Saturday, March 2, 2013
Putting Out the Fire: Jim Kean's Vietnam
Putting Out the Fire:
Jim Kean Remembers America's Final Moments in Vietnam
March 9, 1988
James Hamilton Kean, a retired Lieutenant Colonel in the Marine Corps who was instrumental in the evacuation of Saigon at the end of the Vietnam War, died suddenly on May 5, 2008. He was 66 years old.
Juan Valdez. Master Gunnery Sgt. Juan Jose Valdez was the last Marine to board the last helicopter to leave the roof of the U.S. Embassy two hours before Saigon surrendered on April 30, 1975. He almost didn't make it.
"The chopper was just getting off the roof, and I stepped off and I slipped," said Valdez, now retired after 30 years in the Marine Corps and living in a peaceful neighborhood of this San Diego suburb. "And two guys I didn't know grabbed me and dragged me in."
Marine at the DAO April 29, 1975
Cpl. Charles McMahon
Lance Cpl. Darwin Judge
Sgt. Bobby Frain. "Hey, Major, they want to know what kind of pizza you want in Manila!"
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. And I saw pictures of him 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 May 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 a sort of area that was comprised of a village market center and then lots of little hamlets that were out at the ends of roads that were like spokes leading out to the into the hub of the wheel. In the village market center the oldest and wisest man present 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. 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.
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 be 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 formal growth as an officer. 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. 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 Kanes'." I spent the nightin the can and got to meet the Chief of Staff of the entire fucking Marine Corps the nextmorning. 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 arrangments 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. 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 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. 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 touchedme 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 tofight 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 Hoan 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.
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 sabre 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 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 boys off to die. Always the nineteen year olds. That's the tragedy.
And so the President needs to be counseled when he starts talking jingoism and when he 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.
You 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.
He is survived by Rosanne Elizabeth Kean, his wife of 43 years, of Cummaquid, MA; his four children – Paige Gilbert of San Francisco, Mike Kean and Pamela Kean of Seattle, WA and Ryan Kean of Los Angeles, and his two beloved grandchildren, Benjamin and Charlotte.
Lt. Col. Kean was born on June 30, 1941 in Pittsburgh, PA. He joined the Marine Corps in 1961 and served two tours of duty in Vietnam earning numerous citations including two bronze stars and two purple hearts.
His first tour of duty in Vietnam was from September, 1966 to October, 1967 - first as a Second Lieutenant, Forward Observer with “D” Co., 1st Battalion, 7th Marine Regiment south of Chu Lai until he was wounded by shell fragments in February 1967. Upon discharge from the hospital, he was assigned as Aide to the Assistant Division Commander, First Marine Division, Brigadier General Foster C. LaHue. This tour of duty included participation in Operations Union I & II, Cochise, and Swift.
Lt. Col.Kean returned to Vietnam in August, 1970 as the commander of an Interrogator/Translator Team and was then reassigned as Commanding Officer of Fox Battery, 2nd Battalion, 11th Marine Regiment. The battery was augmented with two long range 155 mm howitzers in addition to the six 105 mm howitzers and had a platoon of infantry from Fifth Marines to serve as security. Fox Battery occupied Fire Support Base Ryder at the foot of Antennae Valley in the Que Son Mountains (southwest of Da Nang). The Que Son River Valley was a major avenue of egress into South Vietnam.
Lt. Col. Kean returned to Vietnam in April of 1975 as commanding officer, Company ‘C’ Marine Security Guard Battalion and during the evacuation of Saigon also served as the Ground Support Force Commander, United States Embassy Compound in Saigon.
On April 30, 1975, then-Major Kean was in command of the last Marines to leave the rooftop of the American Embassy in Saigon, thus ending the Vietnam War Era of American involvement in that country. He retired in 1983 and used his fluency in Chinese and his experience of the Pacific Rim to found Yankee Traders, an export/import company dealing with Asia.
Cpl. Randy Smith
Cpl. Randy Smith knew the war in South Vietnam was over when he was ordered to take down the American flag at the U.S. Embassy in Saigon.
“I was on guard at the senior post, just behind the embassy’s massive teak front doors, around 4 p.m. on April 29, 1975,” he said. Maj. Jim Kean told me to ‘Wrap up what you’re doing and sign out on the log book. Things have come to an end.’”
Two hours later the major ordered Smith and Lance Cpl. Duane Thomas, another guard to lower the flag near the embassy’s entrance for the last time.
“We walked over to the flag that was on a pole in a garden area inside the embassy and gently brought it down. We folded it properly into a triangle, saluted and handed it to the major,” Smith recalled.
“Our commander took the flag and the log book and gave it to Ambassador Graham Martin.”
SSgt. Dwight McDonald, Ambassadro's Embassy guard. Bottom. M. Sgt. Colin Broussard and McDonald, top.