The final days in Saigon, the American evacuation.


Ulevich, Neal, ‘Mobs of Vietnamese people scale the wall of the U.S. Embassy in Saigon, Vietnam, trying to get to the helicopter pickup zone, just before the end of the Vietnam War on April 29, 1975’, photograph, Saigon 29th of April 1975.


The American evacuation of Saigon

‘At the US embassy, the desperation was anything but mute. Wailing crowds besieged the place, pleading for entry, as marines pulled in those who had the right credentials – a white face helped – and pushed out those who did not.’[1]

April 1975, after three decades of war the end was nearing fast and total victory for the Democratic Republic of Vietnam was at hand. During late March the president of the Republic of Vietnam, Nguyen van Thieu (1923-2001), ordered a retreat of the Central Highlands region that was located in the north-western part of South Vietnam. This retreat devolved into a massive rout and all on collapse of the Army of the Republic of Vietnam. One by one the major cities fell before the unstoppable advance of the Northern forces and every day the Northers forces were creeping closer towards Saigon, the capital of the RVN.[2]

Every day it became clearer that South Vietnam was lost and on the 23rd of April, president Thieu resigned and abandoned the sinking ship. A few days later on the 29th, the United States started an operation to rescue their last citizens from the advancing communist.

It was called operation Frequent Wind and it is known for its dramatic images of the humiliating spectacle that was happening in the streets of Saigon. Mobs of scared people were battering the walls of the US embassy, rows of people stood on rooftops awaiting rescue by chopper and many fled by boat. In the end thousands were left behind when the last American helicopter flew away into sunrise towards navy ships of the American 7th fleet that were waiting offshore.[3]

It is fair to say that the US evacuation was chaotic, but why was it the case. One could have foreseen the fall of Saigon when the ARVN collapsed in late March. Also, Saigon wasn’t the first city to fall. Another city called Da Nang also had a chaotic evacuation, and this occurred on the 29th of March, a full month earlier.[4]

So, this is why this essay will look into the reasons why the American operation to evacuate evolved into chaos and to answer this question this essay will be split in two. The first part will look at what the plan of the National Security Council seated in Washington was and then at how the military situation was developing. For this part documents of the National Security Council from April 1975 and Department of Defense documents will be used.

The second part shall dive into the ground situation, this part will look at the actions of American servicemen and Vietnamese. For this part video footage and interviews with witnesses shall be used.


1.1 plan National Security Council

On the 9th of April 1975 the National Security Council convened to talk about Indochina. The National Security Council was established by the Americans in 1947 in response to the increased complexity of national security issues in the aftermath of the Second World War, as well as the need to coordinate political, military, and economic factors in developing and implementing national security policies.[5]

At this meeting president Gerald Ford (1913-2006), Secretary of State Henry A. Kissinger (1923), Secretary of Defense James Schlesinger (1929-2014), Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff General George S. Brown (1918-1978), Director of Central Intelligence William Colby (1922-1996), Chief of Staff U.S. Army General Fred C. Weyand (1910-2010) and others convened to talk about the situation in Indochina.[6]

They saw that things were not necessarily looking good for the Republic of South Vietnam. The communist forces were advancing towards Saigon alongside Route 1 and the fighting in the Mekong delta under Saigon has also increased. According to Director Colby Hanoi thought this was the ‘most opportune moment’ for total victory. He further goes on to state that the North Vietnamese Army had crossed the Demilitarized Zone and that these army units from Hanoi would arrive north of Saigon within two or four weeks.[7] ‘In sum, we believe Hanoi will take whatever action is necessary to force the war to an early conclusion -­ probably by early summer.’[8]

Then later on the NSC attendants talk about if there are any actions that could be taken in South Vietnam. During this part General Weyand states that the prospect is very bleak, there is still some hope of ARVN recovery, but an infusion of American aid is unlikely to pass through Congress.[9] After this the topic of evacuation is addressed, General Weyand has provided the president with assessment rapport and President Ford asked Kissinger for his opinion, and he states the outline of evacuation options (see image).[10]


National Security Adviser’s NSC Meeting File; sender W. R. Smyser and recipient Henry Kissinger; 4/9/1975; NSC Meeting, 4/9/75; Box 1; National Security Adviser. National Security Council Meetings File; Gerald R. Ford Library, 20-21.


