My mention of escaping under fire when Saigon fell in April 1975 brought a question from a reader: who was shooting at me? So I resurrected an old blog post on the subject. Here it is, revised with recent information:
On the evening of 29 April 1975, I escaped from Saigon after the North Vietnamese were already in the streets of the city. My flight from Tan Son Nhat, on the northern edge of Saigon, was part of Operation FREQUENT WIND, the evacuation of Americans and some South Vietnamese. I flew out on a slick, a little Huey, rather than one of the big CH-53 helicopters. 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.
One aspect of the escape intrigues me even today: who was firing at us?
Background: During FREQUENT WIND, 71 American military helicopters flew 662 sorties between Saigon and elements of the 7th Fleet. The operation succeeded in extracting more than 7,800 evacuees from the Defense Attaché Office and U.S. Embassy on April 29 and 30, not counting the U.S. Marines that had landed that day. 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. 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.