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They Played "White Christmas"
As Marine Choppers Flew and Siagon Fell

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Posts: Saigon, Vietnam Author: Story by Sgt. Steven A. Davis

"That [the fall of Saigon] was probably the hardest day of my presidency for me. ... I think we made a very heroic effort and did the best we could under the worst of circumstances. I look upon it as the sadness of a retreat that I'll never forget."

Former President Gerald R. Ford,
magazine, March 8, 1999

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 ignominy.

This sadness 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.

State 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.

Graham Martin, 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." 

The miracle 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.

Daily flights 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 charge.

Initial 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. 

"A Vietnamese 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."

In many 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 of others.

Bill English, 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 days."

A lance 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.

Employing 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."

The 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. 

Although a 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.

"The streets 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."

Awaiting the 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." 

It was 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.

Around 1100, 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.

"We brought 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."

In the 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 1500.

The 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.

The last 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."

The advancing 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," Valdez recalled. 

Vietnamese 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."

Evacuations 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.

"Martin looked 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 him."

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.

"Then 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."

Marine pilots 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.

The largest 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.

Editor's 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


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