Sunday, May 31, 2015

He Did Go Home Again - Searching for Conrad Richter

Along Tulpehocken Street, Pine Grove, PA - Photo by Carl Mydans
Back in January I was reading David McCullough’s Brave Companions: Portraits in History (1991), a collection of essays, including his 1977 "Cross the Blue Mountain," a description of a visit the author made to the small central Pennsylvania town of Pine Grove and the home of Conrad Richter in the summer of 1963.  A fellow Pulitzer Prize winner, McCullough met and befriended Richter in the 1960s and has called the novelist "an American master," praising The Waters of Kronos (1960) as "his most beautiful book."

McCullough visited Richter at his home on 11 Maple Street, near the intersection with Mifflin Street where Richter was born 72 years earlier.  He described Richter as “authentic and exceeding modest American artist about whom too little has been said.”  When they first met Richter was working on his final novel, The Aristocrat (1968).  McCullough intended to write an article about Richter but it was never realized.  Instead a close friendship blossomed in the final years of Richter’s life.  McCullough would return to Pine Grove several times over the next five years, and Richter would visit him briefly on Martha’s Vineyard although he seemed anxious to return home to Pennsylvania.  It seems he always wanted to go home again.  The two men would correspond until Richter’s death on May 30, 1968.  After reading McCullough’s essay I thought it might be fun to make my own pilgrimage to Pine Grove to gain a better understanding of Richter’s life and writings.  I have read some of his books, but it was quite a long time ago.

I had been looking forward for quite some time to getting back out on the blue highways again with a good buddy; it had been a while since our last road trip together.  So why not Pine Grove?  Plans were set for an excursion into central Pennsylvania in late January.  Unfortunately, a major nor’easter brought with it a heavy snow storm which forced us to postpone our trip.  More storms and general inclement late winter weather, both in Pennsylvania and here in Maryland, kept us home bound forcing us to push the trip deeper into February, and then into March, and finally it just fell off the calendar for good.  I better understood why McCullough chose to make his first trip to Pine Grove at the height of summer.  My own first visit to Pine Grove finally happened this past week.  It was not a planned outing so much as pure serendipity.

Driving northeast of Harrisburg on my way to a literary gathering in Albany, New York, I passed an exit on Interstate 81 for Pine Grove.  I had not really studied the map beforehand and had not realized how close I would be to Richter’s hometown.  Unfortunately I did not have time to detour; I still had several hours to drive that day.  Instead I pledged to stop on my return trip.  It looked like I was finally going to have an opportunity to visit Richter’s native earth.
Born in Pine Grove, Conrad Richter (1890-1968) was the son of a Lutheran minister and he and his family moved around to several small central Pennsylvania mining towns in the coal region northeast of Harrisburg.  He eventually graduated from Tremont High School, ten miles north of Pine Grove, in 1906.  That would be the end of his formal education at age fifteen; he had to go to work to earn money to help support his family.  He worked for a spell as a teamster, a clerk, a farm worker, a timberman, a bank teller, and a salesman. In 1909, he took a job as a cub reporter for the Courier, a weekly magazine in Patton, near Johnstown, Pennsylvania.  He later sought out editing jobs on the Johnstown Journal and Leader and the Pittsburgh Dispatch.  Apparently he had the journalist’s touch and was told, “Boy, you’ll go far!”

Moving to Cleveland, Ohio in 1911 to serve as a private secretary for a wealthy industrialist, Richter would remain for the next thirteen years and it was there he took up his pen to write fiction.  Having married in 1915, with a child born the following year, Richter grew frustrated that his writing career could not support his family.  Returning to a high valley farm outside of Harrisburg in central Pennsylvania in 1924, his first story collection, Brothers of No Kin and Other Stories, was published in Philadelphia that same year.  Richter opened a publishing firm in Reading while pursuing his own writing,  eventually publishing stories in Ladies' Home Journal, American, and the Saturday Evening Post.

