The last Americans in Vietnam vowed to fight to the death as desperate refugees stormed the U.S. Embassy, and NVA tanks approached on the streets below.
The noose was tightening around Saigon in the dark morning hours of April 30, 1975. The previous 24 hours had seen the frenzied evacuations of thousands via helicopters, since fixed-wing aircraft escape was rendered impossible after the Tan Son Nhut runway had been bombed. Two of Marine Security Guard (MSG) Major Jim Kean’s men had been killed at Tan Son Nhut early on April 29, and since then hundreds of helicopters had landed on the U.S. Embassy grounds and rooftop heliport to ferry the remaining Americans and desperate refugees to U.S. ships in the South China Sea. A stubborn and somewhat deluded U.S. Ambassador Graham Martin had finally relented to pressure to leave, and at 4:58 a.m. lifted off the embassy roof aboard Marine Captain Gerry Berry’s Lady Ace 09, bound for the Seventh Fleet command ship Blue Ridge. Meanwhile, hundreds of desperate people were arrayed on the embassy grounds awaiting their promised evacuation, and thousands surrounded the compound clambering to get in.
Despite his radio conversation with Marine Brig. Gen. Richard E. Carey, who was in charge of the helicopter operation from aboard the Jim Kean had not quite given up on the arrival of more rescue helicopters. Carey had told him, on orders from the White House, that after the ambassador was gone, “All remaining lifts will be limited Blue Ridge, Major to U.S. and amphibious personnel.” He had been assembling a stick of Vietnamese near the parking lot when the ambassador evacuated, but after Berry’s CH-46 lifted off he waited in vain for another. When after 20 minutes none arrived, he told the Vietnamese not to move and walked toward the embassy’s front door, where he spotted Staff Sgt. Mike Sullivan hunched beside a low wall.
Sullivan lit a cigarette. “Gone, sir. Took the flag with him.”
Kean squatted next to the sergeant, who offered him a smoke. Kean shook his head, found his last Cuban cigar in his pocket, and lit it.
The two exchanged weary smiles. As they sat silently amid the blue tobacco haze, Kean saw one of the three U.S. Army officers still in the compound, Colonel John Madison, walking toward them.
“No more CH-53s,” Kean said. The big Sea Stallions were finished with their embassy runs. His voice was hoarse from fatigue and grit. “Just Americans now. Roof.”
Madison stopped in his tracks. He waved toward the 400 or so Vietnamese still inside the compound. “We made a commitment. Six more birds is all. This is doable.”
Kean was unmoved and too spent for niceties. He stubbed out the cigar, shoved the half-smoked nub in his pocket, and shrugged.
“I’ll refuse to leave without them,” Madison said. “I’m going to see the ambassador.”
“Then you’ll need a chopper, sir,” Kean said, making it clear that more talk was futile. He spotted Master Sgt. Juan Valdez exiting the embassy’s front door.
“Time to button up, Top,” he said. “Everybody off the walls. Picket lines. Three rings.”
Valdez stared hard at Kean. He could guess immediately why the Army colonel was so pissed off. He turned to take in the miserable Vietnamese still staged near the swimming pool. Some were sitting on their luggage, others standing obediently in their prearranged sticks. He sensed that the departure of the last few helicopters from the roof had raised some inchoate fear among the crowds on the streets, the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) deserters in particular. The MSGs and the contingent of Fleet Marines, which had been ferried in earlier in the day to support the MSGs, were once again leaning their shoulders into the wrought-iron bars of the embassy gates. Oddly, the refugees inside the compound remained as complacent as a flock of sheep.
“Nobody else?” Valdez finally said. It was more of a plea than a question.
“Round eyes only,” Kean said. Two Seabees trotted out of the embassy to inform the major that they had completed the dismantling of the embassy’s communications center, the Bubble Room. Everything left was set to blow. Valdez eyed the Navy men. The largest looked as if he had just shaved with a blowtorch.
“Men with the buses?” Kean asked, referring to Marines who hours earlier had been sent to make a final sweep of the downtown pickup points in search of American stragglers.
Valdez motioned toward the ambassador’s personal security unit (PSU) staff sergeants, Dwight McDonald and Steve Johnson. He had just posted them at the main gate. Shortly after midnight, the two had volunteered to accompany the vehicles. The effort had fallen into chaos almost immediately. “Last one got in five minutes ago, sir,” Valdez said. “All PSUs and MSGs accounted for.”
