The Last to Leave
MGySgt John J. Valdez
Staff Non Commission Officer in charge
American Embassy, Saigon, R. South Vietnam
Last off the roof of the embassy during the Fall of Saigon
President - Fall of
Saigon Marines Association
This article was in Leatherneck Magazine in May 1975.
I was transferred to Saigon in September 1974. I stayed there until April 30, 1975, when the evacuation took place. I am single, 37 years old, six feet tall and weigh about 190 pounds. I am from San Antonio, Texas, and I enlisted in the Marine Corps in May 1955.
I served a tour in Vietnam from August 1965 to September 1967 with "Bravo Company, 3rd Amracs. That's what my MOS is, 1833. We were attached to 2/4. I was a platoon sergeant. I extended for a year and half over there.
The battalion (Marine Security Guard or MSG Battalion) was getting away from having officers on post. That's the reason I went to Saigon to relieve an officer.
During the last two weeks before the evacuation, it appeared that the big exodus was on and the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese Army would settle for nothing short of unconditional surrender. About the 23rd of April, the Bien Hoa detachment from the American Consulate there evacuated and joined us. There were five or six in the detachment.
Da Nang had folded up first. That was about six Marines. With those Marines and my own from Saigon we had 45 men. Major James Kean, our company commander, came in out of Hong Kong. He had requested to come in to see if he could help us with anything.
Things were bad. The embassy processing section suddenly realized there had been a serious miscalculation of American figures, which up to this time had been based on 7,000 Americans to be evacuated. It now seemed virtually impossible to estimate how many Americans were living in Saigon and nearby Bein Hoa.
Americans trying to flee found themselves unable to get exit visas and clearances for their wives and children unless they were willing to pay bribes to Vietnamese officials, often running as high as $1,500. A Vietnamese marriage certificate which, only a few months before, had cost no more than $20, now cost up to $2,000.
Americans and their Vietnamese dependents, friends and acquaintances worked their way into crowded lines to apply for or to obtain visas outnumbered the Americans. Despite the efforts of local police and consulate staff to turn back all Vietnamese at the gates who were lacking proper papers, many slipped into the embassy compound.
MSGs (Marines of the Security Guard) had to be posted on all four entrances and exits, including the consulate ate. Crowds gathered outside daily and Saigon police would begin breaking them up by mid-day. A mood of panic and a sense of fear of being left behind began to develop during the last week.
A movie theater at the Defense Attaché Office (DAO) was used as a processing center. (DAO was located at the Tan Son Nhut Airport, some six miles from Saigon). A simple affidavit form, which until then had taken weeks to obtain, was now fixed on the spot.
Picture of Vietnamese evacuation from the DAO Compound, Tan Shan Knut Airport, Saigon, R. Vietnam.
The affidavit was accepted by processing personnel at the DAO gymnasium, which was to be the main staging area for final flights. However, the E&E (Emergency and Evacuation Plan) was drastically revised as the situation deteriorated. We were concerned with evacuating Vietnamese who had worked for US AID, USIS and the embassy and who might be on the communist enemies' list.
During the last week, local American consulate employees gathered up their families to board planes. That left only four American officers to handle the crowd seeking visas. The consulate gate became a nightmare with desperate crowds looking for ways to escape, and local and military authorities trying to break up the lines.
American planes continuously evacuated Americans and Vietnamese from Tan Son Nhut. The airlift met no interference from the communists until the last two days prior to final evacuation. However, at the airport's checkpoint, ARVN (South Vietnamese soldiers) interfered with the evacuation buses that were either transporting evacuees or winding throughout the streets, picking up Americans at designated assembly points.
DAO Compound, Saigon, R. Vietnam
The last week prior to the evacuation, MSG reaction teams, consisting of about ten Marines each, were permanently billeted in the embassy and CRA compound adjacent to the embassy. CRA is Combined Recreation Association, consisting of snack bar, swimming pool, etc.
