Last Men Out: The True Story of America’s Heroic Final Hours in Vietnam

  • Bob Drury and Tom Clavin
  • Free Press
  • 293 pp.

The harrowing story of how 11 Marines, doing their jobs, oversaw the escape of thousands from the U.S. Embassy in Saigon.

Reviewed by Tom Glenn

Just before Saigon fell in April, 1975, I stopped by the office of South Vietnamese Major Tuyen (not his real name). He and his wife had refused evacuation because he was unwilling to abandon his troops, and she wouldn’t leave without him. He told me that when the North Vietnamese took the city, he would shoot his three children, his wife and then himself.

Last Men Out recaps those harrowing days in novelistic style, complete with interior monologues for major players (including Henry Kissinger) — but solely from the U.S. perspective. The writers’ explicit purpose is to tell the story of the last U.S. personnel in Vietnam, not to portray the tragic end of the country. So it chronicles the ordeal of the 11 Marines who oversaw the escape of thousands from the U.S. Embassy compound before being lifted out. In less detail, it recounts the evacuation of “Pentagon East,” the mammoth U.S. military compound that had served as headquarters of the Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (MACV) and later the Defense Attaché Office (DAO). And it describes the picaresque flight of Terry McNamara, the U.S. consul in Can Tho (in the Mekong Delta south of Saigon) who, with Marine Sergeant Steve Hasty and his five Marine Security Guards and more than 300 Vietnamese, sailed down the Bassac River to the sea.

All three stories capture the terror of those days and inhuman endurance and calm courage of those who escaped and those who rescued them. But the book feels incomplete to me ― it does not tell the story of those, like Tuyen, who were left behind.

Journalists Drury and Clavin focus on the Marine Security Guards (MSGs), now known as the Marine Corps Embassy Security Group, who protect U.S. diplomats and official facilities abroad. Through the eyes of the MSGs the reader watches the Republic of Vietnam crumble before the onslaught of the North Vietnamese Army while U.S. politicians stand by and Ambassador Graham Martin delays evacuation, perversely persuaded that the North Vietnamese will negotiate. The reader sees two Marines ripped apart by rockets as the Communists shell the DAO compound; a Vietnamese couple tossing their infant over the wall into the Embassy compound (the infant’s blanket snags on the barbed wire and he hangs there); and the empty predawn sky above the Embassy when the rescuers mistakenly believe that all Marines have been evacuated with the ambassador and the forgotten 11 prepare for an Alamo-style fight to the death against the Communists.

The authors paint the final collapse of Vietnam in heroic colors, and to the degree that they concentrate on the actions of the Marines, the portrayal is justified. These ordinary men, trained to quell their fear and improvise in the face of the impossible, used the commonplace to achieve the extraordinary. Typical were the words of Marine Master Sergeant Juan Valdez, when he, believing that he and his comrades had been forgotten and thought his own death was imminent, felt his fear bubbling up: “Stop this. Just do your job.” The Marines were indeed heroes in my eyes — thanks to them, I survived.

But for the most part, the end of Vietnam was at best inglorious. Drury and Clavin mention only in passing President’s Nixon’s solemn promise to intervene if the North Vietnamese violated the Paris Accords, a promise the U.S. conveniently forgot. They omit any reference to President Ford’s public statements, well before the fall of Saigon, that Vietnam was the “war that is finished.” Nor do they portray the depth of Ambassador Martin’s delusion, so costly in human lives, that Saigon would never be attacked — to the point that he discounted the overwhelming evidence of the forthcoming assault as “communications deception.” And they depict as threats, not victims of betrayal, the 400 refugees within the U.S. Embassy compound that the Marines were ordered to abandon.

Most of the story Drury and Clavin tell is familiar to me, but dozens of inaccuracies undermine my willingness to give credence to new details. On the first page of the text, for example, they refer to the “fir-clad” Central Highlands, an area known for its sparse vegetation. Later, they say that the ambassador’s residence was on Dien Bien Phu Street, when no such street existed — after the Communists seized Saigon, they changed the name of one of the main drags from Phan Thanh Gian (where the ambassador’s residence was situated) to Dien Bien Phu, in honor of the great Vietnamese Communist victory over the French in 1954. The writers imply that both Vung Tau and Ca Mau (they misspell it Cau Mau) are visible from the mouth of the Bassac River; neither is. The authors tell us that the National Police were called “white mice” because of their white gloves and white markings on their helmets; in fact, Americans used the nickname because the policemen dressed completely in white and were believed to be cowardly. Drury and Clavin refer to MAAC-V, Military Assistance Advisory Command–Vietnam. The authors appear to be mixing up two different entities, the Military Assistance Advisory Group (MAAG), replaced in the mid-1960s by MACV, Military Assistance Command, Vietnam. Elsewhere, they distinguish North Vietnamese Army regulars from VC farm boys, perpetuating a myth that the northerners were pros and the southerners amateurs. In fact, VC stands for Viet Cong, which means Vietnamese Communist. The northerners and southerners alike were VC. The list of errors goes on.

Perhaps most egregious is the reference to the Vietnamese Royal Marines and the Royal South Vietnamese Air Force. At first I thought “Royal” was a misprint, but it recurs eight times. No royalty had existed anywhere in Vietnam since the 1950s. Bao Dai, the puppet emperor used by the French, had long since found exile on the French Riviera. Neither the north nor the south used “royal” in the names of its institutions.

Finally, I found little evidence of the profound tragedy of Vietnam. Granted, that’s not what Drury and Clavin set out to do. In lionizing the Marines, an honor the MSGs richly deserve, they nevertheless miss the point and trivialize the loss that Vietnam was and, for people like me, will always be. More than 58,000 U.S. servicemen perished. Millions of Vietnamese, Cambodians and Laotians died. Both Vietnam and the United States were severely damaged. Even those who survived suffered. And the U.S. performance at the end was craven and self-serving, despite the valor of its Marines. And I shall never forget my friend, Tuyen, and so many others like him, who chose death rather than life under the Communists.

Last Men Out comes nowhere near capturing all this. I’m still waiting for the book that does.

Tom Glenn, the author of prize-winning stories about Vietnam, was evacuated under fire as the North Vietnamese seized Saigon.

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