On the 40th Anniversary of the Takeover of Saigon—April 1975

Note from Cessna pilot.

A week from tomorrow (April 30) will bring the 40th anniversary of the “Fall of Saigon” or the final takeover of the Republic of Vietnam by the forces of the People’s Liberation Army of the communist North Vietnam.  The event served as the starting point of the novel The Sympathizer, which I took note of in my last post.

Note from Cessna pilot.
Note from Cessna pilot.

It was also a time of desperation, as the image to the left attests. It is a note from a South Vietnamese pilot of a Cessna, dropped onto the flight deck of the USS Midway,  in effect pleading for permission to land on the aircraft carrier, which would eventually provide safety to some 3,000 people evacuated from Saigon during the last days of April 1975. (Image from http://www.midwaysailor.com/midway1970/frequentwind.html)

The events of the period, especially the displacement of thousands of Vietnamese citizens and American expatriates,  have been well told in books and film,  but today I encountered a US Air Force historian’s powerful 130-page account of that last month of the US engagement in the conflict in Southeast Asia: Last Flight from Saigon.  (http://www.afhso.af.mil/shared/media/document/AFD-100928-008.pdf) The work, apparently published in 2003, takes note of the efforts of the three US armed services most involved in the operation, the Air Force, Navy and Marines—and the less armed pilots and aircraft of Air America.  As a kind of tribute—and an invitation to readers to remember—those who flew the air missions, attended to the Americans pulled out of Vietnam and the refugees who came with them or followed, and especially to the refugees themselves, I offer the last chapter of the book—with my own brief comment at the end.


Chapter VIII. The Morning After: A Final Tally

The conclusion of Operation FREQUENT WIND [the sometimes ridiculed codename for the last stage of the evacuation of Americans and refugees from Vietnam] was the beginning of a much larger United States effort which involved the processing, transporting and settling of the more than 130,000 refugees in the US and other free nations in the world. The relocation effort was code-named NEW LIFE and is a story in itself.

But it was FREQUENT WIND which led to NEW LIFE, and the final dimensions of the evacuation effort deserve special attention.

Readers may recognize some variance in figures from earlier statistics, but those which follow are the most accurate that the authors could compile after the completion of the evacuation.

Over 130,000 evacuees were moved from the Republic of Vietnam (South Vietnam) to the US. Of these, 57,507 were moved by air. (USAF-USMC-USN head counts at landing bases and on the ships.)

Over 73,000 came out by sea and were processed through Cubi Point in the Philippines, then on to Guam and Wake Islands.

Ninety-nine percent of the Americans evacuated from South Vietnam came out by air. Fixed-wing aircraft (C-I41s, C- I-OS, and civil contract flights) carried out 50,493, including 2,678 orphans. A total of 7,014 evacuees were moved on the final day by USMC, USAF, and Air America helicopters.

From the Defense Attache Office helicopter zones came 4,395 (at a ratio of ten Vietnamese for each American). A total of 2,619 were lifted from the Embassy (at a one to one ratio of Vietnamese to Americans).

Between 1 and 29 April, the Military Airlift Command flew 201
C-141 flights and 174 C-130 sorties, for a total of 375.

At least eight Military Airlift Command contract flights, carrying orphans, complete the impressive flight list.

On the final days (29-30 April), 662 military helicopter sorties were flown between the evacuation ships and Saigon. Of these, 10 USAF CHIHH-53s flew 82 missions, 61 USMC CH-46s and CH-53s completed 556 flights, and Marine Cobra Gunships (SH-1Js) flew 24 armed escort sorties.

Tactical fighters were airborne over the evacuation area during the entire operation. The Navy, operating off the USS Kitty Hawk and the USS Enterprise, flew 173 sorties in A-7s, A-6s, F-14s, and various support aircraft. The USAF flew from Thailand bases and completed 127 missions in F-4s, A-7s, AC-l30s, and F-1s. In addition, USAF support aircraft (SAC KC- 135 tankers and radio, relay planes, electronic countermeasure and rescue aircraft, and C- 130 Airborne Battlefield Command and Control Centers) flew a total of 85 sorties.

