Today is the 242nd birthday of the U.S. Marine Corps. This afternoon I did the fall of Saigon presentation at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland. Many active-duty and retired Marines were in the audience. When I told the story of how Marine Corps Colonel Al Gray saved my life, I heard the distinct Marine oo-rah from the audience. When I wished the Marines a happy birthday, the oo-rahs got louder.
I’ve never met a Marine who didn’t know who Al Gray is. I first met him in the 1960s in South Vietnam when he was a captain. Our paths crossed repeatedly as we served all over South Vietnam. When he showed up at my door in April 1975 just before Saigon fell to the North Vietnamese, dressed in the wildest Hawaiian shirt I’d ever seen—colors so bright they hurt my eyes—shorts, and flip-flops, I didn’t recognize him at first. I’d never before seen Al out of uniform. I didn’t think he owned any civilian clothes. And I knew he never came to Saigon unless he had to. He hated bureaucracy, and his job was in the field with his troops.
I invited him in, and he told me he’d been named the Ground Security Officer for the evacuation of Americans from Saigon. I told him everything I knew about the critical situation in the city. A few days later, he flew in from the 7th Fleet, cruising in the South China Sea, and loaded me on a helicopter for an escape under fire after the North Vietnamese were already in the streets of Saigon.
As I told the audience today, I don’t call him Al anymore. That stopped the day he became Commandant of the Marine Corps. Now I call him “Sir.” He’s the finest leader I’ve ever seen in action and a man I’m privileged to know.
So Happy Birthday, Marines. I bow in respect for you and thank you for saving my life.