American Embassy Compound, Saigon, R. Vietnam
Only a skeleton crew was left at the Marine House to prevent looting. MSGs controlled entrances at all four gates, and secured them only when crowds increased and seemed uncontrollable. The crowds never appeared dangerous; just desperate, begging the country, or get their children off to safety.
What the MSGs feared most were ARVNs walking around with loaded weapons. They occasionally pointed them at Americans or else did "cowboy-type shooting". Like shooting up in the air. The MSGs received instructions from the security office to admit people through the embassy gates with American passports, foreign allied passports, third-country nations, Vietnamese with U.S. Mission Embassy cards, such as USAID, USIS and DAO, o Vietnamese with evacuation authorization documents.
It was the latter documents that the MSGs had difficulty in identifying people because the officials never clarified what documents were legal. Finally, the pressure of people pushing to gain entry became so great that the MSGs were forced to lock the gates. Chief of Mission committed 16 MSG Marines to provide security for the DAO compound. I didn't like the idea of splitting my forces, but we were under the operational control of the State Department-and what they said was it.
The Marines assigned to DAO were to assist with the landing zones. In addition, they were to assist with the massive evacuation at the gymnasium. On 24 April 1975, two additional Marine were dispatched to DAO to assist the MSGs already there. Rockets and Artillery rounds began ringing on the nearby Bien Hoa air base, approximately 15 miles northeast of Saigon. The late evening evacuation was characterized by heavy shelling, both day and night., and continued reports of advancing enemy divisions.
The artillery assault against the air bas continued until Sunday night. MSGs sat on the embassy roof and watched the fireworks. On 25 April, a 40-man Marine force attached to the Seventh Fleet was flown in to augment and assisted the embassy, so we had 18 people, plus the 40-man force.
On 28 April, Saigon was totally cut off from the rest of South Vietnam.
South Vietnamese jet fighter planes bombed toward the Embassy and made diving raids on Tan Son Nhut, destroying or damaging planes on the ground and causing explosions that rocked Saigon. On 29 April 1975, at about 3:45 A.M., the communists launched on the air base.
The shelling forced an immediate halt to the evacuation. The first rocked landed in the main road and claimed the lives of two embassy Marines. One other was wounded. During the course of the next hour, the assault on the air base continued.
At the U.S. Embassy, the word for helicopter evacuation was finally given. MSGs started gearing up for the evacuating the remaining Americans and Vietnamese from Saigon. There were still outside, trying to get in. Others were in, sleeping on the lawn.
It was calculated that the embassy could withstand CH-46 choppers, which carry about 20 passengers. The CH-53's, which carry about 50 passengers would land in the parking lot.
CH-46 Marine Chopper flying over American Embassy Saigon CH-53 Heavy Marine Chopper
Some MSGs roamed the CRA and embassy grounds to keep people in hello groups. Others continued to man the gates, admitting only authorized people into the compound. However, at the end, the MSGs had to secure the gates permanently, and entrance for the evacuees outside had to be made by standing on stationary objects or on the shoulders of other MSGs to reach over the wall and pull people in.
Marines throwing Vietnamese back over the American Embassy wall, Saigon, R. South Vietnam
A count of MSG Marines indicated there were 47 in the compound and 18 at DAO. Six Marines had been assigned for the protection of the Ambassador.
The CRA compound had become the initial assembly point. Once the choppers began to land, people would be gathered in groups of 50, moved through the embassy and to the parking lot. Others were led up the embassy stairwell and grouped to fit the CH-46s.
It was about 3 P.M. when we saw the first choppers overhead. They continued to DAO. In a while, we saw some choppers heading toward the sea, and we knew the evacuation had begun.
After a couple of hours, Major Kean radioed, asking that some of the choppers divert and begin the evacuation of the embassy. He also again asked for reinforcements. At 6 p.m., the first choppers landed with the reinforcements in the parking lot. The Marines were assigned areas of responsibility and the evacuation began. A second chopper brought additional Marine reinforcements and departed with a load of evacuees.
