For 125,000 Vietnamese-Americans and their descendants, April 30, 1975 marks the day their lives changed forever. On that date, Saigon fell to the forces of North Vietnam and thousands of “at risk” Vietnamese joined the dwindling number of Americans still left in Vietnam to be evacuated by Operation Frequent Wind a massive assembly of aircraft and ships that became the largest helicopter evacuation in history.
With the fall of Saigon imminent, the United States Navy formed Task Force 76 off the coast of South Vietnam in anticipation of removing those “at risk” Vietnamese who had ardently supported our efforts to stop the Communist takeover of South Vietnam.
Task Force 76
Task Force 76 USS Blue Ridge (LCC-19) (command ship)
Task Group 76.4 (Movement Transport Group Alpha)
Task Group 76.5 (Movement Transport Group Bravo)
Task Group 76.9 (Movement Transport Group Charlie)
The task force was joined by:
each carrying Marine, and Air Force (8 21st Special Operations Squadron CH-53s and 2 40th Aerospace Rescue and Recovery Squadron HH-53s) helicopters.
Seventh Fleet flagship USS Oklahoma City (CLG-5).
and eight destroyer types for naval gunfire, escort, and area defense, including:
The USS Enterprise (CVN-65) and USS Coral Sea (CV-43) carrier attack groups of Task Force 77 in the South China Sea provided air cover while Task Force 73 ensured logistic support.
At noon, April 30, 1975 the familiar wop-wop of single rotors announced the arrival of VNAF Huey helicopters that began circling the USS Blue Ridge as they waited to off-load their passengers, then quickly lift off to ditch in the sea along side the ship.
Vietnamese pilot jumping
Over the next 24 hours, scores of helicopters would appear like bees returning to the hive, to land on the LPD’s and the carriers, Midway and Hancock, disgorging hundreds of stunned men, women and children clutching what few possessions they could carry in their arms. As each group was rushed below to the hanger deck, their ride was jettisoned to make way for another crowded bird.
In one feat of ingenuity, the pilot of a small observation plane buzzed the deck of the Midway and dropped a note asking them to move the helicopters so he could land. The note was signed, “Please rescue me. Major Buang, wife and 5 child. The Midway’s Captain immediately ordered the deck cleared and the Major came in for a perfect three point landing.
Welcoming committee for Major Buang and family
The evacuation continued all through the day and into the next. Thousand of refugees crammed on vessels of every description fled to the ships waiting offshore. Finally, on May 2, the ships of TF 76 sailed for Guam and the Philippines carrying 6000 souls along with another 44,000 on Military Sealift Command vessels; their cargo would turn out to be a pretty remarkable group of new citizens. The first stop for many became Camp Pendleton in Southern California where the Marine Corps provided refuge and a helping hand to over 50,000 Vietnamese as they transitioned to life in the United States. This month, the base opened an exhibit to commemorate the 35th anniversary of Operation New Arrivals.
Refugee tent city, Camp Pendleton, 1975
Like all military operations, Operation Frequent Wind and Operation New Arrivals were debriefed, reviewed and studied to determine their success or failure. The true measure of the success of the two operations, began to show in the next generation of those whom the Navy and Marines helped the spring and summer of 1975. Those 125,000 were followed by tens of thousands more, until today, Vietnamese-Americans number over 1.6 million. As noted by the Manhattan Institute in 2008, the Vietnamese community has one of the highest rates of civic assimilation of any immigrant group in the United States. Signs of this civic mindedness is apparent in the military where Vietnamese-born United States Naval officer Cmdr H.B. Le commanding the USS Lassen DDG 82, recently returned to make a port call in Vietnam, after an absence of 35 years. And in the Army, Col Viet Luong, commander of the 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 101st Airborne Division is preparing to lead the brigade to Afghanistan this spring. Both of these men were small children among that first wave of citizens rescued by Task Force 76.
Cmdr H.B. Le
As a veteran of that much maligned war. I look back at what the Navy and Marine Corp did that spring of 1975 and find a sense of redemption for all who served; that out of the chaos of seeing South Vietnam fall, we have gained thousands of new citizens who have strengthened the fabric of this nation.