When all of the final days’ activities were added up, the total equaled 1,422 sorties over Saigon, a very impressive total, marred only by the loss of one Navy A-7, one Marine AH-lJ, and one CH-46, all at sea. Only two Marine crewmen from the CH-46 were lost.

No other Americans were lost in this operation except two Marine guards, hit by a North Vietnamese Army rocket near the Defense Attache Office in Saigon.

Only God knows the numbers of sorties which Air America flew in the final month in Vietnam. The authors estimate that over 1,000 were flown, perhaps many more.

Another set of statistics tends to become lost in the frenzy of the final 30 days in Vietnam. Those statistics are the airlift sorties of Military Airlift Command and Military Airlift Command contract carriers who moved the 130,000 evacuees from their initial processing points at Clark, Cubi Point, Guam, Wake, and Hickam. Those statistics must be added to the airlift sorties which moved refugees to and from the big processing centers at Camp Pendleton, California; Fort Chaffee, Arkansas; Eglin AFB, Florida; and Indiantown Gap, Pa. When the final statistics were tallied the Military Airlift Command, and all supporting airlifters, had flown over 19,000 sorties in the world’s largest fixed wing evacuation, a combination of Operations FREQUENT WIND and NEW LIFE.


American airmen had willingly and confidently come to the aid of South Vietnam a decade before the “last flight.” For eight years they had fought a difficult and controversial war from the air against a backdrop of changing political objectives. The American military accepted the many constraints on their use of airpower in the Southeast Asian conflict and fought professionally and well. They left the battlefield undefeated. Even after US ground combat units had been withdrawn in 1972, American airpower, on cue, turned back the massive North Vietnamese invasion of 1972 and was widely acclaimed to have forced the aggressors to the conference table in December of that year.

The final collapse of the South Vietnamese government two years after the signing of the Paris Peace Accords is a subject which will probably not be fully analyzed for several years- the smoke of battle is still too fresh in our memory for a truly objective appraisal.  However, one element of the Vietnam conflict does stand out unblemished—American air power. Throughout the entire Vietnam war, air power remained a potent element of US military strength providing mobility and flexibility to our forces. Because of air power, the American forces never suffered as had the French. The unique qualities of air power to destroy, to contain, or to evacuate were called upon once again during the final days of the Saigon government-this time to carry out a massive air evacuation. The evacuation of Saigon, like Dunkirk, signified a defeat. But, like Dunkirk, it is a memorable achievement unto itself, a tribute to the professionalism of American airmen and the extraordinary capability of air power to serve this nation. Airmen who flew in this largest aerial evacuation in history may well identify with these words of the ancient Talmud:

Whoever destroys a single life is as though he destroyed an entire universe; and whoever saves a single life is as though he saved an entire universe.—Sanhedrin 37

They may justifiably be proud of their achievement.


The scale of the refugee crises of 2015 in the Middle East and Africa is now routinely compared to the crisis of 1975 and the years after. In my mind, the experiences of 1975–1980 and the 1940s before then demonstrate what the United States is capable of doing to help when its people and politicians care enough.  On reflection, I have no idea where my family would have landed or how it would have fared without that American caring after WW II.

And finally, I am not sure exactly what I was thinking as the events of March and April 1975 (especially April 30) unfolded.  But what does stand out is the sinking feeling of loss I felt as I heard and read about the North Vietnamese takeover of I-Corps and Danang as NVA forces swept over ground I and my Marines walked and closed in on the denouement in Saigon.

And then, how to process the realization that the risks taken, the wounds suffered, and the deaths witnessed during the years of warfare had been rendered pointless except as demonstrations of loyalty to a cause and a commitment to duty.

