The Bitter End

A Vietnamese war photographer remembers chaos and terror in central Vietnam in March 1975.
2010-04-30
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A mother and children wounded in a Viet Cong ambush along the Hai Van Pass, March 1975.
A mother and children wounded in a Viet Cong ambush along the Hai Van Pass, March 1975.
Photo: Khiem Tran

WASHINGTON—Khiem Tran spent much of the Vietnam War as a correspondent for the U.S. television networks ABC and CBS, recording history as it happened and transmitting it around the world. But for 35 years, he’s kept one stash of photos to himself.

These show the chaos and terror let loose in late March 1975 as North Vietnamese forces began their invasion to take control of South Vietnam—prompting a military and civilian exodus from Hue and Da Nang, one month before the Saigon government fell.

Tran, 78, kept these photos private to avoid embarrassing the fallen government and those he photographed.

“I kept this pain to myself” for 35 years, he said in an interview.

“I gritted my teeth, and I held onto these photos. But now I’ve opened up a bit to let our children know how hard our lives have been, and why we left Vietnam. We have paid a very high price.”

“Nothing can describe these scenes—tens of thousands of people, troops and civilians, driving, walking, carrying their possessions, their children, some even took their cattle with them—as they fled their homes, their farms, and their family graves,” he said.

haiVanPassMap042910.jpg


Along with South Vietnamese troops, civilians also left Hue and Da Nang in their thousands, he said.

“The [1968] Tet offensive in Hue had killed many people—that’s why they were so afraid. It was rumored that 12,000 people were killed then, but the documents and press reports set the figure at about 7,000 people.”

“The Viet Cong had led them into the sand and asked them to dig their own graves—then they beheaded them with knives, and then hit the heads with shovels before kicking them down into the graves. When the victims’ families went out searching, they heard moaning from underground and saw the ground shaking,” Tran said.

Days of terror

“With the soldiers in Da Nang, it was chaos…From March 25-28, the airport was a mess. There was artillery, and the planes couldn’t land. Whenever airplanes could land, people tried to get onto them and some even held on to the airplane's tires at takeoff.”

“I will never forget how from March 28-29, I saw many people, including children, fall into the river as they tried to climb into boats,” he said.

“They fell into a river in the dark, the water was flowing too fast, and then they drifted away, with people just standing on the boats and crying and unable to do anything.”

Fast facts
- The North Vietnamese military staged its invasion to unify the country from Jan. 4-April 30, 1975
- The assault on Hue and Da Nang ran from March 21-29, 1975
- An estimated 587,000 Vietnamese civilians were killed in the Vietnam-War

“I went to Hue in 1968 as a reporter on assignment. I am from Hue. I would have preferred to die than to be ‘liberated’” by the North Vietnamese, he said.

In 1975, “most people fled with the Marines—they didn’t want to, because troops get ambushed, but the soldiers cleared the way for them. Everyone was running, confused, not knowing where they were heading or how long it would take.”

“Both the people and the troops were totally surprised,” Tran said.

“In rural areas, people were not evacuated, but Hue was evacuated 100 percent. The photographic evidence I have shows Hue completely empty.”

Two ambushes

From about March 20, Tran said, “people from Hue city were beginning to scatter. Marines and paratroopers were pulling back from Hue, so people started to panic and followed them.”

“One group retreated to Thuan An, and from there the Navy ships would bring them Da Nang. Another group went [directly] by boat to Da Nang. And a last group retreated from Da Nang through the Hai Van pass route.”

On the way from Hue to Da Nang, he said, “I saw two ambushes. One occurred in Da Bac, Hue, before the pass. It was quick but it killed some Marines and civilians.”

“Then the next day, when the Army started [leading people] down the Hai Van pass…the shelling and attacks started again. In these photos, many women and children are killed and wounded.”

“They shot 82mm, 81mm, and B-40 mortars and shot right into the group. The victims were mainly soldiers. They [Viet Cong] didn’t want to kill civilians—they just wanted to stop people from fleeing…because capturing an empty city would be worthless.”

Tran’s photos will be exhibited from April 30-May 2 at The Vietnamese Herald newspaper in southern California.

Original reporting in Vietnamese by Tran Van. Translated by Minh-Ha Le. Vietnamese service director: Khanh Nguyen. Executive producer: Susan Lavery. Written for the Web in English by Sarah Jackson-Han.

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