Last heroes of a lost war

Vietnam: Twenty-five years later, one man realizes what a momentous event he participated in on the day the United States pulled out of its ally's capital -- and the war.

April 30, 2000|By Dan Fesperman | Dan Fesperman,SUN STAFF

Capt. John E. Rhodes had been in the pilot's seat for 20 hours, buttocks numb, legs aching, the rotors of his helicopter roaring. A nightlong fireworks show of tracer bullets and muzzle flashes had finally dimmed in what passed for dawn in the gray drip of the monsoon, but all was still chaos below in Saigon. Hundreds of panicky locals were down there on the grounds of the U.S. Embassy, shoving through clouds of tear gas. On the rooftop, 11 American Marines waited anxiously to be taken away.

Rhodes circled at 5,000 feet, preparing to spiral down for his final landing. Then a terse call came across the radio from another chopper, Swift 22. It would serve as a weary nation's exit line from the tragedy of Vietnam:

"SWIFT 22 IS OUTBOUND WITH 11 PAX ON BOARD INCLUDING THE LZ COMMANDER. ALL THE AMERICANS ARE OUT REPEAT OUT."

Rhodes turned his chopper into formation with Swift 22 and they headed for a waiting fleet of Navy vessels 30 miles offshore in the South China Sea. Somehow, in a full day and night of flying that ended 25 years ago today, Rhodes and dozens of other helicopter pilots did the job, evacuating 6,236 Americans and Vietnamese to safety. In doing so, they became the last heroes of a lost war in which Americans had become accustomed to working without acclaim.

At the time, just about all the pilots were too weary to recognize the magnitude of their achievement. But as the years and wars have passed, Rhodes, now a 55-year-old lieutenant general commanding the Marine base at Quantico, Va., has come to realize what a momentous event he participated in on that distant April morning.

"It began to dawn on me," he says, "that this was something big."

The Vietnam War almost never went according to American expectations, and that was true at the end as well. When Rhodes arrived off the coast of Vietnam in late March 1975 aboard the USS Dubuque, he expected a far different mission from the one he carried out.

U.S. ground forces had pulled out of the country more than a year earlier, after the Paris cease-fire of 1973. Now their former allies in the South Vietnamese army were fending for themselves against a huge offensive by the North Vietnamese army and the Viet Cong guerillas.

"We were anticipating doing reinforcement of supplies and munitions to Vietnamese forces," Rhodes says. The focus was to be in the northern regions of South Vietnam, around Quang Tri. Rhodes had flown more than a thousand missions there on an earlier tour from December 1968 through early 1970.

"That was my back yard," he says, at the Quantico base. "I can close my eyes and still visualize the mountains and the valleys and the rivers, the landmarks and all that."

He wondered how his old acquaintances were holding up -- the Vietnamese helicopter pilot who by 1968 had logged 13 years of combat experience, the Catholic woman who'd done his squad's laundry and cleaned their hootches. He remembered the laughing children, but also the way they grew wary as they reached their teens. He remembered the way you could smell enemy soldiers in the bush by the garlic they ate -- reassuring until you realized they could smell you, too.

But Rhodes never got to fly in his old back yard. He'd go to the Dubuque's situation room every morning and be astonished by the changes marked on the big map. "My God, how could they have moved that quick?" he wondered, "How could it have collapsed that quick?"

So, the chopper crews recalibrated their plans, and the Dubuque cruised south, but South Vietnamese forces were moving even faster in retreat.

"We were thinking, `This sucker's falling apart,'" Rhodes says. "And so we did our first real flying, where we moved some Vietnamese evacuees. We put them aboard military sealift command ships. They were crammed aboard, 10,000 to 12,000 per ship, and we brought them food and water on pallets."

The ocean was soon swarming with every sort of rickety craft sailing from Vietnam.

"They were coming out in junks and abandoning the junks. ... They would just jump into the water and hang onto the ships, and we would bring them in."

By now it was late April, and Rhodes witnessed a bizarre sight that would be repeated dozens of times before the end of the month. South Vietnamese army helicopters began arriving packed full of refugees. When there was no place to land, they'd crash uninvited just about anywhere on the deck. The passengers would unload, then the Americans would rip out the radios and shove the helicopters overboard.

"It got so we couldn't even land," Rhodes says. "There were so many Vietnamese helos in the air evacuating that if we went ahead and cleared a spot for us to land, they would take it ahead of us, just zip right in. It was like fighting over parking spots at a mall."

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