May 17, 2012

Book Review - Last Men Out

Book Review - Last Men Out by Bob Drury and Tom Clavin

Thirteen years, four months and one week after the first American was killed in combat in Vietnam, American troops withdrew completely from Vietnam on April 30, 1975.  Today US troops are once again pulling out of another war zone and while the military may have learned the lessons of Vietnam, it appears that once again the politicians have not.  Most Americans of a certain age remember the iconic photograph of the Huey helicopter atop the helipad with a long line of evacuees heading up the steps to it and ultimately freedom, but few American’s know the rest of the story, Last Men Out, tells that story.  
Drury and Clavin tell how that in the last few days, American power in Vietnam was being concentrated in a few small areas of Saigon and the nearby U.S. Consulate of Can Tho, the Marine’s of the Marine Security Guard Battalion (MSG) assigned to protect those installations found themselves as literally the last men out of Vietnam, but they almost didn’t make it out at all.  Led by Master Gunnery Sergeant Juan Valdez and Major Jim Kean these Marines, performed a feat of inhuman proportions as the city fell about them and thousands of allies clambered towards the Embassy to be saved from the approaching communist troops being led by General Van Tien Dung.  As General Dung advanced South the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) fell back, in many cases deserting their posts.  When Da Nang fell in March of 1975 the surrounding costal provinces soon followed and within a couple of weeks, Dung was at the door of Saigon.
Among the Marines assigned to the MSG detail at the US Embassy in Saigon were Lance Corporal Darwin Judge and Corporal Charles McMahon. Recently deployed to Vietnam these “newbies” found themselves, separated from their fellow MSGs and assigned as part of the security detachment at the Defense Attaches’ Office (DAO) located next to the US airfield at Tan Son Nhut, which found itself as the primary focus of the North Vietnamese artillery that began falling on April 29.   
Just after noon on April 29 the evacuation of Saigon commenced with a fleet of Marine and Air Force helicopters that left for the DAO compound where refugees had been arriving by the bus load since the evacuation order had been given an hour earlier via Armed Forces Radio.  As the airlift commenced the Marines and Embassy staff at the Embassy were “forgotten”.  Ambassador Martin believed to the last that he could negotiate a peaceful resolution with the North, unfortunately for Martin the North was not interested in negotiating and was simply giving the Americans an opportunity to leave, an opportunity that Martin squandered.  The staff of the Embassy never made it out of the compound to evacuate to the air field and now their only hope was an airlift of their own, and the hope that they could save as many allies as possible before they were overrun.  Late in the afternoon of the 29th Major Kean was finally able to get through to operations at the DAO to inform then that in fact no personnel had been evacuated from the Embassy and that they were dealing with thousands of refugees attempting to enter the embassy and that they were effectively surrounded by up to 10,000 more, everyone of them wanting to get out.  In an artillery attack on the DAO Judge and McMahon were both killed as they were manning their post at the gate. 
For the next 12 hours the Marines quietly maneuvered the refugees they could get in to the Embassy compound into groups for evacuation on Marine CH 53 and CH 46 helicopters. As the first helicopters began to land the Marines led these groups up the stairs of the Embassy building to the roof top helipad for their ride out of Saigon.  Hour after hour and helicopter after helicopter the Marines continued to manage what was quickly becoming the unmanageable.  At 4:58 AM on April 30 Ambassador Martin, who had intended to stay behind at the French Embassy in order to continue working on a peaceful resolution, a resolution that was never to come, was on a Marine Helicopter being ferried off the roof under orders of President Ford.  The “Tiger was out of the cage” and with that the evacuation process halted, unfortunately Major Kean, Master Sergeant Valdez the MSG detachment as well as the Fleet Marines sent into help were still at the Embassy.  Somewhere along the line, the notification that the Ambassador had left the Embassy was misconstrued into believing that everyone had been evacuated from the Embassy.  It took a direct order from General Wilson to get the flights resumed to go back in and pick up the last Marine’s in Vietnam. 
When the Marine’s backed up into the Embassy and locked the doors behind them pandemonium broke out on the streets below. Someone drove a fire truck through the front gate and refugees swarmed the building.  Some attempted to climb the rocket screening that was the fa├žade of the building, only to fall to their death.   Other broke in and began an assault up the stairs.  At the top of the stairwell Marine Steve Bauer stood guard armed with his rifle and CS grenades.  When the crowd got too heavy and looked like they would break through, Schlager would pull the pin on one of the grenades and push it through the small opening in the door where the window used to be pushing the crowd back. 
When the helicopters arrived, there weren’t enough so Kean and Valdez hand-picked 9 men to stay behind with them and await a return flight, a flight that may or may not come. As they waited for the last choppers to come get them, they all felt that they were going to die there in Saigon on the roof of the Embassy.  At 7:58 AM the Marine Helicopter call sign “Swift 22” along with 4 Cobra gunship escorts arrived and while taking fire lifted off with the last Marines.  As they flew out across the city the Marines watched as T-32 tanks and NVA armored vehicles drove through the city below. 
Lance Corporal Judge and Corporal McMahon became the last Americans killed in Vietnam, unfortunately during the confusion of the evacuation their remains were forgotten. It wasn’t until May of 1975 at the behest of the now late Senator Edward Kennedy that negations began with Hanoi to recover the remains of McMahon and Judge.  In March of 1976 the remains of Judge and McMahon were turned over to aides from Senator Kennedy’s office and they were repatriated to the United States for military burial. 
Last Men Out is a gripping read of a time in America’s history that still haunts many to this day. For those that lived through the Vietnam War, this is the bookend to that conflict and a must read book. If you are like me you won’t be surprised to find out that the politicians of today are no different than the politicians of yesterday.  What also won’t surprise you is that those who serve are the same types that continue to serve to this day.

No comments: