Last Days in Vietnam was written, produced and directed by Rory Kennedy, a daughter of the late Senator Robert F. Kennedy, in partnership with her husband, Mark Bailey. It uses archival material to bring you back to the April 1975 fall of Saigon with immediacy while providing deep and balanced commentary from first-hand participants. Some of the most gripping film segments had never been made available to the public before its release.
The subject is efforts made by American personnel to rescue South Vietnamese collaborators with the U.S. as the North Vietnamese army closed in on Saigon. Many had been officers in the Army of the Republic of Vietnam or officials in the South Vietnamese government. Some were employees of U.S. government agencies, such as workers at the U.S. embassy in Saigon. Others were employed by American news agencies or private contractors, while some had simply married American soldiers or had become involved in a steady relationship with an American citizen. Of course, they all wanted to bring their dependents.
Men who participated in these events appear on camera, telling their stories as documentary footage of relevant scenes are played back. Those who played particularly vital roles and have uniquely insightful observations to contribute appear repeatedly, throughout the film.
U.S. Army Captain Stuart Herrington worked in the defense attache's office at the embassy. He describes smuggling South Vietnamese Army associates of his, with their families, onto a U.S. Army plane which then flew them out of the country. Herrington knowingly risked his career in the military in doing so, and other U.S. government personnel undertook similar risks in the same cause. Explanations for why this needed to be done surreptitiously and why "at-risk" South Vietnamese were not helped to escape in a more timely and organized manner are a key ingredient in the narrative. Herrington was at the embassy until the next-to-last flight out and describes that fateful day.
Frank Snepp, author of Decent Interval: An Insider's Account of Saigon's Indecent End Told by the Cia's Chief Strategy Analyst in Vietnam, was a CIA analyst. His recollections of Graham Martin, the U.S. Ambassador to South Vietnam, are of central importance. As the designated U.S. Department of State representative in Vietnam, the decision to evacuate was his to make. Snepp contributes substantially to our understanding of why at-risk South Vietnamese wound up being exfiltrated via "underground" arrangements or in a panicked crisis. He offers particularly interesting observations regarding the effect of the August 1974 resignation of President Richard Nixon on North Vietnamese military strategy.
Richard Armitage was working at the office of the U.S. Defense Attache in Saigon as a special forces adviser. He had served as a naval officer during three and a half tours in Vietnam and would go on to serve as Deputy Secretary of State under President George W. Bush. Armitage provides informative background as events unfold before us.
Directed to remove or destroy South Vietnamese naval vessels before they fell into enemy hands, Armitage met with Kiem Do, Deputy Chief of Staff (Operations) in the Republic of Vietnam Navy. They arranged for South Vietnamese naval officers to take their ships to designated ocean rendezvous coordinates, where they and their families would be rescued by U.S. forces waiting to destroy the ships.
U.S. Marine Corps First Lieutenant Gerald Berry was a helicopter pilot who had been awarded a Distinguished Flying Cross for his heroic rescue of a Marine reconnaissance team in 1969. He reviews for us the four alternative evacuation options prepared by U.S. military commanders for Ambassador Martin. The last-resort option was to use Marine Corps helicopters stationed near Saigon to fly refugees to U.S. carriers off the Vietnamese coastline.
On April 29, 1975, the Tan Son Nhut Air Base on the outskirts of Saigon fell to the North Vietnamese. This set off the commencement of Operation Frequent Wind, a last-minute implementation of the relatively impractical fourth option — evacuation by helicopter. Marine embassy guard Mike Sullivan appears on camera with riveting anecdotes of final rushed efforts to assemble Vietnamese merchants who had dealt with embassy staff, destroy documents and burn U.S. currency.
Gerald Berry was the helicopter pilot assigned to evacuate the ambassador. Berry recalls how Ambassador Martin refused to board before South Vietnamese who had filled the embassy compound were lifted out to ships waiting offshore, thus setting off the airlift of Vietnamese civilians. We're shown dramatic scenes from the embassy compound, narrated by U.S. servicemen and Saigon residents who were there.
Hugh Doyle was Chief Engineer on the destroyer escort USS Kirk, which was protecting the helicopters flying back-and-forth between the embassy and naval ships waiting offshore, and Paul Jacobs was the Commanding Officer. They speak as we watch Hueys commandeered from South Vietnamese Army and Air Force bases approach the ship, "packed like sardines", and begin to land, one after the other. If you have seen pictures of helicopters being pushed into the sea as Saigon fell to the communists, this is where it happened.
The narrative returns to Armitage, who arrived at the designated location to find not only 30 South Vietnamese Navy ships, but also dozens of cargo ships and fishing boats crammed with 30,000 or more Vietnamese refugees, which is quite a sight to behold. Without permission from Washington, Armitage decided to lead the entire flotilla to safety at the U.S. Naval Base at Subic Bay in the Philippines.
It's left to Mike Sullivan and Juan Valdez, who was in charge of the 84 Marine security guards at the embassy, to describe the suspenseful rooftop rescue by helicopter of the remaining U.S. Marines.