Memorial Day reflection – the unknown and unknowable extent of heroism and sacrifice

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Memorial Day.

I’m reflecting on all that I don’t know and will never know about the extent to which men and women have sacrificed for this country’s freedoms.

Here’s an example. In late April of this year, my husband and I watched several television programs that aired commemorating the 40-year anniversary of the fall of Saigon in the Vietnam war in April 1975. One program in particular stunned me. Rory Kennedy's film, "Last Days in Vietnam," seen on PBS American Experience, was about the evacuation of the the U.S. embassy, which was actually the evacuation of Saigon from the place of the U.S. embassy. I had no idea the extent of heroism, sacrifice, and drama related to this evacuation.

April 29-30, 1975: I was just about to graduate from high school. I remember watching the news about Saigon on television – we’d been watching the news about the Vietnam war for years – but I don’t remember taking in the details or the scope of the event. Certainly, much of what was in the documentary has come to light over the years and wasn’t on the nightly news. But also, certainly, and sadly, I probably was more focused on what I’d wear to graduation and making final college decisions at the time.

Here are only a few examples of what I learned from the documentary. The Marines made 75 helicopter runs, within 24 hours, in and out of the embassy to bring South Vietnamese (men, women, children) and Americans out to waiting ships. The helicopters were crammed full of people; the ships were crammed full of people. Marines on the ground were going around Saigon trying to find food and clothes for the refugees on the ships. No one wanted to stop evacuating people from the embassy grounds until the last person waiting for his or her turn on the helicopter had a spot and was airborne, but eventually a line had to be drawn after which no more people could be lifted it. It must have been a devastating moment in real life; it was a devastating moment in the documentary. The documentary was full of statements from the servicemen flying the helicopters, on the ships, and in the embassy. You can hear the heartbreak in their voices that people were left behind, but all they did to get as many out as they did had me choked up.

There was a story about how a couple Americans - not sure if they were embassy personnel or Marines - went around Saigon personally picking up the tailor who had helped them sew uniforms, and his family, the cooks who had fed them, and their families, and so on; they picked up all kinds of workers for whom they were grateful, and their families.

One South Vietnamese pilot took a Chinook helicopter and landed it near his home in Saigon to rescue his family. It was too big to land on the ship, however, and so they each jumped out of the helicopter from high up. The Marines on the deck caught – caught! – each one, including the baby wrapped in a blanket. The father hovered the Chinook over the water while he got out of his flight suit and stepped out just as it rolled into the water; he lived and boarded the ship with only his underwear, and his saved family.

There was a story about a boatload of South Vietnamese and a few Marines traversing a small river through enemy territory to get to the waiting ships. Just as they entered the area where they thought they would get shot at, a huge storm came out of nowhere and shielded them in sight and sound by the rain. When the storm passed they were out of enemy territory.

There was a scene where the ships loaded with thousands and thousands of people approached the Philippines. The ships with South Vietnamese flags weren’t allowed in. They had to take down their flags, and Americans put up their flags instead. The documentary showed the South Vietnamese lowering their flag and singing their national anthem, saying goodbye to their country, saying goodbye to everything.

The documentary’s website is here. You can read a review of the documentary in the New York Times here.

I’m sorry I didn’t know all these things before.


[Photo: taken of the Vietnam Veteran's Memorial in Washington D.C. during a family vacation years ago; this particular section includes the name of a friend's father.]