As if conjured
by the farsighted imagination of a Greek tragedian, the final days of
the Vietnam War ended in bitter paradox. America's noble ambition at
the war's beginning--to champion democracy and aid a people menaced by
communist aggression--had gradually spiraled into disillusionment and
which President Ford painfully described, the final brush stroke to a
peculiar masterpiece 10,000 days in the making, intimately involved men
whose duty it was to protect and defend the American Embassy in Saigon.
This burden, arguably the darkest hour in American military history,
was shouldered by a special breed and remains a significant yet
overlooked event in Marine lore.
As enemy tanks
rumbled into Saigon, the last vestige of U.S. military presence in
Vietnam was lifted via helicopter from the embassy rooftop 25 years
ago, in April 1975. Manning walls much like those individuals who were
immortalized at the Alamo did, these defenders went sleepless and
hungry for days, saving countless lives during an interval filled with
chaos and hysteria. This is their story, their insights and
reflections: the Marine security guards of Saigon.
In the early
hours of 29 April 1975, the grim and undeniable reality became apparent
to the highest-ranking American official in Vietnam.
For weeks, an
uneasy tension had mounted in Saigon as the North Vietnamese Army began
an aggressive and largely unabated sweep down the coast of the South
China Sea. Da Nang had fallen less than a month prior, prompting a
panic-stricken exodus of South Vietnamese soldiers and civilians alike.
Two weeks before that, in neighboring Cambodia, Marines and 7th Fleet
sailors evacuated U.S. personnel from Phnom Penh as communist Khmer
Rouge forces began to overrun the capital. The final South Vietnamese
resistance was overwhelmed by three NVA divisions on 20 April at Xuan
Loc, located only 38 miles northwest of the capital city.
As both South
Vietnamese defense and spirit crumbled, President Nguyen Van Thieu
transferred power on 21 April to ailing Vice President Tran Van Huong
before the National Assembly. Hanoi's minister of defense and
mastermind of the French defeat at Dien Bien Phu 30 years earlier
sensed that this was the long-awaited sign that victory was at hand.
Quickly seizing the momentum, General Vo Nguyen Giap ordered an all-out
assault on the southern capital.
Department officials, warily monitoring the events from Washington,
D.C., began to realize the situation was untenable. Scores of NVA
rockets and artillery shells began to pound Tan Son Nhut air base.
Thousands of desperate Vietnamese were besieging the embassy, with
hopes that either through bribery, sympathy or luck, they too might
accompany the retreating Americans.
American Ambassador to South Vietnam, finally received the call he
dreaded: President Ford had approved and directed Option IV, the
helicopter evacuation of Saigon. Operation Frequent Wind officially
began shortly before 1100, 29 April, when Armed Forces Radio
broadcasted "(I'm Dreaming of a) White Christmas."
for which Martin waited--a heroic, last-ditch defense at Xuan Loc or
perhaps a last-minute negotiation with the North Vietnamese to avoid
invasion of the city--had never materialized. His confidence now rested
on the Marine security guards who manned the embassy walls, Marine
Aircraft Group 36 helicopter pilots who would execute the mission, and
Marines and sailors aboard 7th Fleet ships located in the South China
Sea just over the horizon.
began evacuating up to 500 U.S. personnel, foreign nationals and
"at-risk" Vietnamese--those who supported the U.S. government--in early
April when the South Vietnamese collapse loomed. The key to these
large-scale evacuations was Tan Son Nhut, which served as the Defense
Attaché Office (DAO) command center and departure point for
large, fixed-wing aircraft.
As the state
of affairs began to deteriorate, 16 of the 45 Saigon MSGs were siphoned
off to assist in processing and providing security at the DAO on 19
April. "I didn't like the idea of splitting my forces," recalled
then-Master Sergeant Juan J. Valdez, "but we were under the operational
control of the State Department, and what they said was it."
Like many of
the senior leaders in Saigon at the time, Valdez was well-seasoned and
had seen many swings of the pendulum in Vietnam. During the early
stages of the war, the San Antonio native served a two-year tour from
1965 to 1967 with Company B, 3d Amphibian Tractor Battalion, attached
to 2d Bn, Fourth Marine Regiment. He returned once again in September
1974, this time as the Saigon detachment noncommissioned officer in
embassy estimates predicted that approximately 7,000 Americans would
seek safe passage out of Saigon. "It now seemed virtually impossible to
estimate how many Americans were living in Saigon and nearby Bien Hoa,"
said Valdez. A sense of uncertainty intensified daily as NVA forces
gradually tightened the noose around the city.
marriage certificate, which only a few months before had cost no more
than $20, now cost up to $2,000," said Valdez. "The crowds never
appeared dangerous, just desperate--begging [to leave] the country or
get their children off to safety."
