When U.S. Marine Richard Paddock left for State Department security duty at the Saigon Embassy in August 1974, his Vietnam veteran father brought him a battle-tested going-away gift.
“He came to San Francisco to see me off,” Paddock said. Just before boarding, dad – Hugh Paddock – handed him a beige-colored, floppy bush hat.
“This hat protected two other Marines,” his dad told him. “It will keep you safe, too.”
Hugh Paddock served at Con Tien in 1967 and 1968 under Captain Frank Breth, who went on to become a brigadier general. When Breth transferred out of Vietnam, he gave the hat to the elder Paddock.
“The Vietnam War went on so long that when my father went I was in eighth grade; I went to Vietnam when I was 21,” Richard Paddock said. “(Breth) gave that hat to my dad. And now Dad gave it to me.”
Richard Paddock wore the hat when he patrolled inside the American Embassy compound in Saigon. He wore it while on the embassy rooftop burning classified documents as the North Vietnamese Army closed in during their final push to take the city.
“I’m thinking, ‘I’m on the roof of the tallest building, with a 360-degree view,’” he said. “It was the dumbest place to be.”
And, it accompanied Paddock on April 29, 1975 – 46 years ago today – when he climbed aboard one of the last CH-46 helicopters evacuating personnel from the embassy’s rooftop.
What began as a plum assignment – by just about any standard in the military – ended in panic and frustration for Paddock. He had followed his dad into the Marine Corps immediately after graduating in 1972 from Modoc High School, Alturas.
After 2½ years at Camp Pendleton, Richard Paddock was assigned to a detail under the State Department providing security for Graham Martin, the U.S ambassador in Saigon. He lived in what was known as the Marine House.
“(It) was formerly an eight-story hotel right across the street from the presidential palace,” said Paddock; now 67 and owner of a property appraisal business in Modesto. “When there’s a full restaurant on the bottom floor and a full bar on the top, you can’t beat that kind of duty.”
Nor could he beat having his own room with a private bath – a far cry from the 80-person squad bay with one communal bathroom while at Camp Pendleton.
The 1973 Paris Peace Accords produced an agreement for a truce that was supposed to end the war, but the ceasefire crumbled. Strong public sentiment against the war in the United States and President Richard Nixon’s resignation due to the Watergate scandal, weakened support for South Vietnam. The North Vietnamese seized upon this and launched an all-out invasion of the South in the spring of 1975.
As North Vietnamese troops neared Saigon, Paddock received perhaps the most usual order of his time there.
“The State Department said we needed to close the embassy,” Paddock said. “We needed to pay off our employees (South Vietnamese locals). They told us to jump in the back of a green Ford F150 pickup and go to the airport.” There, they pulled up to the ramp of a C-130 plane and loaded a wooden box containing roughly $1 million in cash.
“We had it in the open pickup bed and we went all over the city paying off employees,” he said. “One month’s pay for every year they worked at the embassy. We wore civilian gear with a pistol, but we were hiding it in plain sight.”
Then, they returned to the embassy, where evacuations were under way. As the situation intensified, and Ambassador Martin balked at evacuating; orders from above – way above – said otherwise.
“One of the Marines took a call from (Secretary of State Henry) Kissinger himself,” Paddock said. “Kissinger (purportedly) said, ‘Go tell the next (helicopter) pilot to take the ambassador on the next aircraft out, and tell the ambassador I gave the pilot permission to kill you if you don’t.’”
Martin left on the next flight. Paddock’s subsequent flight out was followed by two others – the last one more than two hours later when it was discovered seven or eight Marines were still on the roof, forgotten in the tension and confusion; a helicopter went back to get them. Paddock saw columns of smoke rising and North Vietnam tanks moving through the city.
“I thought, ‘Wow, I almost didn’t make it out of there,’” he said.
Paddock landed first on an LST in the South China Sea, then on the amphibious command ship USS Blue Ridge, before spending two weeks in Manila. He returned to the states before serving in South America, leaving the Marines in 1977. Paddock returned home to Alturas, where he used a CalVet Home Loan to buy his first house.
As for the lucky bush hat, Richard Paddock brought it back home to his father, now 96 and living in Fort Bragg.
“After my tour at the American Consulate in Brazil, I gave the bush hat back to my Dad as he had a sentimental connection to it,” Paddock said. “He later told me that he wore it until it disintegrated in the wash one day.”
They both saw it again, though. Father, son, and the lucky hat appeared in still photos during Ken Burns’ 2017 “The Vietnam War” documentary series.
Indeed, the hat brought them both home safely, from the same war.