Corporal Randy Smith USMC
Corporal Randy Smith
Front Row (L-R): Gary Mellinger, J.D. Sneed, Lamar Holmes, John Ghilain, Doug Potratz, Randy Smith, Terry Bennington, Duane Gevers, Ken Crouse. Second Row = Ted Murray, Kevin Maloney, Steve Moore, Larry Killens, John Kirchner, Bill Newell, Colin Broussard, Mike Sweeny, John Valdez, Steve Stratton, Dean Kinzie, John Moya and Chris Woods.
LAST TO STAND DUTY AND PULL COLORS
My name is Randy (RC) Smith and I was a corporal assigned to post one for the final two weeks that I was in Vietnam. I arrived in Saigon, April 18, l974. I was eighteen years old and would be the youngest Marine in Saigon until December of 74. I shared a piece of birthday cake at the Marine Corps Ball, November 74, with the oldest Marine (a colonel from DAO) and Ambassador Martin. I had orders in the middle of April, 75 to go to Geneva, Switzerland. I was more than willing to move on to my next duty station having spent a year at a hardship post (understatement). I had
called home and informed my parents that I would be going to Switzerland and they were thrilled. Unfortunately, I was informed by (can’t remember who) probably MSGT Valdez, that I was being involuntarily extended to stay through the evacuation. At the time he didn’t tell me about the evacuation, he just said, "Your staying, for the good of the Corps." Okay, I couldn’t say much about that so I went about business as usual. The
only problem was, it wasn’t business as usual. At night I would go to the top of Marshall Hall (Marine House) and pan the horizon and watch the exploding fireworks. For whatever reason, this is something I had done the entire year I was in Saigon. As the year, 1975, was in its infancy the display of firepower became more violent and longer in duration. Also, alarmingly, I could tell that Saigon was a beleaguered city. The noose was tightening and it was apparent it was just a matter of time until Saigon was surrounded and cut off from the rest of the country. Of course I was told
that Saigon would not fall to the communists. I was just a kid, but I had enough sense to realize the end was inevitable. I remember telling this to some locals, but they didn’t believe me. After our consulates in Da Nang, Nha Thrang, Can To, and Bien Hoa had been evacuated we
were still being told that Saigon would not fall. I’ll never forget the MSG’s that were in the Da Nang evacuation. They came to Saigon for a short while after their evacuation. What a horrific situation they had been through. I spoke with one MSG and I could feel his tremendous pain and suffering through his eyes and words. He told me it was unimaginable what took place. His nerves were shot; his ability to function as a cognizant Marine was
questionable. He told me he didn’t want to stay in Saigon and go through that carnage again. It’s not that he was going to disobey orders, he had done what was asked of him in an unbelievably challenging situation, but he didn’t want to go through it again. Thank God, he left Saigon before the (Operation Frequent Wind) evacuation… before he would have to relive that same nightmare twice. Having been in country for a year I knew the Embassy as well as any MSG in Saigon. I was never told, but I believe this to be the reason that I was assigned to permanent post one for the last two weeks. I remember at night when we had the embassy all buttoned up there was an eerie feeling, almost too quiet, too calm. Lance Corporal Jerome Thomas was post two with me for much of those final two weeks. We talked about many things during those two weeks, but we never discussed having to go through an evacuation, an evacuation that was to be the largest helicopter evacuation in history. I remember I was standing duty on April, 29 at post one, at the Embassy, when Major Kean came in the lobby and told me to pull colors and sign off on the log book. American involvement
in Vietnam was coming to an end.. Lance Corporal Thomas and I went and pulled colors for the last time in Vietnam. We carried out our responsibilities pulling colors and folding the flag just like we had done countless times before. The significance of the moment, the realization
that we were ending the Vietnam War was evident in our thoughts. I signed off in the logbook and handed it to Major Kean, the flag along with the logbook made their way to Ambassador Martin ,via Major Kean. The ensuing eighteen hours was a blur. I was positioned at the CRA gate