However, there was one problem, Ambassador Graham Martin (1912-1990) refused to cooperate. The reason behind this was that the ambassador did not want to create panic, but Kissinger assured the president that he would persuade the ambassador to comply. Later Kissinger also says ‘It is clear that, with the numbers involved, this cannot be a one day operation like Eagle Pull in Cambodia’ and ‘So you have an evacuation that will take a week if you go to 240,000.’[11] Nevertheless the Americans had to evacuate the 6,000 Americans who remained in Saigon, as well as more than 240,000 Vietnamese current and former employees of American agencies, and there was no evacuation plan in place, only some vague guidelines.[12]

So, there were guidelines for evacuation and a timeframe, they wanted to save a minimum of 240,000 people and it would take a week. They also mentioned that the final victory of North Vietnam would occur somewhere around early summer. So, they thought they had ample time to make a decision, this is further backed up by secretary of Defense Schlesinger. He stated ‘We must try to see what it will look like in 90 days. We must state clearly […] we are moving on a strategy of 60 days to 6 months.’ Still, he also gives of a warning that this could all change at any time, it all depended on how long the ARVN was able to survive.[13]

When the NSC reconvened on the 24th of April, the situation was deteriorating fast, and the window of opportunity was closing quickly. 1600 Americans were still in Saigon, many more Vietnamese with ties to the Americans were there as well. It became apparent that the end was nigh, but they still were reluctant to act fast because they believed this would ‘run the risk of inducing panic’, in other words continue with the operation as planned.[14] Another thing worth mentioning is that the Americans were not exactly aware of how many Vietnamese were left in Saigon that were in need of evacuation.[15]

Then on the 28th of April the NSC convened again. Colby stated that the communist forces had reached the outskirts of Saigon and had started to shell Tân Sơn Nhất airport. He also stated that the Viet Cong had cut off the road to the Delta and were advancing on Vung Tau.[16] The city was being encircled and the war neared its conclusion.

A heavy debate starts about pulling out the plug now before it is too late, or to hold their ground and ward of the communist. In the end they conclude that any fire would result in a total collapse.[17] Thus the NSC concluded that they would evacuate the Defense Attaché Office (DAO) personal at the airport and most of the embassy personal as soon as possible by fixed-wing plane, and they are fully aware that they have to leave behind many Vietnamese. Kissinger states ‘I believe that, as the new Government comes in, our obligations are terminated.’ They now only had to avoid provoking panic, this would be done by slowly sending away Americans and by leaving a minimal crew in the embassy that could be evacuated within an hour.[18]

The plan for the evacuation relied upon fixed-wing planes that would take off from Tân Sơn Nhất airport. Then after this would be done the last Americans at the embassy would be evacuated by helicopter.[19]

So, in the end they had a plan, and they knew the objectives of their opponents, but they underestimated the abilities of the communist. It is also stated that they purposefully waited with evacuation in order to maintain order, but this resulted in the concentration of many Vietnamese that feared for their life in Saigon. Furthermore, it is also stated that the ambassador didn’t cooperate, but the question remains why. So now this essay will look at what was occurring during late April on ground level, thus in Vietnam and Saigon.