Major Jim Kean, Commanding Officer, Saigon Embassy Marines
We continued evacuating people until around 4:45 a.m., and about that time we noticed that the flow of choppers had decreased. Prior to that, we were getting choppers at ten minute intervals. There had been waves of choppers. One in the air, hovering, and one on the ground, loading.
This was April 30, 1975. At about this time we were advised to load nothing but Americans from then on. Major Kean and I assembled the Marine and started drawing infantry from the perimeter and gates, and with the MSGs, we set three perimeters outside the lobby entrance to the embassy.
We started to retrieve the perimeters so we could button up inside the embassy. The first perimeter went in very well. The second perimeter also had little difficulty getting inside the embassy. But finally, about halfway though the third perimeter, the crowd realized that we were going to button up inside, and they became panicky and all the people who were already in the assembly areas, waiting to be loaded, started running toward the lobby.
At this time also, people who were at the gates began coming over the top. Also, the masses who were in the CRA compound stated coming in. Before the last group of Marines could get in, they were overrun by people, and they had to shove them out.
Finally, we were able to get the double doors buttoned up. The Marines who were inside the lobby started going up to the Embassy roof.
Roof of American Embassy, Saigon, R. South Vietnam
There were reports of tear gas. We didn't use gas at all. We didn't want to use it. We didn't want to upset the crowds any more than they were. If we had used tear gas, the people would have thrown the canisters back and many of us had already discharged our mask. It would have been foolish of us to use gas and not have the means of protecting ourselves. There was no gas used outside the compound, either.
We secured the final door on the roof and people began coming up toward the roof. They had forced open the main door of the embassy and were appearing on the roof's hello pad. About 30 to 40 people. They never actually got on the main roof.
We took wall lockers that we had staged reactionary gear in and tipped them over and put them against the door. And then we had those large fire extinguishers on the roof - the kind with wheels - and we brought them inside and put them against the wall lockers to reinforce the door.
We were told to take off our packs so we could get more people on the choppers. Then everything came to a standstill and we just sat. All the Marines were up there. No birds in sight. But I never thought for one minute that the choppers would leave us behind.
We realized that the ships were pretty far out and the choppers were taking a long time getting to the ships and back. We were afraid the enemy might re-direct their artillery and rocket fire on top of the roof. We could see that rockets had picked up again on Tan Son Nhut and we wondered "What if they lift the rockets at us?" There was no place to disperse.
We were up there pretty close to an hour before any birds showed up. The ARVNs down below were doing a lot of "cowboy shooting." We figured we'd need nine helicopters to take all of the Marines off the roof. The infantry went first. The MSGs asked to be the last out of Vietnam.
Later I was told that every chopper participating in the evacuation had eight to ten bullet holes from ARVN soldiers. Nobody was hit. I was the last Marine out. I think we got all the Americans out who wanted to leave. Some of them elected to stay there, mostly reporters.
When we got on those birds, all we had was what was on our backs. We were told a couple of days before the evacuation to crate up our gear for shipment home, but we don't think any of it got out. I was in my gear for almost a week. When we got to Manila we changed clothes, given $100 and I bought some civilian clothes. We showered and shaved aboard the ship.
The men were great, and I'm not exaggerating. These kids were really good. They responded to all my commands. Considering how many young, new troops I had, they all worked as a unit. The kids were great ....I should say, the Marines were great.
Let me say this. The primary mission of the MSG is the protection of classified material. Our secondary mission is the protection of American lives.
I believe we did
MSgt Valdez receiving the Navy Commendation and Navy Achievement Medals.
MSgt Valdez after the evacuation on the USS Blueridge
MGySgt J.J. Valdez the former SNCO of MSG Saigon is on the top row, 6th from the left
Photo taken at the 25th Fall of Saigon reunion and memorial services for LCpl Darwin Judge USMC
At Cpl Charles McMahon's Memorial Services.
MGySgt J. J. Valdez is 5th from the left.
Top Valdez after the evacuation on the USS Blue ridge April - May 1975
MGySgt Valdez's Speech at our 25th Memorial/Reunion