The fall of Saigon: how CBC, CTV covered the 1975 events

The fall of Saigon in April 1975 would be the final chapter of the United States' involvement in Vietnam. And it was also a dangerous story to cover for the news teams of CBC and CTV.

CBC crew 40 years ago included Peter Kent, Mike Duffy

The fall of Saigon

9 years ago
Duration 5:47
Former CBC correspondent, Mike Duffy, reports on the American evacuation of Saigon 40 years ago

The fall of Saigon in April 1975 marked the final chapter of the United States' involvement in Vietnam, and the Canadian news teams covering it say they'll never forget the danger and confusion as the Americans evacuated.

Looking back 40 years, then-correspondent Peter Kent remembers a "very chaotic scene" across Saigon on the day he and his CBC crew got out.

"I still wake up in the middle of the night thinking how lucky we were," Kent says.

In 1973 the last of the American troops in Vietnam withdrew under the terms of the Paris Peace Accords that had been signed in January, although the U.S. still maintained a significant presence in the country.

The agreement also called for a ceasefire between North and South Vietnamese forces, but over the next two years, 30,000 fighting for the South and possibly twice as many fighting for the North died, along with 15,000 civilians.

In March 1975 the North launched an all-out military offensive.

Despite its superiority in troops and equipment, "The army of South Vietnam simply collapsed , the North Vietnamese Army rolled southwards like a juggernaut," Canadian reporter Hilary Brown recalls.

Then with ABC News, she had arrived in Vietnam in early April 1975.

Canadians evacuate

Globe and Mail reporter Malcolm Gray, CBC cameraman Ian Wilson, CTV cameraman Louis de Guise, and CBC correspondent Peter Kent (left to right) wait beside the Canadian embassy pool in Saigon, April 24, 1975, for a media briefing about the Canadian evacuation. (Louis de Guise)

The week before the American evacuation from Saigon, now Ho Chi Minh City, Canadian government employees and Canadians who wanted to join them evacuated by air.  Canada only had one airplane, which took its diplomats and the embassy car out of Vietnam.

It was a controversial move, as it meant leaving behind thousands of Vietnamese with visas for Canada or promises they would get one. Kent reported from Saigon on April 24 that it was, "what some people here consider an abandoned Canadian obligation."

"The protocol-conscious Canadians," Kent told viewers, required the Vietnamese to have exit visas from their government, something very difficult to obtain in the confusion of the last weeks.

The Americans decided to ignore that rule, and took Vietnamese with Canadian visas on their own airlift.

CBC reporters Peter Kent and Mike Duffy listen to Canada's charge d'affaires in Saigon, South Vietnam, Ernest Hebert, explain the Canadian evacuation from South Vietnam, April 24, 1975. (CBC)

Nevertheless, the timing and circumstances of the evacuation were controversial back in Canada. After 25 years, Ernest Hebert, Canada's charge d'affaires in Saigon, defended the Canadian role in a 2000 As It Happens interview.

After the Canadian diplomats left and their embassy closed, Kent recalled in an interview this week with CBC News, he and other CBC staff advised the crowd outside the Canadian embassy to go to other embassies that might help. 

Reporting the war's last days

In Vietnam in April 1975, a typical day for both the CBC and CTV crews was to hire a taxi from the Caravelle hotel where they were staying and head out of the city to get their story about the fighting. CTV cameraman Louis de Guise remembers that his reporter, Henry Champ, would order lunch and beer on ice along with the taxi, as they'd usually be out in the field all day.

But as North Vietnamese troops got closer, the journalists started spending more time in Saigon. 

Peter Kent interviews ‎USAF pilot Captain Bob Norman at Bien Hoa airbase in South Vietnam in 1966, just before a bombing and strafing mission near the Cambodian border. Kent was a freelancer on his first trip to Vietnam. (Peter Kent)

Kent tells the story how, on April 27, he had been at the presidential palace for the swearing in for a new South Vietnamese president, the third man to hold the office in a week.

From there he walked to the PTT shortwave studio, where he was to do a live report and interview for CBC Radio News. 

While Kent's item was on the air, a rogue pilot from the South Vietnamese air force dropped a bomb on the nearby presidential palace.

Not knowing what was happening, a startled Kent and his interviewee, a BBC reporter, crawled under a desk in the studio and "finished off our little piece sitting on the floor."

