The Last Helicopter: Evacuating Saigon

04_17_Nam_fall_01
An Air America helicopter crew member helps evacuees up a ladder on the roof of 18 Gia Long Street on April 29, 1975, shortly before the city fell to advancing North Vietnamese troops. Hugh Van Es/UPI/Newscom

Just over 40 years ago, on April 23, 1975, President Gerald Ford announced the Vietnam War was “finished as far as America is concerned.” Military involvement had come to an end, but the U.S. still faced a crucial task: the safe evacuation of Americans who remained in Saigon, including the then-U.S. ambassador, Graham Martin.

After Tan Son Nhut Airport was bombed heavily on April 29, and the last two Americans were killed in action, the evacuation had to continue with helicopters. "It was an absolute mess," Colin Broussard, a marine assigned to Martin’s personal security detail, told the Chicago Tribune in 2005. "We knew immediately when we saw the airfield that the fixed-wing operation was done."

Over the course of April 29 and into the following morning, Operation Frequent Wind transported more than 1,000 Americans and more than 5,000 Vietnamese out of the city. The 19-hour operation involved 81 helicopters and is often called the largest helicopter evacuation on record.  

The May 12, 1975 issue of Newsweek included a detailed account of the evacuation, with first-person dispatches from correspondents in the thick of the operation.

04_09_NewsweekSaigon_02 Newsweek

The Day of the Copters

Eleven marines crouched on the flat roof of the U.S. Embassy, nervously fingering their M-16 rifles. From time to time, shots rang out from below, where thousands of Vietnamese milled about angrily in the embassy courtyard. Other Vietnamese were already rampaging through the lower floors of the six-story building, trying to make their way up tear-gas-filled stairwells. Suddenly, the whine of a helicopter could be heard in the distance and the Marines fired a red-smoke grenade to mark their position. As the U.S. CH-46 Sea Knight touched down on the roof, the Marines piled into the chopper. The last man scrambled aboard with the embassy’s American flag—neatly folded, and stuffed inside a brown-paper bag.

At long last, America’s military involvement in Vietnam was over. While Operation Frequent Wind, the final American evacuation, was a logistical success, four U.S. Marines were killed on that final day—bringing to 56,559 the number of Americans who died in Vietnam. One more horrifying picture too, was added to the tortured American memory book: U.S. Marines using rifle butts to smash the fingers of desperate Vietnamese trying to make it over the wall of the embassy to safety. At the end, even indomitable Graham Martin, the last American ambassador to Vietnam, seemed, like most of his countrymen, drained of emotion. When he arrived aboard the evacuation command ship Blue Ridge, Martin was asked how he felt. He replied: “I am hungry.”

It was the biggest helicopter lift of its kind in history—an 18-hour operation that carried 1,373 Americans and 5,595 Vietnamese to safety. Yet in sheer numbers, the feat was overshadowed by the incredible impromptu flight of perhaps another 65,000 South Vietnamese. In fishing boats and barges, homemade rafts and sampans, they sailed by the thousands out to sea, hoping to make it to the 40 U.S. warships beckoning on the horizon. Many were taken aboard the American vessels, while others joined a convoy of 27 South Vietnamese Navy ships that limped slowly—without adequate food or water—toward an uncertain welcome in the Philippine Islands. Hundreds of South Vietnamese also fled by military plane and helicopter, landing at airfields in Thailand or ditching their craft alongside American ships.

The last dramatic act in the Vietnam drama began when Communist shells started raining down on Tan Son Nhut Air Base. Not satisfied with reports from the scene, Ambassador Martin—in a singular act of bravado—decided to drive out to the airport to take a look for himself. When he returned to the embassy, Martin called Secretary of State Kissinger and Adm. Noel Gayler, commander in chief of U.S. forces in the Pacific, to discuss evacuation. They decided the military situation had deteriorated too far to use Options One, Two or Three, which were all based on transport planes flying out of Tan Son Nhut. They had to go with Option Four—the much riskier helicopter evacuation.

04_17_Nam_fall_02 U.S. Navy personnel aboard the U.S.S. Blue Ridge push a helicopter into the sea off the coast of Vietnam in order to make room for more evacuation flights from Saigon on April 29, 1975. The helicopter had carried Vietnamese fleeing Saigon as North Vietnamese forces closed in on the capital. AP

When Newsweek correspondent Loren Jenkins received the coded signal that the evacuation was on, he gathered up a small bag of belongings and drove to the side gate of the U.S. Embassy. Jenkins’s report of the embassy’s last day:

Inside the 15-foot concrete fence, an assortment of CIA agents, State Department volunteers and security guards roamed the embassy grounds armed with an amazing variety of weapons. Some carried grenade launchers, several toted antiquated submachine guns and a few even had bone-handled hunting knives stuck in their belts. Marines barked orders into walkie-talkies.

