Prologue - Saigon, Republic of Vietnam, April 29, 1975
Lance Corporal Rich Choatt peered down the street from behind the sandbags of his roadside checkpoint into the hazy air of the Saigon dusk. Irving Berlin’s “White Christmas” played on a loop through the transistor radio by his side. It was ninety degrees and the humidity associated with the beginning of monsoon season in Southeast Asia was stifling. The North Vietnamese Army had Saigon surrounded and, after twenty years of U.S. Military involvement in the Indochina conflict, they were preparing for their final assault. Panic spread throughout the city. Riots broke out and there was incessant shelling on the outskirts. Helicopters continuously moved in and out of the area. No one in the military seemed to have a clue about what they were supposed to do and the young Marines manning the checkpoint were no exception. Their only orders were to cover the crossroads and not to let anyone pass who wasn’t in a U.S. uniform. The incessant playing of a Christmas carol made the whole scene surreal.
Rich was part of a military police unit and trained to handle military working dogs at the Pacific Sentry Dog School in Okinawa. When he got to Saigon, he was teamed with his K9 partner Harley whose prior human partner was being rotated back to the states. Rich found Harley to be an excellent working dog and a great companion. It was only when he was with him that he could ever feel any relief from the constant stress caused by this morass of a military conflict. Rich formed a strong connection to Harley, who was intensely protective, but also incredibly gentle when given the opportunity to relax. He was a mix of German Shepherd and Labrador Retriever, which made for a great combination of dedication, courage, and intelligence.
Rich, Harley, and another Marine by the name of Corporal Sal Fasano had been given orders to watch the crossroads on the approach to Tan Son Nhut Air Base, the adjacent Tan Son Nhut International Airport, and the Defense Attaché Office (DAO) compound that was situated outside the air base entrance. As darkness settled on the city, the buildings appeared to be closing in on them and they knew they were being watched. They could see crowds moving, purposefully, back and forth across the street. Now the civilian population swarmed to form a mob, headed directly toward their position.
“Get ready,” Sal said in an unsteady voice.
“Sal, how the hell are we going to stop them? They’ll overrun us in seconds,” Rich replied as he put a stick of Teaberry gum in his mouth.
“Let’s fire over their heads and see if we can get them turned around. If that doesn’t work, then we’ll take a few of them out to show we mean business.”
As Sal was finishing his flimsy plan, a rocket slammed into a building a half block away. The sky lit up as the top two floors burst into flames and illuminated the street below, giving the three Marines a clear look at what they were up against.
“My God Sal, there’s thousands! They’ll be here in no time!”
Harley stood up and took a defensive stance with his ears perked and shoulder muscles taut at Rich’s side, ready to defend the post with his partner. He barked threateningly in an attempt to intimidate the advancing multitude, but the bedlam of the mob drowned him out.
Sal pulled back the bolt of the M60 machine gun and Rich tapped a magazine against his helmet to keep the rounds from jamming, inserted it in his M16 and flipped off the safety. As they took aim and were about to engage, a jeep careened into the street from the rear, kicking up stones and skidding to a stop beside them.
“What the hell are you two idiots still doing here!” screamed a gunnery sergeant from the jeep.
Sal shot back in rapid fire. “Gunny! What are we supposed to do? What’s going on?”
“For Christ sake! Why do you think the radio is playing the same goddamned song over and over? That’s the signal to evacuate! Don’t you numb nuts pay attention to anything? Now I suggest you two di di out of here and get your asses to the DAO. That is, unless you want to be the last Marines left defending this shithole.” Then the gunny peeled out leaving the three to fend for themselves.
“Asshole!” Sal screamed as the jeep sped away, “He didn’t even offer us a ride!”
“Sal, we gotta get out of here.”
“I know, I know. Let’s try to get back to the DAO,” Sal said as he snatched the M60 from its tripod on the sandbags and smashed it on the road, bending the barrel and rendering it inoperable. Then he picked up his M16, grabbed an extra magazine and said, “I’m not sure I know the way back through all this craziness.”
Rich looked down at Harley. “Come on Boy, get us back.”
The three Marines took off down the street, desperately trying to put distance between themselves and the steadily growing crowd. Harley knew the way. He had been in the city long enough to mark the territory between the DAO, the airport, and the checkpoint several times over. When he got off track, he picked up the scent of other military dogs and steered them down the street. As they made their way back, they could hear “White Christmas” still blaring from loud speakers throughout the city. The sound quality was awful and only made the entire situation more chaotic. As they continued to follow Harley back to the DAO, they encountered another small crowd looting a grocery store. When the group saw the Marines approaching, their desperation shifted towards the Americans and they began moving towards them.