1.2 Collapse ARVN and rout towards Saigon

An assessment report from the 9th of April was clear. General Weyand observed that during late March the ARVN had collapsed. He says ‘Command and control broke down. The six ranger groups and one infantry regiment from Kontum and Pleiku became interspersed among the increasingly desperate 200,000 odd civilians fleeing with the exfiltrating column.’ During the retreat they came under attack from three NVA regiments and they were ‘[…] systematically and methodically engaging the dispersed ARVN military units, none of which were combat effective […]’, he goes further on to say that ‘The carnage inflicted en route on the hapless civilian refugees was horrendous.’[20]

General Weyland further goes on to explain what happened at Da Nang, he says that the city got encircled and that the people were trapped inside, in total two million people were trapped. He says that people were desperate to get out and thus order collapsed on the 28th of April. Only 50.000 and 22.000 soldiers were rescued by sea and air.[21]


Status of the ARVN early 1975
Vietnam assessment report; sender General Fred C. Weyand and recipient Gerald R. Ford; Vietnam Assessment Report by General Fred C. Weyand; April 4, 1975; Selected Documents on the Vietnam War; Gerald R. Ford Library, 18.

He also states that more than two million refugees were fleeing southwards.[22] At another moment General Weyland shows in one of his tables that the ARVN was halved, they lost 117.000 soldiers between late January 1975 and late March 1975.[23]

It is fair to say that chaos was already developing and that there were reasons for fear. This fear was further fuelled by memories of the killing of people with ties to the South Vietnamese government of America in Hue during the Tet offensive of 1968, as well as predictions of a major bloodbath. Ex-Premier Tran Van Huong (1903-1982) predicted that up to 5 million people would be killed.[24] But, the reluctance to pull out by the Americans probably made the final stage more chaotic. It was quite evident that it was over, the ARVN was destroyed, and millions were fleeing for the advancing communist.

Nevertheless, the Americans stayed reluctant to pull out their last remaining citizens, because they feared that it would cause panic. But, while the Americans waited, the desperate refugees were on their way southwards towards Saigon. So, some of the desperate refugees were in the city when it fell, and it could have contributed to the chaos during the last days.


2.1 Ambassador and servicemen

Late April 1975. The communist advanced towards Saigon, order quickly broke down and Ambassador Martin was reluctant to act. The question is why this happened while it was clear in late March that it was game over. Frank Snepp (1943), a chief strategy analyst for the CIA in Saigon, told Ambassador Martin in late March; ‘I just came back from flying over MR-1 and I’ve seen the South Vietnamese army retreating into the sea.’ And ambassador Martin replied ‘I don’t believe you. Your intelligence must be mistaken.’[25]

He goes on to state that he lost contact with reality, this because after the ARVN collapsed, he called Washington with a five-year economic plan for South Vietnam.[26] The ambassador also continued to oppose any effort to evacuate Vietnamese.[27] Snepp states that his resistance can be also partly ascribed to his personality, he was, ‘[…] headstrong and impervious to persuasion.’ Snepp also says that Ambassador Martin’s adoptive son was killed by enemy fire in Vietnam.[28] State Department officer Joseph McBride (unknown) adds to this that he was still hoping for a diplomatic solution, a third party solution that would allow the continuation of the existence of a South Vietnam.[29]

In the days before the 29th of April an intelligence officer of the DAO named Stuart Herrington (1941) spoke to the ambassador and he concluded that ‘[…] Ambassador Graham Martin was himself absolutely in denial about the gravity of the situation and about the need for an evacuation […]’, an evacuation was negative thinking, and the ambassador could not tolerate that.[30]

This is why Herrington told his commander that the embassy was in over its head and dramatic action was needed. He told him that they couldn’t rely on the embassy’s plan and that is why he broke the rules and started to smuggle people out.[31]

Thus, different people all say that Ambassador Martin was obstructing the evacuation. Kissinger stated that Ambassador Martin wanted to maintain peace, Herrington stated that the ambassador was in denial about the situation, and Frank Snepp stated that the ambassador lost touch with reality. According to Snepp even Kissinger couldn’t persuade him to stop dragging his feet.[32] But, what does the ambassador self say?