“Good. I’ll send Sullivan to the back,” said Keane. “Tell him to secure the rear door and watch for a star cluster.”
Valdez took one last look at the forlorn 400 before he and Kean sprinted off in opposite directions, the major weaving in and among the MSG squad leaders and the young Fleet Marine lieutenants, the master sergeant loping toward the first of the four machine gun nests about to be abandoned.
“On my signal we will withdraw calmly in a semicircle toward the embassy front door,” Kean told each squad leader. “No running, no shouting.”
Moments later, someone fired a flare gun that lifted a five-point radius into the night sky. The star cluster. Staff Sgt. Mike Sullivan led the Fleet Marines to the front of the embassy where they mixed with the MSGs. They formed up, as casually as possible, in three concentric half-moons of about 15 men each. These were fronted by a six-man picket line of Valdez and his MSGs, Gunnery Sgt. Bobby Schlager and Corporals Steve Schuller, Dave Norman, Terry Bennington and Steve Bauer. The 400 or so Vietnamese compacted into sticks stretching from the parking lot to the swimming pool area began to stir as the entire mass of Marines edged slowly backward toward the Chancery’s 3-inch-thick mahogany double doors.
For one haunting moment, it seemed as if events were transpiring in slow motion. A dead calm fell over the clamor at the embassy gates. The Vietnamese stared blankly at the American troops as the innermost perimeter, its flanks collapsing in on itself, backed into the lobby. Perhaps half of the Marines in the second perimeter had made it inside before a giant roar drowned out even the sounds of artillery falling on the city’s outskirts.
“Here they come!” someone shouted, and the front gates gave way like matchsticks. People poured into the compound from Thong Nhut Boulevard and Mac Dinh Nhut Street. Rifle reports rang out. On orders from Kean, the Marines did not return fire, instead crouching and swinging the butts of their M-16s at the encroaching mass.
“That Charlie shooting at us?” said Bauer. Bennington was bent over next to him. “Them or pissed-off ARVN.”
“Take Charlie,” said Bauer just as a wiry Vietnamese man squeezed past him and made a run for the elevator. Bauer tackled him from behind, lifted him with one hand and tossed him back through the door.
The crowd was close to overwhelming the Americans when the huge Seabee chief petty officer lofted one of the three 8-foot steel beams used to bar the Chancery’s mahogany double doors. He hefted the pipe, 5 inches in diameter, to his shoulders like a yoked ox and dashed out into the courtyard in front of the Marines. He began spinning. The foyer echoed with screams and the dull thuds of steel smashing flesh.
Kean was at the door pulling men inside when one of the Fleet Marine lieutenants hollered, “Tear gas, Major?”
Kean barely looked at him. The Marines had no gas masks. “No, El-Tee,” he said. “Just get your men in.” His voice was so calm he could have been ordering chow.
Bennington and Schlager grabbed Bauer by the back of his collar and yanked him under the Seabee’s swinging steel bar. He landed on his butt on the lobby’s marble floor. And then it was done. The Seabee was the last man in. The Marines slammed shut the double doors, and the Navy man bolted it with his beam. Inside the lobby, Kean pressed a button to electronically lower a chain-link hand grenade screen that dropped from the ceiling. It fell halfway to the floor and stopped, its gears grinding and its motor stalled.
The hell with this. He hollered, “Everybody upstairs.”
Valdez led a squad of MSGs over to the two elevators, rode them to the sixth floor, locked their power off and threw the keys down the shafts. As the main body started for the stairwell, Sullivan stopped to pick up his PRC-25 radio—the cumbersome, 25-pound “Prick 25” he’d been toting on his back since nightfall. As he lifted it onto his shoulders, he was startled to see four American civilians, three men and a woman, huddled on a bench in a far corner. He thought that all of the State Department employees were long gone.
“Time to go, folks.”
“We’re staying,” one of the men said.
The staff sergeant stared at him, puzzled. “You realize the next people through this door are likely either pissed-off ARVN or NVA.”
“We’re press,” the woman said. “The story here is just beginning.”
“Have it your way,” Sullivan said. “Good-bye and good luck.”
Sullivan took a few steps toward the last of the MSGs sweeping up the stairwell and paused. Should he order the reporters to come with him? He didn’t think they had any idea of the gravity of their situation. He also didn’t think he had the authority. He had his own men to watch over. He took off at a trot.
