/ Modified jul 6, 2020 8:35 a.m.

Last Helicopter Out

As Saigon fell, one helicopter went back to rescue stranded Marines.

It sits in the middle of a row of aging CH-46 aircraft, looking just like all the others. The sun glints off its metal skin the same way, and it wears the same desert dust--but according to the U.S. Marine Corps, the helicopter marked 4812 was the last aircraft out of Vietnam.

Swift 22, as the helicopter was known on that day, lifted the final members of the Marine Guard off the roof of the U.S. Embassy in Saigon just before 8:00 a.m. on April 30, 1975. Hours earlier, a nearly identical helicopter had taken Ambassador Graham Martin to safety. Military officials say that when the Ambassador’s chopper lifted off from the embassy, it sent out a code announcing that the Ambassador was safe, a code which other pilots mistakenly believed meant that the 24-hour lift operation from the embassy was over.

But the Marine Guards were still on the roof, where they would remain for hours. They didn't expect to be rescued. John Ghilain, one of the young Marines left behind, recalls his commander solemnly surveying the squadron. "We're going to die like Marines," he told them. "This is our Alamo."

But eventually a group of helicopters returned to get the remaining Marines off the roof. Swift 22 was the last helicopter in the group, and when it crossed the border into Cambodia, there were no more U.S. aircraft in the skies of Vietnam.

The CH-46 now sits among its brethren at the 309 AMARG, better known as “The Boneyard"--a stretch of Davis-Monthan Air Force Base where the military sends aircraft for storage and parts. It is acres of aircraft, a vast hitching post for history.

Over the years, questions about the history of this particular helicopter have arisen. Some say it is not Swift 22. They maintain that the helicopter known as Swift 22 crashed in 1986. The military has a different story. The Marine squadron that flew Swift 22 and the Marine Corps Museum both say the helicopter at AMARG is Swift 22, which is why the museum wants it restored for permanent display. For Ghilain and the other survivors of that day, what matters is the rescue--and the remembering.

Visit Veteran's Day page for more stories of remembrance.

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