Ambassador Martin defended himself during a testimony before the House of Representatives Committee on International Relations. Here he stressed that his primary goal was to avoid panic. He also states that bureaucratic red tape made it impossible to get so many Vietnamese out, this was worsened because also the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service did not cooperate. After this he explained that there was no final destination and that all the other Southeast Asian countries refused to let the South Vietnamese in. So they had to go to America, but he claims that Washington was reluctant to let them in.[33] This is further collaborated by Snepp, he also states that there was a lack of a planning formula and coordination between different American government agencies, Kissinger and Ambassador Martin.[34] To make matters worse, there was not even a list of Vietnamese that should be evacuated.[35] Ambassador Martins statement is also supported by writer Duong Van Mai Elliott (1941), she also says that U.S. government departments did not cooperate well and sometimes obstructed the evacuation.[36]

Later on, in his statement Ambassador Martin states that he could not start a massive evacuation because this would in his opinion lead to Vietnamese feeling abandoned, this could lead to retaliation by the remnants of the South Vietnamese military.[37] He then goes on to continuously stress that he was walking a tight rope.


2.2 The plan disintegrates  

The 29th of April, the runways of Tân Sơn Nhất airport were being destroyed by communist artillery fire and rockets. Thus, in the morning of the 29th, General Homer D. Smith (1922-2011), who was at the Defense Attaché at the airport, made the call to Ambassador Martin. He told him that they had to enact stage four, a helicopter lift, but Ambassador Martin still refused, and he wanted to see the airport himself.[38]

Eventually the shelling thus made it so that the Americans had to use the embassy and other high building for evacuation, according to Herrington this led to the embassy being swarmed by thousands of people.[39] He even says that American guards and embassy employees let people in that should not be let in.[40] A marine guard called Mike Sullivan (1946) confesses that he and his comrades led in their tailor, their cook and their families.[41]

At this point Ambassador Martin realized that it was time to go and thus he called for the start of stage four of operation ‘Frequent Wind’, this was the code name for the evacuation by helicopter. The radios in Saigon blasted ‘The temperature in Saigon is one hundred five degrees and rising.’ and then they started to play ‘White Christmas’.[42] This plan revolved around evacuation by airlift to the 7th fleet, they were supposed to arrive early in the morning, but they had mistaken the time zones and thus they arrived in the afternoon.[43]

That afternoon there were no guidelines, Snepp says that no one told him what to do. Thus, he just directed helicopters around the city to pick up people at makeshift landing platforms. He also tells that a CIA agent tasked with evacuating the CIA personal abandoned his post and evacuated before he got the CIA personal out.[44] He then ordered a helicopter to evacuate them and the Defense minister of South Vietnam.[45] Thus he claims that there were no guidelines and people abandoned their posts.

Someone who was in Saigon in late April 1975 was BBC reporter Brian Barron (1940-2009), and he says that the CIA and other US military and aid agencies had promised many southerners that they would be evacuated. This resulted in lines of southerners on rooftops waiting for helicopters that never came.[46]

While some waited on rooftops hundreds of people fled towards the shoreline and everything that floated got loaded up with people and departed towards the 7th fleet on the high seas.[47] But, a Department of Defense report about Operation Frequent Wind states that ‘The North Vietnamese Army cut the main highway between Saigon and Vung Tau and took crucial points along the Saigon River, precluding a massive sea lift.’[48] So the communist cut of the route to the sea by land and now people were trapped, the only way out was thus by air.

Over the course of 18 hours, some 70 helicopters flew back and forth from U.S. aircraft carriers of the 7th fleet to Saigon, they transported over 1,000 Americans and nearly 6,000 Vietnamese out of the city.[49]


2.3 Vietnamese agency

This was not solely an American evacuation, the Vietnamese themselves still had an agency. An American servicemen called Vern Jumper (1932) was aboard the carrier USS Midway, part of the 7th fleet that was waiting offshore, and he says that the sky was filled with South Vietnamese helicopters, these were all filled with Vietnamese and flown by the military personal of the Republic of South Vietnam. They enacted this on their own and the Americans could not stop them from flying towards their ships.[50] A similar story has been told by commanding officer of the USS Kirk Paul Jacobs (1936-2020).[51]

According to the Department of Defense, Operation Frequent Wind got further derailed because ‘[…] crowds of panic-stricken Vietnamese blocked bus routes in downtown Saigon and surrounded the embassy and DAO complex.’[52] These busses were picking up people and ferrying them to helicopter pick up points. The Department of Defense document also states that South Vietnamese military forces at Tân Sơn Nhất airport wanted out, thus they harassed American servicemen and demanded evacuation for themselves and their family.


