Last Men Out

As Saigon fell, a small band of Marines pulled off the final evacuation.

During the United States’ final 24 hours in Vietnam, American nationals and Vietnamese refugees were crowded onto Marine and Air Force helicopters that landed within the U.S. embassy compound. (Courtesy Stuart Herrington)
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By now, the leading edge of the rain squalls had formed a curtain falling across the eastern edge of Saigon. The first wave of Marine pilots reported poor-to-zero visibility. Seventh Fleet air traffic controllers tracked the rain clouds on radar while simultaneously remaining alert for American craft straying out of the two predetermined corridors in and out of the city.

The Michigan corridor, at 6,500 feet, was reserved for inbound aircraft; the Ohio corridor, at 5,500 feet, for outbound. Soon enough, both pilots and air traffic controllers knew, the monsoon clouds would force their aircraft below the flight corridors and down into range of small-arms fire and rocket-propelled grenades.

Forty miles away, a light drizzle began to fall on the embassy compound. From the edge of the parking lot, Major Kean watched the helicopters overfly the embassy. He knew they were headed toward the DAO. Kean went inside and picked up the telephone, and was patched through to the DAO’s Colonel Alfred Gray. Gray told him that, as Kean suspected, General Carey and Admiral Steele had been under the impression that all but a skeleton staff had been extracted from the embassy by bus and convoyed to the DAO. Carey had scheduled only two airlifts for the embassy, to accommodate the ambassador and a small remaining Marine guard.

“I need choppers here, lots of them,” Kean said. He told Gray that in addition to the embassy staff, his Marines, and the 1,000-plus refugees already inside the walls, he was receiving estimates that there could be as many as 10,000 Vietnamese surrounding the compound.

Kean hung up and took an elevator to the roof. He found Master Sergeant Juan Valdez, the noncommissioned officer in charge, whom the men called “Top,” outside the incinerator room.

“Choppers on their way,” he said. Both men peered over the edge at the parking lot. “Fifty-threes down there”—Kean swiveled to check the helipad atop the incinerator room—“…-46s up here.”

IT WAS NEARLY 6 P.M. when Kean, on the embassy roof, heard the washboard thumping of the helicopter rotors in the distance. A moment later he spotted a flight of four Sea Knights banking hard and lining up in formation for successive descents. The Marines had already cordoned off four groups of refugees, each consisting of 20 to 25 people, and were herding them up the stairs to the roof for boarding on the empty CH-46s. Not long after, the CH-53s approached the parking lot.

The helicopters descended at 10-minute intervals. They found the top of the vertical tunnel, slowed their forward progress, hovered for an instant, then one at a time made the dizzying 70-foot drop as if hurtling down an elevator chute. If a helicopter crashed in the parking lot, there was nothing with which to move it, and thus no more choppers coming in.

There was less than an hour left before the sun went down. The pilot yelled: “How many left?”

“At least a thousand.”

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