Last Men Out
Saigon, 0300, 29 April 1975 T
he monsoon rains had arrived early.
They blew in from the southeast, and Marine Staff Sergeant Mike Sullivan stood on the roof of the U.S. Embassy watching the towering storm clouds scudding up from the South China Sea. He marked the difference between the distant bursts of heat lightning—sudden, silent detonations of white iridescence illuminating the jungle to the horizon—and the tiny pinpricks of orange artillery shells detonating near Bien Hoa, just twenty miles away. Tonight, however, the light show held little interest for Sullivan until he heard the North Vietnamese rockets whiffling overhead—heard them before he saw them, recognized their distinctive whine from long experience in the bush. One-Two-Two-millimeters, he knew. A 122’s peculiar sound always reminded Sullivan of the muscular hiss of a narrow-gauge diesel locomotive. Shhkerthunk-shhkethunk-shhkethunk
. The veteran staff sergeant knew his artillery, and he knew his railroads.
From instinct Sullivan pictured their makeshift launchers, ingenious ladder-shaped devices fashioned from thick bamboo stalks that could be toted up a steep mountain trail or across a muddy rice paddy. But, no, he realized suddenly. Not tonight. There were too many rockets. Which meant they had to be fired from the flatbed of a Russian-made six-by-six truck. Which meant a road. Which meant they were close. He craned his neck, scanned the sable sky, and pointed. Got one
. He traced an index finger in a slow arc, southeast to northwest, following the red tail fire as it sailed in a graceful parabola toward Tan Son Nhut Airport.
“Hundred-pounder,” he said to the scrum of young Marines knee deep
in shredded paper and barely visible through the smoke drifting out of the stifling rooftop blockhouse that housed the brace of cast-iron furnaces. “Smooth-bore launcher. Hard to control where that lands. Like a shotgun blast.”
Within moments more rockets were overhead, and the half-dozen Marines of Sullivan’s “burn squad,” who had been destroying embassy documents on the rooftop, dropped their shovels and gathered about him, looking to the sky and bathing themselves in the soft, warm rain. For weeks the heat and humidity had lain over Saigon like an illness, sapping the will of the few Westerners left to do anything but find a cool room and a cold beer. Yet for seven consecutive days and nights, Sullivan’s rotating teams of sleep-deprived embassy Marine Security Guards had taken shifts feeding all manner of documents into the maws of the white-hot furnaces: coded carbons of ambassadorial cables and secret CIA memoranda, classified military teletypes, American and South Vietnamese personnel records, some dating to 1954, when the French left. They were even burning paper money; thick, bundled stacks of crisp, new $100 bills. Five million worth was the rumor, a fortune in cash turned to gray ash.
The crimson glow from the unlatched furnace doors cast a sheen across the Marines’ soot-streaked faces as they followed Sullivan, who now edged toward a pile of sandbags stacked haphazardly across the northwest corner of the asphalt roof. The staff sergeant took a breath and held it. The Tan Son Nhut airfield was six miles away. He knew he would see it before he heard it. Flash. Boom.
He thought of the 3,000 Vietnamese refugees still crowding the airport—and the handful of U.S. Marines defending it.
For the past eight days Tan Son Nhut had been the busiest airstrip in the world, host to an assembly line of big-bellied U.S. military cargo planes landing empty and taking off with a menagerie of passengers—fleeing South Vietnamese men, women, and children fortunate enough to have landed a slot on the evacuation’s “endangered” list. Some were worthy, and some had begged or bribed American sponsors, but 40,000 had exited the city over the past month. These refugees had mixed with American civilian contractors getting out: machinists, aircraft mechanics, weapons maintenance men, most of them retired military personnel, dragging clans in their wakes to form a sweaty, reeking ball of humanity. The smell was
fear—and avarice. There was good money to be made ferrying newlywed “brides” and their families out of the disintegrating country. The last gold rush of Vietnam. As with all other gold rushes, this one, Sullivan sensed, was a tragedy waiting to happen.
Unlike his young MSGs, Sullivan had seen up close what a 100-pound rocket could do to a human being. Tear a person apart like a meat grinder, is what it could do.
