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The fall of Saigon
In Spring 1975, South Vietnam was about to be overrun by communist forces ending the Vietnam War - the greatest struggle of the Cold War era and the only major military defeat in United States history.
Brian Barron in Saigon

The United States had abandoned its ally after a war which had left over two million dead including more than 50,000 Americans.

The BBC's Brian Barron reported on the war for six years and saw the last helicopter leaving the roof of the US embassy in Saigon. Against orders, he decided to stay.

I felt a great need to get on a helicopter in the spring of 1975 at Tuy Hoa airbase in South Vietnam, the nearest point to one of the late 20th Century's greatest military debacles - the destruction of a convoy of 2,000 tanks and lorries carrying 200,000 retreating soldiers and civilians.

That battle led within weeks to the fall of Saigon and the end of South Vietnam. It was impossible to get anywhere near the battle zone by road or on foot.

1965: US enters Vietnam War
1967: US troop deployment reaches 500,000
1973: US quits South Vietnam
1975: South Vietnam falls

I ran up and down a line of refuelling Huey gunships, begging for a ride. Finally, one pilot, a lieutenant fed up with the war, beckoned us on board - cameraman Eric Thirer, a French stills photographer and me.

Within a few minutes we were at 1,200 feet diving over a trapped convoy with the gunship firing rockets at communist forces below.

The automatic mini-gun was firing too, a banshee noise from hell that obliterated thoughts and fears. There were no doors, side panels, seats or safety harnesses on gunships - they were stripped-down killing machines.

As it bucked across the sky to avoid anti-aircraft fire, Eric filmed, half-crouching, as I held his belt. The convoy was in flames.

Suddenly we were swooping down and, in a cloud of dust and sand, hovering five feet above the river bank. A handful of people and a child ran towards us from a burning truck.

We pulled the child and a couple of adults on board. As the gunship began to climb, North Vietnamese soldiers tried to shoot it down with bursts from their AK-47s.

The French photographer got nicked in the leg by a piece of shrapnel.

Fifteen minutes later we were back at Tuy Hoa, depositing the convoy of survivors and then heading back to Saigon, hitching rides on helicopters and military transports.

BBC correspondent Brian Barron (right)
Brian Barron covered the Vietnam war from 1969 to its end in 1975
At Saigon airport, we met producer Bob Kearsley, who flew to Hong Kong with the film. It was the lead on the Nine O'Clock News that night, and NBC showed it across the USA, thanks to the seven hour time difference.

Broken promises

I felt a great need to avoid a helicopter seven weeks later, filming the last American flight out of Saigon.

We were determined to stay and see the North Vietnamese invasion force capturing the city and ending a war I had covered for six years.

The helicopter plucked 10 US marines from the roof of the fortress-like US embassy. The ground floor had been set alight by looters. And the embassy was under siege from thousands of panicking South Vietnamese demanding evacuation.

We climbed to the roof of our hotel and watched rockets and artillery shells hitting the airport.

The BBC governors in London decided we should evacuate ... of course, we ignored the instruction
Perched on the tallest rooftops were lines of southerners waiting for helicopters that never came. They had been promised evacuation by their employers in the CIA and other US military and aid agencies. But in the chaos, pledges were broke and these people betrayed.

They spent years in communist re-education camps as a result.

We sensed the end was near when plaster began falling off the ceiling of the broadcasting studio at Saigon Radio.

Eric and I had gone there to talk to London because there was no reliable phone lines.

As the building shook, the microphone suspended from the ceiling swung above our heads.

A renegade squadron of strike planes, which had defected to the communist North, was bombing the presidential palace just up the road.

It was at this moment that the BBC governors in London decided we should evacuate. The order to board the nearest helicopter crackled through the earphones in the dust-filled studio.

Of course, we ignored the instruction. What foreign correspondent would walk away from the biggest story yet?

Communist blitzkrieg

The union flag of Vietnam was tied to the aerial to show our supposed neutrality
We had an ancient American limo with the sort of chrome tailfins once favoured on Sunset Boulevard. The union flag of Vietnam was tied to the aerial to show our supposed neutrality. Saigon was dissolving around us as people staggered along with fridges pulled from abandoned US aid offices.

Aware of the North Vietnamese tanks barrelling towards the city, we headed for Saigon bridge.

I was in the back of the car reading a book on guerrilla warfare by General Giap, the northern communist who had defeated the French at Die Bien Phu 20 years earlier.

Then from a roadside trench jumped a South Vietnamese colonel and a dozen men. He was literally foaming at the mouth. and, with guns pointed at our heads accused of us being spies.

As he screamed, I hid the book among the broken seat springs. Then the mad colonel forced us to block the bridge with our car, he was later killed, trying to escape down the river.

We walked back shakily to the city.

An hour later we ran into the grounds of the presidential palace as North Vietnamese tanks smashed their way through the iron gates.

I stood beside the last South Vietnamese president, General "Big" Minh, as he surrendered.

Later that afternoon, we went back to the bridge and found the splintered and flattened remains of our car which had been run over by the lead tanks in the communist blitzkrieg.

But we did recover the union flag.

A BBC TWO series presents the best archive footage from five decades of BBC Television News.

1954-1974: BBC TWO, Monday, 5 July 2004, 1430BST
1974-1994: BBC TWO, Tuesday, 6 July 2004, 1430BST
1994-2004: BBC TWO, Wednesday, 7 July 2004, 1430BST

Vietnam revisited
16 Nov 00  |  Asia-Pacific
Timeline: Vietnam
03 Jun 04  |  Country profiles

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