regards, the situation facing the MSGs was a prototype for the modern
battlefield Marines are predicted to inhabit: an uncertain, chaotic
arena where the lines between open conflict, humanitarian assistance
and peacekeeping are blurry at best. How many wolves are among the
sheep? Do sheep left in the wilderness transform into wolves? Valdez
was relying upon many young, inexperienced Marines to act decisively in
matters of life and death--perhaps their own and undoubtedly on behalf
one of the young MSGs assigned to the DAO, reported to the Saigon
detachment shortly before the evacuations began. After checking into
the Marine House, the "new guy" remembered trudging up a long flight of
stairs, selecting a room and looking out over Saigon, "trying to figure
out how I had gotten here and what I was going to see in the coming
corporal with seven months on active duty, English suddenly found
himself roaming the compound on night watches. What was once the DAO
movie theater had evolved into an evacuee processing center. As his
footsteps echoed throughout the gymnasium, a staging area where nervous
hopefuls awaited their freedom bird, "One gentleman came out to the
hall and told me how comforting it was to hear, like an affirmation of
our presence," he said. "I realized that these anxious people took
comfort out of the rhythmic sound of our marching in the halls."
In a 24 April
1995 Time magazine article, one of the architects of the Saigon
assault, NVA Lieutenant General Hoan Phuong, described how the final
nails were to be thrust into the South's spirit. His army "enlisted"
South Vietnamese air force pilots who were primarily driven to curry
favor with the conquering army, but who partially wanted to strike
against the Americans abandoning them.
South Vietnamese air force, American-produced, A-37 Dragonfly jets and
F-5 Tiger aircraft, the defecting pilots were ordered to strike key
locations in Saigon. "The idea was to bomb the concrete hangars and the
runways at Tan Son Nhut," Phuong recounted. "We didn't think we'd do
much real damage, but we wanted to have maximum psychological effect.
We wanted to create chaos."
Phuong's attacks created--both psychological and tangible--radically
altered both the timeline and the strategy in which U.S. leadership
attempted to evacuate its personnel. At approximately 1630, 28 April,
the defecting pilots attacked Tan Son Nhut air base, targeting the DAO
command center and control tower.
40-member supplementary platoon composed of 9th Marine Amphibious
Brigade Marines from Okinawa had arrived a few days earlier to help
provide security, the MSGs constantly manned the compound's primary
positions. Post 2 was located at the intersection of the main road into
the airport, and Post 1 was positioned 30 yards away at the road
leading into the DAO compound. As the dust from the earlier attack
began to settle, it was time to begin assigning guard watches and dig
in for what was expected to be an uneventful evening.
"I stayed up
that night and, at around 0200 on the 29th, walked around to check on
the Marines at their posts," said Sergeant Ted Murray, who arrived at
the Saigon detachment the previous December. "Almost all of them smiled
and asked for some sleep, something that we all needed, but they were
Marines--embassy Marines--and they knew their job." The last MSGs who
Murray visited were Lance Corporal Darwin Judge and Corporal Charles
McMahon Jr., who assumed their Post 1 positions at midnight. At
approximately 0330, a series of randomly launched rockets began
pounding the air base. As Marines poured from their quarters and began
to assess the situation, it was discovered that Post 1, the closest
position to the main gate, had taken a direct hit. The two MSGs manning
this position, Judge and McMahon, had been killed during the attack and
subsequently became the last U.S. servicemembers to die as a result of
enemy fire on Vietnamese soil. (See related sidebar below)
As the sounds
of artillery, rockets and gunfire echoed throughout the city,
Ambassador Martin wanted to personally inspect the damage inflicted
upon the air base. Martin called upon MSgt Colin Broussard and Staff
Sergeant James Daisey, two of the six-man Personal Protective Security
Unit assigned to him on 29 April.
were lined with Vietnamese," recalled Broussard, who escorted the
ambassador the six treacherous miles to the DAO. "We didn't know who
was the enemy. We locked and loaded all weapons and could almost feel
an attack on the motorcade."
ambassador was a smoking, pockmarked air base in flames and still
receiving sporadic rocket fire. Acknowledging that fixed-wing
evacuations from the air base were no longer viable, Broussard said,
"The ambassador saw what he wanted to see and ordered us to bring him
back to the embassy."
becoming increasingly apparent to Saigon's residents that the end was
near. As the NVA began its thrust into the city, Vietnamese throngs
began seeking any feasible way to reach the U.S. Navy flotilla, Task
Force 76, positioned 20 miles offshore. South Vietnamese soldiers
commandeered military aircraft, and civilians flocked to all ports
along the Saigon River in hopes of reaching the Americans at sea.
the same time "White Christmas" began filling Armed Forces Radio
airwaves, Martin requested a security squad to escort him to his
residence, located about two blocks from the embassy. Reports of Viet
Cong assassination squads, snipers and continual rocket fire failed to
dissuade the ambassador, and Broussard and Daisey were once again among
those called upon for a dangerous assignment.