The next day CBC Radio reporter Mike Duffy left for Hong Kong on the last commercial flight to leave Saigon's Tan Son Nhut airport. He had been in Vietnam since April 4. 

CBC correspondent Mike Duffy talks to the Toronto Star's Jack Cahill at the Canadian Embassy in Saigon. Duffy was in Vietnam from April 4 until he and Malcolm Gray, second from left, flew out on April 28, 1975. (Louis de Guise)

Duffy, once in Hong Kong, told CBC Radio's As It Happens host Barbara Frum about the experience. First they had to pay bribes, including $150 US to get their boarding passes — other passengers paid much more. It all took hours. Then the U.S. company that fueled the planes refused to do so until Air Vietnam paid for the fuel in advance, in cash.

Meanwhile, South Vietnamese planes were bombing enemy positions close to the airport. Duffy told Frum bombs had been dropping at the airport and mortars were landing on the edge of the runway.

At the end of the interview, Duffy told Frum to expect "reports of thousands upon thousands of junks, small boats, rowboats, motorboats heading out into the South China Sea, looking for American warships, aircraft carriers, for ships of any country in international waters, seeking refuge from South Vietnam."

The first wave of what became known as the boat people had begun.

Big decisions

The next morning, Kent said the CBC crew still in Saigon was driving to the airport in search of the day's story, with the radio tuned to U.S. Armed Forces radio. They were listening for the secret code to begin the American evacuation.

Then they heard it, Bing Crosby singing White Christmas, followed by the announcer saying, "it's 110 degrees and rising in Saigon." Kent says he still gets chills down his spine at Christmas time when he hears the song.

Peter Kent and cameraman Ian Wilson film events at the Phnom Penh airport in 1975, a few days before Cambodia fell to the Khmer Rouge. (Peter Kent)

The CBC news team — Kent, cameraman Ian Wilson, producer George James, and reporter Colin Hoath — had met the night before trying to discuss whether or not to stay and cover the North Vietnamese takeover of Saigon. They couldn't decide.

Meanwhile, CTV reporters Champ and de Guise had already agreed to leave. Since they had lots of film they had shot for a documentary for W5, De Guise says they decided it was better to go in order to get that story broadcast.

It was April 29. They got on a bus provided by the U.S. embassy, the last one that was taking people to the airport. When they arrived, de Guise says the airport was closed and burning. Then their bus was fired on, breaking the windows, as the passengers lay on the floor.

Chaos at the harbour

From the airport, their bus driver headed to the harbour. 

"There he got instructions to let us out so we could take a boat and go," de Guise remembers.

He says they saw only fishing boats, so overcrowded one person would get aboard and two would fall into the water.

The scene around the bus was also chaotic. The passengers convinced the driver to take them to the embassy, but people at the harbour were trying to get on the already full bus. Champ, big and strong, was at the door trying to get them to clear a path for the bus. 

As they left, a woman holding a young child was hanging on to the metal grid over the bus windows. De Guise says she fell off, and the bus also hit and killed someone.

The CBC reporters, seeing the scene at the airport, told their driver to head downtown. Rally points for the evacuation that they passed were scenes of pandemonium. They headed for the U.S. Embassy with what they could carry, intending to get out of Vietnam and abandoning their belongings at the hotel.

"We got through the crowd, which was then getting out of control," and continuing to grow outside the embassy walls, Kent says. 

Burning money

The bus with the CTV crew stopped outside the embassy grounds, but on the side opposite the gate. De Guise and Champ started climbing the wall. 

On April 29, 1975, people try to scale the 14-foot wall of the U.S. embassy in Saigon, trying to reach evacuation helicopters, as the last of the Americans depart from Vietnam. (Neal Ulevich/Associated Press)

They couldn't take everything, but de Guise says he climbed with his big CP15 film camera in one hand, a backpack full of film cans and two still-cameras around his neck.

It took a long time to go over the wall. People were grabbing onto the clothing of others to make their way up. 

Along the wall inside were marines checking papers, which very few of the climbers had. For the few who did, the marines would help. If not, de Guise says, they hit people's hands with the butt-ends of their machine guns to get them off the wall.

With de Guise and Champ, "They just saw our white faces, didn't ask questions, just helped us to go over." 

Once over the wall the marines searched people for guns, throwing what they found in the embassy pool. "The bottom was just full of guns," de Guise says.

