Saturday, March 2, 2013

A Mouthful of Ashes: Kevin Maloney's Vietnam


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.

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