Thursday, December 6, 2012
Marine Memories of the Evacuation of Saigon
2nd Lt. Thomas O'Hara.
"GOD, THIS IS BEAUTIFUL TO WATCH"
I was an executive officer for company F, Fox Company. I took in all the cats and dogs from the company, all of those to fill in the holes in the company. I had the herd, me and the first sergeant, when we flew into the DAO complex for the evacuation there. And as we were going in we were telling them you do this and you do that and no don't put your magazine in yet and that sort of thing. These were young Marines. Very young.
But then the pilot of the aircraft, an Airforce CH53, he says we are going into LZ Bluebird and I looked at my map and realized that was Tan Son Nhut Airport and that was not where we were supposed to go. And he said we're landing. And I passed a message back up and said, "No we are not landing." Or rather, "We may be landing, but we're not getting off this thing." Sure enough they landed but we refused to get off. Then they took off again and took us to the DAO. I had argued with the crew chief. The crew chief said he was a major in the Air Force and I said "I'm a second lt. in the Marine Corps and they're not getting off cause I'm not telling them to get off here." And I told him we wanted to go into the DAO compound and that is where he took us.
I took my folks out and split them up into four groups and then we augmented the different platoons that were already there. The perimeter was already established. I was shocked I to see the volume of people. As we were getting off, people were getting on, we were going one way and civilians were coming the other way. I was amazed it was that fast. I saw Col. George Slade and asked him where Fox Company was and he pointed that way and we took off.
We had been helping aboard ship before we came in. We had to shake down people who came aboard. Vietnamese came out on Hueys, with Vietnamese families and they just crash landed on the ship, so we had people who spoke Vietnamese up on the ships 1MC talking out to the flight deck. I was up there on the bridge watching this, and we had a bunch of people who were armed facing down the helicopters on the flight deck. And they told the people that they were now aboard a US ship and before they got off the helicopter they had to take all their weapons and any knives and explosives and put them out the window beforehand. And they had guns, pistols, knives, hand grenades. And then you saw the mass of people get out and you couldn't believe they could get that many people on one helicopter and get it to fly. And then you look inside and they have to new Honda 750s in the helicopter, too, and some chickens and pigs. The chickens and pigs and Hondas went over the side. The helicopters went over the side, too.
I didn't think we would ever go to the DAO because so many Vietnamese came out. But about 14:00, however, we finally took off. There was a break in the people coming in and we heard our number for going in.
A couple of events stand out from that day. First of all we had LAWS, light anti-tank weapons that we kept crated in the boxes. We hadn't busted them out. We had the 106s, too. A buddy of mine called in on the radio and said, "You're not gonna believe this, we have tanks sitting right here, and the barrels are pointed at the building. North Vietnam tanks."
They were sitting out there and all of our LAWS were crated up and we hadn't even busted them out and given them to the troops. So I went high tailing it over there and got a quick glimpse of this. And there they were. They were their's all right. They could really have handed it to us at that moment. Then an artillery battery that had been captured started taking out the airbase with 8 inch artillery. Apparently, they strayed and shot at something near some of our people and our airplanes were stacked up at the time and they went at the battery, and the battery exploded, then the planes pulled back up in the air and there was no more firing.
Echo company forgot their strobe lights on the way in. So I gathered hp all their strobes and brought them in and I took them over to the company commander and I had been on the ground for only about 15 minutes, and suddenly I heard this 122 rocket going overhead. I jumped into this pile of rose bushes, and I was digging this trench with this Company commander. And He looked at me and said, "Tom, this is the first time you've ever been shot at, huh? And I said "How can you tell." And he said, "Well your holes deeper than mine."
One of the things the troops had to do in leaving there, we got the word from our company commander who said, "Tom, pick some people and make sure that none of these vehicles out here in the compound will run again."
So I knew just the people to pick. I said, "OK, gang." I had about five or six of them. "These vehicles will never ever run again." And they said, "Sir, can we blow them up." And I said, "Don't blow them up cause we'll get burned to death. Do something else."
Well, they had a field day. There was all these new pickup trucks and brand new Cherokees and jeeps and government vehicles. And these kids knew how to rip out the wires and smash the electronics and punch holes in the gas tanks. These guys had fun. See, I was the executive officer, and I really got to know who was who, the good, the bad and the ugly. So I picked the bad and the ugly. You know where they're from and I had the right guys for the job.
Leaving, they put all the thermite in the safe at the DAO with all of the money. I think they had 400 pounds of thermite in there. And as we were taking off, the brick building just turned red and then orange and then imploded and melted. It was just gorgeous to watch that.
On the way out, we had just gone over Saigon, over the harbor, and there were two ships out there duking it out. One was obviously North and one was South, and they were just handing it to each other. And there was a cargo ship left in the middle that was taking almost all of it, and all of these tracers just glaring off the water. And the first sergeant and the crew chief were hanging off the back looking at this, and we thought, "God, this is beautiful to watch, but I'd hate to be down there."
Then I saw something come from our right corner. I grabbed a crew chief and yelled," SAM!" And his eyeballs just opened. He took out his flare gun and started shooting flares at the missile and he grabbed his headset and called the pilot. I didn't think a helicopter could dive that fast. We went straight down, and the missile went up over us and it was a SAM. We were just shocked. I remember the first sergeant looked at me and said, "Oh shit!" Those were the only words that came out of his mouth. "Oh shit!" It was dark and you could see this orange flash and glow coming up at us. It looked like a flame coming up at us and the flares never took it out. We didn't know what to do at that moment. I saw it and the crew chief saw it and the pilot took immediate action and dove. They did not fire the smart version of it because that could have followed us.
After that we stayed very low over the water. I kept telling the crew chief and the pilot also that if they landed on any other ship than the USS Okinawa we were not getting off. I told them I want to see the number 3 on the flight deck. So we were very fortunate. Some of our friends got stuck on the Midway and we didn't see them for many weeks after that.
The Vietnamese were still coming out and crash landing on the deck of our ship that next morning. We had to make room for the Vietnamese and had to double up in our quarters.
The only contact I had with the Vietnamese on board the ship was this. We had picked up a lot of hookers and evacuated them. I was coming down to check on the troops one night. And I saw this line outside the head at about 10 o clock at night. And I thought, "This is not right." So I jumped in at the head of the line and opened up the door and flipped on the lights, and here was three ladies plying their trade inside the head.
We had a zero VD rate at first and later we did not. So I had them get their clothes back on and get out, and I had my guys get back upstairs and I tried remember who was there and put them in my little book of memories for shots in two weeks.
I never really had a feeling of being at a critical moment in history. My greatest feeling was that we had been some place and had lost. And now we were bringing people back and there was panic and shock to it. It seemed like a lot of waste.
Now I run by the Vietnam Memorial about once a week. It's hard to put in perspective. I guess I was about 15 when a guy about two houses up from my parents was killed over there, about 1965. And just to see that black stone there, I don't particularly care for the color since it epitomizes loss and shame. But it also symbolizes sorrow and I'll accept that.
Lt. Mike Clough.
"JUST GOING IN TO TURN THE LIGHTS OFF"
Melton was my Company Commander, I was one of his platoon commanders. I had never been in combat.
I was supposed to be in one LZ and was landed in another. And I remember going in and tapping a pilot on the shoulder and telling him we were going into the wrong one and he just waved me off.
He just kind of waved me off. I don't think he had a choice he was being controlled at that time. We were in the DAO rather than the DAO annex. So we had to move through a corridor and deploy in the annex.
I was looking out the window on the way in. I know it looked like Tan Son Nhut was the forward edge of the battle area. Things were burning and smoke was coming up.
On the ground things were kind of confused. The civilians were taking cover in little staging areas. When we landed we got the troops off and got them down, I was looking at the map to figure out where I was. A one-armed guy came up to me in a flak jacket. One arm. With a swedish machine gun. He asked me if he could be of assistance. I said, "Yeah, I'd like to know where I am. I'm just trying to figure out to get where I'm supposed to be because I'm in the wrong LZ." So he puts his map on top of this abandoned car and he showed me on the map where I was and where I should be. And I thanked him. And I asked him what he did. And he said he was just helping out. And then he walked away. I had no idea who he was. He had on civilian clothes and he was carrying a Swedish submachine gun. It was pretty bizarre. It was kind of strange. After that, I never saw him again. He walked off. I guess he was a wayward Marine or something.
The next thing I knew I ran into my company commander, Captain Melton, and he directed me to where I was supposed to go, and he told me that Captain Janey, who was the operations officer assistant, was going to brief me on my portion of perimeter. And as I was going up he grabbed me aside, and told me that there was a tower, a water tower that was out a couple of hundred meters and we were getting sniper fire from there. And this guy had won a Navy Cross in the Big War, and he was cool like a cucumber. And he said, "Don't worry about it, Tom, no sweat, you know." So we got up to the fence and got the troops down and deployed them, and I remember sitting behind a dumpster, and we brought a section of 106s up, just to kind of settle things down, and as soon as that happened everything settled down. I know that the 106s were set up to assure that the snipers got the right idea.
We were on the very edge of the compound itself. As a matter of fact, we had an open field in front of us. It was just a big wide open field. And on the left side of the perimeter, there was a sort of barracks. And on the right side was the city itself. And in front of us was this field.
I had to run around and make sure that everything stayed all right. Whenever the troops got edgy I had to calm them down. We were under orders to make sure that we didn't fire. We couldn't fire without an order. We had to wait for a series of things to come down before we could engage.
I recall seeing a couple of red flares going off pretty close to the area. You see red and you know that's something bad. I called up Major Melton and he indicated not to worry about it. There were a lot of things going on all around us.
We started moving when it got dark. The annex was finished before the DAO. We marched back through the corridor to the DAO. We moved a couple of times waiting for transportation out. And we waited for the evacuation of the civilians.
It was dark for a long time before we finally got out.
What it impressed me that night was that the action started getting closer and closer. We could hear it. Helicopter gun ships were going over a ways off, and they were conducting gunfire. Every now and then a stray round came in, close enough for everyone to hit the deck.
We went back on a Marine helicopter. I think it was maybe half an hour ride on the way out. I looked out on the way out and I remember, we were up pretty high, the crew chiefs were looking for SAMS. I had heard that there was some rumor of them being shot.
We went back to the Denver. We were coming aboard and I knew it wasn't my ship, and I was concerned about getting my men back to my ship. And I went to the pilot and said this wasn't my ship. And he said he didn't care. I said, "Well, I'd like to get back to the Vancouver." And he told me that unless I wanted to go back to Saigon, I was to get off here. So I decided to get off there. He was going back. He had been going back and forth all day. I said, "OK, I've had enough of that."
We spent the first night on the boat deck. They didn't have any place for us. We stayed there two or three days before they could fly us back to the Vancouver.
Later we had talked about it. We didn't feel a sense of history, not for a while. My troops were just tired Marines.
Melton said we were just going in and turn the lights off. That's all we did. And then came out again.
1st. Lt. Thomas Ochala.
"I'M LOOKING FOR A PLATOON OF MARINES. HAVE YOU SEEN ONE?"
My platoon was in a reserve role. We flew into the DAO compound and were to go wherever there were problems.
We landed at the DAO and were deployed there. We were to go wherever we were needed. Probably an hour and a half after we landed the Embassy got hot and we flew over there.
My understanding was that there were too many people for them to handle at the Embassy. They needed somebody to control the crowds.
They took us over in a CH53. They landed us in the parking lot at the Embassy.
There was some problems with the coordination of the helicopters. I was sent to arrange for a helicopter to fly us there. I went to arrange for it and it took a long time to get there. The people who were controlling it were up on the DAO building. I got up there and told them who I was and told them I needed a helicopter to get to the Embassy. There was a helicopter sitting down in the parking lot below us and they said, "That's your helicopter and your people are in it, go get in it." And so I went running back out of the building, about a five minute process, and when I got there they took off with my platoon. So Air America was flying out of the LZ right next to us, so I went in and told Col. Slade what had happened, and told him I was going to try to hitch a ride with Air America. I went over and the Air America terminal asked for a ride, and they said, "Sure, where do you want to go?" and they took me right into the Embassy.
I thought I beat my own platoon in. They landed in the parking lot and I landed on the roof. I talked some people there and said, "I'm looking for a platoon of marines, have you seen one?"
They said no marines had flown in there. I went down and reported immediately to Major Kean, who was in charge of the Marines there at the Embassy and he was elated that more Marines were coming in and told me where he wanted them deployed, and about ten minutes later I ran into my platoon sergeant. I said, "How long have you been here?" and he said, "Where have you been?"
The parking lot was filled mostly with Americans at the time and a few Vietnamese. it seemed kind of confused. They were landing helicopters in there and flying people out. It was normal confusion. Out around the gates people were packed, there was this huge crowd out there. And people were coming over the walls.
It was kind of controlled, it wasn't as if people were yelling and screaming. It was like they were waiting their chance to get in and when they saw they're chance to get in they came in. My platoon was deployed then in three different places. There was an annex that joined the Embassy compound, that was my hottest spot, I had a squad there. I had a squad that was out on the side that Tu Do street was on, about a block and a half away. Then another squad I didn't see because they were employed on the perimeter and then were plugged in with the other squad.
We just pushed people back. People tried to climb over and we pushed them out. Some journalists said that their fingers were smashed or they were kicked. But I never saw any of that. There were a couple of occasions where people were climbing over the wall and they put their fingers up, and somebody would reach up and pry their fingers loose, but it would never be enough to cause any damage. It was just to let them know that they weren't supposed to do that.
The situation was always under control, throughout the afternoon. There were times when it seemed people would rush us in waves, and eight or ten would get past, and we would push the others back. They'd start climbing up and run down the roofs and into the compound itself. It wasn't as if we were in danger from them, they were just trying to get in, that was it.
We never pushed any women or children back over because they weren't physical enough to climb up and over the wall. It was usually just the men who were coming over the wall. The women or children had verification and came through the gate.
It was intense because it had a lot of potential. One thing that impressed me about the Vietnamese people that stays in my mind, was the way that we were able to control them. I thought in my mind, "Gee, they must not know how few of us there are. If they want to get inside the compound they could if they wanted to, really."
All of us were aware that there were too few of us. Our reinforcements were at the DAO compound.
If one helicopter had gone down in that courtyard landing zone it would really have slowed things down. But it went fairly well. As the helicopters were coming in, there were a lot of tracers coming up at them. A lot of them. I suspected that a lot of those were the ARVN because I don't believe the NVA or the Viet Cong were in the city in strength at that time. The ARVNs were probably shooting at them.
We were concerned about bicycle bombs or something like that. We had one incident that was strange, really strange, that to this day I can't explain.
We'd shut down the evacuation for a while. The helicopters had quit coming in for one reason or another. We told everybody to remain calm and that the evacuation was temporarily shut down. So they did, they calmed down and waited for us to say they could come in. It was a night.
At one point everybody, all the Vietnamese in front of us got up and just moved away from the wall. Like somebody told them there was a bomb ready to go off here. And so I got on the radio and said, "Something's happening here." And then all of a sudden they all got calm again and came back and sat down right in front of us again. It was the strangest thing. I'd love to know what the explanation was.
There was this American going around, about my age, speaking Vietnamese to the people. He said he'd been in Vietnam before and he'd come back to get his wife. She was Vietnamese, and she didn't want to leave. So he was just waiting for his turn to get on the helicopter. And he hung around my position and interpreted for me.
One problem we had was the identification of evacuees. When we went in it was the Embassy responsibility to tell us who was to be evacuated. And that had not been done. So were we getting such things as Embassy stationery with names of people typed on it. And it was obvious that some people in the Embassy had used this as an advantage, perhaps for monetary purposes or whatever. I remember, for instance, this one black guy came up and he had a list of about twenty people who were his relatives. He had a list of his cousins and uncles and it was on Embassy stationery. And I told him, that just doesn't wash.
The crowd never seemed to get any smaller, inside or outside the fence. There was this annex to the Embassy compound. And in it was this swimming pool. And in it was the marshalling area for the people. And we had not enough people to keep the Vietnamese out. So they kept filling the place up. It was a bottomless pit, really.
Later on in the evening the decision was made to move everybody inside who was going to be evacuated, and we would move them into the inner Embassy compound. And that was the first time that we could cover the entire Embassy perimeter. And then we got orders that only Americans would be evacuated. The Ambassador decided we would fly out everybody who was in the compound, but Americans could still come over the wall.
Everybody in the compound was tired. it was obvious that they had been up for a long time. I heard the order, on the radio that I had, that the helicopter to bring the Ambassador out had landed, and the pilot said that he was not going to leave until the Ambassador got on the helicopter. I had the helos on the hand held radio that I had. I am not sure why that was. It seemed to be that the radio net was using the same frequency to talk to everybody. The helo was on the ground, and the pilot was talking to somebody who was in control. He said something about orders from the President, I believe, that he was not to leave until the Ambassador was on board.
The helo sat up there for about 20 minutes, and while he was up there he was being shot at. I remember seeing the tracers going up at this poor guy sitting on the roof top. It was automatic fire, I could tell from the amount of tracers coming up. For about 20 minutes. Some of the helos had requested permission to return fire on ground fire, but they were denied permission.
There was a problem with the Koreans. As I look back on it that is the one thing that I wish I could have done differently. When we got the order that no more Vietnamese would be flown out and that only Americans would be flown out, some Koreans came to the gate. And at the same time we were told that there would be other helos in the morning and that we were shutting down the lift for everybody but Americans tonight. And we were told that we would continue to evacuate Vietnamese and third nation people the next morning. I was getting conflicting word, and people would come out from the Embassy dressed in civilian clothes, and I had no idea who they were, and they would say, "This is what is happening," and I thought that was what was happening.
So these Koreans came up and said, "We're here to be evacuated." And I said, "Can't take you. Come back at 0700 in the morning. And of course at 0700 the next morning we were all gone. The word I got later was that they had been repatriated to Korea. But I heard it was North Korea that they had been repatriated to.
Then Major Kean said, "We're going into the Embassy, and we're gonna get on the rooftop." And then I knew that nobody else was flying out but us at that point. And there were about 450 Vietnamese left in the courtyard at that time.
We formed a line between them and the Embassy, and so we had a defensive line, and on the word we just did a peel off and just ran right into the Embassy. The Vietnamese just sat there and they were looking at us, but it was as if they had no control over the situation. We got inside and barred the doors and went up to the rooftop on the same stairwell I had walked down earlier.
At that point I figured that we were going to go out and nobody else was going to be flown out of the Embassy. That was just the thing that was happening. It wasn't a moral question to me at the time. Decisions were being made at a higher level than me and I was just doing those things.
Now that I look back on it and I had some time to reflect on it, I think that the situation with the Koreans, I wish they had gotten out and those 450 people too.
On the roof everyone was milling about and there was mass confusion. It was all Marines, maybe 100 to 150, just walking around. I was worried that not everybody had got up there. So I told my men to get into a formation cause I wanted to get a head count, so I had these three ranks stand over against the wall so I could get a count and make sure that I had everybody. Major Kean looked over and he said, "Who's that over there." And I said "That's the recon platoon," and he said, "Your gonna be the first ones to fly out." It was a matter of organization. He said, "Those guys are together, they'll go out first."
I laid up on the roof and watched the sun come up. It was beautiful that morning.
Only 15 got on our CH 47 to get out. I saw the people in the courtyard as we lifted off. There was some people doing some looting and some people hot wiring the vehicles outside the Embassy.
We saw the beaches, south of Vung Tau as we flew out. Off to the sides you could see vegetation that was just beautiful. The jungle is very beautiful. But the Delta portion to the Southeast of Saigon had been defoliated by agent orange and heavily bombed, and you know, this was my first time in Vietnam, and people had talked about these areas that looked like the face of the moon, and it literally looked like the face the moon. The Delta area had been defoliated for miles and miles and there were bomb craters all around, from the sea almost into the city itself. There had been an active VC battalion in there and so they had defoliated the area. And it was really like the face of the moon.
When we got out over the water the crew chief gave a thumbs up and pulled the ammunition out of his machine gun. And it felt like we had crossed the Rubicon when we got over the South China Sea.
We flew out into the rising sun.
There was the elation of now being out of there and out of danger. Then I reflected on it and I thought this was the most exciting thing that ever happened to me. And I was glad at last that I felt safe again, the safest I felt in 18 hours. But it was such an intense time, at the same time, I felt sad that it was over.
I would have liked to get those 450 people out. But those decisions were so much bigger than me, there was nothing I can do.
One incident may explain some of my feelings. At the time, I can remember not really liking Vietnamese people. I began to believe what I had heard about the Vietnamese taking advantage of our being there -- the black market and the drugs and the things like that, the ineffectiveness of their forces. So I wasn't real concerned with getting the Vietnamese out. Then I saw of the panicked way that the Vietnamese were acting, and I tried to put myself in their place and thought I would have acted better.
And at one time an American came to the wall and he had a Vietnamese general with him. The Vietnamese generals had left their troops. That was one of the reasons for the panic. And this guy said I have a Vietnamese general to bring along. And I said, "There are no more non-Americans being evacuated." He said the guy was a general and I said "It makes no difference, that goes for generals too."
At the time, the Vietnamese were not well thought of by me. But now I see them around and they seem to be good citizens and I kind of respect them.
Every once in a while it all comes back to me. There are times when I am sitting there and I'll think about it all again.
2nd Lt. Thomas Linn.
"FIRES BURNING IN THE CITY OF SAIGON"
Vietnam was a strange operation and I felt some strange emotions.
Perimeter security at the DAO annex was our mission in Saigon, just a few minutes from the DAO compound. I had the southern portion and the western portion and the corner of the DAO annex.
We took off from the Okinawa. Hotel 2/4 Company. We landed in the right place. I had not been in Saigon before. But I knew what the compound looked like from maps and drawings and knew where I was supposed to go. There was a lieutenant or captain in the area where I was supposed to be and as soon as we got off the helicopter he said, "We're taking sniper fire from this water tower" and he said "We're taking it in the compound here." I never saw the sniper and never saw the effects of the sniper fire in the compound, but he said we were to be aware of the water tower, which was on the South side, as I recall.
The compound was bracketed by enemy artillery. I got the feelings that rounds were coming in along the perimeters. I am of the opinion that they did it because they wanted us to know that they could bring fire in. And we heard that the compound that we were in had taken over 100 rounds of artillery fire during the night. It would stand to reason that if they wanted to they could easily have brought rounds in on the compound. Artillery fire or mortar fire.
For those of us seeing combat for the first time, these rounds would come in and we would all hit the deck, except for the old hands. I remember Col. Al Gray, rounds came in and everybody hit the deck, all the green guys, and old Al Gray was standing there and his ears could apparently gauge the distance by the sound of the shells.
There were quite a few Vietnamese around the fence. There were instances where they tried to get over the fence line. And there were refugees lined up in the compound. I remember this guy, a white fellow with an afro-type haircut, he was in some leisure suit that he had been in for about five days, I expected that the guy was a CIA type, he was ushering these poor refugees, he was actually controlling them and explaining procedures. He would shout to them in Vietnamese, and a number would get up and go the helicopter. When the helicopter would come in, all of these refugees would get up and he would shout to them in Vietnamese and wave this .38 at them. I later on sent over additional marines to give him an hand. I also gave him two beers. I asked him his name and he told me, Ephraim Bloch. He said he was a major in the Marine Corps reserve.
