Neal Ulevich  /  AP
Mobs of Vietnamesee scale the wall of the U.S. Embassy in Saigon, trying to get to the helicopter pickup zone on April 29, 1975.   
By George Lewis Correspondent
NBC News
updated 4/29/2005 6:58:43 AM ET 2005-04-29T10:58:43

Thirty years ago today, I was in the beleaguered South Vietnamese capital, on a telephone hookup with the NBC Nightly News in New York, reporting on how the North Vietnamese had encircled Saigon. 

In those days, we didn't have live TV satellite transmissions from war zones and no Internet, so the phone and a clunky old teletype machine were our only ways of relaying the fast-moving developments.

The Vietnam War was about to end. A decade of U.S. involvement in that war had seen the deaths of almost 60,000 Americans, 224,000 South Vietnamese troops, 1.1 million communist fighters and 2 million civilians.

Anchorman John Chancellor introduced me this way on April 29, 1975:  "NBC correspondent George Lewis, who has volunteered to stay on in Saigon, has this report."

Actually, I had volunteered to stay on only until the U.S. Marines arrived to pull the remaining Americans out of Saigon, something that would happen a few hours later.

Seeing history first-hand
Like a lot of other young white, college-educated men of my generation, I had managed to dance away from the draft via student deferments, marriage and family responsibilities.

But Vietnam was a defining event for my generation and, as a journalist, I was drawn to it because the story of the American role in the conflict there had overshadowed everything else in the late 1960's.  It brought me to Vietnam as an NBC News correspondent for the first time in 1970.

In the months after my arrival, soldiers in the field would often ask me if NBC ordered me to go to Vietnam.

"Do you guys have a choice about being here or is it voluntary?" they'd ask.

"I volunteered for this assignment," I'd reply.

"How long are you here for?"

"My deal is for 18 months," I'd answer, "Although it might run longer."

"Are you nuts?" they'd ask incredulously, often inserting a well-placed obscenity or two. After all, draftees served one-year hitches in Vietnam, most men counting down each day until they could return home, to what they called "the World."

And they would never buy my explanations about how, as a journalist, I wanted to be an eyewitness to history. They didn't quite believe me when I'd say, "It's important for the people back home to know what you guys are going through. In order to tell the story for TV, I've got to go where the action is."

And it's that desire to bear witness that drove me back to Vietnam in 1975. I wanted to see how it would come to an end.

Panic sets in and ‘Operation Peacock’
When I got to Saigon in early April, the panic had already begun. My late colleague and close friend Arthur Lord had been put in charge of the NBC Saigon bureau and he had to deal with two big assignments at once — cover the story and get our Vietnamese employees out of the country.

Practically all of NBC's Saigon staff were Vietnamese, many of whom had fled the communists previously, in 1954, when the country was divided, north and south. These people knew that life under the North Vietnamese would not be a picnic, especially for former employees of the "imperialist aggressors,” as Hanoi referred to Americans.

So, Lord organized something called "Operation Peacock," an airlift out of Vietnam of the NBC employees who wanted to leave, along with their immediate families, a total of 104 people.

Lord faced opposition from the U.S. Embassy because the ambassador at the time didn't want to, in his words, "start a panic."  U.S. Ambassador Graham Martin seemed to be utterly oblivious to the fact that the panic had started without his help.

But finally, after all the U.S. TV networks put pressure on Washington, approval came to start evacuating the Vietnamese personnel.

It was a risky proposition getting the people to Tan Son Nhut airport, one vanload at a time. Sometimes, nervous guards at the main gate of the airport would brandish their weapons at them and fire off occasional warning rounds. 

Often the guards would shake down Lord, demanding bribes to let the people pass. But he kept making that run until all the Vietnamese got out. He would later say that of all the assignments in his career, "Operation Peacock" was the one that gave him the most pride.

North Vietnamese headed in
On the day before Saigon fell, North Vietnamese artillery and tanks were beginning to shell the outskirts of the city.

Those of us left in the Saigon bureau huddled and worked out a plan: Lord would fly out in one of the few remaining charter planes to get our film transmitted from Bangkok, Thailand. Most of the rest of us would leave via the Marine evacuation helicopters. And a few people volunteered to stay behind.

Slideshow: Fall of Saigon

One of them was the late Neil Davis, an Australian cameraman who would later capture exclusive scenes of North Vietnamese tanks smashing through the gates of the presidential palace in Saigon and raising the communist flag there.

When the decision was made to start the evacuation, the American radio station was supposed to broadcast a coded message to the remaining U.S. citizens: "It's 105 degrees in Saigon and rising," followed by the playing of Bing Crosby's rendition of "White Christmas." 

But the helicopters began arriving before the warning was sent. A worker at the radio station later told me, "In the confusion, we never got the word."

Dodging bullets in race to Marine helicopter
As the evacuation got under way, the U.S. Embassy was mobbed with Vietnamese civilians trying to push through the gates and catch one of the helicopters landing on the roof. Marines, wielding their rifle butts, kept shoving the crowds away.

By the time a bus arrived for us at one of the designated pickup points, the young Marine driver had orders to go to the airport instead of the embassy. The only problem was that North Vietnamese artillery was shelling the airport intermittently, and we ducked low as we ran for one of the buildings at the U.S. compound there, as those artillery shells exploded nearby.

Finally, the barrage lifted, and our U.S. Marine Sea Knight helicopter took off, with 64 of us aboard, heading for the flotilla of U.S. Navy ships offshore.  

As we crossed over the coastline at Vung Tau, we knew we were finally safe, leaving Vietnam behind. But those of us who were there 30 years ago will never leave those memories behind as long as we live.

George Lewis is an NBC News correspondent based out of Burbank. He was a combat correspondent for NBC News during the Vietnam War. See more of his reporting on the 30th anniversary of the end of the Vietnam War on NBC's Nightly News on Saturday evening.

Video: Fleeing Saigon


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