Lazaro "Chief" Arriola
DANANG CONSULATE EVACUATION OF MARCH, 1975
After 27 years I am telling this story to the best of my recollection. There are probably things that I have missed and will miss. None of this could have happened without the other five Marines who served with me – Sparky, Smiley, Andy, Stretch and Spruce. I would like to thank these Marines and at the same time I want to acknowledge a certain lady by the name of Julie for giving me the courage and the understanding as to why I should tell this story. I thank her deeply, from the bottom of my heart.
I was a Marine Security Guard assigned to the American Consulate General, DaNang, Republic of South Vietnam. In March of 1975 the North Vietnamese and the VC’s launched an attack on I Corps for which the South Vietnamese Army was vastly under strength due to the pullout of the troops in the North to reinforce the troops in the South.
During the week of March 17th through the week of March 30th the American Consul General initiated an evacuation plan to start getting American civilians and the nonessential personnel who worked for the Consulate evacuated to the South. During this time the Marine Security Guards were getting ready for the evacuation. We were given the orders to start destroying as much classified information as we could get our hands on. During the week of March 17th, we started our Phase One Evacuation. But, unfortunately, Phase I did not work effectively because of the fast push made by the NVA and VC on their way down to DaNang. We at the Consulate thought that we would have plenty of time to do everything in respect to the destruction of classified materials and the evacuation of nonessential personnel. But, because of the push that the NVA did, we were not ready for it. Their rapid advance happened in a week’s time. By the 26th or 27th of March the NVA were at the outskirts of DaNang.
Map of Vietnam reunited after 30 April 1975
All during this time we were getting as many American civilians inside the Consulate as was possible and notifying them to be ready to be evacuated. By then the city’s population was swelling wildly with refugees from the North. In front of the Consulate we had steel gates that we locked to prevent the Vietnamese people from entering the compound. We continued our efforts to destroy all classified materials and equipment so that it wouldn’t fall into enemy hands.
On the night of March 27th the initial order for evacuation came down, so we, the Marine Security Guards, started rounding up all personnel inside the compound and putting them into vehicles. We in turn were rounding up all the weapons we could get our hands on and putting them inside the vehicles to take with us. All this time we had no idea where we would be going. Only certain people knew the location we were going to and Sgt. Sparks was one of them.
Later that evening, around 9:00 – it was already dusk – we set off to meet up at a location where helicopters were supposed to pick us up and take us out of there. We arrived at our appointed destination, and the Marines were given orders to set up our perimeters so that the helicopters could land. We set up the perimeters and got the civilians ready to board the helicopters. One helicopter, a UH1 Huey, landed and we loaded as many personnel as could possibly fit inside the Huey. Once it was loaded, the Huey took off, with the pilot saying that they would send more helicopters for us. I guess by that time it was about 10:30 at night.
We waited for about an hour or an hour and a half and there were still no helicopters in sight. All this time we could hear the noise of artillery firing all around the city. It was dark, we had no lights on, and we Marines were still at our perimeters. Finally word came down from Sgt. Sparks that there would be no more helicopters coming in that night. They had contacted the higher ups and their response was that they were not going to take a chance on sending in more aircraft and that we were on our own.
Once we got word there would be no more helicopters coming in that night, we loaded up all the civilians in the vehicles and we drove out - headed to Mr. Frances’ house – he was the Consul General. Once we arrived there we unloaded everybody and took them all inside the house. We put all the civilians in one sector - in one room - and we had all of the lights off. The Marines took up different positions around the house. This was about 1:30 or 2:00 in the morning. One of the strangest feelings that we had that morning was the eerie silence that was all around us. It was like there was nothing happening outside – it was just quiet. Anyway, we maintained our positions and we waited. Finally, around 4 or 5 in the morning word was put out that they were getting some sort of transportation for us and they were going to take us out to a point to where we could do our evacuation.
When the vehicle finally showed up, it was a Vietnamese garbage truck. We loaded everybody into the truck and pushed them all to the front and the Marines got in the back of the truck and pulled guard. The order was given to the truck driver to drive for 30 to 45 minutes around town to make sure we weren’t being followed and we did that until we ended up around the dock, near the White Elephant, which was the American Consulate Building.
