Round 40 years have passed since that historical last day of April. Experiencing many ups and downs, sometimes forgotten, but the commander of the tank that crashed the Independence Palace’s gate has never stopped being proud to have become a witness to history.
Captain, war veteran Vu Dang Toan talks to pupils of Tran Phu Junior High School (Hai Duong city)
In an April afternoon, the sky was clear with golden sunshine like historical April days round 40 years ago. Resounding in the Hai Duong Provincial Museum were chatting and laughing sounds of pupils of Tran Phu Junior High School and students of Hai Duong College.
However, when an old soldier in a green uniform with a captain rank entered with a look both august and gentle, everybody suddenly stopped making noise. He was Vu Dang Toan, the then lieutenant commanding tank 390 to crash the Independence Palace’s gate, the last bastion of the Saigon government. Following his story, the fiery days of April 1975 seemed to be revived in the hall…
Born in 1947, Vu Dang Toan (a native of Yet Kieu commune, Gia Loc district) set off to fight in response to the fatherland’s call when he was just 18 years old. Ten years later when engaging in the 1975 spring campaign, he was serving under Company 4, Battalion 1, Tank Brigade 203, Army Corps 2.
There were four crew members in tank 390 at that time, namely sergeant Nguyen Van Tap (also a native of Hai Duong), driver, sergeant Ngo Sy Nguyen, 1st gunner, second lieutenant Le Van Phuong, deputy technical leader of the company cum 2nd gunner, and lieutenant Toan, commissar of the company.
Naturally familiar with the image of “five brothers in a tank”, which has become a symbol, many people asked him why there were only four people in tank 390.
“Five-member tanks are of an old tank generation once involved in the World War II, were equipped by the Soviet Union, and require up to two drivers during every operation because of a very heavy driving system. Meanwhile, tank 390 is a newer model requiring only one driver, so there are only four people in the tank,” he explained indulgently smiling.
Questions about the tank having become a legend were explained very simply and understandably like that by him. Though recognized as a witness to history and present at extremely important and sacred moments of the country and nation, he did not have a patronizing attitude of a person considering himself important. He just wanted to tell the younger generation a historical story most honestly and simply.
“A lot of people still think that tanks were disassembled to be carried from the North and reassembled in the South. In fact, we marched from Luong Son (Hoa Binh) and transported one-piece tanks to as far as Sai Gon. The tanks moved by themselves on some roads and were transported by car on some others. Accessory cars carried replacement things, not all parts of the tanks. During the operation, links of the tanks often broke because of many hardships on Truong Son roads. Then, we moved so much that as soon as 2 – 3 links were dislocated, I immediately knew and told my comrades to stop and reverse the tank to join the links to prevent breakages,” Toan recalled.
His unit started marching from Da Nang on April 10, 1975. The entire force began Ho Chi Minh Campaign on April 26. On the morning of April 30, the liberation army was divided into five wings to head towards Sai Gon.
There were seven tanks in the then Company 4. The tank of platoon leader Le Tien Hung took the lead, followed by tanks 390 and 843. Tank 390 started to lead the team from Thi Nghe bridge to the Independence Palace after the tank of platoon leader Le Tien Hung had been shot and fired by the enemy.
Near the Independence Palace, tank 390 slowed down and was crossed by tank 843, which then stopped and was switched off by the left gate of the palace. Toan still remembers exactly that moment when driver Nguyen Van Tap asked him: “What now, brother Toan?”, he ordered: “Just crash straight into it.” Tap let the tank leap forward, fling the main gate of the Independence Palace away, and rush into the yard.
Getting out of the tank and seeing company leader Bui Quang Than holding a flag, so Toan ran after and backed him with a Kalashnikov. When the two reached the front of the palace, a person stopped them, saying: “I am brigadier general Nguyen Huu Hanh, aide of President Duong Van Minh. The president invites you up for work.”
Company leader Bui Quang Than went to the top of the palace to plant the flag, while Toan followed Nguyen Huu Hanh to the stateroom where more than 50 members of the then Saigon government’s cabinet had gathered. After joining in driving Duong Van Minh’s cabinet into a place, Toan stood guard at the door, while driver Nguyen Van Tap stayed to mind the tank, and second lieutenant Le Van Phuong sat inside, pointing a 12.7 mm gun upwards to the flag on the top of the palace to back company leader Bui Quang Than when he planted the flag.
After Duong Van Minh had been taken to the radio station to declare surrender, Toan and his comrades stayed to protect the palace and then moved to Bach Dang port to protect it and the warehouse occupied from the Saigon government.
On May 15, 1975, the soldiers in tank 390 were honored to lead the line in a parade ceremony to celebrate the victory in Sai Gon city.
After the complete victory day, Toan went to Ha Bac to develop and consolidate his unit. From 1981 to 1985, he worked for Armor Training School in Son Tay. He retired with the rank of captain because his family circumstances were too difficult at that time when his wife was sick but still had to take care of their three small children alone.
Putting away heroic memories of the past, he returned home and did everything to earn his living and care for his wife and children. The story of tank 390 that crashed the Independence Palace’s gate was not mentioned in 20 years, but he was not too disheartened or downhearted. When the historical truth was returned to the right people and right things, he and his comrades were the happiest for meeting each other again. They still firmly believed that day would come and they would be recognized as witnesses to history.