It was April 1975.
Two years earlier, in the summer of 1973, I enlisted in the United States Marine Corps and spent 13 weeks of boot camp in Parris Island, South Carolina, and was later assigned to the infantry.
I now found myself aboard the USS Okinawa, an LPH Helicopter carrier floating around somewhere in the South China Sea.
I was assigned to Hotel Company 2nd Battalion 4th Marines 3rd platoon, part of Battalion Landing Team 2/4.
In March of 1975, we had been hearing scuttlebutt regarding the evacuation of Saigon, and that we would be part of this massive military operation, however, nobody knew when this was going to happen, so as usual Marines dealt with the “hurry up and wait” phenomenon we were all familiar with. Every Marine has their story of that day, and this one is mine and 3rd platoons'.
On April 12, 1975, my unit, along with others, participated in the evacuation of the U.S. embassy in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. This was known as Operation Eagle Pull.
Our job was to establish a perimeter to secure LZ (landing zone) Hotel. This operation lasted several hours, and as the last choppers took off, they suffered damage from small arms fire from Khmer Rouge Fighters, however by noon-time the mission was over. It was this operation that would prepare us for the evacuation of Saigon which was named “Operation Frequent Wind” which would not be the cakewalk that “Eagle Pull” was.
April 29, 1975, finally, after suiting up and taking positions on the hangar deck to board choppers numerous times, the order came. This was it, the moment we had been training for. Our platoon had made it to the hangar deck elevator we all checked each other’s gear, and we must have at least had 1000 rds of ammo each hanging off of us.
I was a Corporal, and a fireteam leader and I checked my men to make sure they had all their gear and reported it to my squad leader.
Around that same time, we noticed some sailors bring these boxes up to the deck one dropped and opened. They were body bags which would be utilized if any of us were killed in action. I have to say that wasn’t reassuring, but we joked and laughed it off — hey, come on, I was 19, a Marine, and invincible, we all thought so. A few minutes went by, and we heard a commotion on the flight deck. We couldn’t see anything, then, suddenly, a Huey Chopper was thrown off the flight deck, landing with a big splash into the sea.
Our Company, First Sergeant McGuirk, walked up to us in his uniform of the day with all his combat ribbons that reach the top of his shoulder, a man we all respected, and he had a big smile on his face. I couldn’t believe how happy he was, and he yelled out “today you all become combat Marines” something he had been looking forward to no doubt just as any other Marine. I was sitting next to our Navy Corpsman Phil Usowski, and we looked at each other and laughed.
The elevator deck started to move and slowly began to rise to the flight deck, and as it became visible we saw several CH53 Helicopters appear with the sound of their rotors either starting or preparing to take off, it was a sound we were all used to and had flown in these things scores of times.
We got a wave from the Navy flight deck personnel and boarded our chopper along with our Battalion Commander. We took our seats with our M16 rifle barrels down, and the sound of the chopper's rotors told us we were lifting off.
Harry Houck is a former CNN law enforcement analyst, retired NYPD Detective First Grade, and USMC veteran. Follow him on Twitter, @HarryJHouck, or Facebook. To read more of his reports — Click Here Now.
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