There were accordion grill gates on the second and fourth landings. The MSGs closed and padlocked them, but not before another small squad led by Dave Norman broke off for the fourth-floor Bubble Room to set the timers on the thermite grenades.
John Ghilain was one of the last MSGs to make it to the roof. On Sullivan’s orders, he had detoured to the makeshift office off the lobby to pick up a sea bag containing the detachment’s passports and record books. He found them where Sullivan said he would, threw the bag over his shoulder, and headed up the stairs while Marines waited to lock the grill gates behind him. When he reached the small stairwell landing leading from the incinerator room to the roof, he was stopped by an Army colonel he did not recognize.
“No personal effects,” the colonel said.
“Colonel, my assistant NCOIC ordered me to bring this,” said Ghilain. “It’s our medical and dental records, pay records and vouchers. Our passports and Marine ID cards.”
“No personal effects.”
Ghilain dropped the bag. Fuckin’Army. More deadwood than a fire hazard.
With the outside perimeter abandoned, it was now a race against time—and more concretely, a race against whoever would be next to storm up the embassy stairs. There was no lock on the steel door that led from the stairwell, past the incinerators—still glowing from the tons of documents that had been burned in them—and onto the roof. Valdez, Sullivan and Bauer tipped over a stack of heavy wall lockers near the furnaces, dragged them out through the door and slammed it shut behind them. They piled the lockers in front of the entrance and buttressed the blockade with two cylindrical fire extinguishers on wheels, each as big as a large man. As they wedged the fire extinguishers against the entrance, Kean found the young Lieutenant Thompson-Powers amid his Fleet Marines.
“Lieutenant, get your men into sticks,” Kean said. “Twenty each. Packs off. Leave them. Keep your weapons. Your men off first.”
Kean had already done the math. After Ambassador Graham Martin’s departure, the last of the State Department employees and most of the Fleet Marines had been lifted out while he’d been working the parking lot. There were about 60 Marines and a few scattered men from other services in various states of dishevelment scattered about the rooftop. Kean studied his weary MSGs. He was reminded of a photo he once saw of Pancho Villa’s raiders. The incoming helos were reporting numerous firefights throughout the city, as well as intense small-arms fire directed at the aircraft from a copse of trees not far outside the embassy wall on the northeast corner of the compound. Who was shooting at the Americans, no one knew, which only set nerves more on edge. Thinking of his two young MSGs killed at Tan Son Nhut the day before, Kean vowed: If any more of my men wind up leaving here in a body bag, someone back in the States will pay. He looked to the young lieutenant.
“I figure it’ll take three, maybe four runs at most,” he said.
Steve Schuller noticed a pile of discarded Fleet Marine gear stacked at the foot of the outdoor staircase leading to the helipad. He moved toward it in a crouch and began picking through it in hopes of finding a cleaner shirt. His own was bloody and sticky. He forgot himself for a moment and stood straight up. Small-arms fire ricocheted off a cornice a few feet from his head.
“Jesus Christ, stay down,” Bennington yelled.
But Schuller was now curious. He crawled several paces and lifted his head above the parapet. Thong Nhut Boulevard resembled a bumper car track. Furious men and boys, many of them drunk, had jump-started the abandoned American vehicles and crashed them into each other up and down its three long blocks. Directly beneath him, the two-ton mission warden fire truck had been driven through the embassy’s mahogany doors, smashing them off their hinges. Vietnamese were pouring through the gap. This, however, was not what fascinated, and frightened, Schuller most.
“Bennington, check this out.”
The sergeant edged over; Schuller pointed. All about the street, small knots of armed ARVN soldiers were doffing their uniforms. Some remained in their skivvies, while others shanghaied civilians and forced them to strip at gunpoint and hand over their clothes. The ARVNs weren’t stupid. Reports had been trickling into Saigon for some time of the Cambodian killing fields run by Pol Pot and his Khmer Rouge. Royal Cambodian Army soldiers had been the first to be executed. Why should the North Vietnamese act any different?
“Believe that?” Schuller said.
But Bennington was focused on the area near the swimming pool, where the outdoor lights still blazed. Schuller followed his gaze. The pool itself was a discolored swamp of luggage, confiscated weapons and human excrement. Incredibly, some people were drinking the water. More incongruous were the Vietnamese refugees surrounding it, the last of the “endangered list” allowed into the compound. They remained queued up in their squared sticks, awaiting a rescue that would never arrive. Even the local mission wardens, the firemen in the bright yellow coats who had been promised freedom in return for staying to the end in case there was a chopper crash, remained at their posts. Still believing the promise. Convinced that the United States of America would not abandon them.
