The DAO Compound


Sgt Ted Murray USMC

I was assigned as a Marine Security Guard to the American Embassy, Saigon, RVN, on 7 December, 1974. It was my first choice right out of MSG Battalion and I served in that capacity until one morning in the middle of April 1975. For the past few weeks all of us had watched the steady flow of the armies from North Vietnam move southward and, with a somewhat fatalistic attitude, knew that it would not be long before they would be in Saigon. I can remember sitting in front of the Marine House and being told by Sgt. Potratz that myself and some other Marines were being sent to the DAO compound to help with the evacuation of civilian personnel from that location.


Sgt Doug Potratz USMC
CWO2 Retired

Sgt. Stringer and myself and a GySgt, whose name I can’t remember, led the Marines whose primary mission was to assist in the processing and evacuation of people from the bowling alley in MACV Compound that was behind the DAO Compound. We also provided security at several points around the compound. For about 10 days it went smoothly. Vietnamese and Americans came into the MACV Compound in buses or other means of transportation, processed by consulate personnel, then moved by bus out to a waiting aircraft at Tan Son Nhut. During this time, a platoon of Marines was brought in to help with manning several posts around the area. But Embassy Marines constantly manned the post at the main intersection of the main road into the airport and the road into the DAO Compound. We all slept in a building next to the main DAO building, but as time progressed, we all got less and less sleep.


DAO Compound, Saigon, R. South Vietnam

It was around 1630 on the evening of 28 April that everything came apart. We were all going about doing our respective tasks when A37 Dragonflys flew over and proceeded to bomb the airport. Their first targets were the command center and the tower, which they took out quite well. There were concrete structures near us that served as shelters and everyone that was in the area ran to get inside these. During a lull in the attack I noticed that we were sharing our shelter with a Vietnamese dog handler and his dog. In the confines of this shelter the dog seemed huge, it provided us with a light moment in a time of stress. I knew that the NVA didn’t have any A37’s, so the question was what was going on. After the bombing of the Presidential Palace a few weeks before, it became apparent that either more VNAF pilots had deserted, or the planes had been captured by the NVA.


South Vietnam Presidential Palace

We came out of the shelters and the planes were still overhead so many of us opened fire with M16’s on the planes. Looking back it was kinda foolish, the chances of us hitting them were extremely remote, but it was somewhat satisfying being able to try. Martial Law was declared after that and we suspected that from that point on, that hopefully the evacuation would go more quickly then it had gone before. A lot of people were frustrated with the progress up to that point, too slow and way too much paperwork that needed to be done before people were allowed to leave country. I was asked prior to the attack that night for help in getting a DAO guard and her daughter out before the NVA took over. She had left before the attack, so with martial law declared I knew that the chances of her and her daughter getting back were not good. Sgt. Stringer and I made the rounds of all the posts that night.


Sgt Stringer

We suspected that from the 29th on it would get real busy around there and that security would be tightened up. There was a tank and several Vietnamese soldiers at the main entrance to the airport but we still needed more around the DAO and MACV compounds. I stayed up that night, and at around 0200 on the 29th walked around to check on the Marines at their posts. Everyone was tired but alert and excited. We talked and I tried to find out if they needed anything. Almost all of them smiled and asked for some sleep, something that we all needed, but they were Marines, Embassy Marines, and they knew their job. I checked with Judge and McMahon last since it was the last post and closest to the main gate of the DAO compound.


Cpl McMahon and LCpl Judge

 I asked them how they were, if there was anything that they needed. I didnít really know either of them too well. Judge had been in Saigon a bit longer than McMahon, but still not enough time to get to know anyone.

 

I decided to try and get a couple hours of sleep and just lay down on my rack with my boots and closed my eyes. It was about 0330 at the time. An explosion awakened me violently a short time after that. I sat up and as I did I heard another explosion, only this time it was much closer. I grabbed my M16 and started running for the door when a third and final explosion occurred right next to the building, breaking several windows in the building. I ran outside and asked if anyone knew where the last one had hit. A Marine told me that he thought that it had landed out on the street on the other side of the building. We ran out to the main gate and the Marines there told us that it had landed up the street at the intersection. We all ran to the intersection and found Judge lying a few feet from the small crater that the explosion had made. There was no sign of McMahon. We looked for him and tried to call for him. It was dark that night, but eventually we found him. A short time later, medics and an ambulance from the hospital right outside the main entrance to the airport came and took Judge and McMahon away. A couple hours later we all got together and we were told that we would be split up to provide security and assistance at the three areas that would be designated as landing zones for helicopters to evacuate personnel. Myself and 3 or 4 other Marines were stationed at the front right side of the compound next to a fenced in area that was paved. I don’t remember the purpose of this area now. We went there and waited. We saw Ambassador Martin’s car drive by a few hours later. We later found out that he came out to inspect the condition of the airport.


Ambassador Martin

We then were told that the evacuation would begin shortly and that we were to have everyone that came through out area write their names on two tags. One tag would go into an envelope that I would write the number of the helicopter on and keep, and the other tag would go into another envelope that I would give to the helicopter crew. There wasn’t enough room for people and luggage, so the halls of the DAO building were filled with personal items that people had to leave behind. A news crew had to leave their cameras and equipment, but I was able to take their film and return it to them when I finally got to the Blue Ridge. Prior to the evacuation, some personnel from the Embassy came out and were tasked with the job of destroying millions of dollars in American currency.

