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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“Never get us all in,” Valdez said.

Kean looked around. “Top,” he said. “Give me nine guys I can bet my life on.”

When Lady Ace 09 was loaded and ready to lift off, Berry gave Kean the thumbs-up. The pilot was checking his control panel when the major walked to the cockpit. Berry pulled the headset from his ear and leaned out the window.

“Make sure you get back for us,” Kean said. “Don’t leave us here.”

In Washington, D.C., Secretary of State Henry Kissinger had been assured that Graham Martin had finally departed the embassy, on the last American helicopter to leave Saigon, and was now safe with the Seventh Fleet.

Now Kissinger had one final task: to face a press corps that, in his words, would go to any length to confirm “that everything that had ever happened [in Vietnam] had been an unforgivable mistake.” As he crossed the passageway between the White House and the Executive Office Building, he studied the statement he was about to read, the statement he was certain would be ignored. He would try to tell the newspeople that it was too soon for a postmortem on Vietnam, that the wounds to the country were still too raw. They would not understand. They wanted blood.

After Kissinger concluded his plea for a period of introspection, a reporter asked the question on everyone’s mind: “Mr. Secretary, there are reports that there are still Marines at the embassy in Saigon. Can you confirm that, and why are they still there?”

Kissinger, visibly flummoxed, could only stare at the upturned faces in the gallery. He turned abruptly and hurried from the podium. He found an aide and demanded a telephone. He needed to get in touch with the Seventh Fleet, or anyone who could confirm this horrible error. And then he needed to speak to the president.

THEY HAD ALL HEARD the stories about North Vietnamese prison camps. The Hanoi Hilton. The Tiger Cages. Staff Sergeant Mike Sullivan intuited the thoughts running through each man’s mind. It wasn’t supposed to end like this. Vietnam was supposed to be another Korea, a country divided in the middle, the southern half kept safe by an uneasy truce backed by American might. “Everybody bring it in,” he said.

One by one the Marines gathered about him. One asked, “You think the fleet’s even still out there?”

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