Due to his wife’s tuberculosis and deteriorating health, they eventually relocated to Albuquerque, New Mexico, in 1928, and later to Arizona where Richter published a great deal of pulp fiction during the 1930s – mainly for the Saturday Evening Post – while developing an intense interest in frontier life in the American Southwest.  This interest is reflected in his collection, Early Americana and Other Stories, published in 1936.  His writing achieved a major success the following year as he was approaching age fifty with the publication of The Sea of Grass (1937), a best-selling novel about farming and ranch life in New Mexico which was awarded the National Book Award.  Southwestern frontier life was also the subject of his subsequent novels Tacey Cromwell (1942), Always Young and Fair (1947), and The Lady (1957).  The characters of the stories are an intricate element of the landscapes they inhabit.  Richter, much like other writers of the period, also worked briefly as a screenwriter for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios in Hollywood in the late 1930s. 

Even while living in the Southwest Richter never forgot his Pennsylvania roots and between 1940 and 1950, when he returned to Pine Grove, he penned and published his Ohio trilogy.  The first volume, The Trees, was published in 1940 and won the Pulitizer Prize.  It was followed by The Fields (1946) and The Town (1950), which also won the Pulitizer Prize in 1951.  McCullough calls the trilogy “an American masterpiece, as vivid and as moving an account as we have of pioneer life.”  This still holds true.  The trilogy tells the story of a pioneer family’s roots in Pennsylvania after the American Revolution, its eventual migration into the primordial forests of southeastern Ohio, and the conquering of this vast wilderness.  The books were followed by The Light in the Forest (1953), also set in late eighteenth century Pennsylvania and Ohio.

The pull of native soil was strong, and Richter and his wife returned to his hometown of Pine Grove to live in 1950, settling into a stately house at 11 Maple Street where they would remain until Richter’s death in 1968, only occasionally escaping for a few weeks to the Gulf Coast of Florida, or to Pawcatuck, Connecticut or the Mount Desert Island, in Maine, where he would continue to write.  During this time Richter produced eight more novels, a novelette, and several short stories and magazine articles.  But it was two autobiographical novels – The Waters of Kronos (1960), which won the National Book Award in 1961, and A Simple Honorable Man (1962), that climaxed his writing career.  The Ohio trilogy was also republished as a single volume - The Awakening Land - in 1966 as The New York Times heralded Richter as a “modest giant” among American writers.

These two late novels grew out of Richter’s family life during his youth in Pine Grove.  In the latter, a “prequel” of sorts to The Waters of Kronos, Harry Donner, the narrator’s father, leave a storekeeper job to enter into the Lutheran church and to minister to the needy and the poor in fictional rural coal-mining communities in Pennsylvania.  This difficult, some time violent, and often thankless task takes a heavy toll on Harry and his entire family as they struggle to keep the family intact as they move from place to place.  The story continues in The Waters of Kronos.  The narrator, John Donner, is Harry’s son and a well-known writer and the author of a book of about his hometown of Unionville, Pennsylvania (a fictional version of Pine Grove).  He returns home from the West to find the town flooded following the construction of a nearby hydroelectric dam.  There John Donner ponders the fates of his family and the rest of the townspeople and the despoiling of the American landscape, a favorite topic in Richter’s writings.  The novel raises questions about its autobiographical elements and the extent it reflects nostalgically on childhood scenes and key events in Richter's own family life.  It addresses the age old question whether it is possible to go home again. 

