By Walter J. Boyne
On April 30, 1975, North Viet-namese troops accepted
the surrender of Saigon and thus snuffed out the Republic
of Vietnam, humiliating Washington in the process.
Saigon, within 24 hours, had become Ho Chi Minh City.
The surrender of the capital and its prompt renaming--25
years ago this month--became the ultimate symbol of
the failure of US policy in Southeast Asia.
For Americans, that day forever will be remembered
for the spectacle of overcrowded US helicopters fleeing
in a badly timed but well-executed evacuation, their
flight to safety contrasting with the terror that gripped
thousands of loyal South Vietnamese left to their fates.
The media presented hundreds of wrenching scenes-tiny
boats overcrowded with soldiers and family members,
people trying to force their way onto the US Embassy
grounds, Vietnamese babies being passed over barbed
wire to waiting hands and an unknown future.
Saigon fell with bewildering speed. After 21 years
of struggle against the Communist forces, the South
Vietnamese army collapsed in just weeks into a disorganized
mass, unable to slow, much less halt, forces from the
In nearly 30 years of war, Hanoi had defeated France
and South Vietnam on the battlefield and the US at
the negotiating table. The Communist regime was expert
in manipulating US opinion. For example, Hanoi had
converted its debilitating defeat in the 1968 Tet Offensive
into a stunning propaganda victory, one that ultimately
drove the United States out of the war.
Still, North Vietnam had suffered about 50,000 casualties
in Tet and was similarly mauled in its spring 1972
offensive against the South. The People's Army of Vietnam
needed time to recuperate.
South Vietnam's president, Nguyen Van Thieu, took
advantage of Hanoi's decision to refit and re-equip,
extending the South Vietnamese hold on territory wherever
possible. The result was that the South Vietnamese
army was spread out over a large area and by late 1974
was ripe for an attack. Its condition was worsened
by the drying up of US assistance, a drastic increase
in inflation, and, as always, flagrant corruption.
The January 1973 Paris peace accords led to a near-total
withdrawal of US forces in early 1973. In fall 1974,
leaders in Hanoi had decided upon a two-year program
to conquer the South and unite the two countries under
Communist rule. Called "General Offensive, General
Uprising," the program was designed so that a
series of major military offensives in 1975 would bring
the South Vietnamese population to the point of revolution
and permit a conclusive victory in 1976.
North Vietnam was well aware of the disarray in American
politics since President Richard M. Nixon's August
1974 resignation, and it decided to test the waters.
In January 1975, it conquered Phuoc Long province on
the border with Cambodia. North Vietnamese regular
units, supplemented by local guerrillas, routed the
South Vietnamese army in a mere three weeks. More than
3,000 South Vietnamese troops were killed or captured,
and supplies worth millions were lost to the invaders.
Although Phuoc Long was not particularly important
in either military or economic terms, it was the first
province the North Vietnamese had taken since 1972-and
it was only 80 miles from Saigon.
This absolutely crucial event was scarcely noted in
the American news media. Washington had pledged to "respond
with decisive military force" to any North Vietnamese
violation of the 1973 accords. In the end, however,
the US did nothing at all. Hanoi doubtless was encouraged
Oddly enough, Thieu was not discouraged. That is because
he continued to believe in Nixon's promises, even after
Nixon had been forced to resign, and he would continue
to believe in those promises almost to the end, frequently
musing about "when the B-52s would return."
March 1975 saw Hanoi make its next seriously aggressive
move. In the preceding two years, North Vietnam's army
patiently moved into the South enormous quantities
of Soviet artillery, surface-to-air missiles, and armored
vehicles, along with 100,000 fresh troops. The Paris
accords allowed more than 80,000 North Vietnamese regular
troops to remain in the South, and their numbers had
already increased to more than 200,000.
North Vietnamese regular and guerrilla forces now
numbered some 1 million, despite the heavy losses of
the previous decade. North Vietnam's army units, created
by Gen. Vo Nguyen Giap, were weapons-intensive, with
few logistics or support personnel. In contrast, South
Vietnam's army was modeled on the US Army. It had about
750,000 troops, of which only about 150,000 were combat
troops. They were well-equipped but poorly supported,
despite the Army's huge logistics tail.
Giap in 1973 had become ill with Hodgkin's disease,
and power passed to his protégé, Van
Tien Dung, North Vietnam's only other four-star general.