(Combined Recreation Area) this was the gate between the embassy compound and the recreation area. The CRA was the staging area for the evacuees. It was my responsibility to let the pre-assembled groups go to the incoming choppers; fifty, for the CH-53’s in the parking lot, and thirty-five for the CH-46’s on the rooftop. That may sound like a lot of people, but the Vietnamese were very small generally, and they didn’t have any deuce gear or luggage. The process of letting groups go through the gate was surprisingly orderly. I was in total charge of that gate and I heard a lot of pleading (Marine you let me go now) over those many hours of constantly landing birds. Most realized by this time that they would be one of the lucky ones who would get out alive, but even the shortest wait for the next chopper was like an eternity, they wanted out now. I played no favorites and everyone got the exact same treatment, stern, but fair. As I look back I realize I became harden that day. Not like the thirteen weeks of boot camp that had forever changed me, but I felt like I lost my last remaining glimmer of innocence. I really don’t remember eating or sleeping the last forty-eight hours or so in Saigon. I was operating on sheer instincts and using my Marine Corps training to get the job done at all costs. Many thousands of lives depended on getting on those choppers and getting as far away from the onslaught of communism as possible. It was paramount to all those locals whose lives had been intertwined with the American presence for the past ten thousand days to get out… to get out at all cost. After the endless sorties and what seemed like countless hours all Marines were told to pull back inside of the embassy. With precision, but trepidation we carried out this phase of the evacuation like a silent drill team exercise. Not once did any panic creep into this desperate maneuver. When we got inside the risk of a firefight would be greatly diminished, or so we thought. Having maneuvered inside without causing mass hysteria among the mob we proceeded to secure the embassy’s huge teakwood doors. This act was seen as our final desperate attempt to separate us from the throngs of people now storming the embassy. As we proceeded to make our ascent to the rooftop, we were startled to realize that the out of control mob had driven a huge truck through the doors of the embassy and were pursuing our every step to the top of the roof. Having arrived at the top of the roof we caught our breath only to realize that the following hours were to be the longest of our young lives. Lying on the heliport during the dark morning hours of April 30, l975 I was overwhelmed by a sense of tragedy. After having some form of American involvement for more than twenty years in Vietnam it had come down to forty-two Marines on top of the American Embassy waiting to be rescued to finally end this miserable chapter in American History. There were countless lives lost, families destroyed, a country divided and torn to the very fabric of its existence. And now to leave, to leave like a thief in the night.
How painful it was. There was no honor in leaving this way. I had a heartfelt sorrow for those who had served their country in the isolated forsaken graveyard. For those 58,000 plus who had made the ultimate sacrifice I assure them of this, this is not the way the combatant wanted it to end. We wanted to blow up the embassy and destroy our equipment instead of letting it fall into the hands of the enemy. But, the irony of Vietnam, not letting us win, was the villain again and we lied quietly in our anguish waiting to be plucked from that last bastion of American presence in Vietnam. The choppers stopped coming. After clockwork, precision intervals of landings every ten minutes, no more choppers. How fitting. We were stranded, in the hour of our greatest need, we had to wait. The sun’s arrival brought with it a foreboding realization; we were sitting ducks, ducks on a pond as they say. The NVA jets roared overhead. We could hear the NVA tanks rumbling down the city streets, every minute getting closer and closer. Finally, like an answer to a desperate prayer, three choppers came over the horizon, the sound of their rotors beating was the sweetest sound any of us had ever heard. We had not endured the ferocity and brutality of war on the scale of so many past Marines in the glorious history of the Corps, but what we had gone through, was something that only GOD should have dominion over, to save lives or not. This responsibility of life and death will dwell in our hearts and minds until the last breath we take. The final FORTY-TWO MSG’s would now close out the war. I was on the second to last chopper out. As the chopper was lifting off to the sound of small arms fire… that moment was frozen in time, and also in my mind. Vietnam…. All that could be said of the past…. All that would be said in the future…. Was finally over.
Randy (RC) Smith