Through first-hand accounts, relive the historic events that led up to the reunification of Vietnam

Much has been set down on paper about the historic Ho Chi Minh Campaign that culminated in the liberation of Saigon on April 30, 1975 — although few comprehensive accounts have been written from the perspective of the southern administration that fled into American exile shortly before the victory of the northern forces. Tran Mai Hanh’s award-winning history of the final four months of the conflict (which was released earlier this year for the first time in English under the title A War Account 1-2-3-4.75) attempts the ambitious project of rebuilding the whole drama of the fall of the Thieu regime as it unfolded: The book is largely based on first-hand accounts and supplementary documents that the author personally collected while assigned to the campaign as a special reporter for the Vietnam News Agency, traveling from place to place in the aftermath of the fighting and sweeping up those written materials that had been left behind.

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Present at the Independence Palace at the moment of liberation and witness to the events that took place there on that day, Tran Mai Hanh was the first journalist to cover the triumph, also taking the opportunity then to retrieve numerous secret documents and records that had been abandoned by the outgoing administration. According to the author, it was these documents — combined with those others that he’d preserved from the earlier campaign victories—that provided the genesis for the book.

“I wasn’t assigned to do it,” explains author Tran Mai Hanh. “Actually, the intention to create this book came to me quite suddenly during the first days of the liberated Saigon, while I was thinking that historic events like this can only happen once, just as people only have one life. I wanted to rebuild the facts that occurred during the days of the Republic of Vietnam (Nguyen Van Thieu’s government) honestly, based on those original and top secret documents—the telegrams issuing war commands, the reliable texts from the other side (the side of the Republic of Vietnam and America). If I were to be successful in this reconstruction, the readers should know what the other side had to confront in their last moments of the war, how they thought and acted, how they managed their war in a way that brought them to complete collapse.”

Early on in the writing process, Tran Mai Hanh decided to present his material as a dramatization rather than a documentary work, rebuilding the events as they occurred in sequence as a historical novel. “I realized that if it were written in the form of a journalistic memoir, the work would mostly be a plain record carrying events and documents that wouldn’t resonate for very long,” says the author. “So, I decided to build a historical novel instead, with a strict structure of chapters and sections and with typical characters with their moods and personalities reflecting the circumstances of those horrible last days of the end of the war.”

While the resulting work reads somewhat like a war thriller, the author has made a very pointed attempt to rebuild the historical facts of the last months and days of the collapse of the Saigon government with an objective, unbiased, and personal view of the fates of the prominent figures from the other side, so as to preserve a truthfulness in the writing about the events and incidents that took place. “Throughout the nearly 600-page book,” he states, “I never put in my own personal comments or reviews; I wrote as if the author were not there. The whole content and the text, the materials quoted on each page, were left to speak for themselves. To have possession of those precious materials, I was both strangely fortunate and had the support of many people.”

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A War Account was first assessed and then published by National Political Publishing House in early April 2014 as Biên bản chiến tranh 1-2- 3-4.75. Over the two following years, the book was republished three times and consecutively won prestigious awards both at home and within the region, including the 2014 Literature Award from the Vietnam Writers’ Association and the ASEAN Literature Award in 2015, based on a number of chapters that had been translated into English. Faced with this positive feedback, the Executive Board of the Vietnam Writers’ Association decided to have the novel fully translated into English “to introduce and advertise literary works on the war for the national defense and liberation and the aspiration for peace of the Vietnamese people.” When released, the translation was considered to be politically significant following President Barack Obama’s recent comments in Hanoi that “the war lessons will be lessons for the whole world.”

Writing about figures who had been regarded as enemies of the northern administration was a fascinating experience for the book’s author, who sought to deeply understand the mindset and background of these high-profile individuals from the other side. “The main character throughout the book is President Nguyen Van Thieu,” says Tran Mai Hanh. “I even have Thieu and his wife’s ID numbers and issue dates. Thieu went in for military service, then progressed from the military to the Independence Palace where his role was as President. From the Independence Palace, Thieu phoned all the military divisions, and directed the entire battle. He was an extremely intelligent person; decisive, tricky, brutal, following the United States and the anti-communists until the end.”