Dung, a short, square-faced peasant who had worked
his way up through the ranks, carefully infiltrated
his forces so that he was able to set up his headquarters
at Loc Ninh, only 75 miles north of Saigon. The elaborate
preparations included construction of an oil pipeline
and telephone grid that was impervious to electronic
Dung dictated tactics designed to minimize casualties
from the massed firepower upon which South Vietnam's
army had been trained to rely. Unfortunately for the
South Vietnamese, their supplies of ammunition were
badly depleted by rampant inflation and severe reductions
in American aid.
Final Battle Begins
Dung arrived at Loc Ninh via the Ho Chi Minh Trail,
now expanded from foot paths to include paved, two-lane
highways with extensions that reached within 30 miles
of Saigon. His first target was Ban Me Thuot, a city
in the Central Highlands and the capital of Darlac
province. It was the absolutely vital link in the South
Vietnamese army's defenses. If it were lost, Communist
forces could easily cut South Vietnam in half.
North Vietnam disguised its real assault by mounting
pinprick attacks in the two northernmost provinces
of South Vietnam. Minor though they were, they triggered
a panic flight of more than 50,000 refugees that would
have immense effect on battles soon to come.
Northern forces isolated Ban Me Thuot by cutting off
or blocking the main highways to it. On March 10, 1975,
three North Vietnamese army divisions, well-equipped
with tanks, assaulted the city, which was defended
by two reinforced regiments of the 23rd Division. Despite
a barrage of 122 mm artillery fire, the South Vietnamese
army, commanded by Maj. Gen. Pham Van Phu, fought well.
However, they were worn down and, by March 12, Dung
had essentially captured the city.
It was at Ban Me Thuot that there first occurred a
phenomenon that would increasingly undermine the South's
morale. Many of its army officers used helicopters
to pick up their families and flee to the south with
them. Phu himself fled when the time came.
South Vietnamese hordes then began to flee the countryside,
crowding the main roads and the pathways in a mass
exodus for the coast, where they ultimately jammed
seaports seeking transport to the south. The refugees
included not only those civilians who had helped the
South's army or the Americans, but also a great mass
who had no reason to expect bad treatment from North
Vietnam's army. They were simply fleeing in the general
The refugee crowd had another characteristic, one
that would prove to have a disastrous effect upon South
Vietnamese resistance. South Vietnamese soldiers were
leaving the line of battle to find their families and
escort them to safety. It was a natural response to
the war, but it accelerated the dissolution of the
South's capability to resist.
Thieu had believed the target of Dung's attack would
be Pleiku. He panicked on learning of the fall of Ban
Me Thuot and on March 14 secretly ordered the withdrawal
of the South's forces from the Central Highlands. It
was a monumental error, for no plans for the withdrawal
had been drawn up, and the orders to leave simply plunged
the remaining troops into a mass of refugees whose
agonizing journey came to be called "the convoy
This flight of refugees was unlike those seen in World
War II. Those fleeing the Communists in Vietnam resorted
to each and every kind of conveyance: buses, tanks,
trucks, armored personnel carriers, private cars. Anything
with wheels was pressed nose to tail along Route 7B.
The vehicles were jammed with soldiers and overloaded
with family members--from babes in arms to aged grandparents--packed
on top or clinging to the side, like jitney riders.
Many of those who fell off were crushed by the vehicle
Thousands more fled on foot, carrying their pathetic
belongings with them. For 15 hot days and cold nights
there was no food or water available, and the route
was littered with abandoned people--children, the elderly,
North Vietnamese army troops of the 320th Division
pounced on the disorganized mob trying to get to the
coast and kept them under constant attack, killing
thousands of civilians. North Vietnamese artillery
would destroy one vehicle after another at near point-blank
range, throwing body parts into trees and drenching
the ground with blood.
It was a different kind of slaughter. Unlike Kosovo
where long-standing ethnic hatred led to the killing
of a few thousands, the slaughter here was between
people of the same blood. As many as 40,000 died on
the road. The situation worsened when renegade South
Vietnamese army troops also began firing on the refugee
Compounding this sad spectacle was the fact that,
when the exhausted survivors finally made it to a seaport,
they were exploited by fellow countrymen who charged
exorbitant prices for food and sold water for $2 a
glass. Here the South Vietnamese army turned into an
armed mob, preying on civilians and looting whatever
could be found.