The crowd inside was all squatting. The ones on the outside would come up to the fence in order to try to get in. And in one particular instance I recall, some Vietnamese military -- I don't know what service they were with, but it looked like they might have been marines, relatively high ranking since they had shoulder boards with three or four stripes -- they were trying to come over the wire in my perimeter, and my men came up and passed the word to me that we had some Vietnamese military were trying to come over and so we prepared to push them back and as we prepared to push them back, Al Gray came up and said, "Let them come in" and he let them over the wire. There were about 4 or 5 of them climbing over the wire. Then a few minutes later MPs began firing into the compound, south Vietnamese MPs, at these guys who had just come through. We all locked and loaded. They were firing with an M1 carbine at these guys. Al Gray came up and saw that it was a hot scene, and he started speaking in Vietnamese to them. We were ready to go, to exchange rounds, but Gray asserted himself and soothed the ruffled feathers, and everything died. The incident died.
There was another case, a Vietnamese woman came up, a very attractive lady, young, and she came up and asked, "Will you allow a man two children and an elderly lady to come in for the evacuation?" They were obviously a family. The guy, I could see in the background was Vietnamese military, perhaps air force, and I checked with higher authority, to see if we could let them in and the lieutenant came back and said, no we couldn't let them in. And that was very very sad. She asked again and then she was just very quiet after that. They stayed outside. She showed me an ID but it didn't mean anything to me.
I think it can't help but touch you on an emotional level, but you had to use a rationale there, because you didn't know who the woman was or what type of people she was asking for, and if you let her in you didn't know the other effects that might have on the crowd. While it was very sad that you had to reject this woman and her family, you pretty much had to use common sense in the matter.
I can remember checking up and down the line and going to the top story of the building overlooking our perimeter, and I remember going into the building and seeing a lot of discarded Vietnamese uniforms. And in addition there was an AR15 that was there. The buildings were just shambles, as if all order had disintegrated. This was a military headquarters for the Vietnamese.
We moved to the DAO Annex, while there was still a little light. I remember that vividly. I remember moving to the DAO annex. Then we staged in a certain area and waited, I can remember that it seemed to have gotten quieter, but there were many some instances of a random rifle shot or pistol shot into the compound. I remember a bus of refugees came crashing into the compound. A Marine officer had gone up to them and they took the bus back out.
I don't think the crowd got smaller as the day went on, the people were still there, but in the dark you couldn't see them all. It seemed like the effects of the collapse of South Vietnam were not as noticeable in the dark.
We were told that we would be going out around 10:30 or 11:00 that night and about 11:30 we finally got on the aircraft. When you are in an operation like that you don't have the luxury of reflecting on your place in history. In a situation like that it might get in the way. You are more concerned with accomplishing the mission and taking care of the men. Before the evacuation when we were waiting off the coast of Vietnam, we knew that it was a matter of time before Vietnam fell, we had gotten operations orders over and over again. And I remember standing out on the catwalk thinking about that. As a lieutenant I was quite excited because we were going to do something, do something that we had been trained for, a combat mission. And from that aspect it was very exciting. We really were up for this. But at the same time, you experience the sadness in knowing that 60,000 lives had been spent for nothing. And you knew that this was not a great moment in history. This was something that was very very sad. It was like being part of a great defeat. You wanted as a Marine to be part of a heritage or legend of Okinawa or Iwo Jima. But here we were part of a great defeat for America.
As we lifted off I looked out and could see fires burning in the city of Saigon. As far as looking for the sake of history, I didn't do that. I was more concerned with the mission. In retrospect I think just about what I was thinking at the time.
The men were very excited about what they had done. They thought they had participated in something important, they had trained and trained and trained, and accomplished their mission. They were excited.
I was very proud that we had accomplished our mission. It was a withdrawal, it was a defeat and we participated in that defeat.
I contributed at least to the safety and security of the Americans and the Vietnamese that we took out, it was something that I did that was of some importance. But I would hope that some day I would do something more important or greater than that. I would like to say something more than, "I was there when the evacuation took place."
Capt. Thomas Melton, USMC.
"GOD, WOULDN'T THE TAX PAYERS LOVE TO SEE THIS!"
The evacuation of Saigon was quite serious, I felt, because it involved a loss of face as well as treachery. I thought we would face not only a North Vietnamese Army but also a frustrated South Vietnamese Army.
Four or five times I was picked up by helicopter on the Vancouver and taken to the Okinawa and I took along my briefcase. And they would say then sorry, things had changed and we were not having a conference and I returned to my ship. One morning I remember we just had lunch with Col. Slade and some of the other officers. Every time I flew off the ship none of the troops paid much attention, but when I came back they would all pay attention and try to read my face. I would get off the ship and wave and walk away, and they would look to see if they could read my face and if this was it.
They were young Marines. We had staff NCOs and they were combat experienced. But the young people and the lieutenants were all brand new.
Early in the morning of the 29th of April we passed out bayonets, and ammunition and hand grenades. We flew to another ship and refueled. And then we all left and flew into the DAO. I was over near the Annex.
I couldn't get to the door of the chopper on the way in because it was so crowded. The pilots had me in the jump seat and everything they heard they would tell me. They told me they were receiving some small arms fire in the Annex or in the other part, and that jets were being fired upon, and I turned back at the troops and smiled as though they told me a joke. Because, you see, the troops were scared. We had another problem also, the SAMs that were fired. We had people looking out for any puffs of smoke and then we had these Jerry pistols with flares that you would shoot and then you had maybe a 75 percent chance of turning away that missile.
You probably would not want, at 9200 feet, you probably would not want to place too much faith in that happening. That's a long way to fall.
We landed in the DAO compound and it was just a matter of getting out of the aircraft. It was the wrong place and I told the pilot but he said we would have to get out there and we so got out and went around to another spot, near the annex. The pilot just wasn't going to say, "Whoops!" and get up and go somewhere else.
Everywhere I had gone, I got dolls for my daughters. And one of the officers came to me and said there's the PX, and it's going be destroyed and there's nobody there. And I thought about getting some dolls. But I was also thinking, "While my troops are defending democracy I'm sacking the PX. I think I'll pass." So I did not go to the PX and get dolls.
Somebody sacked it after I left and they got the dolls.
We decided pretty much that everybody would be allowed to come out. It was very emotional.
Every few minutes some young woman would step out of line and would walk up to me and ask, "Should I go over there?" And one young girl in particular asked, "Should I go?" And I asked, "How old are you?". And she said, "23." And I said, "Do you have anything going in the US." She said, "I have a boyfriend in Chicago. I left my mother and father." I said, "Do, you love him?" and she said, "Yes." I said, "You're only 23, you got a lot of growing up to do." She looked at me and got back in line.
And this lieutenant came over and said, "Why'd she talk to you?". I said, "I don't know, I guess I look like the fatherly type."
I looked at it this way. They had some thirty years of democracy. Why give up their freedom now. The younger people would have less of an emotional problem with it. The older people were in a trance, really in a trance. Because I knew that the cultural shock, when they stepped off that plane, anywhere in the US, was going to be tremendous. Barefoot, dirty, walking in rice paddies, their tractor was a water buffalo, their transportation was a bike. This country would be depressing, they wouldn't be able to function here. I thought that unless they had younger people in the family who will take care of them, they shouldn't try it.
I didn't know what each situation was. But I learned. Two things happened that were important. On the helicopter when we evacuated Phnom Penh, on the helicopter that we left on from the soccer field was this Cambodian national, and he was at the window. And as we raised up he just kind of let himself slide down, like he was giving up and he probably knew he would never see his country again. He sort of just collapsed on the floor with tears in his eyes. And I remember that, as I do the people leaving Saigon.
When we started evacuating, I was standing in the center of the evacuation activities. There this colonel in the Vietnamese army, and I walked up to him and said, "Col, how are you sir?." And he said, "Fine think you, Dai Uy." Vietnamese for Captain. He had no weapon, he was dressed in his uniform. He was dressed in combat gear.
Later I thought I had better go check and see how he's doing. I came back and he had his hat off. And he had taken his shirt off. and a little bit later I went to check and trousers were unbloused and he was standing there, and I remember his driver came up and they had a very tearful goodbye, and he reached back and pulled out a .25 automatic, said, "Dai Uy, I think you'll need this for your own personal protection." I said, "Thank you sir." And then he said, "Dai Uy, how did this happen? How did this happen?" I said, "I'm as amazed as you are by this, sir." He said, "Yesterday, it was only yesterday I was a second lieutenant fighting the Vietminh west of Hanoi, near Dienbienphu. Today, it is just a day, and all is lost." He pulled his t-shirt out of his trousers. I didn't even want to come back, thinking the poor guy would be in his shorts when I came back. He was just sick. And he was devastated. He said, "This is my country and now it is gone. It was just yesterday I was fighting for it." I remember him because he was asking me for an answer because he didn't have an answer. His driver had left and his family was not with him. He didn't appear to have anybody with him or anybody left. He was in his late 30s, early 40s. The poor guy, he had been fighting these people his whole life and they finally won. His country was disintegrating before his own eyes.
The other people were outside in these "sticks" of people. He had just been standing there observing. He was standing there like Rommel surveying El Alamein, and as he stood and watched he began to become unmilitary and undress. He took the pants out of his boots, and the his shirt and so on. That was the symbol to me of the country disintegrating before your very eyes.
After he and his driver left some other people came in. Three men came in and they were crying and they said, "We want to go to America." They said, "The guards took our money and everything we had." I said, "Don't worry, you'll be taken care of in America." "We will?" "Don't worry about it, get in the helicopter."
At the DAO we had some small arms incoming fire or some mortar or artillery rounds, two or three. They hit within fifty or seventy five yards.
Somewhere around six or seven I was told to withdraw my company and I would be followed. I was to go into a giant Butler Hut -- a large metal building --inside this place there were supplies, I still have a little vase I took off a secretary's desk there. There we found 782 gear, better shape than we had, so some of the troops traded the stuff. They would go up to a pallet of pepsi cola, open it up, take one drink and throw it away. We stayed in there for a time.
We came out right around midnight. We landed on the Midway. We left in the dark. I felt and was told that there were 16 to 18 divisions around the city at the time. And if they wanted to do something there wasn't a lot we could do about it. After being there I knew they had ample opportunity to do what they wanted.
I remember a fire fight in a park nearby. I was told that the South Vietnamese had dug in and were fighting to the death.
The next morning, the morning of the 30th of April, we were on the Midway, we were standing on the deck of the Midway, in fact we slept there. We could hear the flight officer talking to the captain of the ship. He said, "Sir, we've got Vietnamese aircraft entering our area. They want to land." And the Captain responded, "Wave them off."
We looked into the sky and here were all these helicopters circling, some going clockwise, some going counterclockwise, and we sat there wondering how long before some of them crash. But when they tried to wave them off they started landing. It appeared to me that the Americans didn't want to accept them, but they landed anyway. And helicopters landed and all these people ran out. A sailor would jump on top of the helicopter and hold the blade. They had machine guns, pistols, chickens, and everything went over the side. And when they got all the people out they just threw the helicopter over the side. We saw helicopters landing on these ships that only had a little landing space on the back, and after a few seconds hesitation, they tipped it over the side into the ocean. And I remember thinking, "God, wouldn't the taxpayers love to see this!"
And after we pretty well got all the helicopters out of the sky, this major, his wife and three children flew along side the Midway in this small plane and asked to land, and they said no you have to ditch in the sea, and we'll come and get you, and he landed on the aircraft carrier anyway, to a standing ovation. There were great cheers. It was magnificent. What was really magnificent was that he refused to take no for an answer. And he said, "I will not land in the sea."
I remember I felt somewhat depressed as a Marine at the time since I thought we could fight them but we didn't. But we went in and got our own people out in the best way possible. I didn't like it. And I felt that. I remember as the people were leaving, they were probably getting a good deal.
To my men it was an adventure. This was the third time I had been in Vietnam. I went there in 1965. I was wounded at the end of 1965. October 10th. Second tour in 1968 when I was a second lieutenant. And then in 1975. So I saw it three different times.
I remember when I got back here and I used to see them putting it up the Vietnam Memorial. I made up my mind that whatever it turned out to be I would be there when they dedicated it. Then they said that the Marine Corps wanted some Marines to be at the dedication. I went to the Hotel Washington with these other people, it was different, and the veterans came there, some walked across the country to get there. I watched. Some brought their marijuana and some had beards. One guy asked if his girl friend could look at my ribbons. And they were smoking marijuana. The dedication the next day was depressing. Very depressing. There was nothing on the memorial to indicate the branch of the service the people were in, no ranks or anything. But that was the design. The morning I got there I was in uniform. And people backed out of the way for me. I looked at it and decided I didn't like it. I was there for the ceremonies. I walked down Constitution Avenue with the march. I found it disgusting that there were no active military officers there from the service. And there were a lot of guys with long hair in camouflage clothes. I didn't know how they would take my uniform. There was only one general officer there. He walked the whole length of the parade to shake hands with the men. That was General Westmoreland. He came through in civilian clothes shaking hands. When I saw him coming I said, "Good morning, General Westmoreland, how are you today." He said, "I can't stay to talk." And he moved off.
We lost that war. We did not win it no matter how you describe it. This is the only war this nation sent it's young men to fight, and those young men fought just as well as in any war in our history, and then these men had to welcome themselves back and dedicate a memorial to themselves and then to adjust to civilian life. Congress and the nation turned its backs on the same men they sent off to fight. That is wrong.
SERGEANT KEVIN MALONEY
"A MOUTHFUL OF ASHES"
Until January 22, 1975, I was assigned to the American Embassy in Warsaw. Then I was transferred to Saigon. Out of the frying pan and into the fire.
I had left Washington the preceding October and gone to Europe for a few weeks. In addition to the regular training that an embassy guard gets, I was trained as a bodyguard. Then I'd served in London and Frankfurt and then Warsaw. I was in Warsaw only ten weeks before they asked me to volunteer to go to Saigon.
I wore strictly in civilian clothes in Saigon and I was until the 28th of April Ambassador Martin's bodyguard.
When I arrived in January I assumed I would be there a year. But then the "big party" started.
Saigon was secure when I arrived. As a matter of fact I get a kick out of it when I think about it. The regional security officer told me there wasn't a VC within sixty miles of Saigon.
Saigon was, nevertheless, an armed camp. They had more security there than probably any embassy has ever had. There was an Embassy detachment at the Embassy itself and across town at the ambassador's home six of us had the job of protecting the ambassador.
My job was strictly to protect the ambassador. At the ambassador's house we had a communications center and I manned that center. During the later stages there I would help out with communications between the White House and the ambassador. We had several folks from NSC who would come in and I happened to be there when they did their planning.
The first time I met the Ambassador I thought he was the gardener. He was an old fellow walking around with an old set of khaki pants on, loose shirt, just puttering around the yard there. I didn't know who he was. He didn't look like an ambassador to me. But I was introduced to him the day after I got there, and they told me who he was. He's an impressive man, a gentleman. And a real tough nut. He was in his 70s at the time there and kept longer hours than I did.
The Ambassador was a stalwart to the end. And he did not want the perception that Americans were leaving. The idea was that it would cause a panic. So we pretty much kept things at least appearance-wise, as busines as usual. At the very end there, I had several Vietnamese national policemen working for me and I got them and their families out.
The evacuation was for me was probably one of the most significant events of my life. On the 28th, I'd been relieved from duty for my own misconduct. I drank too much, and I got to be a problem. As a matter of fact Major Kean recommended me for court martial. Major Keane said if I did a good job out there, and it reflected, he'd lose the paperwork. When I got back to the States, I got non-judicial punishment. I was fined and transferred.
I was the sergeant and I was put in charge of several of the men who were guarding the DAO compound. Corporal Charles McMahon and Corporal Darwin Judge were two of the people in my section.
They had only been there two weeks. I hadn't known them that long. I'm talking a day. Those two guys were buddies. We couldn't pry them apart, I guess. They arrived at the same time and they stuck together. They were kidding Judge when I got there because he was picking up McMahon's Boston accent.
I took over there just about the time the Vietnamese A-37s attacked. We pumped out a few rounds at them with rifles and pistols at them.
After the planes left and things quieted down again, we talked. I'm sure you've heard that there are no atheists in foxholes. In fact, Judge was a Christian and he told everybody about his beliefs. He had talked to the rest of the guys in the unit before I joined it out there at Tan Son Nhut. He talked to me about it. I knew he was right and I agreed with him. I had heard it all before. It was my time to make a decision. Well I became a believer that day. Right there and from that time on my life has been significantly different.
My experience that morning was just a fellow coming to himself and realizing that the way he has lived his life was awful -- I had been in the Marine Corps for four years and I had lived the John Wayne image, the hard drinking, hard loving type of Marine, that stuff that we all grew up on on Saturday morning. It left me kind of empty. There wasn't a whole lot left of me and that's probably why the drinking was such a devastating thing to me. Just kind of burned out, nothing left. And all the good things that we went over, that I joined the Marine Corps for, turned out to be kind of just a mouthful of ashes.
Everything was kind of a swirl then. I'd done real well in the Marine Corps. I'd gone from Private to Sergeant in a very short period of time. I was very successful at it. If I hadn't run into this problem in Saigon I might have been the youngest Sergeant Major in the Marine Corps.
I posted the guard that night when those two boys were killed.
It was about a quarter of four in the morning. They took the first rocket that came in. I guess it was a 122 millimeter rocket that killed them. I found the motor later. It knocked me out of bed. I was in the building adjacent to where it came in. I had another kid out there too with them. They were at the corner and he was at a gate. His name was Holmes. He got hit in the head. I got out there and grabbed a rifle. There was small arms fire going around, turns out it was Judge's ammo belt cooking off in a pile of burning Hondas, so it sounded like machine gun fire outside the gate. It turned out it was his ammunition cooking off.
The rocket looked like it hit eighteen inches from McMahon and Judge. So it hit them almost dead on. You can't aim a rocket that well. It looked like McMahon got the majority of the blast. He was totally dismembered, trunk over here, a hand here, a head there. Judge was in pretty good shape, I thought at first. I got to him and thought he might still be alive. I dragged him away from the fire. But he was dead. Stu Herrington picked up Judge's helmet when he got out there.
That morning things started really rolling. The Vietnamese Air Force tried to evacuate their planes. The C-130s were hit by rocket fire and burned in place. Their crews came back in and we were all ducking shells. You could hear the 130 millimeter artillery going over our heads and slamming into the fuel dump. I saw one C-119 gunship get off and then get shot down.
I guess I was a fatalist at that time and believed if it came it came, and if it didn't it didn't. If my number was up, that was it. I don't know if I believe that any more, but at the time I did. I was kind of hard-boiled. And if I was afraid, I wouldn't admit it to myself.
Major Tony Woods was the guy responsible for getting most of the Americans out of Saigon during the evacuation. He and I drove through town with the buses -- led them --and picked up most of the folks at the hotels, a lot of the press folks. He got a bronze star for his action there.
Woods and I grabbed a jeep and started checking out some of the South Vietnamese roadblocks in Saigon, and we'd drive up to them and see what they would do, and some of those guys would get pretty hostile. We took our share of being shot at there without doing too much in return. Later on he and I got separated from Woods in a fire fight. He went one way, I went the other.
That was right outside Tan Son Nhut. They made a big deal at the time about us getting out of there without firing a shot, well I'll telling you what, the people who were saying those things weren't in Saigon.
The ARVN they didn't hit us. But some of them did try to. There was a lot of shooting going on in the air, too. Some of the buses got shot up.
Woods and I escorted the buses, until we got separated. I was in downtown Saigon and I got bunch of South Vietnamese in a deuce and a half up behind us and wouldn't leave and they were all armed. So I went around the block and came up behind them, and wound up looking down the barrel of a half a dozen carbines. The buses moved on to the Embassy, those folks got out there, and as soon as we could get away from the South Vietnamese I went to the Embassy too.
I climbed over the wall to get in. I had a camouflage South Vietnamese uniform on. It made it easier to move through town.
And I was armed with an M-16 and a .38.
That was late in the day, after they had gotten rid of the tree and the helicopters were landing.
I just took up a position at the Combined Recreation Area gate for a couple hours until we abandoned the CRA compound there. I guess I was the last one out of the CRA compound. I moved inside the embassy. Our perimeter was shrinking. I guess myself and a couple of other guys went through all the rooms in the embassy one at a time to get everybody out. Then up onto the roof.
I left on a helicopter just about when the sun was coming up. There were only marines on the helicopter. We threw away our helmets and flak jackets just so we could squeeze a couple more guys in.
By that time I was so tired I was ready to drop. I remember the helicopter ride out of there but what I was thinking at the time, I couldn't tell you.
I did look down on Saigon when we went out. I sure did. The sun had just come up and we flew out over the docks and then out over the river and I remember seeing tracers coming up from probably South Vietnamese shooting in the air, or anti-aircraft guns. We crossed the coast and that's the last I remember until we landed on the Okinawa.
In general I thought it was an incredible loss. And I was there to witness the end of it. The way I feel about it and how it ended is I think we turned our backs on those folks. I don't buy that peace with honor stuff. We shagged out of there and left them to the North Vietnamese. And you know how kind they are.
I was only 22 years old then. It was a turning point for me. I do think about it a lot, still. I may forget a lot of other things in my life but I won't forget that. Even though it was a tragic experience, I got the brass ring as far a life goes when we left. My life -- 1975 was the worst year of my life as far as things going against me there, but in retrospect it was a turning point in my life and it led on to better things since then.
There was a part of me that died out there, but a part of me that came up out of the ashes, too. It's been a long struggle, but am doing better now. I found something a lot better in Jesus Christ.
Major Jim Kean
"THERE HAS TO BE A BETTER WAY"
Let me tell you why I joined the Marine Corps. World War II was a very dramatic event in my early life. My father was in the war and I saw him only once before I was four years old. I saw pictures of him as a Seabee officer at Guadalcanal with his khakis open to the belly working on Henderson Field. He later received a Bronze Star for his work as a frogman during the invasion of Southern France. For four years he was in the war and he fought against both the Japanese and the Germans. My father was my first hero. And he was a real hero.
Can you remember the musical score to "Victory at Sea"? How well do you know the songs from "South Pacific"? Well, I know that score and I can sing all those songs. I grew up with that stuff. The music and the songs, they were the World War to me along with those pictures of my father.
And so, as I grew up I knew what I wanted. I wanted in some way in my own life to have that kind of experience, the kind my father had and the kind reflected in that music.
Korea was too early for me --I was still too young. And as wars go, Korea wasn't all that great. Korea just didn't sort out as the kind of experience I had imagined took place in World War II.
Then Vietnam came along. And so I and an lot of young men just like me joined up. We believed that it was not our fault that it had happened. But we thought, "By God, now that it's here, we are going to be part of it. And now here's the chance to do all of those things we had only imagined. Here is the chance to be as heroic as our fathers had been."