As I walked across the courtyard, I noticed Marines were finally sawing down the giant tamarind tree in the rear parking lot to clear a landing zone for Jolly Green Giant helicopters. When Admiral Gayler made a secret visit to the embassy two weeks earlier, he had urged Ambassador Martin to have the tree cut down. Martin ignored the advice. “To Martin, cutting down the tree represented the final acceptance that the jig was up—and he was constitutionally unable to do that,” one embassy official told me. So for the past several days, embassy staffers had been sneaking out with axes and chipping away at parts of the tree trunk not visible to Martin.

Behind the parking lot in the swimming-pool area, several thousand Vietnamese waited with piles of suitcases and bundles of clothing. There were at least three generals in uniform, assorted South Vietnamese senators, a former mayor of Saigon, the police chief, a fire chief and all of his firemen wearing their back-flap hats, and Vietnamese employees of the embassy and their families. While they awaited the helicopters, hundreds of Vietnamese pushed into the unstaffed embassy cafeteria and helped themselves to everything from candy bars to bottles of California wine.

Within an hour of the alert, the embassy’s tall white gates were besieged by hundreds of people desperate to get in. At one point, a trickle of Vietnamese was let through a side gate—touching off a small riot. So when Bui Diem, a former South Vietnamese ambassador to Washington,  was spotted pushing up to the gate, he was quietly told to go around to the front where Marine guards quickly let him in. Gen. Dang Van Quang, a former corps commander who was once fired for corruption, also showed up at the side gate. The portly Quang was allowed to squeeze in through the gate while his two Samsonite suitcases were passed over the fence. Once inside, he carefully dusted off his navy-blue suit before being led to the staging area by the embassy swimming pool.

Some Americans weren’t so lucky. Four of them tried to get to the rear gate only to be turned back at gunpoint by South Vietnamese soldiers. Despite their pleas to be let in the side gate, they were refused entry or help and told by embassy officials to keep trying the back. “But I am an American citizen and this evacuation is supposed to be for me,” Albert Steinberg shouted through the gate, waving his green passport. “If you don’t let me in, you are going to leave me behind.” I never saw him again.

‘You know the old man’

In the midst of the growing chaos outside, Ambassador Martin decided he wanted to be driven home to pack his bags and pick up his black poodle, Nitnoy. His chauffeur’s efforts to get out through the gate failed when the Marine guards were nearly overrun. So Martin left by a back way and walked the three blocks to his house. “You know the old man,” one of his aides explained. “He doesn’t like anyone to think he is ruffled by anything.” Martin returned to the embassy compound an hour and a half later, trailed by his cook, two flak-jacketed security men carrying his suitcase and briefcase and another leading Nitnoy on a leash.

When it became obvious that the operation was going to drag into the night, two choppers brought in another 50 Marines to beef up the embassy defense perimeter. One squad of Marines was deployed with fixed bayonets just inside the side gate to keep Vietnamese from trying to clamber over it. At the back gate, Marines were forced to use their rifle butts to knock back Vietnamese trying to scale the fence.

At nightfall, cars and a fire engine were lined up in a square so their headlights would illuminate the helipad. Suddenly an explosion rocked the front of the embassy. A passer-by on a motorbike had thrown a grenade into the crowd. There were many wounded, but nobody dared venture out to help them. In the darkened embassy lobby, Marines checked their pistols and unsheathed bayonets. A short time later, the crunch of another explosion triggered fears that a mortar shell had hit the embassy. It turned out to be the CIA detonating an explosive device on communications equipment.

04_17_Nam_fall_03 South Vietnamese refugees deplane at Nha Trang airfield in Vietnam on March 27, 1975 following a jet hop from Da Nang as a U.S. financed airlift, using civilian chartered jets, relocates thousands of former residents of Hue. Nick Ut/AP

‘OK, let’s go’

By midevening, the embassy was almost deserted of U.S. civilians. Open doors revealed offices stripped of everything important. Three days earlier, the embassy’s most sensitive electronic gear had been loaded aboard a freighter docked in Saigon and sent downriver to safety.

Going up the back stairs toward the roof, I spotted Ambassador Martin outside his third-floor office saying good-bye to a few close aides. He had a soft word or two for each, and a hesitant pat on the back. Then we scurried up the crowded steps to the sixth floor to wait our chopper. Finally, we heard the order: ‘OK, let’s go.” Just before I rushed aboard, I looked down toward the pool area. A couple of thousand Vietnamese were still waiting their turn. Soon we were high over the dark Saigon River. A bright yellow flare arched up and hung in the air. Off to the east, the Long Binh ammunition dump was exploding. Red fire balls shot high into the night. Out of the rear bay, I saw the lights of Saigon distantly—for the last time.