Dung swiftly swung north and on March 18 occupied
Kontum and Pleiku, putting the invasion weeks ahead
of schedule. It was a South Vietnamese debacle, with
the southern army managing to lose the war faster than
North Vietnam's army could win it.
Thieu's hasty and ill-advised surrender of the Central
Highlands had cost South Vietnam six provinces and
two regular army divisions. More than a billion dollars
in materiel was abandoned.
On a bridge in Saigon two days
before the city fell to the Communists, a South
Vietnamese soldier hangs on to a wounded comrade
during an enemy attack April 28. (UPI/CorbisBettmann)
Improvisation and Delusion
The South Vietnamese leader now began to improvise
an enclave policy. His forces would concentrate on
holding certain coastal cities, including Da Nang,
along with Saigon and the Delta region. Thieu, a tough
politician, had an almost childlike belief that holding
these areas would give the United States time to exert
its military power and once again force the North Vietnamese
North Vietnamese forces unleashed attacks in Quang
Tri province in late March, accelerating the flow of
refugees. In Hue city, the citizens were alarmed. The
city had suffered greatly in 1968 during the Communists'
25-day Tet occupation. It lost another 20,000 civilians
during the North's 1972 offensive. Once again, soldiers
and citizens merged to join the throng headed for Da
Nang. By March 23, a combination of rumors, desertions,
and North Vietnamese propaganda had made Hue indefensible.
It fell on March 24.
As Communist artillery shelled Hue and all of the
roads leading to and from it, other forces surrounded
Da Nang, to which more than 1 million refugees had
fled, leaving behind those killed by artillery, collisions,
and mob stampedes. Thousands attempted to escape by
sea, fleeing in anything that would float. Many drowned.
At Da Nang, a civilian airlift began, presaging the
later confusion and terror at Saigon. Edward J. Daly,
president of World Airways, defied US Ambassador Graham
A. Martin and dispatched two Boeing 727s to Da Nang,
flying on the first one himself. After landing, his
airplane was mobbed by thousands of people, some 270
of whom were finally jammed on board. (All but a handful
of these were armed soldiers-not the civilians that
Daly had intended to evacuate.) The 727 took off amid
gunfire and a grenade explosion that damaged the flaps.
It hit a fence and a vehicle before staggering into
the air. People had crowded into the wheel well, and
one man was crushed as the gear came up and jammed.
Somehow the 727 made it back to Saigon, gear down
and with split flaps, managing to land safely. The
dreadful photos of the dead man's feet hanging from
the gear doors told the miserable story. Ironically
the one man's death saved four others who had also
climbed into the wheel well, for his crushed body had
prevented the gear from retracting all the way. Later,
when the details of the overweight and damage-laden
takeoff were sent to Boeing for analysis, the response
was that the 727 should not have been able to fly.
The seaborne disasters that occurred at Hue were repeated
at Da Nang on a larger scale, as people were trampled
to death by crowds fighting to board the larger ships.
More than 2 million people were crowded into Da Nang,
but only 50,000 would escape by sea. In what was now
a familiar pattern, discipline broke down as Communist
artillery fire raked the city and widespread looting
began. Organized resistance crumbled, and fleeing civilians
were caught in a murderous cross fire between North
Vietnamese and South Vietnamese troops.
The Communist forces entered Da Nang on March 29.
Qui Nhon fell on March 31 and Nha Trang on April 3.
The battle for Nha Trang lasted only three hours. The
rich resources of Cam Ranh Bay fell on the same day
after only 30 minutes of fighting. These reverses soon
were followed by the fall of other coastal towns. Phu
Cat airport was captured with more than 60 flyable
aircraft in place.
Lost in the melee was materiel valued at billions
of dollars. Anyone who flew in or out of Da Nang or
Cam Ranh during the Vietnam War will recall the thousands
of acres of supplies stacked around the airfields.
That gigantic supply stockpile fell into Communist
Going for Broke
Now it was Hanoi's turn to improvise. Shocked by the
speed of its success, North Vietnam hastily proclaimed
a new goal: the conquest of South Vietnam in time to
celebrate the May 19 birth date of the late Ho Chi
Minh. Dung termed his military action "the Ho
Chi Minh Campaign" and gave his troops a new slogan: "Lightning
speed, daring, and more daring."