But, somehow, it just never worked out that way. It never does. You find out when you're in a fire fight and the kid next to you gets shot that he can get shot in the eye and that the back of his head blows away. Or he can get shot in the mouth and his face is destroyed. In those days that never happened in the movies. That wasn't in the pictures. In the movies when someone got shot it was clean and they said something before they died. But it isn't that way. What I found out was that war is just a terrible waste. That's really all it is. And that the people whose business is war --the military professionals --are not gainfully employed. It will be a real sign of our intelligence when we have grown beyond war. Then and only then can we really say that we have progressed as human beings.
Now I'm no fool and I am certainly not naive. I've seen war close up and I've been wounded in a fire fight. And I think that as long as I'm alive men are going to continue to piss on each other's shoes. Human nature is such that there is always going to be a bully. There will always be somebody who can figure out that if he can just get everyone around him to act like a lamb, then he can be the lion. So you have to be practical about it. But practically speaking, it is possible to increase your abilities to negotiate and to redress grievances peacefully and to deal with them in some civilized manner without ever having to trot out all your weapons. I think that is an achievable goal. And if it doesn't come to that in my life time, then I hope at least it will happen in my children's life time. That is really what I'd like to see--the resolution of arguments and disagreements by something short of war.
I enlisted in the Marine Corps in 1960. I was 18 years old at the time -- "high and tight and a bucket of brasso," which is Marine Corps slang for a skin tight haircut and shiney brass belt buckle. I spent three years on my first hitch with the Marines. Then, with only 28 days to go before my discharge, I reenlisted, but with the clear understanding that I would go on to school. And so, in 1964 the Marine Corps sent me to language school in Monterey, California, for a year's study of Russian. I put in my application for the Bootstrap Program, the old meritorious NCO commissioning program. In other words, I wanted to be commissioned out of the ranks. The Marine Corps has always been well known for the upward mobility it provides to enlistees. They take a certain percentage of young Marines out of the enlisted ranks every year and make them commissioned officers. And that is how I got my chance to be an officer.
After language school I was sent down to Camp Lejeune in North Carolina. I went through the selection procedure there for OCS and then received orders. I was sent to Quantico in September of 1965 and, finally, I was commissioned in December of 1965. All Marines who complete Officers Candidate School go through what they call the Basic School for Marine Officers. It's a six-month program that takes people through all aspects of what you should expect to deal with in the Marine Corps system. They teach you about infantry tactics, weapons, motor transport, engineering and so on. I was then sent to Fort Sill for Forward Observer Training for duty with the Marine artillery.
I completed that whole process by August of 1966. And that was just in time for the large-scale introduction of the Marines into Vietnam. The 3rd Marine Division had gone to Vietnam in 1965 and 1966 was when the first large groups of enlisted men and officers were going over there. That was the time they were building up the overall military presence in Vietnam. So I arrived in Vietnam in September of 1966 and served there until October of 1967. I was a lieutenant at the time. I was stationed about ten miles south of Chu Lai with the First Marine Division.
I was wounded in the head that first trip and when I got released from Balboa Hospital I served at the recruit depot in San Diego training young Marines. Then I was sent back to language school again in Monterey for a year's study of Mandarin Chinese. There were a lot of people going through the school at that time in Vietnamese. And the quotas established by the Department of Defense for the study of Vietnamese were filled. They had an opening for someone in Mandarin Chinese so that's what they trained me in that time. I returned to Vietnam for a second tour in April, 1970.
In the spring of 1971 I returned from Vietnam again and was ordered to the University of California at Berkeley to get an undergraduate degree. I went to UC for the next 24 months. The school was on a quarter system and I wanted to get into classes right away so I enrolled in the summer session. I had some apprehensions that there might be a lot of problems for me at Cal having "just got off the boat." But I found that I could identify with most of the kids on campus and I blended right in. Of course there were all kinds at the school, just as there are on most college campuses. There were a lot of Fidel Castro types -- you know, kids all dressed up in their fatigues and boots and so on, some of which they had purchased, it appeared, at I. Magnins. And that's all right. They were young. I thought it was just a marvelous experience. There were a lot of kids who were in classes with me -- kids nineteen or twenty years old -- who knew a lot more about the history and culture of Vietnam than I did. And I'd been there for two years! And, quite frankly, in the give and take around the Student Union and the classrooms, I was never pushed or rocked or assaulted in any way. I got this, "Hey, Jim, tell us what you know from your own experience" type of thing a lot. And so I talked about what I knew. It was actually a very positive thing. It was good for me.
As a matter of fact, at that time the Naval ROTC facility had a steel fence wrapped around it. And there was a Marine officer who came there to be an instructor in the unit. He was a Stanford graduate and a bright guy. I talked with him and I recall telling him that holing up behind that fence just didn't cut it. That wasn't the answer. I told him to go up to the Student Union and meet the people there and talk to them, regardless of what they looked like on the outside -- how they dressed. They had questions. They wanted straight answers. And I told him, "Make an argument because there is an argument to be made, and a good one, for what we're trying to do in Vietnam." I suggested that he make the same argument that I was making. I was telling some of the other students, "Look, you pay your $350 or $400 or whatever to an ACLU lawyer just to beat the draft. But the numbers don't change. Vietnam is still there. Is it better for you, an intelligent person, to go over there and do what is right or is it better that you should stay here just to beat the draft and then let some poor kid out of Watts or out of the barrio or out of some other poor section of some city in this country go in your place--a kid who may have a tougher time sorting out when he gets there and who, out of fear, may pull the trigger on an M-16 at the wrong time?"-- remember, there is only five pounds of trigger pull on an M 16. Of course there was a lot of give and take on questions like that. And I told the Marine ROTC instructor to get involved in that give and take. Finally he did. And when I left campus he had about fourteen new Marine options in the program.
I'll tell you something, and it is important that I say this to you so you'll appreciate just where I'm coming from. When I went to Vietnam for the first time I was just a young kid full of you know what. I was a size 44 shirt and a size 2 hat. And early on I thought that it was literally possible for us to win over there -- to achieve exactly what we said we wanted to achieve. In Vietnam I was out there in the rice paddies with the people. And, of course, 90 percent of the population in Vietnam are peasant farmers, especially in the places where the Marines were located. And essentially the village system in Vietnam was comprised of a thousand village market centers each with lots of little hamlets that fed into a center on roads that were like spokes feeding into the hub of the wheel. In the village market center the oldest and wisest man was usually the village chief. The hamlets were often just a group of huts with rice paddy fields around them. And while the farmer was out there working sixteen hours a day in the fields, his wife and mother and children and so on were hauling vegetables into the village or going to buy or trade something in the marketplace. That system represented a fabric, a social fabric, that is as old as Asia. And the fabric is not just Vietnam. It is China as well and most of Southeast Asia.
I found out as a young lieutenant on that very first tour that the mistake we were making in Vietnam was that we were rending that fabric. By our very presence there and by our agitation of the water buffalo and the other animals and our disturbance of the people, we were actually tearing apart a fundamental social system that had existed for centuries. And therein lay a basic flaw in our strategy. What we did by our overwhelming and disturbing presence was to create an "in" for the Viet Cong. The peasants didn't want us there in their fields and in their villages. Literally, the United States took the place of the French. It is a fact that in the Third World the enemy is not communism -- it's poverty -- and we weren't there to do anything about that. And we were large and we were white and we were in their rice paddy and we were in their village and they did not like it. So then the Viet Cong came along, and they were very clever in their recruiting and if their cadre was good it was easy for him to make an argument by simply saying, "Look, these Americans are tromping all over your fields. They are alien and they are ugly." And with a little forceful persuasion it was not hard for the Viet Cong to get recruits. And then those recruits would get an AK-47 and hide it in a mudbank. We would come into an area looking for the Viet Cong or the NVA. And we would wade around in the rice paddies. Then, as we would leave their particular area they would snatch that AK out of the mud bank and knock off the last few guys in the column. And that was guerilla warfare, only the Viet Cong were the "Minute Men" in this case.
Do you see what our flaw was? Our flaw was that we would, despite the righteousness of our intentions and despite what we really thought we were doing, make enemies through the very means by which we tried to make friends. And so as long as we were there the enemy would always be there. And we didn't understand that and we could not explain it away. What I saw was that we were losing the argument with the great mass of the Vietnamese people. And I concluded, after a time, that the best thing we could do for that country was to get the hell out of there. If we wanted to win, we would have to leave, ironically.
I became concerned -- very very concerned. And I said, "We are in a no-win situation here. The best thing we can do is to leave."
I left Vietnam after my first tour. And then I went back again. But before I went back again I studied up. I studied the history and politics and culture of Asia. I read the great texts on revolution in China and Southeast Asia and I examined what had transpired before we arrived there. I studied Japan and Korea and the war and westernization. I became quite knowledgeable about Asia. And the more I studied the more concerned I became about what we were doing over there. I began to see that we were really in big trouble in Southeast Asia. Big trouble. Then I went back. Now before I went back the Tet Offensive of 1968 had taken place. And I think that the world had seen that the enemy really hadn't gone away. He was still there. And he was still capable of orchestrating a devastating attack. Tet showed the world that we just weren't getting the straight scoop on the news reports and on the statistics coming out of Vietnam. It was a shock.
Well, by the time I came back to Vietnam in 1970 the whole complexion of the war had changed. This time I knew we were in even bigger trouble than before. Our side had changed. I went into a unit in 1970 and most of my men were black and brown. All of a sudden the people who were fighting and dying in the war for the United States were conscripts. And these men were mostly black or Hispanic. And it seemed like the entire officer corps came from "Alabama!" Believe me, it was a powderkeg. Literally, it was a powderkeg. The whole atmosphere when I got back in 1970 was one of tenseness. And I wondered how we were going to keep the lid on things. The dope was getting out of hand. And people were refusing to fight. And there was fragging. And everybody was on pins and needles all the time.
I spent four months on a division staff trying to get back to a fighting unit -- since that's where the real service was if you were going to grow as an officer and you wanted to command. Well, I finally got a unit. I got an artillery battery and I volunteered to take it out to the top of a mountain near the Laotian border. This fire-support base commanded a view of a place called Antenna Valley, which was a route that the North Vietnamese would take when they walked in from Laos. They would enter through Antenna Valley to what we called the Arizona Territory --they would infiltrate in from that area with supplies and with new recruits and they would join transportation battalions and then be passed along to North Vietnamese units that were operating in the field. My job was to stop them, if I could, because Antenna Valley was a major route of entree into South Vietnam. I had eight cannons sitting up on top of this mountain and we would fire day and night. There was nobody out there but bad guys so we didn't have to worry about shooting at the wrong people. Anybody we saw out there was a bad guy and we'd shoot him.
Well, another good thing about being on top of that mountain was that everybody who came in there had to come in by helicopter. So it was easy to control who came in and who went out and what came in and what came out. I could keep a lid on drugs and things like that. It made it easier for me to protect my men up there. I saw my job at that time as something like maintenance. The United States was getting out of that hell hole and my job was to see to it that the young men that I had charge of --some one hundred or so --stayed alive and healthy. I wanted to keep them clean. And I told them that we were all going to get out alive and that we would all go back to the United States together and then forget about what happened over there. That's what I thought at that time. The war, for us, was grinding down. And for the United States the war came to an end, for all practical purposes, in the spring of 1973.
Having been both in the war and having been at Berkeley, where I got to see the demonstrations and saw the police tac squads come up the street looking like Roman legionnaires behind their shields, I became frustrated. The frustration came from the fact that I saw that the good and the bad on both sides of the question of Vietnam had gotten caught up in political polarization. I saw that there didn't seem to be any way to sort out the facts any more. There was never a question in my mind, even as late as the early 1970s and after everything I had experienced over there, that the goal we were trying to achieve -- the idealistic goal of helping the South Vietnamese have self determination --was right. There was no question about that. And there has not been any question ever in my mind about that. I disagreed with the way we were trying to do it. But the goal was absolutely correct. And anybody who argues that point with me today will just have to answer the question, "What happened to those people after we left?" It was clear then and it still is clear today that what we should have done was assist them in defending themselves and in determining how they wanted to live. Maybe we made a tremendous mistake by trying to fight that war in the America way. Maybe we never truly taught them how to defend themselves --we did it for them. I do know that when we finally bailed out on them they were ill prepared to cope and then, when things started to go from bad to worse for them, we pulled the plug and cut off all the aid money. We left them high and dry. And they were crushed.
On my first tour I was still just a kid. I was a lieutenant, a lower level bureaucrat just trying to see the big picture and trying to grasp just what was happening over there. As I used to tell the kids at Berkeley, what I actually knew about was two square miles of countryside and I could tell you about all the trails and hamlets in that two square mile area. That was Vietnam to me. That's what I knew from my first tour.
On my second tour I had a little broader perspective. But I had also been educated by the press and, you know, the war according to Walter Cronkite. I guess I would say I was still pretty much of a true believer, even when I went back the second time. I was saying, "Okay, the American involvement has been tragic. By and large we went into this --naively or otherwise -- but we went into this with the people's interest at heart. We are trying to do something right in South Vietnam." And I felt that if we turned the war over to the South Vietnamese and gave them the resources and the finances they needed to conduct the war themselves, then, I believed, they were probably capable of doing the job themselves.
When I left after that second tour I had no idea that I would be coming back once more. And I never could have imagined under what circumstances.
It happened this way.
I had gone through the Amphibious Warfare School as part of my intermediate level training. I had been in Quantico, Virginia, teaching at the Basic School for Marine Officers when a quota came up for the school. It was my time to go. Interestingly enough, Oliver North taught at the Basic School as well and we went to AWS at the same time. So they called me and said "We can put you in the school," so that was from about January of 1973 to the summer of 1973. When I finished the school, because I was available on the one hand and because I had learned to speak Chinese and my undergraduate degree from Berkeley had been in Asian Studies, the Monitor Shop at the Headquarters, U.S. Marine Corps called me and said there was a billet open in Hong Kong. "Would you like to go to Hong Kong,?" they asked me.
I said I would swim!
It was an accompanied tour, one of the few times that I was ever going to have the opportunity to take my family with me overseas. The Marines traditionally send their people overseas unaccompanied. But I got to take my wife and children with me to Hong Kong. I became Executive Officer for Company C, Marine Security Guard Battalion, Hong Kong. The Commanding Officer, Major Don Evans, was due for rotation in a year and I was given the chance to succeed him. I was soon after promoted to major and qualified by rank to hold the billet.
My responsibility at the time included the Marine Security Guard from the Indian subcontinent all the way to Peking, Tokyo and down to Wellington. There were 23 embassies and various consulates in the region. I split up the travel during the first year with my commanding officer. It gave me a chance to grow into the office of commanding officer. As CO of the unit, I traveled on a regular basis to each of the embassies and consulates. They had to be inspected every six months. And there were other times when I had to go out to solve an immediate problem. Some kid had gotten into trouble, usually over a woman and I had to take care of the problem. Well, that travel and experience gave me a much broader perspective as to what was actually happening in Asia. It was like a graduate education. I traveled throughout the Pacific Basin. And I got a feel for what the Indians felt about what was happening and what the Japanese and the Koreans were thinking. I listened and I learned.
And when I went into a post, because of my clearances, I got to talk to political affairs officers, CIA people and state department people. It was just an amazing education. That was when I became really sensitive about Vietnam.
Then the roll up came in Vietnam. It was so sudden. I guess there were plenty of educated people who said that it was a long time coming and that it finally happened. But it seemed so sudden to me. First There was the NVA attack in March of 1975 on Ban Me Thuot. And then the withdrawal of the South Vietnamese Army from the central highlands. And that was what precipitated the roll up. It was just like a tidal wave after that. A tidal wave of North Vietnamese troops and armor. The South Vietnamese regulars pulled out of the Central Highlands at precisely the time the North Vietnamese had decided to make a concerted effort to move in there. And suddenly everything just fell apart. I don't know of anybody who predicted how quickly there would be a roll up.
But once people started to run, they just kept on running. I mean units dissolved and the poor guys who were committed, the guys who were going to die on their howitzers, literally did that. Or they became so isolated they were lost. Some of them are still up there fighting to this day--lost.
If you had traveled at that time in Southeast Asia you would have seen some curious things, and I'll give you an example. I saw what was happening in Laos. Laos was under joint occupation prior to the fall of Cambodia and the rollback in Vietnam. I mean there were Pathet Lao in the capital as well as government forces, walking on opposite sides of the street. Well, about the time the trouble started in Vietnam and Cambodia, there was an increase in tenseness in Laos. It looked like we were approaching a confrontation. The Pathet Lao in Vientiane began to be replaced slowly man for man by regular hard-core North Vietnamese soldiers dressed in Pathet Lao uniforms. I mean the Pathet Lao were initially guerilla type forces and not hardened military. Then all of a sudden we started to see traditional well-trained and well-disciplined soldiers in there and the people knew that the handwriting was on the wall. Things were quickly coming to a head.
Then Cambodia crumbled.
I was in Washington, D.C., in the spring of 1975. I had gone back to Washington for a conference. It was my first visit to"Oz" and I distinguished myself by getting into a fight after getting drunk at "Matt Kane's." I spent the night in the can and got to meet the Chief of Staff of the entire fucking Marine Corps the next morning. Fortunately for me a message came in to Marine Security Guard Battalion Headquarters. It was an operational immediate message saying that there was trouble. It looked like they were going to have to evacuate Phnom Penh. My battalion commander gave me the information. And I told him, "Well, with your consent, I'm going to get my butt back there." I went back to Bangkok and I can't say my battalion commander was sorry.
Actually Phnom Penh --Operation Eagle Pull -- was a piece of cake. First, because you had an American ambassador, John Gunther Dean, who was virtually a Marine general in mufti. He had the mission there down to 200 or less key types and there was a single field where a Battalion Landing Team(BLT) could set down and put up a quick perimeter, throw everybody on the helicopters and leave. The old man came out with the American flag neatly folded. It was just like somebody wrote it as a textbook exercise. It was all very tidy. And Phnom Penh was reachable by the fleet and a Battalion Landing Team very nicely went in, secured the area and extracted the people and bundled them all up in a very tidy military operation. That is exactly what happened. I kept five of the Marines from Phnom Penh in Bangkok and I made arrangements for further reassignment of the other Marines who came out. Then I went home to Hong Kong. But no sooner had I gotten home than dramatic events continued to unfold. It suddenly looked like all over the map in South Vietnam the pressure points were started to blow. The alarms were sounding. I watched the situation build up near Danang as we were getting information back. And as soon as I thought that I could and as soon as I was able to obtain permission from Battalion Command in Washington, I went into Vietnam. Again.
I arrived there on April 19th. I traveled in civilian clothes. All of the Marines working for the Department of State wore civilian clothes when they were off duty or when they traveled. And I was working officially for the Department of State.
It was not chaotic, really. I think what I saw was a real ominous tenseness. All of a sudden people were dusting off plans that had been written in 1973 for emergency evacuation and they were looking at them and saying, "Oh, Jesus, this is bullshit; now what do we do?" And about that time CINCPAC --Admiral Noel Gayler -- began to send people in to assist. General Richard Carey as the Marine Brigade Commander came in and looked around. And the Air Force communications people came in and looked around. And they concluded that they would have to put something together soon if they were going to move many people out of there.
At that time I was Commander of Company C, Marine Security Guard Battalion and Regional Marine Officer, Department of State, Far East. In Vietnam I had the responsibility for administering the Marine security guard in Danang, Nha Trang, Can Tho, Bien Hoa and Saigon all as part of my overall responsibility with the State Department. Well, the Danang and Nha Trang people came to Saigon when those cities fell to the NVA. And several of those people had a rough experience coming down. They got evacuated out of country immediately. There were a few others whose experience had not been so bad. But essentially, though, everybody from Danang and Nha Trang went out of country. The Bien Hoa people, once they pulled back to Saigon, I kept around. Remember now, those guards were generally young Marines. And young Marines reserve the right to bitch about absolutely everything. This was probably the most exciting thing that had ever happened in their lives. And if you scratched the surface you would probably get them to admit it. "Oh, boy. It's exciting. It's scary, but I'm sure glad I'm here," and that sort of thing, literally. I do not mean to be facetious about this. I think that it absolutely true. But after it was all over, there were some very very strong reactions. Some of the experiences those kids went through were just incredible. And in the end the experiences left some severe and deep scars. But we only found that out a long time after the fact. At the time there was so much tension and excitement and they kept control. When I knew them they seemed to have it totally under control. But let me tell you that later some of them had some real problems. God knows what they experienced and what they saw --children and babies crushed, and people killing each other and getting trampled in the panic and things like that. God knows.
I was the commander. But I couldn't see everything that went on. I mean some kids might have specific instances where lovers were left behind, or close friends. And there was no hope of every seeing them alive again. Things like that happened all the time. And unless they came to me and told me about it, I didn't know it had happened. I didn't know. And I would never have known if they hadn't said something later. In some cases I could do something. I sent some kids over the wall of the Embassy to retrieve some people. And typically they would come back and with a smile and salute say, "We got 'em, Major, Thanks." And after that, you know, I wrote them up for a little award and by and large I put down everything that I thought that they probably did so that they could get a piece of ribbon on their chest for it. But if the true story were known, they probably might have rated a much higher medal or whatever. It was just one of those impossible things.
In my own personal opinion I think that Ambassador Graham Martin, who was almost literally dragged into that job in Saigon, was committed to doing what he felt in his own mind was the very best for the United States and for our ally, South Vietnam. He's a tough old son of a bitch, really. And he was committed to having the US stay there and honor its commitment to the South Vietnamese people. There is no question in my mind today about that. Now because he was a tremendous force and had a monumental ego he probably erred on the side of thinking that by the singular force of his personality and the fact that he was so damn tough he would see this thing through in spite of all the lesser lights around him and in Washington. He might be the subject of criticism then and today, but quite frankly, remember, he was the guy in charge, and any time you've got a guy, number one, who takes the reins and tries to run with them and does his best job, I have a real hard time sitting back in judgement on him later. I just can't do that. I felt that Martin was committed to keeping us there as long as possible and he probably did not want to do anything that would precipitate the type of rush that might cause it to look like we were going to pull out of there all of a sudden and without warning. He was trying to avoid disaster. And quite frankly, up until about five days before we actually left he was successful because things were relatively orderly and calm. But then all hell broke loose. And it went from order and calm to what might best be termed controlled pandemonium. Now there were a lot of people who were making plans. But how can you possibly cope with moving large numbers of people around in a short period of time with seventeen enemy divisions squeezing in on you? How do you even anticipate gridlock in the city streets? Well, what you do is you do the very best you can. And they laid out a plan for military and Air America helicopter lifts off the rooftops and putting as many people on the buses as they could to reduce congestion of vehicles in the streets. But, you know, it's like right now. I'm sure that if you went to Washington and you looked at Civil Defense manuals for what happens in the event of a nuclear attack on Washington, it probably has bus driver assignments to drive people out of town. That's how unrealistic plans can be.