But Richter did go home again, and he wrote passionately about the past.  “I don’t believe he much cared for history in the conventional sense,” McCullough wrote in his essay.  “As some people are born with perfect pitch, he had a perfect sense of time past.”  It was as if he had lived in the past and now came home “to tell his stories.”  Not stories of great historical figures, but the stories of the common man and his fate in America.  “You could say,” McCullough added, “that he was a patriot in the largest, best meaning of the word.”  Richter valued what he called “the old verities” of “courage, respect for one’s fellow man, self-reliance, courtesy, devotion to truth, a loathing of hypocrisy, the power of simple goodness” which he sensed was quickly disappearing from the American scene.
Conrad Richter suffered a heart attack and passed away on October 30, 1968 in nearby Pottsville at the age of 78.  He is buried close to his parents on Cemetery Hill not far from his home on Maple Street and the St. John’s Lutheran Church where his father once preached.  Two short story collections – Brothers of No Kin and Other Stories (1973) and The Rawhide Knot and Other Stories (1985) – were published posthumously and most of his books are still in print.

Not much is said about Richter today two generations after his death and I was curious what evidence I might find of his life in Pine Grove.  Back in 1963 McCullough had driven from New York and approached the town from the southeast having crossed over Blue Mountain that demarcates the eastern margin of the Appalachian range where it abuts the Lehigh Valley.  The Appalachian Trail runs along its crest.  I approached from the north on Route 125, happy to abandon the traffic-addled Interstate 81 for the back roads.  Upon arrival I found it little changed from the time he last walked these quiet, tree-lined streets almost fifty years earlier.  A very typical small American town with a population hovering around 2000, I discovered it celebrating Memorial Day in typical small town fashion.   Flags and banners hung from the streetlights and adorned several buildings along Tulpehocken Street, the main north-south drag, and Mill Street, the east-west axis.  I had seen photographs of these streets taken when Richter lived here and they appeared not to have changed very much.  Young boys were fishing along the banks of the Swatara Creek as it coursed through town while others flocked to a small pond in the town park and to the local swimming pool.

Most of the existing town, founded in 1830, dates from the 19th and early 20th centuries and it is now a National Register Historic District (as is Mount Rainier, Maryland where I have resided for the past 33 years).  There is a short street named in Richter’s honor in the middle of town, and I quickly found Richter’s last home at 11 Maple Street.  It looked just the way McCullough described it in his 1977 essay.   “The house, a white stucco on Maple Street, was the largest I had seen while driving into the town.  There was a neat front walk, a small front porch with columns, a large screened porch over to one side.  Everything – house, walk, me – was bathed in cool green light under the shade trees.”  Other than that, I found little outward evidence of Richter’s years here in a town that clearly meant the world to him.  I drove over to the Lutheran cemetery where he is buried but chose to honor the “No Trespassing” signs posted at the entrance.  Besides, it would have been difficult to find his final resting place and to read his own epitaph:
                        Little grasses, I have come among you.
                        Little grasses, you are taller now than I.

Richter was popular but never fashionable.  There were no best sellers among his many books even if they were critical successes.  Having now visited Pine Grove - the model for Conrad Richter’s fictional Unionville - I have decided I must read his novel, The Waters of Kronos.  Perhaps then I will more fully understand the importance of Pine Grove, Pennsylvania to the man and his writing.

In the meantime, I left Pine Grove behind, to cross the Blue mountain just as David McCullough did on his trip of discovery.  After all, I too had to come home again.

Check out the "Looking Toward Portugal" Facebook page for more information and photos.

Monday, May 25, 2015

Memorial Day

Remembering my Dad and all of his brothers and sisters in arms from all of this country's wars - both the righteous ones and the ones we had no business fighting in the first place - and especially those who made the ultimate sacrifice in the defense of their country.  They should never be forgotten.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Friday, May 8, 2015

The Liberation of Czechoslovakia - Victory in Europe 70 Years Later

Three days ago I posted a short piece commemorating the 70th anniversary of the liberation of the Gusen Concentration Camp on May 5, 1945, explaining the role my Dad’s unit - the US Army’s 26th Infantry Division - played in that historic event.