They complied, and by early April, North Vietnam's
forces had severed the roads around Saigon and had
begun shelling Bien Hoa airfield. A battle began on
April 9 at Xuan Loc, located on National Route 1 only
37 miles northeast of Saigon.
Southern forces fought well during the course of the
bitter 15-day fight. This was particularly true of
the 18th Division, an outfit that previously had a
bad reputation. Here, it fought on after suffering
30 percent casualties. However, it received no reinforcements,
and it faced North Vietnam's 4th Corps. During this
battle, the remnant of South Vietnam's air force carried
out its last effective operation, using cluster bombs,
15,000-pound daisy cutters, and even a CBU-55B asphyxiation
Elsewhere in the region, the United States on April
12 evacuated 276 Americans from Phnom Penh, Cambodia,
in Operation Eagle Pull. The withdrawal sent Hanoi
yet another signal that US intervention was not to
be feared in South Vietnam. Unaccountably, Thieu for
another nine days clung to the hope of US intervention.
Then, on April 21, he resigned, turning the government
over to aging and feeble Tran Van Huong.
South Vietnamese morale was not helped by rumors,
which turned out to be true, that Thieu was sending
personal goods and money out of the country. In short
order, the man followed his valuables into exile in
Taiwan and then Britain.
Xuan Loc fell on April 23, and there was now little
to prevent or slow the Communist advance on Saigon.
That same day, in an address at Tulane University,
President Gerald Ford stated that the war in Vietnam "is
finished as far as America is concerned." He got
a standing ovation.
Huong, South Vietnam's new president, transferred
power to Gen. Duong Van Minh. "Big Minh," as
he was called, had planned the assassinations in 1963
of South Vietnam's president, Ngo Dinh Diem, and Diem's
brother, Ngo Dinh Nhu. The South Vietnamese leadership
was out of options and had come to the fantastic conclusion
that the Communists might negotiate with Minh. This
was far from reality; North Vietnamese regular army
troops and tanks had by then surrounded Saigon, which
became yet another city in panic.
On Life Support
South Vietnam's capital city was located some 45 miles
from the coast of the South China Sea on the Saigon
River. Long called the "Paris of the Orient," it
had lost only part of its French-colonial beauty in
the long war. It had, however, lost confidence in its
government. Despite many officials who did their jobs
well, there were far too many high-ranking people who
were not only corrupt but incompetent. It was not a
government to inspire its people to fight to the last,
but it was the government to which the United States
had obligations. It was also a government that the
American Embassy had to keep functioning as long as
possible in order to evacuate the maximum number of
Americans and loyal South Vietnamese.
Martin, the US envoy, had tried to shore up Thieu,
lobbying for additional US military and financial aid.
His efforts were sincere but they delayed the implementation
of plans to evacuate American and South Vietnamese
supporters of the administration from Saigon until
it was far too late.
Fortunately, two evacuation operations were already
in action, and the execution of the third was in the
hands of professionals. The first of these, Operation
Babylift, had been conducted between April 4 and 14,
and some 2,600 Vietnamese children were taken to the
United States to be adopted. Babylift was marred by
a tragic accident on the first flight of the operation,
April 4, 1975.
A C-5A transport had taken off and climbed to 23,000
feet when an explosive decompression blew out a huge
section of the aft cargo door, cutting the control
cables to the elevator and rudder. Capt. Dennis Traynor
did a masterful job of flying the airplane, using power
for pitch and ailerons for directional control. He
managed to bring the aircraft back to within five miles
of Tan Son Nhut, where he made a semicontrolled crash.
Of the 382 people aboard, 206 were killed, most of
All subsequent flights were made safely. The Babylift
operation later came under criticism for its overt
attempt to create good public relations and for some
of the criteria used in selecting the children. In
the end, Babylift could be evaluated as yet another
good-hearted attempt by the United States to do the
right thing under difficult circumstances.
The second evacuation had been going on quietly for
many days, relying on standard civilian and military
airlift and virtually anything that would float. Some
57,700 were flown out by fixed wing aircraft, and 73,000
left by sea. About 5,000 Americans were evacuated--everyone
who wished to come--plus many foreigners. South Vietnamese
who were airlifted out were for the most part people
whose service to their government or to the United
States made them candidates for execution by the Communists.