And the plans that were done earlier were available too. They had been written by people who had no comprehension of what might happen. So once the big boys started coming into town and they saw what was needed, then the real plans were made. They said we are going to need specific communications systems and they addressed all of the major issues that they were likely to confront. Yet, even with all of that, in the end it was makeshift. And when I say makeshift, it was. You know, you put enough helicopters in and you have the ships off there in the South China Sea and you've got Marines and you've got all these communications capabilities and yet when push came to shove, they ended up using hand signals and yelling, "Hey, Roy" and stuff like that.
During the evacuation, during Frequent Wind, I talked to General Carey out on the Blue Ridge through the helicopter crew chief's headsets. Each time a bird would come into the zone I would run up to the crew chief and he would give me his microphone and I would talk to the general on the ship. And that was the way I communicated with the fleet.
Now all along, in the planning phase, there had been a discussion of two lifts of CH 46's off the roof of the Embassy. And they would be for the Ambassador and the final party. And the way they figured it they would handle about twenty people per bird. So we would be taking in rough numbers around no more than forty and probably somewhere between twenty and forty people out of the Embassy. Everybody else in the Embassy and the city would be ferried over to Tan Son Nhut and then at some convenient time everything would be turned off and the Ambassador himself would depart. Now that is the way it was planned.
By the last few days of April we were on duty 24 hours a day. I had arranged with Master Gunnery Sergeant J. J. Valdez to have the Marines who went off duty to stay at the Embassy and not go back to the Marine house. They brought their gear into the Embassy grounds and were sleeping on cots in the building by the swimming pool. We anticipated that things were going to continue to get worse and then all of a sudden they would go to hell in a handbasket. So I was there day in and day out, all the time, and I was in touch with Marvin Garrett, the Mission Warden, so I knew what he was thinking. We were lining up our ducks. We were conducting meetings among ourselves, the Marines, to figure out what it was that we were going to do and what our options were if we had to button up the building, if we had to bring our people inside the building and keep other people outside the building, how we were going to get off the building and things of that nature--details. Details.
In the Embassy itself, the Embassy detachment under Valdez was there and additional people who had come in from Bien Hoa. Gunnery Sergeant R. W. Schlager and a couple of other young Marines who had been out at the Bien Hoa post were now part of the Embassy detachment. The security for the DAO was made up of essentially people from the Army, the Air Force and other people who were out there. Well, during the week they said they needed some additional help in the form of security people -- trained security guard type people. So they had asked Wolf Lehmann, the Deputy Chief of Mission, for some assistance, and, initially, I told Valdez to just tell them "No,". But then later on it looked like they were really going to need them and I went up to see Lehmann myself and I said that I did not think it was a good idea. And I was told then, "No, it is going to happen." He said they had to have I think the number was sixteen. There had to be sixteen kids sent from us out there to the DAO to assist in manning security on the fences. So I called the DAO and there were a couple of Marines out there with the staff and I talked to a Marine colonel and a Marine major who were already out there and I said to them, "Look, if these kids are sent out there, can you look after them? Can you make sure that when they start making up the helicopter teams, when it comes time to get the hell out of there, that my Marines will be part of it, because I know for a fact that there is no way in hell we are going to be able to get across town if this thing blows, you know. We are just trying to best guess everything."
They said they would take care of the kids I sent over there. So, under Lehmann's orders I had to send a senior staff NCO who was a Marine Gunnery Sergeant named Martin and then I think there were fifteen other young Marines. And we took those Marines who were relatively new to the post and with the sprinkling of people who had been around and didn't mind going out there, and we formed the group that would be sent out there, and they were sent out there and given their assignment, with the understanding that they would probably ultimately leave from out there. Lance Corporal Darwin Judge and Corporal Charles McMahon were in that group. Judge and McMahon! Judge and McMahon were brand new. They had just checked into the detachment and they had not been broken in to any formal routine at the Embassy so it just made sense to put them out there with that group.
It was a little after 4:00 am on the morning of the 29th of April. The approaching NVA started to shell Tan Son Nhut. And some of their rockets fell on the DAO compound. Then I got the news that there were Marine casualties out at the DAO. I remember the phone call distinctly. We were using just a regular Saigon telephone to call back and forth to get information. And then I got this call and I talked to one of the Marine NCOs and then I talked to an Army colonel and I ended up talking to everybody out there that I could get on the line. It was reported to me by the Mission Warden that two of my kids had been killed --Judge and McMahon. He told me that they had been killed instantly by a direct hit and that he had gone out to the scene to see the picking up of the remains. And he told me that there were really no bodies left. There was a charred stump and some other body pieces. And he put them all in a body bag. The bags had then been marked, put in the Mission Warden ambulance and taken to the Seventh Day Adventist Hospital. And that was the standard operating procedure for any deaths that occurred. So, in my mind, at that time, I was satisfied that everything had gone in accordance with the book. I was trying to satisfy myself so that the messages could be released to the United States so that the families could be notified and that there would not be any error in the report. I was planning on talking to a responsible officer who had seen the incident and could tell me the cause because there was no way in hell that I was going to leave the Embassy at that time and get out there and look the scene over for myself. So the report satisfied me as to exactly what had transpired. Again, this is my own opinion. But I think it is true. The South Vietnamese moved some numbers of aircraft from Bien Hoa Air Base. They moved them down to Tan Son Nhut and, of course, those air craft became the target of the North Vietnamese who were coming in. So, when they set up their artillery out in the Bien Hoa area, having gotten that close, they started shooting at the air craft at Tan Son Nhut. The Defense Attache Office compound out there was on the gun target line and if there were any errors in trajectory --and there were bound to be some longs or shorts in the shooting --the shorts were going to fall right on the DAO compound. I quite frankly don't think that the North Vietnamese intended to hit within the DAO compound. They were really just shooting at the South Vietnamese air craft.
It was my responsibility to be able to land the helicopters. I had looked at several sites outside the Embassy walls and had written them all off. Inside the Embassy grounds I came to the conclusion that we had to get rid of a large tree that blocked access to helicopters landing. Ambassador Martin had spoken to me personally and told me that if I laid one finger on that tree that I would be in very big trouble. It became a symbol. There were a lot of jokes about that tree, let me tell you. Someone actually strung a rope around the tree and tied a fire axe to it with a little sign that read, "Feeling frustrated? Take a whack."
Well, I kept my eye on that tree because as long as it stood there we could not land helicopters safely. I can't remember the precise time when the decision was made to cut it down. It was late afternoon, probably before three in the afternoon when Martin finally acquiesced and said, "All right, go ahead and take the tree down." Then we worked pretty quickly. There was a combination of Mission Warden people, Seabees and Marines and even some newsmen who worked together to bring it down -- Aussie and New Zealand newsmen. And they had that damn tree down and cut up and out of the way and the shavings all cleaned up and the place hosed down in almost no time at all. And when they finished with that I told the Marines and Seabees to go out and find me some luminous paint because what we wanted to do was make a big luminous H, thinking that if we had to land helicopters there soon--and this was by three in the afternoon, remember--then there was no way we were going to get everybody out of there before dark. So we were under the gun to have things done by five that afternoon.
I knew that time was starting to run out. But I myself, personally, was still feeling calm. And I asked the Ambassador to let his feelings be known that ultimately they were going to have to divert a regular schedule of birds out of the DAO and over to us to get things moving because we could not take everyone out by just using the roof top landing zone. We were going to have to bring the big birds in there to move bodies.
Well, shortly after the birds started to fly into Tan Son Nhut things fairly well clarified themselves and that was by about three or four in the afternoon. The people at Tan Son Nhut understood what the problem was because I was talking to Colonel A. M. Gray who was in charge out there, and he knew the nature of the problem and he agreed to send me some additional Marines. I think there were about a hundred young Marines from Col. George Slade's BLT 2/4 who arrived to help us at the Embassy.
Now from the beginning with a shelling back on the night of the 28th, the Vietnamese declared martial law at night. And the fear started to grow and gradually turned to panic. And the Vietnamese began to gather outside the Embassy. They gathered outside the gates. And I started to get real concerned. By the afternoon of the 29th my guess was that we had as many as ten thousand people outside the Embassy, a real big crowd, and perhaps 160 Marine guards to secure the perimeter. There were not enough Marines to man those walls and to keep people from coming over into the Embassy. The walls were pretty substantial, but once the people made up their mind to come over, then there was no way in hell we could hold them back. We put our men on the walls to insure that the people outside couldn't just come up and jump over or climb over. We didn't know, after all, who was coming in. And we knew for a fact that -- and this was generally known by all the Marines --that the people outside were merely Vietnamese wanting to go to America. But in those groups there were also some real trouble makers and there might be some assassination squads and there might be some guys with demolition materials and charges or something like that. And we were getting those warnings from the Vietnamese military through the CIA all afternoon.
I specifically got involved with the Ambassador more closely. He wanted to drive his limousine outside the gate and around to his quarters and he asked me --in fact this was filmed by a news crew on the scene--he asked me to open the gates. I responded, "Well, sir, I'll try." And so I and Gunnery Sergeant Schlager and a couple of young Marines tried to break open the gate and there was just no way in hell that we could do it. And so I went back to Martin and I told him, "Sir, with all due respect, there is no way in hell that you are going to drive that car out of here. I recommend that you move back upstairs." Well, at that he was fuming. He got out of his car, he was livid and he slammed the door. And then he walked away. And I said at that moment to Valdez, "I think after this I'll be demoted to PFC." But later in he afternoon, Martin came looking for me and when he found me he touched me on my shoulder and said, "You're doing a good job." He was like that. There was a tremendous amount of pressure.
So, I'll be god-damned if he didn't just walked over to his house with his personal guard unit. We threw a group together and went out the back gate over by the French Embassy and walked down the street to the quarters and the Marines went in there and they used thermite grenades to destroy everything. They destroyed everything in the safe with thermite. There was a jeep in the garage at the house and we set it up so that we could make a run from the house to the Embassy and bring Martin back in. And when he came back that time we knew that it was just a matter of time before he would leave the country.
There was a two way door built behind the recreation compound dining facility that went right into the French Embassy. And I think that Martin's original plan was to go in there if everything came apart and wait to present his credentials. I think that he planned to stay in the country. But the plan was changed as the hours passed.
During the course of the afternoon and evening we knew that there were still a lot of people outside the Embassy that we had to get in. And at the same time we could not open the gates. And so if there was someone out there that we wanted to bring in, then we'd go and we put a bunch of people on the wall, reach down, grab him by the collar and the hair and just yank him up and over the wall, poor bastard. To the Marines it was like moving meat. And it was absolute chaos. I heard stories all afternoon about what was happening out there along the wall, strange things. Sad things. One Marine was handed a paper bag filled with uncut gems. He handed it back. It belonged to a wealthy Chinese businessman who just wanted to get his family out of the country before it was too late.
We had chained and locked the gates. And we had Marines manning them. We were not going to open those gates under any circumstances because the press of people, once the gates were cracked, would swing them wide open and there was no way to stop the flood that would pour in. So if we needed to bring somebody inside, we just reached over and down and got them and pulled them in. We sent Marines over the wall all afternoon and they went out and got some people and helped bring them back over the wall.
All of the time I was very conscious of exactly what we were doing. We were running. Some of the young Marines, of course, looked at it another way. As far as they were concerned the Americans were still involved in that war and that was that. Maybe a lot of people felt that way, but really, officially, in '73 we were done. It was now time for us to go and if we had to get out this was maybe the only way we were going to do it. It was either that or stay and refight the whole damn war. There was also the distinct possibility, all the time, that the NVA would come marching right in. I mean, hell, they had seventeen divisions approaching Saigon. Seventeen divisions! I think it was clear in my own mind, though, that the way the North Vietnamese had come down and formed themselves around the city they were sort of inviting us to leave. And they literally created corridors for the helicopters to come in and go out without there being any hostilities. They did not want to mix it up with the Americans, that seemed clear. The danger, of course, lay in the fact that any time you have troops in contact with troops at the small unit level you cannot always control everything that goes on. If and when they started to exchange fire with US troops, then you had a whole new ball game. Then we were back in the war.
And, of course, the Seventh Fleet had about nine thousand Marines who were confined in an instantaneous alert for the past forty-eight hours. They had been locked up aboard ship and they were all armed to the teeth and pissed off.
There was some difficulty during the afternoon of birds gaining access to the LZ. The fact that nobody got hurt is a testament to the professionalism of all of the people who were flying. They did a marvelous job. They were getting shot at by a bunch of knuckleheads-- you know there were looters and all kinds of people who had stolen weapons. We called them "cowboys." You could tell exactly where they were once twilight came because then you could see the tracers and I would tell a helicopter pilot coming in, "They're firing at you." And he replied, "We know, we know." Well, several of the helicopters had bullet holes in them. They were just sitting ducks, and to the degree possible, we would tell where the cowboys were. If they were in a building across the street from the front of the Embassy, if we saw fire coming from that area, then we got the word out to the Vietnamese national policemen who then made an attempt to go in there and clean out the jerk who was doing the shooting.
In addition to the cowboys shooting at them, the helicopter pilots had other serious problems. They had about a seventy-foot vertical descent to get into the Embassy. They had to come over, hover, and then descend seventy feet into this hole, and there wasn't that much room. Had we lost one helicopter it would have been all over, believe me.
They loaded the birds up with as many people as they could take. And then instead of doing what they call a "translational" maneuver, where you get the bird initially off the ground and then lean it forward, they had to go straight up. There was no room for a translational. They had literally to go straight up seventy feet. And I recall one helicopter distinctly, the one that Ken Kashiwahara of ABC was on. Oh, hell, it tried to take off and it couldn't and they got some people off and it tried again and it couldn't and they took more people off and finally we got enough off so it could lift off and we asked the pilot to take the under-powered son-of-a-bitch and park it.
While the evacuation was going on I heard stories about high Vietnamese military officials running. But I didn't actually see any of it myself. I had Marines call me and tell me that they had seen a high-ranking Vietnamese get in a C141 out at Tan Son Nhut, buckle up and leave. In the mayhem out there it was not unusual to see some people just cut and run. We knew that our mission was just to be firemen. We were to stay there until the bitter end. We stayed and watched an awful lot of people run.
It got to be noisy too with all the people and the birds coming in and out. And it got to be somewhat disorderly, too. But not too disorderly. I would say it was less orderly than JFK in New York and more orderly than, say, a Peruvian soccer match.
All afternoon and night there was a working assumption that everyone inside the Embassy grounds would go. It was never announced, I don't think, or there was never any official announcement. But you know even Marine pilots can,t fly forever. They have to run out of gas at some time. They have to rest and to sleep some time. But we believed that everybody was going to get out. So that kept the place relatively calm and there was no general panic.
But there was always the potential for panic. There were always frantic people, naturally. We got as many people on a lift as we could and then we would count to see how many we had left, and those left behind always were a little nervous. But we just kept right on working. And in that way, by concentrating on the job at hand, we kept the panic factor to a minimum.
You have to understand that my job was sort of communications control. I had one of those Motorola Walkie-Talkies so I was in contact with all the Marines. I was down in the parking lot and I had to go up to the LZ on the roof of the Embassy. I guided some of the birds in and out. The pilots would spot me and I would guide them in. And at the same time I could see what was going on up on the roof and I could see the walls from there. And it just made sense to me to be very visible and at the center of things -- to take charge. And that's just what I did throughout the day and night to the degree I think that well, I had a bad ankle and I recall that the damn thing swelled up almost to the point where I couldn't walk any more.
In order for me to get anything from Martin himself by way of instructions I had to find him. There came times during the night when I was convinced that I'd better get the word from the old man himself so I would know what the hell was happening --what the plan was. I would run in the front door of the Embassy and go either up the stairwell or the elevator to his office and then speak with him. Either that or I'd go up on the roof and get on the headset and talk to the ship and then come all the way back down. That's what I seemed to be doing most of the time, I was running back and forth. And one time I got on the elevator with Valdez and the old man--Martin --was on there with Tom Polgar, the CIA station chief. And there had been a problem. Polgar had made a misstatement of some sort and Martin apparently learned of it and didn't like it. So they had this beef. And I remember distinctly how mad Martin was. Martin told him, "If I ever hear you say anything like that again you are going to spend the rest of your career in Antarctica." All the time Valdez and I were on the elevator with them trying very hard to be invisible.
Martin was vigorous at the time. But remember that for seventy hours or more he had little rest and he was not a young man and it was taking its toll. We were really making it up as we went along. But things sort of fell into place. As night fell and there were still a crowd inside the Embassy grounds I realized that we were going to need lights and the standing lights in the Embassy were not going to work. So we got the Mission Warden vehicles and the sedans and things that were still in there and we swung them around into a semicircle and we made sure that they had gasoline. Then we started the engines and let them idle and left the lights on. We checked with the helicopter pilots then when they came in and we asked them, "Can you see OK?" And they responded, "Yeah."
But then late in the night it got critical. We learned then that there was going to be a limit imposed. Then, at that moment, 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. The problem was always leakage. There was no way in hell Martin could ever give an accurate assessment of the numbers. I think we probably ended up taking 2500 people out of the Embassy. And any time during the night the number of people inside the Embassy grounds seemed to remain steady.
Early in the evening there was a pause in the flights and it was in conjunction with making the decision to fly after dark. You know all along during the day they assumed that no birds were going to fly after 5:00 pm or something like that. But then they made the decision that they would fly after dark. Then they had to decide how long after dark they were going to fly. I was told later that General Lou Wilson, who would soon be Commandant of the Marine Corps but who at the time was Commanding General of the Fleet Marine Corps, Pacific, had directed that the birds would continue to fly as long as there were people in the Embassy and the DAO. Then they continued to fly and there was a second lull. And it was at that time that we got word that the President of the United States had directed that there would be only twenty more lifts.
It happened like this. I had a kid, a corporal, up on the roof with a machine gun and he called me and said, "I got the Ambassador's bird up here." And I said back, "Hold it there. I need some instructions." And then I went up to the roof.
On the roof a bird was in the zone waiting to take Martin and his party out. The bird was instructed specifically to pick up the Ambassador. The Ambassador had not yet come up to the LZ. So I got on the crew chief's headset and I spoke to General Carey himself and Carey told me that the President of the United States had directed that the Ambassador would now leave. And the only flights that would be flown after that would be for--and I remember the term because it seemed to funny to me at the time--would be for "U.S. and amphibious personnel." And Carey was repeating to me what the word from on high was. And I explained to Carey at that time what my situation was. I said, "My Marines are on the wall and there's the front door of the Embassy, and between the Marines and the front door of the Embassy there are some four hundred people who are still waiting to be evacuated. " I said, and I don't remember my exact words, but I said very carefully, "I want you to understand clearly that when I pull the Marines back to the Embassy those people will be left behind!" And I wanted that clearly understood because I did not want to end up to be the person who was responsible for leaving all those people behind. I was quite prepared to take them out and I knew that what he was saying at that moment did not include those people. And I repeated that, and I knew that when I repeated it that my transmission was being broadcast in the war room on the ship over the loudspeaker and that the people who were in the command central on the U.S.S. Blue Ridge were listening to it. And I wanted everybody to understand clearly that if we left and we followed those orders explicitly that there were going to be a lot of people left behind. And Carey understood that. He repeated his order. He said, "I want you to understand that the President of the United States directs."
And I said, "Yes, sir."
During the time the Ambassador was waiting, I had the young Marine corporal out on the roof with his machine gun holding the helicopter. And I told him I didn't want that bird to leave until this was all resolved. Then I went down the stairs and into the Embassy and told the Ambassador's group what my orders were. That's when Ken Moorefield made his historic statement to the Ambassador that "It's time to go." Martin looked over at me for a moment. He didn't say anything. And he didn't show any emotion. He just looked tired. He knew that this sad moment would be coming sooner or later. Suddenly, it had arrived. Then he went upstairs and got into the bird and left Vietnam. He was carrying the American flag with him.
Then I left the office and went downstairs. And it was there that Col. John Madison of the Army, who had been a member of the Joint Military Team set up under the Paris Agreement came over to me and I had to tell him that there were no more flights for the civilians and that it was time to go. There was a real hassle at that moment. Madison wanted all the civilians to get out. I told him there was no way. He said he would refuse to leave unless we took those 400 people with us. I told him that I had my orders. I told him we could sort all this out on the boat. But right now it was just time to go. And at that moment Madison's number two man bolted for a helicopter. He wanted to make sure that he was going to be on one of the flights out. And Madison just looked at me sort of in grim dismay. He didn't know what to do. Then he threw up his hands turned around and left. There were many good people left behind in those 400 within the Embassy grounds. And Is till feel badly about that.
I was told that there were several South Korean diplomats and the story on them, of course, was that over there in the recreational area on the other side of the wall by the swimming pool there was a cash sales liquor outlet. And they had broken in there. And they had a little too much to drink and they fell asleep. And when they woke up the evacuation had ended. So when they came out of their alcoholic stupor, it was the Korean equivalent of "Ohhhh, fuck! The helicopters have gone without us!" That's really what happened to them.
And there were other people drinking during the evacuation, too. A lot of them were drinking but weren't drunk. I'll tell you. In the Embassy itself they had set up a bar on the third floor. A lot of the principals got shitfaced during that night. I mean their whole lives were coming apart, right there, in the course of a couple of hours. And, quite frankly, that's why I was dealing directly with Martin. I knew that he at least was lucid, even if tired, and I didn't want to be talking to anybody that wasn't the man himself, particularly somebody who was shitfaced.
Near the end of the evacuation I was really surprised to find a woman in the Embassy. I referred to her affectionately as "Hilda the Milkmaid" because she was big-titted, handy and strong. She was just great. I think she was a secretary to one of the CIA guys and she was kind of like one of those gals who can take charge of a PTA meeting or anything else. And there she was and she saw the kids and how hard they were working and she decided to help out, without even being asked. She was running around passing out hot coffee. And she was asking where else she might be of use. She stopped me one time and made me feel good, because she just grabbed my arms for a moment and she said, "You're doing one hell of a job. Can I get you a cup of coffee?" And all I could say was, "Thank you."
After the Ambassador and his party left we had to get all the other Americans out. The arrangement down in the parking lot was that, on command, we would give a signal, I think that it was a red star cluster -- that's a hand held flare type of device that shoots up like a piece of fireworks for signalling small unit tactics. And word went out along the wall to all the Marine NCO's that when the signal was given people would begin to back towards the doors of the Embassy and form a large semicircle in front of the Embassy, realizing, of course, that once we backed away from the wall the people were going to come over the walls, and also realizing that the people inside the compound were going to freak out because it would occur to them that they were in fact going to be left behind, despite promises throughout the night to the contrary by others in the Embassy.
So I put people inside the doors, the great big mahogany doors of the Embassy, and I told them that as the Marines backed towards them they would have their faces on the crowd and that the people inside the door were to reach out and grab these kids and haul them in by the scruff of the neck, yanking them in as fast as possible. Ultimately, I thought, there was going to be a big donnybrook in front of the Embassy door. And I wanted to minimize it as much as possible and execute the maneuver with as little violence as possible.
That's exactly how it all happened-- the red star cluster and the withdrawal. Ultimately we got down to the point where it was "My God, we're only thirty seconds away from pulling this thing off without a fight."