And, in perhaps a kind of irony, recognition of this particular anniversary–an ending–portends the beginning of 10 years of Defense Department-sponsored functions marking the 50th “anniversary” of US armed engagement in Vietnam.  I think I would have preferred that someone pick a single date and let us be done with it on that day. — Signature



Reflections on Vietnamese Voices and the Novel “The Sympathizer”

The Sympathizer, a first novel by Vietnamese-born associate professor of English and American Studies and Ethnicity at the University of Southern California, Viet Thanh Nguyen, is generating substantial buzz–assuming that glowing reviews in the Washington Post and the New York Times are buzz generators.  The blurb on the book’s cover would have the same effect, calling it “A magnificent feat of story telling. The Sympathizer is a novel of literary, historical, and political importance.” (Maxine Hong Kingston)

The Washington Post review, “‘The Sympathizer’: A cerebral thriller about Vietnam and its aftermath,” by book editor, Ron Charles, called attention to the book’s pluperfect timing of the book’s appearance: “Forty years ago this month, after a long, deadly release of flatulence from American politicians, the United States evacuated its personnel from Saigon in an operation appropriately code-named Frequent Wind. Whether you were alive then or not, the images of those panicked Vietnamese crushing the U.S. Embassy are tattooed on our collective consciousness … In the opening ­pages of Viet Thanh Nguyen’s extraordinary first novel, “The Sympathizer,” that terror feels so real that you’ll mistake your beating heart for helicopter blades thumping the air.” (What veteran ever lifted into a hot landing zone hasn’t felt that sensation?-av)

Vietnam War Marine Corps veteran-turned-author Philip Caputo reviewed The Sympathizer in the April 2nd issue of the NY Times.  I could not help but pay attention to this review because Caputo’s memoir about his time in Vietnam,  A Rumor of War (1977), was the first such book about the war I could bring myself to read. Though I didn’t like it, many considered it important as an early entry into the genre and still do.

I quote Caputo’s opening paragraphs at length, because they drove me to return to Rummaging after an overly long absence.

The more powerful a country is, the more disposed its people will be to see it as the lead actor in the sometimes farcical, often tragic pageant of history. So it is that we, citizens of a superpower, have viewed the Vietnam War as a solely American drama in which the febrile land of tigers and elephants was mere backdrop and the Vietnamese mere extras.

That outlook is reflected in the literature — and Vietnam was a very literary war, producing an immense library of fiction and nonfiction. Among all those volumes, you’ll find only a handful (Robert Olen Butler’s “A Good Scent From a Strange Mountain” comes to mind) with Vietnamese characters speaking in their own voices….

Which brings me to Viet Thanh Nguyen’s remarkable debut novel, “The Sympathizer.” ­Nguyen, born in Vietnam but raised in the United States, brings a distinct perspective to the war and its aftermath. His book fills a void in the literature, giving voice to the previously voiceless while it compels the rest of us to look at the events of 40 years ago in a new light.

In any case,  the highlighted paragraphs caught me up short. How, I asked myself, could Caputo have overlooked some truly important and truly Vietnamese voices that have appeared in beautiful English translations in the United States? So, other than to agree with Caputo that the opening chapters (taking place in April 1975) are powerful indeed (my Kindle tells me I am 17-percent into it), I want to call attention to a couple of those Vietnamese “voices” resident on my bookshelves, voices that have moved me intensely.

Vietnamese VoicesThe Sorrow of War: A Novel of North Vietnam, by Bao Ninh, appeared in English translation in London in 1993, two years after it appeared in Hanoi. The translation was hugely well received in Europe, winning awards and frequent comparisons to Erich Marie Remarque’s classic All Quiet on the Western Front. They were richly deserved in my view. Indeed, Bao’s opening line was, to me breathtaking; “On the banks of the Ya Crong Poco River, on the northern flank of the B3 battlefield in the Central Highlands, the Missing in Action Remains-Gathering Team awaits the dry season of 1975.” How different from us really was that enemy soldier we tended to dehumanize? Maybe not so much?