Back in Washington, the evacuation was closely monitored by President Ford. After issuing the order to “go,” the president walked over to the White House Situation Room where Henry Kissinger briefed him on the pullout. The president returned to his quarters shortly after midnight. Running into a television correspondent who remarked that Ford was keeping late hours, the president replied: “With good reason.” As the president prepared to go to bed, Kissinger phoned to get some advice on the evacuation announcement. Ford crawled into bed. Twenty minutes later, Kissinger called again to read him the final draft. Once more, the president tried to go to sleep. Shortly after 1 a.m., the secretary of state phoned a last time. Operation Frequent Wind, he told Ford, had begun.

Not all the Americans in Saigon were evacuated from the U.S. Embassy. Along with scores of others, Newsweek correspondent Nicholas C. Proffitt was lifted out from Tan Son Nhut airport aboard a Jolly Green Giant. Proffitt’s report:

As our evacuation motorcade of two buses led by a U.S. Marine jeep wound through the streets of Saigon, a Vietnamese stopped and stared at us with dead eyes. None smiled. None waved good-bye. Approaching Tan Son Nhut airport, we could see thick columns of smoke rising from around the field, and hear incoming Communist shells and small-arms fire. As the buses pulled up to the U.S. Defence Attache’s Office, a 122-mm. rocket slammed into the base only a few hundred yards away.

Originally, each of the Jolly Green Giants was to take 50 evacuees. But the Marines, unsure how rapidly the military situation might deteriorate, decided to push the load up to 65 to get as many people out as possible. Consequently, we were told we would have to jettison our baggage. I watched Vietnamese take thick wads of money from their suitcases and stuff it into their shirts, blouses and pants—their stakes for building a new life when they got to America.

As we trotted across what had formerly been a basketball court to the waiting helicopters, we could see a company of Marines lying prone around the perimeter—tense behind their M-16s and machine guns. Our chopper was loaded in less than two minutes and we lifted off at full power, climbing to 6,000 feet, and headed south, skirting the Mekong Delta before swinging west toward the coast. Two young Marines hunched over the port and starboard .50 caliber machine guns, scanning the terrain below. As we crossed the coast, the two young gunners eased their fingers off their triggers, broke into tight grins and gave each other—and then the passengers—the thumbs-up sign.

Aboard the U.S.S. Blue Ridge, command ship of the evacuation armada, Newsweek correspondent Ron Moreau was with 5,000 Marines who were prepared to storm ashore if necessary to protect the American pullout. Moreau’s report:

As night fell Monday, the signal to proceed with Operation Frequent Wind still hadn’t come. So everybody aboard the Blue Ridge was startled when the vessel’s sirens began wailing shortly after dusk, and the call “Armed refugee reaction crews on the main deck” rang through the passageways. Sailors and marines racing toward the stern of the Blue Ridge saw a South Vietnamese Air Force CH-47 Chinook settling down on the small helipad on the aft deck. The door  of the copter swung open and out scrambled 20 Vietnamese—including two women and babies—dragging with them everything from mosquito nets to Hondas. As the pilot, Lt. Trung Ma Quoi, stepped from his helicopter, he told me: “The generals, colonels, majors and captains have left. I thought it was about time for the lieutenants to head to safety.”

By midmorning of the next day—still hours before the start of the U.S. evacuation—the entire horizon was dotted with helicopters heading for the American fleet. Five olive-drab Vietnamese copters and two silver-and-blue Air America choppers descended on the Blue Ridge in almost a dead heat. One of the Air America copters landed first, then a Vietnamese Chinook put down virtually on top of it. The whirling blades of the two copters clanged together and disintegrated, sending jagged pieces of metal flying across the deck. As the crew of the Blue Ridge dived for cover, the Vietnamese chopper teetered precariously. Finally its door opened, and crying women clutching their children scrambled out.

After sweat-stained sailors shoved the disabled craft over the edge, the other helicopters came in one by one and discharged their refugees. The pilots were then told to ditch in the sea. While several pilots did indeed ease their copters into the steel-gray ocean, a few of the cocky Vietnamese chose to make more spectacular exits. One took his Chinook up to 100 feet, pushed the stick to the left, and dived out of the right side. The pilot of one Air America helicopter had trouble making up his mind. After flying around the Blue Ridge—touching down several times, then abruptly pulling up—he finally jumped out and the helicopter slammed into the starboard side of the ship.