Later that same day, Dad’s division, commanded by Major General Willard S. Paul, began advancing northward into western Czechoslovakia as part of Third Army’s XII Corps, commanded by Lieutenant General LeRoy Irwin.  It was one of only two American corps, along with V Corps, to serve in Czechoslovakia during the war.  After slugging its way across northern France, Luxembourg, Belgium, and central Germany since the late summer of 1944, the 26th Infantry Division drove deep into the National Redoubt area in Bavaria, and into Austria in late April 1945.  Moving into Czechoslovakia, on May 6, Third Army fielded 18 divisions and over 540,000 men, making it the largest field army assembled by the United States.  General George Patton went a step further, calling his command “probably one of the most powerful armies ever assembled in the history of war . . . .  ”  For the next three days infantry and armored units of V and XII Corps conducted a major offensive against the German Wehrmacht’s Seventh Army,  liberating over 3.400 square miles of the Sudetenland and Bohemia, in western Czechoslovakia, and taking tens of thousands of German prisoners.  On May 7, the 26th accepted the surrender of the remnants of the 11th Panzer Division, much of which had already surrendered to the 90th Infantry Division in Austria three days earlier to avoid moving northeast to battle the Red Army near Prague.  It was against this same division that Dad’s 104th Infantry Regiment had its baptism of fire in the Moncourt Woods, in northern France, the previous October. 

Third Army quickly held a line running from Ceské Budejovice (Budweis) to Plzen (Pilsen) to Karlovy Vary (Carlsbad).   Patton was eager to continue east toward Prague but General Dwight Eisenhower, the Supreme Allied commander, ordered the Americans to hold their present line.  Prague was finally occupied by the Soviet Red Army on May 9 after several days of intense combat with its German defenders. Dad’s unit ended up in Ceské Budejovice on May 8 and advanced no further.  It was V-E Day; the war in Europe was over.  Forward elements of the Red Army arrived in Ceské Budejovice on May 9.

My dad and his 26th Infantry Division remained in western Czechoslovakia until early June 1945, then returned to Austria to assume occupation duties there and to train near Linz for possible deployment to the Pacific Theater where the war would rage on for another three months.  Thankfully, V-E Day was the end of the war for Dad as V-J Day, on September 2, 1945, came before he could be shipped out to the Pacific.

Check out the "Looking Toward Portugal" Facebook page for more information and photos.

Thursday, May 7, 2015

The Death of the Lusitania - May 7, 1915

Track of the Lusitania - William Lionel Wyllie
May 7, 1915 was a beautiful, warm spring day along the southern coast of Ireland.  The skies were clear and blue. The seas were calm.  Standing on Old Kinsale Head, near Cork, one could observe a large passenger liner sailing eastward along the horizon.  Nearly 800 feet long and crowned with four large funnels, the British liner Lusitania was easy to recognize.  A dozen miles offshore that afternoon, it departed New York City six days earlier and was on the final leg of its voyage to Liverpool.  Only 250 miles to go through a war zone in which Germany had declared unrestricted submarine warfare and where it had recently sunk a number of hostile and neutral merchant ships.  Passenger liners were considered off limits . . . until that day.

At approximately 2:10pm local time, a torpedo fired from a German U-boat struck the Lusitania on its forward starboard side and almost immediately it began to list heavily, going down by the head.   Less than 20 minutes later it disappeared beneath the waves, the smoke from its funnels drifting away as squadrons of gulls circled the spot where it went down.  The seas were littered with flotsam and bodies.  Of its 1,959 passengers and crew, 1,198 perished that afternoon.  Some 800 victims were never found.   Many of the bodies recovered were buried in a mass grave in Queenstown  while others continue to washed up along the Irish coast in the coming weeks.

There are special times when a person chances upon a place one had no idea existed until it is suddenly discovered.  How is it I never knew such places existed?  And afterwards I wonder how I am ever going to forget them.  Some of these moments might be more significant than others; some stick in your memory better than others.  Yet one can never forget them entirely.  I could make it my life’s work to write about all of them. 

