Today in 1975, the capital of South Vietnam, Saigon, fell to the North Vietnamese Army. This marked the end of the Vietnam War and the end of South Vietnam as a separate nation. The evacuation of thousands of Americans and South Vietnamese from the city, mainly by helicopter, marked the end of nearly 20 years of US involvement in the nation.
The Paris Peace Accords, signed in 1973, ended direct US military involvement in Vietnam. The accords also called for a cease-fire between the north and south and for reunification of the country to take place by peaceful means. By early 1975, the accords were a bitter memory as the North Vietnamese Army won victory after victory on its way to Saigon. While the United States' Central Intelligence Agency predicted in March that South Vietnam would hold out until 1976, this estimate was generous in the extreme. By April 27th, more than 100,000 communist troops from the north were in position around Saigon, readying for a final push into the city.
The population of Saigon included thousands of Americans and tens of thousands of Vietnamese who either worked or had worked for the Americans in some capacity. The general fear was that a North Vietnamese victory would result in the death or confinement of those who had worked for the United States or for the South Vietnamese government. This fear was not unfounded: during the Tet Offensive in 1968, North Vietnamese forces had occupied Hue for nearly a month. After the city was retaken, mass graves were found containing the bodies of South Vietnamese Army officers, Catholics, educators and businessmen. With this in mind, the Defense Attaches' Office began to evacuate non-essential American personnel in March, 1975.
In early April, US President Gerald Ford decided that all Americans in South Vietnam needed to leave the country. While this decision seemed clear on the surface, there were many factors to consider. The US military wanted to evacuate everyone as quickly as possible so as to minimize accidents and casualties. The Ambassador to South Vietnam, Graham Martin, was the senior US official in South Vietnam and was in charge of the evacuation. He vetoed the military's plan in favor of a slower progression out of a fear that the sudden evacuation of Americans would cause mass panic to erupt in Saigon. In the end, President Ford approved a plan in which all but 1250 Americans were to be evacuated. These would remain until Saigon's Tan Son Nhut airport was under threat of takeover by the North Vietnamese Army. This plan was abandoned on April 29th when the airport's runways were hit by artillery and rockets. Later that morning, a defecting South Vietnamese pilot dropped several bombs on the only usable runway. Anyone leaving the city by air would have to do it in a helicopter.
At 11AM local time on April 29th, Operation Frequent Wind was put into operation. This was the fail-safe plan in which American personnel still in the city would be evacuated using the Defense Attache's Office as a landing site for Navy, Marine Corps and Air America helicopters. Personnel would then be taken to the ships of the US Seventh Fleet on station in the South China Sea. The American radio station in Saigon began playing Bing Crosby's "White Christmas", a signal for the evacuees to assemble at pre-arranged locations where they could be picked up by bus and taken to the DAO compound. That afternoon and evening, one helicopter after another landed in the compound and left with American and Vietnamese civilians on board. By 11PM, 395 Americans and more than 4000 Vietnamese had been flown out to the Seventh Fleet. At that hour, the Marines providing security at the compound received orders to demolish the compound and withdraw to the US Embassy. While evacuating people directly from the embassy had not been part of the original plan, several thousand people were stranded there and it was becoming impossible for a bus to travel across the city as people clogged the roads looking for a way to escape. The embassy now offered the only way out.
At 3:45AM the next morning, April 30th, the evacuation from the embassy was halted at the order of President Ford. Word had reached Washington that a large number of South Vietnamese civilians were leaving with the Americans, which created the possibility that not all the Americans would be evacuated before the communists overran the city. Ambassador Martin was ordered, from that point on, to only allow Americans on the helicopters. Afraid that the ambassador might stay behind out of a sense of shame or guilt, the Marines in the embassy compound were ordered to restrain him if need be and get him on the last flight out.
Martin was on the last helicopter carrying civilians out of Saigon. It was 5AM, April 30, 1975. The last Marines guarding the embassy took off three hours later, leaving several hundred South Vietnamese in the compound and thousands gathered outside. 978 Americans and 1,100 Vietnamese had been evacuated from the embassy. During that time, the North Vietnamese Army left the American aircraft alone; they did not want to provoke a military response now that they were so close to complete victory.
Ambassador Martin landed on board the USS Blue Ridge and immediately requested that flights be resumed to pick up the hundreds of people still at the embassy. President Ford overruled him, but did allow the ships of the Seventh Fleet to remain on station for a few days to rescue any South Vietnamese who made their way out of the country by sea or air. Some did make it; one pilot landed his single-engine plane with his wife and four children aboard on the flight deck of the USS Coral Sea. So many South Vietnamese Air Force helicopters flew out to the fleet that the sailors on board began pushing the unloaded aircraft overboard to make room for more.
The 324th Division of the North Vietnamese Army entered Saigon just as the last Americans were leaving. South Vietnamese President Doung Van Minh surrendered his nation at 10:24AM. Instead of an orderly and graceful transfer of power, the communists simply arrested the President and led him away. Thus began the reunification of Vietnam. More than 250,000 government and military officials from South Vietnam were either imprisoned or sent to "re-education" camps where many died of hunger and disease. Thousands more simply disappeared.
Today, those who served during the Vietnam War, protested against it or just watched it on TV are moving towards old age. Despite this, the war is still a close and bitter memory in the many countries which had a hand in it. In the United States, it is still an issue during Presidential campaigns despite the fact that half of the voting public is too young to remember. The lessons of that time, it would seem, are still being learned.