In 1975, then Lance Cpl. Randy Smith stuffed a custom made three-piece suit down one bloused trouser leg, a “big wad” of South Vietnamese currency down the other, and hopped on one of the last helicopters out of Saigon as the North Vietnamese Army bore down on the U.S. Embassy.
Nearly 40 years later, Smith — who was the last Marine security guard to stand Post One at the embassy during the evacuation — will return for the first birthday ball in the city since. When Smith arrives in what is now called Ho Chi Minh City, he’ll be the oldest person at the cake-cutting ceremony. He had the opposite role at the ball in 1974, then 19, when he was honored to be recognized as the youngest Marine there.
“They didn’t actually tell me I was going to be doing the ceremony until about a week before the ball,” he said. “I was very young and naive and just going to do a job as best as I could. It was exciting because the year before I was in boot camp, and there are no birthday balls in boot camp.”
The mood in South Vietnam at the time of the last ball was peaceful, Smith said. There was no hint of impending catastrophe as Marines celebrated their proud heritage.
The Paris Peace Accord of 1973 had been signed and combat operations in Vietnam had ended. The U.S. had withdrawn most combat troops and hostilities between the North and South were on hold. While the North Vietnamese Army was secretly honing its plan to take Saigon, Smith and other Marines were partying at the embassy.
“It was actually fairly quiet and the mood was just do your job,” Smith said. “We are embassy guards and among the elite in the Marine Corps.”
Just months later, though, he and his fellow MSGs would find themselves scrambling to evacuate the last of the embassy personnel and its classified information.
“I was at Post One at the embassy on April 29 when the order came from President Ford to start the helicopter evacuation, Frequent Wind,” Smith said. “Around 1600 Maj. [Jim] Kean our [commanding officer], came into the embassy and told me to pull the flag down and sign off on the log book.”
Smith did that before heading to the parking lot to clear trees for CH-46 helicopters coming in for the evacuation.
When he returns for the Nov. 8 ball, he will present the detachment commander there with a plaque that holds some of the 1,000 piastre currency bills he had when he flew out of Saigon. He presented a similar plaque to former Commandant of the Marine Corps Gen. Jim Amos last year.
“When we left it was chaos. We were just taking the clothes on our back,” he said. “I had a suit made there in Saigon that was really expensive, really nice so I wasn’t going to leave it.”
Smith learned of this year’s birthday ball at the consulate in Ho Chi Minh City after embassy personnel reached out to members of The Fall of Saigon Marines Association. The return is a mixed bag of emotions — they mourn the Marines who died there, but he said he wants to go back.
“Some of the guys don’t want to, but I thought it would be good for me to go back, so I am looking forward to it and getting out all the emotions that have been bottled up for 40 years,” he said. “That is one of those things that is going to play out when I get there, and I am looking forward to it. I think it will be a good experience.”
By James K. Sanborn, Staff writer (Marine Corps Times)