Thursday, April 30, 2015

Forty Years Later - The Fall of Saigon - My Thoughts

It is an iconic photo. Seen by millions of people over the years. As with many historical images it has it's myths and facts. The stairs are now at the Gerald Ford Presidential Library. But which stairs? This iconic photo thought to be of the embassy, really is not. The below photo probably is a correct one to use for it is the actual embassy. I read somewhere in my research that the above photo is actually the CIA HQ in Saigon. That is an Air America Huey and not a Marine Corps Chinook on that rooftop. The below photo shows a Chinook landing on the actual embassy roof. Possibly a few old Vets like me will remember it as Bunker's bunker.

I started out to post about the differences between 1975 and 2015 on both sides of the event, Vietnam and America. I changed my mind after reading a quote from one of the men involved in the evacuation that day. Corporal John Ghilain said - " We're still trying to move on; They already have". It struck me as true. A personal anecdote - I sell furniture for a living. I, to this day, cringe when I see, Made in Vietnam, on the label of a piece of furniture. I have had customers of similar age mention the same to me when they see it, or I answer their question of "Where is it made?". John Ghilain is correct, at least in my case. I wasn't even "In Country" during the war and I haven't moved on. I discarded the original post outline and drafted this one.

Thank you John for enlightening me.

This photo is now the story behind my post today. The Marine standing guard on the wall. 

In keeping with the goal that personal stories will be shared on this blog as well as Cold War historical articles, I chose to write about the Marines who were tasked in 1975 with guarding the USA interest in Saigon as the city fell around them. I chose one Marine in particular, Master Sergeant John J. Valdez, because history has him identified as the last man to get on the last helicopter leaving Saigon. The "last man" part is probably not true for there were probably many more Vietnamese that flew out to the waiting U. S. Navy ships but he probably was the last Marine to leave according to numerous blogs and historical documents.

While researching Valdez, I discovered his story of that fateful day. As a U. S. Navy Petty Officer who also had men to care for during my time in service, I was impressed with the man. He stood his assigned post to the last minute, made sure his men made it onto the helicopter before him, and felt regret for leaving others behind. I do not know if he is still alive, extensive internet searches did not discover an obituary, so I believe he still is. If you read this Gunny, please let me know your status and if you wish, this blog is open to you to share whatever you may want to say about that day. Please feel free to correct anything I got wrong.

One thing that stuck in my mind while researching MGySgt Valdez was that he was unaware as he got on that helicopter, two of his men were being left behind. They were KIA at the Tan Son Nhat air base and were not recovered until years later (there is a link below to an article explaining the return of their remains). He learned of their loss after he reached safety. Lance Corporal Judge and Corporal McMahon were killed in the shelling of the air base and were left behind. According to an article I read from 1990, MGySgt Valdez still felt the pangs of regret for leaving them behind and breaking the Marine Corps solemn credo; to never leave one of their own behind.

After discovering this fact, I wanted to honor Judge and McMahon. They won't get mentioned in the news, they won't be honored at Vietnamese ceremonies, but, they will be remembered today by their fellow Marines, and hopefully by veterans in their home towns. I  wanted to mention their names as my way of honoring their sacrifice. I was safe and secure on my ship as they were in harm's way. I appreciate their courage and fortitude to stand their post until their deaths.

SEMPER FI Marines from this old Squid that appreciates your sacrifice for my freedom.

LCpl Darwin Judge

Cpl Charles McMahon

References: - Article on their remains being returned - Web page on LCpl Darwin Judge - Article on Cpl Charlie McMahon - Web page about MGySgt Valdez - Article on return trip to Vietnam - Article of personal recollections of the Marines that were there - Biographies of the Marines that were there - Review of the book, Last Men Out
Last Men Out:The True Story of America's Heroic Final Hours in Vietnam,Bob Drury and Tom Clavin, Free Press, New York

Click here to link to Amazon books listing


  1. That is not a Chinook evacuating people in the photograph, the Marines did not operate the CH-47 Chinook. The Marines use the CH-46 Sea Knight and that is what is in the photograph.

  2. Thank you for the correction. I did not take the time to research which it was. Thanks for keeping me on my toes! JohnnyK

  3. Great read, FYI Top Valdez is alive and well, retired and living in Oceanside Ca. Not a day goes by that Charlie and Darwin are not in my thoughts. S/F John Ghialin



Where did you serve? Military or Civilian? Stateside or Overseas. Fulda Gap? Berlin? NATO? CIA? State Department? The Dew Line? On a Missile Battery? Down in a Silo? At Sea? Under the Sea? In the Air? According to the VA over 26 million Vets are still alive. I'd bet that most served in the 1945-1991 time frame and I'd like to share your story on this blog. As long as it isn't still classified, email me with your story and I will post it here.