Conclusion

In the end it can be concluded that the Americans hoped to maintain order and to ward of panic by slowly pulling out. They also waited because they underestimated the abilities of the communist and estimated Southern defeat by early summer. But all of this resulted in the concentration of many Vietnamese that feared for their life in Saigon.

It can also be concluded that a hesitancy to act of Ambassador Graham Martin led to delaying the evacuation. Why he did this is uncertain, some say he wanted to preserve order, other say he lost touch with reality. What we do now is that he waited so long that the communist advanced towards Saigon and started to shell the airport. The communist also cut of the route to the sea.

After this the people were trapped inside Saigon, this because they could not flee by plane, land or sea. Thus, the only option out was a helicopter lift, but the problem is that you can’t rescue everyone in 18 hours with seventy helicopters. Even worse was that the Americans gave people false hope by promising a way out and assuring them that they would be save. People on the street also knew about the advancing communist and they wanted out, but they couldn’t get out.

Furthermore, it can be said that the plan were mere vague guidelines and that there were no lists or whatsoever that indicated which Vietnamese would need to be evacuated, so many American servicemen started to smuggle people out themselves.

An additional cause for the chaos was that there were many actors that did not have to obey the Americans that were directing the evacuation. The people in their streets were not American citizens, some of the helicopters were not flown by American servicemen and most of the people in the boats were not part of the American navy.

Although it was chaotic it definitely was not a failure. Operation Frequent Wind extracted more than 7000 Vietnamese civilians and military personal by helicopter out of Saigon in 18 hours.


[1] Martin Woollacot, ‘Forty years on from the fall of Saigon: witnessing the end of the Vietnam war’ (edition 21-04-2015), https://www.theguardian.com/news/2015/apr/21/40-years-on-from-fall-of-saigon-witnessing-end-of-vietnam-war (30-04-2021).

[2] Mark Atwood Lawrence, The Vietnam war: A concise international history (Oxford 2008) 166.

[3] Ibid., 166-167.

[4] CBS News, ‘Bruce Dunning, CBS News correspondent who reported “the last flight from Da Nang,” dies at 73’ (edition 26-08-2013), https://www.cbsnews.com/news/bruce-dunning-cbs-news-correspondent-who-reported-the-last-flight-from-da-nang-dies-at-73/ (30-05-2021).

[5] Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library & Museum, ‘National Security Adviser. National Security Council Meetings File, 1974-77’, https://www.fordlibrarymuseum.gov/library/guides/findingaid/nscmeetings.asp (06-06-2021).

[6] National Security Adviser’s NSC Meeting File; sender W. R. Smyser and recipient Henry Kissinger; 4/9/1975; NSC Meeting, 4/9/75; Box 1; National Security Adviser. National Security Council Meetings File; Gerald R. Ford Library, 1.

[7] Ibid., 1-3.

[8] Ibid., 5.

[9] Ibid., 12-15.

[11] Ibid., 22-23.

[12] Duong Van Mai Elliott, RAND in Southeast Asia: A History of the Vietnam War Era (Santa Monica 2010), 526.

[10] Ibid., 20-21.

[13] National Security Adviser’s, NSC Meeting, 4/9/75, 26.

[14] National Security Adviser’s NSC Meeting File; sender Henry Kissinger; 4/24/1975; NSC Meeting, 4/24/1975; Box 1; National Security Adviser. National Security Council Meetings File; Gerald R. Ford Library, 1-3.

[15] Ibid., 4.