There were many instances of individual courage, as
exemplified by Francis Terry McNamara, the US consul
general in Can Tho. McNamara, at great personal risk,
commandeered landing craft to ferry hundreds of Vietnamese
down the Bassac River to safety. Neither blinding rainstorms,
South Vietnamese navy, nor North Vietnamese regulars
During the last two days, more than 600 US military flights
airlifted evacuees from Saigon to ships offshore. Air America
also joined the effort. Above, civilians head for a helicopter at
Tan Son Nhut. (UPI/Corbis-Bettmann)
Martin, who was perhaps too courageous for his own
and for his people's good, was not persuaded to begin
a formal evacuation until April 29. Tan Son Nhut had
been hit by a small formation of Cessna A-37 aircraft,
led by the renegade South Vietnamese pilot, Nguyen
Thanh Trung, who previously bombed the presidential
palace from his F-5. Then North Vietnamese rockets
and 130 mm artillery shells began dropping on the airfield,
while SA-7 missiles were being used successfully outside
Finally, after a personal visit, Martin became convinced
that Tan Son Nhut was no longer suitable for use by
fixed wing aircraft. He reluctantly initiated Operation
Frequent Wind turned out to be the helicopter evacuation
of Saigon from the Defense Attaché's Office
at Tan Son Nhut and from the embassy compound itself.
Some 6,236 passengers were removed to safety, despite
severe harassing fire. To some, however, it seemed
that the DAO area and the evacuation process itself
were deliberately spared by the North Vietnamese.
At the embassy, large helicopters used the walled-in
courtyard as a landing pad while small helicopters
lifted people from the roof. Despite the lack of time
and inadequate landing facilities, crews performed
with remarkable precision.
On April 29 and 30, 662 US military airlift flights
took place between Saigon and ships 80 miles away.
Ten Air Force HH/CH-53s flew 82 missions, while 61
Marine Corps CH-46s and CH-53s flew 556 sorties. There
were 325 support aircraft sorties by Marine, Navy,
and USAF aircraft. Air America, the CIA proprietary
airline, joined in, having flown 1,000 sorties in the
previous month. Air America crews distinguished themselves
with a selfless bravery not usually attributed to "mercenaries."
The end came on April 30. At 4:58 a.m., a CH-46 helicopter,
call sign "Lady Ace 09," flown by Capt. Jerry
Berry, transported Martin from the embassy roof to
the waiting US fleet. At 7:53 a.m., the last helicopter
lifted off, carrying Marine personnel who had been
defending the embassy. It left behind many South Vietnamese
(250 to 400, depending upon which source is consulted)
who had been promised escape. They were simply abandoned.
It was the last of a long series of US betrayals in
There were more evacuations to come, unplanned and
totally chaotic. Every South Vietnamese helicopter
was crammed with people and these were flown, like
a swarm of bees, to the waiting ships of the 7th Fleet.
The helicopters would land (sometimes on top of each
other) and their occupants would be disarmed and led
away. The helicopters would then be dumped over the
side to make room for the next one incoming. At least
45 were disposed of like this; many more were stored
for future use.
Fixed wing South Vietnamese aircraft fled to Thailand,
landing pell-mell at various bases. Americans who were
there at the time recall watching the arrival of flocks
of overloaded aircraft of every type.
In Washington, State and Defense Department task forces
were hastily assembled. Washington decision makers
quickly set up refugee processing centers at Ft. Chaffee,
Ark., Ft. Indiantown Gap, Pa., and Eglin AFB, Fla.
In the days and weeks following the fall of Saigon,
675,000 refugees were brought to the United States.
On April 30, a North Vietnamese tank bearing a huge
white "843" smashed through the gates of
the presidential palace. South Vietnam's last president,
Minh, tried to surrender. He was told that he no longer
controlled anything that could be surrendered.
At 3:30 p.m., however, the North Vietnamese conquerors
relented just a bit. Reconsidering, they allowed the
last chief executive of South Vietnam to broadcast
over the radio an abject, two-sentence speech of surrender.
By then, a new darkness already had descended on the
people of what once had been South Vietnam.
Walter J. Boyne, former director of the National Air
and Space Museum in Washington, is a retired Air Force
colonel and author. He has written more than 400 articles
about aviation topics and 29 books, the most recent of
which is Beyond the Horizons: The Lockheed Story. His
most recent article for Air Force Magazine,
All-American Airman," appeared in the March