Remembering How It Was When the Lights Went Out in Vietnam : History: Twenty years ago Monday, Max Beilke became the last American soldier to leave the war-torn country. Two years later, the North conquered the South.
Max Beilke is not known for any heroics during his tour of Vietnam--for capturing a hill, or routing the Viet Cong, or winning a battle in that war that still burdens the American psyche.
Beilke’s accomplishment: He left.
He was, in fact, officially designated by the Army to be the last American soldier to leave Vietnam. On March 29, 1973, he stamped his own orders and flew out, leaving the stamp on the table.
With his departure, and with the release of the last acknowledged American POWs three days later, the long and costly American intervention drew to a close.
Two years later, the South would fall to the armies of the North. By that time, Beilke would be out of the service and moving on with his life.
He is 60 now, and 20 years have passed. But he remembers.
“March 29 always sticks with me,” he said. “That was the day and there are certain things--like your wedding anniversary, the day you came into the army, the first time I left the country and shipped out for Korea in ’53--you remember those dates.”
Beilke grew up in the Minnesota towns of Pipestone, Little Falls and Alexandria; he was drafted into the Korean War in 1952. He served his hitch, took a two-year break, and then re-enlisted in 1956.
He was approaching his 40th birthday and already a master sergeant with nearly 20 years’ service when he arrived in Vietnam in July, 1972.
For the next eight months, he served as operations sergeant at Camp Alpha in Saigon, processing all army troops arriving and leaving the country.
Meanwhile, time was running out on America’s Vietnam experience. About 2.7 million American soldiers had served in Southeast Asia; nearly 60,000 had died, and another 300,000 were wounded. Support for the war had dwindled through years of demonstrations and rioting at home.
President Richard M. Nixon began a phased withdrawal of the half-million American troops in 1969. Four years later, on Jan. 27, 1973, the United States and North Vietnam signed the Paris Peace Agreement.
Under its terms, all American troops other than Marine guards at the U.S. Embassy and military attaches had to be out of Vietnam by March 29. But the last of the remaining 23,000 American soldiers didn’t leave Saigon until the last planeload of POWs lifted off from Hanoi.
“I can remember a colonel coming through the door and saying, ‘Beilke, they’re off the ground. They’re in the air at Hanoi. Let’s go home.’ That’s when we stamped the last orders and closed her up.”
The United States was out. But the war, in so many respects, was not over.
The North Vietnamese Army routed South Vietnamese forces and surrounded Saigon on April 29, 1975. The U.S. Embassy was evacuated for good; television cameras captured the frenzied scene as everyone scrambled to get on the last aircraft out. On the next day, the South Vietnamese government unconditionally surrendered.
The United States imposed a trade embargo on Vietnam that still stands, though it was eased last year in return for Hanoi’s increased cooperation in accounting for more than 2,000 Americans missing in action.
At home, a lightning war against Iraq has eased the frustrations and insecurities that came of the defeat in Southeast Asia. But some of those who fought that losing war still bear the scars.
Not Beilke. He retired from the army on Nov. 1, 1974. “I had just about 21 years at the time,” he said. “It was a good time to get out.”
For a while, he worked as an office manager for a company that sold linens to hotels and motels. He also worked as a lobbyist for seven years for the National Assn. for Uniformed Services, representing active and retired military personnel. Since 1984, he has been a civilian employee with the Department of the Army and is deputy chief for retirement services.
He has his opinions on the war and its lingering effects.
On trade with Vietnam: “We’re now talking 20 years. We’ve had other enemies around the world that we’ve fought with and I think those days are over. They’re willing to open up trade. They’re willing to have normal relationships, and I think it’s time.”
On the walking wounded vets: “I’ve always felt that we brought these young men out of Vietnam and discharged them from the army and they lost their support group. When they went out into civilian life, and in some places a very hostile civilian life, it was tough for them to cope. For those who stayed in the service, there were very few problems because they had other people who had been to Vietnam, people they could relate with.”
On the war itself: “I think we had a job to do and for those of us in the military, we went in and done it. I think our leadership could have done a better job.”
Beilke lives in Laurel, Md., thousands of miles and a world away from the old battlefield. Would he like to return? “I would like to go back to Camp Alpha and take a look at the area. Maybe when I’m fully retired.”
But a bit of Vietnam remains with him. On that day 20 years ago, as Beilke helped close the door on America’s involvement in Vietnam, the North Vietnamese presented him with a symbolic farewell gift: a straw placemat, adorned with a peace pagoda.
He still has it in his closet; he’s never gotten around to framing it.
“My wife and I have talked about it several times and we’d say, ‘Yeah, we’re going to do it.’ We just never have.”