April 29. 1975 was the most humiliating day of Thach Duy Nguyen’s life.
That day the young South Vietnamese officer clambered aboard a U.S. Marine Helicopter at Tan Nhet Airport with his wife and seven children and fled his homeland.
The following morning, as North Vietnamese tanks rolled into Saigon, the last U.S. Marines in the country were filmed lifting off in helicopters from the roof of the embassy above the outstretched arms of pleading and terrified Vietnamese citizens. The Vietnam War was over.
Sitting at his kitchen table, Thach, now 68, passed a hand over his face as he struggles to find an English expression for a Vietnamese phrase that roughly translates as, “shame that demands I must never look anyone in the eye for the rest of my life.”
“I didn’t want to leave. I thought it would be better to die,” Thach said.
A U.S. Navy commander Thach had worked with for years in a secretive part of the South Vietnamese headquarters had been pressing him to evacuate for weeks because, as a high-ranking intelligence officer, Thach and his family would be near the top of the list of those who would be targeted as traitors by the incoming North Vietnamese government.
Still, Thach resisted, only relenting when the commander showed him a decoded enemy message ordering the NVA to make rounding up Saigon’s civilian government employees and their families its top priority. The message included an ominous reference to Hue City, where months earlier, nearly every government employee, including school teachers, were rounded up and either summarily executed or “disappeared” to reeducation camps in the North.
“I remembered the words of my father who told my mother to keep the family together no matter what,” Thach said. “So, I turned my back and left.”