He remembered the jungle bases where he’d fought years earlier, directing artillery fire called in by the LURPs, the long-range Marine reconnaissance patrols. One night in particular stuck in his mind—the river camp at Hoi An, the North Vietnamese Army and Vietcong swarming over the wire from every direction. That attack had also begun with the whine of incoming 122s fired from bamboo launchers. The next morning he’d waded through mounds of American body parts scattered about the elephant grass.
The burn squad formed a semicircle around the veteran staff sergeant as the detonations from Tan Son Nhut came in rapid succession. The gunners were good. Sullivan had no doubt these were trained and experienced NVA regulars, and not VC farm boys. They “walked” their artillery from the U.S. Defense Attaché’s Office (DAO) adjacent to the airport in a direct path toward the dual flight lines and then out to the helicopter landing zones beyond.
The Paris Peace Accords of 1973 had led to the withdrawal of all but a handful of U.S. troops from Vietnam as well as a general cease-fire between the United States and the NVA and VC. In the two years since that treaty, the DAO—an assemblage of huge gray buildings behind a high wire fence from which the generals William Westmoreland and Creighton Abrams had once commanded 1 million fighting men—had become home to hundreds of American civilian contractors and scores of U.S. Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marine personnel managing technical programs in support of South Vietnam’s armed forces. They also worked on the agreed-on release of prisoners of war and, when and if possible, acted as official observers to adherence to the terms of the cease-fire. This included the withdrawal of U.S. and other non-Vietnamese troops from the country.
By 1975, as more POWs, or their remains, were accounted for, the U.S. military presence had drawn down at the DAO. According to the Paris Accords, officially titled “An Agreement on Ending the War and Restoring the Peace in Vietnam,” there were now fifty military officers living at the vast, multibuilding facility, sometimes known as the “Pentagon East.” The MSGs preferred another nickname that someone long ago had dubbed the DAO compound: Dodge City. Tonight it was living up to that provenance. The muffled crump-crump-crump
of the explosions resounded like the echoes of a cowboy movie gunfight.
The Marines on the embassy roof stared dull-eyed as rows of South Vietnamese aircraft erupted in churning gouts of dirt, concrete, and steel. Suddenly Sullivan detected the hum of the heavier 130-millimeter shells accompanying the rocket fire. A moment later he saw an American C-130 cargo plane burst into flames midway between the munitions storage area north of the runways and the airport’s main terminal. He instinctively flinched and took a step backward.
“How many of us out there?”
Sullivan did not even turn. He recognized the sharp Boston accent of Corporal John Ghilain, his voice thick as chowder—Big Blond John, perhaps the strongest man in the outfit. Four days earlier a platoon of Marine infantrymen from the Seventh Fleet had choppered into the DAO compound to provide extra security for an evacuation everyone knew was coming. But Sullivan knew that by “us,” Ghilain meant MSGs.
“Seventeen,” he said. “Including the two newbies.”
Ghilain wiped his dripping forehead with his sleeve. “Jesus Lord,” he said.
The “newbies” or “snuffys”—young Marines of low rank—were Lance Corporal Darwin Judge and Corporal Charles McMahon, who had only recently been deployed to Saigon straight from the MSG School in Quantico, Virginia. The twenty-one-year-old McMahon, eleven days in-country, was particularly raw, and Ghilain had taken a special interest in him when he discovered that they were practically neighbors back home in Massachusetts. McMahon had grown up in Woburn, a blue-collar mill town north of Boston that had already lost twelve of its sons to Vietnam. Although Ghilain was only a few months older than McMahon, his plan
was to mentor the new Marine on the ins and outs of Saigon to ensure that number never reached thirteen. But his pet project was scotched a mere twenty-four hours after McMahon’s arrival, when he and sixteen other MSGs, including the other new man, Judge, were transferred to the DAO to buttress the Fleet Marine presence.
