Who Shot at My Escaping Helicopter?

On the evening of 29 April 1975, I escaped from Saigon as it fell. My flight from Tan Son Nhat, on the northern edge of the city, was part of Operation Frequent Wind, the evacuation of Americans and some South Vietnamese as the North Vietnamese took the city. I flew out on a slick, a little Huey, rather than one of the big CH-53s. As soon as we were airborne, I saw the tracers coming at us. We took so much lead in the fuselage that I thought we were going down. But we made it. In the dark and the rain, we flew out to the South China Sea where the ships of the U.S. 7th Fleet were waiting. The pilot, despite the pelting rain and the pitch black, circled repeatedly. Finally, very slowly, he descended and landed on the floodlit helipad of the Oklahoma City, the flagship of the 7th Fleet. He told me later that he, an Air America civilian pilot, had never before landed on a ship.

Two aspects of the escape intrigue me even today. First, why was it raining? The monsoon season, with its spectacular downpours, wasn’t due until the following month. Did the monsoon come early to coincide with the fall of Vietnam to the communists?

Second, who was firing at us?

I don’t know how many U.S. and Vietnamese helicopters carried people from the city during Operation Frequent Wind. My guess is that it was hundreds. The North Vietnamese by the evening of 29 April were already in the streets of Saigon. They had a full complement of anti-aircraft weapons. And yet, as far I know, not one chopper was shot down. They could have brought down dozens, but they didn’t.

In puzzling through what happened, I’ve concluded that the North Vietnamese didn’t want to impede the U.S. flight from Vietnam. Had they fired at our helicopters, we could have inflicted great damage on them with the combat aircraft we had in the vicinity. Besides, all they wanted was for us to leave.

So who shot at the Huey I was in?

My best guess is that it was the South Vietnamese military whom we were abandoning to their fate. They had large weapons with tracer ammunition—used to show the shooter if his bullets are hitting the target. And they were both furious and desperate as we flew away and left them to the mercies of the North Vietnamese.

I escaped alive, though they certainly tried hard to bring me down. I can understand how they felt. In the end, I was the lucky one. They were all killed or captured by the North Vietnamese.

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