Not far away, on the roof of the mission warden outpost, a few men in their distinctive jackets stared forlornly up to the embassy roof. Schuller and Bennington could see the ladder the MSGs had used to help save the firemen’s families just hours ago lying across the roof of the adjacent generator building.
“Shit,” Schuller said.
“Yeah,” Bennington said.
Top Valdez and Steve Bauer leaned against the fire extinguishers and wiped sweat from their faces.
“You got this, now,” Valdez said, and dug into his pack. He extracted three gas grenades. Unlike standard Marine-issue explosive or concussive grenades, these contained settings that allowed them to be either tossed or sprayed like mace once their pins were pulled.
“I want you to walk back and forth in front of this door,” Valdez said. “Like standing official sentry. Rifle at your chest. They’ll be able to see you from that little window. Gun might make ’em think twice. Maybe buy us some time.”
Valdez handed Bauer the gas grenades. “Use them if you have to.”
The top sergeant left Bauer alone and joined Major Kean at the edge of the rooftop. The Saigon River was at low tide, and the putrid stink of rotting vegetation commixing with the spires of smoke from the looted, burning buildings across the city lent the air the look, smell and feel of Hell’s kitchen. Kean leaned over the parapet and elbowed Valdez. Below them, a few stalwart young men were attempting to scale the rocket screen. One even made it as far as the second story before falling. “Jesus, like spiders,” Valdez said.
“So where are they?” Mike Sullivan’s eyes darted from the empty night sky to the stick of Fleet Marines ringing the helipad.
“Refueling.” Major Kean was pacing the roof. He glanced at his watch: 0510. The sun would be showing itself soon. “They’re coming. They’re coming.”
General Carey paced the deck of the USS read the cable in disbelief. Somewhere along the line— no one knew where, or who would confess to it, at any rate—someone had misinterpreted Captain Berry’s coded transmission as he lifted off the embassy with the Blue Ridge and ambassador aboard, “The Tiger is out of his cage.” It was inferred that Ambassador Martin’s arrival on the Blue Ridge meant that all Americans had been evacuated from Saigon. The airlift was now considered complete. The helicopters had been ordered grounded.
Frantic, Carey again telephoned Lt. Gen. Louis Wilson in Honolulu, Fleet Marine Corps commanding general. Wilson was no less angry and frustrated than he had been at an earlier flight stoppage and once again in a position to do something about it. “General, I want you to inform the entire chain of command there of one important fact,” Wilson told Carey. “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, smashing the chain link barriers as they came. Steve Bauer could hear the gates crash, one by one, until the mob was directly outside the barricaded steel door leading to the roof.
Bauer glimpsed their faces, some pleading, some furious, before dozens of pounding fists cracked and finally smashed the thick, 8- by-11-inch window set high in the door. Shards of glass clung to its wire mesh. The hands and arms reaching through, some holding papers testifying to their employment at American agencies, were soon torn and bloody. Still, they did not stop. Slender brown fingers grasped for the outside door handle. Bauer sprayed a burst from one of the CS grenades, sending a shower of chlorobenzyllidenemalononitrile gas through the window. He heard coughing, screaming, gagging. But it felled only the first wave. More arms and hands followed. More flesh torn. He sprayed again. Some were so panicked that the mace was not even affecting them.
He stepped back at this and considered the men—and they were mostly men—he was gassing. He did not recognize their contorted faces as they pressed against the broken glass yelling unintelligible words, and he certainly did not know their names. But he knew there had to be people on the other side of that door with whom he had worked, perhaps even policemen and mission wardens in whom he had entrusted his life. He understood that it was too late to begin checking papers again, too late to change the course of this debacle. That door was now a floodgate, and if he opened it, no one, American or Vietnamese, would leave this roof alive. At the same time he wanted to reach out, back through that shattered window, to soothe them, to somehow let them know that this was not his fault, that important people, more powerful than a lowly Marine corporal, had set this tragedy in motion. It was the wrong thing to do. The wrong position for the United States of America to put him in.
He sprayed again. He had his orders, noxious as they were.
In the distance, he 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. The final shard of glass broke from the corner of the wire mesh as people on the other side screamed and begged. Bauer retrieved another CS canister from his camouflage web netting and pulled the pin.
“Everybody down. Flat on your stomachs.”