The fact that today marks the centenary of the sinking of the Lusitania perhaps explains how one of these obscure memories rose to the surface; one of these sudden discoveries made over three decades ago, in May 1981, when my wife and I were making a circuitous bicycle ramble along the coast of Ireland.  We had begun our journey in Shannon, traveling first along the southwestern coastline to the Dingle Peninsula and the Ring of Kerry.  Soon we found ourselves in Cork in order to visit the nearby Blarney Castle.  I was oblivious to the discovery awaiting me.

It was a beautiful spring day when we decided to bike down from Cork to the village of Kinsale. A distance of ten miles or so.  During our visit to that village we chanced upon the medieval Saint Multose Churchyard, and given our affinity for old graveyards, we wandered among the crowded stones dating from the 16th to 19th centuries and encircled by an old stone wall.  The old Norman church dates from the late 12th century, possibly the site of an earlier 6th century monastery.  A place of history.  It was here in 1649 that Prince Rupert, whose fleet was anchored in the Kinsale harbor, proclaimed Charles II the new King of England after his uncle was executed in London by Oliver Cromwell. 

History returned to this old church in 1915 after bodies from the Lusitania - some later identified and others not - washed ashore nearby and were buried in the churchyard.  I had not expected to find these graves having not realized that the ship had gone down off the nearby coast 65 years earlier.  As we walked around the town afterwards we came across more references to the sinking and the role the town played in the recovery of survivors and victims and the subsequent inquest on the bodies recovered which was held in the town's courthouse.

The following day, as we continued eastward along the coast toward Waterford, we passed through Cobh (known as Queenstown in 1915), and saw the Lusitania memorial in Casement Square, and the mass graves containing almost 200 of the victims, many of them unidentified.  I was reminded of this day almost 31 years later, when I visited the Fairview Cemetery, in Halifax, Nova Scotia.  It was another one of those moments of unexpected discovery.  Toward the rear of the cemetery, on a hillside overlooking a large rail yard, is a plot where 121 victims of the April 1912 sinking of the RMS Titanic are interred under rows of gray memorial stones (29 other victims are buried elsewhere in Halifax).  Many of these victims were also never identified yet they are not forgotten there among those who shared their fate.  I was totally unaware of Halifax’s association with the Titanic disaster until that day.  A special day.  A special connection with the past.

I think of the Lusitania victims again today . . . one hundred years later.  We must never forget what happened on that fateful day so long ago.  To forget the past is to necessarily forgive what happened there.  To forget means the victims died in vain.  Let us never forget.

Check out the "Looking Toward Portugal" Facebook page for more information and photos.

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Into the Realm of History - The Liberation of the Gusen Concentration Camp, May 5, 1945

Flags of the US Army Divisions of Liberation

Today is the 70th anniversary of the liberation of the Gusen concentration camp.  Only a fast dwindling number of survivors and liberators are still alive to tell the story.  Soon it will be cast fully into the realm of history.

In several postings here I have mentioned my dad’s wartime service in the 26th Infantry - Yankee - Division, in General George Patton’s Third Army during the northern European campaign of World War II, in 1944-1945.  The division was so nicknamed as it was created during World War I from National Guard units from the six New England states and deployed as part of the Allied Expeditionary Force in France.  It has had a long and distinguished history.  My dad bragged about his wartime unit, and rightly so.  As a kid he told me many stories about the war and the men he served with him in the 104th Infantry Regiment.  But he did not tell me everything.  I would not discover until a year after his death in 2009 that he had been awarded the Bronze Star for bravery in combat.  It is not among the medals he left to me.  Although I did not hear about it at the time, and Dad never said anything to me about it, the 26th Infantry Division was recognized as a liberating unit by the US Army's Center of Military History and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, in 2002.

