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Forgive me if I forget a name, spelling, or bust somebody in rank. Forgive me if there is too much detail or not enough detail. I have chosen not to discuss certain things. I was only there for seven days. This has taken me twenty-seven years to write, with a lot of drugs, alcohol, and head injuries in between. Maybe this will stimulate the memory for other MSG’s and inspire them to contribute their stories and recollections.
Little did we know that we were aboard the last commercial flight into South Vietnam for many years. As that huge Pan Am 747 lifted off from Guam on 22 April 1975, I couldn’t help but notice how few passengers were onboard for the last leg of the journey into Saigon. I was traveling in the smoking section near the rear of the cabin. John Stewart and Charlie McMahon sat forward near first class. Almost immediately after the Captain pointed out the Seventh Fleet poised below us in the South China Sea, he announced that we were to brace ourselves. He was going to put us into a "whirlpool" turn to avoid enemy fire. The huge aircraft then spun on its side and spiraled down to a safe landing at Tan Son Nhut Airport.
I noticed many fighter jets parked one after another along the runway hangers in protective concrete revetments. We were the last MSG’s to report for duty from Stateside. The three of us were sharply dressed in fine suits and ties, provided by the State Department. Because after all, we were now diplomats…"Gentlemen" Diplomats! Yes, along with all of the monotonous, grueling lectures on security and classified material at MSG School, we were also taught to be "Gentlemen among Dignitaries"…to be fine purveyors of pomp and circumstance… The "cream of the crop"…Embassy Marines! So, with that in mind, we exited onto the tarmac anxious to fill the role as “representatives of our country.”
The first thing to hit me was the heat! It must have been over one hundred degrees - off with the tie! There was nobody there to greet us. No one was there to welcome us to a land where so many were killed. Little did we know that the killing wasn’t over yet. There were a bunch of "courtesy" phones located all throughout the arrival platform. We must have tried every one of them looking for someone to come and pick us up. Well, before we knew it we were in the back of a "SWAT" type van driven by Corporal Tim Creighton.
I never saw so many bicycles and motor scooters. Thousands of them were crowding the streets. Our driver tried to avoid them as we sped along with horn blowing like crazy driving up on the sidewalk to get around the traffic jams. As we pulled near the front of the "Marine House", Tim pointed out the ARVN tank down the street with its muzzle aimed at our quarters. I remember one Marine giving me a "Bittersweet" welcome…I was supposed to be his relief, he was staying. From here on out things are fuzzy and vague.
At some point it was determined to send twenty-two Marines from the detachment to the Defense Attaché Office (DAO) compound. The next thing I remember I am at the Embassy with our company commander, Major Kean. We were issued cami-utilities, M-16s, bandoleers of ammo, etc.…Like we were getting ready for war or something. I recall mentioning to him that I didn’t know what kind of "mission" he was sending us on but we were supposed to be Marine Security Guards… You know, like “diplomats?” He then smartly barked at me that we were F**king Marines and all Marines are Infantrymen. I realized that I could forget all that I learned in Diplomacy Class.
The next few days were uneventful at DAO, save for standing various traffic control points and chasing ladies. I will point out at this time for those who don’t know, the DAO compound is directly across the street from Tan Son Nhut airport. The compound had a security checkpoint that Vietnamese workers at DAO had to enter and exit through. One afternoon at this checkpoint I was trying to pursue one of the ladies working security. All of a sudden the ground shook as there was a loud explosion coming from the airport. I ran to the area where we had our "reaction gear" stowed and grabbed my weapon and proceeded to the safety of one of the concrete bunkers that surrounded the compound. There was already a half-dozen Marines there in the bunker. There were more explosions, and then we realized that an airstrike was taking place at the airport. As I watched, one jet strafed the runway and flew directly overhead. A senior Marine NCO grabbed my rifle and fired a few rounds at the fighter to no avail as it sped away.