“Stay the hell back!” Sal screamed at the crowd, taking aim with his weapon as they continued to come at them, undeterred.
It was only when Harley jumped into action and took a menacing posture between the Marines and the crowd that they ceased their advance.
Taking advantage of the loss in momentum, Rich yelled “Let’s go Harley!” and they took off down the street at a full sprint. After ten agonizingly long minutes on foot, they could see the lights of the DAO ahead of them. There was a crowd outside the front gate. The Marines and Airmen guarding it were barely maintaining order.
The three charged the gate, blazing a path straight down the middle with Harley madly barking and nipping at the crowd on either side. The guards saw them approaching the entrance and opened the gate just barely enough for them to squeeze through before slamming it shut again. As soon as they were in, the Airmen abandoned the post and the remaining Marine guards began wrapping chains around the cyclone fence gate, securing them with heavy padlocks. The crowd lurched forward, pushing against the locked gateway, and the entire fence line began to sway in rhythmic waves providing the only manifestation of order within the turmoil.
“Where are we supposed to go?” Sal said to one of the Marines who was placing the last of the locks on the gate.
“Sports court! Find any chopper you can! There aren’t many left. We’re getting the hell out of here!” Then he clicked the final padlock, turned, and sprinted towards the middle of the compound.
The DAO sports court had been turned into a makeshift landing zone. Two helicopters, both operated by Air America and piloted by CIA agents, idled there—a Bell 205 and a much larger Chinook CH47C.
“Which one, Sal?”
“I say we take the big one. It should have more room.”
When they got to the Chinook, they could see that it was filled nearly to capacity. The pilot was standing outside the cockpit gauging the load of his human cargo, a mix of military and civilian personnel, to calculate how many more he could fit and still get off the ground safely. He was dressed in civilian clothes and wore a Boston Red Sox cap. However, his demeanor was every bit as military as the Marines loading up.
“Get your asses on board now!” he screamed at Sal and Rich as they charged toward the chopper.
“Come on Harley,” Rich called to the dog. But just as they started for the helicopter hatch, a copilot suddenly stepped down in front of them, blocking their path to safety.
“You’re not bringing that mutt on this chopper, Boy,” the powerfully built copilot snarled in a deep southern drawl.
“The hell I’m not!” Rich snarled back, and attempted to push by.
The CIA agent, built like a bear and almost as strong, grabbed Rich, twisting him around in a hammerlock and pinning him against the side of the helicopter. He smashed his nose into the fuselage, and a stream of warm blood began to flow down the side of the aircraft.
Harley saw the attack on his master and lunged at the copilot, clamping firmly onto his left forearm. Rich screamed, “Harley, no!” in an effort to call him off, but the dog held steady.
The pilot reacted almost mechanically when he saw what was happening and drew his sidearm, taking point-blank aim at Harley. Sal, who had stood by confounded as the melee unfolded before him, suddenly snapped into action and charged, knocking the pilot’s arm aside just as he pulled the trigger. The shot bounced off the makeshift tarmac. Undeterred, the pilot grabbed Sal by the throat and thrust him against the helicopter next to Rich, still pinned by the copilot who was unflinching, oblivious to the eighty-pound dog hanging from his arm, and the second stream of blood dripping down. The pilot kept Sal at bay with his left hand, reached across with his right, put the .45 caliber automatic up to the side of Rich’s head and pulled back the hammer.
“Call him off,” he spat at Rich, “or I’ll spill all three of your brains on this court.”
“Harley, release!” Rich called out.
The dog immediately complied with the command and let go of the copilot’s arm, backing off but still taking a defensive bearing ready to engage again at Rich’s command.
Nobody moved and the pistol remained at Rich’s temple as the pilot said slowly and with conviction, “He’s not getting on this helicopter. Now, you make up your mind right now. Either you get on board without the mutt, stay here with him, or I put a bullet in you both.”
“Pilot stand down!” A booming voice disrupted the standoff and the CIA agent lowered his weapon. Rich exhaled. “Does someone want to tell me what’s going on here? If you haven’t noticed, there’s about a thousand Vietnamese out there about to reclaim this DAO.”
The big copilot released his grip on Rich, and turned around to see an unamused Marine colonel addressing them. The pilot glared from under his Red Sox cap and spoke up, “He can’t take the dog on this chopper, Colonel.”
