Thank you to Michael Barnes, who wrote the below article for the Austin American-Statesman:
In the early 1970s, Richard Pena couldn’t catch a break. Or maybe he really did. Just barely.
In 1972, the Austin lawyer — his family doesn’t use tilde over the “n” in Pena — was among the very last American draftees sent to the Vietnam War. It was going badly for the U.S. and its allies.
On March 29, 1973, he was among the very last American combat troops evacuated from Saigon.
That’s the subject of his brief memoir, “Last Plane Out of Saigon,” released earlier this year.
“The Paris Peace Treaty said we’d be out of Vietnam in 60 days,” Pena says over subway sandwiches in his law offices near Interstate 35 and Ben White Boulevard. “The commander came by and gave everybody an ‘X + number,’ which stood for the day we’d leave. I got X + 59. Later, they said, can we have that back? You gonna be X + 61. You are going to turn the lights out on Vietnam. Good luck soldier.”
The American military indeed proved that they could evacuate a country in 60 days, although they left behind a lot of equipment and local allies.
“Flights came in and out constantly,” Pena recalls. “Finally, there were two American planes left on the runway. We were walking toward our planes and a rumor circulated that the South Vietnamese had stormed the gates and were coming with machetes and guns. Were they mad because we were leaving, or because we were there to begin with?”
CONTINUE READING HERE
Earlier this month, I had the chance to see Rory Kennedy's American Experience Film/PBS documentary titled "Last Days in Vietnam". While Richard Pena's "Last Plane Out of Saigon" chronicles the last years of combat troops in Vietnam (through March 1973), Rory Kennedy's film focuses on the following years, during the evacuation of U.S. and Vietnamese civilians from the U.S. Embassy (1975). Told from the perspective of Vietnamese and American soldiers, civilians and government officials, the audience learns about the chaotic final days of the Vietnam War: the North Vietnamese Army surrounding Saigon, and the crumbling of the last parts of the South Vietnamese resistance. With only a few remaining diplomats and military operatives in the country, the U.S. formally decided to withdraw. Where the documentary and book are similar, is that both Richard and the people in this documentary have to face the possibilities of what will happen to the remaining South Vietnamese population after they leave the country. Certain imprisonment, possible death, and re-concentration camps are the likely outcomes for their South Vietnamese allies, co-workers, and friends. No one relished those possibilities, and it meant that the U.S. had truly failed in Vietnam.
In the documentary, after the evacuation had formally begun, it became a matter of chance for the South Vietnamese to make it safely out of the country. Congressional gridlock, a ticking clock, and an inexplicably confident U.S. Ambassador became the obstacles the South Vietnamese people had to overcome to make it safely to America. Out of those hardships, a number of heroic Americans and South Vietnamese soldiers stepped up, took their future in their own hands, and underwent unsanctioned and makeshift extraction operations in an attempt to save as many civilian lives as possible. Similar to Richard Pena's point of view, it became a matter of the lives of these civilians, how many would be effected by the dominance of North Vietnam, and what (if anything) was possible to help the South Vietnam (with the little amount of supplies and materials they had). In the end, it is those saved lives that become the one gleaming ray of hope and happiness to come out of the Vietnam War.
I found this documentary to be exciting, frustrating, triumphant, and fascinating, simultaneously. I also think the stories told in this film are a great supplement to Richard Pena's in "Last Plane Out of Saigon". While "Last Plane Out of Saigon" chronicles the end of formal U.S. involvement, there was a lot that happened after, and so by seeing "Last Days in Vietnam", you see that entire timeline played out. This documentary also does a good job of summarizing the feelings of the Vietnam War, as well as the repercussions it had on the country. I strongly recommend seeing it, if you get a chance. The link to the documentary website is below if you would like to learn more about it.
Written by Sara Gordon
On Wednesday October 1st, Richard Pena had the pleasure of signing books for the Austin Kiwanis Club. He enjoyed speaking about "Last Plane Out of Saigon" with Kiwanis Club members, and wanted to thank everyone who made the event possible. Check out some photos from the event, below: