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40 Years Later: A Return To Vietnam

At a ceremony in Ho Chi Minh City Thursday, former Marine Security Guard John Ghilain, of Malden, holds a folded American flag in honor of one of the last two U.S. troops to die on Vietnamese soil, Cpl. Charlie McMahon, of Woburn. (Quinn Ryan Mattingly for WBUR)MoreCloseclosemore
At a ceremony in Ho Chi Minh City Thursday, former Marine Security Guard John Ghilain, of Malden, holds a folded American flag in honor of one of the last two U.S. troops to die on Vietnamese soil, Cpl. Charlie McMahon, of Woburn. (Quinn Ryan Mattingly for WBUR)

Forty years ago, the Vietnam War came to a chaotic conclusion. In the last days of April 1975, the final U.S. troops and many of their supporters took to helicopters and ships and evacuated Saigon, the South Vietnamese capital, as North Vietnamese tanks rolled in.

For some, it's recalled as the fall of Saigon — the day a country was lost. For others, it's Reunification Day — the day a country was reclaimed. The events also have a unique connection to Massachusetts, as Marines from the state were some of the last U.S. troops in Vietnam, and many Vietnamese refugees resettled here in Massachusetts.

Below find a special series on the 40th anniversary, reported from Ho Chi Minh City (as Saigon is now known) and the Boston area.


The History

"It wasn’t even in the plans to ever evacuate from the embassy and now we’re in a position where we’ve got people who are scared to death all around us, there’s forces out in the streets with weapons. People are trying to get over our walls and now we’ve got helicopter landings on the rooftop and in the parking lot."

Former Marine Bill Newell, of Hopkinton

The Return To A Changed Vietnam

Former U.S. Marines John Ghilain, from Malden, left, and Bill Newell, from Hopkinton, speak to WBUR atop the Saigon Star Monday in Ho Chi Minh City. In 1975, the building was their barracks. This is their first trip back to Vietnam since they evacuated 40 years ago. (Quinn Ryan Mattingly for WBUR)
Former U.S. Marines John Ghilain, from Malden, left, and Bill Newell, from Hopkinton, speak to WBUR atop the Saigon Star Monday in Ho Chi Minh City. In 1975, the building was their barracks. This is their first trip back to Vietnam since they evacuated 40 years ago. (Quinn Ryan Mattingly for WBUR)

"My first impression [of being back in country] would be, we’re still trying to move on, and they already have."

Former Marine Bill Newell, of Hopkinton

April 30: A Day Of Many Meanings

Preparations are made for Ho Chi Minh City's parade celebrating Reunification Day in Vietnam, 40 years ago. (Quinn Ryan Mattingly for WBUR)
Preparations are made for Ho Chi Minh City's parade celebrating Reunification Day in Vietnam, 40 years ago. (Quinn Ryan Mattingly for WBUR)

"[The night of April 30] was a wonder for me. I looked at the sky -- no more military planes, not even Vietnamese planes. On the street, no more military cars. No more flares in the sky. It was so peaceful and dark. I couldn’t believe it myself, because in all my youth there was no time of peace. And we longed for peace."

Nguyen Huu Thai, 75, of Ho Chi Minh City

A Day Of Contrasts

Men in military leadership pose for a portrait during the Reunification Day parade on April 30 in Ho Chi Minh City. (Quinn Ryan Mattingly for WBUR)
Men in military leadership pose for a portrait during the Reunification Day parade on April 30 in Ho Chi Minh City. (Quinn Ryan Mattingly for WBUR)
At a ceremony on April 30, former Marine Security Guard John Ghilain, of Malden, holds a folded American flag in honor of one of the last two U.S. troops to die on Vietnamese soil, Cpl. Charlie McMahon, of Woburn. (Quinn Ryan Mattingly for WBUR)
At a ceremony on April 30, former Marine Security Guard John Ghilain, of Malden, holds a folded American flag in honor of one of the last two U.S. troops to die on Vietnamese soil, Cpl. Charlie McMahon, of Woburn. (Quinn Ryan Mattingly for WBUR)

"It’s a horrific day for all of the Saigon Marines. The event of today will not erase that memory."

Former Marine John Ghilain, of Malden

Seeking Closure

Juan Valdez, of Oceanside, California, was the last Marine to board the last helicopter off the Saigon embassy roof in 1975. (Quinn Ryan Mattingly for WBUR)
Juan Valdez, of Oceanside, California, was the last Marine to board the last helicopter off the Saigon embassy roof in 1975. (Quinn Ryan Mattingly for WBUR)

"The whole point of being here and presenting this plaque is for generations well after we’re gone, they’re going to remember or know about [fallen Marines] Darwin Judge and Charles McMahon. So the door is closer to being closed."

Former Marine John Ghilain, of Malden

Recognition For The War's 1st Casualty

U.S. Sen Ed. Markey shows WBUR's Bob Oakes his files and photos pertaining to Richard Fitzgibbon Jr. Markey's efforts helped amend the war's start date and get Fitzgibbon on the Vietnam wall in Washington, D.C. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
U.S. Sen Ed. Markey shows WBUR's Bob Oakes his files and photos pertaining to Richard Fitzgibbon Jr. Markey's efforts helped amend the war's start date and get Fitzgibbon on the Vietnam wall in Washington, D.C. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

"I got home and told my mother her brother’s name wasn’t on the [memorial wall] and right after that she started making calls, we made petitions."

Richard DelRossi, a relative of Richard Fitzgibbon Jr.

Bringing Home The Final War Dead

Charlie McMahon, of Woburn, was one of the last two U.S. service members to die on the ground during the Vietnam War. His funeral was held after his remains were finally repatriated. (Courtesy)
Charlie McMahon, of Woburn, was one of the last two U.S. service members to die on the ground during the Vietnam War. His funeral was held after his remains were finally repatriated. (Courtesy)

"[Sen. Edward Kennedy] insisted on flags for the caskets. And before we left, the Marine commandant gave us the flags to use on the caskets ... so that when they were taken off Air France they would be draped in the American flag."

Dale DeHann, former aide to Sen. Kennedy

A Vietnamese Community In Boston

The counter at Ba Le is busy during lunch time. Cafe owner Jennifer Nguyen's family escaped Vietnam in 1981, and settled in Boston. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
The counter at Ba Le is busy during lunch time. Cafe owner Jennifer Nguyen's family escaped Vietnam in 1981, and settled in Boston. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

"Since we came here with nothing, we have to give back to the community."

Jennifer Nguyen, owner of Banh Mi Ba Le, a shop in Dorchester's Fields Corner

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