The DAO Compound and Evacuation
I was in the part of the Saigon detachment that was sent to the DAO compound. I arrived with the last replacements from the MSG school. I only briefly was involved in burning confidential material at the embassy before I was transferred with others to DAO. Following will be a collage of memories and impressions that remain fresh in my mind to this day. Maybe others will remember the same incidents with a different perspective.
Defense Attaché Office, Saigon, R. South Vietnam
Being taken from the airport to the Embassy to check in with the NCOIC. I never had the opportunity to get to know him or many of the Marines that stayed at the Embassy. The NCOIC was a man who exuded an aura of confidence and ability, even though he was in civilian clothes at the time. I only met him that once, but he gave the impression that all was under control.
MSgt John Valdez, SNCOIC American Embassy, Saigon R. South Vietnam
First night in the Marine House--went up a number of floors to pick out a room for myself and just stood at the window looking out over Saigon, trying to figure out how I had gotten here and what I was going to see in the coming days.
Watching a film at the Marine House; I think it was Goliath with Richard Harris, and feeling the tension, as well as the adrenaline beginning to build. No talk or bantering conversation; just a feeling that everyone was watching the film, but not seeing or hearing it. Arriving at DAO, driving between the 10 high fence separating the motor pool from the main compound. Running people through the Gymnasium to clear for flights out. I remember one man who was adamant that he was going to take a case of tools that must have weighed over 50 pounds. He was given an alternative--leave them behind or find another way home. He left them behind. Walking guard duty in what I assume was an old barracks with wood flooring, our boot steps resounding down the hall. I was concerned that we would keep people awake, but after one gentleman came out to the hall and told me how comforting it was to hear, like an affirmation of our presence, I realized that these anxious people took comfort out of the rhythmic sound of our marching the halls. It also helped me focus. Standing a post just outside an ARVN barracks. I had just relieved Cpl Steve Stratton who advised me that the clicking we were hearing were
Cpl Steve Stratton
ARVN dry firing on us. I cant remember the exact time that I relieved Steve, but it had to be after 2400 because I was relieved at first light. Standing post at the entrance to DAO, checking ID and searching for weapons. I can remember a car full of ARVN officers who I had to ask to relinquish their pearl handled revolvers. They didnt give me any stick--it was almost like they realized that they were in a place of some safety and didnt need a weapon. I had just been relieved from what I call Post 1 (the entrance to DAO) and without taking off flack jacket or boots, laid down on my bunk only to be seemingly thrown off by an invisible force. Head ringing, I had enough presence of mind to put on my helmet, grab my weapon and run outside to see an area of the airport in flames. I understand this was when the airport was bombed by South Vietnamese pilots absconding with the jets to the NVA.
U.S. Marine smoking a cigarette during the bombing at the DAO/Than Shan Nut Airbase
Hearing the shrapnel zinging throughout the fence when the Air
America complex was being bombed. Strutting stupidly) in the open
when the Marines from the Fleet arrived and dug in. I still
cant make up my mind if I was being fatalistic, trying to
improve the morale of the people we were manifesting out of the
second LZ away from the LZ encompassing the tennis courts, or
showing off. Probably all three. Walking the halls, keeping
people against the wall for protection, waiting for evac from the
second LZ. Worried about the tall buildings outside the fence
across from LZ 2 that would have been perfect for snipers. Seeing
the fear in some peoples faces when either shrapnel or a round
burst the plaster on the other side of the hallway from where I
was standing. I can only think it came through the window in one
of the outside offices. Somehow, I made a joke of it but moved
the queue of people away from that side of the building down an
Finding a cassette tape with some comments by a journalist( I cant remember the name or paper) and giving it to a gentleman from the media for safekeeping. I wonder if it ever got to the originator?
Vietnamese loading into CH-53 choppers at the DAO.
Informing a Sergeant that there was a bus parked alongside the fence about 100 from Post 1. This could easily have been used to scale the fence. Must have been moved when I was at a different location because it was gone when next I was at Post 1. Again being blown out of the bunk after just being relieved from Post 1 by Judge and McMahon. Initially, I was very disoriented due to lack of sleep and concussion. Managed to get into my gear and take my weapon and jump into the nearest bunker outside the building. I remember leaving the bunker after there hadnt been any activity and then noticed where the round had hit. Mesmerized by the fire, exploding motorcycles and following others, I seemed to be drawn like a moth to a flame. One of the Sergeants intercepted us and told us to fall back as there was nothing we could do. They were gone.
Cpl Charles McMahan and LCpl Darwin Judge Killed in Action (Last two Americans killed during the Vietnam War)
I dont know what I felt at that time besides a numbness. I suppressed any remorse until later, much later. I still couldnt deal with the feeling of guilt that it could have been me. Time may heal all wounds, but it can enflame guilt, deserved or not, if not quickly and properly dealt with. Their loss was bad enough; inadvertently leaving them behind devastated me. Seeing the first 53's and 46s spiraling out of the clouds over what I call LZ 2.
CH46 and CH53
This, besides being a beautiful and impressive sight, lifted the spirits of everyone, including the Marines. It also told us that time was short. Seeing the flying boxcar let loose volley after volley of their mini-gun, slewing the plane sideways with each burst. An officer grabbed me after we sent the last individuals out of LZ 2 and had me check the charges we were leaving. I guess that is when I was most anxious, wondering if I was going to blow myself up by tripping a charge or missing the last chopper out of LZ 1. After boarding the last 46, I remember a Sergeant asking me if I wanted a round up my ass. I, being a L/Cpl with only 7 months active duty, said No, Sergeant. Then sit on your flack jacket, stupid. Where do you think the small arms fire will come from? At least I remembered to point the muzzle of my rifle down! Landing on the USS Blueridge and being asked to throw all weapons overboard.
This just seemed like sacrilege to me, although I still hadnt fired a round in anger or defense. The opportunity just never arose. At least the discipline learned in Basic manifested itself at the right time. Trying to sleep in a room with wall to wall Marines, all of us trying to find a space to lie down as well as stow our gear. Not surprising, some things disappeared, even though there wasnt much to lose. Being called to the COM Shack on board and a Lieutenant telling me that I should write to my parents more often. Obviously, he wasnt aware that even if I could have found the time to write, I doubt it would have ever made it out. It was difficult to keep a smile off of my face. After all the years since the evacuation, May day holds a special significance for me. I always remember the situation that seemed so disheartening for a young Marine in his first action that initially seemed like retreat. So recently out of Basic and MSG school, I felt as if I was personally to fault for the evacuation. Although Im sure the party held on the USS Blueridge was meant as a morale booster, it seemed a travesty to me. I couldnt assimilate all of the experiences into a positive attitude that would allow myself to enjoy the celebrations. In closing, I now realize that the job we did under such difficult circumstances with a mixed group of Marinessome, like myself, with no combat experience, others with all the experience one could ask forwere able to complete our mission as successfully as could be expected. What amazes me to this day is that the lack of a physical presence of command authority didnt affect the performance of any of the MSGs that I was involved with. Sergeants, Corporals, L/Corporals; we all just got the job done. To all of the Marines that I never met, especially those at the Embassy, I want to say how proud I am that I was part of such a special group of men.