[16] National Security Adviser’s NSC Meeting File; sender W. R. Smyser and recipient Henry Kissinger; 4/28/1975; NSC Meeting, 4/28/1975; Box 1; National Security Adviser. National Security Council Meetings File; Gerald R. Ford Library, 2.

[17] Ibid., 4-8.

[18] Ibid., 7-8.

[19] Ibid., 8-10.

[20] Vietnam assessment report; sender General Fred C. Weyand and recipient Gerald R. Ford; Vietnam Assessment Report by General Fred C. Weyand; April 4, 1975; Selected Documents on the Vietnam War; Gerald R. Ford Library, 3-4.

[21] Ibid., 3.

[22] Ibid., 6.

[23] Ibid., 18.

[24] Mai Elliott, RAND in Southeast Asia, 526.

[25] Christian G. Appy, Vietnam: The definitive oral history, told from all sides (London 2008), 489.

[26] Ibid, 498-499.

[27] Ibid, 499.

[28] Ibid, 498.

[29] American Experience PBS, ‘Option Four’ (2015), documentary fragment Last Days in Vietnam 0-‘3:57”, https://youtu.be/RLNGlYpRwrQ, 2’24”-3’10” (08-06-2021).

[30] BBC Sounds, ‘The fall of Saigon’ (2015), radio program broadcast Witness History ‘0-’15:41, https://www.bbc.co.uk/sounds/play/b06418l7, 3’30”-3’60” (06-06-2021).

[31] Ibid, 3’60”-4’40” (06-06-2021)

[32] Internet Archive, Central Intelligence Agency collection, CIA-RDP91-00587R000201050004-2, THE FALL OF SAIGON, 11.

[33] Committee of International Relations, The Vietnam-Cambodia emergency, 1975: Part III—Vietnam evacuation: Testimony of Ambassador Graham A. Martin (Washington D.C. 1976), 543.

[34] Appy, Vietnam, 500.

[35] Ibid., 501.

[36] Mai Elliott, RAND in Southeast Asia, 526.

[37] Committee of International Relations, The Vietnam-Cambodia emergency, 548.

[38] American Experience PBS, ‘Option Four’, ‘0 -‘1”50 (08-06-2021).

[39] BBC Sounds, ‘The fall of Saigon’, 5’20-6’ (06-06-2021).

[40] American Experience PBS, ‘Chaos Had Descended’ (2015), documentary fragment Last Days in Vietnam 0-‘3:27”, https://youtu.be/MBLr7jv3rrs, ‘2”10-‘2”55 (08-06-2021).

[41] Ibid., ‘2”50-‘3”27 (08-06-2021).

[42] Appy, Vietnam, 502.

[43] Ibid., 502.

[44] Ibid., 502.

[45] American Experience PBS, ‘Chaos Had Descended’, ‘1-‘2”10 (08-06-2021).

[46] BBC News, ‘The fall of Saigon’, ‘http://news.bbc.co.uk/aboutbbcnews/hi/news_update/newsid_3853000/3853853.stm (06-06-2021).

[47] BBC Sounds, ‘The fall of Saigon’, 8’30”-9’ (06-06-2021).

[48] Daniel L. Haulman, Vietnam Evacuation: Operation FREQUENT WIND, Department of Defense, https://media.defense.gov/2012/Aug/23/2001330098/-1/-1/0/Oper%20Frequent%20Wind.pdf, 88.

[49] Mai Elliott, RAND in Southeast Asia, 527.

[50] BBC Sounds, ‘The fall of Saigon’, 6’22”-8’30” (06-06-2021).

[51] American Experience PBS, ‘Our flight deck will only take one helicopter at the time…’ (2015), documentary fragment Last Days in Vietnam 0-‘2:13”, https://youtu.be/zWN6XGUAhZU, ‘0-‘1 (08-06-2021).

[52] Daniel L. Haulman, Vietnam Evacuation, 91.

[53] Ibid., 91.


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