By Mark Haws of rural Lac qui Parle County
For me it began in late February, 1975, when we heard rumors the United States was sending troops back to Vietnam by way of the 7th Fleet. I was with the Second Battalion, 4th Marines, on a helicopter carrier called USS Okinawa, which was part of the 7th Fleet. For the next 62 days we stayed at sea with no liberty. This created great anxiety for many Marines not familiar with life at sea. Being a very active person that always required room to move, I despised it.
On the evening of April 28, while in my rack aboard ship, the Company Gunnery Sergeant gave me the news. We would actively participate in the evacuation of Saigon. They recruited me from Supply Company due to a shortage of Non-Commissioned Officers. I was now part of the Landing Team and would report to the briefing room for orders.
Later I was told that several other Non-Commissioned Officers were not selected because they were married and had children. I was okay with that decision as it seemed like the fair thing to do. Several of the young Marines with no combat experience were highly motivated and outwardly excited about the mission and the opportunity of combat. Other older Marines who did tours in Vietnam were silent and seemed to better understand the gravity of the situation.
Early the next morning we boarded a chopper and left the ship headed for Saigon. I will never forget looking out the back of the open chopper as we banked for our landing. Buildings were burning and I could hear small arms fire in the distance. The City of Saigon was surrounded by the North Vietnamese Army and we were in the center of the city.
The next 12-14 hours were without question the most intense hours of my life. What would happen to all the Vietnamese people trying to leave? What would happen to the women and children left behind? We were never going to get them all out.
I was attached to a small squad whose mission was to secure landing zones, move groups of American and Vietnamese women and children to landing zones and clear buildings where sniper fire had been suspected. Clearing buildings was by far the most intense duty assignment.
By nightfall, the city was like a ghost town and the evacuation had calmed. It was obvious the United States had decided to finally leave Vietnam.
All we had to do now was find a way out. I was no longer part of the original landing team and we had just finished clearing a grocery store of suspected snipers. Time was in slow motion as we waited for a helicopter crew to break through the encircled city of Saigon and bring us back to our ship... or any ship. We could hear the sound of a chopper attempting to break through the perimeter set up by the North Vietnamese Army. Time and time again this happened and each time it failed I became more convinced we might never get out. Had we stayed too long?
Finally a brave helicopter crew broke through and picked us up and dropped us on the USS Blue Ridge. We had left from and been attached to the USS Okinawa so we slept on the flight deck while waiting to get back to our ship. Understandably that was not a priority at the time as the evacuation was still very chaotic. It was great to be back on any ship. b In less than 24 hours I had changed my opinion of being on a ship.
It was finally the end. Over 10 years of fighting, dying and destruction was over. It was one of the most successful operations in military history and an end to a failed war.
It was one of the luckiest days of my life... and I will never forget it.