The remaining Marines are barricaded on the roof of the US Embassy in what was then Saigon, waiting for an evacuation they find themselves unsure will come. In the building below and crowding the streets in every direction are hundreds of Vietnamese men, women and children. Some are combatants, many are just trying not to be left behind. A few miles off the coast, in the waters of the South China Sea, a fleet of US Naval carriers struggles to receive the massive influx of evacuees. Warships hastily transformed into humanitarian vessels, the decks are soon too crowded and helicopters can’t land, instead hovering as their occupants leap. This is the Fall of Saigon and the biggest helicopter evacuation the world has ever seen.
The evacuation and the men who lived it, defying orders in an attempt to evacuate as many South Vietnamese citizens as they could, are the focus of Rory Kennedy’s latest documentary Last Days In Vietnam, the Opening Night Film for the Sarasota Film Festival. Utilizing archival footage as well as eye-witness accounts from veterans, Last Days tells the human story of soldiers struggling to do the right thing in one of America’s most politically complex and unpopular wars.
Captain Paul Jacobs (Ret.), who is interviewed in the film, commanded the USS Kirk as it became a floating refugee camp. He’s proud of the film and saw it three times, but turned down the fourth. “I was emotionally drained,” Jacobs said. “It brings up a lot of things that have been buried a long time.” But he says he will see it again tonight, attending the showing at the Festival. It’s an important film, he maintains. “It hasn’t been addressed. People say it’s behind them, but it’s not.”
Former Marines Randy Smith and Michael Sweeney were two of the last Marines on the embassy roof. Now retired and living in Venice, both are active in the veteran community and will also be attending as special guests.
“We may have left Vietnam,” said Sweeney. “But Vietnam hasn’t left us. We bury it for a while, but I think the best way to deal with it is to discuss it.”
Neither has seen the film, but both are looking forward to it. Although they admit it may be difficult, they agree that it’s important the story is told and people learn the truth about the soldiers and the war.
“When I see it, it’s gonna bring back memories,” said Smith. “I tell myself to remember all those who got out, not just the ones that didn’t.”
Last Days In Vietnam screens tonight at 7pm at the Van Wezel.