The book features an extensive appendix that presents multiple source documents transcribed and translated from the originals, including written military commands, communiques between Thieu and Nixon, written submissions from the general staff and intelligence analysis reports of the Saigon Army and US embassy from the time, among others. The documents lend both credence and perspective to this account, providing an unparalleled insight into the final days of the old Saigon and the staggering corruption and mismanagement of its regime.

A War Account 1-2-3-4.75 is available direct from the author. See goo.gl/PL2Rcf for details

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Excerpt From A War Account 1-2-3-4.75

On the morning of March 16, the US Embassy was shocked by the news that the Army Corps had withdrawn from Pleiku. General Times flew a helicopter immediately to Pleiku to rescue an American consul, Dao, and staff members of the CIA. Times looked out of the helicopter into the chaos below him: “In just a single night, all the routes converging into Road 7B have become streams of anarchy and fear. It resembles a great colony of ants moving in a whirlpool of petrol fume and dust.” 

Fanning out of the destroyed provincial capitals and townships of the Highlands were streams of  frightened people, their numbers stretching back as far as the eyes could see. The withdrawing army was being intercepted at the foot of Cheo Reo Pass. All of a sudden, an AK spat gunfire from the top of the Pass, and Ly felt as if the earth was sinking under his feet. The element of surprise—the one factor of the plan upon which everyone had relied—no longer existed. The enemy was yet to unleash their entire attack, but it was enough to severely hinder the withdrawal operation.

Ly felt that he had to think less and act more. In such a short time since his leaving Pleiku, Ly had witnessed so much. Roughly half a million civilians, including the residents of Pleiku and others along the route, were being swept into the withdrawal. No order or formation existed anymore. The streets were lined with masses of people and vehicles—a frantic scene. Many died as the crowds trampled over each other to escape. Soldiers neglected their mission to escort everyone to safety and moved to the front of the evacuation. Vehicles were heavily damaged in attempts to manoeuvre the terrible roads. Many of the elderly and children were killed as vehicles ran over them. Soldiers became frustrated at their commanders, including Thieu, and threatened to fire upon them. An artillery Battalion Commander was shot dead by his rangers as they stole his watch.

Cavalry Squadron 18 and Armored Squadron 21, together with hundreds of troops from Ranger Leagues 6, risked their lives to open the barricade, but they were driven back to the foot of the hill. General Tat and Colonel Nguyen Van Dong, Commander of Cavalry Regiment 2, rushed to Ly:

“Colonel Ly, what should we do now?”

“We have to open the barricade!” Ly tensely ordered. “Call air support and use our strike power to launch an attack on the hilltop.”

Tat hesitated:

“This mission was meant to be top-secret, and only verbal commands were to be issued. I fear that we would compromise this if we were to phone Saigon and Nha Trang to call for air support…”

Ly brushed Tat’s concerns aside:

“It’s not a secret anymore, the enemy is already attacking us! We need to do this now or we’ll all die.”

Colonel Dang Dinh Sieu, Deputy Commander of the Cavalry Regiment, also ran away. Ly, Tat, Dong and Sieu, following a discussion on how to move forward, called Phu at Nha Trang to send over the bombers.

When Ly and Tat took small group of remaining troops to a highlanders’ village, the sun had set behind the mountain. The first round of bombs  dropped by General Sang’s Air Force division hit Commando League 6 in the middle of the Pass, as troops were in the middle of restoring the formation for a fresh attack on the barricade. One Commando Company and three armored cars were destroyed. The troops retreated in fear. Commandos and cavalry men also ran for their lives without focusing on opening the barricade. Colonel Dong, Commander of Cavalry Regiment, silently got out of the car, changed into civilian clothes, and disappeared. Ly, Tat and Sieu ran back to look for him and found his car with the engine still running. But only his uniform, hat, stars, shoes and shotgun remained inside the car. The three men looked at  each other, shaking their heads in frustration and shock. 

