Fall of Saigon – The Decisive End of the Vietnam War

 
 
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9th MAB intelligence photo of the DAO Compound with LZs marked
9th MAB intelligence photo of the DAO Compound with LZs marked

The Americans had started leaving the city as early as March, after analyzing the pace of advance of the PAVN. Throughout April, the speed of evacuation increased several folds as the Defense Attache’s Office started flying out non-essential individuals.

On April 3rd, President Gerald Ford ordered Operation Babylift, which would fly out 2000 orphans out of the country as well as Operation New Life which flew out 110,000 Vietnamese. Such actions made it clear that the West had little resolve to fight anymore while the South Vietnamese Army was nothing compared to the North in a head to head fight.

On 28th April, the PVAN reached within 3 miles of Saigon’s center. A 24-hour curfew was ordered within the city while the Americans decided to evacuate their remaining servicemen out of harm’s way.

Before daybreak on April 29, Tan Son Nhat Airport was hit by rockets and heavy artillery. In the initial shelling, a C-130E Hercules was destroyed by a rocket while taxiing to pick up evacuees. The crew evacuated the burning aircraft on the taxiway and departed the airfield on another C-130 that had previously landed.

USMC CH-53s at LZ 38
USMC CH-53s at LZ 38

The continuing rocket fire and debris on the runways caused General Homer D. Smith, the U.S. defense attaché in Saigon, to advise the Ambassador that the runways were unfit for use.Helicopter evacuation was the only option left.

The main evacuation point was the DAO Compound at Tan Son Nhat; buses moved through the city picking up passengers and driving them out to the airport, with the first buses arriving at Tan Son Nhat shortly after noon.

The first CH-53 landed at the DAO compound in the afternoon, and by the evening, 395 Americans and more than 4,000 Vietnamese had been evacuated. By 23:00 the U.S. Marines who were providing security were withdrawing and arranging the demolition of the DAO office.

The Americans and the refugees they flew out were generally allowed to leave without intervention from either the North or South Vietnamese. Pilots of helicopters heading to Tan Son Nhat were aware that PAVN anti-aircraft guns were tracking them, but they refrained from firing. The Hanoi leadership, reckoning that completion of the evacuation would lessen the risk of American intervention, had instructed Dũng not to target the airlift itself.

A U.S. Marine provides security as American helicopters land at the DAO compound.
A U.S. Marine provides security as American helicopters land at the DAO compound.

The original evacuation plans had not called for a large-scale helicopter operation at the United States Embassy in Saigon. Helicopters and buses were to shuttle people from the Embassy to the DAO Compound. However, in the course of the evacuation, it turned out that a few thousand people were stranded at the embassy, including many Vietnamese civilians.

Thunderstorms increased the difficulty of helicopter operations. Nevertheless, the evacuation from the Embassy continued more or less unbroken throughout the evening and night.

At 03:45 on the morning of April 30, the refugee evacuation was halted. Ambassador Martin had been ordering that South Vietnamese be flown out with Americans up to that point. Kissinger and Ford quickly ordered Martin to evacuate only Americans from that point forward.

Aerial view of the US Embassy, Saigon, showing Chancery building (left), parking lot (center) and Consulate compound and French Embassy (top)
Aerial view of the US Embassy, Saigon, showing Chancery building (left), parking lot (center) and Consulate compound and French Embassy (top)

The American ambassador was flown out of the capital at 0500 on April 30th while the Marines who guarded the entire operation were the last to go, at 0753 by Huey Helicopters from the embassy roof. They left several hundred Vietnamese behind.  The embassy evacuation had flown out 978 Americans and about 1,100 Vietnamese.

The PAVN with their T-54 and T-55 tanks burst through the gates of the Presidential Palace later that day. There they found Minh along with his advisors ready to surrender and bring the war to an end. Later that day, Minh announced on the radio that the South Vietnamese Government had completely dissolved at all levels and the war was over.

Saigon was renamed Ho Chi Minh City, after former North Vietnamese president and the city was kept under martial law for quite some time. During the years following the war, the communist forces took revenge from the citizens of Saigon by putting them in re-education camps.

Torture and executions were carried out in Hanoi Camps. The story didn’t come out until almost a hundred survivors made their way to the US where they revealed a government-backed instrument of torture.

For the North Vietnamese, the 20-year war had come to an end, and Socialism was finally implemented within the country. Victory parades were held within the city and April 30th was declared a public holiday.