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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“Fleet not gonna like that.”

Kean shrugged.

“I might be the last for a while,” the pilot said. “Deciding out there whether to fly after dark.”

Kean knew that even Marine pilots needed downtime. There was nothing he could say. He loaded the helicopter, watched it rise, and, once it had cleared the roof, saw the pilot jam his throttle forward as the helicopter curved out of sight, following the contours of the Saigon River.

As the sky turned black, Carey told Kean that as soon as the DAO evacuation was completed, the embassy would begin receiving CH-46s on the roof and CH-53s out of the parking lot. But as the twilight shadows lengthened, helicopter pilots descending into the embassy compound began encountering difficulties with visibility. The last few to make it in to the parking lot landing zone told Kean that Task Force 76 commander, Admiral David Whitmire, had ordered all CH-53 evacuations to cease at complete dark. They might be able to get on and off the roof, but there was no way they could chance a blind vertical descent to the parking lot.

Kean asked a CH-53 pilot to relay the message that he would have the parking lot lit up like Broadway, and ordered a squad of Marine guards to round up and fuel every vehicle remaining in the compound. Within 10 minutes, the landing zone was encircled by glowing headlights.

But by 1 a.m. the vectoring helicopter pilots were having difficulty making out the now-dimming headlights.

Dazed by fatigue, it took the Marines at the embassy some moments to realize that the whap-whap-whap of the helicopter rotors was no longer beating against their eardrums. Had the evacuation operation ended with hundreds of people still within the embassy compound? No one seemed to know. Out on the Blue Ridge, Carey reached the war room and confronted Task Force 76’s Admiral Whitmire.

Whitmire told him that on orders from “Washington,” he had grounded all flights out of concern for flight safety.

Carey tried to hold his temper. In a calm voice he noted to Whitmire that by the time the pilots had completed their mandatory rest time and got back in the air, the only soldiers left to greet them in Saigon would belong to the North Vietnamese forces fighting to take Saigon.

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