Have you locked the door?

Ross Gibbs, former Director-General of the National Archives, holding the key to the ammunitions cabinet held in the Australian Embassy, Saigon.
Ross Gibbs, former Director-General of the National Archives, holding the key to the ammunitions cabinet held in the Australian Embassy, Saigon. (NAA: A13288, 1)

On 30 April 1975, the capital of South Vietnam, Saigon, was captured by the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) – an event that came to be known as the ‘Fall of Saigon’. In the days leading up to the 'fall' over 150 Australians were evacuated from Saigon.

The last remaining Australian force in Vietnam, the Australian Embassy Platoon, was withdrawn on 1 July 1973 and by 1975 the only Australian Government presence in the area was diplomatic. By April 1975 hostilities between North and South Vietnam had escalated to the point where the capture of Saigon by the NVA was imminent and the safety and security of Australian and Vietnamese nationals was paramount.

The key pictured above, secured the ammunitions cabinet within the Australian Embassy, Saigon. It was removed along with a sample identity pass by the Embassy’s Office Manager, Helmut Kaltenthaler, as he locked the doors and fled from the embassy on 25 April 1975. Valuable records had already been evacuated to Bangkok and it was crucial to secure the building as the imminent invasion of Saigon threatened people and property.

The days before the evacuation

On 21 April 1975, the Department of Foreign Affairs in Canberra sent a cablegram to the Paris Embassy informing of the decision to evacuate Australians from the embassy in Saigon. The security of the Australian Embassy premises was to remain with local staff and possibly with the French acting as a ‘protective power’.

Within hours of the decision, a secret cablegram was sent from Saigon to Canberra by the Ambassador, Geoffrey Price. It describes the frantic atmosphere as arrangements are made to move Australian staff and nationals to safety.

As part of the evacuation, communication equipment was loaded into a Kombi van and driven straight onto RAAF Hercules planes provided for the evacuation. Journalists were included and next of kin in Australia were notified to allay fears and speculation in the press. Price’s concerns extended not only to Australian Embassy staff and Vietnamese nationals, but to Malay and Indian diplomatic colleagues. He hoped that Australia’s withdrawal would be temporary, that the embassy would be secure during the staff absence, and that diplomatic relations would be maintained.

The National Archives holds many records that describe the atmosphere in Saigon at the time, including numerous documents illustrating Australian–Vietnamese relations following the end of the Vietnam War. For identified records, see – The fall of Saigon, 1975.

You may also like to read or listen to Professor Peter Edwards’ lecture on the fall of Saigon, presented at the 2006 RG Neale lecture series.

  • read caption below
    Outward cablegram sent from Canberra to Paris, 21 April 1975
  • read caption below
    Inward cablegram sent to Canberra from Saigon, 21 April 1975
Copyright National Archives of Australia 2017