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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From ready rooms, chow lines, and bunks across a plethora of ships, pilots were summoned and ordered back into the air, and the first Marine squadrons began to ascend from the decks. Dawn, and all that it implied, was four hours away.

“Hear that?”

Master Sergeant Juan Valdez glanced from Major Kean to the sky and then to his watch. It was 2:15 a.m., and two Marine H-46s were vectoring over the embassy. Kean was already crouched on the helipad when the first Sea Knight descended. He ran to the cockpit, and the pilot leaned out the window and shouted.

“Nineteen more flights behind me, sir. That’s it.”

The major took a mental head count. There were at least 850 more evacuees scattered around the compound, not counting the 200 or so Marines, as well as a few remaining American civilians and other service members. More than 1,000 people did not divide into 20 helicopters. He knew there was no use arguing with the pilot. He would do the best he could.

At 3:30 a.m., Carey received a flash message from the White House. President Ford had grown tired of his polite requests being ignored, and his orders were succinct: he wanted Ambassador Martin out. Immediately. Moreover, no more Vietnamese were to be evacuated.

Captain Gerry Berry, piloting the CH-46 Lady Ace 09, and his wingman, Captain Klaus Schagat, had been in the first wave of Marines to pluck evacuees from Saigon. Since they’d lifted off from the deck of the USS Dubuque, they had flown 32 round trips into and out of Saigon in the 15 hours.

As Berry touched down on the embassy roof, he grabbed a grease pencil from his pocket and began to write on the frayed and creased laminated card on the clipboard strapped to his leg. The note read, “Ambassador Will Depart With Me. Now.”

Kean advised Berry that he needed confirmation. Berry’s crew chief handed Kean a headset; General Carey was on the other end. Carey told Kean that the order had come directly from the president. “All remaining lifts,” Carey added, “will be limited to U.S. and amphibious personnel.”

“General, my Marines are on the wall, and then there’s the front door of the embassy,” Kean began. “Between my Marines and that front door are some 400 refugees still awaiting evacuation. I want you to understand clearly that when I pull my Marines back to the embassy, those people will be left behind.”

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