De Guise's still cameras had fallen off on the wrong side of the wall but soon he was filming other people coming over the wall and the marines doing their work.

Meanwhile, Kent saw U.S. Embassy staff burning money in an incinerator. 

There was a big tree by the main entrance to the embassy. The U.S. ambassador, Graham Martin, had resisted allowing Marines to cut it down, even in the last days when it was obvious evacuation would be necessary. The tree would prevent big helicopters from landing in the courtyard. 

Finally, Martin gave the order. "Everybody, including us, took turns with axes chopping down this huge bloody tree," Kent says.

Colin Hoath, the CBC reporter, called his wife Sandy in Hong Kong from the embassy roof. On a prior day Colin had discussed staying in Saigon to cover the North's takeover. Now he said the CBC reporters were planning to take the last helicopter from the embassy.

On to the helicopters

Soon Champ and de Guise boarded a big helicopter. Kent recalls watching from an embassy doorway while it tried to take off. The copter lurched forward, but couldn't get off the ground - they had been piling people on, now they were forced to throw about 30 people off. 

The helicopter finally got off the ground and made the 45-minute trip to the U.S. 7th Fleet in the South China Sea.

Kent and colleagues abandoned their plans and boarded a chopper that night. The last helicopter took off from the embassy roof about 8 a.m. It was April 30.

Four hours later, North Vietnamese tanks crashed through the gates of presidential place, its surrender pre-arranged. They unfurled the flag of the Provisional Revolutionary Government from a first floor balcony.

A helicopter flown from South Vietnam that had just landed on a U.S. aircraft carrier in the South China Sea is pushed overboard to make room for other helicopters to land, April 30, 1975. (CBC)

Out at the 7th Fleet's location, de Guise and Wilson were filming an incredible scene.

"At first, it just looked like a big cloud coming and then just dozens and dozens coming one after the other, trying to land at the same time," says de Guise. They were South Vietnamese military helicopters.

Some would land on an aircraft carrier, while solo pilots ditched in the sea. On the carriers, as soon as everyone was off, the helicopters would be pushed into the ocean, making room for the next ones to land. De Guise says the passengers were "mainly South Vietnamese officers with their gold and money and family and dogs."

Hilary Brown was on one of the last flights to leave the embassy. Her story for ABC from the USS Hancock about ditching the helicopters may be the most famous report from that day. It appears in The Deer Hunter, which won the 1978 Academy Award for best picture.

Losing contact

In Canada, both CBC and CTV initially reported their staff missing, having lost contact. 

Sandy Hoath in Hong Kong didn't know about those reports. It would be a few days before she heard from Colin, who called from the U.S. naval station at Subic Bay, the Philippines. Sandy remembers she was reasonably relaxed during that time. 

"I guess I was so used to him being away and in Vietnam."

De Guise tells the story of his then-wife getting a call in London from news executive Don Cameron, who said he was calling with great news: They had found Louis. She replied, "I didn't even know he was missing."

CTV cameraman Louis de Guise goofs around at the U.S. military base in Subic Bay, Philippines in May 1975 after the evacuation from Saigon and then days on aircraft carriers. He'had to abandon most of his belongings in Saigon. (Louis de Guise)

CBC-TV planned a news special for the night of April 30 on the fall of Saigon, hosted by anchor Lloyd Robertson. But the CBC team had to figure out a way to file  their report.

"We were stuck," producer George James recalls. They were on the USS Okinawa, not the USS Blue Ridge, the fleet's communications ship. He says an American officer offered to take the CBC film by helicopter to the Blue Ridge, and from there CBS reporter Ed Bradley, later with 60 Minutes, carried it to the CBC offices in Hong Kong.

When producer Alan Erlich screened the film, reported by Peter Kent, there was no voice track. Erlich got Duffy to write and record a narration track. They edited out Kent's on-camera sequences, put the elements together, and it led the special.

Peter Kent is now the member of Parliament for Thornhill, Ont. and a former federal cabinet minister.

Mike Duffy became a senator in 2008, now suspended. Because of his trial now underway he was unable to comment publicly for this story.

Louis de Guise lives in Washington, sometimes working as a freelance videographer for CBC News.

Hilary Brown lives in Toronto.

George James lives in Hastings, Ont. and Costa Rica.

Reporters Colin Hoath and Henry Champ, and CBC cameramen Ian Wilson and Ernie Einarsson (he left Saigon April 28) have died.

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