Some years later, in 1975, Caputo is crouched in the second-floor corridor of the Continental Palace Hotel, wondering if the North Vietnamese Army has finally invaded Saigon. He and his colleague from the Chicago Tribune, Ron Yates, jog over to the UPI offices. The office is in chaos but the final crisis has not yet arrived. He and Yates go back to the hotel to pack. Caputo takes his things to Nick Proffitt’s room, which is two floors below, to avoid the possibility of getting hit by a rocket in his top-floor room. He is twenty-three now and has a wife and two children to support, so he is less inclined to take risks. Caputo still feels attached to the war and wants to see it end, even though he knows it will not conclude in the manner in which he had hoped when he was a soldier.
Caputo’s life is very different now. He has become a career-oriented man with a family, but he has also retained the exciting and dangerous life he grew accustomed to as a soldier. Being a foreign correspondent seems to be a compromise between his own desire for adventure and his parents’ desire for him to have stability and social status. Ideologically, Caputo remains committed to the idea of the North Vietnamese not winning the war. Their success would signal that his efforts and the deaths of his former comrades had been for naught.
After Caputo is discharged from the Marine Corps in 1967, he briefly joins the antiwar movement and links up with the Vietnam Veterans Against the War. In 1970, he mails his campaign ribbons to President Nixon along with a bitter letter explaining his opposition to U.S. policies in former Indochina. The medals are returned to him, along with a brief note saying that the Executive Branch is not authorized to receive or hold military decorations, and that Caputo’s views have been noted and brought to the attention of the proper authorities.
Caputo’s gesture signals a reversal of his previous view in which he saw joining the Marines and going to war as a path to glory. Caputo sent Nixon his campaign ribbons as part of an effort to reinvent himself as an antiwar activist, though his attachment to the Marines and other soldiers made it difficult to critique the institution.
On April 29, 1975, a report comes in from the American Embassy around 10:30 P.M., saying that North Vietnamese have overtaken Tan Son Nhut airport and have moved into Saigon. Marine helicopters evacuate people and tell them to leave their luggage, for there is no additional room. The evacuees look at the wreckage from a South Vietnamese cargo plane, six thousand feet below them. Caputo thinks back to ten years before, when he and other marines marched into Vietnam, confident and idealistic. Now, that optimism is gone, their morals corrupted, and the purpose forgotten. The helicopter lands on the U.S.S. Denver. Caputo greets a marine from the 9th Expeditionary Brigade, the same unit with which he first landed in Da Nang. The next day, the ship’s captain announces that the Saigon government has surrendered to the North Vietnamese. The war is over.
The North Vietnamese’s seizure of the airport is reminiscent of the mission of Caputo’s battalion—to protect their airfield. The South Vietnamese’s failure to protect their airport leaves them vulnerable to a takeover and makes it difficult for anyone to escape, except on foot. Caputo knows that the soldiers who fought with him ten years ago no longer have the illusions that inspired them to go to Vietnam in the first place. They now realize that their government was dishonest with them about the reasons for going to war, and that this conclusion in Vietnam was inevitable due to the West’s inability to understand why the North Vietnamese were fighting.