The last rays of light disappeared over the forest. The fighting ceased and the Highlands afternoon sky was calm. As rangers and cavalry men freely ran away with their  families through the forest to Phu Bon, Ly ordered his troops to take shelter at a village in the Highlands, parallel to Route 7B, two kilometers to the south east of Phu Bon. Out of hunger, thirst and general desperation, the troops robbed and murdered the villagers, leaving behind a scene of horror…

The second bombing raid to support the attack to open Cheo Reo barricade occurred the next morning, decimating another battalion of rangers and some more armored  cars. As a wave of tattered evacuees flooded into Phu Bon, the provincial capital immediately fell into chaos. Robbery and shooting became an epidemic in the city. The  streets were jammed with traffic and became completely congested as more people and vehicles continued to converge onto them. It was dusk. When the Liberation Force’s first barrage of shells hit the center of the provincial capital, the chaotic atmosphere reached its climax. In the dark night, the withdrawing troops continued to move with urgency, bringing along tens of thousands of Phu Bon residents. Heavy weaponry had to be left behind; it was too late to destroy it. From then on, seven commando  leagues, three cavalry squadrons, two infantry regiments, and the majority of II Corps had been wiped out. Ly and Tat, both exhausted and ragged, ran for their lives among the rebel troops. 

If Route 7B was “the Route of Hell,” Song Ba Valley was “the Valley of Death.” Later at noon, Ly was shocked when he arrived at the river. The 300-meter-wide river had no bridge, as previously promised by the engineers. He could only clutch at his head and scream. Ly’s squared-shaped head was covered in sweat, hot under the burning sun. He wiped the beads of sweat off his eyes. Behind Ly, tens of thousands of evacuees were huddling together. In front of him, the Ba river was flowing swiftly like a gigantic white ribbon stretching endlessly. Standing shoulder to shoulder with Ly was Tat. Colonel Sieu, Deputy Commander of Cavalry Regiment 2, had also taken unauthorized leave from Phu Bon. While Ly called Phu over the phone for reinforcements, Tat flung himself along the edge of the river, waving his hands as he cursed: “Damn you, engineers! Damn you!”

The Chinook helicopter transported perforated steel planks for the engineers to bridge the river. A swarm of other helicopters were trailing each other to search for Song Ba Valley, throwing down bread and dry provisions in attempts to save the tens of thousands of people suffering from hunger and thirst. The living had nothing to eat, and the dead had nowhere to be buried, while the dying were left curled up on the earth to breathe their last few gasps of air. Some mothers could not fathom leaving behind the dead bodies of their children. They walked around confuzed, maddened by their sadness, carrying in their arms the cold, pale bodies of their sons and daughters who had passed away days earlier. During the day, the sun was like a huge cast-iron stove spitting fire onto the earth; at night time, the smell of the soil and mountain mist rose and  penetrated the air. Song Ba Valley became a gigantic cemetery of death—death by hunger, by disease, and by murder, as people were reduced to fight like wild beasts in order to seize the last of the available provisions.

An exhausted Ly fainted as soon as he boarded a helicopter. The HU-1A, sent by Phu, took a giant risk by landing in the middle of a frantic crowd to rescue Ly. Tat was  nowhere to be seen. When the helicopter took off, the makeshift floating bridge had just been completed. Tens of thousands of people rushed across, although hundreds of  them fell and were thrown into the deep river.

The next day, the valley echoed with the frightening cries of hungry ravens. Hundreds of dead bodies were floating on that long section of the river. When the ravens smelled the rotting flesh, they arrived in flocks. Streams of people continued to cross the bridge…