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US troops evacuated 7,000 Americans and South Vietnamese as Saigon fell 46 years ago

CIA member helps evacuees up a ladder onto Air America helicopter on roof of 22 Gia Long Street, April 29, 1975, just before Saigon fell to advancing North Vietnamese troops. (Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)
April 30, 2021

On April 30, 1975, the capital city of South Vietnam fell to invading North Vietnamese forces in what came to be known as the Fall of Saigon. As the city fell, the U.S. military evacuated an estimated 7,000 Americans and South Vietnamese.

The fall of Saigon and the collapse of the South Vietnamese government came just over two years after the U.S. military ceased combat operations in the Vietnam War following the signing of the Paris Peace Accords in January 1973. While North Vietnam agreed to a ceasefire following the signing of the accords, the conflict between the North and South resumed in 1974.

In the days leading up to the fall of Saigon, North Vietnamese forces surrounded the city. The day before the South Vietnamese capital fell, the U.S. military launched Operation Frequent Wind to airlift remaining Americans and at-risk South Vietnamese individuals. In total, the evacuation operation successfully carried over 7,000 U.S. personnel, South Vietnamese individuals, and third-country nationals out of South Vietnam as the country fell.

On Thursday, the Vietnam Memorial Wall tweeted, “The day before the Fall of Saigon on April 29, 1975 Charles McMahon Jr. & Darwin Judge fell during a rocket attack on Tan Sun Nhut Air Base. The last Americans to die on the ground in Vietnam. More about Charles: http://bit.ly/1J9p8Ju More about Darwin: http://bit.ly/1QFgrZ7

Two U.S. Marines were killed during Operation Frequent Wind: 21-year-old Cpl. Charles McMahon and 19-year-old Cpl. Darwin Judge. The Marines were assigned to protect the Defense Attaché Office near the Saigon airport and were killed in a rocket attack on April 29, 1975 — just one day before the city fell. McMahon and Judge were the last American ground casualties in Vietnam.

Last year, in recognition of the 45th anniversary of Operation Frequent Winds, the U.S. Marine Corps posted a video of the evacuation mission.

While more than 7,000 people were evacuated from Saigon before the city fell, thousands of at-risk Vietnamese individuals are believed to have been left behind. Various reports have estimated tens or even hundreds of thousands of at-risk Vietnamese individuals were abandoned in the hasty evacaution from Saigon.

A famous picture from the fall of Saigon shows dozens of people lined up to board a small Huey helicopter at 22 Gia Long Street in Saigon on April 29.

A member of the CIA helps evacuees up a ladder onto an Air America helicopter on the roof of 22 Gia Long Street April 29, 1975, shortly before Saigon fell to advancing North Vietnamese troops. (Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)

In a 2014 New York Times report, one of the last Americans out of Saigon, Army Cpt. Stuat Herrington recalled seeing about 420 Vietnamese waiting as the last helicopters flew away.

“I felt absolutely awful,” Herrington said. “It was just so serious and deep a betrayal.”

The U.S. Air Force previously shared a video with Air Force Lt. Col  Trinh Peterson reflecting on her own personal experience as one of the South Vietnamese individuals evacuated during the fall of Saigon. Peterson was just eight years old at the time. She and her four siblings were able to make it out of the country, but her parents and grandparents had to stay behind.

Peterson recalled a U.S. Air Force loadmaster for a C-130 transport plane comforting her during the chaotic evacuation.

“He was just a kind person and had a flight suit on and, at that moment, I looked over and I thought, I want to do that,” Peterson said. 11 years later she enlisted in the Air Force.