The colonel looked back at the pilot and nodded his agreement.
“Corporal,” he said to Sal, “Go ahead and get on board. Lance Corporal, come with me.” Then he turned back to the chopper pilot. “Make preparations to get underway, we’ll be with you in a minute. And get a corpsman to look at that man’s arm.”
The colonel motioned for Rich to walk with him and pulled a red bandanna from his pocket, pointing to Rich’s still-bleeding nose. Rich signaled and Harley fell in behind them.
“Son,” he said to Rich in a compassionate tone as he put his arm over his shoulder and guided him away from the noise of the helicopter, “He can’t come with us. We are loaded to capacity and we have a dozen orphans on board.”
“But Colonel, we can’t just leave him! We’ve been together since I got here. He’s a good dog and won’t make any problems. I promise. Please, Sir.”
“None of them are going back,” the colonel said. “We’re leaving the military dogs behind. All of them. I understand how you feel. I have one just like him at home. Now he’s done his job and his duty is complete, but he has to stay. Now, go on and get on board.”
Rich opened his mouth to speak again but he knew any further attempts to change the colonel’s mind would be futile. The colonel strode toward the waiting helicopters and Rich bent down on one knee in front of Harley.
“You’re a good boy. Thank you,” he said, holding the dog’s head in his hands and rubbing him behind his ears. “Now you sit here.” Then Rich dug out the last dog biscuit he had in his pocket and put it in his mouth, the end dangling as if he was puffing a cigar. Harley hesitantly took the biscuit from him, but didn’t bite down. “Now you be a good boy and stay,” Rich said. Then he backed his way to the helicopter, the last to board.
As soon as Rich stepped into the chopper and stowed the stairway, the sound of the engines intensified and the aircraft began lifting from the ground. As he looked down, he saw Harley starting to shiver, gazing back up at him as if waiting for his next command, with the biscuit still hanging from his muzzle. Rich glanced over to the fence line and gate, now breached as the panicked crowd poured into the DAO. Even as the Vietnamese spilled onto the sports court, Harley remained motionless, staring up at Rich with his ears collapsed to the side of his head. Rich could see the look of fear and confusion in his eyes and knew he was silently imploring Rich to come back for him. Then the electricity went out in the entire DAO and only the spotlights from the fleeing airborne armada passed over the compound. Rich stared down through the darting beams of light and caught one last glimpse of Harley before the throng filled the court and engulfed him. He was gone.
When Rich could no longer make out the compound, he looked up to see what seemed like an endless line of helicopters. They were heading out to sea for waiting aircraft carriers. The sky looked like it was filled with fireflies as the largest airlift in history completed its final stages.
Thirty minutes later, the helicopter landed on the deck of the U.S.S. Midway. Rich was the first one out. He stood and watched as everyone was taken off and moved below decks to have their medical needs evaluated. As the last passengers left the helicopter, the Marine colonel who intervened at the DAO approached him and lit a cigarette.
“That’s a hell of an aircraft, isn’t it Marine?” The colonel asked rhetorically. “It flew us all the way out here and probably saved our lives.”
Rich didn’t respond, but stared past him as about thirty Sailors approached the helicopter and began rolling it to the side of the flight deck. When they got to the edge they didn’t stop, instead exerting even more effort as the wheels kept rolling and the chopper picked up speed. The Sailors proceeded to push the machine right off the end of the deck and into the South China Sea. Rich ran to the end of the flight deck and watched as the Chinook bobbed on the surface for a minute before finally sinking as the open compartments filled with salt water. Then he turned and looked up at the colonel, dumbfounded by what he had just seen.
The colonel was watching Rich and, as if reading his mind, said, “We don’t have room for it. There’s more choppers coming and we need to keep this flight deck clear. We dumped millions of dollars’ worth of valuable military armaments into that sea tonight and left millions more back on land. It is a regrettable waste of equipment. But do you know something? We saved a hell of a lot of people over the last two days.” He paused for a moment and continued, “You did a good job tonight son. You made a difficult decision but you did your job and you’re going home alive—which is more than I can say for a lot of other Marines.”
Then he dropped the cigarette, snuffed it out with his boot, and left Rich alone to stare out at the lights of the other ships and more helicopters making their approaches.
Rich took no consolation in the colonel’s words. From that day forward, he would fall into a deep depression during the holidays and become physically ill whenever he heard “White Christmas.”