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tv   America Tonight  Al Jazeera  May 2, 2015 9:00pm-9:31pm EDT

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note, thanks for joining us. i'm del walters in new york. i'll be back at 11:00 eastern 8:00 pacific. stay tuned, "america tonight" starts right now. >> on "america tonight", the longest journey to save the youngest lives. >> we were going 270 knots and when we touched down we touched down in a rice paddy. just fallow fields. but i'd left the gear behind which broke up the integrity of the cargo compartment where most of the kids were. >> the turbulent and tragic stories of those final days. also in our special look back.
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>> during the last day we played god. we determined who would be saved and who wouldn't. and it was heart-rending. we separated families in a wink. because we hadn't planned adequately. >> marianna's michael okwu on"america "america tonight's" michael okwu on the tough choices 40 years after the fall of saigon. thanks for joining us. i'm joie chen. tonight a special look at a moment in time seared into the memories of many americans but one that 40 years later is slipping into the history books. to many vietnamese who survived it was known as black april as communist forces from the north drove into the south and finally forced the fall of saigon. there was an anguish disbelief and so many fled for their lives. michael okwu, the days he can
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never terkt. forget. >> i climbed to the rooftop. marine guards had beaten the vietnamese out of the way so i could get on the chopper. as the chopper began leaving the roof of the embassy it arced up. and i could see on the edge of the city 140,000 north vietnamese troops moving in with the lights on. >> reporter: the final moments before the fall of saigon. seared forever into the memory of frank sneff one of the last americans to leave vietnam. ♪ i'm dreaming of a white christmas ♪ >> bing crosby's christmas classic bleard on blared on the radio. duplicated operation frequent wind, the largest ever air lift
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of its kind. more than five dozen military choppers took part in the operation. fearless pilots flew over 600 flights, air lifting 7,000 people out on that final day. including 900 from the u.s. embassy alone. as word got out that the americans were leaving thousands of south vietnamese swarmed the embassy gates. desperate to flee. many had worked directly for the u.s. mission in vietnam and were considered high-risk. >> during the last day we played god. we determined who would be saved and who wouldn't. and it was heart-rending. you would get one person in a family but not the child. not the molgt mother. mother. not the father. we separated families in a wink because we hadn't planned adequately. >> it was every man woman and child for themselves. this footage stain by taken by a british
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television crew showing how crazed those last moments were. >> we like the frightened vietnamese and their families had to fight and claw our way up. and we did claw and we did fight. if it weren't for one single american marine, whom i didn't have the chance to discover his name, we wouldn't have had the chance. >> as a direct result of the war many of those refugees settled rye here in orange county -- right here in orange county, california where some 200,000 vietnamese lived in wisconsin minster aka little saigon. it's a location that frank sneff former chief strategist in are vietnam, rarely visits despite
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the fact he lives just an hour away. >> what's it like being here in little saigon? >> i feel as though i'm in a hall of ghosts. i look around at these faces and i'm always unconsciously trying to identify somebody i know. a face, an expression. a mile. >> so you're looking for someone who you might not have had a chance to say good-bye to? >> i'm always saying good-bye to the memories that i carry with me. >> what specifically hurts you the most? >> the opportunities lost to rescue people, to help people out. we could have done the it. and we so often failed in that. >> a failure sneff believes the state department and the u.s. embassy could have prevented. the fall of saigon had been coming for months. but u.s. ambassador graham martin wouldn't even talk about
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a possible evacuation. >> we'd been seeing scenes of people fighting their way onto choppers for a month. we had a human tsunami rolling south towards saigon. that in the last two months of the war. so the scenes of the last day had become terribly terribly familiar and unfortunately there would be -- there would be more of them. >> did the launch of operation frequent wind catch some u.s. officials in saigon by surprise? >> graham martin never thought that moment would come. he was the ambassador in vietnam. he had convinced himself the communists would accept a negotiated settlement to the latest hostilities. but he simply had not considered that the war would ever be lost. how could he? graham martin was a cold warrior in the old stripe. he had lost an adopted son in
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vietnam. it wasn't in his constitution to admit that the war was finished. he would not surrender to the godless communists. >> but the communists were intent on taking sy saigon. north vietnamese target ed saigon around the clock. key cities like hue and saigon, in just weeks they had captured the northern half of the country and owe obliterated half of the south vietnamese army. >> i flew into the embattled areas soon after the inevitable had happened, and i saw the south vietnamese retreating into the sea throwing away their uniforms. it was a horrible part.
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bad leadership on president's part. >> the north vietnamese had surrounded saigon. before sneff and his colleagues could leave vietnam they had to protect their life's work. >> what did you owith all the sensitive equipment documents that were in the embassy? >> on the last day we had done so little to get rid of classified material that we were basically running the incinerators on the roof all the time. and what that meant was building itself, the embassy was shake all the time because the incinerators were going. they were burning tons and tons of classified material. and during the hours of -- early hours of the last morning we began using thermite grenades to
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destroy nsa's communications equipment on the third floor using hand grenades to blow them up. >> but despite their best efforts, they couldn't destroy everything. in 1977, frank published a sensitive memoir. he insisted the cia's local operatives were all named in the files leaving them vulnerable to arrest or worse. >> how many lives do you think were lost as a direct result of those files being recovered by the north vietnamese? >> we have no idea. they were treated extremely harshly. it is futile to figure out the number of vietnamese.
