Refugees, including Dick and Germaine’s family members, filled the last fixed-wing military plane to leave Saigon as the city fell to North Vietnam forces in 1975. Photo by Dick Swanson
Afraid of drawing the attention of government officials or nosy neighbors, Dick returned alone to his hotel that night. The family decided that they would meet him the next morning at the air base. They planned to take the South Vietnamese army truck; he planned to get a ride from an old reporter colleague.
At home in Bethesda, Germaine anxiously awaited updates. Dick had managed to call her at a few points in the journey, so she knew the rescue was moving forward. But she struggled to keep herself busy. “I took walks,” she says. “I cooked, I watched television.”
When Dick awoke the next morning, April 27, South Vietnam was teetering on the brink. “It was total chaos the whole time,” Dick says “Everyone was in a panic.” Roads were cut off by invading soldiers, the sound of missile explosions grew closer, and stores were being abandoned and looted.
Approaching the air base, which housed a temporary outpost of the U.S. Embassy, Dick had no idea if Germaine’s family had made it safely inside. If they weren’t there, he wasn’t sure what he would do next.
Try to find them among millions? Wait for them inside the compound? Dozens of scenarios were playing out in his head when he spotted the group.
After a quick hug of relief, they encountered another obstacle: No one but Dick had the proper exit papers. Thinking quickly, he ran to the embassy office and pretended to interview the man in charge. “I told him this was going to go into Time magazine,” Dick says today.
After an “interview,” Dick broached the subject of exit papers. “I explained that I needed to get my entire family out,” he says.
The official nodded and looked down on his desk before he spoke: “I can’t give you these. But here are the papers and here are the stamps. I’m going to use the toilet for a minute.” When the official left the room, Dick scooped up the documents and applied the critical stamps.
Dick then gathered Germaine’s family and rushed across the runway to U.S. Air Force Evacuation Flight 202 bound for Guam. To get on the plane, the family had to walk through a gauntlet of South Vietnamese army officials who were looking for draft-age men—like Germaine’s brothers—to pluck from the evacuees. “They would have made us stay,” Albert says. Germaine’s mother pretended to be ill to distract the officials, and the brothers kept their heads down as they boarded the plane.
After arriving in Guam, Germaine’s family climbed onto a U.S. Navy truck to be taken to tent housing. Photo by Dick Swanson
“My mind was completely empty,” Rene says of those final hours in his homeland. “There were a lot of questions I did not have answers to, and I tried to live one day at a time.”
Through one of the aircraft’s windows, Dick could see thousands of South Vietnamese looking for planes that weren’t coming, fingers reaching helplessly through chain-link gates.
Inside the cargo plane, the mood was somber, everyone was quiet. There were no seats. Instead, more than 100 passengers sat or laid down on the floor as the plane escaped South Vietnamese air space.
Although they didn’t know it at the time, they were riding on the last fixed-wing military plane to leave the country.
AFTER A SIX-HOUR FLIGHT, the family landed in Guam, the base from which many U.S. airstrikes against North Vietnam originated. The Air Force had set up a long buffet table to feed the refugees, and B-52 pilots doled out meals.
Upon landing at Camp Pendleton in California, Dick and Germaine’s family members were informed by U.S. officials that they were subject to a three-month quarantine. “They were treating the refugees like they were filthy Vietnamese,” Dick says, the scorn clear in his voice. Dick approached a long line of reporters and photographers covering the arrival of the first refugees in San Diego County. “I said, ‘These idiots are going to keep us here for months,’ ” he recalls. He knew many of the members of the press personally. When the reporters began barking out questions, Dick says an angry colonel told Dick they could go.
“We sat in the airport watching Walter Cronkite narrate the end of the war,” Dick says. He felt anger, and sadness. He looked at Germaine’s family: Not a single face betrayed emotion. Dick could only imagine how they felt. “They’d just lost their country,” he says.
In a motel room near Los Angeles International Airport, the family watched CBS Evening News anchor Dan Rather announce the end of the Vietnam War. Photo by Dick Swanson
Albert was a semester shy of graduating with a master’s degree in economics. Rene remembers a heart full of regret “for leaving our home, failing to defend our country, and losing everything we had spent our lives building.” He learned later that every item in his home was taken by the North Vietnamese.
Sandy Pressman, a friend and former neighbor in Bethesda, was part of the caravan meeting Dick and Germaine’s family at Dulles. A pacifist who opposed American involvement in Vietnam, Pressman drove an orange Volkswagen Microbus. The car was silent most of the way home—until it climbed the big hill to enter the Mohican Hills neighborhood. Germaine’s mother spoke softly: “It’s so quiet. There’s no gunfire.” Forty years later, Pressman says that moment is still “etched in my mind. The wonder in her voice; I’ll never forget it.”
Later, Pressman’s 7-year-old son was asked at school to write an essay about a great American hero. Most of his classmates picked George Washington or Abraham Lincoln. “My son, Ronnie, chose Dick Swanson,” Pressman says.
IT TOOK SOME TIME for Germaine’s family to adjust to life in America. In the late 1970s, Leonard worked as a night manager at an Exxon gas station in Glen Echo. One night, a robber came in with a gun, demanding money.
“I wasn’t afraid of the Viet Cong and I’m not afraid of you,” Leonard said to him. “Put down that gun and fight me like a man.”
“You’re crazy,” the thief said as he dropped his gun and ran from the station.
Other employees said later that they thought Leonard should have let the man have the money. Leonard disagreed—that’s not what he would have done in South Vietnam.
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