With the volume of munitions dropped, I assumed that the runway across the street had suffered heavy damage. This was verified by the fact that almost all aircraft activity at the airport ceased from that point on. After things settled down a bit, I grabbed my camera and took a few shots of all the black smoke rising from the airport. Once again the next few hours were uneventful. If I remember correctly, Gunny Martin was our NCOIC at DAO. Anyway, to relieve some of the boredom we would occasionally play a few games of cards. That evening at a card game I recall Darwin Judge saying that rather than playing cards, he was going to finish writing a letter to his girlfriend before he had to go stand duty. Later that evening I went up to our makeshift billeting area to get some sleep. Sometime early the next morning a very loud explosion woke me up. This explosion was much closer and much more powerful than the ones impacting the airfield a few days earlier. This one was so close that I felt the concussion. My first reaction was to pull my mattress over me to go back to sleep. But then somebody turned the lights on. We all scrambled to get down the steps and out to the bunkers. I thought that this was another air strike. But we soon found out that it was a rocket attack and we were caught in the middle of the advancing NVA and Tan Son Nhut airport.
The first rocket had landed a few hundred yards short of its target…right into the back pocket of Judge and McMahon who were standing Guard in the street at Post #1. The air was filled with a foul stench of guts and gunpowder. It was still dark out. An ambulance showed up at one point and asked if anybody was hurt. Someone pointed them to the area where Judge and McMahon were. I recall seeing a helmet liner lying on the ground outside the building where we were staying. Someone said the helmet belonged to one of them. I wondered how the hell it traveled so far over the building from where Post # 1 was. In addition to repeated explosions from the rockets pounding the airfield, I could also hear staggered small arms fire. Every forty-five seconds I could hear a "click" in the distance, shortly followed by a "swish" from a rocket overhead on its way to the airfield. Occasionally a rocket would land short of the runways and land near us. Some hit so close that you could hear the clinking of shrapnel hitting the chain link fence in front of us.
I guess for the next couple of hours we were shuffled around standing watch at some of the posts around the compound or dispatched to do certain specific tasks. All during this time the rockets were continually pounding the airport. At first light I recall seeing the South Vietnamese Army retreating from the airport in platoon formation marching at a "route step" down the road. Then I remembered all the fighter jets and military equipment I saw parked along the runway upon my arrival at the airport a week earlier. I was pissed that these troops just walked away and left all of this stuff without even at least setting an thermite grenade. I also recall hearing an odd noise coming from the sky. I looked up and saw it. Nicknamed, “Puff the Magic Dragon” it was a small, propeller driven, “slow speed” airplane. I could see a puff of white smoke followed by a "Aarrrgghhtt", a loud growling sound signifying a burst of fire from it’s M61 ‘Vulcan’ 20mm mini-guns. But "Puff" was later shot down. His fate was sealed, a missile struck the aircraft ripping its tail off. The wing fluttered down on the airport.
There came a time when we were relieved from our positions by the arrival of FMF Marines. We were freed to perform other duties and at one point, several MSG Marines were together in a concrete bunker seeking shelter from incoming rockets: enter the "Mystery Man". There was a bearded man dressed in "civvies". He gave us this speech, it seems that nobody knew who he was (CIA?). He was saying that he needed us to do this and that. He said that we were situated in a very dangerous position due to the incoming rocket fire. But he still needed us to perform these duties. And if we got killed, well then he could no longer use us. We all turned to Gunny Martin who just shrugged his shoulders.
A tennis court area inside the DAO compound was cleared and transformed into a LZ (Landing Zone). We unloaded busses full of US, Vietnamese and third country nationals. We disarmed these people, condensed their hand luggage and assembled them into helicopter loads. Many of these people carried money, jewelry and suit cases full of their family heirlooms. Rockets continued to pound the airport.