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one vietnamese lost you can see on the trail. >> it's a sense of trail of betrayal, a betrayal he's reminded of in little saigon, the facer faces here opening new wounds. one deeper than others. >> in one of the final hours this vietnamese woman who claimed to have had my child showed up after months and months of my not seeing her told me i had to get her out and if i couldn't get her out she would kill herself. i said, i have to do something for ambassador, call me back. >> what makes you think she didn't kill herself? >> when she called me back, i missed her call. i missed her call! it is my fear she killed herself and that child.
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>> when you look back on this moment as i imagine you have done countless times, do you believe there is something you could have done differently? >> i should have grabbed the ambassador by the neck and said, will you start an evacuation? will you start the planning at least for one? but i was a good southern boy i had good manners and i sat on my anger. and i think about that all the bloody time. if only i had had the guts to say to the ambassador, "get going, sir! identity wesir!" we have all the information we need. i am haunted by my failure to do that, to this day. >> 40 years after the fall of saigon frank sneff spends a lot of time here at these bluffs looking out at the pacific
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exorcizing the demons he brought home from the war. >> why did you bring me here? >> during that evacuation, the waters washed over all the terrible images i brought with me and began osoothe to soothe me, beginning of the healing process. so i come here to be reminded that there was an end to the horror. >> so this is solace? >> this is a moment away from vietnam. >> michael okwu, al jazeera, los angeles. >> next on "america tonight", 40 years after the fall, the rise of new opportunity. our journey back to vietnam. the distance they traveled to home. later, the littlest survivors and the distance they traveled,
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to home. their forgotten stories and the unforgettable final days as we look back at the fall of saigon. saigon.
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>> in our fast forward segment after the fall, vietnam faced enormous upheaval, and today the country is a fast growing frontier economy. "america tonight's" sheila macvicar finds that it's welcoming a new batch of entrepreneurs. >> their first reaction was why why would you want to go back somewhere where we worked so hard to leave. >> ask any american at one of the many ex-pat bars in ho chi
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min city. once-in-a-lifetime adventure overseas. >> every day we're seeing more people come in. i think the more american businesses come over here, the more vietnamese businesses that pop up to support those. >> take the advertising business which really didn't exist ten years ago. now the largest american ad agencies have set up here. >> the demand of vietnamese americans, the demand is so greatly. >> i didn't really tell my mom. i sort of just called her one day and say hey i'm moving to vietnam next week. when i was in the u.s. i worked at a school, santa coffee shop as a barista and i've been living here for five years and
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i've produced many commercials and films in l.a. there is a lot of rules union rules that you have to go by. >> people come over here because there are a lot of opportunities, they're not going to get that in the u.s., you know. >> fast forward to even more reason ahead to ho chi min city now southeast asia's largest exporter to the united states. a record 6% growth is expected to be seen in the coming year. fletchnext they rose from the ashes. >> three years ago i found that i wasn't on the plane. >> what was it like hearing that? >> devastating disbelief. >> thursday on "america tonight", a deeper look aat the ongoing unrest in baltimore and what led to it.
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"america tonight's" adam may and his discussion with the man who heard freddy gray's cries for help. on thursday's "america tonight". merica tonight". to be strong. >> i can't get bent down because my family's lookin' at me. >> to rise, to fight and to not give up. >> you're gonna go to school so you don't have to go war. >> hard earned pride. hard earned respect. hard earned future. >> we can not afford for one of us to lose a job. we're just a family that's trying to make it. >> a real look at the american dream. "hard earned". premiers tomorrow, 10:00 eastern. only on al jazeera america.