Uzis [submachine guns], grenades and .357s [pistols] with us and went
through a secret entrance in the French Embassy," said Broussard. "We
went into the house and burned classified information and used thermite
grenades to destroy sensitive items."
interim, 9th MAB units aboard Task Force 76 ships were gearing up for
yet another historic evacuation. The first wave of Marine Heavy
Helicopter Squadron 462 aircraft, loaded with 2d Battalion Landing
Team, 4th Marines, touched down on DAO landing zones at approximately
reinforcements rushed to their assigned positions as evacuees began
boarding the initial 12 Sea Stallions. During the ensuing nine hours,
395 Americans and nearly 4,500 Vietnamese and foreign nationals were
airlifted from the DAO to waiting ships.
elements of BLT 2/4 lifted from the DAO just before midnight,
concluding what had been an orderly, well-executed evacuation. The
situation at the embassy, however, was much more volatile as
drastically outnumbered Marines attempted to keep at bay approximately
10,000 frantic Vietnamese surrounding the embassy walls. The front gate
had been secured in order to keep a human tidal wave from flowing into
the embassy grounds, and the MSGs were finding it extremely difficult
to assist those marked for evacuation. "If there was someone out there
that we wanted to bring in," explained Major Jim Kean, the Saigon
detachment officer in charge, "then we'd put a bunch of people on the
wall, reach down, grab him by the collar and hair and just yank him up
and over the wall."
North Vietnamese didn't interfere with the evacuation, but helicopter
pilots received small-arms fire while hovering over the embassy. This
"cowboy-style" shooting by South Vietnamese rogue looters further
complicated an already perilous task. While CH-46s landed on the
embassy roof, pilots of the larger CH-53s were forced to execute a
steep descent into the embassy courtyard. "There had been waves of
choppers. One in the air, hovering, and one on the ground, loading,"
inside the embassy were assured that no one was going to be left
behind. "We had to run around counting people to see who was going to
get out and who was not going to get out. It was grim," said Kean. "At
any time during the night, the number of people inside the grounds
seemed to remain steady."
began late that afternoon and continued steadily throughout the
evening, but the fate of those remaining inside the embassy walls was
finally sealed when a helicopter with the call sign "Lady Ace 09"
touched down on the embassy roof shortly after 0530, 30 April. The
pilot had received specific orders that he was to extract the
ambassador and his staff, and that all further flights were designated
strictly for U.S. personnel.
over at me for a moment. He didn't say anything and he didn't show any
emotion. He just looked tired," Kean described. "He knew that this sad
moment would be coming sooner or later. Then he went upstairs and got
in the bird and left Vietnam. He was carrying an American flag with
As the Marines
began to withdraw from the perimeter, cautiously backing toward the
embassy door in an effort to "button up" inside, Vietnamese who had
been promised liberation suddenly realized they were about to be left
behind. The Marines barricaded the doors, froze the two elevators on
the sixth floor and made their way to the rooftop landing zone.
everything came to a standstill and we just sat," said Valdez. "All the
Marines were up there. No birds in sight. But I never thought for one
minute that the choppers would leave us behind."
accumulated 1,054 flight hours and flew 682 sorties throughout
Operation Frequent Wind, evacuating 5,000 from Tan Son Nhut and more
than 2,000 from the embassy. At its apex, America's military presence
in Vietnam numbered 500,000 personnel. It was now reduced to BLT 2/4
reinforcements and MSGs--60 isolated Marines on a rooftop overlooking a
city under siege.
One by one,
the final series of helicopters touched down and evacuated the infantry
Marines, until 11 MSGs were all that remained. "Some time just before 8
a.m., I saw the bird off in the distance--one unescorted CH-46 out of
the sunrise," said Kean.
helicopter evacuation in history, as well as America's 25-year struggle
to keep South Vietnam free, ended a few moments later as the last
Marine CH-46 lifted from the embassy and headed out to sea.
note: The author wishes to express his appreciation to Colin Broussard
and the Saigon detachment Marine security guards for their assistance.
Sgt Davis works in the media
section of the Marine Corps Air Station, Miramar Public Affairs Office.
In recognition of his writing abilities, he received Leatherneck's
Ronald D. Lyons Award in 1998.
"Victory at Any Cost: The Genius
of Vietnam's Gen Vo Nguyen Giap" by Cecil B. Currey and "U.S. Marines
in Vietnam: The Bitter End, 1973-75" are excellent references on the
fall of Saigon and are available through the MCA Bookservice