A Vietnamese Parade, And A Solemn U.S. CeremonyPlay
Thursday certainly was a day of contrasts here.
In downtown Ho Chi Minh City, there was a military parade, marking 40 years since the final U.S. troops left and Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City) fell to the North Vietnamese Army. It's called Reunification Day.
At the same time, inside the U.S. Consulate elsewhere in the city, there was a solemn ceremony honoring the last U.S. soldiers to die in the war.
The Reunification Day parade was loud and colorful, with dozens of military units high-stepping down the street.
There were 6,000 soldiers from Vietnam’s Army, Navy and Air Force, a local newspaper reported, along with police units, civilians and even some acrobats marching. But tight security severely limited the audience.
On paper, at least, foreigners weren’t allowed to leave their hotels during the festivities. We did, but we only made it to the street just outside.
At various times, we were waved off or monitored by police and security when we were taking pictures or recording sound.
Even our Vietnamese producer couldn’t get near the city center, where dignitaries, including Vietnam Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung, were viewing the parade.
Along the streets, crowds were sparse. Some viewing spots were available by ticket only. But the entire event was broadcast on Vietnamese state TV.
Many of the marchers stepped off right in front of the walled-in U.S. Consulate.
That's the site of the former U.S. Embassy, where the last U.S. personnel and citizens evacuated 40 years ago.
Just after the parade loudspeakers finally shut down outside, inside the consulate walls, officials brought up a single microphone for a more somber ceremony.
“It’s an honor to address everyone at this special commemoration, and particularly an honor to welcome all of you back to the place you once knew so well,” said Ted Osius, the U.S. ambassador to Vietnam, welcoming back a group of over a dozen former U.S. Marine Corps Security Guards.
They were among the last U.S. troops to evacuate from the embassy rooftop on April 30, 1975.
“Today’s ceremony is a vivid reminder to all of us who served overseas that all too often that service comes with sacrifice," Osius said.
This ceremony commemorated the last two U.S. troops to be killed on Vietnamese soil. Both Lance Cpl. Darwin Judge, of Marshalltown, Iowa, and Cpl. Charlie McMahon, of Woburn, Massachusetts, were Marine Security Guards, and they were killed together in a North Vietnamese rocket attack on Tan Son Nhut airbase, a few miles outside of Saigon.
McMahon had arrived in Vietnam just 11 days earlier, and died 11 days short of his 22nd birthday.
McMahon and Judge’s comrades came back to Vietnam this week to dedicate a plaque in their honor on the consulate grounds.
Former Marine Security Guard John Ghilain, of Malden, spoke of the meaning of this day.
“It’s a horrific day for all of the Saigon Marines. The event of today will not erase that memory," he said. "The unveiling of this plaque will perpetuate the memories of our fallen brothers and they shall never be forgotten."
Standing loosely at attention on one side of the tent, some of the Marine veterans were visibly fighting back their emotions. On the other side, five current Marine Security Guards stood ramrod straight, listening intently.
The active Guard detail folded two U.S. flags, end over end, into that familiar triangular shape. One of those flags is heading to Iowa, to fly above Darwin Judge Park in Marshalltown. The other was handed to Ghilain. He clutched the flag to his chest, stroking it with his thumb.
With the playing of “Taps,” each of the former Marine Security Guards laid a red rose at the foot of the plaque, saluting their fallen comrades.
An hour later, we were back outside the consulate walls. With the Reunification Day parade over, traffic was resuming its hectic pace, as Ho Chi Minh City moved on with the day.
This segment aired on April 30, 2015.