Armed Services Radio played “White Christmas,” the signal for the last Americans to leave Saigon.
Or maybe not. Like so much about the Vietnam War, which ended 40 years ago Thursday, there is controversy. Some claim they never heard the song, ergo it never played.
But others insist they heard it, though not the Bing Crosby version, but Tennessee Ernie Ford’s.
In the end it doesn’t matter.
It was the morning of April 29, 1975. The North Vietnamese Army encircled the city. Explosions sounded in the distance. Americans and their South Vietnamese allies, friends and family had been leaving for weeks. One plane from Operation Babylift, the evacuation of 2,000 war orphans, crashed, killing 151 aboard. “We have plenty more,” a South Vietnamese lieutenant quipped bitterly.
The streets were chaos. Once the communists arrived, anyone with connection to the Americans could expect to be killed. Crowds massed around the gates of the American Embassy. Some brought their luggage, heartbreaking, hoping to make flights they were promised. A mother hurled her baby over the high fence, guarded by 52 U.S Marines.
The Vietnam War probably has to be explained for some readers. After World War II, communists fought to control the country, but were kept at bay by their former colonial overlords, the French, who bugged out in the mid-1950s. America stupidly replaced them, beginning with advisers during the Kennedy administration. We thought, mistakenly, that a communist victory would spread to neighboring nations.
The war exploded under Lyndon Johnson, who could neither quit nor win.
Beginning in the mid-1960s, the United States was torn by protests, led by young people who were being drafted to serve and die in a cause where even its supporters, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. said in a 1967 sermon, were “half-hearted, confused, and doubt-ridden.”
Faith in government was shaken by the lies that the Johnson administration told, trying to cover up military failures, came to light. Johnson became so unpopular that he didn’t bother running in 1968, making him one of the rare presidents in American history to not seek a second term.
He was followed by Richard Nixon, whose Republican Party, in echoes of today’s GOP and Iran, tried to undermine LBJ’s frantic efforts toward peace. Nixon would spread the war into Cambodia and Laos, secretly. He had been hounded from office in the Watergate scandal, resigning in August 1974, and while Watergate and our defeat in Vietnam aren’t generally connected in the public mind, they should be. Watergate crippled the presidency so it could no longer prosecute the war, and emboldened Congress refused to do so.
The morning of April 29, advancing Viet Cong sent rockets into the Saigon airport, killing two Marines, Charles McMahon and Darwin Judge, the last of the 56,559 American servicemen to die in Vietnam. They were 21 and 19 years old. Their bodies were left behind. A defecting South Vietnamese pilot dropped his bombs on the last operating runway. After that, only helicopters could come and go, ferrying to American warships in the harbor, in what is still the largest helicopter evacuation in history — 1,300 Americans and 5,600 Vietnamese in 19 hours.
At 3 a.m. April 30, local time, as the crowds around the U.S. Embassy began to climb the fences, the last 11 American Marines pulled back to the rooftop of the six-story building, locking the doors, floor by floor, as they went up.
“Then everything came to a standstill and we just sat,” Master Sgt. John Valdez later wrote. “All the Marines were up there. No birds in sight.”
The choppers had been coming every 10 minutes. Now the Marines crouched, listening to gunshots, to the mob in the embassy courtyard. “I never thought for one minute that the choppers would leave us behind,” Valdez wrote in Leatherneck magazine in 1975.
A whir was heard overhead. The Marines fired a smoke grenade to mark their position. One last CH-46 Sea Knight hovered, and landed on the embassy roof. The 10 Marines clambered aboard, followed by Valdez, holding the folded embassy flag, the last U.S. soldier to depart what historian Paul Johnson calls “the most shameful defeat in the whole of American history.”
Gerald Ford, not known for eloquence, echoed T.S. Eliot.
“April 1975 was indeed the cruelest month,” he wrote in 2000. “The passage of time has not dulled the ache of those days.”