U.S. Marines and the Fall of Saigon

A reader asked me what the U.S. Marines actually did during the fall of Saigon. The answer is: a lot. The easiest way for me to answer the question is to quote from my article, “Bitter Memories: The Fall of Saigon”:

[Sometime after 20 April 1975,] I started doing regular physical recons of the DAO building [located on the northern edge of Saigon at Tan Son Nhat]. Sometimes I took out a load of burnbags [filled with classified material—we expected to be overrun and we were destroying all our classified papers] to the incinerator in the parking lot and burned them; other times I just wandered around. I wanted to be sure I knew beforehand if the North Vietnamese were going to breach the perimeter fence. As I walked the halls and crisscrossed the compound, I saw brawny young American men with skinhead haircuts who had appeared out of nowhere. They were dressed in tank tops or tee-shirts, shorts, and tennis shoes. When two or three walked together, they fell into step, as if marching.

Marines in mufti! I knew all the Marines in country, and I didn’t recognize any of these guys. What the hell was going on?

I found out that night. I was trying to grab a little sleep in my office. The door chime sounded. I grasped my .38 and went to the door. Through the peep hole I saw a middle-aged red-haired American man in a neon Hawaiian shirt, shorts, and rubber flip-flops. He gave me a flat-handed wave and a silly grin. It was Colonel Al Gray, a Marine officer I’d worked with over the years in Vietnam. I’d never before seen Al out of uniform—I didn’t think he owned any civies—and I knew he made it an iron-clad rule never to spend more than 24 hours in Saigon—his work was with his troops in the field and he disliked bureaucracy. I lowered the .38 and opened the door. “Hi,” he said. “Can I come in?”

In my office, I told him everything I knew about the military situation, but he knew more than I did. What he didn’t know in detail was what was going on with the friendlies. I told him about the unruly, desperate crowds jamming the streets and now ten to fifteen people deep outside the perimeter fence of our compound and my worry that the fence might not hold. He explained to me that he’d been named the Ground Security Officer—the man in charge—for the evacuation of Saigon once it was ordered.

More tomorrow.

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