Last Men Out

As Saigon fell, a small band of Marines pulled off the final evacuation.

During the United States’ final 24 hours in Vietnam, American nationals and Vietnamese refugees were crowded onto Marine and Air Force helicopters that landed within the U.S. embassy compound. (Courtesy Stuart Herrington)
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During America’s final 24 hours in Vietnam, the Marines battled time, weather, and miscommunication to save as many people as possible. Saigon was about to fall, and the North Vietnamese army had cut off access to the coast, making a sealift impossible. A week earlier, when the provinces fell, foreign commercial air carriers ceased operations out of Saigon. Tan Son Nhut, the last friendly military airstrip, had been bombed, removing fixed-wing aircraft from the escape options. This story begins there.

From This Story

APRIL 29, 1975. Major Jim Kean, commanding officer of Company C, gazed out the window of the abandoned secretary’s office on the second floor of the U.S. embassy in Saigon. The sky was the color of brushed aluminum, and the first of the cloud fortresses marching in from the sea had settled overhead. Kean, the ranking officer among the Marines remaining at the embassy, scanned the Marine Security Guard duty roster. He had 46 U.S. Marine security guards here in the embassy compound, 15 across town at the U.S. Defense Attaché’s Office, and the remains of two KIA on a slab at the Seventh Day Adventist Hospital somewhere in between.

Two years earlier, the Department of Defense, despite repeated public declarations of support for the South Vietnam government, had put into place secret plans for the emergency evacuation of Saigon. Although strategists had considered several options, the swift advance of the North Vietnamese army toward the city left only one alternative: a helicopter evacuation, code-named Frequent Wind, centered on the U.S. Defense Attaché’s Office (DAO) at the airport and the U.S. embassy. The embassy’s rooftop helipad was strong enough to support a Bell UH-1 Huey and, at least according to the engineers, an even larger and heavier CH-46 Sea Knight. The big Marine CH-53 Sea Stallions could use only landing zones on the ground.

A signal for the evacuation of Saigon had been worked out some weeks earlier: an announcer for the Armed Forces Radio would read the words, “The temperature in Saigon is 105 degrees and rising.” This code phrase was to be followed by a Bing Crosby recording of “I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas” playing continuously. The signal was known to all Americans, civilian and military, and thus to just about everyone else in the city.

The evacuation would take every chopper the Marines, Air Force, Navy, and Air America (a civilian airline operated by the Central Intelligence Agency) could muster.

AT 10:51 A.M. ON APRIL 29, 1975 —

13 years after the first American was killed in open combat with the enemy in Vietnam—Ambassador Graham Martin officially relinquished civilian control of South Vietnam and formally executed Operation Frequent Wind. It was now a military operation.

At 12:30 p.m., the first U.S. Navy A-7 Corsair jet attack aircraft and U.S. Air Force F-4 Phantom jet fighters, dispatched from bases in Thailand, crossed into South Vietnam airspace. Their mission was to provide cover for the initial wave of Marine Sea Stallions, Sea Knights, and Air Force Jolly Green Giants powering up on the deck of the Essex-class aircraft carrier USS Hancock and bound for the defense attaché’s compound at the airport. These squadrons, fielding a total of about 36 rescue helicopters, would also deposit a battalion of Fleet Marines as a show of force to secure the grounds.

Marine Brigadier General Richard Carey, in the communications room of the USS Blue Ridge, would oversee the evacuation. Once at the DAO compound, Carey reached Ambassador Martin by telephone at the embassy and asked how many evacuees remained.

The ambassador was hesitant to report specific numbers, yet managed to impart that the embassy evacuation had not proceeded according to plan. There were hundreds of people encamped on the grounds awaiting retrieval. Carey was floored. He was under the impression that the embassy, if not now emptied by buses, soon would be. There had been no planning for any major movements from that location. Carey radioed Admiral George Steele and informed him that an immediate adjustment in helicopter priorities was needed.

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