View Full Version : As Marine Choppers Flew and Siagon Fell

10-19-02, 02:37 PM
They Played "White Christmas"

Story by Sgt. Steven A. Davis

As if conjured by the farsighted imagination of a Greek tragedian, the final days of the Vietnam War ended in bitter paradox. America's noble ambition at the war's beginning--to champion democracy and aid a people menaced by communist aggression--had gradually spiraled into disillusionment and ignominy.

This sadness which President Ford painfully described, the final brush stroke to a peculiar masterpiece 10,000 days in the making, intimately involved men whose duty it was to protect and defend the American Embassy in Saigon. This burden, arguably the darkest hour in American military history, was shouldered by a special breed and remains a significant yet overlooked event in Marine lore.

As enemy tanks rumbled into Saigon, the last vestige of U.S. military presence in Vietnam was lifted via helicopter from the embassy rooftop 25 years ago, in April 1975. Manning walls much like those individuals who were immortalized at the Alamo did, these defenders went sleepless and hungry for days, saving countless lives during an interval filled with chaos and hysteria. This is their story, their insights and reflections: the Marine security guards of Saigon.

In the early hours of 29 April 1975, the grim and undeniable reality became apparent to the highest-ranking American official in Vietnam.

For weeks, an uneasy tension had mounted in Saigon as the North Vietnamese Army began an aggressive and largely unabated sweep down the coast of the South China Sea. Da Nang had fallen less than a month prior, prompting a panic-stricken exodus of South Vietnamese soldiers and civilians alike. Two weeks before that, in neighboring Cambodia, Marines and 7th Fleet sailors evacuated U.S. personnel from Phnom Penh as communist Khmer Rouge forces began to overrun the capital. The final South Vietnamese resistance was overwhelmed by three NVA divisions on 20 April at Xuan Loc, located only 38 miles northwest of the capital city.

As both South Vietnamese defense and spirit crumbled, President Nguyen Van Thieu transferred power on 21 April to ailing Vice President Tran Van Huong before the National Assembly. Hanoi's minister of defense and mastermind of the French defeat at Dien Bien Phu 30 years earlier sensed that this was the long-awaited sign that victory was at hand. Quickly seizing the momentum, General Vo Nguyen Giap ordered an all-out assault on the southern capital.

State Department officials, warily monitoring the events from Washington, D.C., began to realize the situation was untenable. Scores of NVA rockets and artillery shells began to pound Tan Son Nhut air base. Thousands of desperate Vietnamese were besieging the embassy, with hopes that either through bribery, sympathy or luck, they too might accompany the retreating Americans.

Graham Martin, American Ambassador to South Vietnam, finally received the call he dreaded: President Ford had approved and directed Option IV, the helicopter evacuation of Saigon. Operation Frequent Wind officially began shortly before 1100, 29 April, when Armed Forces Radio broadcasted "(I'm Dreaming of a) White Christmas."

The miracle for which Martin waited--a heroic, last-ditch defense at Xuan Loc or perhaps a last-minute negotiation with the North Vietnamese to avoid invasion of the city--had never materialized. His confidence now rested on the Marine security guards who manned the embassy walls, Marine Aircraft Group 36 helicopter pilots who would execute the mission, and Marines and sailors aboard 7th Fleet ships located in the South China Sea just over the horizon.

Daily flights began evacuating up to 500 U.S. personnel, foreign nationals and "at-risk" Vietnamese--those who supported the U.S. government--in early April when the South Vietnamese collapse loomed. The key to these large-scale evacuations was Tan Son Nhut, which served as the Defense Attaché Office (DAO) command center and departure point for large, fixed-wing aircraft.

As the state of affairs began to deteriorate, 16 of the 45 Saigon MSGs were siphoned off to assist in processing and providing security at the DAO on 19 April. "I didn't like the idea of splitting my forces," recalled then-Master Sergeant Juan J. Valdez, "but we were under the operational control of the State Department, and what they said was it."

Like many of the senior leaders in Saigon at the time, Valdez was well-seasoned and had seen many swings of the pendulum in Vietnam. During the early stages of the war, the San Antonio native served a two-year tour from 1965 to 1967 with Company B, 3d Amphibian Tractor Battalion, attached to 2d Bn, Fourth Marine Regiment. He returned once again in September 1974, this time as the Saigon detachment noncommissioned officer in charge.

Initial embassy estimates predicted that approximately 7,000 Americans would seek safe passage out of Saigon. "It now seemed virtually impossible to estimate how many Americans were living in Saigon and nearby Bien Hoa," said Valdez. A sense of uncertainty intensified daily as NVA forces gradually tightened the noose around the city.

"A Vietnamese marriage certificate, which only a few months before had cost no more than $20, now cost up to $2,000," said Valdez. "The crowds never appeared dangerous, just desperate--begging [to leave] the country or get their children off to safety."