Finally the helicopters stopped landing at our LZ. It was now dark and we were exhausted. I remember that we were sitting in the back of a movie theater, I think. Finally getting a chance to rest, we were kind of worried. Were these choppers going to return to pick us up? Later I vaguely recall some people placing automobiles in a large circle in the parking lot with the headlights on to identify the landing zone. Later on, the last Marine CH-46 landed and we eagerly climbed onboard. All day long I was fervently praying that the Lord would get us through this and get us out of there safely. Now we were lifting off from hell. In a few seconds we climbed into the clouds. I recall seeing the red blinking lights of the chopper reflecting off the white clouds. This bothered me because we were dead ducks with those red lights on; we could be shot out of the sky! I was sitting on my helmet with my pack and field gear on my back. I was able somehow to shift my weight and peer out of the porthole. The land below looked like fireworks with flames and explosions going off everywhere. I still had the fear that we were going to be shot down. All of a sudden the chopper was filled with a bright white light. Again I shifted around to look out the porthole. One of the ships in our fleet was illuminating us with a searchlight, apparently to guide us down. I recall thinking that if the enemy didn’t see us before, they surely can’t miss us now. But within a few minutes we landed safely on the deck of the USS Okinawa.
What happened next stands out as one of the proudest moments of my life. The back hatch of the chopper went down to reveal two columns of Navy men lining a path for us to take to disembark the craft. We looked grungy… needed a shave, skin filthy from a days-worth of prop blast and covered with sweat. But it felt damn good to be a Marine and I stuck out my chest as these Navy men gazed upon us with their mouths agape. They were in awe as they thought to themselves, "so this is what a Marine is!" And I like to think that a few of them even came to the position of attention as we worked our way past them and down into the ship. No medal or citation could ever match the exhilaration of that experience.
They assigned us an area to stow our gear. There were bunks rigged four high for us. Some got some shut-eye, but I couldn’t sleep. I had a case of shellshock. I could still hear the rockets whizzing overhead and explosions going off in the distance. Sometime during the next day a meeting of MSG's was called over the ship’s speaker. After the meeting we returned to our area to find our gear ransacked and spread all over the place. Later, I found that two or three treasured rolls of film were stolen from me. Other Marines had items turned up missing also. That day or the next, the MSG’s were mustered and loaded aboard another chopper. We transferred to the Amphibious Command Ship, USS Blue Ridge. We were the last American troops to leave Vietnam alive. The United States was officially out of Vietnam!
Our float to the Philippines for the next few days was uneventful, save for swapping War Stories. We watched flying fish and giant sea turtles. I was sort of expecting celebrations and a parade upon our arrival. But as we entered Subic Bay, once again there was nobody to greet us. I ran up and bought a few newspapers expecting us to be in the headlines but Saigon wasn’t even mentioned. Ironically, this was to be the metaphor for all Vietnam Veterans. No homecoming, no parades, nobody even cared…The Nation turned it’s back on us. In 2003, twenty-seven years after we left, the Saigon MSG’s were awarded the Vietnam Service Medal.
Well, finally we were bussed from Subic Bay to Manila, the small nation’s capital. As promised, our Company Commander Major Kean bought each one of us a beer. A nice cold San Miguel. Someone either from the Stars and Stripes or Leatherneck Magazine gathered us all together and took some group photos. But to this very day I’ve never seen these pictures.
One by one we were reassigned to post around the World. I was assigned to the American Embassy, Ankara, Turkey. One year later I was transferred to our Embassy in Managua, Nicaragua, there I finished my tour of duty as a Marine Security Guard.
I have made a few life-long friends from my brief tour in Saigon. Clyde (Bill) English and I have shed tears together at The Wall in Washington, DC. Kevin Maloney and I have frequently talked at length on the telephone. Many times I've wanted to contact the families of Darwin Judge and Charlie McMahon. But I didn’t know what to say. Maybe just, "I was there."
In closing I would like to echo the fitting words which were engraved on a citation we received, "You have never lived until you have almost died. For those who fight for it, freedom has a flavor the protected will never know."