We all offered to help them with that job, which brought smiles to their faces. Needless to say, they didnít take us up on our offer. The first of the helicopters started coming in late in the morning and it was a steady stream for hours. A CH53 can hold 50 combat ready Marines, we were putting as many as 70 or 80 Americans and Vietnamese on them, maybe more. For hours we would process them then load them onto waiting choppers. I remember one helicopter, a CH53, with a gunner in the back sitting on what I think was a Vulcan mini gun with two big tubes hanging off both sides. I handed him the packet of names, saluted him and backed off as they left. One of the first helicopters that came in brought a squad of Marines from the off shore ships in. As the helicopter landed, they disembarked and immediately tried to dig into the tarmac with shovel to form a perimeter defense.


CH-46 Marine Chopper over American Embassy, Saigon, R. South Vietnam

One sight that I will never forget was of an aircraft, a Flying Boxcar. It was equipped with a Vulcan Mini gun and it was circling a few hundred feet over the opposite end of the airport, shooting at the ground. It sounded like fabric being ripped as he fired. He would circle back around and fired again in about the same area. He only did this a few times before a rocket came up and took of his wing and he crashed. If he was shooting at that area, then the NVA was closer then we thought. All morning and afternoon we watched as plane after plane took off from Tan Son Nhut. We knew that the Vietnamese that had access to a plane were taking off, leaving. And they kept leaving even with the bombing going on.


Puff the Magic Dragon

In the afternoon as the helicopters were landing and taking off, the Air America compound across the street and the airport were being shelled constantly. It was a miracle that none of those shells fell short onto the helicopters and us. Later on in the early evening I noticed that we could hear the shells being fired, whizzing overhead, then landing across the street. I had asked the GySgt that was in charge of us if he had been able to find out if Judge and McMahon’s bodies had been recovered from the hospital. If they hadn’t then I volunteered to take some Marines and go and get them. He told me that he had talked with Major Kean and was told by the Major that the bodies had already been removed to the ships off the coast. That was the last word we got till after we got to the ships and found out that they had not been removed, that they had been left behind. If we had known that at the time, there was plenty of time to go out and get them. Marines do not leave their own. Eventually, with the intervention of Senator Ted Kennedy, Judge and McMahon did come home.


Air America Chopper over, Saigon, R. Vietnam
 


Major Jim Kean, Commanding Officer of the Marines of Saigon, R. South Vietnam


As night fell we watched as starlight flares were sent up over the VNAF barracks which was close to where we were. The last of the evacuees had gone through the area and no more helicopters had come in for a while. The airport was still being bombed and whatever was doing it was close. Personnel were preparing to blow up the DAO building, placing charges all around. Flares were going off all around the VNAF area and we could hear fighting in the distance. We all knew that the NVA were near. Would there be time to get another helicopter in here to get us out? That was the big question on everyone’s mind. Sometime around 2300 a CH46 came in and all remaining personnel climbed on board. As the helicopter flew off, I glanced out the back of it and looked down into area around the VNAF barracks area and saw tanks and men moving towards the airport and the area where we had just left.

The ride out to the Blue Ridge was uneventful. Everyone was quiet. I was reflecting on the last 24 hours, what had happened, what was happening. And I had this feeling that we were leaving with our tails between our legs. The NVA let us go, they could have shot down every helicopter that went in. But they didn’t. Some helicopters shot at, you could see the tracers rising up from the ground. But they let us go. We had heard rumors during the day that B52’s had been sent out to bomb Hanoi, but after what we had heard and seen in the past few weeks, we figured that it was just that, a rumor. Some of us felt that President Ford and the American people were washing their hands of Vietnam and throwing us to the wolves.


President Ford's letter the Fall of Saigon Marines Association

When we landed on the Blue Ridge that night, I saw armed sailors watching us. I felt so down at that point. I felt as if we had single handedly lost the Vietnam War. I later read a comment by the late Bobby Frain in a book documenting those last few months didn’t help. He told the author that the "misfits" were sent from the Embassy to the DAO Compound. No one has told our story, the story of long days and short nights helping to evacuate those that needed to leave. Not one Marine that was assigned to the DAO Compound was awarded any type of personal award. All of the Marines there did their jobs with little or no sleep for days on end. And when crunch time came on the 29th, the Marines evacuated thousands of Vietnamese and American civilians in an orderly and unhurried way. We loaded helicopters quickly and efficiently, and we kept the flow going for hours without chaos. I will always feel good about what we did and how we did it, I just wish that we could have helped more to get out.


Sgt Bob Frain

That is part of the story. There were two other LZ’s in operation that day, and there are stories from the other Marines that were there that need to be told. I am proud to have been a part of history, and to have served with the Marines there in Saigon. The Marines that remained at the Embassy did their jobs, their story has been told. But those of us at the DAO Compound also did our jobs and that story needs to be told. We did not leave Judge and McMahon behind. And if we had been told the truth we would have been able to bring them out with us.

One final note. For those Marines stationed out at DAO with me, I apologize for forgetting you. Too much time has past and there was too little time to get to know each and every one enough to remember at the time.





At 25th Reunion/Memorial
Ted is top row.  6th from left