On April 29, 1975the last full day of the American presence in South Vietnamtwo U.S. Marines were killed in a rocket attack on Tan Sun Nhut airport outside of Saigon.
This April, 25 years later, many of the men who served with Lance Corp. Darwin Judge and Corp. Charles McMahon in the Saigon embassy security detachment plan to meet in Marshalltown, Iowa, Judges hometown, to remember that long, final day.
For all the Saigon Marines interviewed, their memories of the dramatic evacuation are colored by the shocking loss of their two comrades in arms.
Many of the Marines had arrived in Vietnam just a few months or even weeks earlier. Most had no combat experience. And since the Paris Peace Accords had ended the war in January, 1973 it had been two years since an American combat death in Vietnam.
Ken Crouse, for example, had arrived in country in February 1975, his first trip to Vietnam.
At the time evacuation was far from Crouses mind. "I enjoyed Saigon very much," he remembers, especially the work the Marines did at an orphanage north of town run by a Swedish priest. As late as three weeks before the evacuation, Crouse recalls that the Marines were told "that we would finish our assignments there in Saigon."
Kevin Maloney, who arrived in January, 1975, to join the six-man bodyguard team for U.S. Ambassador Graham Martin, was also in the dark.
Doug Potratz arrived in Saigon in 1973 and expected some action.
"I was kind of looking forward to it because technically the war had already ended but everybody could see that something was going to happen out there," said Potrtz. Still the people in charge didnt think anything was going to happen and Ambassador Martin still believed that a negotiated settlement was possibleonly that would allow the embassy to remain.
But eventually, the signals of impending danger became clearer. The Marines monitored news from home, and President Richard Nixon's resignation, coupled with Congress' reluctance to continue funding the South Vietnamese, augured toward a collapse.
Maloney remembers keeping a map of the South on which he marked advances by Communist forces. As a town or province fell to the North, hed color it in. "I realized, after a while, that there was just too much color in there." On April 1, the shelling of Saigon began. It became a regular occurrence at four o'clock each morningSteven Johnson, another member of the Ambassadors bodyguard, remarks that "you could set your watch to it."
On April 4, Danang fell. Potratz says he knew that was the end. For Crouse, it was later, when Ben Hoa collapsed.
During the last two weeks of April, the embassy began evacuating personnel via Ton Sun Nhut airport and a guard detachment, including Judge and McMahon, was sent up to guard the airport.
In an attack on the morning of the 29th, Judge and McMahon were killed. The attack also rendered the airport unusable for the rest of evacuation, meaning the rest of the evacuation effort would have to be staged from the embassy compound itself.
The Marines interviewed remember their last day in Vietnam as a blur of angry crowds and nonstop work.
"I don't remember eating or sleeping. I have no recollection of taking any time to do any of that," says Johnson.
Many of the Marines were put on work details. Crouse was told to burn the personnel files of South Vietnamese who had worked for the embassy. Others burned moneytens of thousands of dollars of U.S. currency that the embassy didn't want the Communists to get a hold of.
Maloney and a colleague led a jeep and some buses around Saigon to pick up people on the embassys evacuation list. As they did so, the word spread through Saigon that the embassy was evacuating. "They knew what was going on. They turned kind of ugly."
Johnson pulled similar duty. "Every place that we stopped there were a hundred people trying to get on the bus. That was kind of traumatic," he said. Even more so was the fact that some of the Marines weren't aware the evacuation was imminent."We weren't sure the evacuation was taking place until we saw helicopters," Johnson recalls.
"The streets in Saigon were clogged with people and we had trouble getting the buses through," says Maloney. Shooting started at one point. Then he ran out of gas, abandoned the vehicles and scrambled over the embassy wall.
The Marines recall vastly different fears of what would happen to them. Johnson says he and his buddies "weren't sure what the hell was going o."
"I was very young and bulletproof at that time," remembers Dave Leet, who had been in Saigon for just over a year when the evacuation took place. "We knew we had a lot of support off the coast. The thought never occurred to us that we wouldnt get out."
"I was caught up in the excitement of the events I wasnt really particularly fearful at it," recalls Maloney."I figured we could handle anything that came along, except running out of gas."
Once the Marines returned to compound, the scene was no less scary. Hundreds of Vietnamese clamored at the gates, begging to get in. Marines had to venture out into the crowd to assist Americans who were trying to get in. Some Marines had to use rifle butts to keep people from scaling the walls.
"There was a mass of people out there and these poor souls were terrified and many of them expected to die that day," said Maloney, who guarded a gate where, at one point, a Vietnamese bus driver tried to ram his vehicle into the compound to save himself and his passengers. "I had to put a gun in his face, and he turned that thing around."
Step by step, the Marines began to secure the compound, withdrawing from one section at a time.
Crouse moved down off a roof he was guarding. Johnson began destroying sensitive electronic equipment. Potratz shoved refugees onto helicopters. Then the order came to get inside the building, and the Marines locked the embassy from the bottom up, bracing furniture against the doors to keep from being overrun.
Around 3:30 in the morning, a message from President Ford to Ambassador Martin halted the evacuation of Vietnamese. From that point on, only the embassy staff and Marines were to get on the helicopters, which had been flying for up to 16 hours straight.
To prevent Vietnamese refugees from coming up onto the roof, the Marines piled their sea bags against the door to the roof. And then, in groups, the Marines left Vietnam.
Johnson left in the wee hours of April 30, a chopper ahead of the ambassador.
Maloney says he "left there about he same time the sun came up I saw tracers coming up in the helicopter so I was probably in more danger in the helicopter" than before.
"I do recall that it was getting light but it was dark enough that there were still lights in the city,"says Crouse, who was on the next to last chopper and saw Chinese tanks on the runways of Tan Son Nhut as he sped away.
"I remember the tail gunner on the helicopterthey look like giant bugsand it was the prettiest thing I ever sawwhen I saw that guy sitting at the back of the helicopter, I knew we'd made it then," Potratrz recalls.
As to whether they were aware of their place in history, as the last Americans in Vietnam, the Marines differ.
"It was on the scale of Dunkir," recalls Maloney. "I knew this was a momentous occasion. I knew it was a significant."
"I dont think I looked at it at that time," recalls Crouse. "I think at that point we had all been up for so long and were so darn tired that I never really had a sense of, Gosh it was that close."
"What hit me the most was all the guys that died over there, and 'What for?'" recalls Leet. "That was one of the saddest days of my life because all you could see was just all the death and destruction going through your mind and all for naught, and it still bothers me to this day."
Indeed, while 25 yeas have passed, and their recollections of the last days in Saigon differ, the Marines of the Saigon detachmentwho were in Vietnam later than anyone elseare in close agreement when it comes to stating the lessons of the long, tragic conflict.
"Everybody always talks about dont repeat the same mistakes in history. Thats a pretty easy thing to do," says Crouse. "Its more important to remember what the men that served there were doing, what the country asked of them. Their service was honorable."
"Be damn careful when you commit to something either get in and do the job and get out or take a serious look at what youre trying to accomplish," says Johnson.
"On a personal level it changed my life. There was a before April 30, 1975, and there was an after April 30, 1975," explains Maloney.
"They say that there are no atheists in foxholes, he says, "and I am a firm believer."