Pride and obscurity: the historic crew of Vietnam's 'Tank 390'

Pride and obscurity: the historic crew of Vietnam's 'Tank 390'

HANOI - When Tank 390 crashed through the gates of Saigon's presidential palace 40 years ago, it heralded the end of Vietnam's war. But the men who manned it have since lived in obscurity, poor yet forever bonded by the history they created.

Replicas of Tank 390 (L) and Tank 843 (behind R), the first tanks credited with crashing through the gates of Saigon's presidential palace 40 years ago, on display at Ho Chi Minh City's Reunification Palace

On April 30, 1975, the four-man tank team had come under heavy fire and lost contact with their commanders as they entered central Saigon during a lightning-fast offensive by communist forces from the North.

But their thoughts were firmly on victory as they barrelled into the compound -- now known as Independence Palace -- according to retired captain Vu Dang Toan, the commander of Tank 390, a Chinese-made T59 first deployed in Vietnam in the 1960s.

"If we had been scared, how could we have crashed through that gate? Our aim was to quickly occupy the palace and arrest Duong Van Minh's cabinet," he told AFP, referring to South Vietnam's president -- 'Big Minh' -- who would soon surrender.

"I didn't want to lose, whatever the battle was," he added.

For decades after the war, Vietnam's official account of the victory maintained that Tank 843 -- a Soviet-made T54 that arrived in Vietnam as part of USSR military aid in 1972 -- had broken down the palace gates. But Toan and his colleagues say they were first.

Their recollection is backed up by French photographer Francoise Demulder, who witnessed the moment Saigon fell.

In 1995 she returned to Vietnam with her photos showing the moment in question, restoring Tank 390 to its rightful place in the nation's official history.

Both tanks are now in military museums in Hanoi, preserved as national treasures and emblems of the day the US-backed South finally gave up the fight and fell under a unified communist government from the North.

Although happy that the record has now been put straight, Toan says he generally avoids publicity and hardly ever talks about his role in a defining moment of his country's recent past.

Vietnam's victory, 40 years on

"My family, my neighbours... they all were surprised to discover (it), they say I'm stubborn not to share this secret," he said.

"We fought with our hearts, for people in the south, not for fame, not to be called heroes," he said, adding he was just glad he was able to do his duty for his country.

- Modest means -

Toan, who spent 20 years in the army, retired in 1985. He used to make tofu and rice noodles to get by, but now he is retired and lives modestly in northern Hai Duong province on a $260-a-month state pension.

The tank's second gunner, Le Van Phuong, has also struggled to make ends meet since leaving the army in the 1980s, working as a barber for many years. Now he too is retired and lives on a small army pension.

Phuong, who lives on Hanoi's outskirts, says he is filled with pride whenever archive footage of the historic day is played on television.

"I am transported back to being in my 20s, full of heroic ideals, proud to have contributed just a tiny part to our country's great victory in 1975," he told AFP.

But he also says the team's role was "pretty normal" in a country where almost everyone contributed to the war effort, on both sides -- millions with their lives.

"But I still think of (the other members of Tank 390's crew) like family. We share happiness and sadness, as if we are brothers," Phuong told AFP.

The four men speak several times a year and they will see each other next week, when they travel to Ho Chi Minh City to mark the 40th anniversary of the fall of Saigon on Thursday April 30.

Communist leader Ho Chi Minh declared Vietnam's independence in 1945, an act that slid the country into 30 years of war, first with the French, then the Americans.

After the fall of Saigon in 1975, Vietnam invaded Cambodia in 1979, and also fought intermittent border wars with neighbouring China until 1988.

For the crew of Tank 390, who were all aged under 30 in 1975, the years they have lived since are precious -- no matter how poor they may have been.

The tank's first gunner, Ngo Sy Nguyen, 63, left the army in 1982 and worked as a bus driver in Hanoi until he retired.

Nguyen Van Tap, 65, who drove Tank 390, retired from the military a year after the fall of Saigon, working for a meagre salary as a farmer and at a paint company.

"I am lucky to be alive compared to so many of my comrades who lost their lives on the battlefield," he told AFP.

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