But at that moment, all hell broke lose. The crowd outside realized what was happening. They realized they were going to be abandoned by the United States, and they panicked. Then a great big Seabee Chief Petty Officer in civilian clothes came up. And there was a huge timber that was used to bar the doors of the Embassy when they were closed. In the back of the doors you could fit this thing down in a slot. Well, he got that thing and he put it behind himself, across the small of his back, wrapped his arms down around it and stood out there and started swinging around in a circle. If you got hit with that you were down for sure. So people stayed back as he spun back and forth. And in the meantime, inside, guys were grabbing Marines and all the others and jerking them inside.
I got everybody inside the doors, secured the two big doors and then we pulled down the motor operated chain link drop behind the mahogany doors. And it froze halfway down and stuck. So we said, "Oh, to hell with it" and left it like that.
Then we sent the two elevators up to the sixth floor and froze them there by cutting the power so that they couldn't be used by anybody else. Then we all scrambled up the stairwells to the sixth floor. There were grill gates on the second and fourth floors, grill fences, and we closed them and secured them and we got everybody up -- there were about sixty of us at the time--and everybody proceeded in a relatively orderly manner to the top of the sixth floor. Then we proceeded along that long hallway from the sixth floor out to the rooftop itself and then there was a short climb from the rooftop to the LZ, up some metal ladder works. We were sending out twenty people per helicopter at that time until we got down to the final eleven.
When there were eleven of us left on the roof we were the last US ground forces in Vietnam.
And we were all dog tired. We had been up for 72 hours. Some of the kids sat down and stared off into space. The anxiety level was high, believe me. The people who were in the building were terrified--absolutely terrified. They wanted to get out of the country. And they had to get up on the roof to do it and we wouldn't let them. And we knew there were people in the building but we didn't know who was just a terrified civilian and who was a bad guy. Trouble could start at any moment.
Remember, these were young Marines. This would always be their Vietnam experience; this was the time, this was the day they would always remember. And as I looked around at them, I thought, "My God, I came into this mess in '66. But they hardly even know what this is all about. What will they think about this somewhere down the line?"
When the chopper didn't come back to pick us up right away, and as the time passed, some of my kids leaned back and rested. And then they slept.
We were all curious as to what was going on in Saigon. And when we looked out over the city in that early morning light we could see evidence of what had taken place during the night. There had been a lot of looting and trashing and there was still a hell of a lot of activity. We saw trash all over the damn place. And in some areas fires were burning and there was smoke billowing up. Literally, we laid on the roof and watched, those of us who didn't sleep. I never had it confirmed because there was no way to confirm it, but a cavalcade of cars --and I assumed it was Big Minh, the new President of South Vietnam --came right up the main drag, right in front of the Embassy, with a national police escort, and the men fired at looters just to clear the way so Minh could get through, going towards the National Palace. I think that was him trying to get into position to greet the North Vietnamese Army and to surrender his country.
It was all pretty exciting to us, lying up there. We were watching history being made and we were at the same time part of history. I remember it made a distinct impression in my mind, watching it all. Because we were the last Americans seeing this.
You know when we were on the roof of the Embassy, we were sitting on the roof, some of us, and we could see the flashes in the distance of the NVA guns. And I had the opportunity to think for two hours. And that's what we were doing. We were looking back at it and talking about what our experiences had been and we were just thinking, "My, God, what a mess." It was a real a real opportunity, for those two hours. We were thinking, reflecting, talking. All eleven of us. It was very likely, we realized that we eleven represented the last of the American military involvement in Vietnam. And we thought about that and talked about that.
There were some regrets and some bitterness expressed in that time. That was among the others, however, But that was not my feeling because I felt it was, finally, the best thing. And I thought it was sad. And I recall distinctly feeling much the same as a fireman might after he does his work all night on a multi-alarm fire. What you end up with is deep melancholy. You are damn glad the fire is out. But you look at all the waste and you can't help but be moved by it.
And after we had talked quietly for a time, I did something kind of funny. There was a big satellite dish antenna up there. And out of frustration, I walked over to it and I had a forty-five caliber pistol and I emptied it into that damn dish.
We put tear gas in the stair wells to discourage people from coming up. We were afraid they might rush out and grab on to the helicopter trying to leave with us if they got up to the top. So we tried to discourage them with tear gas.
Steven Bauer at the time had an important job. He was a corporal. He was one of the smaller guys and he fit nicely into tight spot at the end of the hallway. There was a fire door on each end, and one fire door on the interior side had a fire window in it, one of those small square windows with glass with metal inside. That was smashed out, and people were trying to come through it and push it, and Bauer sat in there with some Mace and anybody that came up to the window he'd give them a little squirt of mace just to discourage them. On several occasions he had to use the mace. We had that whole hallway filled with these big old fire extinguishers and so on to block people from coming through and Bauer just stayed in there and squirted people with mace. He acted as our final deterrent.
Then we had one guy come up the outside of the building to try to get on the roof with us. He got conked on the head and that discouraged him enough. I think that he got almost to the top before someone saw him and dropped something over the side onto him and knocked him off the side of the building.
Towards the end of the night, when the sun started coming up, nobody knew we were up there except for those people who were still hanging around in the hall and in the ladder wells. It was very uncomfortable for them to do that because they would have had to have a damp cloth just to be able to breathe with all the tear gas in there.
I knew how much ammunition we had and how many weapons, if we had to make a last stand if an assault by the North Vietnamese began. Thoughts like that were going through my mind. But it did not do much good wasting a whole lot of time on them because I just had to deal with the situation at hand, what was happening at that particular moment.
But I want to emphasize the fact that I felt that the North Vietnamese were doing everything that they could from a command position to allow us to get the hell out of there in an orderly fashion. My concern was not so much the North Vietnamese firing on us at all, but that we would have to fight to avoid capture and that it was no longer technically our war.
We stayed away from the edge and we just sort of sat around. Somebody had a jug and was passing it around --Bobby Frain, I think. We were trying to lay low and wait for that helicopter to come and get us the hell out of there.
Then probably some time just before 8:00 am I saw the bird coming to get us. I saw him coming off in the distance, one unescorted CH 46 coming from the east out of the sunrise, heading for us. I saw him before I could hear him. I told the others to get ready. He finally landed about 7:58 or 7:59.
We started to get on the helicopter. And I think some of us realized that this was a final historic moment. We were the last American troops to leave Vietnam. At first everybody ran to the helicopter. Then there were just three of us left on the roof -- Bauer and Valdez and I. Bauer had been sitting the furthest away so he was the last one to reach the helicopter. But then, as I recall it, Valdez paused at the tail of the helicopter to snap a picture. In fact, I think he snapped two pictures real quick as everybody got on the helicopter. We were all damn glad just to get out.
As the pilot prepared to lift off we got a little whiff of tear gas. The pilot himself got some of the gas. None of us had gas masks. The gas was wafting up from the stairwells and it got caught in the down draft and started swirling around and came inside the bird. By that time the pilot just wanted to hurry and get the hell out of there.
We were all quiet once we got inside, just glad to be leaving. Nobody said anything for a moment as we sat there. Then this young kid, Bobby Frain, who was a sergeant, spotted a PRC 25 radio on the floor. It wasn't hooked up or anything. But Bobby Frain picked up the hand set as if it were working and acted like someone was talking to him on the radio. The rest of us were just sitting there thinking, "Oh, boy, we are going to get the hell out of here at last" --that type of thought. And there was the loud noise of the helicopter motor. But then Frain yelled over the sound of the chopper, "Hey, Major, they want to know what kind of pizza you want in Manila!" I believe that those were the last words spoken by an American Marine as we left Vietnam for good. We all laughed at Frain's joke. It broke the tension. We all laughed at him. We laughed because it was a funny statement and because we were so damn happy to be going home at last.
After the bird lifted off he headed for the sea. The Seventh Fleet was down off the Bassac River at that time, the southernmost part of the Mekong delta. We headed directly for the fleet. As a matter of fact helicopter crew had only taken enough fuel on the bird to get in and out of Saigon. They didn't fill up. As I remember it now, we had fuel warning lights on both tanks going back into the Okinawa. I became concerned. I saw the first red light come on and the pilot and the co-pilot started paying attention to it. And then the second light came on and I said, "Jesus, wouldn't it be something if we ran out of gas before we got home?"
But then we saw the fleet. It was a clear morning. Once we saw the ships we also saw evidence of the remains of a lot of helicopters in the water around them. It was just a zoo out there around the fleet. And there were lines on the flight deck of the Okinawa where people were being processed and weapons were being taken away and thrown over the side.
I'll bet between the eleven Marines in my group there were at least thirty six weapons. Some of these kids looked like Pancho Villa when we got on the Okinawa. I personally had a .45 pistol, a nine millimeter automatic pistol and an M16. And the other kids had weapons they had picked up on the roof of the Embassy, weapons taken away from others before they boarded helicopters. They had picked up some prize weapons to keep as souvenirs. The had some little AR15's with the collapsible stock, a chromium plated .32 pistol, Czech machine pistols--every kind of weapon imaginable. And they had picked up the ones they wanted and brought them out. And you know as soon as we stepped on board the Okinawa they disarmed us completely and threw all of our weapons over the side. It was pretty sad. But Marines do that all the time. It's the only way, you know, and I guess we forgot about that when we picked up the weapons. Disarming everyone who arrives on board is the only way to make sure that there are no accidental discharges.
While we were there we saw the Vietnamese coming out in their helicopters trying to land on the decks of the ships. But I was too tired to stay and watch that. As soon as I went through processing I went fell into the sack and went to sleep for six hours. Then they woke me up and told me that General Carey wanted to see me over on the Blue Ridge, immediately. So I got up and I got on the helicopter and they flew me over, but by the time I landed on the Blue Ridge there had already been a helicopter before us trying to land on the front end of the ship. It's not an aircraft carrier, remember. And that Vietnamese bird knocked out some antennas and almost did more serious damage. But they were desperate to get out. They were all around in the air.
When it was all over I was never sure whether or not I was going to get an award or a good kick in the ass for using the tear gas. Ultimately, they gave me a medal, a bronze star for meritorious achievement for my part in it all. When I got back to Hong Kong, I and Bob Lewis, my executive officer, sat down and we prepared, I believe, it was forty two awards, and these covered Phnom Penh, Nha Trang, Danang, Can Tho, Bien Hoa and Saigon. After all the reports were in and the NCOs gave me their reports about who did what and what happened, I sat down and I started grinding them out. I know how the system works when it comes to awards and I was concerned that each and every kid who did something get noticed for it in some way. So I wrote up the awards and I did the best I could. In some cases I had good complete information. And in a few cases I had to fabricate the information from the standpoint of, well, one citation would read a lot like another citation. But I knew that a kid was there and I knew that he had been part of the action and he had done something, so I just talked around it. And I then took them to the Consul General and I had him sign them in Hong Kong so that the State Department principal was signing the recommendation. That way nobody at Headquarters, Marine Corps, could dismiss it out of hand. As it turned out, I think, each and every person who had something submitted on them got an award. Most of them were downgraded. But somebody got either a Navy Achievement Medal or a Navy Commendation Medal, and it amazed me to find out after the fact how many of those Marines stayed in the Marine Corps. Steven Bauer, for example. The last time I saw him he was still in the Corps and was a gunnery sergeant. Those guys all had a little, you know, of what Napoleon's men had. Napoleon remarked about the brave deeds that men will do for a piece of ribbon. And it was amazing to me how many of those guys actually continued to make the Marine Corps a career after that.
We have a helluva drunk in Manila, but the eleven of us never got together again. There was no talk, that I can recall, of a reunion.
I myself stayed in the Corps until July of '83. But, then, I had always been a careerist. I think the evacuation of Saigon would just have to be the most memorable part of my long Marine career.
I was sensitive at that time as to what it all meant. That is the first time that the United States ever had truly to cut and run and admit that we had run out of energy. I remember I said, "Oh, oh. The United has just had its wedding night. Now where do we go from here."
Since I came back I visited the Vietnam Memorial. I thought it was beautiful with the names, just the names, inscribed on that black marble. And I felt that maybe when people saw it and read some of the names that it would achieve its intended effect.
Personally, apart from the Marine Corps, I am not a joiner. The war was just something that I was involved in because, quite frankly, it was my nature to get into whatever is going on. It was the thing that was happening at that point in my life. And I wanted very badly to be a part of it. And it was a major event. It gave me a chance to try to share the experience of my father.
Today, every now and then I'll stop and think about something from Vietnam-- a face that I saw or a voice that I heard or a sound or a smell, under different circumstances. And it all comes back. I'll remember one little moment or event. But I never had any of the trauma associated with experiences in the war.
You know, I'll see a picture or hear something on the news. And I'll be back there again. I can think of a dozen examples like that. I'll remember when I saw some absolutely beautiful child or smell an odor like burning diesel fuel. Or I'll remember when I was out on patrol.
I remember one event in particular, when we were out on patrol. We came across this old mama san, a little old lady. And she had a festering thumb and it was gangrenous and the corpsman washed it and cut away a lot of the dead flesh and did it up with bacitration ointment, the stuff that the corpsman carried in his kit in the field. And he put this compacted gauze around it and bandaged it all up nicely. When we found her she had it wrapped up, literally, in cow shit with a banana leaf around it. And the corpsman who spoke a little bit of Vietnamese and one of the interpreters told her to go see the doctor because if she didn't keep it clean the gangrene was already there and she was going to lose it -- or maybe even lose her life, if it spread.
Anyway, that was the message we imparted. We weren't going to surgically remove her thumb out in the field. But we thought we could help her a lot and perhaps save her life.
So, three days later we came through the same village and she waved to us and offered us some fresh coffee. And when she gave us the coffee we saw that she had thrown away what we had given her and had her thumb covered with cow shit and wrapped in a banana leaf again. So that little old lady, who looked to be about 126 but was probably about 40, if that, she was going to die. She was going to die. There was no doubt about that. But there was also no doubt that we were not going to change anything. I was struck by that sort of thing -- that sort of revelation. Another time we were out on patrol going through a paddy and a Phantom flew over, real low. And we heard him and looked up and there was a ten million dollar aircraft that represented to the people working in this particular paddy something that was simply incomprehensible. I tell you it must have been like a bomber flying over New Guinea in World War II. These people working with a water buffalo and living in huts look up and see that Phantom and, how can they understand what it is or what it is there for? It is incomprehensible to them. All they do know for sure is that it is upsetting their way of life.
I remember seeing all of those people look up at the Phantom for a moment and then going back to work. And those kinds of melancholy moments come back to me again and again.
I'll tell you, those memories are important to me because they are the bottom line. Any time I get caught up in a question like American involvement in Central America I think about those things because those were real experiences for me. And I say at those times, "Now we can't go down their with our yuppie ideals and everything and solve all of their problems because we don't have the answers." It could very well be that the best thing that we can do is to stay home, and stay the hell out of it. Except, if we want to offer them some economic aid or support something like the Contadora Process. We must remember that any time economic conditions in a country polarize between "haves" and "have nots" there is a potential for real trouble. No man worth his salt will stand idly by for long and watch his family starve.
But the very worst thing we could do is to take all of our half-assed military solutions down there and thrust them on somebody who doesn't need them. And that is why I gave up totally on the idea of a military solution. There is no military solution to anything. Believe me, there is no military solution to anything. I think that you must have the capability to defend yourself, but the system today seems to be totally out of control. I am a real peacenik right now. Especially when it comes to the military budgeting process. It's become unbelievable.
I'll tell you, the honest to God's truth is that I won't consider myself very much of a success as a father if my sons or daughters end up as saber rattlers. I really believe that. I want them to do something constructive, be a good carpenter, build a good wall, write a good book. But I don't want them to make a career in the military.
I don't have any use for guns any more. I wouldn't have one in my house, really. And I am not really crazy about it when my kids go through the catalogue and look at BB guns or look at guns in sporting goods stores. I bite my lip when that happens. I just want to deep six all that crap.
You know Ronald Reagan is the same age as my father. And I didn't see my father for four years in World War II while Reagan was in Hollywood. But I don't get nasty about that. Reagan at least raised his hand and volunteered to do something. But I do get absolutely furious about some of those war wimps who were around him. All those assholes who were never in the military, those fat old men who sit around and decide that they are going to play macho. And they roll up their sleeves and run off at the mouth and then send nineteen year old boys off to die. Always the nineteen year olds. That's the tragedy.
And so the President needs to be counseled when he starts listening to the jingoists and starts rattling his saber. He has to remember that there is a whole generation out there now that has grown up and they don't know anything about Vietnam. They are susceptible to all of this "Rambo" crap. And all you have to do is give them an opportunity and then with all that hot blood they'll go out and fight. And then they'll die. They won't die in Vietnam. That's been done. They'll die in some other place far away.
We don't need to be led that way. We should not be led that way.
War is a waste. That's it. I saw it. I survived it. And I can see it still in my mind today. And I know for sure that there has to be a better way.
Lt. Col. Gerry Berry
"Tiger, Tiger, Tiger"
I went to Vietnam right out of college, right to flight school and then right to Vietnam. It was the kind of thing you were supposed to do as a young man when you were growing up in America. If the government told you to go you went. That was 68-69. I didn't realize until I came back that people here were really down on the war. I think I was a little bitter at that time to think that we went to do what basically our country asked us to do and then basically the people of the country were not happy with us for having done thos every things.
When I read about the Paris Peace Accords I knew that South Vietnam couldn't last too long. The Accords allowed hard core NVA to remain in the South with the Viet Cong and it allowed for Congress to okay a certain amount of money every year for arms and all that stuff for the South Vietnamese. So I think that most of us who talked about it at the time knew that our Congress probably wasn't going to approve those funds for long and that the NVA wouldn't just sit there in place in South Vietnam. And, as you probably know, on the day those peace accords were signed the military actually started planning for the evacuation of Saigon and other areas. So I don't think anybody in the military was very surprised when the collapse came. Nobody with any experience or imagination thought Vietnam was going to last for long after those accords were signed.
I guess in the end I was surprised at the speed with which South Vietnam collapsed. I had worked with the ARVN up in I Corps before and I didn't think they were that bad, really. They seemed to stand and fight pretty well and to give as much as they got. But then in 1975 they a couple of real military blunders. They evacuated the highlands and the let the NVA split the country. I think that's when you realized it was over.
At that time I certainly had strong feelings about Vietnam. I had been there and fought there and I said to myself, "Gee, what was all the blood and turmoil and all this stuff if we have to turn around and do this now. I had a feeling of regret that we had tried so hard and then had to turn and give it up so easily. But I certainly didn't have a solution for it. It seemed that we had promised these people a lot of things and we certainly were not delivering in 1975 as we had promised them in 1973.
On this mission, Frequent Wind, on our HMM-165 CH-46 we had a pilot, co-pilot, crew chief and we had a gunner -- fifty calibre machine gun gunner -- on each window in the back. So we carried a crew of five. I was the pilot.
I had a flight of four CH-46s. Two of them were loaded with Sparrowhawk teams. If anybody went down we would take care of them until we got the crew and them back out.
About noon we had launched and were on our way to the Embassy. And I landed at the Embassy -- I was the first to land there, in fact -- I landed behind the Embassy and loaded up with all kinds of foreign nationals and Vietnamese and I was talking to the guy on guard and I said, "We're supposed to get the Ambassador." And he said, "Well, he's not ready to go yet." So we picked up these people, we launched out and dropped them on the Blue Ridge. And then General Carey came out and I said, "You know, the brief I had was that we were supposed to pick up the Ambassador, bring him out and then we'd continue the rest of it." I said, "The Ambassador's not ready to come." So he said, "Continue your lift from the Embassy."
So now we start this big cycle and its early in the day now and we're talking probably about one 'o clock. So we start this cycle with the forty-sixes to the Embassy. Nobody else was working the Embassy then, just us. We brought the Italian ambassador out. We brought out all kinds of people -- Swedes and Germans and some prostitutes of the Caucasion persuasion.
It was pretty well organized, really. I think we were supposed to bring out from the Embassy somewhere between fifty and one-hundred people. You know we actually ended up bring out almost 2,000. We thought it was going to be a brief surgical thing at the Embassy. But the Ambassador, I guess, bless his heart, kept letting the Vietnamese inside the compound, so the number did not decrease as the day went on. In fact the number of people there got larger as the day went on.
Remember now that we started with the four aircraft of mine. And we finally convinced them that we could drop the Sparrowhawk teams off -- those Marines in the back of the other two helicopters. Okay, now maybe about three thirty we got four helicopters working the thing, but we're talking to the people when we land on the Blue Ridge, which isn't all the time because we're using all the ships --the Okinawa, the Hancock, the Midway -- all those ships are taking people also. The Okinawa qualifying "Gallant Man" was the control, HDC, Helicopter Direction Control, so you'd call, you'd say, "Hey, I got forty, fifty Vietnamese with maybe a couple of others, whatever, you figured you had, and they'd say, "Put them on the Midway or on the Hancock" or some other ship.
For the first four or five trips in I kept thinking, "I'm going to get the Ambassador and bring him out because that's my job," see. And it never happens. And as it starts to get dark and they diverted some other aircraft over to the Embassy and they are landing CH 53s behind the Embassy. Fifty-threes were landing behind the Embassy and 46s were landing on the top of the Embassy. On the roof of the Embassy there were civilians standing there burning all kinds of trash and it was getting kind of exciting now and there were big crowds, you can see the big crowds around the Embassy. But anyway we went on and on and this thing started dragging and dragging and we've probably got about ten or twelve or fourteen 46s involved on and off the roof continuously or maybe up to 20 because there were thirty some out there. And the 53s were going continuous because there's good lights on the roof. About 10 o'clock that night they shut down the zone behind and stopped taking 53s behind.
Then I think they only had maybe my four airplanes and two more working. We had a very few working for about a two hour period until Carey got them all cranked up again. This thing went on and on -- to me, it's almost ridiculous. I would get excited and then tired and then angry because they can't get themselves organized and get this thing over with. This went on and every time I'd land on the Blue Ridge General Carey would come out to the airplane and say, "Well, where's the Ambassador?" And I'd say, "Well, you know, what am I supposed to do? I'm just flying the helicopter. Surely there must have been some link between the Seventh Fleet and the White House and the Embassy. You know much more than me, I don't have any way of getting him out."
Anway, we landed about three in the morning on the Blue Ridge and General Carey came out this time and he said, "I don't care what they say, you bring out the Ambassador the next trip." So I thought, "How am I going to do this? I don't know the Ambassador from Adam and I'm sure he's not going to take orders from me." So I started thinking about how to get him out.
So we land on the roof now, at three thirty or four in the morning, and I get a load of Vietnamese again. And I said, "This is it!" I told my crew chief, "Kick them all off!"
I got the Marine on top of the roof to pick up the little head phones outside the door of the forty six so he can talk to me. And I said, "This helicopter doesn't leave until the Ambassador's on it. The President says."
Twenty-four seconds later the Ambassador was on the airplane. It was so fast it was almost phenomenal. Like he was waiting there for the President to tell him to come out or something, because otherwise he was going to go down with the ship or whatever you do in a situation like that.
Well, let me tell you something, the minute the Ambassador came out Jim Kean took over the place and all the decisions were made by him after that and things went just like clockwork from then on. Kean locked all the doors, closed everything down. And on the next pass we started taking Marines out and I made that pass and one other and that it was it. Then it was all over.
