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It seemed like we were flying in circles for an extended period and I wondered if this was just another drill — come on let’s get this thing going I'm tired of waiting, we all were.
Finally, we stopped circling, and we could see that we were finally headed towards Saigon.
I looked out the window and could see dozens of choppers flying behind, and next to us, as I looked down, I spotted all the Naval Vessels. There were so many it reminded me of movies I watched about the invasion of Normandy.
As we approached Saigon, we had gotten the word that the LZ was going to be hot (under enemy fire) going in and we got the command to lock and load. I reached into my ammo pouch and pulled out a 30 round magazine, tapped the magazine on my helmet twice to make sure the rounds were set, and loaded my M-16, racking one in the chamber, and put my weapon on safe. The sound of 20-plus Marines doing this at the same time was very distinctive, and the memory of it stuck in my brain.
I had not been scared up to this point, but now my knees started to shake, and I felt a fear I never experienced before and wasn’t sure if my legs would be able to work once we landed. We touched down. I remember putting my weapon off safe, and the Sgt. screamed to get out, and we all disembarked quickly and set up a perimeter around the chopper — my legs worked!
I looked around, heard no shots or rocket fire, and thought "ok we're good."
Our mission was to secure the perimeter in the DAO (Defense Attaché Office) Compound, which was adjacent to Tan Son Nhut Airport, this would be one of the major evacuation points. We had now just received word that two Marines were killed from a Viet Cong rocket attack at Tan Son Nhut Airport — both Marines assigned to the Embassy Lance Corporal Darwin L. Judge and Corporal Charles McMahon. They would be the last two killed in action in country. I remember saying a quick prayer for them, rest in peace my bothers. As we took our positions, I remember seeing three ARVN (Army Republic of Vietnam) sitting at a machine gun bunker smiling and waving. I waved back thinking these poor guys have no idea what they're in for when we leave; I hope they get out.
It was getting into the early morning hours of the 30th, and it started to rain, I have to say it was the hardest rain I ever felt. We were soaking wet and someone had set fire to the PX which we were close by and the massive fire lit up the night sky.
Marines were already evacuating the compound, and we were waiting for orders to leave our position and take the long flight back to the USS Okinawa; however, that order didn’t come. Here we were a little more than a squad of 13 Marines left behind alone at the compound. We were informed before that 12 Divisions of NVA had surrounded Saigon and we had word that enemy movement had been observed 1,000 yards in front of our position. One thing was for certain: Saigon was close to being overrun, and we were still there.
Here I thought we must be the only Marines left in Saigon now, and how were we going to get out, and if the NVA reached our position we would have to fight it out because Marines do not surrender. If another chopper didn’t get to us in time, it was the end of all of us, but we would go down fighting.
There were nearby firefights going on between ARVN and NVA forces and sporadic sniper fire and the threat of a ground attack; they were close. It was quiet now except for the occasional NVA anti-aircraft fire. It seemed like hours and still no sound of a chopper. I thought, "ok nobody is coming it's going to be a fight," and I said goodbye to my family and waited, finger on the trigger, safety off, ready to go down like a Marine. Still, it was quiet, no movement in front of our position, then all of a sudden, I heard the sound of a Ch53 Helicopter coming in for a landing. I looked up. It was an Air Force Chopper coming to get us, we all looked up happy as hell.
My squad leader Sgt. Townes screamed out “let's get the hell out of here,” and we boarded the chopper. I immediately took off my helmet and sat on it just in case we took small arms fire as we took off. The pilots of that chopper took off so fast we could feel the g-force from it. They climbed so high so quickly that we were cold. We were clear now despite taking some small arms fire and was no longer sitting on my helmet. Sometime later we were landing I looked out the window, and the first thing I saw was these lights, I thought damn we're still in country and we're landing in a football field! However, as we were touching down, I recognized we were on an aircraft carrier. I had never been on one before and it was giant. It was the USS Midway. As we disembarked, we found a place on the flight deck to put our gear down and rest. There were people all over the place, the hanger deck was full of refugees, and there was no room for us.
The sun started to rise as I slept on the flight deck of the aircraft carrier USS Midway. I hadn’t gotten much sleep and I started hearing the sounds of choppers, lots of them. I looked to the horizon toward Vietnam and could not believe what I saw, what looked like a hundred choppers like a swarm of bees heading towards our ships. I remember thinking this is how it ends? All those lives and all those years for what, for it to end like this. It made me sad, and I momentarily shed a tear and remembered all those who served and died in this war, there just wasn’t something right about it ending this way.
The choppers were closer now — it was South Vietnamese soldiers and others escaping Saigon with intentions to land on our ships. I thought there is no way in hell we have room.
Several choppers started landing on ships without permission, and we surrounded them at gunpoint. Weapons were taken away from the ARVNS and thrown overboard, then the helicopters were thrown overboard. Many choppers hovered just above the sea and occupants jumped out, and the chopper pilots would fly away and hover then the pilot would jump out, and the chopper would crash into the sea. This was going on all over the area. It was chaotic, Naval and Marine Choppers would fly out, rescue those who jumped into the sea. You could see the fear in their faces and still, how happy they were that they made it and would not be in the hands of the NVA.
I remember after it was all over, looking out over the ocean seeing scores of choppers floating waiting to sink. It was over now.
Several days later we were flown back to our unit. We landed close to the American Embassy in Manilla sometime early afternoon. It would be a couple of miles back to the USS Okinawa, and Staff Sergeant Ric Van Norton tried to get us a ride to the Okinawa, however the Embassy told us we could get one in several hours. We didn’t wait, here we all were loaded down with gear, ammo, grenades claymore mines, etc. We would have to walk through downtown Manilla, it was quite a sight. As we humped through the city, the Philippine people kept on yelling “hey Joe where’s the war” and wave at us. We finally made it back to the ship, SSgt Van Norton made sure we secured our weapons, and we got paid.
We had a lot of money coming to us and Lt. Knowles told us that we had seven free days of liberty in Manilla, that my friends is a whole other story.
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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