Author's Name: Tim Bee
Title: "Frequent Wind 1975"Recollections of Operation Frequent Wind: The Evacuation of Saigon, April 1975
I occasionaly pick up an apple and it makes me remember a day more than 40 years ago when I saw – for the first and only time -- Graham Martin, the last U.S. ambassador to the Republic of Vietnam. It was 1975, and the scene was a one of the few open and unoccupied spaces on the USS Blue Ridge, the command ship for Operation Frequent Wind. That was the operational name for the evacuation of U.S. citizens and our friends from the soon-to-be surrendered capital of a soon-to-be former sovereign nation. We had sailed from Subic Bay in the Phillipines a few weeks before with a media pool that included Kevin Delany of ABC News, Arnie Zeitlin from the Associated Press, and a few others.
Ambassador Martin was compelled to address the pool and the freshly arrived Saigon press corps – all 120 or so hard-bitten journalists from countries representing more than a dozen languages. From the United States, several of them had trekked across eastern Asia from the time Mao Zedong and Chiang Kai Shek first fought as warlords: Keyes Beech from the Chicago Daily News, George MacArthur from the Los Angeles Times, TIME magazine’s Roy Rowan – to name a few. All were crowded around Martin and fired off question after question. The ambassador obviously had not enjoyed much sleep and was functioning on the last adrenaline he could muster. And he was focused on an apple that seemed to be a workable prop in the face of the withering questions. He answered in the voice of a career foreign service officer and diplomat who had suffered the humiliation of striking the colors and withdrawing the United States from one of the most contentious wars in our history. He was a man burdened with a deep sense of loss.
It was one of many surreal scenes as the Blue Ridge steamed in a racetrack pattern along with more than 60 Navy ships from the Pacific Fleet in the South China Sea. Vung Tau, a peninsula on Viet Nam’s east coast, was the reference point for the largest armada since Normandy.
Launching the evacuation force became very problematic in the waning days of April. The White House and the Pentagon wanted to execute a carefully drawn up plan. A similar one had worked well in a much smaller scale just weeks before when the Navy rescued Americans from Phnom Penh, Cambodia when it fell to the Khmer Rouge. Ambassador Martin had the authority to give the order, but delayed, some claimed he stalled, for several days. The situation became rather critical, and I was at one point asked if I’d volunteer to join a small group that would helicopter to the embassy and peruade the ambassador to get things moving.
Ultimately, as so often happens with the best laid plans, a complete surprise forced the evacuation to start.
On the evening of April 28, about 2200 hours (10 p.m.) a lone South Vietnamese Army Chinook helicopter suddenly appeared and hovered off the Blue Ridge’s stern. The ship immediately went to General Quarters – all hands manned their battle stations. A detachment of Marines in full combat gear lined the passageway that I ran through to the aft part of the ship to get a great view of the proceedings. The Chinook’s crew had a loud hailer – an over-sized bullhorn -- that could be heard over the racket from the chopper’s two rotors. Problem number one was they were speaking Vietnamese. So, the ship’s 1 M C (PA system) soon blared, “Anyone who speaks Vietnamese to the flight deck on the double.” It was a couple of minutes before a sailor scurried out to help. By this time, Blue Ridge’s Executive Officer had a loud hailer of his own and turned it over to the sailor, who had learned passable Vietnamese from his wife.
The pilot announced to a gtahering crowd that as many as 100 South Vietnamese officers had taken their families to Tan San Nhut Air Base near Saigon and were preparing to commandeer Vietnamese military (and U.S. made) helicopters there. They were planning to fly east the next morning in hopes of finding the U.S. fleet. They had heard rumors the Seventh Fleet was poised to rescue the few thousand Americans remaining in Saigon. Their information was solid – the U.S. Navy indeed had a large and special task force assembled for the evacuation – five aircraft and two helicopter carriers, amphibious ships, cruisers and destroyers, and surface task forces of the Seventh Fleet, submarines,
And as advertised, when dawn broke 12 hours later on April 29, the thin black line of helicopters started arriving. Problem: there were no plans, and very little room, for these helicopters and their passengers – pilots with their wives and children, grandparents, aunts and uncles. That is because the decks were already full of Navy, Marine Corps and borrowed Air Force helicopters about to fly to Saigon and return with their own loads of evacuees.
So, after hastily making a plan for our newly arriving guests, once the passengers were safely aboard a ship, some of the helicopters were shoved overboard. For others, the pilots were persuaded to ditch their helicopters in the sea, to be retrieved by sailors in waiting boats.
It would take a few days before Americans back home would see on their nightly television news the images of dozens of Hueys, Chinooks, etc. disappearing into the some of the deepest water in the Pacific. In the coming weeks, I would be the “lucky” Navy Public Affairs officer who would spend several weeks answering the angry letters from U.S. taxpayers, who were furious that after years of suffering a very unpopular war, that we appeared to be throwing perfectly good aircraft into the Pacific deep.
The late Ed Bradley was there for CBS. Ed would be the reporter chosen by his peers to carry the first of the pool footage – 16mm Kodak film reels -- to Hong Kong in the back seat of an F-4 Phantom II flown from the USS Enterprise.
The Blue Ridge, because it served as both a communications platform and troop carrier, played host to many of these pilots, and several were generals or admirals. After gathering them into a group on the Blue Ridge’s fantail, the 100 or so officers were led up a main passageway to the anchor and windlass room in the bow. The room would not offer accommodations to which they were accustomed. As the first in the line started to see that their new, if temprorary quarters, there was a complaint passed from one to the other down the line. One general officer poked a Marine Corps officer in the chest and said, “We are general and flag officers. You cannot treat us this way.” To which the Marine answered without hesitation, “And of what country is that, sir?” The fire went out in the general’s eyes. Another humbling moment in an operation that produced many.
Finally, there was a time when it became clear to me that our own admirals who were running this operation also were struggling with the weight of the history they were making. It was a small thing, really. When an enlisted journalist suggested that we include photos and biographies of the admirals in the media kits for reporters, the word came back that they would pass on the opportunity. Motives were unconfirmed, but my guess is that this was not an occasion for any sense of celebration.
And, the glum looks on the faces of senior officers standing in the Blue Ridge’s command center said it all: after 25 or 30 years of dedicated service to the people of the United States, after sending letters of condolence to the wives and families of hundreds close friends, officers, sailors and Marines, after several tours to defend this nation and its people, after tours at the Pentagon where they were spit on or had blood thrown at them, now at this, the twilight of their careers, they were in charge of closing a chapter in our nation’s history that is arguably one of our nation’s most humbling.
Once we had embarked all the people and aircraft we could hold, the ships in the task force turned east and sailed either for Subic Bay in the Phillipines or Agana in Guam. When the correspondent for Newsweek magazine asked Admiral Don Whitmire, commander of the amphibious task force and the officer in charge of the evacuation, what he thought of the operation and its role in history, the answer was simply, “I think it’s time we all go home and drink a cold Budweiser.”
So, with that, more than 40 years and nearly 60,000 American lives sacrificed, the war came to a close.
Despite the circumstances, the opportunity to witness the largest and most successful helicopter evacuation in history has forged strong memories. Rear Adm. Whitmire, Marine Corps Maj. Gen, Richard Carey, and my boss, Vice Adm. George Steele, Commander of the U.S. Seventh Fleet, faced constratly changing conditions and circumstances. Remarkably, they were able to rescue thousands from Saigon without a single casualty.