Jim Kean crouched on the helipad holding two large, glowing flashlights. A dozen Fleet Marines spread about the edges of the landing zone with the luminescent “H,” with another dozen crouched behind them in a line snaking up the outside staircase.
Kean gestured toward their lieutenant. “Have all your men lose their helmets and flak gear. Less weight, more people. We’ll cram as many as we can into each load.”
The officer nodded, swiveled and addressed his Marines. They continued to crouch as they stripped down.
Juan Valdez watched the scene with melancholy. He was transported back in time, back 10 years, to the jungles surrounding Da Nang. Hollow cries for a medic. A medical chopper braving withering fire to land to evacuate the wounded. Charlie hiding in the tall trees shooting down at his AMTRACs. He scanned the windows of the British Embassy across the street for snipers. They were all dark.
They all heard the helicopters before they saw them—the blat-blat-blat of the rotors echoing off the exposed banks of the river at low tide. Kean and Steve Schuller raised their flashlights.
Kean noticed that two or three of his exhausted MSGs had fallen asleep on the helipad and were only now stirring as the first bird banked in for a landing. It was only 20 feet above the landing zone when one of them, one of the young kids, abruptly rose to his feet. Before he could holler, the MSG was lifted off the pad by the upwash and dropped back to the roof 12 feet below. The major watched him execute a perfect parachute roll and stand up with a dazed and embarrassed look.
As the first Sea Knight’s rear wheels bounced onto the helipad, the sky was the cool clear blue of watery ink, somewhere between night and dawn. A moment later, a small sliver of sun on the eastern horizon burst abruptly into a blooming red dahlia, blossoms ablaze in a cloudless sky. The helo’s engine geared down, and Captain Claus Schagut, Gerry Berry’s wingman, leaned out from the cockpit window and flashed a grand smile. Though his face betrayed no anxiety, Schagut was twirling his arm in a circular motion, exhorting the Marines to move it, move it, move it! Valdez noticed that the fuselage of Schagut’s aircraft was riddled with bullet holes.
Captain Berry’s Lady Ace 09 hovered above, waiting to take his 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. It wasn’t long before he realized that those “bees” darkening the skies above the South China Sea were hundreds of South Vietnamese helicopters issuing from the coast and the Mekong Delta and making for the fleet.
Meanwhile, Fleet Marines, Seabees, the Army officers and an Air Force colonel from the Defense Attache Office were among those who filed up the tailgate into Schagut’s aircraft. The chopper was up and gone, out over the Saigon River, within 10 minutes. Kean stood on the helipad waving the last of the Fleet Marines up the staircase. This load was mixed with MSGs. As Berry’s aircraft swooped down, the bright orange fireballs of NVA artillery far in the distance ringed Saigon’s northern suburbs.
Kean took another head count. But he knew he was weary and asked Valdez to double-check his figures. They both came up with too many MSGs remaining.
“Never get us all in,” Valdez said.
“Stripped of all gear?”
“I got them on each other’s laps in there as is. Any more weight, he won’t get air.”
Kean looked around. The sky was a breathtaking blue. It was one of the most beautiful Saigon mornings he had ever seen. He was too tired to appreciate it. Exhausted men do not compose lyrical odes to radiant nature.
“Top,” he said. “Give me nine guys I can bet my life on.”
Gerry Berry gave Jim Kean the thumbs-up when Lady Ace 09 was loaded and ready to lift off. The pilot was checking his control panel when the major walked to the cockpit and tugged his sleeve. Berry pulled the headset away from his left ear and leaned out the window.
“Make sure you get back for us,” Kean said. “Don’t leave us here.”
Major Kean, Master Sgt. Valdez, Staff Sgt. Mike Sullivan and their handpicked MSGs left behind: Steve Schuller, Terry Bennington, Steve Bauer, Bobby Schlager, Dave Norman, Duane Gevers, Phil Babel and Bobby Frain, all wondered anxiously for more than an hour if they might die on the embassy roof as a fitting finale to the war. Under sniper fire, wary of the enemy’s artillery and hearing the rumble of NVA tanks rolling toward them, the men had voted to make a last stand and fight—just moments before a CH-46, Swift 22, came into view.
From Last Men Out by Bob Drury and Tom Clavin. Copyright 2011 by Bob Drury and Tom Clavin. Reprinted by permission of Free Press, a division of Simon & Schuster, Inc. Available now at HistoryNetShop.com.
Originally published in the August 2011 issue of Vietnam Magazine. To subscribe, click here.