On this day 44 years ago, America’s involvement came to a close when North Vietnamese soldiers completed their invasion of the south and stormed the capital of Saigon, now Ho Chi Minh City.
Those iconic images of Soviet-made tanks crashing thru the gates of the Presidential Palace and U.S. sailors pushing helicopters off the sides of American aircraft carriers to make room for others airlifting the “at-risk” South Vietnamese civilians to safety will burn forever in those of us who lived then.
That final day, 20 years after the United States got firmly embroiled in that war was when the reality and finality of our involvement there hit home. The last two Americans killed in Vietnam were U.S. Marines Charles McMahon and Darwin Judge, they were Embassy Guards assigned to Tan Son Nhut Air Base and were killed in a rocket attack as the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) shelled the base as the U.S. was airlifting the last of the aircraft and Vietnamese government and civilians out of harms way.
LCPL Judge was just 19 and from Marshalltown, Iowa. He was a baby-faced, blonde-haired, blue-eyed Eagle Scout. The All-American boy from the Mid-West.
CPL McMahon, then and forever 21, however, was from my hometown of Woburn, Massachusetts, and one of us locals. How in the world could this happen? We all wondered. The Paris Peace Accords had been signed in 1973, more than two years before these events played out. The United States was supposedly out of Vietnam.
After the U.S. pulled out in 1973, the only American personnel left were in the U.S. Embassy. During the airlift, the Marine guards were stationed at the airbase, which was considered a safe spot. But just 11 days after arriving in the country, the post that the two Marines were guarding was blasted by a direct hit of a rocket. Both Judge and McMahon were killed instantly.
Growing up in the blue-collar town of Woburn, the war in Vietnam could have been on the dark side of the moon. We watched it every night on the news and many of our townspeople served there, including several family members. But it seemed very remote as if it could never touch us. Despite that, several town members of Woburn fought in Vietnam and a few died there but those happened earlier in the war and those were before our recollection.
It was a strange time. Our town had a slew of proud World War II and Korean War vets and the feelings toward them was always a huge positive. But the anti-war sentiment that began in the mid-to-late 1960s grew and the Vietnam veterans were unfairly judged as the easy targets for the wrath of the people, who just wanted the war to end. Even in the patriotic suburb of Woburn, Vietnam vets were ignored and no one wanted to hear what they had to say.
McMahon’s death came as a shock. Prior to enlisting in the Marine Corps, McMahon was a fixture at the Woburn Boys Club. He and his boyhood friend George Holland were two of the older guys there and they taught swimming, served as lifeguards and served as mentors for the younger kids in town.
McMahon was the kind of older kid who could get anyone to do anything and always seemed to have a flock of kids around him. Growing up, I can remember seeing him jumping off the bridge in Hampton Beach, New Hampshire as traffic was backed up waiting to get over the bridge there. It was a good-sized drop down to the ocean below. His father and mother both worked at the General Foods Jello factory in town were some of our school bus drivers.
Holland was a natural all-around athlete and was a huge mentor to the younger kids. He looked like he was tailor-made for a Marine recruiting poster before he even joined. When the two enlisted in the Marines, it surprised no one. The man who ran our local Boys Club in town was named Charlie Gardner and he was a Marine thru and thru. He looked like a Marine even long after his wartime service in Korea. But he’d regale the older kids with stories of the Corps.
Holland remembers Gardner as being the Marine recruiter’s best friend. “There was a Gunny (Gunnery Sergeant) recruiter in Medford,” he said. “He’d come down to the Boys Club to see Charlie Gardner and ask,’ how many kids you got for me?’” Gardner was such an influence, that even during the anti-war days of the early ‘70s, Gardner convinced many young Woburnites to join the Marine Corps.
For the daredevil-turned-Devil Dog McMahon, the Marines which were supposed to be a stepping stone to the Massachusetts State Police became a calling. Holland remembers, “he loved the Marines as much as anybody I ever saw in the service,” said Holland. ” I think he would have stayed in the Marines a long time.”
The two touched base when Holland was awaiting a clearance to go to a nuclear submarine facility and McMahon was finishing up Embassy Guard School. This was at Henderson Hall in Washington D.C. “Charlie was a Lance Corporal and I was a “Lance Coolie” assigned to the Mess Hall,” Holland said with a laugh. “Oh, how he loved busin’ my chops during that time.”
The two got away for a weekend skiing just before McMahon was reassigned to Saigon. And posed for a picture with friends, not knowing it would be the last time, they’d be photographed together.
They discussed McMahon’s upcoming Saigon assignment. “We didn’t think he’d even leave,” Holland recalls. “Everything was falling apart in South Vietnam, the North had invaded and we thought before he’d even ship out the country would fall.”
But he did go and was only in Saigon for a few days before being killed on a fluke missile strike. Holland spoke with Marines who had survived the final days and they remembered that with the huge influx of Vietnamese civilians trying to get into the US Embassy, the Gunny in charge of the Embassy Guards assigned McMahon and Judge to Tan Son Nhut as it was deemed “safer” for the new guards on the watch.
In their assault on the city, the NVA unleashed a flurry of rockets for South Vietnamese positions. One rocket fell well short of its target and unintentionally landed on the two Marines’ position. They were killed instantly.
The Marines moved their two killed comrades to a local hospital where they were placed in the morgue. During the frenzied pullout of the final American personnel only hours later, the Americans thought they’d airlifted McMahon and Judge’s bodies offshore. But in the final chaos, they’d been inadvertently left behind.
The move was devastating to the Marines’ parents back in the states. “Charlie’s parents were really upset about this,” Holland said. No one could blame them. It took nearly a year but Sen. Ted Kennedy approached the North Vietnamese thru channels and arranged for their bodies to be flown to Thailand and finally home to the states.
“I was stationed at the sub base in Connecticut when my C.O. called me into his office,” Holland said. “You have to get up to Boston and meet CPL McMahon’s casket with his parents.”
The funeral was one of the biggest in Woburn’s history. “It was like a huge parade going thru town,” Holland said. “It seemed like everyone in town was there.”
The survivors formed the Fall of Saigon Marines Association to keep McMahon and Judge’s memories alive. This association, with 65 surviving members, awards $1,000 scholarships each spring to an Eagle Scout in Marshalltown and to the “Top Boy” and “Top Girl” at the Boys and Girls Club of Woburn.
Coincidentally, the first Marine killed in Vietnam was an Air Force Airman Richard Fitzgibbon from Stoneham, Mass. Fitzgibbon and McMahon grew up just three miles apart. Fitzgibbon was killed in 1955, twenty years later, McMahon and Judge were the last. Fitzgibbon’s son was killed in Vietnam as well.
With the enduring conflict in Afghanistan where both fathers and sons are both serving in combat zones, it is fitting that we today honor the first and last from Vietnam. They aren’t forgotten.
“Thanks for remembering Charlie today,” Holland said. “We’ll never forget him.”
Photos: McMahon family, Wikipedia