Although U.S. combat troops departed South Vietnam in 1973, the war between North and South Vietnam did not end that year, and the U.S. government continued to provide military aid to South Vietnam. Several thousand U.S. citizens remained in the country at the Defense Attaché Office at Tan Son Nhut Airport, the U.S. Embassy in Saigon, and consulates at Da Nang, Nha Trang, Bien Hoa, and Can Tho. In early 1975, the North Vietnamese Army launched a major offensive that captured a number of strategic locations in South Vietnam by March of that year, including Da Nang.
As the North Vietnamese continued to advance south, President Gerald R. Ford announced on April 3, 1975, that U.S. aircraft delivering supplies to Saigon would carry Vietnamese orphans to the United States on their return flights. This became known as Operation Babylift. The operation began tragically when a U.S. Air Force C-5 Galaxy carrying more than 200 orphans and 37 Defense Attaché Office employees suffered an explosive decompression in its tail section. The crew attempted to return to Saigon but crashed short of the airport, and 155 of the 330 people on board were killed. While that crash slowed the evacuation, Operation Babylift ultimately brought more than 2,600 orphans out of Vietnam.
While Operation Babylift continued, USAF C-141 aircraft were used to evacuate U.S. citizens and dependents. By April 19, U.S. personnel had flown out 6,000 people, including a number of Vietnamese-born U.S. dependents. As the North Vietnamese Army approached Saigon, however, the pace of the evacuation increased. On April 20, U.S. officials in Saigon simplified the paperwork process for evacuees. Perhaps more importantly, President Ford authorized the evacuation of thousands of "at risk" Vietnamese who were not American citizens. In addition to the C-141s, USAF C-130s from Clark Air Base in the Philippines joined in the evacuation operations. At the evacuation' s height, April 20 to 28, 1975, approximately twenty C-141s departed each day while twenty C-130s flew out each night. Although neither aircraft was designed to transport more than 100 passengers, at times they carried 180 or more. By the end of April, the Defense Attaché Office in Saigon had processed more than 40,000 evacuees.
On April 27, North Vietnamese forces were close enough to launch rockets into Saigon. That ended the use of the C-141s for the evacuation because those aircraft were more vulnerable and valuable than the C-130s, which continued to evacuate personnel to the Philippines. From there, the C-141s flew the refugees to Guam. Conditions in Saigon deteriorated on April 28, when North Vietnamese aircraft bombed Tan Son Nhut and destroyed one C-130. The runways soon became swamped with aircraft and people, and by early morning on April 29, the use of fixed wing aircraft for evacuations ended.
During the month of April 1975, the U.S. Air Force flew 201 C-141 missions and 174 C-130 sorties and evacuated more than 45,000 people from Saigon, including 5,600 U.S. citizens. Still, the U.S. Ambassador, his staff, and many more U.S. citizens and refugees remained in South Vietnam. They would have to be evacuated by helicopter, in an operation known as Frequent Wind. While many of those helicopters belonged to the U.S. Marines, ten of the CH-53 and HH-53 helicopters belonged to the USAF's 56th Special Operations Wing and 40th Aerospace Rescue and Recovery Squadron. Their flights marked the first significant deployment of USAF helicopters from a U.S. Navy aircraft carrier. In addition, U.S. Navy and USAF fighters flew escort for the helicopters while USAF AC-130 gunships and KC-135 tankers provided additional support. In dangerous circumstances, 71 U.S. helicopters flew 660 sorties between Saigon and the U.S. Seventh Fleet, evacuating more than 7,800 people from the U.S. Embassy and the Defense Attaché Office on April 29 and 30. The operation ended at 0900 on April 30, and by noon that day, Communist flags waved over Saigon's Presidential Palace. On that final day, USAF aircraft flew a total of 1,422 sorties over Saigon.
Operation Frequent Wind concluded more than two decades of U.S. involvement in Vietnam. Although the evacuation of South Vietnam had ended, the USAF still had to transport thousands of tons of cargo to refugee camps and move refugees from the Philippines to Guam. By the middle of May 1975, Guam harbored more than 50,000 Southeast Asian evacuees. The evacuation concluded with Operations New Life and New Arrivals, which brought approximately 130,000 refugees to the United States. The aerial evacuation of South Vietnam was the largest such operation in history, with more than 50,000 evacuees transported mainly on USAF aircraft.
Capt Gregory Ball, USAFR, Ph.D.
For more information see:
"Vietnam Evacuation: Operation Frequent Wind," by Daniel L. Haulman, in the Air Force History and Museums publication: Short of War: Major USAF Contingency Operations.
Last Flight from Saigon, an Air Force History and Museums publication, edited by Lt Col A.J.C. Lavalle.
MAC and Operation Bablylift: Air Transport in Support of Noncombatant Evacuation Operations. Military Airlift Command Office of History; Coy F. Cross II, November 1989.