By April 1975—after almost twenty years fighting in Vietnam–the United States began its pull-out. That winter the North Vietnamese pushed the South Vietnamese back forcefully and definitively.
The Americans knew that it was over. They needed to pull out about 1000 Americans—many of them civilians—and 6000 at-risk Vietnamese, who would suffer if they were left behind.
Evacuation Plan Set
In preparation for the expected evacuation, the American Embassy distributed a 15-page booklet called SAFE (Standard Instruction and Advice to Civilians in an Emergency). A map within the booklet indicated the assembly areas were helicopters would be able to land to pick people up. An insert page read:
Note evacuational signal. Do not disclose to other personnel. When the evacuation is ordered, the code will be read on Armed Forces Radio. The code is: “The temperature in Saigon is 105 degrees and rising.” This will be followed by the playing of “I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas.”
Those who were not U.S. citizens but expected to participate in the evacuation, contacted Americans they knew and asked them to sing the tune. They feared they might not recognize it.
Operation Frequent Wind
Throughout April, the United States reduced the number of people and the equipment in Vietnam. Then on April 28, 1975, the order from President Gerald Ford arrived, launching Operation Frequent Wind, the term used for the final evacuation. The coded message went out: The temperature in Saigon is 105 degrees and rising.” Then the wistful strains of White Christmas played on the radio.
In nineteen hours, 81 helicopters carried approximately 7,000 people to aircraft carriers offshore.
As more people than expected arrived to clamber onto the helicopters, people left their belongings behind. Men and women opened their suitcases to locate passports. For some climbing on to the Sikorsky H-34s, there was no room to sit. They stood anxiously, desperate to get out.
Final Evacuation of Vietnam
During the final hours of Operation Frequent Wind, two military personnel were killed. Shrapnel from a North Vietnamese rocket struck them as they guarded the airbase to let others evacuate.
At 7:53 a.m. on April 30, the last helicopter lifted off the roof of the embassy and headed out to sea.
Later that morning, North Vietnamese tanks crashed through the gates of the Presidential Palace.
To read about the story of White Christmas click here.