Marine Corps Ball, November 1974, Saigon

Long ago in this blog, I wrote a post about the last Marine Corps Ball in Vietnam. I’ll never forget that evening.

The Vietnam peace accords of 1973 required the withdrawal of U.S. armed forces; no more than fifty U.S. military personnel could be in country at any given time. After 1973, there were more Marines in South Vietnam than any other service. That was because the U.S. embassy was guarded by Marines. And in fact the last person evacuated at the very end was a Marine.

Throughout my thirteen years on and off in Vietnam, my work with Marine units was the most satisfying. The Marines readily accepted and acted on the intelligence I was able to give them. And the Marines saved my life when Saigon fell. Readers of this blog have noted that I always capitalize “Marine.” That is my way of honoring them.

My novel set during the fall of Saigon, Last of the Annamese, opens with the protagonist, Chuck Griffin, preparing to attend the Marine Corps Birthday Ball at the Gia Long Palace in Saigon on 10 November 1974. One of his housemates, Sparky, is, like Chuck, a retired Marine officer; the other, Ike, is an active duty Marine officer, assigned to the embassy. All three will be at the celebration.

The ball is always held on the Corps birthday (10 November). Among Marines, a private joke is that 11 November, Veterans Day, is really a national holiday to allow the Marines to recover from the birthday bash. In my time working with Marines in Vietnam, the celebration was always major. During my last years in Saigon, the Marine Corps Birthday Ball was the social highlight of the year. As an office head, I was required to attend, but I also always had multiple invitations from the Marines I worked with. It was a formal affair. That meant a tuxedo for me and a full-length evening gown for my wife.

The ball described in Annamese is the last one I attended in Saigon, on 10 November 1974. It was formal to the nines, even though there were few Marines in country. All traditions were observed, even the cake-cutting with a ceremonial sword. Yet amid the festivities was a detectable unease—so many of us knew from intelligence that the North Vietnamese forces were growing stronger through massive infiltration of men and matériel. Some, myself included, doubted that South Vietnam would survive another year.

It didn’t. It fell six months later.

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