By John Last
Pete Bondi heard the shells falling in Saigon long before he heard anyone talk about evacuation.
He had left his apartment for an empty room near the airport—better for a speedy getaway. He had already watched thousands of South Vietnamese board U.S. warplanes bound for safety, far away from the shell-shocked city. Still, no one ever talked about abandoning Saigon.
But on April 24, 1975, the word finally came through—Saigon would be lost. For Bondi, the long-awaited announcement was almost a relief. But 8,000 miles away in California, Bondi’s friend, a
South Vietnamese naval supply officer named Manh Dinh, was in a panic.
He was stuck in Oakland, while his wife and children were trapped in Saigon.
With the North Vietnamese army speeding across the countryside and bombs raining down on the city, Dinh picked up the phone to call the one American in Saigon he was sure he could reach.
Dinh implored Bondi to get his family to safety aboard a departing U.S. Navy ship.
“I don’t speak Vietnamese. I [didn’t] know where they lived. It was the last thing in the world I wanted to do,” Bondi said.
But he did it nonetheless. He hurried into town, loaded up his jeep with three generations of Dinh’s family, and made it out of Saigon on one of the last ships to leave.
Bondi and Dinh’s story is one of dozens collected by the team at With Good Reason as part of a new series commemorating the Vietnam War. Supported by a $180,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the radio program is partnering with archives and scholars from across the country to bring these unheard stories to the airwaves.
Like, for example, the story of Sybyl Stockdale, who together with Jane Denton and Helene Knapp formed the League of Families for POWs MIA in Southeast Asia. Forging unlikely alliances with antiwar activists, they smuggled notes to prisoners and helped ensure the return of POWs at the end of the war.
“I think it’s one thing to read the story of the Vietnam War in a history book, and it’s just a very different thing to hear it from someone who lived through it.” – Allison Quantz
“The NEH grant allows us to create what we believe will be the only long-form documentary series featuring Vietnam veterans, tailor-made for public radio,” says With Good Reason producer and host Sarah McConnell. “This is one way we can help American veterans and our South Vietnamese allies in the conflict make sense of that agonizing period.”
The series will air on With Good Reason’s growing network of ninety-three public radio stations in thirty-four states, including every major public radio station in Virginia.
Episodes will focus on the personal stories of young veterans; women’s experiences in wartime; the contributions of African American, Latino, and Native American soldiers; and the lives of the Vietnamese displaced by the war, in addition to the complex role of class in the draft.
Historians including the University of California–Irvine’s Linda Trinh Võ and the University of Virginia’s Phyllis Leffler will probe the traumatic legacy of the war, and share the personal narratives of those who lived and fought their way through Vietnam.
“I think it’s one thing to read the story of the Vietnam War in a history book, and it’s just a very different thing to hear it from someone who lived through it,” says associate producer Allison Quantz. “To hear the music of the time and the sounds of the newscasts puts you in the story in a way that books just can’t do.”
Quantz says the series offers a chance to reevaluate the disputed legacy of the Vietnam War during a time of intense national interest.
“You can talk to experts, to people who fought there, to people who were at home watching the news about what was going on, and you will hear very different things,” says Quantz. “That’s why it’s important to gather these stories, because we, as Americans, are still trying to figure out the legacy of the Vietnam War.”
This series was made possible by a major grant from The National Endowment for the Humanities.
To listen to the Voices of Vietnam series from With Good Reason, visit http://WithGoodReasonRadio.org/Vietnam.