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Final Evacuation of Saigon Signaled by Song “White Christmas”

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

evacuation of Vietnam

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. This launched 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. The helicopters used for carrying passengers were the CH-46 and CH-53s. U.S. troops on the ground protected the Landing Zones (LZs). As people arrived, they were grouped for incoming aircraft. Tom Benton, a Marine CH-53 Crew Chief for the operation, said in an email: “As the hours went by and the LZs were taking more incoming fire, everyone knew the evacuation was going to end at some point. We allowed more & more people per flight. It was orderly, but the aircraft were packed.”

Final Evacuation of Vietnam

Photo courtesy of Tom Benton, a helicopter crew chief for the operation.

During the final hours of Operation Frequent Wind, four military personnel were killed. Two Marine security guards on the ground, Charles McMahon and Darwin Judge, died in a rocket attack at Tan Son Nhut airport during the evacuation. In addition, one Ch-46 helicopter from HMM-164 crashed at sea, and two CH-46 pilots were killed. The two pilots were Marine Captain Bill Nystul and Marine 1st Lt Michael Shea. Two other crewmembers in this crash survived. The YT-14 was the last helicopter lost during the Vietnam War.

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.

Photo courtesy of Tom Benton

“Please Tell More of the Story”

In June of 2021, I had a response to the above article from Vietnam Veteran Ken Binam. Binam pointed out that I had left out much of the story of Frequent Wind as Saigon fell.

In addition to the helicopter evacuation, there were many U.S. Navy ships in the waters outside Saigon. Some were there to receive the passengers being evacuated by helicopter. Others were there to pick up the frantic refugees paddling out in anything that would float. 

Binam was stationed aboard the U.S.S. Durham LKA 114. Prior to the ship’s arrival near Vietnam, the Durham was in port in Subic Bay in The Philippines. The crew was told they were on their way to Vietnam. Saigon was about to fall, and ships were needed to help evacuate Americans as well as Vietnamese refugees.

Many Ships

The plan was that some of the waiting ships receive the helicopter evacuees. Others awaited those arriving by water. From there, the people were to be taken by ship to a safe port.

U.S.S. Durham
U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command

The U.S.S. Durham was to pick up the people coming to the ship by water. Everything was so chaotic that some South Vietnamese helicopter pilots landed on the deck of the Durham if there was an open area. Like the other ships, the Durham ran out of room for helicopters. The choppers were stripped of parts and then pushed overboard to make room for more people.

Binam describes one South Vietnamese pilot who took matters into his own hands to move out the helicopters.

“He took each chopper up and programmed it to fly on without him, setting it so it would crash into the water farther away. The pilot jumped out of the copter and friends picked him up by boat, returning him to the Durham. He did this at least five times,” says Binam.

Many Refugees Were Helped

Binam describes many memorable moments. He remembers a 70-year-old man who paddled the full 6 miles to the Durham in a round reed boat. Another woman arrived with 9 children, only four of whom were hers. And a little girl slipped overboard in the chaos of getting her on board. “One of the Durham’s crewmen jumped in and rescued her.”

Over the course of the day, the crew on the Durham helped at least 4500 refugees get on board the ship. They were searched for weapons and contraband and then escorted to a cargo hold where they were fed and shown to bathrooms. The crewmen did everything they could to could to make them feel at ease.

Ordered to Leave

As darkness fell, the ship was ordered to leave the area. They were to deliver their people to other ships that would take them to safe ports.

While 4500 people were saved by the actions of the men on the Durham that day, Binam still regrets that they could not do more. Even today, he still thinks of them: “How many were left behind? Why weren’t we able to go back to pick up more? This still haunts me.”

And his plea to me was: “Please tell the full story.”      

Other Thoughts

In addition to including some of Ken Binam’s description of the day, I wanted to get a sense of how he was feeling overall. He had positive things to say: “I never had to fire my gun in anger, and I helped save 4500 people. It made my military service worthwhile.”

And when asked about the U.S.S. Durham, he had many fond memories of the much-honored ship. He says it perfectly: “We didn’t love her because she was a great ship. She was a great ship because we loved her.” 

Thank you, Ken, for getting in touch with me and sharing your story.

Vietnamese refugees approaching the U.S.S. Durham by boat
Refugees waiting to board the Durham

To read about the story of the song White Christmas click here.

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7 thoughts on “Final Evacuation of Saigon Signaled by Song “White Christmas””

  1. Pingback: White Christmas The Story Behind the Song by Irving Berlin

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  4. Your part of the story may be true, but you DO NOT include the refugees from Vietnam who were picked up by other US ships. My ship, the USS Durham, picked up approximately 4500 Vietnamese people. Cover that part of the story. How many where left behind? How many died because we didn’t come back the next day and pick up more? 5000? 10,000? 50,000? We could have saved more. But we didn’t. Please, talk to me. This has haunted me for years. Do you know what it is like to watch people wave frantically for you to come back? And we didn’t.

  5. Ken, Thank you for posting. I can only imagine the pain of this type of experience. Stories on my website are intended to lead me to learning more. I will contact you off line to see if you would like to talk later this week.

    I know this weekend has deep meaning for all veterans. I appreciate your taking the time to post.
    Kate

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