While Bao Ninh’s work was accepted and well-received in Hanoi, the work of a woman, also a combat veteran of the war in Southeast Asia, Duong Thu Huong, was not. With the exception of her first novel, Paradise of the Blind, her work was banished in Vietnam and she was jailed for a time.  I have four of her books, all of which are powerful and speak in the Vietnamese voice. To me, the most affecting were Paradise of the Blind and Novel Without a Name. When published in the United States in 1993, Paradise of the Blind was said to be the first Vietnamese novel ever to be translated and published in the States. It was originally published in Vietnamese in 1988. Because the book depicts the extremely difficult and, as the title suggests, ideologically guided recovery from the war, its writing and publication in Vietnam were acts of real courage.

Duong Thu Huong’s second book, Novel Without a Name, goes to combat itself–and has also been compared to All Quiet on the Western Front. The author had led a youth brigade into the battlefields, serving and fighting in tunnels, trenches, and jungles for seven–count’em–seven years. She writes that she was one of the four (of forty) volunteers to survive the experience. (Bao Ninh above spent ten or so years in the war zone, and an equally small percentage of his comrades lived to the end.) Novel With a Name is searing reading, especially as it involves women at war.  The other two novels of Duong Thu Huong’s that I have read, Memories of a Pure Spring (2000) and No Man’s Land (2005), like Paradise of the Blind, speak to life after “peace.” One other, Beyond Illusions (2002), I have missed, but I can guess its themes. The dust jackets say that four of her novels had been published in Vietnam, though they are no longer permitted. I would guess, however, they are still quietly making the rounds–as such things tend to do in tightly ruled societies.

I would add to the above the memoir of a North Vietnamese Colonel who left Vietnam and a job with a Communist Party newspaper in 1990, Bui Tin. His work, Following Ho Chi Minh, appeared in translation in 1995.  Finally, on my bookshelf I have a collection of poems, Flowers from Hell, by a Vietnamese poet, Nguyen Chi Thien, who spent many years in North Vietnamese prison camps. Published in 1984 by Yale’s Center for International and Area Studies, it is grim reading into the Vietnamese communist experience.

Back to The Sympathizer and Viet Thanh Nguyen: If I were to return to commenting on Nguyen’s book, I would say that the Vietnamese voice has been out there for decades now–if one only looked around for it (and I’m sure on looking harder one would find much more than the few above that have spoken to me).  But this particular voice—the  voice of the Vietnamese refugee, the voice of the Vietnamese displaced—is a distinct and powerful contribution, I will say confidently even if I am only 17-percent into the work.

I will close with appreciation of Nguyen’s life story, which resonates with my own rummagings into the past. From terror (my mother’s), to uncertainty, to rebuilding, to restoration of purpose and passion.

And given the enduring power of the images noted in the Washington Post review, I guess one could say Nguyen’s story (and the stories of all refugees and displaced persons) also resonate with this weekend. Perhaps in the survival stories growing from such experiences, there is reason to hope for the futures of those millions suffering in similar ways today. Would that such suffering were not on going.

A cause to pray for, as it always has been, these Holy Days.

SignaturePostscript (added on April 5, 2015 (Easter Sunday):  In Nguyen’s book,  The Sympathizer,  his prime characters were transported from Guam to the sprawling Marine Corps base in Camp Pendleton, California. Stationed there until June 1970, my last 18 months in the Corps , I couldn’t help but poke around the web. Indeed, Camp Pendleton took note of the 35th anniversary of the refugee resettlement in April  2010 with a photo exhibit. KPBS in California covered the story through an interview with a base historian

I expect some of my Marine Corps friends, those who stayed in at least, may well have been part of the effort to set the place up and to support the 50,000 refugees the story said were housed there.