Air Force Staff Sgt. Miguel “Mike” Lechuga witnessed chaos on April 29, 1975, the day before Saigon fell.
After seeing bombs fall on Tan Son Nhut Air Base on April 28, he and the rest of the 10 members of the aircraft maintenance team were waiting for further orders in their building near the runway. The avionics instrument specialist belonged to the 604th Military Airlift Support Squadron, which reported to Military Airlift Command.
They were told the C-130s would arrive in formations of three ships from 3 a.m. on April 29 to continue the US evacuation. But a rocket attack destroyed the second C-130 and canceled this plan, ultimately leading to the use of Marine Corps helicopters.
Lechuga saw South Vietnamese planes take off around 7 a.m. in a last ditch effort to defend the perimeter of their air base. He saw an AC-119 gunship hit by enemy fire and ignite.
âSome brave South Vietnamese Air Force pilots were still on missions to defend their country,â said Lechuga, a retired master sergeant in Wichita Falls, Texas. “And I salute that.”
Lechuga watched as the locals rushed frantically from one South Vietnamese C-130 to another, cramming into anything that could take off for their escape. A South Vietnamese F-5 was taxiing on a mission when the pilot suddenly left the cockpit and ran towards one of the departing C-130s so he could leave with them. A woman trying to get into a C-130 fell under the plane and was crushed by its wheels.
An overloaded C-130 departed with the crew entry door open and people clinging to the adjacent cable. As the plane gained altitude, three to four people lost their grip and died.
âWe have witnessed it. We have seen it. I can still see it right now, âLechuga said. “Watching them fall to their deaths is something I will never forget.”
At approximately 2:00 p.m., members of the maintenance crew were advised to leave the runway and report to the defense attachÃ©’s office for an evacuation by Marine Corps helicopters. âNow we know there is some hope,â Lechuga said. They boarded the vehicles for the short trip to the office, but were first followed by a forklift with South Vietnamese soldiers who wanted to know where they were going.
There was a lot of activity in the corridors of the Defense AttachÃ©’s office. The Americans put their weapons in cardboard amnesty boxes and formed starting lines. They began to hear the helicopter rotors outside. At 6 p.m. on April 29, the Lechuga line arrived and he and the other passengers ran to their waiting helicopter. They piled on board with two machine gunners on either side.
âThe helicopter took off. We’re kind of looking out the window, âLechuga said. âSaigon is getting smaller. Soon we see the ocean. We know we are safe.
âWe evacuated thousands of people in chaotic conditions. Unfortunately, we knew we were leaving a lot, a lot of people behind. Knowing that as you fly to safety, there are so many people left behind is something that weighs on me. “
They landed aboard the USS Denver in the South China Sea. One of the other Lechuga Air Force passengers got out and kissed the deck of the ship.
The Denver departed on May 1 and arrived about two days later at Naval Station Subic Bay in the Philippines. They left the ship for Cubi Point Naval Air Station and Lechuga returned to Clark Air Base in the Philippines.
The east Los Angeles native retired from the Air Force in 1998 as a master sergeant at Sheppard Air Force Base in Wichita Falls, Texas. He settled in Wichita Falls and served as Outreach Minister for Edgemere Church of Christ until 2016.
Lechuga and his 48-year-old wife, Madeline, had six children and 14 grandchildren. She died of Parkinson’s disease on December 15, 2019. Their two sons served in the military. Miguel, the oldest, works at the Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany. Marco, the second oldest, is a helicopter crew chief and sergeant first class with the Army National Guard in San Tan Valley, Arizona; he made three tours of Iraq.
Lechuga’s other children – all girls – stayed near the house. Maria Maloney, Marianne Dowdy and Madeline Hamilton live in Wichita Falls; Dowdy’s twin Mickey Maxham lives in Oklahoma City, Okla.
Lechuga, 72, enjoys painting. He studied commercial art before leaving college after a year to join the Air Force. He also received associate degrees in General Education from Los Angeles Metropolitan College in 1980 and Avionics Systems Technology from Community College of the Air Force in 1987. Lechuga also received a BS in Industrial Technology from Southern Illinois University at Carbondale in 1990.
Lechuga keeps abreast of veterans issues through membership in the Vietnam Veterans of America, the Texas Association of Vietnam Veterans, and the Disabled American Veterans and the Air Force Association.
The Vietnamese vet shared his thoughts on commemorating this nation for 50 years since the Vietnam War, which is difficult due to COVID-19.
âYou cannot come together in droves without fear of disease. It’s a fact of life right now, âhe said. âThat said, just like the recent grand opening, it doesn’t mean we should stop celebrating the 50th anniversary altogether as we can still celebrate through virtual means. From a social, human perspective, it’s much better or preferred to celebrate in person next to each other and being able to shake hands with another veteran who served our country in Vietnam.