After the bombing of the air strips at Tan Son Nhat (on the northern edge of Saigon) on 29 April 1975, the only means left to evacuate remaining U.S. citizens and the South Vietnamese who had worked with us was by helicopter or by boat. The airborne evacuation was called “Frequent Wind Phase Four.” That was the final phase of Frequent Wind, called after it was clear that fixed-wing aircraft could no longer be used.
The final pages of Last of the Annamese relate how Chuck, the book’s protagonist, and his two colleagues—all that were left of the Intelligence Branch Staff still in Saigon—were airlifted out on choppers. Their story is drawn from my own personal experience when I and my two communicators, Bob Hartley and Gary Hickman, were flown out.
Operation Frequent Wind Phase Four is, to my knowledge, is the largest helicopter evacuation ever attempted. Reports on the number of helicopters used vary from 81 to 91. They included Marine CH-53’s, large enough to carry 50 men outfitted for combat, and Air America hueys (UH-1 slicks), operated by a civilian corporation, that could carry only eight to 14 people each. The operation lasted 19 hours and moved more than 7,000 people from the Defense Attaché Office (DAO) compound at Tan Son Nhat and the U.S. Embassy in downtown Saigon to the ships of the 7th Fleet cruising in the South China Sea. During much of the operation, the North Vietnamese were shelling us, first with rockets, later with artillery. The last two American fighting men to die on the ground in Vietnam were two embassy Marines guarding the western gate of the DAO compound, Cpl. Charles McMahon, Jr. and Lance Cpl. Darwin Judge, killed during that shelling.
My two communicators went our around 1400 hours (2:00 p.m.) on 29 April. I went out after dark the same day. The first rains of the monsoon season started that evening, and the choppers were being pelted by downpours. I went out on a slick. No sooner were we airborne than I saw tracers coming at us. We took so much lead in the fuselage that I thought we were going down. But we made it. I looked own on fires burning all over Saigon.
I now know that the North Vietnamese could have easily shot down all the helicopters in Frequent Wind Phase Four. But, to my knowledge, not a single chopper was lost. I’ve since concluded that the ground fire that hit the helicopter I was on originated with panicking South Vietnamese soldiers, terrified that they would not be airlifted out.
The tragedy of Frequent Wind Phase Four is that we left behind thousands of Vietnamese who had worked with us. Had the U.S. Ambassador called for the evacuation before the siege of Saigon began, most of them could have been saved.