“Last Flight From Saigon” is an exciting and moving account of how all our Services, as well as several civilian agencies, pulled together to pull-off the largest aerial evacuation in history-what many have referred to as a modern day Dunkirk. The three authors, intimately involved with the evacuation from beginning to end, have carefully pieced together an amazing story of courage, determination and American ingenuity. Above all, it’s a story about saving lives; one that is seldom told in times of war. One need only study the enormity of the
“Last Flight From Saigon” is an exciting and moving account of how all our Services, as well as several civilian agencies, pulled together to pull-off the largest aerial evacuation in history-what many have referred to as a modern day Dunkirk. The three authors, intimately involved with the evacuation from beginning to end, have carefully pieced together an amazing story of courage, determination and American ingenuity. Above all, it’s a story about saving lives; one that is seldom told in times of war. One need only study the enormity of the effort and cost that went into the “evacuation of Saigon,” and the resultant thousands of lives that were saved, to realize that the American fighting man is just as capable, and more eager, to save lives than he is in having to wage war.
On the last two days in April 1975, Operation FREQUENT WIND, the evacuation of Vietnam, ended a twenty-year agony for the United States. A trial for America was done. The last 45 days of her presence in South Vietnam may seem almost insignificant compared to the previous decades of pain. But, in a continuous effort under ever-increasing pressure, the US Embassy in Saigon, and its Defense Attaché Office there, helped plan, prepare for, and ultimately conduct, the final evacuation from South Vietnam. Operation FREQUENT WIND extracted 130,000 people including: Vietnamese citizens, Third Country Nationals and US citizens-a truly important feat which will continue to affect the United States for some time to come.
Faced with hundreds of hard decisions, enormous logistical requirements, continuous security problems, and the threat of enemy military action, American civilians and military men conducted an efficient evacuation. Graham Martin, the last US Ambassador to South Vietnam, and the man in overall charge of the evacuation, said that in the long run the extraction at Saigon would surely be judged as “a hell of a good job.”
On the evening of 29 April 1975, USAF Lieutenant Colonels Arthur E. Laehr and John F. Hilgenberg jumped off CH-53 helicopters onto the deck of the USS Midway, lying 30 miles off the coast of South Vietnam near Vung Tau. For the first time in several weeks, each breathed a huge sigh of relief; for them, the evacuation of Saigon - FREQUENT WIND - was finally over.
Only 45 minutes earlier, both had embarked on separate CH-53s in the tennis court helicopter landing zone adjacent to the Defense Attaché Office on Tan Son Nhut Air Base. From the Defense Attaché office building (formerly MACV Headquarters), huge clouds of black smoke could be seen rising from the impact of intermittent rocket and artillery shells on the main air base-barely a quarter mile away. Several blocks to the east, a huge fireball erupted in the vicinity of the Pacific Architects and Engineers’ warehouse, the last of the US facilities in Vietnam. The blaze cast an eerie, flickering light on the whole area - where over 20 years of American effort was coming to an end.
In Nakhon Phanom Thailand, 450 miles away, Air Force Lt Colonel Thomas G. Tobin, who was pulled from the Saigon office on 17 April to advise and coordinate planning and execution of the evacuation at the United States Support Advisory Group, wondered just what had happened to his friends. In the last hours, communications between Nakhon Phanom, Saigon, Hawaii, and Washington had been intermittent, and reports could not confirm just who or how many got out.
In the days following the evacuation, the three officers met in Hawaii to help prepare the final assessment of the US effort in South Vietnam. They had time to reflect on how the evacuation of Saigon succeeded - despite what appeared to be very difficult odds. The three officers decided to write the story of the last days of the Thieu regime and of the American evacuation. Their account of the air escape from the falling city is filled with examples of determination, fear, confusion, and - most significantly - the professionalism of those who participated.
This story has a dual theme, the parts of which are inseparable. It weaves together the tremendous efforts of the people on the ground with the inherent speed and flexibility of air power, which made the whole escape possible. It should become obvious to the reader that both parts were absolutely necessary to success.
To a large extent, the US had come to Vietnam by air and had sustained her own forces and those of her allies by air support. Now, in the end, she left by air in the largest aerial evacuation in history. This operation, FREQUENT WIND, was a remarkable success. The story deserves to be told. In spite of the disappointments of the war as a whole, the authors believe history will substantiate the idea that the evacuation of Vietnam was one of America’s great aerial accomplishments.
151 pages. 39 photos and illustrations.