Third Army’s XII Corps, including the 26th Infantry Division, was tasked with the pacification of eastern Bavaria, in Germany, and it quickly advanced southward toward the Danube River and the Austro-German border near Passau.  The division moved into Austria in early May 1945 and elements of the division took Linz on May 4.  On the following day divisional units along with those of the 11th Armored Divsion liberated the Gusen concentration camp, built in 1940 and since 1944 a part of the Mauthausen camp complex, east of Linz.  It was there the American liberators discovered an elaborate tunnel system constructed with forced labor and housing underground aircraft production facilities employing inmates from the camp.  The SS had planned to demolish the tunnels with the prisoners inside, but thankfully the arrival of the 26th Infantry and 11th Armored divisions prevented this.  On May 6 the 26th Infantry Division continued north across the Vlatava River into Czechoslovakia. Third Army had moved farther east than any other American unit in the European theater.

The 26th Infantry’s divisional colors are now displayed in a place of honor in the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, in Washington, DC.  Each time I pass them I cannot help but reflect on the countless victims of the Nazi extermination program and those lucky enough (if it is even possible to call it this) to survive until their liberators arrived.  Most of these survivors were so weak and sick that they did not fully comprehend what liberation meant.  I also think of the men who liberated the camps 70 years ago; not just Gusen, but all of the camps that are now etched into our conscience and history.  I think about these men who had spent the previous year slugging their way across Europe, they who were lucky enough to survive protracted combat only to discover at the end the utter depravity of the regime they fought and died to destroy.  They are all victims, the survivors and the liberators.

I can understand why Dad would not have told me about Gusen when I was a kid; I would have never understood what he and his brothers-in-arms saw and experienced there.  Yet later in life, after I had become a German historian investigating and prosecuting individuals who assisted the Nazis in their programs of murder and persecution, Dad still withheld from me what must have been a very painful chapter of his life, taking it to his grave.  I just wish I had known.  If anyone would have understood, it would have been me.  And I would have wanted to tell him yet again how proud I was of him and all who fought the war that was to end all wars.

Keep all of our veterans in your thoughts and prayers today.  We cannot imagine the price they have paid to keep us free.           

Check out the "Looking Toward Portugal" Facebook page for more information and photos.

Monday, May 4, 2015

Four Dead in Ohio - Losing Our Innocence at Kent State

This past Friday I posted a piece commemorating the fall of Saigon and the end of the Vietnam war forty years ago.  Today I find myself reflecting on another tragic event of that war; not a battle fought in some faraway patch of jungle, but one fought on a small college campus - Kent State University - on a tranquil spring day in Middle America.

It was at the very end of my freshman year in college, a year when anti-war protests on campuses across the country were beginning to heat up.  I was attending a small liberal arts college associated with the Methodist Church in Florida and there was very little in the way of protest there.  In fact, freshman and sophomore men were required to participate in the Army ROTC program.  Don’t get me wrong; there was anti-war sentiment on campus, but it never really blossomed into full-scale dissent and protest against the war. 

Many of us did participate in the nation-wide Moratorium to End the War in Vietnam, on October 15, 1969.  Called as a general strike, most colleges and universities refused to cancel classes that day although it was reported that class attendance was down as students participated in various protests.  It was a rather bizarre day at my college as it was a Wednesday and all the male students, including myself, were required to wear their ROTC uniforms throughout the day followed by a general drill in the afternoon.  Afterwards I dressed in my “civvies” for dinner and that evening about 300 students (approximately a quarter of the student body) gathered outside the ROTC building for a candlelight vigil and sang folk songs before marching to a nearby meditation garden for some more singing.  The next day several Florida newspapers ran stories about the various campus protests around the state.  One of our group was quoted: “There is nothing more beautiful than the American flag flying, but I believe there is nothing uglier than an American flag being lowered in a grave on top of a casket.”  Despite the faulty flag protocol for burial, the point was made.  Pretty tame stuff, but we raised out voices against the war. 

The students at Kent State the following spring were far more boisterous than our modest protest, and the Ohio National Guard was called in.  Confusion and chaos reigned, the soldiers opened fired, and four students died.  Who can forget Paul Filo's iconic photograph of Mary Ann Vecchio kneeling and crying beside the lifeless body of Jeffrey Miller?  The innocence of my generation came to an end that day.  On my way home from Florida to Wisconsin that day I Iistened and wondered where all of this was going to lead.   President Nixon said the anti-war protests would not affect his pursuit of an American victory in Vietnam.  How could it ever be a victory if the government was resigned to kill its own to accomplish it?

