April 30, 1975: The Fall of Saigon - Final Days
The helicopter evacuation of Saigon on April 29 – 30, 1975, is considered to be one of the most impressive examples of flying skill and coordination in aviation history. Navy, Marine, and Air America personnel all worked together to both fly the missions and coordinate all of the details. Around 2:00 p.m. April 29, the Marines arrived at Tan Son Nhut to provide additional security for the final evacuation. The refugees who had spent a nerve-wracking day and night at the DAO compound were divided into helicopter-load-sized groups. By 4:30 p.m. the Marines had secured the landing zones and the evacuation of those remaining at the DAO began to run smoothly, with the last of the evacuees leaving the compound by 8:00 p.m. Once the civilians were gone the Marines dismantled the communications satellite and wired the compound for destruction. At 12:12 a.m. April 30, the Marines left the DAO compound for good.
Meanwhile, the embassy personnel had begun their evacuation as well. The original plan called for only a small group at the embassy needing to be evacuated, but as the day wore on more and more people made their way to the embassy desperate to get out. As the DAO evacuation wound down, many of the Marines securing the airport were moved to the embassy to provide more security for the crowds. Ambassador Graham Martin tried his best to evacuate as many Vietnamese refugees as possible; throughout the day whenever the Navy command asked how many people remained at the embassy for evacuation he always claimed he had 2,000 evacuees for airlift in an effort to keep the helicopters coming. At 3:00 a.m. April 30, this message was broadcast to the helicopters in the airlift: "The following message is from the President of the United States and should be passed on by the first helicopter in contact with Ambassador Martin. Only 21 lifts remain. Americans only will be transported. Ambassador Martin will board the first available helicopter and that helicopter will broadcast 'Tiger, Tiger, Tiger' once it is airborne and en route." Martin was left with no choice and at 4:45 a.m., he boarded a helicopter and left the embassy. The remaining Americans also boarded helicopters with the final flight leaving at 7:53 a.m. carrying the last of the Marine guards. The Americans had finally left Vietnam, leaving over 400 Vietnamese refugees, who they had promised to get out, on the grounds of the embassy. A few hours later the communists arrived in Saigon with their tanks and troops. All in all over 130,000 people were evacuated from South Vietnam. On that last day over 662 helicopter missions were flown evacuating over 7,000 people; during the entire operation only three helicopters and two crewmen were lost, a truly amazing feat given the desperate circumstances.