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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The Marines slammed shut the double doors and bolted them. They rode the elevators to the sixth floor, locked the power off, threw the keys down the shafts, then started for the stairwells. With the outside perimeter abandoned, it was now a race against time—a race against whoever would be next to storm up the embassy stairs.

Kean did the math. There were about 60 Marines and a few men from other services scattered about the rooftop. “I figure it will take three, maybe four runs at most,” he said to the men.

General Carey paced the deck of the Blue Ridge and read the cable in disbelief. Somewhere along the line, someone had misinterpreted Captain Berry’s coded transmission, “The tiger is out of his cage.” Instead of understanding that the ambassador had left the embassy, it was inferred that all Americans had been evacuated from Saigon. The airlift was now considered complete. The helicopters had been ordered grounded.

Frantic, Carey telephoned Lieutenant General Lou Wilson in Honolulu. “General,” replied Wilson, “I want you to inform the entire chain of command there of one important fact. I will personally court-martial anyone, regardless of service or rank, who halts any flights while Marines remain unaccounted for. Are you clear on that?”

Carey said he was.

It did not take long for hundreds of angry South Vietnamese to flood up the embassy stairwell, breaking the chain link barriers as they came. The Marines heard the gates crash, one by one, until the mob was directly outside the barricaded steel door leading to the roof.

In the distance, the Marines heard the beating rotors of a helicopter approaching. The poor souls in the stairwell heard it too. There was a brief pause in the pandemonium, and then the door’s hinges creaked and began to buckle.

As the first Sea Knight’s rear wheels bounced onto the helipad, the sky was the clear blue of watery ink, somewhere between night and dawn. The helo’s engine geared down, and Schagat, Berry’s wingman, leaned out and grinned.

Berry hovered above, waiting to take Schagat’s place. For a brief moment, as Berry gazed toward the southeast, he was certain that the sun had risen pocked with black dots, like a swarm of angry bees. He realized that the “bees” darkening the skies above the South China Sea were hundreds of South Vietnamese helicopters issuing from the coast and making for the fleet.

Schagat’s chopper was up and gone within 10 minutes. As Berry’s aircraft swooped down, Kean took another head count and turned to Valdez.

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