When I got the Ambassador and was taking off, I was supposed to signal the Blue Ridge by saying "Tiger, Tiger, Tiger."
Then a little while after we took off and I'd already made the call "Tiger, Tiger, Tiger," it came to my mind, "Hey, maybe this guy is not the Ambassador. I couldn't really see him when he was on the airplane. And I thought, "Oh my God, what if it isn't him." I didn't know. When he got off, he got out the side door and he walked within two feet of me and I got a good look at him. And I thought, "He is a beat person." Later I learned it really was him.
So when we came off the roof I broadcast "Tiger, Tiger, Tiger." And he said, "Roger, you know you're clear to switch to Gallant Man Control." As soon as I went to Gallant Man Control -- that was the Okinawa -- I broadcast "Tiger, Tiger, Tiger" again and they said, "Roger" and then told me which heading to fly and to prepare to land on the Blue Ridge.
I flew back in during full daylight. You could actually see from out on the northern ring, you could actually see the enemy tanks, the big dust clouds and all that kinds of stuff rolling into the city. And the streets now that had been crowded all night were becoming very deserted. You didn't see many people in the streets. It was like, "Oh boy, here they come. Get a place to hide and a place to go." So I would say in the morning flying the last load out it was a little bit eerie looking down on the city, a little bit eerie because now we knew the gates to the Embassy had all been closed for good.
COLONEL GEORGE SLADE
Q. If we need to go back and cover some ground we can do that, but I'd like to start with where you were when you heard that there might be a problem in Phnom Penh and Saigon, when you first heard there would be preparations for emergency evacuation. Or was that something planned a long time ahead of time. I can't imagine Marines would train for such an evacuation.
Well, there's two Marine battalions that deployed from Okinawa on a regular basis for six-month rotation basis, and each one of these battalions as part of their training and preparation for deployment had prepared, knew the plans for both the evacuation from Cambodia and Vietnam and had planned and trained for these things all along before they deployed. And they'd been doing that for two or three years.
Q. Roof landings, and all?
Well, the general plans for the evacuation. Of course when I was in Thailand I was involved on the periphery of some of the planning. That's where a lot of it was being done. I was involved even when I was in Thailand in '72 to '74.
Q. That's surprising to me. Should it be? Or not?
You always have to plan for something like that.
Q. Since it had never happened before in American history I was wondering if somebody knew something we didn't know.
So what did you do, go on a regular summer cruise, -- your home base was Okinawa and you left Okinawa --
We left Okinawa in December which was our regularly scheduled deployment time. It was a six-month deployment.
Q. Where were you deployed?
The battalion that I had was the WESTPAC battalion that principally operated out of Subic Bay. We have a camp at Subic Bay set up just for what they call the "Special Landing Forces."
This had been set up several years ago. As a matter of fact, I was the liaison officer there at Subic for about six months and they were just finishing the camp at that time. It was specifically designed to house the deployed battalion coming in --
Q. Did you do maneuvers in Australia and New Zealand?
No. Not in those countries. We had -- most of our training was supposed to be conducted in the Subic Bay area.
Q. Normally you would have sailed to Subic from Okinawa, gotten off there, stayed there --
Not for the whole time. For some period of time for training and so forth. But that time it was "show the flag" type situation and we had scheduled trips to Singapore and Hong Kong and Manila and places like that. So we might go into the camp there at Subic Bay for two or three weeks and then go out somewhere for a port visit some place and then go back.
Q. What battalion?
Second Battalion, Fourth Marines.
Q. How many men?
It goes up to about a thousand men once you get all the attachments.
Q. When did you learn that the situation was deteriorating in Cambodia and Vietnam and plans would be changed?
Well there were some strong indicators before we deployed that this might be the time. Each battalion that went out expected that they might be involved in the evacuation from Saigon, but there were some strong indications when we went out that this might be the time.
We left in December. I can't really remember when things first started breaking. We did get to Subic and unloaded just our basic stuff for moving into the camp there and starting our training. And sometime in February things really started getting planned.
Q. How did you learn?
I need to explain to you, I guess, when a battalion deploys like that, it deploys as part of what is called a "Marine Amphibious Unit". The Marine Amphibious Unit contains a headquarters which deployed aboard the ships all the time. This is headed by a Marine colonel. And the Marine Amphibious Unit contains the infantry battalion, a helicopter squadron, and a logistics support unit. The CO of this Marine Amphibious Unit is of course the one. He is my immediate boss. The helicopter squadron, the infantry battalion, and he is the immediate boss. All planning, directions, message traffic and everything else pertaining to something like this come to him. So it was through the Marine Amphibious Unit commander that we started getting word about the operation. That was Colonel J. F. Roche.
Q. What were the preparations? Are you always ready?
No, you get the preliminary operational plans that the maximum military command authority would have made up for the contingency evacuation from Phnom Penh or Saigon or whatever the case is. You get these basic plans and then you start working on the details of exactly how you are going to go about it.
Q. You had people going into those cities and looking at landing sites?
I went to . . . (((Tape stopped and restarted???)))
. .. I guess it wasn't until the day before that we really knew that probably the evacuation would be boiled down to one area which was the soccer field. Up until that time we had to plan for each one of the areas which were possible landing sites. So there was a hell of a lot of planning that went into it that eventually wasn't necessary, because of the fact we didn't use another landing site. I had to be prepared for the defense of each and every one of the possible landing areas that we would go into.
Q. When you leave and go in, what's the process?
You use every available deck spot that you have and as it wound up, the number of helicopters that were to go into Phnom Penh was based on the number of people to be evacuated. We only wanted one trip in and one trip out. That was the plan. So once they decided, and everything that I read, and looking over some of the pictures last night, two hundred and seventy-eight people were evacuated, including eighty-two Americans.
The number of helicopters that would go in was based on how many they had to evacuate. That also limited the number of people that I could take in, because I could only take in what those helicopters could carry. So if there was ten helicopters to go in, then whatever that number works out to as far as what it could carry was all the troops that I was going to take in.
As it wound up I took two rifle companies in. A couple hundred people in each rifle company.
Q. You were the commander then of the marines when you landed in Phnom Penh? No one on the ground outranked you?
Yes, there was a colonel and his staff who had been on the ground in Phnom Penh for several days in coordinating the plans. That gentleman died within a year or two after this. I don't remember his name, but he had a small staff that was in Phnom Penh for several days and coordinated all the planning between the embassy and the marine forces at sea. Of course they did some fixed wing evacuation from Phnom Penh too, before the helicopter evacuation. So he was helping to coordinate that. I can't remember his name.
Q. What was it like going in? Sunny day?
I don't recall any rain. It was a very nice day.
Q. What did Phnom Penh look like from the air? No smoke or fire or incoming rounds?
No indication that there was anything at all going on there outside of the normal.
Q. No trouble getting to the soccer field, it had been marked with smoke?
I don't think they marked it with smoke. There was no need to, because it was pretty well defined. The commander of the helicopter squadron, of course, had been ashore with me previously to look at the place, so they knew where it was. We had this colonel and his staff that I was talking about on the ground in the landing zone when we landed. They had communication with the helicopters coming in. They might have used some panels or something. I really don't recall, Larry.
Q. When you land, you landed with no hitches?
Everybody was lined up. We came in and the helicopters landed. Those helicopters took off and the next wave of helicopters that came in then unloaded and they took off, and the first wave emptied came back in and loaded the evacuaees.
Q. Do you remember seeing the ambassador come to get on?
Yes. They drove him down to the little entrance way which was right down at the end of the soccer field. He got out and they talked for a few minutes and then he walked to the helicopter.
Q. Did he look tired?
Oh, certainly. But he was dressed in a suit and tie as he normally would be.
Q. How about the Cambodians themselves?
We had a lot of spectators that were in the soccer field and around, just watching.
Q. Nobody came over to beg to get in?
Absolutely not. We had no trouble whatsoever with people trying to get on. As a matter of fact, when the ambassador came in they had to part some of the spectators so they could come in and there was no problem.
Q. What about gunships escorting you in?
We had some fixed wing and helicopters.
Q. Were they in sight of you over the city?
Q. And you are in constant radio contact with them?
Q. No ground fire? No problem?
There was some ground fire just as we were completing the evacuation. It was anticipated that the ground fire came from somewhere across the river and they fired and hit just short of this apartment building right adjacent to the soccer field. The fire landed just a little bit short of the apartment building.
Q. Rocket or mortar fire?
We weren't really sure. It was hard to tell. We were down to the last two or three helicopters at that time. As a matter of fact, the last helicopters were, I think, just landing or had just landed, and we were loading the last troops on. All the evacuees had already gone and we were loading the marines to go back when this fire came.
Q. No return fire?
Q. Is the noise from the helicopters so loud that all orders are given as hand signals?
Some voice, most by radio to my units. And then I dealt directly as far as radio with the company commanders and the company commanders got radio communication to each one of the platoon commanders. So that puts it down to about a forty-man unit as far as the platoon was concerned. From there on you have direct contact.
Q. It was daylight. No problems like in Saigon. Did you count the men when they got back on?
Oh, yeah. Each helicopter had what you call a heli-team. There's a heliteam leader for that particular thing. It's usually tried to be broken down by squad or fire team or by platoon, whatever you are going to be able to get on the helicopter. He is responsible when they get back on the helicopter, for making sure that he gets all these people on it.
Q. So you were the last one on your helicopter. What did you see. Did you have any feelings about what you were doing, other than you were doing the job, feelings of sadness, or incredible?
Not for Cambodia. That was a little bit different situation as far as I was concerned, not having been in Cambodia and not like in Vietnam and knowing what happened in Vietnam. I really had no thoughts one way or the other, just glad that we got out without getting in a fire fight.
Q. When you go up, do the helicopters wait to go out together?
No. But it's quick enough. What you have to do there is make sure to get your troops off the ground as quickly as possible and not wind up with just a very small contingent left on the ground having to wait.
Q. How many could land at one time?
I think four landed at one time.
Q. How many were in the operation all together?
I don't know.
Q. So you flew out to the Okinawa again. The city looked peaceful?
I can't even recollect.
Q. Hot day?
No, not particularly. It was real pleasant day. I don't recall it being really hot.
Q. Back on the Okinawa, when you got off, do you celebrate? Telegrams from the President?
There was a lot of message traffic saying "Well done", and most of the message traffic was contained in the newspaper articles. But there was no celebration.
Q. So not a shot fired?
Not from us.
Q. So you come back with all the equipment you took in. Then what?
We went back to Subic Bay.
Q. How long a trip?
I can't recall. Not more than a couple of days.
Q. When you land at Subic after an operation like this, do the men get liberty?
Yes, as a matter of fact, we wound up with, right at twenty-four hours before we loaded back on board ship and headed for the coast of Vietnam.
Q. When the Midway got orders to head out, some of her crew were on liberty and they had to fly them out by helicopter, because she left without them. What about you? Did you get in touch with everybody? That was a surprise wasn't it?
Yes. The redeployment after coming back from the evacuation Eagle Pull, the redeployment came rather quickly and we had a hell of a time gathering up people. As I recall we had some people who were still on liberty and we got them by helicopter. We left pretty much with everybody. We had so much to do there wasn't that much time for liberty, because we were anticipating being there for several days and there were a lot of things that need to be done after you go on an operation like that. Equipment, weapons and everything else need to be cleaned, although we had some time on the trip back to Subic. And then getting moved in with the camp, which was what we were anticipating doing.
Q. What's the name of the camp at Subic? Does your headquarters remain on shipboard?
No, I move everything off the ship that I need just to operate in that kind of environment. I don't move all my vehicles, just what I need in order to operate. I leave some people aboard ship to watch the gear and for security.
Q. So the word comes to move to Saigon when, in the middle of the night?
It was late in the afternoon. It was several days before the 28th, a day or two after Eagle Pull. Like I say, we were only at Subic for twenty-four hours and then went back aboard ship and took off.
Q. Do you join the 7th Fleet when you head out?
Yeah, we rejoined back up with all the other ships that were on -- fifty-two or forty-two ships.
Q. Some people said it was the biggest gathering of ships they'd ever seen since the Second World War. Did you get a look at it from the sky, did it look pretty impressive?
Not really. I find it surprising that the Al ???? have time to look out and see what's going on down below when flying in.
Q. No this was the director of personnel for DAO, Henry Hicks. He said the first time he spotted it it looked like a World War II movie. The whole fleet was out there.
In a situation such as a rifle company commander, or a platoon commander, or a heli-team leader, or my situation, you got too many things on your mind and you're going over last minute details. The first thing that I have to do is get up to the helicopter pilot to make sure that we are in sync as to which helicopter team load he has and where he's supposed to go. To make sure that he knows who he has on board and where we expect to be landed.
Q. What rank are pilots?
Anywhere from Lt. Col. on down to Captain.
Q. In your training you knew which helicopter you'd be getting on and which pilot you had?
No. We didn't know. We're assigned to a particular heliteam number and then of course we know the sequence that we have to go in in order to get on the ground in the right sequence. So as the helicopters come in then that's the one you go on. They don't link up a helicopter with a heliteam ahead of time. You can't plan it down that close.
Q. Had you been into Saigon for the planning of the landing sites, or not?
No. We did go into the DAO compound at some point in time before the landing. We didn't go to the embassy, we went into the DAO compound. We knew that the DAO compound was supposedly the primary evacuation site. It was only anticipated a hundred or so people would be evacuated from the embassy. That was what was planned. Everybody was supposed to have been brought to the DAO compound with the exception of those embassy personnel.
Q. What did you find out at the DAO? Pretty good landing sites?
We didn't use Tan Son Nhut. We landed right in the middle of the compound. There weren't very many landing sites there, because the annex and the DAO compound were pretty small. Other than the buildings there wasn't that much space. So there was a couple of parking lot areas that were used. And there may have been an athletic field in between the two. That wasn't used.
Q. You did sketches of the landing site?
Q. On the 29th, the morning, you get up at 2 a.m. and get the troops ready, pass out the ammunition, get them to go to their stations? Then what?
They are ready to go, but they are assembled in what we called assembly areas, wherever it might be, on the hangar deck, or wherever. There is really not much for them to do at that point in time except to go over some last minute pre-briefings and then --
Q. The ships are moving at this time? They are not stationary at this time? Alan talked about the orders that were changed during the morning. Now you were the individual in charge of how many units going in? Or, what was your responsibility from 2:00 in the morning on?
I had responsibility for securing the annex and the DAO compound and the possibility for providing initial security over at Tan Son Nhut if we were going to use Tan Son Nhut. There was a followup battalion to me that was going to come in that had responsibility for security of Tan Son Nhut. But after we got ashore and saw that the situation was pretty calm and all, they decided not to bring the other battalion in. The other battalion was on the way in, though. They were -- I don't know if you've heard the term "feet wet" or "feet dry". When the helicopters are going in they are feet wet when over water, and as soon as they hit the land they are called "feet dry." They had just gone to feet dry when they turned them around and sent them back out to the ship and decided they did not need more ground troops.
Q. The order, there was no mixup? When noon arrived, you had been ready, and when two o'clock arrives -- you said you did not secure the troops at that time.
I was up in the ship's combat operations center because that's where the radio message traffic and all would come in, to give the word that "H hour". So that's where I was. And of course for some reason -- I really don't recall now -- but for some reason there was not much doubt in anybody's mind that that was the day that we were going in.
Q. It was getting pretty late, by noon, if you were going in, wasn't it?
Q. And you still hadn't gotten the message by noon?
No. It seemed like to me it was about one o'clock in the afternoon.
Q. How did the word arrive?
As I recall, the specific message never reached the USS Okinawa, the ship I was on, saying to land the landing force. That's the term used, "Land the land force", and that kicks everything off. If I recall correctly, we intercepted some message traffic that was going on between the Air Force Airborne Command and the Navy Command. All the high mucky-mucks. We intercepted some radio traffic with the fact that "Land the Landing Force" had been ordered. But I really don't think the USS Okinawa ever received a specific message. Then we started checking around by radio to some of the others and asking if this was the case. And then we finally got the word.
Q. The fleet commander was on the Blue Ridge?
Q. Where do you get authorization when you only intercept messages?
That's why we had to get verification.
Q. Where did it come from, the Blue Ridge?
Damned if I know. It had to come from the Blue Ridge.
Q. Was there any anxiety at this point? When communications had broken down? Had anybody already set out from any other ship? Was the communication good enough that the operation bagan simultaneously from all the ships?
It has to begin simultaneously. For this particular operation the organization that I talked about a while ago, the Marine Amphibious Unit with Colonel Roche and so forth, that organization had been broken down and we were now in what was called a Marine Amphibious Brigade with General Carey as the Brigade Commander. And then a regimental landing team, which was at that time Colonel Al Grey. Then I was one of the battalions within that regimental landing team.
So the planning level really had stepped up one higher. I spent a lot of time on the Blue Ridge in meeting with the MAB staff and everything else because of the fact that we had gone through the Phnom Penh operation and had worked out the helicopter schedule that I was talking about, helicopters coming in and picking up troops and going up and orbiting while other helicopters . . .
(((END OF SIDE A, BEGIN SIDE B)))
. . . The helicopters that had made the initial pickup of troops and had to go up an orbit and wait for the other helicopter of course had used up some fuel so it had to be worked out so that they came back down and landed aboard one of the ships at some point in time to get refueled, so that whenever all the helicopters took off for land they essentially had the same fuel load and all went at the same time.
That's a hell of a schedule to work out.
Q. How many helicopters are you talking about?
There must have been at least twenty helicopters involved in the Phnom Penh evacuation.
Q. There was no worry about the small ones refueling?
Oh , yeah.
Q. How about going in to Saigon?
I don't know. There was more than that. We had the Air Force helicopters that were involved.
Q. How many ships had helicopters take off from them?
LPHs depending on the size helicopter, I think either four or six spots. Some of the other ships have one deck spot. So you've got to utilize all your deck spots. Of course some of the helicopters would, say, come over to the Okinawa, load up troops, and go back over to one of the ships and set down and wait while others had to orbit.
Q. Getting out went without a hitch?
Q. Were there any messages coming in from the embassy or the DAO saying , "Where are you?"
Not that I'm aware of. I was too damn busy with other things. I couldn't be concerned with whether someone was concerned with whether we weren't there. I was just concerned getting my people off.
Q. No mechanical difficulties?
I think we had a helicopter or two that went down at the last minute, operationally. We always have that happen. Something is going to happen at the last minute.
Q. When you take off then and start heading inland, did you get a chance to look out? The sky must have been almost filled with helicopters going in.
Very much, yes.
Q. For a civilian is that a thrilling sight?
They said it was.
Q. Did it give you a chill at all to know that everything is set and you are going ahead?
I was very apprehensive about the Saigon operation being very effective, because I really thought it was going to be a hot situation. I didn't have that concern that much for Eagle Pull, but going into Saigon I really did not expect to go in without a good fire fight.
Q. So your order was still just Tan Son Nhut, nothing was changed on your orders?
Whatever war he was at.
Q. There's constant radion communication going in? Somebody ahead of you checking out ground fire?
Your fixed wing escort and your gunship escort is ahead of you and with you.
Q. Is there a scout plane, like a bird dog way out front too?
No by itself.
Q. Radio communication for the entire operation was in fixed wing planes circling wasn't it?
Yes. The Air Force Airborne Command.
Q. Tell me about coming in to Tan Son Nhut. Did you see the C-130 burning?
You get a quick glimpse of things on the ground, but like I said, you are more concerned with getting in to the right LZ and I never did find time to sight-see. I don't recall seeing the C-130. I recall seeing some clouds of smoke coming up from various places in the city.
Q. This is a sight landing.
He is supposed to be landing at a particular point in the landing zone. That helicopter goes to a landing site in the landing zone.
Q. You came in over Tan Son Nhut, landed, got your men out? Now what, any communication difficulties on the ground?
We had communication difficulty with the embassy. Intermittantly all through the operation. I don't recall when, but on one occasion after I sent platoons over to the embassy there was about one occasion when we were able to talk to them on the radio.
Q. Why was that?
Just your communications within a city environment. Unless you have an airborne relay.
Q. Was anybody tapping in giving false messages?
Not that I'm aware of. We were not using secure communications. We wanted everybody to know just what we were doing.
Q. When you hit the ground what did you see? A crowd?
No, because the DAO compound had people well organized. They had them inside buildings and passageways and so forth and ready to go. They were all inside buildings lined up by number of people that would go on the helicopters. They were well organized. There were no big crowds.
Q. So Carey was there ahead of you, at the DAO?
I'm not sure where Carey was. I guess he probably went in by his command helicopter some time before my people went in.
Q. So your men get out. How many?
Q. How many under your command on the ground at DAO?
All that I took in, eight hundred or so, I guess. Around the Annex and the DAO. We were expecting a fight.
Q. So you got a perimeter set up, secure the area, no problems at all.
No problems. I had two slight incidents. There was one troop that picked up a live electrical wire in one of the areas where he had his perimeter defensive position set up. He touched the live electrical wire and got a bit of a shock, burned his hand a little bit. And then I had one trooper that fell off the embassy roof. I guess at one point on the embassy roof it is two-tier. He didn't fall very far. He fell about ten feet or so, because he fell on the part where there was a lower roof and the upper roof. As I understand, he landed right on his head, but he had his helmet on. He kind of pushed his neck down into his shoulders, but he wasn't seriously hurt.
Q. You were not in charge of the men at the embassy, though, were you?
I had two of my platoons sent to the embassy. The first platoon I sent was the recon platoon. Lieutenant Mike Clough. And then later we got a request, one of the few times we were able to talk to Lt. Clough and he needed more help. So I got another platoon designated to go over to the embassy and unfortunately the platoon commander of that platoon wound up not getting over there because I was briefing him on the situation and the helicopter landed and they loaded his troops on board and the helicopter pilot said, "I can't wait." And took off without the platoon commander. It seems like to me it was Lt. Ochala that was platoon commander, but I'm not sure. He wound up not getting to go with his platoon. He had to stay there with us.
There was a staff NCO with the platoon and a lot of times when you run short of officers you have staff NCO becomes platoon commander.
Q. So you were in constant communication with the people at the embassy?
Like I say, we had real communications problem with it. So only intermittently in all that time were we able to get a hold and talk to them to know just exactly what the situation was.
Q. If they had gotten in a fire fight and needed men, could you have sent them over or would they have had to come from the fleet?
Oh, no. We could send them over. The only thing was, unfortunately, we on the ground there were not controlling the helicopters. The Air Force Airborne Command was controlling the helicopters. After that platoon went over and we were going to try to get that platoon commander over to his platoon, we couldn't get a helicopter into the DAO compound to go from the DAO compound over to the embassy. As a matter of fact, Colonel Al Grey and I, whenever we wrapped up things at the DAO compound, we wanted to go to the embassy. Of course all my troops were going back to the ship and I still had a platoon over there, but they would not give us a helicopter to go from the DAO compound to the embassy.
