S. military personnel, government employees, and private citizens staged a spontaneous, uncoordinated, and clandestine mutiny against the policies and inaction of senior U.S. officials in Saigon and Washington …” It is this mutiny Clarke discovered and describes in rich detail.

One of the mutineers is Ed Daly, the president of World Airways. When Ross Meador, a 20-year-old social worker trying to get Vietnamese orphans out of the country, met Daly in early April, he was wearing a green beret, drinking Johnnie Walker Red and waving a silver-plated revolver. Daly was complaining to newspaper reporters that American ambassador to Vietnam, Graham Martin, had revoked Daly’s clearance to fly evacuation planes. But Ross Meador didn’t have many options, so he asked Daly for help. Neither sober nor legal, Daly agreed to fly Meador’s orphans out of Vietnam.

Later that night, fifty-eight orphans were on the plane. The Tan Son Nhut airport control tower told Daly, “You are not cleared for take-off.” But Daly took off anyway, and landed in Oakland, California, a front-page hero.

Daly landed before “Operation Babylift” began, which was the first evacuation from Vietnam authorized by the U.S. government, and not part of the “mutiny.” It left Saigon with 328 passengers, including 200 orphans — the children of Americans, two days after Daly. The plane, however, crashed soon after take-off. Clarke writes, “The official death toll of 155 made it the most lethal crash in U.S. aviation history to date.”

David Kennerly, President Ford’s personal photographer, also impacted the evacuation of refugees. After visiting Vietnam in April 1975, he shared his searing photographs with the President. The images did not jibe with the more optimistic observations of others near the President. Because of Kennerly, Ford asked Congress for supplemental aid for South Vietnam.

Not everyone saw the necessity of evacuating refugees quickly. As late as April 24, Secretary of State and National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger, having been in contact with the Soviets, believed that “as long as we keep the dialogue going we have an assurance against military action as we pull our people out.” He communicated that confidence to Ambassador Martin, who worried that frantic efforts to evacuate would demoralize the South Vietnamese military, and so he was slow to facilitate the landing of helicopters near the embassy.

Clarke’s research is relentless – he has unearthed and read pertinent material, and interviewed the players in this extraordinary story. The rich bibliography has 141 citations. It’s an extraordinary effort, giving us the back-story for the fall of Saigon.

Perhaps most importantly, Thurston Clarke reminds the reader of what America gained by rescuing the Vietnamese refugees. As Clarke points out, many Americans, including 1972 presidential candidate George McGovern, opposed bringing Vietnamese to America. But among the people pictured on the roof waiting to get into the helicopter was a man who became an anesthesiologist in California; a man who practiced family medicine in Atlanta; a teenager who became a biotech engineer. They are just some of the people who came to America and made it better after their country was ravaged by war. Their exit was made possible by people who did their best at the end of a bad war.


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