03:53 - Source: CNN
The Fall of Saigon: 40 years later

Story highlights

Chopper pilots tell stories about last days of Vietnam War

"Operation Frequent Wind" was history's largest helicopter evacuation

On 40th anniversary, witnesses tell how 7,000 fled Saigon via chopper in under 24 hours

CNN —  

The CIA Air America helicopter bounced as it touched down on an aging apartment building in Saigon.

Its pilot knew there was no room for error. Scores of South Vietnamese were lined up on that rooftop, waiting anxiously to scramble aboard his chopper. They knew 150,000 North Vietnamese troops were just outside the city, ready to pounce.

Delicately working the controls, the pilot reduced power just enough to set down but leaving enough lift in the spinning rotor to keep much of the aircraft’s weight off the rickety roof.

He held steady, while desperate men, women and children, some carrying luggage, hoisted themselves inside the vibrating aircraft. The pilot made sure they stayed clear of the deadly rotor blades while he avoided rooftop antennas that could trigger a crash.

After 15 passengers squeezed into a compartment meant for nine, it was time to go. Very slowly, the pilot raised the aircraft and pointed the helicopter forward. About 40 minutes later, the evacuees landed safely aboard a U.S. Navy ship offshore.

Now, imagine doing that again. And again. And again. All day long. No sleep, little food. Overbearing tension.

This week marks exactly 40 years since the largest helicopter airlift in history, Operation Frequent Wind.

By the time it was over, about 100 Marine, Air Force and Air America choppers had evacuated an estimated 7,000 Americans and South Vietnamese out of Saigon in under 24 hours.

The airlift was prompted by some harsh realities. U.S. combat forces had been out of the war for two years after a ceasefire agreement with the North. U.S. President Richard Nixon had promised to respond with “full force” if the North violated the ceasefire. But now Nixon was powerless – forced out of office and disgraced by the Watergate scandal. Bottom line: South Vietnam was about to lose the war.

A city gripped by fear

U.S. authorities faced excruciatingly difficult questions: When to leave? Who should be allowed to go? How to evacuate?

No one knew how it would all play out. And the entire world was watching.

Chaos ruled the city. There were fears about massive arrests, “re-education” camps and executions at the hands of the communists. Thousands of Americans and their Vietnamese family members wondered how – or even if – they were going to safely escape.

The airlift was triggered by a North Vietnamese attack on Saigon’s airport, which ruined runways and made a mass airplane evacuation impossible. The only option left, planners said, was to use helicopters, which were slower and smaller than planes. The chopper option was the least desirable and the most hazardous, pilots said.

It must have sounded very weird when American Forces Radio broadcast Bing Crosby’s “White Christmas” on the morning of April 29 and announced “the temperature is 105 degrees and rising.”

That was the signal. Americans and hand-picked Vietnamese began heading toward predetermined assembly spots.

Operation Frequent Wind was on.

“At the time, you realized it was historic,” retired Col. Gerry Berry told CNN.

Which rooftop? ‘We just picked one’

Berry was then a 30-year-old U.S. Marine Corps helicopter pilot whose orders were simple: get the American ambassador out of the U.S. Embassy. But as he learned later, nothing turned out to be simple that day.

Tony Coalson, 32, flew choppers for Air America, the CIA air service. Coalson was assigned the dangerous task of landing on unfamiliar rooftops throughout the city, picking up unknown evacuees and flying them to staging areas or U.S. Navy ships offshore.

“There were so many rooftops that we didn’t know, really, what rooftop was what,” Coalson told CNN. “We just picked one out, and we landed there.”

Air America pilot Robert Caron told CNN how his rooftop chopper rescue led to one of the most iconic photos of the era. And Chris Woods shared his experience as crew chief of the last U.S. chopper to leave the embassy, shutting the door on America’s involvement in Vietnam.

Air America choppers started the evacuation flights early that morning, with about 17 helicopters taking part, both military and civilian versions of the famous UH-1 “Huey.”

The original plan called for most flights to arrive and depart from the U.S. Defense Attache Office, near the airport. But as word of the evacuation spread, thousands of Vietnamese began heading to the embassy compound. Soon, planners realized more choppers had to be sent to the embassy.

Thick crowds jammed the gates, some holding papers claiming they had worked for the Americans. Others said they were dependents of American citizens. Many feared their U.S. connections would put them in danger under a North Vietnamese regime. Embassy Marine guards chose who to let inside.

“It actually just went beyond chaos,” Coalson said. “It was indescribable. And it was like a tsunami of people.”

Hailing from Oxford, Alabama, this was Coalson’s second time serving in South Vietnam. He’d flown Hueys in the Army in 1967 and ‘68. He’d been flying with Air America since 1970.

On April 29, Coalson flew alone, without a co-pilot. Often when he would land on a rooftop, his chopper would be “mobbed by people. You had to watch your tail rotor so somebody didn’t walk into that.”