April 30, 1975. I was rushing around our small apartment in Tucson trying to get ready for my bike ride to the campus of the University of Arizona to teach my morning class in introductory German. While grabbing a quick breakfast I watched the morning news and footage of the evacuation of Saigon. America’s long military commitment to South Vietnam was quickly unraveling and it was hard to believe what I was seeing.
American combat troops had quit the country in 1973 following the signing of the Paris Peace Accords with the North Vietnamese regime in Hanoi. The South Vietnamese government was left to fend for itself against continued attacks by Viêt Công insurgents. But there was hope; the South Vietnamese were beginning to turn the tide of the war. But everything changed in the spring of 1975.
The North Vietnamese launched a long-planned offensive below the DMZ in December 1974. The United States tried to prop up its former client state but internecine debate between the Ford Administration and Congress prevented the necessary aid from arriving in time. By March 1975 North Vietnamese forces had advanced into the Central Highlands, in the south, and had Saigon in their sights.
The South Vietnamese defenders and a growing number of refugees retreated toward the capital as Hué and Da Nang fell. The advance toward Saigon quickly became a juggernaut, and by late April the city was surrounded by over 100,000 North Vietnamese troops and their Viêt Công allies. Chaos and panic reigned in the city and martial law was announced. The war was all but lost and evacuation was the only option left open. But when? And how?
Those who could make it to the coast boarded any available ship. Others hoped to escape by air from the airport at Tân Son Náht, but shelling by the invaders on April 29 closed the airport and the fate of Saigon was sealed. The United States initiated “Operation Frequent Wind” on April 29-30 and sent a fleet of helicopters to various landing zones throughout Saigon, including the US embassy, to evacuate the remaining Americans in the city along with as many South Vietnamese and other foreign nationals as could be accommodated in what became the largest helicopter evacuation in history.
By late afternoon on April 29, thousands of Vietnamese hoping to escape converged on the US Embassy. The last evacuees to leave were forced to a nearby roof top as North Vietnamese tanks rolled into central Saigon. Who can forget that now iconic photograph of a helicopter touching down as those still hoping to escape lined the stairway? Loaded to over capacity, it finally lifted up, tilted it nose downward, and turned toward the east and freedom. Forty minutes later it landed on the USS Midway operating offshore. When it was all over the following day some 100 US helicopters had evacuated an estimated 7,000 Americans and South Vietnamese out of Saigon in under 24 hours. Far more were left behind. The long war in Vietnam was over, not with a bang but a whimper.
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