Monday, January 14, 2013

World Exclusive: The Last Americans to Leave Vietnam

Do you remember the dramatic footage of American soldiers and South Vietnamese citizens evacuating from the roof of the U.S. Embassy in Saigon, Vietnam on April 30, 1975? As a teen, I watched the riveting news reports of that evacuation and wondered who was on the very last helicopter to leave the embassy roof. Who were the very last American troops to officially leave Vietnam? 

That question lingered in my mind for two decades. And in 1994, as a correspondent for People magazine, I embarked on a journalistic mission to become the first person to identify the men on that very last chopper. These men were a part of history, yet the U.S. military never compiled an official list of their names. It wasn’t easy tracking them all down. It took a bit of detective work. But I was resolute. After nearly a month, I found them. It was a world exclusive of which I'm still proud. 

The magazine flew every member of that crew who could make it to San Diego for a highly emotional reunion that I was honored to hostThat was the first time these Marines - most of them guards at the embassy - had been together since that horrific day on the embassy roof. 

What I did not know until I started interviewing them was that they all thought they'd been left behind and that they would likely die on that roof that night. They waited for hours for that final helicopter to come while the embassy beneath them and the city around them crumbled.

When the producers of the play Miss Saigon read my story in People, they called me and invited all these Marines, and me, to the Washington DC premiere of the play at the Kennedy Center. The play, which puts the Madame Butterfly story into a Vietnam context, has a scene at the end that poignantly depicts the helicopter escape by these American Marines.

It was, appropriately, my first visit to Washington. I could not have felt more patriotic and more proud to bring these guys together, again. We all met up before the play at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, better known as The Wall, which most of them had surprisingly not seen. There wasn't a dry eye among these tough Marines at The Wall as they read the names of buddies lost, or when they watched the final scene of Miss Saigon. 

Miss Saigon 
They were watching their own life up on that stage. Afterward, the ranking and most vociferous member of the group, Maj. Jim Kean, commented on the fact that one of his men on that helicopter, S.Sgt. Robert Frain, had reportedly killed himself in 1993 after a battle with depression. My assumption is that Frain may have had post-traumatic stress (PTSD) from his Vietnam days. But I don’t know for certain. 
"I really miss Bobby," Kean told me that day at The Wall, his voice cracking. "I wish he was here with us."
Now here we are again, in another protracted war that many insist is not winnable. The war in Afghanistan is the longest in American history, and whether you think we should stay or go, it's hard not to think about the possibility of the Taliban violently storming the country just as the North Vietnamese did when the Americans left Vietnam. 

As I've written before, our brave and confident troops think they can train the Afghans in time to restore order and keep the Taliban down by the time we leave in 2014. When the last American warriors do leave Afghanistan, I'll be thinking about those men in Saigon 35 years ago, the last to leave Vietnam, and what they saw as they looked out that heli's window: a city, and country, in ruins and being taken over by the bad guys. 

The hope among American military and its allies, and all of us, is that we will leave Afghanistan in a much better state than what we left behind in Vietnam. Regardless, we've been there long enough. It’s time to bring our men and women home. All of them. And, most importantly, we must support them after they come home.


  1. Now here we are again, in another protracted war that many insist is not winnable

  2. I worked with Bob in the early 90's. He was loved by many of his colleagues and his loss was taken hard by his friends at work. At the time I was reading a book called HOME BEFORE MORNING about a nurse who served in Vietnam and suffered many years of PTSD before she was diagnosed. He said he wished more people would try to understand what a person who suffers from PTSD live with on a daily basis.

    1. Thanks SueLouK for sharing this. Are you referring to Bobby Frain? Where did you work together if I may ask? Thanks for reading.

  3. I've long wondered if Bobby Frain was a relative. There have been Frains in the U.S. since before the revolution, and it seems each generation moved west a couple hundred miles. From New Jersey to Pennsylvania, to Ohio, to Indiana, to Illinois, to Iowa/Nebraska, to Wyoming... Oregon is not that far to go from there. My grandfather came from Ireland and ended up in Texas, after raising his family in Minnesota.

    I was not a Marine, but there have been several in the Frain clan. Marines tend to raise Marines, and they don't go far from it. If you have any link to that branch of the Frain family, I hope you can put us in touch.

    Thanks for your help.