A Pair of Marines Recall Terror, Chaos During the Fall of Saigon
Master Gunnery Sgt. Juan Jose Valdez was the last Marine to board the last helicopter to leave the roof of the U.S. Embassy two hours before Saigon surrendered on April 30, 1975. He almost didn’t make it.
“The chopper was just getting off the roof, and I stepped off and I slipped,” said Valdez, now retired after 30 years in the Marine Corps and living in a peaceful neighborhood of this San Diego suburb. “And two guys I didn’t know grabbed me and dragged me in.”
For Valdez, a gentle man who liked being in charge of embassy security, some of the memories are still painful.
“I try not to think about Saigon anymore,” he said.
Still, when he begins to speak, the memories come flooding back. In his garage, he finds photographs he had forgotten he had. Like an old newsreel, the roll of film begins with peaceful shots of the serene white embassy and Saigon landmarks in the relative peace of early 1975. Then there are shots taken from the rooftop on April 29 showing Vietnamese massing below and helicopters landing on the roof. Then a shot taken from inside the chopper, showing a shaken Valdez and 10 other Marines lifting off on April 30.
“We had two big incinerators on the embassy roof,” Valdez said. “We’d been burning material for almost a week and a half. We’d been burning tons and tons.”
The incinerators became so hot that the Marines had to stop them once and let them cool. “Otherwise they might have melted down,” he said.
They had not planned to evacuate the embassy, but at 3:45 a.m., Communist shelling destroyed the main airstrip. All evacuation had to be by helicopter. Worse, the embassy roof could only support Sea Knight choppers, which could carry 20 people; the Sea Stallions could hold 40 to 50 people but were too heavy to land on the roof, Valdez said. As the crowd of Vietnamese outside the embassy grew larger and more frantic, the Marines brought in a platoon of reinforcements from the 7th Fleet. Valdez said they
were completely unprepared to deal with panicky civilians trying to scale the embassy walls.
“Some of the Marines were stomping on the people’s hands and everything and journalists were taking pictures, and it was giving the Marines a bad name,” Valdez said. The infantrymen were quickly replaced.
Officials did not dare open the embassy gates for fear they would be overrun. Valdez remembers lifting people over the gates.
“At the beginning, it was supposed to be only Americans and people from the other embassies, and other people who would have been in danger,” Valdez said. “As things deteriorated, there were regular civilians mixed in.”
Valdez looked out at the crowd and realized that there would never be enough helicopters.
“There were so many messes of people. You knew that you could not possibly take them all.”
Eventually, the Marines ran inside the embassy and slammed the magnetic doors. They ran up to the roof, locking doors on each floor, then waited.
“From about 3 a.m. till almost 7 a.m., we sat there and waited with no communication,” said Staff Sgt. Mike Sullivan, who was with Valdez on the last helicopter and now lives in San Juan Capistrano. Some of the Marines had never before set foot in Vietnam but were sent in to help with the evacuation, he said, and they were, by this time, beginning to worry that they would still be sitting on the roof when the Communist tanks arrived. “It got to be a little frightening,” Sullivan said.
Said Valdez: “To us it seemed like an eternity, but it was maybe two hours.”
Eleven Marines were supposed to be aboard the last helicopter, but Sullivan counted only 10.
“I noticed that John Valdez wasn’t there,” Sullivan said. “I looked at the back of the helicopter door, and I noticed two hands hanging there.” Valdez had stayed behind, trying to make sure everyone was aboard; but the pilot was eager to leave. Sullivan helped pull Valdez into the helicopter.
Sullivan is a financial aid adviser for National University now. Valdez is studying for a BA at San Diego State University and working for the U.S. Census Bureau. He was a platoon sergeant from 1965 to 1967 and saw combat in Da Nang and Chu Lai. Now 53, Valdez has a stack of medals but says it has been hard to find a good job since he left the Marines. He is sad but not bitter.
“When I look back on it now, it seems useless,” Valdez said. “A lot of good people got killed, and for what? And when we left, we left with our tail between our legs.”
At the census office, Valdez now works with young Vietnamese-Americans. He bears them no ill will and says he considers them just another immigrant group.
“I don’t hold any of it against the Vietnamese people,” he said. “They probably didn’t want the war any more than we did.”