So much media attention has been devoted this month to the 150th anniversary of the end of the Civil War and the ensuing assassination of President Lincoln that it’s easy to forget the final days of another war, one that didn’t end with the stars and stripes flying high. I’m speaking of course, about the Vietnam War, which ended quite ignominiously forty years ago this April 30th.
The image was heartbreaking—soldiers and Marines crowding together atop the final American outpost in a country that wouldn’t exist the moment they lifted off. Historian Dominic Sandbrook summed up the mood: “For the Americans who fled Saigon in those desperate hours, there were no words to describe the grief and shame they felt that morning. In two weeks, they had supervised the evacuation of six thousand Americans and more than more than fifty thousand Vietnamese: a heroic effort under any circumstances but one that fell short of an honorable exit. ‘The rest of our lives, we will be haunted by how we betrayed those people,’ one diplomat said on the USS Okinawa. ‘It made me cry when I got here. There were lots of people who were crying when they got here.’”
One of those final few to leave was US Army Captain Stuart Herrington, a patriot and career military officer who would go on to be a brilliant spy catcher in the 1980s. He had been tasked with organizing an evacuation of Vietnamese civilians and had even arranged for Vietnamese firemen to be on hand in case the helicopter crashed. Those firemen were almost certainly slaughtered. “They listened to us, and believed us,” he said. “They waited confidently in those rows, believing their friends would not let them down.”
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