Those left behind in Saigon haunt those who made it out; Marines recall the emptiness of April 30, 1975

By Joshua Benton
Blade Staff Writer

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The early morning sun was burning over Saigon.

The streets were rumbling under the weight of North Vietnamese tanks, triumphantly rolling into the old city unchallenged.

In little more than an hour, one of them would smash through the gates of the presidential palace, and the war for Vietnam finally would be over.

And up in the sky, in a Chinook-46 helicopter, was Sgt. Dave Leet, a 20-year-old kid from Washington state. For hours – they seemed like days – he’d been trying to control thousands of frantic Vietnamese at the American embassy, where he was a guard. He’d watched them scream and cry when they realized they weren’t going with him on a helicopter headed for the safety of an American aircraft carrier offshore.

“After I got on the helicopter and we were flying out over the city and then out to sea, I thought about all the guys who died out there,” he remembers today. “And here we were, running away. And you think about the guys and think, what was it all for?

“I thought about those Vietnamese who relied on us, who we said we’d help. And we just folded up our tents and said good-bye. We didn’t even say good-bye; we just left. It was a real worthless feeling.”

Twenty-five years ago today, Saigon fell to the North Vietnamese, and Vietnam was reunited under communist rule.

The result was hardly a surprise. It was widely assumed that after America pulled out of the war, as it did in 1973, South Vietnam was playing a losing game. But no matter how expected it may have been, the fall of Saigon hit America like a brick, rubbing in the fact that its army, threatened by the fearsome Soviet Union, couldn’t beat a tiny country on the corner of the map.

But its most lasting impact was on the people involved, from the Marines who rode off in helicopters to the Vietnamese who just wished they had.

“Those were terrible, terrifying times,” said Kim Nguyen Leons, a Vietnamese woman who lives in Toledo.

After more than a decade of involvement in southeast Asia, the Paris peace accords signed on January 17, 1973, formally ended the American war in Vietnam. All U.S. forces were to be withdrawn. The only armed Americans left in the country were the Marines who were guards at the Saigon embassy and at four consulates around the country.

As dishonorable a defeat as it seemed, many Americans were happy to see any sort of an ending. All sides had paid a terrible price. America had lost more than 58,000 men, but Vietnam had lost more than 5,000,000 of its citizens.

The war for Vietnam was not over when America withdrew. Soon after the peace accord, North Vietnam officials announced there would be a “return to revolutionary violence” in an attempt to reunify the country. At first, though, neither side made much headway, and the conflict began to look like a deadlock.

At the time, Saigon didn’t seem like such a bad place to be. Sgt. Ted Murray, then a 21-year-old fresh out of training to be an embassy guard, was happy to be booked for Vietnam. “At first, I loved it,” he said. “I’d volunteered for Saigon. I wanted to go. I wasn’t old enough to be part of the war, but I wanted to get a feel for what really happened. I wanted to say I’d been there.”

Shortly after he arrived in Saigon, North Vietnam began a huge offensive that would make quick work of the south. By the beginning of April, 1975, important cities such as Hue and Da Nang were falling with little or no resistance as South Vietnamese troops retreated.

The Americans left in Vietnam knew it was time to think about how they would leave. Mr. Leet, who had been in Saigon for about a year as an embassy guard, helped “burning and shredding all the classified material” like lists of which South Vietnamese had helped the Americans.

As the North Vietnamese Army marched from victory to victory in April, Americans began an airlift for the Vietnamese who had helped the U.S. cause. If left behind, they’d likely be taken prisoner or executed. They were being flown out on transport planes at Saigon’s Tan Son Nhut airfield.

Mr. Murray and about a dozen fellow Marines were in charge of keeping the crowds of Vietnamese at the airstrip under control. The job became more risky when advancing North Vietnamese troops began shelling the site.

It was there, in the early morning of April 29, that Mr. Murray saw a tragedy that would haunt him for decades.

“I was trying to get some sleep,” he said. “I remember the first rocket hitting in the distance woke me up. I just picked up my M16 and started running out of bed. The second rocket was closer. The third was right outside the building. Then there was nothing.”

By the time he reached downstairs, he saw that the third rocket had hit one of the guard posts. Inside it had been two of his friends, Cpl. Charles McMahon and Lance Cpl. Darwin Judge.

Corporal McMahon and Lance Corporal Judge were the last two Americans killed in Vietnam.

The rocket barrage had another effect: It damaged the runway at Tan Son Nhut enough that the airstrip became unusable. Quickly, the Americans switched into Plan B: transporting Vietnamese and Americans out by helicopter.

Over the previous few weeks, Vietnamese hoping to leave the country had lined up around the block at the American embassy to get an exit visa.

But when the airstrip was rocketed – and as the rumble of North Vietnamese tanks arrived in Saigon – the panic began. Locals began clamoring for entry at the embassy complex around noon on the 29th.

“We were only letting people in at one gate, and people were getting pretty testy out there,” Mr. Leet said. “There was a guy who tried to force his way in with an M1 carbine. One of us grabbed the gun, and another hit him across the jaw with the butt of his rifle.”

That gate was closed in the early afternoon, but people were still sneaking in over walls. Several thousand Vietnamese were inside the complex waiting to be evacuated.

About 6 p.m., swarms of helicopters began to arrive at the embassy to take the Vietnamese to safety on American aircraft carriers waiting offshore. For a while, the helicopters arrived at a rate of one every four minutes. The smaller ones landed on the embassy roof, while larger units set down in the embassy parking lot. Both were tight squeezes.

“It’s a helicopter pilot’s nightmare: going straight down 70 feet from a hover, load up all these people, then go back straight up,” Mr. Leet said.

The helicopters were going to the airstrip site, taking away the Vietnamese and the Marines there.

