Randy Smith of Venice, Fla., who served as a 19-year-old Marine Corps guard at the American Embassy in Saigon 40 years ago, is returning to Ho Chi Minh City, its new name, in a couple of days.
He was the Marine who hauled down the American flag at the embassy for the last time on April 29, 1975 signifying the end of hostilities for U.S. forces in that war-torn country. Smith is attending a Maine Corps Birthday Ball on Nov. 10 in Ho Chi Minh City for the first time in four decades.
“I was the youngest Marine at the last Marine Corps Birthday Ball held there in 1974. I may be the oldest Marine this time around,” the 59-year-old “Leatherneck” said.
“They always recognize the youngest and the oldest Marine at the balls together with the senior official on post. Just before they cut the birthday cake at the ball we got to stand up along with Ambassador Graham Martin–exactly one year and 11 days before the fall of Saigon.”
The following year Smith was serving at the main entrance to the embassy when he was ordered by Maj. Jim Kean to take down the flag. He did what he was told and handed the folded flag to the major. He in turn presented the flag to the ambassador.
Then Cpl. Smith became one of the guards protecting the embassy from the thousands of South Vietnamese who worked for the Americans and wanted to escape the country before the North Vietnamese marched into Saigon.
The end for the Americans came when Bing Crosby sang “White Christmas” on the local radio. That was the code that called for the Marines to cut down the trees in the embassy parking lot so the rescue helicopters could land.
In 40 years much has changed in Saigon, including its name–it’s now Ho Chi Minh City.
“Today Ho Chi Minh City is an international city. It’s shiny and new with lots of big high rises,” Smith explained. “Some 80 percent of the people in Saigon are under 40 and don’t remember the Vietnam War. They like Americans and their money.
“I’ll take a flight out of Tampa to Denver. From there I’ll fly to Tokyo in 12 hours and onto Saigon in another six. It’s a long flight.
The Corps’ Birthday Ball this year will be a scaled down version of the ball held in Saigon half a lifetime ago. Smith and a friend, Ken Trout, will fly in from the States. The five Marines who guard the consulate will also attend the evening bash.
There will be no shortage of dignitaries at the affair. Ambassador Pete Peterson, a former POW, will be there. So will Ambassador Michael Michkalak as well as Chargé d’affaires Claire Pierangelo.
No one representing the Communist government will attend.
When Smith returned home from Vietnam the first time he eventually became an elementary school teacher. For a decade he taught fourth and fifth grade students at East Elementary School in Punta Gorda, Fla. Later on he got his contractor’s license and built a number of homes in the Punta Gorda, Port Charlotte, and Venice area.
“What I’m looking for on this trip is a little closure. There’s a little apprehension and excitement on my part. It’s something I think I need to do. It will be interesting,” the aging “Leatherneck” said.
Name: Randy Smith
D.O.B: 5 Oct. 1955
Hometown: Dayton, Ohio
Currently: Venice, Fla.
Entered Service: 27 Sept. 1973
Discharged: 26 Sept. 1977
Unit: Headquarters company, Headquarters Battalion, 2nd Marine Division
Commendations: Navy Unit Commendation, Campaign Action Ribbon, Good Conduct Medal, Navy Meritorious Unit Citation, Humanitarian Service Medal, Marine Security Guard Ribbon, Arm Forces Expeditionary Medal, Presidential Unit Citation
This story was first published in the Charlotte Sun newspaper, Port Charlotte, Fla. on Sunday, Nov. 9, 2014 and is republished with permission.
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