Forty-seven years ago, on the last day of April,1975, the Vietnam War finally ended when the North Vietnamese Army overwhelmed Saigon. It was the day that Tran Van Kim, then a fierce young Special Forces Colonel, made the hardest decision ever for himself and his family.
Tran Van Kim ran his hand over the shrimp paste jars on the shelf of his grocery store in Westminster, CA. This simple act took him back to his childhood days at a store not unlike this one that his father ran in the Mekong city of Gò Đen, Vietnam. Kim’s thoughts drifted on to another decades-old memory, that of “30/4.” The last day of April,1975, the so called day-of-recrimination when Saigon fell to the North Vietnamese Army, was when the Vietnam War finally ended, and the day Kim made his most life-changing decision.
Kim was then a 38-year-old colonel wearing the maroon beret of the South Vietnamese ARVN Rangers. Standing erect and alert, only a few inches taller than the five-foot high sandbag wall that separated his men from an expected assault, Kim greeted the dawn of April 30,1975, with determination and trepidation.
The heat and humidity that typically swept up the Saigon River from the jungle lowlands had not yet suffocated the day. Kim’s sparse battalion of young special forces soldiers, many still teenagers, was nervous and chatty. But the major was confident they were well trained to respond valiantly to his commands in the battle that surely lay ahead. The NVA was on the outskirts of the city with armored vehicles and Russian tanks. They were on the move towards Kim’s artillery emplacement at the Royal Sports Racetrack. In better times, this was where the privileged merchant class of Saigon gathered for social activities. At this moment, it was a key helicopter landing zone near the city center, certain to be a prime target of the expected invasion.
There was only one battle plan. Hold out and resist until told otherwise. The odds were overwhelming. But Kim was a career officer—Academy trained at Thu Duc following high school—who didn’t question his orders, ever. He expected the same obedience from his men—and got it.
As the sun climbed and the morning brightened, Kim began to perspire. The radio came alive with staticky reports of the NVA’s steady movement toward his unit’s position in the once populous Cholon section. It was now virtually abandoned of civilians who were fleeing the city. Within an hour—two at most—Kim would be engaged in the most momentous battle of his career. There was no fall back position. The Americans were gone. The day before, a coded evacuation message was broadcast on the US Armed Forces Radio: a weather report saying “the temperature in Saigon is 112 degrees and rising,” followed by Irving Berlin’s White Christmas song. The US Marines’ last helicopter , a Boeing CH-46 Sea Knight known as Lady Ace 09, had lifted off from the American Embassy compound at 755am. Kim, his men, and thousands of other Vietnamese and civilians were on their own.
Kim didn’t fear for his personal safety. He had commanded battles from the highlands of Dong Ha near the DMZ, to the lowland rice paddies of the Delta. He had escaped death many times, none closer than at the fierce battle of An Loc in 1972. Walking ahead of his radioman, Kim turned suddenly as he heard a nearby explosion. Only a few paces from him, the radioman lay dead. Half his face was blown off by an RPG round.
Only days before, as part of the South Vietnamese 18th Division, Kim’s battalion fought courageously at Xuan Loc, just to the east of Saigon, destroying three North Vietnamese divisions in the process. But the NVA was relentless. ARVN forces sustained nearly 50 per cent casualties. When they ran out of tactical air support, Kim and his unit were ordered to abandon Xuan Loc to the communists.
For this last stand on 30 April, Kim was defending home turf; the densely populated urban streets of Saigon where he lived with his wife and their three children, Tuan, Danh, and Chi. Kim’s wire, Hon, had left home at dawn that morning with their children and one small valise. Her mission was to escape Saigon—to leave forever their Vietnam home—by reaching a US Navy transport ship anchored in the South China Sea. It took hours for her driver to reach the Saigon River port, dodging crowds of panicked people streaming into the city from the outlying areas where the NVA had already surged through. At the wharf, a cargo scow listed dangerously to starboard from an overwhelming hoard of would-be refugees. Assessing the non-stop bedlam—loud, swift, and aggressive with unmerciful shouting and shoving—Mrs. Kim told her driver to wait with the engine running. She battled her way to the boarding ramp towing her three children— their arms locked in a daisy chain—behind. She managed to wave an official looking sheet of paper in front of one of the sentries and he signaled her forward. Turning to her eldest son, Tuan, she scolded in her sternest voice, “Hold onto each other. Whatever you do, do not let go of each other. I will be back with Father.”