When Operation Frequent Wind got under way, all South Vietnamese helicopters were turned away from the Blue Ridge and only American choppers were allowed to land on the command ship. The vessel’s surface-to-air missile batteries tracked all unscheduled copters until they headed elsewhere to seek sanctuary. In early afternoon, a Navy helicopter brought aboard former Premier Nguyen Cao Ky, who only the week before had termed any Vietnamese planning to flee his country a “coward.” A short time later, an Air America helicopter arrived carrying a load of high-ranking generals. One of them, Lt. Gen. Nguyen Van Manh, was accompanied by two aides who were straining under the weight of their attache cases. When the ship’s security officers took a look into the cases, they found them to be loaded with gold bars.

Before the evacuation was even half over, the Blue Ridge was jammed to overflowing. Announcements blared out over the ship’s public address system, urging the new arrivals to double up and sleep in shifts in the triple-deck bunks below. Many of the exhausted Marines returning from Saigon bedded down on the deck or in passageways. As the Blue Ridge’s security officers confiscated bottles of cognac and whisky from the evacuees and tossed them into the sea, loud groans went up from the crew. Many of the evacuees—both Americans and Vietnamese—were also carrying .45 automatics or pistols, and the security officers took these away as well. When one Vietnamese balked at handing over his weapons, a U.S. officer brusquely declared: “You won’t be needing these any more. The war is over for you.”

Through the long night, the evacuation continued. Finally, word came from the embassy that helicopter “Lady Ace 09” was in the air with “Code Two”—Ambassador Martin. A faint blue dawn was slowly breaking behind a black band of rain clouds when I spotted the flashing red light of the copter. The Sea Knight set down and a group of U.S. Embassy officials scrambled off. The last passenger to emerge from the chopper was Martin, wearing dark glasses and carrying a battered black-leather case, his silver-gray hair blowing in the helicopter’s prop wash. He looked suddenly old and beaten. While the last Marines wouldn’t be out of Saigon for another two hours, America’s role in Vietnam was clearly at an end.

In Washington, the president awoke at 5:27 a.m. and was immediately on the phone—anxious to hear the latest word from Vietnam. Throughout the morning, he kept close tabs on the progress of the evacuation, hoping to be able to tell Americans the final pullout was over at about noon. The regular White House briefing was canceled so Kissinger could make the announcement in the auditorium of the old Executive Office Building at 1 p.m. But the briefing had to be postponed: Ambassador Martin was still shuffling Vietnamese aboard helicopters at the embassy.

“There was a constant flow of cables back and forth with Ambassador Martin,” a White House aide later said. Finally, Ford laid down the law. A strongly worded message told the ambassador that he would be sent one final flight of 19 helicopters—”and no more.” Martin was also informed that the secretary of defense wanted the last lift to depart at 3:45 p.m. The hour came and went, however, and still the embassy evacuation continued. Finally, at 4:45, Martin received a message that couldn’t have been much blunter: “Load only Americans from now on.” Fifteen minutes later, Kissinger told Ford it was time to go ahead with the announcement. At 5:22, White House press secretary Ron Nessen told newsmen: “The last helicopters are in the air.”

While the formal American evacuation was over, however, tens of thousands of Vietnamese were still putting out to sea. For two days, many of the ships of the U.S. armada lingered off the coast of Vietnam, plucking men, women and children from jerry-built rafts, sampans and fishing boats. At night, there were so many candles and lanterns burning on the water that from the air the offshore waters appeared to be a densely populated city. Most of the refugees set sail without taking on supplies, and radio messages picked up by the American task force painted a picture of despair. One Vietnamese vessel radioed that it was carrying “about 200 children who might die of hunger and exhaustion if no help is forthcoming.”

The refugees in small boats were worried about being left behind, and some set their small fishing smacks ablaze in hopes of being picked up immediately by the U.S. fleet. The Navy, too, was anxious to conclude Operation Frequent Wind. Rear Adm. Donald B. Whitmire told his men: “The sooner we get out of here, the faster we’ll get a Budweiser.” By the end of the week, the Seventh Fleet armada was steaming toward Subic Bay and Guam to deposit its evacuees. As the coast of Vietnam disappeared, South Vietnamese Army Air Force Officers—clustered on the deck of the Blue Ridge—tuned in a shortwave broadcast from Saigon. They stood, heads bowed, staring at their feet as the Saigon radio paid tribute to the late Ho Chi Minh and exulted over the fall of South Vietnam.

Milton R. Benjamin with Loren Jenkins and Nicholas C. Proffitt in Saigon, Ron Moreau on the U.S.S. Blue Ridge and Lloyd H. Norman in Washington