In the final year of the Vietnam War, a series of offensives by the North Vietnamese led to the fall of the South Vietnamese capital Saigon on April 30, 1975.
One of the most iconic images from the fall of Saigon did not happen in Saigon. It happened at sea where sailors pushed helicopters off their ships. Becuase flight deck will only take one helicopter at a time
As the North Vietnamese Viet Cong approached Saigon, South Vietnamese citizens and American personnel fled before them, and the U.S. government began a program of mass evacuations. People have helicoptered away, sometimes under fire, to waiting for American warships. There were scenes of chaos as desperate people tried to escape.
The final phase of the evacuation was code-named Operation Frequent Wind. The American Embassy had previously distributed a booklet to its citizens, called “Standard Instruction and Advice to Civilians in an Emergency” (SAFE). This included a map of Saigon showing areas where they would be picked up when the signal was given. The signal, to be broadcast on Armed Forces Radio, was “”The temperature in Saigon is 105 degrees and rising,” followed by the playing of “White Christmas.”
Frequent Wind was carried out on April 29 and 30. Such was the speed of the evacuation and the number of people involved that the ships became overwhelmed with people and the helicopters that had brought them. Orders were given to push surplus helicopters over the sides of the ships to make room for more. Some pilots were told to drop off their passengers, then ditch their machines in the sea, bailing out at the last moment to be picked up by waiting rescue boats.
Over 7,000 people were evacuated in Operation Frequent Wind.
Details of Operation Frequent Wind
The US began withdrawing troops from South Vietnam in 1973 with a final deadline of 1976. By 1974, however, President Gerald Ford realized they had a problem. Any South Vietnamese who had served the Americans would be targeted by the North Vietnamese when they took over. It was known the South would fall once the US left.
In April 1975 Secretary of State Henry Kissinger received a list of about 1.6 million at-risk people who needed to get out of Vietnam. Excluding Americans, their dependents, and other nationalities who worked for the American government, that left about 600,000 South Vietnamese.
Plans to evacuate the former had been ongoing for years and by the start of 1975, the military was ready to evacuate 8,000 of them.
As they could not possibly take 600,000 people out, the South Vietnamese allocation was lowered to 17,000; those who worked for the US Embassy, plus seven dependents each. Then they took a closer look at the embassy payroll and found the number was nearer 200,000. In the end, however, it did not matter.
Related Link: Video of VNAF Chinook’s Pilot who jumped out of ditched helicopter after saving his family
By March 1975, the North Vietnamese were in South Vietnam. On April 1, the US Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marine Corps began camping out in Saigon’s Defense Attaché Office (DAO) compound to prepare for the evacuation. That was the signal for other embassies to get their citizens out. News agencies began ordering their reporters to leave, as did the CIA. One man, however, said no.
Graham Anderson Martin had been the American Ambassador to South Vietnam since 1973. Despite the advancing North Vietnamese, he was convinced that superior American firepower would deter them. Nor did Martin want people to think the US would run. He ordered his staff to stay put. Brigadier General Richard E. Carey, the Commander of the 9th Marine Amphibious Brigade, went to Vietnam on April 13 to reason with Martin – but it did no good.
Americans were told to stay tuned to the Armed Forces Radio. When they heard Bing Crosby’s “I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas,” they had to get to the evacuation centers ASAP!
Martin held to his convictions until April 28 when the North Vietnamese surrounded Saigon. At 6 PM that evening they bombed the Tan Son Nhut Air Base; right next to the airport. There would be no evacuations by plane – the preferred method as it was the easiest.
Martin had his wife flown out but still insisted the US Embassy staff stay at their posts; except those who had to escort his wife.
The following morning at 7, Defense Attaché Major General Homer D. Smith pleaded with the Ambassador to give the evacuation signal for Operation Frequent Wind; the new name for Operation Talon Vise. Martin refused, demanding to see the air base. Finally seeing little of it was left, he, at last, gave the go-ahead.
“White Christmas” was played on the radio, but it was too late. Thousands of panicked South Vietnamese had jammed the streets to flee further south. Others clogged foreign embassies pleading for last-minute visas. Buses and cars carrying Americans or other Caucasians were mobbed as they were stuck in traffic.
Americans who did get to either the US Embassy or to the DAO compound found the gates shut to stop the tide of panicked Vietnamese trying to get in. With no planes available, there was only one way out – military choppers.
These took evacuees from both compounds out to sea where American warships were waiting. Escorting those choppers were AH-1J SeaCobra Helicopter gunships and other such nasties in case the North Vietnamese tried to shoot them down. They need not have bothered – the North Vietnamese wanted them gone.
For the next 18 hours, 81 overloaded and crammed helicopters piloted by exhausted men ferried people out to the ships regardless of whether they were on the approved list or not. They were not the only ones.
A VNAF Cessna o-1 plane flew over the USS Midway and dropped a note: “Can you move these helicopter to the other side, I can land on your runway, I can fly 1 hour more, we have enough time to move. Please rescue me. Major Buang, Wife and 5 child .”
Buang was the first person to land a VNAF on a carrier; several choppers having been shoved into the sea. A second followed several hours later.
As more Vietnamese helicopters arrived, the decks on all the ships became full. The servicemen knew what awaited the passengers if they stayed behind. There was only one solution.
Dump more choppers overboard. Several 45 UH-1 Hueys (worth about $10 million) and at least one other CH-47 Chinook ended up in watery graves, as a result.
By the end of Operation Frequent Wind on April 30, some 7,000 people were saved at the cost of two pilots. Thousands more were left behind including Americans who had heard Bing Crosby’s song too late.