It was the beginning of the end of the long and exhausting Vietnam War. The People’s Army of Vietnam (PAVN) was marching towards the South. The Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) was faltering. America, which had predicted the collapse of the South Vietnamese government, was in preparation for evacuating American diplomats, staff, and employees. They were finally ready to end their days in Saigon, Vietnam. Many probably witnessed the day when the last helicopter out of Saigon flew its wing as their longest day. Here is the story.
The Leading up to the Last Helicopter out of Saigon
The Paris Peace Accords
The Paris Peace Accords aimed to put peace in the whole of Vietnam (North and South), with the US halting their bombing and fire and the PAVN stopping their marching and influence in the South of Vietnam. There were peace talks and several peace accords to put into effect from the mid-1960s. The four parties involved in the agreements were the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (North Vietnam), the People’s Liberation Armed Forces of South Vietnam on one side, and the US and Republic of Vietnam (South Vietnam) on the other. However, there was no progress until both parties signed the Paris Peace Accords on January 27th, 1973.
The Spring Offensive
According to the Paris Peace Accords, a cease-fire was agreed upon but then promptly violated by both sides. Despite Nixon’s promise of assistance to the South to convince them to sign the Accords, the US Congress passed legislation that effectively withdrew all US troops from active combat. The South Vietnam army, despite getting expensive equipment from the US, failed to properly utilize them due to various reasons like lack of training and heavy dependence on the US. The first victory for the People’s Army of Vietnam was at Phuoc Long Province on January 6th. Picking up on that momentum, the PAVN soon took over the Central region of Vietnam, from Buon Me Thuot to Hue and Da Nang in March.
The PAVN tank on its way to liberate Da Nang
On April 26th, 1975, the final campaign to unite the country, the Ho Chi Minh Campaign, finally began. The South Vietnam remaining territories were under attack from various directions. On April 29th, the route to Saigon was opened wide. Eventually, after clearing out their way, at 11:30 AM, April 30th, 1975, a T-54/T-55 tank numbered 390 crashed through the gate of the Independence Palace. A second tank, number 843 got stuck in the side gate. A crewman jumped out, carried the flag of the Provisional Revolutionary Government, and flew it on top of the Independence Palace. The South Vietnam government unconditionally surrendered. The flag waving in the wind signaled the end of a long-standing conflict and the country’s unification.
The tank that crashed through the gate
The Day of the Last Helicopter out of Saigon
The name was Operation Frequent Wind – what people would remember as the largest helicopter airlift in history. The operation occurred between the 29th and 30th of April, right at the brink of the Fall of Saigon in 1975. It was also the last US military operation in the Vietnam War. Seeing as there was no more hope for the South Vietnam government, the US had planned for evacuation with the standard procedure prior to April. Civilians were being flown out of Saigon by fixed-wing aircraft from Tan Son Nhat airport in March without obstruction from the PAVN, probably to avoid further confrontation with the US. Then, on April 28th, the Tan Son Nhat Air Base next to Tan Son Nhat Airport was struck by artillery and got damaged. The safer option of evacuating through fixed-wing aircraft was no longer viable.
Evacuation taking place
At 12:15 PM, Operation Frequent Wind began on Tuesday, April 29th, 1975. The signal for chosen passengers was this message on the Armed Forces Radio: “The temperature in Saigon is 105 degrees and rising. This will be followed by playing I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas’’. There were 13 helicopter pickup points positioned around Saigon. At 3:12 PM, Tuesday, April 29th, the first flight took off from the DAO (Defense Attaché Office) carrying 149 evacuees. At 4 PM, 18 helicopters landed on 7 ships with around 956 evacuees. Surrounding the US Embassy in Saigon during this time was a wave of people desperate to get a lift out. The helicopter sent to get Ambassador Graham Martin at 1 PM, April 29th, called Lady Ace 09, was loaded with evacuees instead. It took 15 landings on the Embassy roof for the Ambassador to finally embark on Lady Ace 09 at 4:58 AM on April 30th. After 18 hours of nonstop flying to deliver evacuees to the stationed USS Blue Ridge, Lady Ace 09 accomplished its mission.
A helicopter pushed down to make room and crashed into the sea
At the sea, more drama took place. Many South Vietnamese pilots flew their helicopters to various US ships. Some landed near the shore, crashed into the sea, and swam to the ships. Helicopters had to be pushed overboard to make room for more helicopters. Many more Vietnamese were also trying to swim to the US ships with makeshift rafts, boats, or sampans. At 7:53 AM, April 30th, 1975, the last helicopter took its wings, carrying Major Kean and 10 Marine Security Guards. This helicopter landed on USS Okinawa at 8:30 AM. And it was truly the last helicopter out of Saigon. At 8:54 AM, Operation Frequent Wind concluded. 1,373 Americans and 5,595 Vietnamese were evacuated by helicopters.
For more information about the Aftermath of the Vietnam War, check out our article here.
Many records claim that the rooftop where the evacuation took place was the old building of the US Embassy in South Vietnam at the time. However, it was actually at Pittman Apartments, where many CIA agents resided. In 2000, after much research and testimony, a group of reporters from the People magazine found the building located at 22 Ly Tu Trong Street, District 1.
You can also visit the War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City to learn more about the Vietnam War.
The rooftop at 22 Ly Tu Trong, District 1, at present
The Conclusion of Yesterday, the Beginning of Tomorrow
By now, the war has ended for 43 years. Time eventually eroded everything and healed all pains. It is the present that we should treasure and look forward to tomorrow. After all, a beautiful, multi-faceted city like Saigon does not let one single event define her. People often say, “Only time will tell”. Time has told us that Saigon did not fall; she rose to become even more gorgeous. You have to come here to see the beauty of Saigon and Vietnam as a whole, the beauty that traversed through all pain and hardship. After the fall of Saigon, it was renamed Ho Chi Minh City and is here and waiting for you to discover.