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>> the fall of saigon was for many the step to a new beginning but the youngest survivors of those difficulty days faced a controversial journey to their new lives. an operation known as operation baby lift brought together 30 military flights trying as "america tonight's" sarah hoye found to save lives. >> i have directed that money from a $2 million special foreign aid children's fund be made available. >> mr. ford announced an air
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lift to the united states from vietnam. >> that air lift would become operation baby lift. anings operation where 3,000 very young children many of them orphans were air lifted out of vietnam, weeks before the fall of saigon on april 30th, 1975, many to be adopted by american families. >> i didn't find out that gerald ford himself an orphan, by the weigh, had decided to air lift some of the orphans out of saigon. are. >> his training kicked into high
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gear. >> what we need is milk and diapers and all and that stuff. more than 300 people on board. 12 minutes into the flight, at 22,000 feet, disaster struck. the locks on the plane's rear loading ramp failed. >> the locks all broke the ramp dipped into the slipstream, are ripped off and when it did it broke the back of the pressure door. the trouble was when the door went through tail, it took all of the flight control cables. >> reporter: trainer had very little control of the monster cargo plane but he and his co-pilot managed to turn the c-5 around for emergency landing down at tan son nut. >> we touched down on a rice paddy. just fallow fields. but i left the gear behind,
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which broke up the cargo department where most of the kids were. basically all downstairs died, just a handful survived. >> 138 died, including 78 children. to get an idea what it would have felt like in the belly of >> the c-5 we traveled to travis air force base, roughly an hour out of san francisco where captain's air wing is still based. >> tell me where we are. >> we're down in the cargo hold of the c-5 m galaxy. as you can see we can carry a vast amount of cargo. >> so where are we in the plane now? >> so now we're in the aft part of the cargo compartment, this is the aft ramp where it blew off. for the operation baby lift. >> when you think about that,
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hypothetically what would happen if you are at say 22,000 feet and this blows open? >> when that came off they lost two of the four hydraulic systems which made the plane almost unflyable. >> in short, it was catastrophic. >> catastrophic. >> if two of those pilots walked away was that a miracle? >> absolutely a miracle. >> laura price was told she was on that plane one of the dozen who were in the top portion of the plane who survived. like most baby lift adoptees laura was air lifted out of saigon with almost no papers with basically no papers of her birth parents. >> i grew up with the belief that i was on this plane crash and i was a survivor and i was one of the lucky babies who made it out of that horrific accident. three years ago i found out that i was not on that plane.
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>> what was that like hearing that? >> devastating, disbelief. it was -- i mean not that you want to be part of a plane crash. sounds really odd. but i did want that to be part of my history because that is what i grew up believing. i went to vietnam and i cried at that plane crash site, for what i thought happened to me. and visualized this trauma, and it was -- it was hard. and then you find out guess what? that is not part of your history at all. >> just turned out beautifully. >> the crash was also traumatic for laura's adoptive mother, laura olmstead who took two years filling out paper work to adopt a baby from vietnam. >> i remember i had to write a letter to the president of vietnam asking permission to adopt a citizen of the country. when the crash happened it's like oh i'm not going to get a child now all those babies died and i hadn't been matched up yets. >> devastated, loretta believed her chances for adopting from
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vietnam, were gone. two weeks later, her baby girl was waiting in a denver hospital. loretta and her husband jumped at the chance to debt her despite the growing opposition of those who felt it was a pr stunt carefully orchestrated by the white house. >> i do know when gerald ford met the plane in the presidio, i know in the confusion of war some things happened that made people uncomfortable. but in the long run it was wonderful to have those children come here. it was saving those kids that we didn't know what their future was going to be like. >> reporter: loretta was determined to give her daughter the life she deserved. a six month old baby girl nicknamed princess. she was raised as if she were her own. >> what was life like growing up? >> it was all i'm the daughter not the friend.
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if i had a blond friend, it's no i'm her kid. that is one thing i would love to know, what does my mother look like? but if you spend enough time with my mother, this is my mother you will see we have the same mannerisms, and i'm definitely her daughter. >> for laura life hasn't always been filled with unconditional love and acceptance. >> did you ever want to be someone else and kind of wrestle with that? >> i think racial thing didn't happen until more later as an adult. because you know when i walk in, to get a pedicure or something like that, so are you vietnamese? well yes i am. well how come you don't know your language? >> i was getting my nails done one time, sorry, sorry to bring up that stereotype and i was so proud you know my daughter is vietnamese. i showed her a picture and she said, she's mixed. it was just the way she said that it was the first time i'd
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experienced that. >> laura says over the years she's become more comfortable in her skin. she's embraced her vietnamese heritage. laura recently ventured back to her home land, a journey she says was bittersweet. >> first week i was a wreck, it was laughing and crying, latching and crying. landing was cheerful. is the first thing on my mind was, my mother could be down there somewhere, somewhere. >> it was a reality in the journey of discovery she's determined to continue, one that brought her here to the presidio in san francisco for an exhibition commemorating the 40 -- 40th anniversary of operation baby lift. volunteers who made the operation a success. for the first time laura and her mother met sister mary nell gage a none who worked in the
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orphanage in vietnam. laura made her life's work, she's an established blues singer in san francisco. >> what's one song that represents you? >> there's a song, i'm a fire and i need to burn. if you love me let me go. >> that makes you emotional why? >> i feel like when i'm singing that to maybe a vietnam vet, i'm hoping that maybe he can let some of these ghosts go. [♪ singing ♪ ] i want to help these guys if i can. and women. if i can. and so maybe if they listen to my musks music they can let some things go.
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>> sarah hoye, al jazeera, half moon bay, california. >> a song and a voice to remember. that's our special look at the fall of saigon 40 years later. tell us what you think. at talk to us on twitter or facebook and come back. we'll have more of "america tonight", tomorrow. >> this is "techknow." a show about innovations that can change lives. >> the science of fighting a wildfire. >> this is a show about science, by scientists. let's check out our team of hard core nerds. marita davison