Q. Now in the evacuation itself, everything remained orderly?
The DAO compound, it was absolutely orderly, completely. There was no chaos. We did have some people coming up to the perimeter fence wanting to be evacuated, and I personally let two or three families in and said go ahead go in and get on the helicopters.
How in the hell can you turn them down? You have a mother and father that shows up with two or three children and they're not panicking, they're not trying to break down the fence or something, but they are begging me to be able to get on the helicopter.
Q. How did you know they were there?
I was mobile. I spent all of my time going around to all the defensive positions. I didn't sit in one place.
Q. How about the people you didn't let in?
Hundreds. Only those two busloads of people , that I'm aware came up to the DAO compound that wanted to be evacuated could not be evacuated. They got there as the last helicopter was leaving and all I had room for was the marines that were left on the ground at that time. We'd already been told by the airborne command there would be no more helicopters coming in to DAO even though we asked them, that we still had people on the ground, they would not send more helicopters in.
Q. The evacuation starts about two or three in the afternoon, and Le Gro and Vietnamese military officers are there also? Or are these all civilians? Did you notice generals going out?
No. I had too much to do in making sure that all my troops got in the right place to worry about who was going out on the helicopters. That was someone else's responsibility.
Q. As it started to get dark, you saw the crowd diminishing?
Occasionally on my rounds to the various positions that I had set up I would see them loading aboard the helicopter and what was left inside the building, but I didn't pay any attention. There were privates, generals, or what. It didn't make any difference to me.
Q. Did the night and darkness create any problems?
Well, darkness always creates a problem because of getting your LZ point. What we did was take some vehicles and turn the headlights on around the landing sites that we were using. Turn the vehicle lights on.
I want to go back to the H-hour business and all. There was a lot of confusion there. Strictly from a standpoint of interpretation, misinterpretation, lack of interpretation and a lack of understanding between the Air Force and the Marine Corps and all as to just what H-hour, L-hour and all this kind of business is concerned. L-hour can either be the time that you land or it can be the time that is the start of everything. We used L-hour as the time that everything starts. A fixed wing aircraft takes so much time to get where it's going, so much time to get ready and so forth. So everybody can't just start at the same time. It might take two hours to get a helicopter up, loaded and in to where it's going. It might only take ten minutes to get a fixed wing aircraft, so you have to have a start point, something to start from so you can base everything else on it. Some activities might have to start two hours before L hour. Some activities might have to start an hour before. Some might have to start ten minutes. Some even start after L-hour because whatever they have to do, they are not needed right at the particular time everybody lands. Everything has got to come together at the same time. The fixed wing have got to get there, the gun ships have got to get there. If you've got to have naval gunfire, whatever the case, all of that has to get there at the same time.
But there was some confusion and that's why the delay factor you talked about last night, when they said, "Where are the marines, why aren't they here?" Because of the fact that when we started, you had all this business of getting the helicopters in and loading them, going up and orbiting or going over to another ship and sitting down and then getting refueled and everything else so they all went the same time. So I guess everybody ashore expected, Oh, they just announced the marines are going to be evacuating and about ten minutes later all the helicopters would show up.
Q. That's exactly what they thought. They said three hours they lost. So H-hour would be when you gave orders for the operation to begin. L hour is when you land on the ground?
Whatever your determination is as to what was what. Yes.
Q. Then you mark the area with headlights at night. Tell me about the radio communication then in the darkness. Did anybody expect a certain ending point at DAO? Did you predict it would take until ten or eleven or twelve?
Well, you can predict based on the number of people that you have left to evacuate.
Q. Were more people showing up all the time? Did the numbers seem to increase?
Yeah. As I say, I ran into two or three groups of people that came up to the perimeter fence, but there wasn't any great hoards that I recall.
((Asks someone else: Do you recall any great hoards? Answer: No sir. I think they came in groups, five or six, because --))
Families would come. I guess they'd get the word of what was going on and would show up wanting to go.
Q. Did soldiers show up? Without their guns or with and want to go?
Yeah. I think they'd laid them down long before that.
Q. So midnight, one o'clock, two o'clock -- when did you get the order that the last helicopters would be going?
Well, once we got all the evacuees out, we knew that all I had left to get out of the DAO compound was my Marines and I knew how many helicopters it would take to get them out.
Q. You had already taken General Smith and Colonel LeGro, the Defense Attache, --
I guess they left sometime. I paid no attention to them.
Q. Did you know when the destruction of the equipment in the DAO started?
It started just before the last helicopters were to go was when they set off all the thermite.
Q. So the Marines were in charge of blowing up the DAO?
No. There was a crew that had been designated from the DAO compound. My people were not involved in that.
Q. The order to bring out your men, and then two busloads of people.
There was a gentleman that showed up. He worked somewhere there in the DAO compound. I don't know whether he had the PX or the commissary, or what, but he came over and talked to Al Grey and I and said that he had several people that had not gotten brought to the DAO compound to be evacuated. That they had been designated as people to be evacuated who had been working with the Americans and he asked if he could go get them. He said he'd commandeer a couple of buses. He was advised that yes, he could go get them, but you got to be back here before we leave. And he showed up just as the last helicopter was taking the last load of Marines. Al Grey and I were just about to get on the helicopter and he showed up with these two bus loads of people.
Q. He was American or Vietnamese?
He was an American that was in charge of either the PX or something there at the DAO. And all the people that worked for him is what he had rounded up to try to get out. They are the ones that showed up in the buses. And Al Grey and I tried to get more helicopter to come in, but the Air Force refused to send any more in. They said that would be the last helicopter that was sitting there waiting for us to get on. The last helicopter at the DAO compound.
Q. What about the guy?
He got out. He left them there on the bus.
Q. Did you see them through the windows?
Oh, yeah. They were sitting within fifty yards of the helicopter.
Q. That must have been hard.
It was kind of tough.
Q. Had the thermite been blown up yet, the grenades?
Oh, yeah. The people that were doing that were also going on the last helicopter. So that was the last thing to be done, was to set off all the thermite. It was about two o'clock in the morning.
Q. The DAO never burned down though. It just collapsed.
I never saw any pictures after that.
Q. When you went up then, the only thing you saw were those buses on the ground?
I wasn't looking back then.
Q. There was an escort still overhead waiting for you?
Oh, yeah. They still had the helicopters going into the embassy. The fixed wing and gunship support was still up in the air.
Q. At what point did somebody ask you if you brought out the bodies of those two marines?
That was after I got back aboard ship. I think that was about four o'clock in the morning that Al Grey called me and asked me if I knew anything about the two bodies, did I bring them out. Did anybody say anything to me. I said I knew absolutely nothing. I had to get a hold of our Marines on board the other ship to determine if in fact if anybody had come into the DAO compound with the bodies and turned them over to someone that we didn't know about. They did not get out of there with us.
Q. Did you have any feelings about that. Again a mixup in communications?
I don't know. We didn't have any mixup in communications. We never at any point had any instructions whatsoever, and were not even aware that the two bodies were still there. So it wasn't a mixup on our part. I was never given any instructions. Everybody, --if you read some of these articles the indications are that there was a variance of word that was being passed that the two bodies had been flown out on previous days on fixed wing aircraft.
Q. Did you know the two guys who got killed?
No. I knew their names, but they were not my men.
Q. You got back to the Okinawa, but some of your men got back to the Midway?
A lot of my men -- everybody who got an Air Force helicopter went back to the Midway because that's the only carrier that they would let the Air Force pilots land on because of the bigger deck.
Q. When the operation ended the next morning, -- you had been up all night. Then the congratulatory messages came from Secretary of State?
I was too damn busy trying to find where my other Marines were that were on the Midway. Because at some point early in the morning that next morning, after all the people were evacuated and all the people were back on ship, the first order of business was to get the evacuees transferred from ship to ship depending on where they were going to be taken to. This went on for a majority of the day. Sometime in the afternoon I was asked would there be any problem of my Marines staying on the Midway one more evening because the helicopter pilots had just about had it. They had been flying god knows how long and they would like to wait until the next morning to get my Marines over to the right ship. And I said no problem. I don't remember who the senior man was on the Midway, but I checked with him and he said they were at least half decent comfortable and provided a place aboard the ship to at least camp out, and so I passed the word back that it was fine, they'd be all right that night and be picked up in the morning and brought back.
Then, of course, during the night they took off for Thailand.
Q. Did you take a last look at Vietnam as you were coming out?
I didn't really give a damn.
Q. That's unusual don't you think? Being in an operation like that to bring out the Ambassador?
To me it wasn't a big event. To me it was losing face.
Q. You had a feeling of that at the time? Or did that come later?
I felt that at the time. You don't really have that much time to think about it. Thoughts go through your mind, you don't really know at what point you really recognize the frustration.
Q. The Okinawa went back to Subic then?
Q. Did anybody on board the ship or later start talking about what the hell had happened, or showing any animosity toward the entire episode, what the operation was doing, losing face? Any feeling of despondency?
No. Because we were damn proud of a job well done. Of course at that point in time your main concern is making sure to get all your people back, because I had a hell of a time getting a report from the people on the Midway as to who was there. Because I had a few people from each unit that were missing that were on the Midway. And Bill probably had some people on the Midway.
((Bill: Well, me and Jay Roche and two or three people. I told Jay, no you get on this helicopter and I'll be the last one out. I saw him ten days later.)))
It was a hell of a thing just getting a final report. Worrying about things like that, worrying about making sure all the damn ammunition is collected and re-stored and making damn sure that -- I guess a lot of our Marines got bounced out of their quarters by evacuees.
Q. You had evacuees on the Okinawa too, including David Butler. Did you ever see him?
When I looked at that picture and saw that he was the reporter on the Okinawa, I might have seen him --
Q. How were the evacuees on the ship? Sad?
They were all right. They were a little bit shellshocked I guess, as anybody would be. Not knowing what the next day was going to hold for you or where you were going to go.
Q. Did you fraternize, the Marines with the kids?
Oh, yeah. To some degree. Of course that was limited because you don't want that.
Q. After your tour of duty in Vietnam and seeing what it cost the Marines and all the armed services, did you have any feelings later about the last years, '73 to '75 in Vietnam? A mistake would you say? What had happened was unnecessary?
It obviously was a mistake. Whether I can say what I thought of that at the time, it obviously was a mistake as things turned out. You can't have a military operation with military people involved without any sense of direction, without any purpose. My battalion operated up in Leatherneck Square and we went into Leatherneck Square day after day after day, doing the same damn thing and not accomplishing a thing as far as I'm concerned except killing a few Viet Cong and getting a few of your own people killed. But you weren't taking real estate and holding it or anything else, because you went in one day and cleared an area and had to go back in the next day and clear that same area.
Q. Do you go down to the Vietnam Memorial?
I went once.
Q. What did you think of it?
I don't know what I thought. I guess I asked myself why, what's the significance of the Vietnam Memorial, reading of all the hullabaloo and everything else. I don't have any feeling about it one way or another.
Q. I went down there it was so sad, just seeing the names --
Look at the Korean and the Second World War.
Q. But South Korea is still there.
Korea is still there too.
Q. I guess going out in that evacuation in the end -- if we were going to do that it seems we shouldn't have gone.
Well, yeah, it's sad from the standpoint of the utter frustration, doing the evacuation and then realizing all the young Marines that had been killed. Oh yeah, sure. Every name up there was a un-necessity from the standpoint of the way things wound up.
Q. You might as well put up a sign that says these guy did their job and then a sign that points to the White House.
You can't sit within the confines of this United States and let the communists take over all the world. There's not a damn thing you can do about it as long as you sit here. If you don't go to these countries, and try to help them combat communism, the next thing you know it's going to be the shores of California and the shores of the East Coast. You've got to go help these other countries.
((End of side b. End of interview.))
Lt. GENERAL RICHARD CAREY (Telephone interview)
Q. When were you first informed of the planning for Frequent Wind and Eagle Pull? These are unusual exercises --
Well, not really. Every country that has an embassy has an "EMBVAC" contingency plan. Non-combatant emergency. Every embassy in the world has one. So this was not something that we were up to speed on. I had been the operations officer at the First Marine Aircraft Wing as early as 1967 and I knew about evacuation plans at that time. There has always been evacuation plans.
Where you really got into the details of the thing, was not until things started going to hell in a hand basket and everything started coming unglued. Then we kind of swung into action. The first part of March.
Q. It must have been of great concern that things were happening in two places at the same time, Cambodia and Vietnam --
That's right. We'd had what we called the "ARG" down off of Cambodia for some time preparing to evacuate Phnom Penh. Amphibious Rescue Group=ARG. That had been down there as early as the time that I was the operations officer--see, I was the operations officer at F and F PAC at Hawaii before I went out to the First Marine Aircraft Wing. I was what they called the D3.
Q. Were there preliminary practice runs in the Philippines, or Australia or anyplace for operations like this, for your group specifically?
No, we didn't have the benefit of that. It would have been nice if we had been able to run one, but--you see, the way the whole thing was put together, it was kind of put together on an ad hoc basis, because most of your NEMVAC plans, non combatant emergency evacuation plans, are usually designed at the most at a battalion level -- at a MAU, a Marine Amphibious Unit level which includes a battalion and a helicopter squadron. And the idea of that is that you go in under non-combatant emergency evacuation conditions with minimal security, up to a battalion, and then you pull the people out before all the shooting and everything comes unglued.
Now we've done a couple of those. We did one in Beirut. As recently as some time before the terrorist bombing of the marines.
Q. At what level is the operation commander? Is it you?
You start at the Washington level. There, in this particular case, the person that was really running the show was Henry Kissinger. He was doing that through the National Security Advisor, General Scowcroft. That's kind of where you go. We're probably going to have to eventually get out of Vietnam, so start making plans on how we're going to get out in the last days, what procedures we're going to do and start making your plans and devising your forces.
From there then it goes to the JCS and the JCS will dispense that same word with a general concept probably out to the area commander which in this case was CINCPAC. At that time that was Admiral Gayler. He writes kind of a broad general plan and sends that on forward to his subordinates who in the case now was the Defense Attache Office in Saigon and also the USAID, United States supported advisory group in Thailand, who was General Burns.
Q. Who was in charge in Phnom Penh?
The people that were in charge in Phnom Penh, they put a special group in, down through the same chain, from F and F PAC??? People came through from the Three Ma..???? I wish I could tell you where that guy'd been so you could understand all this. But you're stepping down. In other words you are going from Washington, to CINCPAC, to MACV or the local embassy in the State Department channel, and in the Navy part of it, in WESTPAC, is F and F PAC, who under them have the 3 MAV. That's the marines that were in the immediate area out there, Okinawa.
These marines, there was a team that went into Phnom Penh early on and worked with the embassy, the ambassador there, on the plans to evacuate Phnom Penh. At the same time they were there, the 3 MAV also sent down off of the southern coast of Cambodia, they kept an ARG--Amphibious Ready Group--which consisted of a Marine Amphibious Unit and which was later reinforced with four heavy lift helicopters. They were dispatched out of my organization, as augmentation to that unit.
When Phnom Penh took place, I was sitting in the Seventh Fleet Amphibious Ready Group with the admiral there who really had charge of all the amphibious ships in Southwest and Southeast Asia, and under him was this ARG that was floating off of Cambodia. That was part of his forces.
So there were marines in that part of the force, and I was superimposed into this commander Amphibious Task Force unit as the Marine commander. Now you have over off of Cambodia, what you really have is a unit that is off of Vung Tau there by Saigon which consisted of a commander of the amphibious task force and I'm on his ship as the commander of the landing force. He has subordinate forces in an ARG which is off of Cambodia. In that ARG is a Marine Amphibious Unit, helicopter, and we dispatched additional helicopters off of an aircraft carrier, with an aircraft carrier to go down there to help that ARG so they would have enough aircraft to do the operation in one move.
Q. When the word comes to begin Eagle Pull, what about reinforcements? What if there had been problems with it? Would reinforcements have had to come all athe way from the Seventh Fleet off Vung Tau?
Yeah, that's the way they would have had to have gone.
Q. You were ready for that all the time, weren't you?
Yeah, we were ready for that. We pretty well knew -- Phnom Penh was much better organized. We knew ahead of time that it was going to go by a certain date. It was much more organized.
Q. Had you gone into Phnom Penh yourself?
No, I did not go into Phnom Penh. I stayed at Vung Tau and helped make the final decision. They had brought a heavy helicopter squadron into Hawaii. Marine Heavy Helicopter Squadron 463, Lt. Col. Herb Fixx was the CO of that. And they were on the Hancock and they dropped me off at Vung Tau and then they took off and went over to Phnom Penh off of southern Camabodia to augment that amphibious ready group that was out there already with a heavy lift helicopter squadron. So we had two squadrons over there.
Q. Having the experience and investment you'd had in Vietnam what kind of emotions crossed your mind when involved in a strange situation like this? Obviously when on your tours in Vietnam you certainly hadn't dreamed you'd be coming back to pull out the last Americans.
Well, of course it was something we never thought would happen. I never thought for example, that the United States government after the costly experience that we'd been through. They had pumped literally billions of dollars into Vietnam and had over fifty-eight thousand Americans killed and spent so much time, money and effort and life in building up that country and that country's forces, would suddenly decide to abandon it and give it up. So that part of it never crossed my mind. So I guess more than anything else initially it was disbelief, that it wasn't going to happen. We thought right up until the last, for example, that Congress would come through with the support, moral, more than anything else, that Vietnam needed and the whole thing would turn around. We were thinking right up to the last minute that the thing would probably turn around. I would say up until the time that we saw what happened in Da Nang. That came apart and we knew that we were on the final stages. We'd kind of resigned ourselves to the fact that it was going to happen, and we really swung into high gear, making certain that we would be as ready as we could.
Q. You didn't believe that B-52s might have come in and simply stabilized the situation?
We did at first. After Da Nang, of course it was about that time that we came through -- we were getting good indications that Congress was not going to continue to give support.
Q. The civilian traffic in the South China Sea. Did you have contingency plans for the clogging up of the rivers by the civilian traffic and in the South China Sea? Was there any possibility that they could have screwed up the operation?
Oh, yes, absolutely. Of course, fortunately, the United States Navy did a heck of a job. They obviously have had good training in handling that type of a chaotic situation. They had good lessons on that. The same type of thing happened at Dunkirk and they study all those. They pretty well knew some of that chaotic things that would happen and did a hell of a fine job. They were able to flex when they had to and to change plans. I would say that they performed magnificently.
Q. It seems everybody did on the American side in the evacuation. I hear the Marines talk about the Air Force helicopter pilots and the Marine helicopter pilots and everyone is praising everyone else.
What happened is that probably everybody had the same feelings that I did, that I was really somewhat embarrassed about the whole thing. I was embarrassed with the United States government and the fact that we had brought up a country so to speak and now were abandoning it. And we wanted to leave with as much honor as we could. Everybody wanted to do the very best job they could.
Plus, one thing that you brought up to me, that I wasn't aware of, the fact that we had carte blanche to get out of there without hostile action.
Q. I just wonder what that all means. Perhaps we didn't trust the agreement --
Always, of course, when you get into that type of an operation, you always are prepared for the worst. In other words that's the way you have to do it.
Q. Obviously the only reason we were there was because the Paris Agreement didn't work in the first place. I don't know why we would put more credibility in the next agreement.
That's exactly right. And as it turned out, they say that we got out without having harassment, but it certainly wasn't imagination that drove my Marines off the roof down at the Defense Attache Compound, the gunfire. It wasn't my imagination the shells that were falling im our compound and there were aircraft that were shot at. So there was, but I think that most of that was really at a local level, a lack of the same thing that we had. Word didn't get down to us.
Q. Some of the Marines told me they're not sure who was firing, whether it was south or north Vietnamese. Had you gone in then to Saigon to survey the Embassy and the other areas?
No, I got down there -- and of course the evacuation of Phnom Penh, as I recall, was about the 13th. I had arrived just prior to that. As a matter of fact, I arrived and that night is when we made the decision that we were ready, that all of our crews were qualified to go in there. There was a little bit of a question on that, about the crews that came through from Hawaii, only because Don Wittmeyer ??? who was the Admiral, who was the commander of the amphibious task force, had not had these people under his command and he wanted somebody to verify the fact that they were combat ready, which I did. Then the result of that, he felt he had enough forces and he gave the go-ahead. They said "Are you ready to execute?" and he said, "Yes, we are." And then that word flowed back the other way back to Washington apparently and they then reversed it and sent it back to the Ambassador in Phnom Penh who asked for evacuation. Then the thing went. From that time on, after that was completed, and we got those people in and joined up, the people that did the Phnom Penh evacuation joined up with my organization and we debriefed with them, and from that time on, almost on a daily basis we were in and out of Saigon.
Q. Were you staying for a series of days, or did you come back to your headquarters?
No, I had to come back each night because we were not allowed to stay overnight.
Q. Why was that?
The Peace Accords. We were still abiding by that. I did not go into Saigon in military uniform. I went in in civilian clothes.
See, the word simply was not filtering down to us and we were abiding by the Accords with the desire of the Ambassador. Graham Martin wanted to comply with all the Peace Accords and everything in order to keep as much peace in the family, to show that we were trying to cooperate.
Q. When you went into Saigon to look over the situation, what did you find?
To tell you the truth I was kind of shocked because it was "business as usual" as far as I was concerned. In other words what I saw, it was obvious that we were winding this thing down and that we needed to swing into high gear to get things ready. Things were still having daily briefings on intelligence situations like they were still running the big war and there was not evidence except for a few isolated groups, of major concern about evacuation. And that kind of shocked me, because I thought they would have things pretty well lined up. We tried to get lists of people that would be evacuated and places that we would evacuate them from. We had to really dig that out.
Q. Did you ask anybody about this?
Yeah, a few people and the Ambassador.
Q. Did you get the feeling he was on top of things or out of touch?
I thought frankly, that he was out of touch.
Q. Overworked, or too optimistic?
I think, you probably know that he had been out of country. He had been trying to convince the people back in Washington not to give up on this thing, and so he came back to a situation that had deteriorated a great deal and he was still in the process of trying to catch up on just where everything was. If you tie this to his overall attitude that we are not going to give up, right up to the last minute he was saying he wasn't going to leave, he was going to stay.
Q. He had several military men around him, George Jacobson for example, and Ken Morefield, an ex-marine. Were these people of the same attitude or was there a good deal --
No, they were of the attitude that, they were trying to prepare. A lot of the things that they were doing was on a low-key because they didn't want to get the Ambassador -- now the impression that I got and I'm only giving you my opinion -- that the Ambassador would have been somewhat bent out of shape if he had known how diligently they were preparing for this. I think he probably told them to get things ready, but it was not with the idea that it really was going to happen eventually. I think he believed right up to the last minute that everythng was going to change.
Q. Was Polgar and the CIA on top of what was happening? Or were they ready to leave also? Embassy people said they felt the CIA put too much faith in the Hungarians and there would be a political settlement.
Yeah, I got that impression myself from Polgar. He was more concerned about equipment. He really did not pay much attention to us. And that's what makes me agree with that analysis, that he really didn't think it was going to happen. He was of the opinion that this thing was not as bad it appeared.
Q. What about the Vietnamese officers you talked to? You must have had some type of high level coordination for security with the commander of MR-3?
