Nate: Today we’re talking about the book, “Last Men Out: The True Story of America’s Heroic Final Hours in Vietnam” by Bob Drury and Tom Clavin. When I saw this book, I knew I had to read it because I had always been interested in the story of the evacuation of the U.S. Embassy in Saigon at the end of the Vietnam War, but I didn’t know a lot about it.
Dave: Yeah, I was in college in southern Indiana while this was going on, and at the time I thought it was a lot more orderly than it really was. But then that was the message that was being conveyed by the government. And after reading the book, it seems as though the higher ups in the government thought it was a lot more orderly than it really was too, so I guess it wasn’t necessarily all fabrication on their part.
Nate: It was definitely an improvised operation that resulted from a situation that was much more dire and desperate than the government officials on the outside were aware of. I loved learning about all of the soldiers who were at the embassy – getting to know their backgrounds and how they got to where they were – and how these events in their lives brought them all together in this one place.
Dave: And the honor those soldiers had, and their commitment to their duty. Despite all of the craziness that was going on outside the walls of the embassy, and even inside the walls of the embassy, they were Marines. They didn’t lose control, they didn’t break down. They simply did their job, and were willing to do whatever it took to get that job done.
Nate: The conflict the Marines felt within themselves was also present throughout the book. Here were good soldiers who did exactly what they were told, and yet despite that, they couldn’t understand how the situation in Vietnam had gotten to where it was. The war was lost, the North Vietnamese were marching on Saigon, the embassy walls were being mobbed by people trying to get out of the country before the North Vietnamese takeover, and they just couldn’t quite understand it. They’d become disillusioned.
Dave: And this seems to be one of the overriding themes of the Vietnam War – good soldiers who do their duty, but who are still on the losing end of the war. It was a tough pill for them to swallow, and that bitterness and disappointment is visible throughout the book, as the last people are trying to get out of the country. Yet, despite their bitterness and disappointment, they were still at the embassy, doing their duty to the best of their ability, until they were all evacuated, or the last man had fallen. And that’s important to note, because the last twelve Marines who stayed behind didn’t know for sure if there was going to be a last chopper to come get them. And the one that did, arrived minutes before it was too late.
Nate: The issue of the non-American evacuees was another one the Marines had to deal with. Here were people who had been loyal to the Americans, and in the end many of those people were going to be left behind. These were people the Americans had made promises to, and now they were being abandoned.
Dave: And the Marines at the embassy were the ones who had to look them in the eye and see the disappointment, hurt, anger, and desperation many of those people had. Granted, there were a lot of non-Americans who got out during the evacuation, but there were also a lot who didn’t, and that was something those Marines had to deal with in those final hours.
Nate: The helicopter pilots who flew for 18 straight hours were remarkable as well. Not only for their endurance, but also because they had to land their choppers in an extremely tight area, many times while being fired at, and throughout the night when it was dark.
Dave: Yeah, the Marines were amazed at the skill they showed, as one small maneuvering mistake would have meant a crash. And because of how that area they landed at in the embassy was set up, they often could even hardly see the ground or their bearings very well. It was truly remarkable.
Nate: Who were some of the people who were involved that stood out to you?
Dave: Well, I thought the ambassador, Graham Martin was, in some ways, a hero. He wanted to stay to the very last, although they eventually had to just about kidnap him onto a helicopter because President Ford gave a direct order to get him out of there.
Nate: Yeah, he was a bit delusional thinking he could somehow rectify the situation, but he definitely showed courage staying as long as he did. I really enjoyed the story of the American Consul in Can Tho, Terry McNamara, who was basically abandoned by the CIA, and had to improvise his way out of the country by captaining a ship full of Americans and Vietnamese civilians downriver to the open sea. After going through various patrols, and dangers along the river, they then had to somehow find the American fleet once they reached the sea.
Dave: He was definitely a character. I really enjoyed Major James Kean and Master Sergeant Juan Valdez who were in charge of the Marines at the embassy. Their leadership was instrumental in, not only carrying out the evacuation as smoothly as possible, but also in keeping the morale and spirits of their soldiers high. The soldiers at the embassy revered and respected both of them, which was important when it was time to follow through with the evacuation. They held it together when times got tough, so their soldiers did too.
Nate: So who do you think would enjoy this book?
Dave: Well, I would say that for the average person, if you want to understand the basics of what went on with the evacuation, this would be a good book. It gives you a good feel for what it was like in Saigon and for the soldiers who were stationed there.
Nate: Yeah, probably not a book for hard core military historians and Vietnam War buffs. Mostly because much of the book’s contents would be information they’re already aware of. And it simply doesn’t go into the detail of a “scholarly work”.
Dave: “Last Men Out” is mostly about the people who were involved in the evacuation, and what it was like to live through it. So I would say that if you’re interested in the more personal side of the story, this would be a book you would enjoy.