History

What Was The Fall Of Saigon?

Commentators have compared the events in Kabul with the 1975 US withdrawal from South Vietnam's capital city

The desperate and chaotic scenes witnessed in Kabul have, for many, been difficult and upsetting to see. Alongside the rapid capitulation of the Afghan capital, the manner of the US and UK's emergency evacuation of nationals and Afghans who worked with the West has drawn heavy criticism and attracted comparisons to the infamous US evacuation of Saigon in 1975.

Back then, the People's Army of Vietnam and the Viet Cong captured the South Vietnamese capital so quickly, in the space of just two days, that the final evacuation of those requiring rescue had to occur immediately and solely by using helicopters. 

But what led to Saigon's fall, and why are commentators comparing events in Kabul to the ill-fated US withdrawal from Vietnam?

Following the unforgettable images of Chinook helicopters landing in embassy compounds and the shocking scenes of people clinging to aircraft on the runway of Kabul airport, here, we explore what happened in Saigon in 1975 and the dangerous evacuation mission that took place in the final hours of the Vietnam War. 

Comment: Is Today’s Middle East So Different To Vietnam?
The Vietnam War effectively ended with the Fall of Saigon on April 30, 1975. US Army

When Was The Fall Of Saigon?

The Fall of Saigon occurred on April 30, 1975, and effectively ended the Vietnam War. 

The South Vietnamese capital fell in just one day after the People's Army of Vietnam (PAVN) and the Viet Cong invaded, resulting in defeat for South Vietnam and the USA.

In the run-up to the emergency, the US had been evacuating those it termed as "at risk" South Vietnamese nationals and US personnel working in embassies and defence compounds by flying people out of the country on fixed-wing aircraft at airports across the country. 

However, the evacuation operation became an emergency with the swift attack on Saigon by the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong. The airlift mission was called Operation Frequent Wind. 

Who Was Involved in Operation Frequent Wind?

The attack on Saigon began with a heavy artillery barrage, which was followed by a quick advance by troops into the capital on April 29, 1975. The following day, key entry and exit points were under enemy control, and the North Vietnamese flag flew over the presidential palace. 

In response to the crumbling situation, the US initiated Operation Frequent Wind – the final phase of evacuating Americans and at-risk Vietnamese people from South Vietnam. The operation was to be a helicopter-based emergency evacuation mission, during which those entitled and able to be evacuated would be airlifted to the safety of a fleet of US warships off the coast of South Vietnam in the South China Sea. 

USS Hancock's Deck during Operation Frequent Wind. Credit: Alamy

What Was Air America, And How Was It involved In The Evacuation?

The locations used for the emergency evacuation of US personnel and at-risk Vietnamese people were primarily the Defense Attaché Office compound and the US Embassy site in Saigon. 

The first helicopter mission landed at 2 pm on April 29, and the final sortie was recorded at 07.53 the following day. During that time, the US called on the assistance of Air America – a passenger and cargo airline company, which later turned out to be secretly owned and operated by the CIA. 

Air America provided support with 24 helicopters and 31 pilots, who worked alongside the US military crews in evacuating personnel.

Was Helicopter The Only Way Out Of Saigon?

As well as the rush for rescue via helicopter at sites including the Defence Attaché Office compound and the US Embassy, thousands of desperate Vietnamese people used rafts and other small vessels to reach the assembled US Navy Fleet, Task Force 76, anchored off the South Vietnamese coast. 

Additionally, the RVNAF (Republic of Vietnam Air Force) used its helicopters to deliver refugees to the decks of the waiting sea fleet off the coast. However, it soon became apparent that too many helicopters were trying to land with not enough deck space available on the ships. The overcrowding created havoc and resulted in pilots being ordered to drop off their rescued passengers and then ditch their aircraft into the sea and await rescue. There were also incidents involving collisions between helicopters and watchtowers.

The US Navy pushed tens of millions of dollars worth of helicopters overboard to free up deck space so that more choppers and their rescued passengers could land in relative safety onboard the busy ship decks.

The US Navy pushed tens of millions of dollars worth of helicopters overboard during Operation Frequent Wind to clear space on deck for arriving evacuees. Alamy

How Was The Evacuation Of Saigon Signalled?

Everybody working at the US Embassy in the build-up to the Fall of Saigon was handed a classified document instructing them what to do in an emergency, which included a page on evacuation protocols. 

An emergency evacuation – like that ordered on April 29, 1975 – would be announced on Armed Forces radio using the following coded message:

"The temperature in Saigon is 105 degrees and rising."

Once issued on-air, this message would be followed by the festive song White Christmas by Bing Crosby. 

In the years after the evacuation, some survivors shared their memories of rushing to the emergency helicopter landing site while Bing Crosby's song played through the loudspeakers around them.

How Many People Were Recused In The Saigon Airlifts?

The emergency airlifts out of Saigon on April 29 and 30, 1975, remain the largest in history. 

During the evacuation, 682 sorties were flown, resulting in the rescue of almost 7,000 people. This effort included 1,373 Americans and 5,595 Vietnamese men, women, and children. 

Additionally, 130,000 people self-evacuated by boat and air to the assembled fleet of US warships, or to US locations. In the run-up to Saigon's fall, a further 50,493 people were evacuated via fixed-wing aircraft at the airport locations across South Vietnam. All in all, it had been a herculean effort. However, not everybody got out. It is estimated that 400 evacuees were left behind, many of which were jailed.

Given the incredible numbers of aircraft and people involved in the evacuation, the US suffered very few casualties. In total, two Marines were killed in action, and two helicopter pilots were lost, presumed dead, in the South China Sea.

Almost immediately after Saigon fell, the city was renamed Hồ Chí Minh City. The following year, North and South Vietnam were reunified, becoming the Socialist Republic of Vietnam.

Today, most people worldwide simply call the country Vietnam.