No, we didn't because the briefing that we received was that we could possibly expect some resistance from South Vietnamese because we were abandoning them. So we did a lot of our coordination-- we certainly didn't go to them and say we're here for the final evacuation. And we kind of also did that at the behest as it came down to us, from the ambassador through the DAO that this would be an American operation and we should plan it as such. That's the was a NMVAC is usually looked at, from the standpoint that you don't know what is going to happen and you'd better be able to handle the situation all by yourself. That's the way we approached it.
Q. I suppose the most dangerous element turning on us would have been the Vietnamese air force. Were they a particular problem or concern or was everybody a concern.
They weren't really a concern from my standpoint because --when I say they were not a concern, I thought we had the situation covered should it develop-- it was a concern obviously. You make plans for just that eventuality happening. But that air force was so cooperative and you have to remember also we had two attack carriers with us, and we had overhead cover from well before the evacuation actually started until well after it was completed. There were our fighter aircraft and attack aircraft on station all the time, and we were confident that had the South Vietnamese turned on us that they could have been handled very nicely with what we had on hand.
Q. Some of the Vietnamese Air Force officers told me their families had been evacuated earlier, among the first families, and they told me that now some of them are kind of bitter. They believe it wasn't because the United States was concerned about their families and their safety, but they think their families were--and this is my word--hostages. They said the best way to make sure the Air Force did not turn on the Americans when they were evacuating was to take the families of the officers out to Clark Field, or Guam. Had you ever heard that story before?
No, I hadn't heard that. The thing that I observed in the time that I was there, and I was fairly close to it for about sixteen days there, when they were evacuating as rapidly as they could, that they were trying to get as many friendlies out as possible. They didn't discriminate on whether it was an officer's family. They talked about friendly to Americans and I certainly, if there had been such a perception, I think it was only on the part of those Vietnamese officers. I think that's a natural feeling.
Your family gets aout and the Americans have your family, so if you don't perform you may never see your family again. I can't imagine going to some person like a Vietnamese air force guy and saying, "Now, I've got your familiy evacuated, and if you don't perform, something's going to happen to your family."
Q. I think they drew this conclusion about ten years after the event.
I think it was probably and there's a lot of bitterness on their part and that is a part of what I was saying before when I said I felt a bit of embarrassment over what was happening because I felt we were abandoning friends. And I had fought with the Vietnamese before and some of them were damn good soldiers. It's kind of like you're giving up on a friend and that's an embarrassing situation.
Q. The tree in the embassy yard--do you remember having any concern about that?
I talked to the Ambassador about it as a matter of fact, very early on. I said, "I hate to cloud the issue with a bunch of details, but there are things that you have to seriously consider." If you are going to evacuate out of the embassy we've got to make some preparations that shouldn't be done at the last minute.
((((End of side A. Begin side b.))
. . . So I said, "Okay, but that tree that's in the courtyard, for example, that's the only place we're going to be able to land and up on the roof." And I went up on the roof and took a look at that. I said those are the only two places we're going to land, and if we have to come in down there we've got to get that thing down early. As a matter of fact, when we saw that we were going to have to get out of there, one of my first questions was what's happened to the tree in the courtyard. It was a monstrous tree and it took up all the space and there was just no way you could land a helicopter. It had to come down.
We had a lot of preparation we had to go through in the DAO compound. We had to take down fence, antennas, clean the parking lot out, and we had to cut down some trees.
Q. Insofar as the destruction of classified materials, you guys don't have any responsibility for that, do you? These people were supposed to destroy their own files, weren't they?
Everybody in the Defense Attache Office were supposed to have destroyed their files. For all practical purposes, most of that either was done or was well under way when we went in. They did a lot of that, including the business on the money.
Q. Were you concerned at all about the weather as the days passed and April passes?
Absolutely, because that time of the year you've got to be concerned about typhoons in the Far East and I watched the weather like a hawk because if you are going to do a helicopter evacuation and you have a lot of coordination involved where you have fixed wing aircraft overhead and you have a control C-130 overhead and you have helicopters going in and out, and so on, the weather has to be fairly good. Lo and behold, as we started coming down to the wire, up jumps the devil. It was bad weather and we thought we were going to have a typhoon come through there. That really would have thrown a monkey wrench in.
Q. The evacuation of President Thieu and Chief of Staff, Cao Van Vien. That was all CIA wasn't it?
We weren't involved in that.
Q. On the night of the 28th, were you on the Blue Ridge.
Q. I understood they got the Marines up at midnight and got them all set and would have them ready each day from midnight until noon.
We went through a whole series of alerts. They would put us on thirty minute alert. This went on for several days. So we had a couple days where people were put on alert as early--or as late--as midnight and kept on alert until six o'clock in the morning and so on. Then things would quiet down and they'd say okay, fall back to the four-hour alert. So it was on again, off again. That's what was happening and it kept things pretty much disrupted and there wasn't much sleep to be gotten.
Q. In the briefings that you were giving, you expected when operation Frequent Wind was ordered, you expected it to be completed in a certain number of hours, did you not? With a certain number of "sorties"?
We had several contingencies which we were told that would occur. We knew that we had somewhere, and I was still looking for figures and never did get them until it was finally all over, but we had something around two thousand Americans to evacuate. And probably a like number or maybe a little bit less of selected Vietnamese. So we planned our sorties accordingly and figured if everything went right that we would probably be able to do it in about eight hours if we started early in the morning.
Q. You expected to start early in the morning, did you?
We expected to start early in the morning, and expected it to be a lot more orderly than it was.
Q. Now we come to a real problem with a lot of people. The order for Frequent Wind, there seems to be a time problem here. How did that work? I know George Jacobson told me that there was a two or three hour wait for the operation to begin. He said had they begun when they were supposed to begin then the last helicopters could have gotten the last people out of the embassy.
Nobody seems to know where the problem was. Was it time zones?
The only thing that I know, our order to execute -- and we were not to move until we got the order to execute -- didn't get through to us until about a quarter til twelve. Had that come earlier we could have gone earlier. Now when we got the order to execute, I moved out almost immediately. I was airborne within an hour. I went directly into the DAO because that was the plan.
The plan was that the evacuation would be conducted from the DAO compound, that the ambassador would come over to us from the embassy. When I landed at the DAO compound that was the first time that I knew that there were massive amounts of people in the embassy to be evacuated. The plan was that we'd have one helicopter go over there and pick up the ambassador and the marines and bring them over to the DAO or maybe fly directly out to the ship, but that was it.
Q. Were you surprised by the destruction at Tan Son Nhut when you came in then?
Yes and no. I had been out to Vietnam a couple times and of course being an aviator I would have expected that's what they would have done to try to disrupt the evacuation, that they would have caused a lot of chaos, done a lot of things at the airport. I was concerned that we'd be able to get the job done and was pleasantly surprised when we got to the DAO and everything was pretty much intact. Things were pretty much ready to go.
Q. The ambassador had just been to the DAO before you got there. He talked to Scowcroft on the phone before F.W. was ordered and then returned to the embassy that morning. How did you find out there was a crowd at the embassy, just by telephone?
After I landed I telephoned the embassy and it was at that time that I found out that they had -- they told me two thousand people -- and I said, "Holy Smokes."
Q. What do you do at that point?
I said, "Okay. The first thing we've got to do is change our plans and divert as many aircraft into the embassy as we can and start taking care of that problem." The way this thing kind of worked, when the aircraft were inbound from the task force at sea, they checked in with the airborne command post overhead and they sent them to different pick-off points where they would either go into the embassy or they would go into the DAO. Again it was originally all planned to go into the DAO, so everything was based upon that. So when we went into the embassy, it was kind of a make shift thing. One of those things that happen in combat. You've got a situation that's developed and now you've got to adjust and take care of it.
When they originally took off, they had two routes they used. They had a route they came in and a route they came out and these were all patrolled and all covered with fixed wing aircraft and we had attack helicopters along this route and we had rescue aircraft and SAR aircraft all along this route so if somebody went down we would be able to get them out. Now you throw in the problem of the embassy and you have a whole new ball game.
First of all the embassy is not close to the DAO. The embassy is in downtown Saigon.
Q. Was the embassy marked with smoke or something?
The embassy was not marked with smoke, but many of the pilots were led into the embassy. The group commander was flying in an aircraft, an observation type aircraft, a Huey, and he was leading a great number of those pilots who had not been into the embassy before.
Q. Landing at the embassy is extremely difficult, is it not? In the parking lot and on the roof? The 46's could land on the roof but the big ones had to land in the parking lot?
The fifty-three's were too big to land on the roof. Their foot pressure was too heavy to land up there.
Q. When did you go over to the embassy to coordinate stuff there?
I did not go to the embassy. There was a reason I did not go. I went in to the DAO compound and I got in there around two o'clock, by the time I flew in and everything. I got that going and stayed there until about ten o'clock. When the helicopters suddenly stopped we were just about through at the DAO compound and then I was going to go over to the embassy. And suddenly the helicopters all stopped. I couldn't find out from anybody why the helicopters stopped. So my immediate concern was to try to determine what was going on and to try to get back to the ship to see why they had stopped. I was also concerned that at the last minute--recall, we didn't know when all hell was going to break loose. I was concerned also that I needed to be in a position, not necessarily in the embassy, should the thing at the embassy suddenly deteriorate down to where we had to do a combat evacuation there. And I made contingency plans since the embassy was now a major concern, I was going to make contingency plans on how I was going to land on the soccer field and move over to the embassy, move the people from the embassy to the soccer field, fighting if necessary to do it, and then evacuating from there.
So I had two concerns, the fact that the helicopters had stopped flying into the embassy, and the fact that we were now needing to be very concerned about the last minutes, what was going to happen and that we may have to go in and fight the way out. So I went to the seat of the problem and found that the helicopters had been stopped for a crew rest and that was a decision by the admiral.
Q. What time was that now?
I didn't get back aboard ship, another hooker came up, I jumped on a aircraft to go back, and they landed me on the Midway, not on the Blue Ridge. I was riding in the back on a troop helicopter with a bunch of evacuees -- well a bunch of marines in it, some of the marines going out of the DAO, since all the civilians were evacuated out of the DAO. This was ten o'clock or so at night. I landed on the Midway and I now had to get an aircraft over to get me back to the Blue Ridge. That took me another hour.
When I arrived back at the Blue Ridge I found that the helicopters had all been stopped for crew rest. Some of the pilots had now been flying ten hours or so, flying into bad weather and all the trauma that was going on, so there was concern on the part of the people on the Navy ships that there would be a catastrophic accident caused by fatigue of the pilots. So when I got back I said "We don't have any more pilots and we still got people in there that we have to get out and get them moving again." And I got them moving.
Q. There were a couple of casualties, one was a helicopter that couldn't land so it ditched in the sea and the pilot was lost?
Q. When did that take place?
They were all at night. We lost two out there. One of them was a SAR aircraft, a search and rescue helicopters that I had flying in case another helicopter with evacuees went down we'd have some way to save them. An SAR helicopter went down. That particularly aircraft flew into the water. Again, recognize that it was night and the weather was pretty bad, periodic rain squalls.
Q. Were you in telephone contact with the embassy then after you went back on the Blue Ridge?
No, not telephone. Radio contact as much as we could. The problem again, you have problems at night. We really weren't talking directly with the embassy. We were talking through either other helicopters or through the airborn command post, the C-130 flying over, but it got so bad after a while that we finally got the word to the ambassador. We sent it by an aircraft commander who physically went down, landed on the rooftop, Captain Berry, who was given specific instructions by me to deliver to the ambassador the message that he was to be on his helicopter. That was an order that came down from Washington.
Q. That was from Ford by way of Scowcroft, or Kissinger, out to CINCPAC --
We were concerned -- again, from the very beginning, the Ambassador was giving everybody the impression that he wasn't going to come out. As a matter of fact, he told me that in the last hours, he may even go over to the French embassy which was connected to the American embassy.
Q. What did you think of that?
I thought it was kind of nutty. I don't know what he would have expected to do. He'd have been an ambassador without portfolio. Again, I kind of overlooked some of that, because of his emotional attachment to Vietnam. ??? He lost his son there???? and he was emotionally tied to the country. I figured that maybe at the last minute he'd just abandon the fact that he was an ambassador and go over to the French embassy and stay on and try to do whatever he could. He was extremely dedicated.
Q. When the word came down to pick up the Ambassador, I heard he had a code word for saying the Ambassador was on board and he was air born.
It was "Tiger, tiger, tiger."
Q. Someone else told me the marines made that up because it sounds dramatic.
There were still 424 people in the embassy. You were aware of that with the marines there? Or were the people on the Blue Ridge aware of the number?
A. No, we were not, as a matter of fact. We were not aware there were still people in there. When we got down to the final moments, I was now back aboard the Blue Ridge, we were concerned about getting the marines out of there, the last people, knowing full well that the helicopters were now reporting seeing North Vietnamese all around the area and in the towers next door. Reported receiving fire, going into the rooftop, so we figured that things were going to get pretty hot. So this was being reported back to Washington and Washington came back and said -- and they apparently wanted to get it closed down. Now some of the things that you've told me may have had an effect on that, the timing, the cease fire so to speak, where they're not going to take us under fire. But the concern was to get those folks out. So they said, how many people do you have remaining in the embassy?
Well, we radioed this over to the embassy and asked them how many people they had left and they gave us a specific number. As I recall at that time, seven hundred people, so we said, all right we would compute that. And we computed that to a set number of aircraft that we would fly in. And we planned that many sorties. And as it so happened, the last sortie would, if those numbers had been correct, would have been adequate to have gotten everybody out. As it turns out they gave us a bad figure. Again, as it further turns out, in the last half hour or so, we did not receive any word back aboard ship. We were not able to talk to anybody. Everything was just kind of being done -- dispatching an aircraft in there and saying, "You're going to be the last aircraft. Be certain you have all the marines on your aircraft when you come out." That was again, Berry.
So there was a loss of communication there that caused that. That's really what happened in that instance. It was not an intentional abandonment of those people.
In the last minutes, the instructions given the marines, and I relayed these instructions, that if you have people that are trying to come aboard who are not supposed to come aboard -- in other words, we thought that the marines had now pulled back and that now people were coming over the wall that we were not really supposed to evacuate. Now you had chaos. My concern was that you would have people who had not been programmed by the embassy or anybody else to come out, people who were in a state of panic who would prevent our last marines and our last people from getting out. So I instructed them that as they pulled back and into the embassy that they would close and bar all the gates, close these iron folding gates on each floor and make their way to the rooftop and if you need to, use tear gas to hold them back until you get out. But that was only with the idea that the people that we were talking about were not people originally intended to be evacuated. We thought we had them all. That's where the disconnect is, part of it. And that's the unfortunate part, that where the problem really developed was when we asked them how many people--the problem really developed in that we didn't have straight line communication. Everything was done by relay. And when we asked them how many people they had left, that's the figure we worked with. We depended upon them to give us the correct figure. Apparently what they did was let more people in, or miscounted, or something, and never corrected that.
Right up to the last minute we were under the impression that we had gotten out all the people that were supposed to be evacuated and those people that were trying to break in or people that were still in the courtyard were people that were not to be evacuated.
Q. Did they use the tear gas in the stairwell?
They had to use it to hold them back. Obviously, and it's unfortunate, and this is something that had distressed me and distresses me every time I think about it, there were people there that we were supposed to have evacuated that we were holding back, people that were friendlies. Some of the people were people that worked in the fire stations and we didn't know that. And some Koreans.
Q. When did you learn that those were supposed to be evacuated?
We didn't learn it really until several days later when the after action reports -- apparently American correspondents that stayed in got the word back and the word filtered down to us via the press and other ways. We thought we'd gotten everybody out.
Q. Something else was left behind. Somebody was responsible for bringing out the bodies of the two marines killed at Tan Son Nhut. And they were left. How did that happen?
They were taken -- that occurred early in the morning. The marines that were sent in to Saigon, a platoon, under the direct control of the Defense Attache and the embassy itself. When they were killed we were told that they were taken over to the Seventh Day Adventist Hospital and from there would be evacuated that morning. So we were under the impression that they were already out. We did not find out about that until we were back aboard ship. They had not been taken out and they were still there. A minor breakdown in communications, unfortunately, and that's what happens in an operation -- the unfortunate part of all this is that we had solid chain of command on our side, but we didn't know who was in charge on the embassy side. The ambassador never relinquished that control. That control was supposed to have been given, as soon as the evacuation started, to General Homer Smith, the ranking military guy in there. That control was supposed to have switched over to him. It did not. The ambassador never really relinquished that control. That's what kind of kept things in a state of confusion. He was trying to run it right up to the time he got out.
Q. Was there a code word used when those last marines were lifted off?
Again I think they used "Tiger".
Q. What was your feeling on the Blue Ridge when -- I suppose you don't have a feeling of relief until the last helicopter is over the water. Or is it when it actually touches down. What feeling did you have?
Extreme relief, believe me. My major concern, obviously, was to get everybody out. In particular the Americans. When I knew that the last Americans were out, or at least we were told that the last Americans were out, the feeling was of great relief that we had successfully completed the mission. Then all these little things, like the two bodies of the marines that did not get out, and the fact that we left the Koreans there and the fact we left some of the friendly Vietnamese embassy people there, then it was a feeling of extreme disappointment.
Q. On an operation like that I know some of the marines told me that there was a feeling of pride of a job well done, but on the other hand, it's a strange feeling of pride because it's a strange job to do well. Like pulling off a successful retreat.
I was involved in the evacuation out of the reservoir in Korea. I was one of those marines and I kind of had the same feeling. It was something that was not characteristic of what marines do and my feeling was that yes, we had done a good job, but we had done a good job in defeat. That's not something that you are extremely proud of. I was proud of the fact that our people performed well, but as far as the total American effort, I wasn't that proud of it. Again I was disappointed in what was happening.
Q. Did you talk to Martin or anyone on the Blue Ridge in the next couple days?
I talked to Martin. I was able to talk to him. Of course he was kind of in a state of shock. He was not well. He really didn't want to see anybody. I did go up to his stateroom and talk to him and he thanked me profusely and so on, but that's basically all we did, had a very brief contact. I haven't seen him to this day.
Q. Did you talk to General Ky at all?
Q. Did you take a last look at Vietnam as you were going out? Did you see any fires around? Was there any sense that this was the last time you would see the place?
No. The chopper that I was in flew right over Vung Tau. Saigon had a lot of fires and a lot of smoke and a lot of fighting and so on. There was a lot of artillery when I left. I've been in combat quite a few times and I've seen a lot of that. It's pretty dramatic at night. You had the lightening and the rain and everything. It was something that stays in your memory.
Then as we flew over Vung Tau they were shooting at us, a lot of green tracers. It was a real feeling of nostalgia. That was my third time in there.
Q. It must have been a strange feeling coming out in a helicopter load of refugees.
As I recall, I came out with a group of marines from the Defense Attache Compound. The refugees had been evacuated out of DAO compound.
Q. On the days after that, picking up more refugees, and the next morning all the Vietnamese helicopters came out from somewhere --
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. . . I remember early in the morning I was down and still planning and briefing and that sort of thing and heard this horrendous noise and it was a helicopter that had flown into the side of the Blue Ridge trying to land on it. And they were ditching helicopters all around us. Part of the problem during the evacuation and one of the reasons that we lost a Cobra helicopter from fuel exhaustion, because the decks were all fouled with Vietnamese helicopters. They were landing every place, all during the evacuation, and before the evacuation, during the evacuation and after the evacuation. There was a lot of chaos.
Q. When the Seventh Fleet began to leave that area, did you reflect at all on the events. Did you see it as a chapter closing?
Yes, I did. I had a feeling that a very important chapter in my life had closed, because this was the third time that I'd been there. I'd been there when it first started and I'd been there at the height until America was exiting and I felt kind of in disgrace. So it was a sad thing to see. ....((Noise on tape overriding voice . . ctr 22))
. . . the Vietnamese that were in there, how they had oftentimes dedicated their lives and everything.
Q. When you got back to the United States, and your last days in the Marine Corps, were you surprised at how little the American public, particularly youngsters, knew about Vietnam.
I told you, thin, I was on Good Morning America on the 30th and that was one of the major points that Henry Kissinger made. The fact that probably 70 percent of young Americans today don't even know what side we fought on. They really don't know that stuff. America wants to forget, so they haven't really schooled the children on it. It's unfortunate because there's so many lessons to learn from it and so many fine things that were done by Americans.
Many heroic acts as you'd find in any war and soldiers, marines and sailors fighting under very difficult conditions and doing a pretty spectacular job, and really didn't have that much support at home. They would come back to the United States and people would say where are you from?, and they'd say they'd come back from Vietnam, and "Oh, really?" and that was it. Not much conversation about it or anything. Most of us had feelings at times of disgust at the attitude of the American Congress. Obviously everybody wasn't that way. Most people dismissed the effort ??? and talked down to us. I had a little old lady in San Francisco when I was going out to Vietnam in 1967, followed me down the street calling me "killer". It was a bad experience.
Q. Have you visited the Vietnam Memorial?
Yes, I have.
Q. Were you at the dedication?
Q. Did you have any singular feeling?
I had a lot of friends. OBviously I felt remorse over the fact that did they die for a cause that was worth it? That's what you think about most, plus the fact they're dead. The were fighting there for a real purpose, were very dedicated and did the best job they could do. Everybody I knew felt that way.
Obviously when you are in a war zone and under constant threat to your life and the lives of your friends you want it to get over as quickly as possible. While you were there it was a matter of looking forward to getting out of there, because while you were there you did the very best job you could and dieing was part of the game and you had to accept it. I feel that I would have gone back again and again as many time as I had to because I felt it was a just cause, and you get fairly close to Vietnamese. A lot of dedicated soldiers and did a lot of good fighting. You had a lot of respect for them.
I guess more than anything else it was remorse mixed with disgust at how the American public acted and abandoned people who were really friends without just cause.
Q. Over your years in Vietnam were you more please or displease with what the press was reporting on the war. Or did you have no difficulties with them?
I was upset with the press. The first time I was there, as a major, and the second time I was there as a senior Lt. Colonel and the third time I was there I was a brigadier general. So I had different outlooks. I looked at it from different perspectives. And I always felt the press was relatively unfair to the American part because they didn't show the good things the Americans did and all they showed was the blood and the terror and the havoc that the Americans . . .. I felt the press, a large part of it, was on the wrong side. I think they were doing it more just to sell newspapers than anything else. Great copy for selling it, but it really wasn't happening. And really almost as if they were trying to not report the news but to make the news. . . . . There are a lot of good newspaper people, a lot who are dedicated, but the bad ones sure spoiled it.
I guess I had the same concern and feelings as most Americans. A lot of the trauma we suffered at home, that we weren't in a just war or a just fight was because of that.
U.S. Marines hit the deck of the USS Blue Ridge to dodge flying metal from a South Vietnamese helicopter that crashed on the deck of the ship, April 29, 1975. One pilot had dropped his helicopter on the blade of another that had just landed, and chunks of metal ripped through the air. The top helicopter, with its load of women and children, nearly toppled into the sea, but they were rescued and there were no injuries.
End of interview.