With no time for a sentimental hug, she turned from the ship, jumped back in the Toyota and ordered her driver to head for the Royal Sports Club. The driver glanced back at her with disbelief in his eyes. But before he could audibly protest, she commanded, “Ditti Mau.” Go quickly!
At 10am, Kim and his men tuned in to a radio address from South Vietnam’s interim president, General Duong Van Minh. Minh had assumed his office only two days before; the rest of the South Vietnam government had fled the country. Kim listened passively to the general’s televised message, which was also boomed forth on a broadcast to all the telephone pole radio loudspeakers still operating throughout the city. ”To avoid further bloodshed,” Minh declared, “to prevent countrymen from continuing to kill and maim fellow countrymen, the government of the Republic of Vietnam has surrendered. Lay down your weapons. It is done.”
Col. Bui Tin of the North Vietnamese Army then took the microphone from Minh. Moments before, he had accepted the South Vietnamese General’s unconditional surrender. Now he addressed both the people and the solders of South Vietnam, saying stridently: “You have nothing to fear. Between Vietnamese there are no victors and no vanquished. Only the Americans have been beaten. If you are patriots, consider this a moment of joy. The war for our country is over.”
The radio fell quiet. Kim looked around. The expectant gazes of his men pierced Kim’s stoic silence like a volley of perfectly targeted grenade shards. “Remain by your posts,” Kim suddenly barked, and his men resumed their duties. Machine gun fire in the distance got louder and closer with each passing minute. All hope for victory was gone. But the fight was not yet ended.
Springing from the Toyota at the Royal Sports Club, Hon shouted her husband’s name. An ARVN MP stepped forward with his rifle pointed squarely at her heart. “Halt! This is a restricted area; You must leave.”
“Not until I see your commander, Colonel Kim. I am Tran Le Hon, his wife. I have an urgent message.”
Under guard, she was brought to her husband who turned pale seeing his Hon. “Where are the children?” he demanded.
“They are safe.They are aboard the US Navy ship preparing to leave the harbor.”
“And that is where you should be too. With your children,” reprimanded the major.
“With your children; with our children,” countered Hon. “And you must return there with me. This war is over for you. Life in Vietnam is over for our family.”
Hon and Kim faced each other silently, reading each other’s thoughts. Words were no longer necessary. It was clear that Hon would not leave without her husband, in which case their children would wind up orphans in a world beyond any familiarity. If Kim and Hon stayed, he would certainly be arrested, imprisoned, likely tortured and perhaps murdered by the NVA. Her fate would not be much better.
“You must choose between your duty to a lost cause, or the future as a father to your children,” said Hon at long last.
At precisely twelve noon, Kim turned to his executive officer and issued his instructions. “Have the men abandon their positions. They should drop their weapons, shed their military uniforms, burn their ID papers and hurry to their homes or into hiding. The war is over for us all.”
Kim stripped to his underwear and joined his wife in their Toyota. He retained his sidearm, firing the handgun into the air to disperse the crowds clogging the streets as they drove. They reached the Saigon River just as the cargo scow’s dock lines were loosened. The sentry recognized Hon and waved her and Kim aboard.
It took Kim and Hon two hours to find the children, huddled and crying in the dark below deck. And it took ten years for them to rebuild a life in the USA. And now, nearly fifty years on, Kim has still not smiled, remembering always 30 April 1975, as the day he lost his home country.