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50 Years Later: Eyewitness to the Last Day of US Military Command in Vietnam

BGEN Stan McClellan, Chief of Staff Military Assistance Command-Vietnam (MACV), U.S. Army, conducts a press conference, to discuss the details of release of the prisoners of war, for members of the civilian press in a Military Assistance Command-Vietnam (MACV) briefing room at Tan Son Nhut Airbase.

February, 1973, two months before the end of MACV

The calendar said March 29, 1973. But the last few thousand American soldiers in Vietnam called it "X plus 60"—the 60th day of the truce, and the deadline for the last U.S. troops to go home.

It was, when it came, a day with an overwhelming sense of anticlimax. Camp Alpha, the processing barracks for departing GIs at Saigon's Tansonnhut Air Base ("It's Camp Omega today," someone murmured as we drove through the gate), gave the impression not of a war zone but of a second-rate hotel lobby at the end of a salesmen's convention. In the lines of men coiling out of the gymnasium-like staging area onto buses that would take them to the flight line, you saw none of the teenaged grunts or fresh-faced platoon leaders who actually fought the battles. The last soldiers of America's war in Vietnam were captains and majors and senior sergeants, middle-aged men with thinning hair and thickening waists. Looking at them, you remembered not battle but the beery haze of officers' and NCO clubs. Many of them had seen combat in earlier tours, of course. But they were leaving now from offices, not foxholes, where with typewriters and duplicating fluid they had carried out the necessary but hardly glorious tasks of shutting down the American war machine.

At mid-afternoon, about 50 of them attended a forlorn little ceremony that was the last formation of the Military Assistance Command Vietnam—always called by its acronym, "Mack-Vee"—once an army of a half-million men. In a courtyard outside the huge headquarters building everyone in the little group stood at attention while a terse general order was read: "Headquarters Military Assistance Command Vietnam is inactivated this date and its mission and functions reassigned." Then an honor guard marched briskly forward carrying the MAC-V flag with its insignia of an upward-pointing sword. Facing Ambassador Bunker and General Weyand, the last MAC-V commander, the flag-bearer dipped the banner, then furled and encased it in an olive-drab bag resembling a golf bag, in which it was to be flown out of the country.

A few hours later, Weyand attended a second ceremony with the chief of the South Vietnamese Joint General Staff, the ineffectual Cao Van Vien. "Our mission has been accomplished," the lanky Weyand pronounced haltingly in Vietnamese from a phonetic script. Then he boarded a special Air Force flight and was gone.

Not many hundred yards away, Vietnamese workers celebrated the historic day by busily and thoroughly looting Camp Alpha's billets and storerooms. Lines of "hooch maids" streamed through the gate carrying electric fans, clothing, lamps, stacks of old magazines and paperbacks, and other booty that could be used or sold in the Saigon market. Another group, including off-duty Vietnamese soldiers and airmen in civilian clothes, ripped away a section of chicken-wire fence to break into the mess hall, which was supposed to be turned over to the international truce observers. Ignoring the curses of a few furious Americans who had worked past midnight to tidy up for the new tenants, the intruders carried off tables, chairs, and crates of food. Even ceiling fans were ripped from their fixtures. The crowd turned unruly, though still good-natured, and began smashing what could not be carried away. In less than fifteen minutes, the formerly immaculate dining room was a shambles of broken bottles, spilled food, and upturned furniture—a tiny but telling metaphor, I thought, for the country we had thought to save with American technology and wealth but had never fully understood.

The three-day airlift removing the last American troops had been carefully calibrated to coincide with the release of the last group of U.S. war prisoners. On March 27, 32 men were handed over to U.S. representatives in Hanoi and flown aboard U.S. Air Force hospital planes to Clark air base in the Philippines. On the 28th, 50 more were released, including ten captured in Laos whose status had been the subject of a tense ten-day dispute in the Joint Military Commission. And on the 29th, another 67 prisoners, the last of a total of 595 freed in the exchanges, were flown to freedom. In Saigon, the last 5,200 U.S. servicemen were flown out at a rate roughly matching the repatriation of the prisoners. Another 825 American military delegates to the truce commission were to leave in the two days following the deadline, leaving 159 Marine embassy guards and 50 military members of the Defense Attache Office as the only uniformed Americans remaining in Vietnam.

By the time the last flight of the 29th was ready to load, a slanting afternoon sun was casting long bars of shadow across the tarmac. Communist truce delegates in baggy green uniforms clustered about the plane, aiming cameras at the departing Americans as they compiled a copious photographic record of what was, to them, a triumphant occasion. A few dozen American and European reporters and cameramen also recorded the scene. Not far away but unnoticed was a flatbed truck loaded with twenty coffins: South Vietnamese dead, flown back from the north to be buried. At planeside a Communist colonel named Bui Tin, the spokesman for the North Vietnamese truce delegation, was carrying a gift: a straw-mat painting of a Hanoi street scene, which he planned to present as a memento to the last departing American. When Master Sgt. Max Beilke of Alexandria, Minnesota, stepped onto the boarding stairs, Colonel Tin hurried forward and thrust the package at him. But the gesture was too early. A few minutes later, while Tin watched empty-handed, two more Americans boarded the plane, Col. David Odel of Crystal Lake, Illinois, the Tansonnhut base commander, and Chief Master Sgt. Vincent R. Jacobucci of Forest Hills, New York, his senior noncommissioned officer.

Odel and Jacobucci paused for a moment at the top of the boarding steps, waved back to the truce observers and cameramen on the ground, then disappeared inside. The doors slid closed and the huge C-141 transport swerved toward the taxiway. At 6 p.m., 60 days and ten hours after the failed truce, it lumbered off the ground into an orange sunset that silhouetted the watchtowers out on the airport perimeter. For the first time in over eleven years—it seemed longer—there was no significant American military presence in Vietnam.

This excerpt is from Without Honor: Defeat in  Vietnam and Cambodia, updated edition, McFarland & Company Inc., 2022