Operation Frequent Wind

Operation Frequent Wind
Part of the Fall of Saigon, Vietnam War
South Vietnamese helicopter is pushed over the side of the USS Okinawa during Operation Frequent Wind, April 1975.jpg
A South Vietnamese helicopter is pushed over the side of USS Okinawa to clear deck space for more incoming helicopters
Date29–30 April 1975
Location
Saigon, 17 nautical miles (31 km) from the Vũng Tàu Peninsula
ResultUS forces evacuated 7,000 Americans and Vietnamese
North Vietnamese military victory
Belligerents
 United States
 South Vietnam
 North Vietnam
Viet Cong
Commanders and leaders
Commander Task Force 76General Văn Tiến Dũng
Casualties and losses
2 USMC killed in action and 2 USMC missing at seaUnknown

Operation Frequent Wind was the final phase in the evacuation of American civilians and "at-risk" Vietnamese from Saigon, South Vietnam prior to the takeover of the city by the North Vietnamese Army (PAVN) in the Fall of Saigon. It was carried out on 29–30 April 1975, during the last days of the Vietnam War. More than 7,000 people were evacuated by helicopter from various points in Saigon. The airlift resulted in a number of enduring images.

Evacuation plans already existed as a standard procedure for American embassies. At the beginning of March, fixed-wing aircraft began evacuating civilians from Tan Son Nhat Airport through neighboring countries. By mid-April, contingency plans were in place and preparations were underway for a possible helicopter evacuation. As the imminent collapse of Saigon became evident, Task Force 76 was assembled off the coast near Vũng Tàu to support a helicopter evacuation and provide air support if required. In the event, air support was not needed as the North Vietnamese paused for a week at the outskirts of Saigon, possibly waiting for the South Vietnamese government to collapse and avoiding a possible confrontation with the U.S. by allowing the mostly-unopposed evacuation of Americans from Saigon.[1]

On 28 April, Tan Son Nhut Air Base (lying adjacent to the airport) came under artillery fire and attack from Vietnamese People's Air Force aircraft. The fixed-wing evacuation was terminated and Operation Frequent Wind commenced. The evacuation took place primarily from the Defense Attaché Office compound, beginning around 14:00 on the afternoon of 29 April, and ending that night with only limited small arms damage to the helicopters. The U.S. Embassy in Saigon was intended to only be a secondary evacuation point for embassy staff, but it was soon overwhelmed with evacuees and desperate South Vietnamese. The evacuation of the embassy was completed at 07:53 on 30 April, but some Americans chose to stay or were left behind and some 400 third country nationals were left at the embassy.

Tens of thousands of Vietnamese evacuated themselves by sea or air. With the collapse of South Vietnam, numerous boats and ships, VNAF helicopters and some fixed-wing aircraft sailed or flew out to the evacuation fleet. Helicopters began to clog ship decks and eventually, some were pushed overboard to allow others to land. Pilots of other helicopters were told to drop off their passengers and then take off and ditch in the sea, from where they would be rescued. During the fixed-wing evacuation 50,493 people (including 2,678 Vietnamese orphans) were evacuated from Tan Son Nhut.[2] In Operation Frequent Wind a total of 1,373 Americans and 5,595 Vietnamese and third-country nationals were evacuated by helicopter.[2]:258 The total number of Vietnamese evacuated by Frequent Wind or self-evacuated and ending up in the custody of the United States for processing as refugees to enter the United States totalled 138,869.[3]This operation was the debut combat deployment of the F-14 Tomcat aircraft.

Planning

Minutes of President Gerald Ford's National Security Council meeting on 9 April 1975 when evacuation plans were extensively discussed

Planning for the evacuation of the Americans and their South Vietnamese allies from South Vietnam had begun prior to April, 1975. When U.S. President Gerald Ford met with the National Security Council on 9 April 1975 he was told by Henry Kissinger that a maximum of 1.6 million people had been identified as possible evacuees and that these included: American citizens and their relatives, the diplomatic corps, the ICCS, third country nationals under contract by the U.S. government and the employees the US and their dependents (estimated at about 200,000 people). In addition, the Vietnamese relatives of American citizens and senior Govt. of Vietnam officials and their dependents (apx. 600,000 people) were also identified as potential evacuees, along with Vietnamese formerly employed by the U.S. and their dependents.[4]

Although American officials at the highest levels of the intelligence community (e.g. CIA Director William Colby) were certain that the South Vietnamese government would collapse, everyone in the U.S. government underestimated the speed of the North Vietnamese advance during the 1975 Spring Offensive and how quickly South Vietnam's Army would collapse.[5]

Evacuation plans are standard for American embassies.[6] The Talon Vise/Frequent Wind plan had been developed over a number of years.[7] Originally codenamed "Talon Vise", the operation was renamed "Frequent Wind" when the original codename was compromised.[8]

By 1975 the Frequent Wind plan had an estimate of approximately 8,000 US citizens and third country nationals to be evacuated, but it was never able to estimate the number of South Vietnamese to include.[7]:8 There were approximately 17,000 at-risk Vietnamese on embassy rolls, which, using an average of seven dependents per family, meant that the number requiring evacuation was 119,000. Taken with other categories of Vietnamese, the number quickly increased to over 200,000.[7]:40 The Frequent Wind plan set out four possible evacuation options, as follows:[7]:9

  • Option 1: Evacuation by commercial airlift from Tan Son Nhut and other South Vietnamese airports as required
  • Option 2: Evacuation by military airlift from Tan Son Nhut and other South Vietnamese airports as required
  • Option 3: Evacuation by sea lift from Saigon port
  • Option 4: Evacuation by helicopter to US Navy ships in the South China Sea

With Option 4, the helicopter evacuation would be expected to be similar to Operation Eagle Pull – the American evacuation by air of Phnom Penh, Cambodia, on 12 April 1975.[9]