Marine recalls Saigon: April 30, 1975 — the day the U.S. Embassy closed
Like so many of his fellow veterans, Randy Smith is haunted by his Vietnam experience.
His experience, however, is one shared by only a few. To be exact, 41 other Marines, the last to leave the U.S. Embassy in Saigon as thousands of North Vietnamese troops flooded into the then-South Vietnamese capitol on April 30, 1975.
His haunting memories are not of tense, dark nights in the jungle seeking out a deadly enemy. Instead, Smith's memory is filled with the desperate faces and pleas for help from civilians, many of whom, as a 19-year-old embassy guard, he could not help.
Speaking to a crowd of about 140 people Monday night in the Oakmont Library, Smith said, “Even now, 39 years later, I can't stop hearing those voices and seeing those images.”
A native of Beavercreek, Ohio, now living in Venice, Fla., Smith spoke at the invitation of the Oakmont Historical Society.
He talked about pushing his parents to allow him to enlist in the Marine Corps at the age of 17, which they did reluctantly in 1973.
Smith described himself as “100 percent all-boy, as American as apple pie.” As such, he wanted to join the Marines to help his country win a war which, at that point, had already been lost. He said the last American combat troops left Vietnam on May 29, 1973, following the signing of the Paris Peace Accord.
Referring to American politicians, Smith said, “The same group of people who wouldn't let us win the war were now trying to save face.”
But, upon graduating from boot camp and then getting additional weapons and demolition training, Smith was able to give three preferences for his next post. One was in Russia, one in China and the last one was Saigon, where he arrived on April 19, 1974, as a lance corporal assigned to the embassy's Marine detachment. He was there for just over a year.
When he wasn't standing guard at the embassy gate, Smith was able to go to a beach in the area, play on the Marines' softball team and take in the sights of Saigon. Yet, as he explained during a question-and-answer session after his presentation, there was a sense of impending doom.
“You could feel it,” Smith said. “You could actually feel that things weren't copacetic.”
He said a March 6, 1975, memo among American officials predicted that the South Vietnamese government and army could hold out for at least another year. But he said that assessment was way off the mark. By March 28, the cities of Hué and Da Nang, where a huge American airbase had been located, fell to the North Vietnamese. On April 20, Xuân Lôc, the last line of defense before Saigon, fell and the Communist troops were only 26 miles from Saigon.
As tensions rose, the familiar voice of Bing Crosby could be heard on the radio singing “White Christmas” — on April 29, he said.
“That was the signal for all Americans to move to their evacuation points,” Smith said.
At the same time, he said the Marines cut down trees in the embassy parking lot to provide evacuation helicopters with room to land. When the Vietnamese civilians saw the trees come down, thousands of them gathered outside the compound, desperate to flee the approaching North Vietnamese.
Evacuations began at 3:30 a.m. on April 29. “It was clockwork, chopper after chopper after chopper,” Smith recalled.
Having lowered the American flag about 12 hours earlier with another Marine for the final time, Smith was assigned to count heads as civilians who had worked for the Americans were admitted to the grounds for evacuation. Larger helicopters held 50 passengers while smaller ones carried 35.
As he counted, men, women and children pleaded to be let through the gates, held back by a perimeter force of about 200 Marines flown in from the 7th Fleet anchored off the Vietnamese coast.
“I heard just about every kind of bribe you could offer,” Smith said. “I was very firm and played no favorites.”
Finally, after about 28 hours, the word came to cut off the evacuation. The perimeter guards were brought inside the embassy and flown out, leaving Smith and the embassy Marines on the roof of the embassy. Civilians crashed through the embassy gate and were held back by a Marine corporal with an M-16 rifle at the door to the roof.
Several hours went by and, with the sun coming up, the helicopters had stopped coming. Smith's commanding officer, Maj. Jim Kean called the 7th Fleet to find out what was going on and discovered that the fleet commanders thought everyone had been taken out when Ambassador Graham Martin left. They immediately dispatched more helicopters as North Vietnamese troops were moving through the streets.
“The sound of rotors going on helicopters is still the sweetest sound I ever heard,” Smith said.
“Sadly, there were still 420 Vietnamese in the embassy compound who were promised they would get out,” he said.
When he finished his presentation, the crowd gave Smith a standing ovation.
“It was excellent,” said Jeff Kline, 71, of Oakmont. “It's a good portion of history. It's like he said, when you're committed, you should go in and do the job. I think they could have won it.”
Anthony E. Pallatto, 66, a Marine veteran from Oakmont who served 13 months in Vietnam, said, “This was awesome; this was great.
“I never really knew what happened (in Saigon) until he explained it tonight,” he said. “It kind of gave me some closure. I was really glad I came tonight.”
When asked afterward if he had any regrets, Smith replied: “The ones (civilians) you left behind. Those are the biggest regrets. Basically, we were in God's dominion: who was going to live, who was going to die.”
Tom Yerace is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-226-4675 or firstname.lastname@example.org.