Mr. Murray got out on the last Chinook helicopter to leave the airstrip, departing after 11 p.m. on the 29th. As soon as he got up in the air, he could see North Vietnamese tanks rapidly advancing. “They weren’t far away. Another 15 minutes, half an hour, and we wouldn’t have been getting out of there cleanly.”

Back at the embassy, a helicopter landed on the roof after midnight with an order that the remaining Vietnamese were to be left behind. It was time for the Americans to go. Mr. Leet said “close to 1,000” Vietnamese were left in the compound.

Every remaining embassy worker headed up to the rooftop, locking every door behind them. Despite all the barriers they put up – including three sets of locked steel doors – within 30 minutes, Vietnamese were crammed up against the final door that opened onto the roof. “They had broken through them all,” Mr. Leet said.

That last door successfully was blocked with piles of the Marines’ personal gear, he said. But the door had a narrow reinforced glass window to show the men the despair on the other side of the door.

“We could see their faces, hear them saying, ‘Please help us,'” Mr. Leet said. “We were kind of powerless at that point. You just had to turn away. It didn’t make you feel good, but there was nothing you could do. It would have been chaos to let those people out.”

The helicopters started coming in again, taking away embassy officials first, and then Marines. Mr. Leet was on the second-to-last flight out, shortly after the sun rose over the invading tanks.

While the war had a huge impact on the United States, it is easy to forget that its effect on Vietnam was much larger. The same can be said of the effect of the fall of Saigon on the Vietnamese who came to this country.

According to 1997 census data, 770,000 U.S. residents were born in Vietnam. The majority arrived beginning in April, 1975. Kim Nguyen Leons estimates 350 Vietnamese are here locally.

Ms. Leons left Saigon on April 29, 1975, at 11:30 a.m., when she reached a Navy ship off the Saigon coast. After stops in the Philippines and Pennsylvania, she found her way to Toledo, where she had family. For the last 10 years, she has worked for Lucas County as a child-support enforcement investigator.

“The first two years were very difficult,” she said. “Homesick all the time, and the weather in Ohio doesn’t help much. There was the language problem and the cultural barrier. But you know you can’t go back. So you have to make your life here.”

Diep Le also left Saigon on April 29, finding a spot on a boat and fleeing to an aircraft carrier off the coast. As a member of the South Vietnamese army, he feared for his safety if he stayed.He arrived in Toledo in 1975 and has worked at The Andersons since.

“If I would have stayed, they would have put me in prison,” he said. “This country has more opportunities.”

Many Vietnamese who came to this country in 1975 largely settled in California, Texas, and Florida. Most Vietnamese in Toledo arrived later in the “boat people” waves of the late 1970s and early 1980s.

“The first 10 years we were here, we were very close to one another,” Ms. Leons said. “But now we don’t have as much of a unified community because people do things outside of us.”

Some still keep their ties to Vietnam close to their hearts. “Vietnam is still my homeland,” said Mary Tran, 58, who left Vietnam just after the fall of Saigon and works in human resources for Lucas County. She left behind her parents and siblings. “I have had a good life in America, and my two sons have been successful here.

“But I’ve told them that when I retire, I want to move back there. I want to die there. If I die before I make it there, I want to be cremated so they can send my ashes to my homeland.”

When the Saigon Marines were in the spotlight, many people back home were doing their best to forget southeast Asia.

But the Marines are still fighting to be recognized for what they did.

Because the American war officially ended when the Paris peace accords took effect on March 28, 1973, the Saigon Marines never received the Vietnam Service Medal that was given to all soldiers who served in that country. Instead, they received the Armed Forces Expeditionary Medal.

While a uniform patch may seem like a minor point, it is a battle worth fighting for many of these Marines. “When the accords were signed, everybody came home, and everybody forgot about everything. But the war didn’t end until we left,” Mr. Murray said.

Marines such as Mr. Murray have been sending letters to members of Congress, defense officials, and others in an unsuccessful attempt to get the medal they think they deserve.

Former President Gerald R. Ford wrote a letter to Defense Secretary William Cohen last year asking him to consider their request strongly.

“I think those Marine guards warranted maximum recognition for their Vietnam service,” President Ford said Friday.

But Secretary Cohen responded to the letter last summer with a denial. “I believe our policies in this area, now 30 years in standing, are equitable and appropriate,” he wrote.

The Marines have pledged to keep trying. But a missing medal is not the only way the fall of Saigon has stayed in the lives of Marines. For some, it’s a cynicism toward authority, brought on by promises not kept by politicians.

“I have a lot of contempt for the politicians who got us into this,” said Mr. Leet, now a pilot for UPS. “Every time something comes up like Kuwait or Bosnia, I really am a skeptic about what the military’s role is. Are they just going to get used for target practice?”

For others, the damage went deeper. In the early 1990s, the memories of Vietnam were starting to get to Mr. Murray.

“I had survivor’s guilt that we had lived and that Judge and McMahon had died,” he said. He had never told his family about the rocket attack.

“I also had the feeling that we had let every man and woman who had served in Vietnam down because we turned tail and ran. It took me two, three years with a [veterans’] counselor to realize that there was nothing we could have done differently.”

While Mr. Murray thought he had let down others who had served in Vietnam, others seem to have wished they could have been in his shoes. He said his counselor required proof that he had been a Marine at the embassy because several of his other patients had claimed falsely to have been on that last helicopter out of Saigon.

“They thought of us last few as heroes,” he said. “And I thought we had lost the war for everybody.”

Mr. Murray, 46, a manager for a computer-support company in Arizona, is able to put his experience into perspective. “I can accept it now. I can understand that my old fears and my thoughts weren’t justified. Now, I can live with what happened.”