A month after the killings at Kent State, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young released their single “Ohio,” an haunting three-minute protestimonial penned by Neil Young. 

Tin soldiers and Nixon coming,
We're finally on our own.
This summer I hear the drumming,
Four dead in Ohio.


Many radio stations throughout the country refused to play it, but I went out and bought it and played it over and over until the record popped and skipped.    

What if you knew her
And found her dead on the ground
How can you run when you know?

A truly haunting song.  Crosby can be heard as the song fades away at the end. "Four, why? Why did they die? . . . "How many more?"   I am sure it was a question many were asking.

And the record’s B-side?  Stephen Stills's "Find the Cost of Freedom," an ode to the war's dead.

Find the cost of freedom, buried in the ground.
Mother earth will swallow you, lay your body down.

I thought back to that quote by my fellow student on Moratorium Day, and to all the flagged-draped coffins coming home from that remote patch of jungle so very far away.

Check out the "Looking Toward Portugal" Facebook page for more information and photos.

Friday, May 1, 2015

Not With a Bang But a Whimper - The Fall of Saigon Forty Years Later

April 30, 1975.  I was rushing around our small apartment in Tucson trying to get ready for my bike ride to the campus of the University of Arizona to teach my morning class in introductory German.  While grabbing a quick breakfast I watched the morning news and footage of the evacuation of Saigon.  America’s long military commitment to South Vietnam was quickly unraveling and it was hard to believe what I was seeing.

 American combat troops had quit the country in 1973 following the signing of the Paris Peace Accords with the North Vietnamese regime in Hanoi.  The South Vietnamese government was left to fend for itself against continued attacks by Viêt Công insurgents.  But there was hope; the South Vietnamese were beginning to turn the tide of the war.  But everything changed in the spring of 1975.

The North Vietnamese launched a long-planned offensive below the DMZ in December 1974.  The United States tried to prop up its former client state but internecine debate between the Ford Administration and Congress prevented the necessary aid from arriving in time.  By March 1975 North Vietnamese forces had advanced into the Central Highlands, in the south, and had Saigon in their sights.

The South Vietnamese defenders and a growing number of refugees retreated toward the capital as Hué and Da Nang fell.  The advance toward Saigon quickly became a juggernaut, and by late April the city was surrounded by over 100,000 North Vietnamese troops and their Viêt Công allies.  Chaos and panic reigned in the city and martial law was announced.  The war was all but lost and evacuation was the only option left open.  But when?  And how? 

Those who could make it to the coast boarded any available ship.  Others hoped to escape by air from the airport at Tân Son Náht, but shelling by the invaders on April 29 closed the airport and the fate of Saigon was sealed.  The United States initiated “Operation Frequent Wind” on April 29-30 and sent a fleet of helicopters to various landing zones throughout Saigon, including the US embassy, to evacuate the remaining Americans in the city along with as many South Vietnamese and other foreign nationals as could be accommodated in what became the largest helicopter evacuation in history. 

By late afternoon on April 29, thousands of Vietnamese hoping to escape converged on the US Embassy.  The last evacuees to leave were forced to a nearby roof top as North Vietnamese tanks rolled into central Saigon.  Who can forget that now iconic photograph of a helicopter touching down as those still hoping to escape lined the stairway?  Loaded to over capacity, it finally lifted up, tilted it nose downward, and  turned toward the east and freedom.  Forty minutes later it landed on the USS Midway operating offshore.  When it was all over the following day some 100 US helicopters had evacuated an estimated 7,000 Americans and South Vietnamese out of Saigon in under 24 hours.  Far more were left behind. The long war in Vietnam was over, not with a bang but a whimper.

Check out the "Looking Toward Portugal" Facebook page for more information and photos.