Reportage

Leaving Nha Trang Airport in ’75

The American exodus from Vietnam in 1975…

nhaDuring the Vietnam War, Nha Trang was host to the command and control site for the 5th Special Forces Group and the US Army Field Force One. From here all ground operations conducted in the Highlands and along the central coastline were organised. Built by the occupying colonial French forces in 1949 it became an important airbase for training South Vietnamese pilots as well as hosting the Americans from 1966 until their final evacuation in 1975.

And evacuation it was. By August 1973 America, having long since realised that this impossible conflict could go on no longer ceased direct military involvement in the war and for two more years the North and the South continued their fight for and against communist rule. By the spring of 1975 the North Vietnamese, sensing victory tested America’s will for further involvement by launching small, isolated attacks in the area whilst the South Vietnamese President ordered a general withdrawal from the Highlands forcing thousands of families as well as those in the military to flee their homes and bases and make for what they believed was a safe haven in Nha Trang. It wasn’t.

Panic and chaos ensued as refugees fled the NVA soldiers desperately hoping to make one of the last airplanes leaving the airbase. The airbase still held American interests including military and civilian personnel and as the communists approached so began the end of a shameful exodus by the U.S. The sight of innocent victims scrambling to board any vehicle they believed could save them was not singular to Nha Trang, the fall of Saigon is well documented and will forever stain America’s military history but this image taken at Nha Trang airbase perfectly encapsulates all that was wrong about the war.

Here a Vietnamese man with nothing more than the shirt on his back tries to force his way onto an already overloaded American evacuation plane only to be punched in the face by an American trying to force the man to release his grip and allow the doors to shut. In and around are men, women and children in a blind panic, the youngest and the weakest pulled up into safety, how many would see their loved ones left behind does not bear thinking about. How often have we, in the safe haven of a democratic Western country watched such scenes from our sofa chairs? How the victims tumble into statistics, how their skin colour and poverty allow us to reconcile our revulsion?

Consider the image for a moment, what the American is thinking as he punches the refugee and what his ensuing memories were in the aftermath. His face, instantly recognisable in his home town shows a man caught in the middle of a living nightmare and whilst it would be wrong to judge the person whose actual circumstance one can only guess, symbolises American intervention in the last seventy years. Did this conflict create the man we see in the image? Would he have recognised his own inner self in it? I wonder, and whilst his blow ensured his physical freedom one cannot be sure the same could have been said for his future mental state.

How anyone can resume a normal life after such an event is unimaginable.

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