By this time the streets were crowded with chaotic masses of people, all trying to find some way to escape the advancing NVA’s. When we got to our point of destination, the Marines unloaded and formed a perimeter, which, because we were out in the open dock area meant we just held our M16’s and tried to hold the crowd back while we attempted to load all of the personnel that were with us onto a waiting barge. As to how we got that barge I have no idea to this day.
But, we kept our positions and we tried to keep the crazy masses of people from loading the barge. All this time we carried the classified equipment with us and when the word was given, we abandoned our perimeters, picked up the equipment and took it with us as we loaded the barge. We secured the classified equipment and the Marines started to move around the barge to try to enforce some kind of order. People were scared and people were crying, and people were still trying desperately to board the barge. During this period the city was in total chaos – there was the sound of random shooting – constant artillery rounds were coming in – it was just plain madness and chaos.
We loaded as many Vietnamese as we possibly could onto the barge with us and then the order was given to set out. We started pushing the barge away from the dock, but people still tried to board the barge. People were jumping in panic from the dock onto the barge as we were pulling out and the farther away we got the more desperate they became. The sunlight was just coming up over the horizon. It must have been about 7:00 in the morning and I have no idea how many people were finally on the barge with us but we were really packed in there.
As we started pulling out we saw women with children who desperately wanted their babies to be taken out of there to safety and, knowing that they could not jump the increasing distance onto the receding barge, they did an unthinkable thing – they started throwing their babies at us. Seeing this, I guess I went into a state of horror knowing that what they were doing was wrong and I wanted to scream at them not to do it and finally I felt frozen with helplessness because I knew I couldn’t do anything to save these babies they were throwing at us. We were pulling too far away. I understood the anguish of the mothers that were throwing their babies to us – they just wanted their babies to be safe. We didn’t do a very good job of saving them. We couldn’t.
The farther we pulled away from the dock, the more the people were crying and screaming – some were jumping into the water and swimming towards us. We watched these terrible things with a feeling of utter helplessness. As we set off to sea we Marines were already overwhelmed with what we had seen and when looking back at the city itself and the total chaos that was going on there, I guess we just couldn’t comprehend what was going on. Or maybe we didn’t want to believe it was happening. I remember the silence that fell over the barge as everyone looked back toward DaNang. I know the people that were with us – the Vietnamese – were so thankful that they managed to get onto the barge.
All during this time you could hear the moaning, the quiet crying, and see the anguish that people were feeling about what they were seeing – what had happened to them. As for myself, I think after witnessing what I did…I was...I guess I was numb. I was reacting but I wasn’t…I was just completely numb.
We headed out to sea and there’s no telling how long it was until we hooked up with the USS Pioneer Contender. She was a Merchant ship, which happened to be the closest US ship to our location. We finally linked up with them and when they started dropping the gangway, a huge mass of people on the barge started running towards it. Because they were pushing and shoving each other in desperation to get to the safety of the ship, people fell overboard in between the ship and the barge. Being at sea, the two ships were banging against each other in the swells and these people were being crushed. When the gangway was being dropped, I noticed one boy - I don't know how old he was, but he had to be young - who was trying to be one of the first ones to get up to the ship and the gangway landed right on his head, splitting his head wide open like a melon.
Once we did get the gangway down, the Marines were the first ones to go up there to set up our perimeters. We loaded all of the embassy civilians that were with us onto the ship and found secure places for them. Then, we started our phase of unloading refugees from the barge onto the ship. But, the people were in such a panic that they were rushing wildly to get on board. They had a few of us Marines stand in the way and try to block them and they just attacked us. I guess we got roughed up pretty good but we held our ground.
After this we noticed that there were more ships coming from all sides of the USS Pioneer Contender and they were trying to offload in every possible way onto the ship. At this time the Marines were ordered to separate and they told me to go the back of the ship and try to prevent people from boarding the ship from there. I had my 38 with me and I remember when people were climbing aboard I started yelling in Vietnamese, "Get away!" There was one individual in particular who was trying to board by climbing over the rails of the ship and I drew my 38 and again told him in Vietnamese to get off the ship. Since he didn’t do it, I shot. Now whether I hit him or not, I don’t know, but he went over the side. Right then and there I realized that these people were just scared and wanted to save themselves. I guess I was in the same dilemma - I was scared and I was trying to save myself. So, I put away my pistol and I just let them come aboard and I didn’t try to stop them. People were climbing aboard from every part of the ship and there was no way that six Marines could stop them.
