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Vietnam War: Fall of Saigon

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Vietnam War: Fall of Saigon

Clearing the deck during Operation Frequent Wind, 1975

Photograph Courtesy of the US Naval History & Heritage Command

Fall of Saigon - Conflict & Date:

The Fall of Saigon occurred on April 30, 1975, at the end of the Vietnam War.

Commanders

North Vietnam

  • General Van Tien Dung
  • Colonel General Tran Van Tra

    South Vietnam

  • Lieutenant General Nguyen Van Toan
  • Mayor Nguyen Hop Doan

    Fall of Saigon - Background:

    In December 1974, the People's Army of North Vietnam (PAVN) began a series of offensives against South Vietnam. Though they achieved success against the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN), American planners believed that South Vietnam would be able to survive at least until 1976. Commanded by General Van Tien Dung, PAVN forces quickly gained the upper hand against the enemy in early 1975 as he directed assaults against the Central Highlands of South Vietnam. These advances also saw PAVN troops capture the key cities of Hue and Da Nang on March 25 and 28.

    American Concerns:

    Following the loss of these cities, Central Intelligence Agency officers in South Vietnam began to question whether the situation could be rescued without large-scale American intervention. Increasingly concerned about the safety of Saigon, President Gerald Ford ordered planning to commence for the evacuation of American personnel. Debate ensued as Ambassador Graham Martin wished any evacuation to occur quietly and slowly to prevent panic whereas the Department of Defense sought a rapid departure from the city. The result was a compromise in which all but 1,250 Americans were to be quickly withdrawn.

    This number, the maximum that could be carried in a single day's airlift, would remain until Tan Son Nhat airport was threatened. In the meantime, efforts would be made to remove as many friendly South Vietnamese refugees as possible. To aid in this effort, Operations Babylift and New Life were initiated in early April and flew out 2,000 orphans and 110,000 refugees respectively. Through the month of April, Americans departed Saigon through the Defense Attaché's Office (DAO) compound at Tan Son Nhat. This was complicated as many refused to leave their South Vietnamese friends or dependents.

    PAVN Advances:

    On April 8, Dung received orders from the North Vietnamese Politburo to press his attacks against the South Vietnamese. Driving against Saigon in what became known as the "Ho Chi Minh Campaign," his men encountered the final line of ARVN defenses at Xuan Loc the next day. Largely held by the ARVN 18th Division, the town was a vital crossroads northeast of Saigon. Ordered to hold Xuan Loc at all costs by South Vietnamese President Nguyen Van Thieu, the badly outnumbered 18th Division repelled PAVN attacks for nearly two weeks before being overwhelmed.

    With the fall of Xuan Loc on April 21, Thieu resigned and denounced the United States for failing to provide needed military aid. The defeat at Xuan Loc effectively opened the door for PAVN forces to sweep on to Saigon. Advancing, they encircled the city and had nearly 100,000 men in place by April 27. That same day, PAVN rockets began hitting Saigon. Two days later, these began to damage the runways at Tan Son Nhat. These rocket attacks led the American defense attaché, General Homer Smith, to advise Martin that any evacuation would need to be carried out by helicopter.

    Operation Frequent Wind:

    As the evacuation plan relied on the use of fixed-wing aircraft, Martin demanded the embassy's Marine guards to take him to the airport to see the damage firsthand. Arriving, he was forced to agree with Smith's assessment. Learning that the PAVN forces were advancing, he contacted Secretary of State Henry Kissinger at 10:48 AM and requested permission to activate the Frequent Wind evacuation plan. This was immediately granted and the American radio station began repeat playing "White Christmas" which was the signal for American personnel to move to their evacuation points.

    Due to the runway damage, Operation Frequent Wind was conducted using helicopters, largely CH-53s and CH-46s, which departed from the DAO Compound at Tan Son Nhat. Leaving the airport they flew out to American ships in the South China Sea. Through the day, buses moved through Saigon and delivered Americans and friendly South Vietnamese to the compound. By evening over 4,300 people had been evacuated through Tan Son Nhat. Though the US Embassy was not intended to be a major departure point, it became one when many became stranded there and were joined by thousands of South Vietnamese hoping to claim refugee status.

    As a result, flights from the embassy continued through the day and late into the night. At 3:45 AM on April 30, the evacuation of refugees at the embassy was halted when Martin received direct orders from Ford to leave Saigon. He boarded a helicopter at 5:00 AM and was flown to USS Blue Ridge. Though several hundred refugees remained, the Marines at embassy departed at 7:53 AM. Aboard Blue Ridge, Martin desperately argued for helicopters to return to the embassy but was blocked by Ford. Having failed, Martin was able to convince him to allow ships to remain offshore for several days as a haven for those fleeing.

    The Operation Frequent Wind flights met little opposition from PAVN forces. This was the result of the Politburo ordering Dung to hold fire as they believed interfering with the evacuation would bring American intervention. Though the American evacuation effort had ended, South Vietnamese helicopters and aircraft flew out additional refugees to the American ships. As these aircraft were unloaded, they were pushed overboard to make room for new arrivals. Additional refugees reached the fleet by boat.

    Fall of Saigon

    Bombarding the city on April 29, Dung attacked early the next day. Led by the 324th Division, PAVN forces pushed into Saigon and quickly moved to capture key facilities and strategic points around the city. Unable to resist, newly-appointed President Duong Van Minh ordered ARVN forces to surrender at 10:24 AM and sought to peacefully hand over the city.

    Uninterested in receiving Minh's surrender, Dung's troops completed their conquest when tanks plowed through the gates of the Independence Palace and hoisted the North Vietnamese flag at 11:30 AM. Entering the palace, Colonel Bui Tin found Minh and his cabinet waiting. When Minh stated that he wished to transfer power, Tin replied, “There is no question of your transferring power. Your power has crumbled. You cannot give up what you do not have.” Completely defeated, Minh announced 3:30 PM that the South Vietnamese government was fully dissolved. With this announcement, the Vietnam War effectively came to an end.

    Selected Sources

     

  • HistoryNet: Fall of Saigon
  • BBC: Fall of Saigon
  • USNI: Operation Frequent Wind

     

     

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