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Judge witnesses abandonment of U.S. Embassy in Saigon

John M. Steiner / The Sun Thomas Merrick, who is a Southeast District Court judge in Jamestown, holds two framed photographs Tuesday of military aircraft he flew in while on active duty in Vietnam and at the Grand Forks Air Force Base.

Circling the U.S. Embassy in Saigon, South Vietnam, during the early morning hours of April 30, 1975, was a Spectre gunship. Its crew, including Infrared Operator 1st Lt. Thomas Merrick, was flying above history as the ambassador and his staff evacuated the building and the country.

"We were circling around to provide ground support as the ambassador was evacuated from the embassy," said Merrick, now a Southeast District Court judge in Jamestown. "We had been told to expect action there but there was none."

Those events 37 years ago ended a conflict the United States had become involved in 50 years ago.

Merrick speculated the North Vietnamese Army didn't want to challenge the U.S. and just wanted the last American presence gone from the country. American forces had been tasked with assisting the South Vietnamese military in resisting forces from North Vietnam which operated in conjunction with forces from within Vietnam known as Viet Cong.

American forces began withdrawal from South Vietnam in 1971 with almost all units out of the country by 1973.

For a period the war was fought by South Vietnamese soldiers. North Vietnamese soldiers advanced south until the fall of Saigon was imminent in April, 1975. As that fall approached Americans in the country were forced to leave.

In the overnight darkness even the operator of the infrared equipment, normally used to spot soldiers and equipment on the ground, had a limited view of the scene below.

"I still remember the big barrel on top of the embassy for light at night," Merrick said.

An Internet site maintained by an organization of the Marines who were the embassy guards said the burn barrel not only provided light but was a way to burn secret documents that had already been shredded as the embassy was prepared to be abandoned.

With Merrick and the Spectre circling overhead, helicopters continued to remove people from the embassy through the night. Americans, their dependents and South Vietnamese who were thought to be in danger from the North Vietnamese Army were all flown from the embassy to American Navy ships off the coast.

Up to 12 helicopters per hour were flying in using the embassy parking lot and rooftop as landing pads.

The second to the last flight from the embassy carried Graham Martin, U.S. ambassador to South Vietnam, away from the embassy grounds.

"The code was something like 'tiger is gone' or 'tiger is out,'" Merrick said. "It indicated the last embassy personnel had left. There was one helicopter of Marines after that and the war was over."

He did not realize the impact of the event at the time.

"I didn't have a full realization of the history," he said. "But when we heard that announcement we knew it was all over."

A few moments later Merrick and the Spectre gunship were flying back to a base in Korat, Thailand. The last American military presence had left Vietnam.

"Most of the people I was around had a sense of disappointment," he said. "Not so much we failed but we'd never been given a chance to win."

Merrick said the Spectre gunship was a converted C-130 Hercules transport plane. The aircraft was fitted with a variety of cannons and machine guns firing out of the left side of the plane.

"We would orbit around the target," he said. "The guns on the left side could all be fired at a target."

The plane included a crew of 16 men.

"There were six to eight gunners," Merrick said. "Some were loading guns and some with scoop shovels to clear out the spent cartridges."

The plane was considered high tech at the time, he said. The infrared system could detect the temperatures of objects and could show things like a hot vehicle engine.

"The infrared was a new development at the time," he said. "I'm sure now the technology would be considered extremely primitive."

Also primitive in the 1970s were the plane's countermeasures if a shoulder-to-air missile was fired at the Spectre.

"It was a transport plane so it had a ramp on the back of the plane," Merrick said. "One of the crew hung out the back of the plane and fired flare guns to try to confuse the heat-seeking missiles."

Merrick was later transferred to the Grand Forks Air Force Base where he served as a navigator on the KC-135 Tanker. He met his wife there and decided to make his life in North Dakota.

"I don't regret that (time in the Air Force) at all," he said. "If I had had to march through the swamps it might have been different."

He does regret the treatment Vietnam veterans received when they came home.

"It seems like treating vets better is more of an emphasis now," Merrick said. "When I came home the only one to greet me was a Hare Krishna."

Hare Krishna were a religious sect known for fundraising at airports during the 1970s.

Warren Tobin, Stutsman County veterans service officer, said the way the military operated during Vietnam isolated troops when they returned.

"The initial deployment was done as a unit," he said. "But once the unit was there they replaced individual servicemen. The sad part was, an individual could go from the jungle of Vietnam to the snowbanks of North Dakota in 48 hours."

Tobin also said the civilian population often showed a low regard for members of the military.

"Some were told not to wear their uniforms while they traveled to avoid harassment," he said. "I'm glad to see that has changed for the better."

Sun reporter Keith Norman can be reached at 701-952-8452 or by email at