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 Marine pilot, Captain Tom Holben, grinned and gave the thumbs up. The Cobra gunships, nose down for optimal firing, swooped like hawks above the embassy. High above them, a Navy A-7 Corsair attack jet left its own vapor trail in the form of interlacing circles.

Kean led the Marines up the ramp. “Pop the gas,” someone yelled, and Gunnery Sergeant Bobby Schlager pulled the pins on two canisters of tear gas. He rolled them out the gunner’s door. They hissed, tumbled off the helipad, and came to a stop.

It took a moment for everyone to realize the mistake. The rotors were sucking the gas vapors into the cockpit and the cabin of the helicopter. The pilots were blinded. The helicopter hopped and lurched, its skids bouncing once, twice, three times off the landing zone.

Through the fog, Valdez could just make out the door to the roof. It bulged, buckled, and then broke.

Holben and his copilot’s eyes were red with fatigue and the effects of the tear gas, but in a moment most of it had blown off. They could see if they squinted. Just as the mob surged up the outside staircase and onto the sun-baked roof, Holben lifted off.

During Operation Frequent Wind, which many referred to as the American Dunkirk, U.S. Marine helicopter pilots flew 682 sorties into Saigon. A total of 395 Americans and 4,475 Vietnamese and third-country nationals were evacuated from the U.S. Defense Attaché’s Office, with another 978 Americans and 1,220 Vietnamese and others rescued from the U.S. embassy. Altogether, more than 7,000 people were lifted out of the city before it was occupied by North Vietnamese troops and the Viet Cong.

Bob Drury has written two books with Tom Clavin (Halsey’s Typhoon and The Last Stand of Fox Company) and is a contributing editor for Men’s Health magazine. Tom Clavin is the author or coauthor of 11 books, and the former editorin- chief of The Independent, a weekly newspaper chain.

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