So, we just started concentrating on the barge. During this time the people from the Merchant ship were helping us out. So, they took over the scene of the people climbing up the sides while we Marines concentrated on helping the refugees unload from the barge to the ship. I remember that some of the Marines went down onto the barge and tried to maintain calm and order in an effort to load the people in a safe and organized way onto the ship. The Merchant Marines from the vessel started dropping ladders from the side of the ship so that we Marines could use them to go down to the barge and up to the ship instead of having to go all the way to the gangway. We tried to take people up the ladders with us but being that the ladders were small and you had to use a lot of physical strength to get up there, a lot of them just couldn’t make it. I saw Marines who physically carried people up those ladders and helped them onto the ship. We must have loaded for a good 8 hours and some people say that we had up to 4,000 refugees and other people say we had more than 9,000 – the true numbers we may never know.
After we had loaded the refugees, we were ordered to go down one more time to the barge to see if there were any more living people down there that we might have overlooked. The barge was littered with debris of all sorts – waste and human bodies. When I refer to bodies, I’m talking about young children who were trampled to death from the people who were trying to get out of there as well as the old people who couldn’t move fast enough and the same thing happened to them. After we realized that there were no more living individuals there, we finally boarded the ship ourselves. After maybe 8 or 9 hours of loading refugees into the ship, we finally took off. It must have been about 7:00 in the evening because dusk was already setting in.
All this time the people had been without water or food. A lot of the people we had to put down in the holes of the ship and they were packed so tightly in there. When night fell, everything was quiet. We could hear occasional moaning, and the crying of the children, and the anguish of the people who were suffering everywhere around us. We Marines finally went into one of the quarters and we tried to get some sleep. I remember we fell asleep and I don’t know how long we got to sleep before they were waking us up and telling us to go out onto the deck again because more people were dying and panic was starting to spread throughout the ship.
So, as Marines we did what we had to do – we went down into the holes and we tried to comfort the refugees. We wanted to let them know that everything was going to be okay. But, as more people began to die - which was happening because of the lack of water and the extreme heat in the holes and the poor air circulation – their panic grew. Now you have to picture how these poor people were packed in there – I mean you could not even turn around. When we walked we were stepping on people. And some of the people died from thirst, of all things – surrounded by water - and some just died from the fragile condition they were in to begin with. Then there were the poor mothers whose babies died in their arms - not wanting to believe that they had died. We Marines were given the order to clean up what we could and we did... The stench was awful – the smell of fear was all around us – and it seemed like the crying never stopped while we were there – the crying of the babies, the crying of the elders, the crying of the young people. Everybody was scared. Everybody was afraid. And, believe you me; nobody wanted to die in those conditions.
The human aspect of seeing so much suffering – of seeing of so much needless death, and looking into the eyes of the people who were suffering, these things had an overwhelming effect on us Marines. I believe it would have been easier for us as combatant Marines than it was to endure what we had seen during those 4 days. Maybe that’s why it took us so long to tell our stories. It was a terribly hard and fast lesson to learn.
You can never forget the suffering of a child, or the death of a child, or the crying of a child. As Marines and human beings, we will never get over the feeling of helplessness we felt for not being able to do more for them.
When we finally got to Cam Ranh Bay the Marines were the lucky ones because we disembarked the ship and flew to safety in Saigon. But, the people we left behind there on the ship in Cam Ranh Bay did not know that a day later this city was going to be overrun, too. I feel guilt and shame for trying to restore these people’s faith that we were going to bring them to safety and then in the end, they would be going through that terrible ordeal and danger again. As to what we accomplished…I have no idea what we accomplished. I don’t know if we did good or bad. All I know is that from that day forth, I relive the memories of the things that I could have done or should have done and the things that I didn’t do...and the things that I did. There isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t ask for forgiveness from those people.
I guess that’s it…