- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 20, 2011


By Bob Drury and Tom Clavin
Free Press, $26, 301 pages

American embassies around the globe are pro- tected night and day by an elite unit called the Marine Security Guard. In “Last Men Out,” journalists Bob Drury and Tom Clavin provide an inside look at the Marines who guarded the U.S. Embassy in Saigon at the end of the Vietnam War.

During those frenzied days of late April 1975, the Marines were faced with a dangerous and chaotic city, yet they successfully accomplished their primary mission while assisting in the evacuation of thousands of Vietnamese and Americans from the embassy and defense attache compound at Tan Son Nhut air base. The authors also detail the magnificent efforts by the Marine helicopter pilots who flew evacuation missions virtually nonstop for almost 24 hours between the embassy and the fleet.

The authors’ scope is purposely narrow, confined mainly to the Marine guards and pilots flying the evac missions. They rightly portray heroic Marines performing valiantly under difficult circumstances. In this they succeed, but unfortunately, the authors mangle so many facts, both major and minor, that the book is rendered useless.

One is left to wonder if the authors conducted even the most basic research. These are not minor nitpicks, but serious errors. In one of the most egregious mistakes, the authors consistently refer to the “Royal” South Vietnamese Air Force, an incomprehensible choice since South Vietnam had been a republic for 20 years.

The authors relentlessly misidentify military vehicles, wrongly judge geography and rehash old rumors without any effort to check the details. Most mistakes occur when they are trying to paint background for the reader. Highlighting only a few of many errors, the first blunder occurs on Page 2, where the authors mix up the botched South Vietnamese retreat from the Central Highlands with the collapse of the coastal city of Da Nang. These were two, separate, massive retreats divided by hundreds of miles, a fact that even a cursory review of the New York Times would have corrected.

In describing the flight of the American Consulate in South Vietnam’s Delta, an audacious escape by boat down the Bassac River to the sea, the authors amazingly claim that upon reaching the ocean, the boats turned “south” to Vung Tau, a coastal city off which the U.S. evacuation fleet was anchored. A simple glance at a map would have informed the authors that Vung Tau is north of the Delta and the Bassac River.

The authors persistently characterize South Vietnamese military personnel as “sullen” deserters, ready at any moment to turn on their American allies. Only in a few instances are the South Vietnamese described as still battling, neatly forgetting that it was South Vietnamese that held off the advancing Vietnam People’s Army (NVA) long enough for the Americans to flee. True, many South Vietnamese military had deserted, but many remained with their units until the very end.

For example, on April 29, 1975, at Tan Son Nhut air base, U.S. and South Vietnamese civilians were desperately trying to escape on American helicopters. That same day, the remnants of a South Vietnamese airborne battalion outside of Tan Son Nhut fought one of NVA Gen. Van Tien Dung’s armored columns to a standstill, preventing it from entering the air base and capturing all the escapees.

Imagine the pandemonium if an NVA armored column had entered Tan Son Nhut during the evacuation. Imagine the choice President Gerald R. Ford or the Marines on the ground would have had to make at that moment. The Americans successfully escaped because the South Vietnamese fought, a fact ignored by the authors.

The Marines themselves are not immune to tall tales. One Marine on the last chopper out from Tan Son Nhut late on April 29 told the authors that as his helicopter flew away, he saw NVA armor moving across the air base. He paints a riveting scene: The final helicopter escapes right before the enemy moves in. But in reality, no NVA armor entered Tan Son Nhut until the late morning of April 30.

Another war story revolves around the supposed dramatic recovery of the U.S. flag from the U.S. Consulate in Bien Hoa, a town on the eastern edge of Saigon. According to “Last Men Out,” several days before the fall, a Marine guard leaned out of a hovering helicopter, cut the flag from the pole with his knife, all the while under fire from nearby NVA tanks.

An amazing feat, but official North Vietnamese publications clearly indicate that no NVA armor entered Bien Hoa until the morning of April 30. In actuality, the flag was recovered without incident by the consulate’s deputy accompanied by two Marine guards on April 27.

Like all Marines, the security guards and the helicopter pilots who fought through exhaustion to fly repeated evacuation flights stepped up with courage and ingenuity when faced with a tough situation. The U.S. evacuation would have quickly collapsed if not for their steadfast valor. They deserve a better book than this.

George J. Veith is the author of “Code-Name Bright Light: The Untold Story of U.S. POW Rescue Efforts During the Vietnam War” (Dell, 1998). His new book, “Black April: The Fall of South Vietnam, 1973-75,” is due out in November.

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