Although loathe to let the others see it, the twenty-nine-year-old Sullivan was also worrying over the safety of the newbies. As the second-ranking noncommissioned officer in the detachment, it was his job to gauge each Marine’s strengths and weaknesses. Yet he had never gotten a feel for McMahon. He just hadn’t been around long enough. The eighteen-year-old Judge was a different story. The son of an Iowa mailman and looking every bit the part, Judge had been in Saigon seven weeks. On his second night in-country, he’d been posted to stand sentry as an adjunct to U.S. Ambassador Graham Martin’s six-man personal security unit, or PSU, at Martin’s residence on Dien Bien Phu Street, four blocks from the embassy. The next morning at chow, Sullivan had been corralled by Marine Staff Sergeant Dwight McDonald, a former MSG who had joined the ambassador’s PSU. McDonald said that Judge had asked him if he ever gets scared.
“Told him, damn right I do. Then gave him a pat on the back and told him to keep his head down.”
Sullivan had nodded and said nothing. The PSUs were a cocky bunch who looked down their noses at the embassy security guards. They dressed in civilian clothing, were allowed to let their hair grow over their collars, and were issued exotic automatic weapons such as Israeli Uzis. In addition, their multiple identification cards gave them nearly diplomatic privileges to roam freely all over the city and the surrounding countryside. To the MSGs, they projected an air of entitlement. Much of this, Sullivan suspected, had to do with the ambassador himself. The MSGs did not care for Martin. When he deigned to speak to them, or even acknowledge their existence for that matter, they found him off-putting and arrogant. But the Marines in his PSU were, by necessity, practically attached to the diplomat’s hip. They adored him.
Yet to Sullivan, what McDonald had told him made sense. The same question Judge had asked crept often enough through Sullivan’s mind, as well as: Why were we still here? In Sullivan’s case, the answer was difficult
to articulate. The winding trail the wiry, red-headed bantam rooster had taken from the rail yards and logging camps of Washington State to a foreign city under siege had been an adventuresome journey. It had not been so long ago, after all, that he had been a kid himself trying to avoid any military service that involved combat in Vietnam. Yet now here he was, a gung-ho Marine, willing to lay down his life for a disintegrating regime he neither liked nor respected.
It would have been one thing, Sullivan reasoned, if America’s evacuation plan was all a ruse—if somewhere deep in the bowels of the Pentagon, the generals and admirals were planning a surprise invasion, an Inchon redux that would drive the North Vietnamese back across the Demilitarized Zone. But Sullivan was not a stupid man, and he knew this was not in the cards. Now, tonight, watching the NVA rockets sail over his head, thinking again about Judge and McMahon and the other MSGs out at the airport absorbing the bombardment, he simmered with anger. If we’re getting out, why wait until now? Why had we allowed our advantage, and our capability to do the job right, slip away?
To Sullivan this entire evacuation was simply a train wreck waiting to happen. And American Marines were standing on the tracks.
In his mind’s eye, he pictured the tow-headed Judge with his piercing smile, and the long, gangly McMahon, the corners of his mouth still scarred from teenage acne. He tried to convince himself that they could fend for themselves. After all, they would not have been selected for the MSG battalion had they not had their wits about them. Marines had been protecting U.S. embassies and consulates since 1949, and the embassy guards were the elite of the Corps. Plucked from the top of their units and taught to handle situations as diverse as table etiquette and hand-to-hand combat, they were all smart men who knew how to think on their feet. Nonetheless, Sullivan had called in enough artillery strikes, much like the one now lighting up Tan Son Nhut Airport, to realize that incoming rockets played no favorites.
He wondered, not for the first time, if it had been a mistake to keep his conversation with the PSU McDonald to himself. He had never mentioned Judge’s apprehensions to his immediate superior, Master Sergeant Juan Valdez. He and Valdez were the only two noncoms among the detachment
who had served and fought during the war—the only two who had personally seen how a single strand of fear could steal a man’s life.
“Like a light show out there, eh?”
Sullivan started at the voice. Valdez was standing beside him at the edge of the roof, the barrel of his M-16 rifle, its safety on, flush with the seam of his right pants leg. The gun looked like a child’s toy in his huge hands. Sullivan had never heard him coming.
“Like old times,” Sullivan said.